A study of the various religions and philosophies, past and present, reveals that they are for the most part based upon certain universal principles. There is an ancient wisdom running through them all like a golden thread. This is more than a mere assertion, as the increasing researches into comparative religion, mythology, and symbology amply testify. It is logical that there should be this common body of thought behind the apparent diversity. These expressions, after all, are attempts to describe how our universe, sun, and planet came into being -- also what man's role is and has been in this genesis. And since the cosmos has a structure, a history, and origin, and operates according to basic laws, sincere attempts to explain these mysteries will contain much fundamentally identic material. To put it simply, all seek to describe the same panorama.
It is not always easy, however, to discern this oneness of truth behind the multiplicity of religions, philosophies, and even sciences, past and present. There are a number of factors or limitations that stand in the way of our seeing clearly the stream of wisdom flowing through them. The most influential of these limitations lie within ourselves: we don't have the keys; our vision is often colored by our preconceptions; our intuitions are sluggish -- or rather we are not sensitive to or have not learned to trust the insights from that inner source. But apart from these internal barriers, which will be discussed later, it would be well to explore first the numerous outer conditions preventing our coming to know the essential truth in all of man's efforts to explain Life, cosmic and human.
Many of the world religions and spiritual philosophies are extremely ancient. Human nature being what it is, it is natural that the original expression of some great teacher rapidly becomes fragmented, expurgated, and dogmatized. Frequently the sage or seer does not write down his message; it is his disciples, those following him who, fearful lest the vibrant precepts be lost, set them down as best they can. Their understanding is seldom of the caliber of their inspirer, yet in the case of religion, these written fragments often become over the centuries "the whole truth and nothing but the truth." One must believe them or not be admitted into the fold -- indeed, in some eras one had to accept certain doctrines or suffer not merely excommunication and ostracism, but even the extremes of torture or death. In the passage of time large and powerful organizations spring up to house this truth. A clergy is installed and it is proposed that one cannot approach his God without the assistance of this intermediary. Ceremony and pomp sometimes take precedence over the simple efforts to lead a pure life and to attain an understanding of this grand universe which gave us birth.
The net result of this human tendency to crystallize is that what is practiced and believed thousands of years later may have little resemblance to the original message. It is the actual ideas and intent of the founder that we seek to discover, for the nearer we approach this area, the closer we draw to the precepts of all the other teachers of every land and time.
Philosophy seldom becomes so institutionalized, but the ebb and flow of empires and the pogroms that often followed, have destroyed all but fragments of the writings of countless ancient thinkers and historians. Witness the few sentences that remain of the pre-Socratic philosophers; the almost total destruction of the Mayan books by their conquerors; the burning of that vast repository of ancient wisdom, the Alexandrian Library; the decimation of the Celts and their highly developed religious and literary heritage; also the periodic book burnings in China, Europe, and elsewhere. It is a marvel that anything survives the insane folly of men.
As an aside it might be asked: "Given our human limitations, what would be the best way to insure that the precepts of a great teacher would remain vital and uncompromised?" Certainly not by enshrining them in inflexible dogmas. On the contrary, the surest way might be to insist that the remembered truths be constantly reexpressed and reinterpreted, and even extended -- for only thus would the body of wisdom remain a living, growing force.
Another reason why the universality of wisdom-teaching is difficult to trace is that in nearly all ancient lands there was an exoteric or public worship, and an esoteric or hidden tradition. Jesus is reported to have said, "Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand" (Matthew, 13:13). And referring to his disciples, "it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given" (13:11). The secret teaching was never openly divulged, and the exoteric writings were wrapped in symbol and allegory. (There have been numerous examples of the fate of those who divulged the secrets of the Mysteries, whether deliberately or unknowingly. Socrates, although not an initiate of the Greek Mysteries, was put to death for speaking of forbidden matters; and Plato, who was an initiate, had to flee Athens on at least two occasions for revealing too much. Such measures are an unmistakable sign that the Greek schools were already decadent, because in earlier times the culprit was simply expelled and ostracized, which to the sincere disciple was a suffering of a most acute nature. (The taking of life for such a divulging would in many important aspects be a crime more grave than the original offense.) One who had the keys, however, or whose intuitions were an active force in his life, would discern behind the fable or myth the esoteric meaning it contained. This symbolic material has been called the Mystery language of antiquity because the same method was used and universally understood throughout the ancient world. Tradition has it that the old stories may be interpreted on many levels, the human-psychological, the historic, the cosmic, and in other ways. The researcher must therefore seek the original wisdom beneath the layers of dogma and the veils of allegory and symbolism.
Another phase of this topic has to do with words: How shall we, a score of centuries later, understand what the peoples of an earlier culture read into phrases or words of scriptures that were coined or reexpressed in their time? We have discussed the symbolic nature of sacred writings, but this is something different, although the two may be related. Werner Jaeger in his Paideia dwells upon this theme. A Greek word like arete we may prosaically render as "honor" or "duty," with little understanding of the meaning wrapped up in it -- the serious and even holy connotations this word may have had for them. For arete was the essence of courtly morality and valor, qualities which were integral with the aristocratic ideal -- not an aristocracy of inheritance, but one of worth.
In the meantime the eras have come and gone, with different souls incarnated, hence a widely divergent thought-life. Our modern civilization, we would like to think, has emerged from the shadowland of esoteric hints into the bright sunlight of truth frankly expressed. It is not for us in this time to probe for or even to acknowledge a hidden wisdom now lost to us. So we study the often barren words and phrases coming down to us, yet too often they stand like Shakespeare's "bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang" (Sonnet 73, 4). Unless we are inwardly aware, the old phrases may not make for us the same music that they did for those of a former epoch.
Thus we graft onto the fragments of Mystery-teaching that have come down to us the often prosaic outlook of our time. If the writings are of "another" faith, some of us view them as peculiar, even barbaric perhaps. If we are followers of Darwin, we almost have to class the unknown authors of earlier ages as somehow inferior to us, individuals captivated by superstitious fancy, who made the stars into gods and peopled nature with living forces. Yet our great poets often grasped the spirit of these ancients. Wordsworth wrote in his "The World Is Too Much With Us . . ." --
Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I . . .
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
If divine Intelligences pervaded the cosmos in ancient times, it is hard to believe they have ceased doing so today. If the heavenly bodies, the forces of nature, and the processes of life were actually infused with godlike agencies in archaic Greece and Rome, India, Egypt, China, and the Americas, when did they cease being so? The fault, if we may call it that, the limitation, lies not in the world's sacred writings, but in ourselves. If we ever hope to perceive the one wisdom-teaching within the words, phrases, and stories that have come down to us, we will have to open our natures to other equally valid explanations than those popular today. We shall have to acknowledge that in all races and times have appeared men and women of transcendent vision. Such a step will not require us to invalidate or cast aside any facts supplied to us by scientific research. To ensoul man and the glorious universe in no way denies the circulation of the blood or the obliquity of the ecliptic!
The modern theosophic effort is to reexpress in our time the fundamental ideas common to all great religious, philosophical, and scientific systems. That is why it is sometimes called the ancient wisdom, although its concepts are as modern as they are ancient -- for the same universe still surrounds us, and man today is inspired by the same aspirations and unselfish impulses, and depressed by the same weaknesses and mistakes, that characterized his forebears countless millennia ago. It is no doubt true that many principles openly discussed today were considered esoteric in former eras; but whether taught in a modern university or imparted secretly in the arcana of archaic schools, the influence of such ideas as karma or nemesis, reimbodiment or reincarnation, and man's divine origin and destiny, has never been totally absent from man's thought-life.
In this day it seems strange to us that knowledge of any kind should be withheld. In older eras the original policy was that years of self-discipline should precede the real Mysteries. There was apprehension lest an untrained individual of base motives, empowered with certain keys, might take advantage of his fellows, enslave them to his selfish goals, and in various ways rend the fabric of civilized life. It would be like allowing children to play with high explosives, only with far more subtle and deadly results. Many today might wish a curb had been placed upon some of the technological "advances" of modern science. Among the Hellenistic Greeks, the famous Archimedes (3rd century B.C.) was not held in high repute by some of his contemporaries who felt that many of his "discoveries" were a betrayal of Mystery-teaching and dangerous to mankind. It is true a small fraction of his time and genius was applied to war machines of various types, including the use of concave mirrors which deflected the sun's rays and set Roman ships afire in the siege of Syracuse. But Archimedes himself placed his mathematical work far above any of his practical demonstrations. The same dilemma is acute today: Shall scientists, merely in order to satisfy their curiosity, continue unrestricted probing in areas which, allied with technology, might conceivably lead to wholesale destruction?
In today's life one of our great lacks appears to be a grasp of the wholeness of knowledge or truth. At the present time our general outlook is dominated by the views of rather materialistic scientists, i.e., when we consider the structure, origin, and destiny of the cosmos and man, we usually have in mind a mixture of various of the physical and life sciences. Few indeed in the West turn to religion or philosophy when discussing this subject. The result is that when we read ancient works on cosmogenesis, etc., we are scarcely in a position to appreciate the meaning of their succession of gods and goddesses describing how the universal being came to birth, breathing forth the suns in vast recurring cosmic cycles. And when it is added that man is a spark of this central fire and had his origins in the primal genesis of our earth, we feel all this to be highly metaphysical -- indeed imaginary! Yet, in truth, when these ancient cosmogonies are properly understood they do not contradict any scientific facts -- though they may conflict with many materially based theories devised to explain these facts. We shall be in a far better position to understand the principles of the ancient wisdom expressed and symbolized in archaic cosmologies, if we accept the premise that in former eras the cosmos was considered as real spiritually as it is tangible physically.
When one grasps the essential principles of this wisdom-teaching that has existed throughout the ages, the multiplicity of religions and philosophies blend together into a marvelous tapestry of meaning. To be sure, in one age the emphasis may be on philosophy, in another on science, in a third religion. And within these rough classifications the message will have been adapted to the peculiar life-style and development of the peoples for whom it was intended. Each race, then, would leave its stamp upon the expressions of truth imparted to it by some noble philosopher or sage, or by a succession of them following one after another as sometimes occurred. The comparative study of religion and philosophy can therefore enrich our understanding of the ancient wisdom because in one age more may have been revealed along a certain line, and in another epoch a different phase of the same teaching may have been emphasized.
Because of the oneness of truth through the ages, doubtless those great souls who have imparted it to mankind all belong to the same school. They were and are, so to say, the custodians of the eternal verities; and from age to age they keep these truths alive in the hearts and minds of men. As tradition has it, they are joined from time to time by those among men whose self-directed evolution and devotion to the welfare of mankind have brought them to the place where they too may assist in the cyclic endeavor. It is these great ones, call them by whatever name you wish, who insure that no matter what the follies of men, the spirit of truth will never be allowed to die.
(From Sunrise magazine, December 1978. Copyright © 1978 by Theosophical University Press.)