History in a Different Light

By Sarah Belle Dougherty

The study of history is rooted in our understanding of man and the universe. Facts, of themselves, do not contain any meaning until we arrange and connect them, determine what is important or trivial, what is cause, effect, and unrelated. The editorial pages of several newspapers show clearly what different conclusions can be drawn from the same set of facts, depending on the point of view of the observer. Such interpretation dominates all fields of knowledge. As a rule, historians accept as axioms currently popular views in the physical and biological sciences and, to a lesser extent, social sciences such as economics, psychology, and anthropology. These assumptions include man's gradual evolution from the animals, materialism as the only acceptable realm for explanations, and reality as a fortuitous arrangement of physical matter and energy -- views reflecting the dominant ideas of nineteenth century science.

The Secret Doctrine by H. P. Blavatsky presents a view of man and cosmos radically different from that prevailing in her day. It is an outline of basic concepts from the wisdom-religion of antiquity, corroborated by the many traditions of mankind and compared with nineteenth century science and religion. Among its most fundamental points are the spiritual basis of the universe and everything in it, the cyclic manifestation of all finite things, and the universality of consciousness, life, and substance. The cosmos, it holds, sprang forth from an unknowable source into periodical existence, the manifestation of a divine life-center.

The same can be said of a solar system, a planet, a person, or an atom. All are spiritual individualities cycling through various levels of material existence. Each evolves out from itself its own divine potential: a pilgrim on an aeons-long journey through the many forms of experience available in the cosmos.

The earth, in this view, is a living, conscious whole, and humanity is one part of this system of lives linked together in a vast evolutionary process that is psychological and spiritual as well as physical. Each person in his essence arises ultimately from that same, unknowable source, and thus is indestructible with an infinite past and future. We are not the first humanity to inhabit our planet, nor is this globe the first embodiment of the earth. Our history goes back to earth's former embodiments, and back beyond that farther than we can imagine. When the earth was forming, the spiritual individualities at the root of each person were there. They passed through the forms of the less evolved kingdoms, building up physical expressions which in time would house a thinking, aspiring mankind. Physical evolution certainly exists, but the impetus comes from within, not primarily from the environment or from substance itself. The forms evolve in order to express the spiritual, mental, and emotional energies that are striving to manifest themselves ever more fully. Such evolution takes a long time. Until mind is active it must work by unself-conscious natural impulses, guided by the influences of those kingdoms of nature already able to take a conscious part in the evolutionary process.

Because mankind forms part of larger entities with life processes and evolution of their own, human history does not take place in a vacuum. There is a pattern to human evolution that derives from the life cycle of the planet and solar system. Because of these influences there are trends in human existence which take thousands or millions of years to complete. The ancients spoke, for example, of the four great ages (gold, silver, bronze, and iron) or the four yugas, which repeat cyclically. Blavatsky speaks of several major races, or evolutionary expressions of humanity, four of which have preceded our present world-humanity and two of which are to follow after us. These large racial cycles are connected with the earth's life cycle and with the seven sacred planets of the ancients. Thus the earth and the solar system have a tremendous influence on the course of human history.

Perhaps the greatest influence on our history comes from the innate divinity of every human being. As the expression of a divine life-center or monad, each person is the culmination of that monad's past experiences. We come into life carrying our individual karmic history, and it is this which attracts us to a particular place and time and which finds expression in our life. Our bodies are formed of atomic lives which have been associated with us before; our mental and emotional natures are also drawn to us from characteristics we threw off at our last death. Because the collective and individual karma of the people of any time and place is the fundamental causative factor, human behavior cannot be explained entirely by environmental or hereditary factors, such as economics, sociology, politics, geography, biology, or genetics, as historians generally attempt to do. Further, human life is not a matter of chance, since the people participating in a given era or culture have brought their principal characteristics with them from past lives and are also responding to terrestrial and solar cycles. A complex interplay among cycles, individual karma, and free will underlies the causes of events. Although the ability to grasp a specific, deeper knowledge of karma and cycles takes years or lifetimes of study and self-purification, we cannot deny or ignore fundamental causes simply because we cannot immediately access them. It is like trying to explain the structure of a building without referring to its foundation or hidden superstructure.

Contrary to scientific theory, then, man is not just a highly evolved animal. Physically we have an animal body, and psychologically we are far from perfected as human beings; nevertheless we are human because in past evolutionary epochs we developed in ourselves the capacity to express the mental and psychological qualities of humanhood. We have evolved beyond the animal kingdom and will move further and further away from it as we continue to grow. Nor was man of the past a beast. What is it, after all, that makes us human, animal, god, or mineral? We generally judge by the body, yet it is inner development that determines what we are. Humanity has passed through many types of bodies since the earth was born, and on this globe mankind has taken many forms, some described by Blavatsky, for example, as huge bag-like shapes of astral rather than physical substance. Mankind existed for many million years in a nonphysical form, not awakened mentally but still participating in the life of the earth and its other kingdoms, while gradually materializing to match the physical density of the surrounding globe.

Blavatsky tells of the long physical evolution necessary to produce a body fit to express the mental and spiritual powers of a human being. Once the physical apparatus was in place, however, the development of the human mind was not accomplished by the same slow evolutionary trekking. Instead, beings already developed beyond the human stage and connected to us by karma awakened our latent mental faculties according to our individual capacity. This event has been remembered worldwide -- whether as the incarnation of divine beings or the gift of the fire of mind -- for it was the first real expression of our humanhood. These promethean beings incarnated directly in the few most advanced of mankind, stimulated the middling portion of humanity, and hardly influenced those least advanced who were not yet ready to move ahead. The direct incarnations were like gods among mankind, lighting the whole human race with the spiritual radiance of their natures. They became our divine teachers, sharing with awakening humanity agriculture, arts, and sciences, and the spiritual realities of nature that have come down to us in the myths and religions of every culture and clime. These early epochs in human development were a childlike golden age before the full awakening of mind and the continuing materialization of humanity cut us off from direct awareness of our spiritual self and superior life-forms.

In this way civilizations sprang up much more quickly than they could have if mankind had developed its faculties unaided. Yet Blavatsky, following the archaic figures, places this event some 18 million years ago. Between that time and the beginning of recorded history, many great civilizations and races are said to have flourished and disappeared, all record of their accomplishments obscured by geological forces: volcanism, earthquakes, flood, desertification, and the movement and submergence of land masses. We have no records for most of human history, and the dating of ancient remains is brought into question by Blavatsky. Our dating still bears the impress of the Biblical scheme of 6,000 years, pushed back by a science which still assumes man to be a recent phenomenon and civilized man a matter of a few thousand years. Blavatsky's longer view of history, in agreement with ancient traditions, discards the idea that until several thousand years ago all men were simple hunter-gatherers. Since the awakening of mind, there have been many levels of cultures and civilizations existing simultaneously around the world. There have been physically and spiritually advanced civilizations extending back millions of years, rather than just thousands, while primitive cultures exist even now. We cannot assume our ancestors were uniformly primitive; in fact, we were our ancestors. Mankind evolves over long periods of time, influenced greatly by terrestrial cycles. But this racial development is achieved by the repeated reincarnation of individual people, not primarily by the passing on of knowledge from generation to generation. The key lies in the evolution of individual souls, not of civilizations. We must remain open regarding the potentials of past civilizations -- not separating these peoples from ourselves or prejudging what is possible for them to have achieved.

That ancient symbols and traditions embody human knowledge as well as the primal spiritual revelation to infant humanity makes them subjects for serious investigation. Ever since Heinrich Schliemann took as history the works of Homer and thereby discovered ruins of Troy, Mycenae, and Crete, myths and epics have been considered as possible sources of historical information. But beyond preserving events, these traditions embody the scientific, astronomical, mystical, and geographical knowledge of ancient sages (See The Masks of Odin by E. B. Titchenell and Esotericism of the Popol Vuh by R. Girard for interpretations of the various meanings behind the traditional epics of two cultures, the Norse and the Maya.) Blavatsky brings forth many of the world's traditions to show their scientific, historic, and philosophical information and to demonstrate their basic agreement. No doubt if these were studied as available sources of knowledge instead of as ignorant speculation, historians, archaeologists, and scientists would find many clues helpful in their search for and interpretation of data.

In light of The Secret Doctrine, we see that human history cannot be studied in isolation from either the history of the earth as a living being or the history of the various other kingdoms of nature. Indeed, these are the framework within which human history operates and they set the parameters for human cycles. Just as our personal relations are marred by our perceived isolation from each other, so the contemporary study of history suffers from our separating mankind from the rest of the planet and solar system. Moreover, concentrating on the physical so exclusively that we refuse to recognize divinity as the background of existence has stultified our view of man and nature. We deny ourselves our greatest possibilities and see ourselves and our ancestors as highly evolved apes rather than as beings with a vast spiritual heritage behind us. To realize that divinity is the reality and physical matter the reflection gives a different perspective on human life and the purpose of human evolution. We realize also that recorded history is only a tiny fragment of the total history even of civilized man, and that historical truth lies hidden in the myths, legends, and religious traditions that have come down from antiquity -- traditions embodying spiritual, physiological, historical, astronomical, mystical, and geographical facts, rather than ignorant speculation and fantasy.

History is an empirical study, and historians cannot base their findings on reports they have not confirmed. Authoritative statements, channeling, regression, psychic experiences, clairvoyance, and revelation, while sometimes accurate, are not reliable sources of information unless independently confirmed. There is so much room for self-deception and error, leaving aside instances of outright fraud. The influence of The Secret Doctrine, however, is not so much on the facts of history as on the bases of judgment and interpretation in the mind of the historian. All our knowledge is, in largest part, theory and hypothesis built on axioms about the nature of the universe and its inhabitants. By breaking down the materialism which reached its zenith in the nineteenth century -- but which still holds the humanities captive -- and presenting in modern terms fundamental concepts of the archaic secret doctrine, H. P. Blavatsky's work can lead to a new appreciation and enlarged understanding of our human past.

(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, April/May 1988. Copyright © 1988 by Theosophical University Press)

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