Exploring the Theosophic Tradition

By Elisabeth Prent

The world's great religions and philosophies are currents from a common source and revolve around similar questions. Diverse as they may seem at first sight, these systems have many fundamental characteristics in common: the search for our origin and destiny and, hand in hand with this, an effort to turn away from exclusive concentration on the material side of life; an explanation of the development of the world and mankind, including questions about the coming into being and disappearance of the universe and its parts, as well as the nature and structure of cosmos and man; and the promulgation of moral guidelines which make harmonious human life possible. The particular presentation varies with the culture, climate, and way of life of the people involved. But while the garment of history and language differs, the basic principles remain the same.

Theosophy, "divine wisdom," is a term used for the essential basis of all great systems of thought from time immemorial. It deals with the divine self within us and within the universe; with the unfolding of divinity through cosmic and terrestrial cycles; and with ethics -- derived from the realities of universal life -- that lead towards spiritual progress. Such an ethical framework has been presented in all cultures and times. The Golden Rule, for example, has been expressed by the following peoples as:

American Indian: Great Spirit, grant that I may not criticize my neighbor until I have walked a mile in his moccasins.
Buddhism: In five ways should a clansman minister to his friends and familiars -- by generosity, courtesy, benevolence, by treating them as he treats himself, and by being as good as his word.
Christianity: All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.
Confucianism: "Is there any one word," asked Tzu Kung, "which could be adopted as a lifelong rule of conduct?" The Master replied: "Is not Sympathy the word? Do not do to others what you would not like yourself."
Greek Philosophy: Do not to others what you would not wish to suffer yourself (Isocrates). Treat your friends as you would want them to treat you (Aristotle).
Hinduism: One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself. This is the essence of duty (dharma). All else results from selfish desire.
Islam: No one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.
Judaism: Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: . . . but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
Zoroastrianism: That nature only is good, when it shall not do unto another whatever is not good for its own self. -- Quoted in James A. Long, Expanding Horizons, pp. 60-1

From time to time teachers have appeared to pass on this ancient wisdom to mankind. The Hindu Upanishads (8th-4th century bc) represent a flowering of one such spiritual effort. They center on overcoming ignorance through the revelations of spiritual realization. Through the unfolding of spiritual possibilities, they say, knowledge about the true essence of being can be won. The Bhagavad-Gita, rooted in this tradition, concerns the battle taking place in our inmost self. An episode from the Mahabharata, it tells about human beings who fight, fail, or triumph. It expounds a philosophy of action based on a philosophy of spirit, the foundation of metaphysical perception. The kingdom of the spirit is not separate from the kingdom of material life, and the Gita shows the interconnection of these seemingly separate principles. Its message of eternal values and the meaning of life forms the basis for the harmony of heart and mind so important for the oneness of all people.

Out of the Hindu tradition came Gautama Buddha (6th century bc). His teachings show a way to truth equal in their compassion to the commandments of Jesus. Buddhist thinking is based on the idea that the end of human suffering can be attained through right thinking and action, through meditation, and through the practice of virtues such as charity and patience.

Very little is known of the life of Chinese sage Lao-tzu (6th century bc?), best known for his book, the Tao te Ching. There Tao, the truth behind external appearances, is also called the source of energy, the mother, the beginning and the end -- yet all this is insufficient to describe its essence. The world of the 10,000 things (Lao-tzu's expression for the limitless diversity of beings) in its essence is one with the Tao, the light of which burns inextinguishably in every soul. In Taoism the development of inner faculties and spiritual powers is also based on right living.

We find this theosophic tradition in ancient Europe as well. The goal of the Greek philosopher Plato, for example, was the transformation of man to a likeness of the Divine by moving towards the idea of the Good. His symbol for the Good was the sun, whose spiritual light illumines our path and helps us recognize the source of our being. The aim of this transformation is the remembrance or "recollection" (anamnesis) of our spiritual understanding and, simultaneously, a recognition of what is shadow (illusion) and what is reality.

The word theosophy was used in the third century by the disciples of Ammonius Saccas, founder of Neoplatonism. He sought to unite the essence of the many religions of his time in a synthesis modernly called the eclectic theosophical system. He taught that the main purpose of life is to find a way to our spiritual nature. To do this, the soul must free itself from its material attachments and reestablish its original unity with its divine aspects.

All over the world similar traces can be found in religions, philosophies, myths, and symbols -- among the ancient Egyptians, Persians, Mayas and Incas, Druids, Jews, and Moslems, to name but a few. However, over time many of these ancient wisdom teachings have become lost to particular cultures, as we see in modern European thought. In the Middle Ages, for example, the idea of the interconnectedness of all life largely vanished from the West. The knowledge that a divine spark resides in every particle -- that this inner essence is identical everywhere in the universe, despite varying levels of unfoldment -- disappeared from public discourse. Our view of ourselves and of our relation to all within surrounding nature depends on this issue as, for example, in our understanding of evolution. Christian concepts of Creation banished the idea of evolution for centuries. Then, during the second half of the nineteenth century, the Darwinian theory developed, which has profoundly influenced scientific and popular thought. According to this model, evolution is a purely physical process resulting in progress towards higher levels of development through the modification of body structures and behavior characteristics. Evolution here is driven by external factors dependent on environment and natural selection in conjunction with genetic change. However, the Latin word evolvere means "to unfold, unroll," and implies the gradual bringing forth of qualities already latent within. In this traditional view, the heart of each being is a divinity striving for expression, and it is the efforts of this divine spark to unfold that cause development and progress. Here consciousness and spirit are as fundamental as matter -- an opinion some thinkers are beginning to voice again today.

Through comparative study of sciences, religions, and philosophies our view and sympathies broaden. Our attention becomes focused on yet unexplored laws of nature and the powers latent within us. The work of mystics, philosophers, scientists, and artists -- different expressions of the same reality -- offer starting points for our own discovery of an ever-enlarging understanding. But the guide in this search for truth should be our intuitive heart, not mere intellect or selfish desire. Knowledge alone is never enough: it must find expression in our everyday life and awaken the heart to constant activity. Dramatic actions are not necessary; the conscientious fulfillment of our daily duties is enough. Only in this way can knowledge become wisdom, and thus a blessing for all humanity.

(From Sunrise magazine, June/July 2000; copyright © 2000 Theosophical University Press)

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