Theosophical Quarterly, July, 1926
A lecture by Charles Johnston, on April 25, 1926,
on the occasion of the Convention of The Theosophical Society.
The lecture given once a year is part of the Convention of The Theosophical Society, during which we hold meetings of various kinds. There are formal business meetings in the forenoon and afternoon, at which we consider our past history and future problems, and hear reports from our fellow members in various parts of the world. Then, in the evening, there is a meeting of the New York Branch of The Theosophical Society, at which members and some of their friends are present. The public lecture this afternoon has a somewhat different purpose.
At this lecture, we have in mind our members and friends, and also the friends of our friends, who may, perhaps, fall into two classes. There are those who may have a certain interest in what we are doing, who may ask, What is Theosophy? What is The Theosophical Society? There is in them the beginning of a genuine intellectual interest. And there may be another class, whose motive is something like apprehension regarding their friends who go to theosophical meetings, something like misgiving and a desire to probe the matter.
In considering Theosophy this afternoon, we shall try to keep in mind the attitude of enquiry in the minds of one group of friends, and the possible uneasiness of the other; we shall try to satisfy the one group and reassure the other; we shall endeavour to show that Theosophy is eminently reasonable, and that members of The Theosophical Society are for the most part moderate-minded and practical people, not without a dash of humour; not formidable persons to be guarded against.
That many people may have misgivings about anything connected with the name “Theosophy” should not surprise us, because from time to time very sensational stories are published, with which the word “Theosophy” is associated. And indeed the causes of this go back to the very beginning of our movement. When we consider the novelty of the ideas presented by the leaders of the Theosophical Movement, the new vistas of thought, the exceptional persons and events, it is hardly to be wondered at that the movement gathered round it, besides a nucleus of earnest students, an outer ring of wonder-seekers, some of whom were actuated by sheer love of sensation, while the motives of others were purely selfish; they hoped, perhaps, to find the elixir of life, or the philosopher’s stone, or to be endowed with supernormal powers. Most of these seekers after marvels drifted away as they had come. Some pursued studies along lines of their own. Some undertook to write the history of The Theosophical Society as it appeared to them. We have had a good many of these “histories”; one, for example, originated not long ago on the Pacific Coast. All are fragmentary and distorted, while some of them are mere travesties. Those who wish to study our real history would do well to begin with Professor H. B. Mitchell’s booklet, The Theosophical Society and Theosophy.
Since much that is bewildering and even repellent has been given to the world, with the name of Theosophy tacked on to it, we shall be wise to begin by clearing the ground; before trying to show what Theosophy and The Theosophical Society are, it may be well to say something about what they are not.
During the last six months, all of us must have seen many stories printed about Mrs. Besant, to whom is given the title of President of the International Theosophical Society, and her Hindu pupil, who is spoken of either as being already, or soon to be, a divine incarnation, an Avatar. About him are assembled many apostles and bishops, forming a spectacular hierarchy. It is reported that Mrs. Besant and her Hindu pupil will presently come to this country, and may establish themselves here. The matter is not really of great importance; our only concern with it is to make it quite clear (and I am merely repeating the view that was formally accepted by our Convention yesterday) that Mrs. Besant has in reality nothing to do with The Theosophical Society, and that The Theosophical Society, the only Society which has a right to that name, has nothing whatever to do with Mrs. Besant.
Mrs. Besant came into contact with The Theosophical Society in the year 1889, when she reviewed one of Mme. Blavatsky’s books. Mrs. Besant joined the Society, I believe, on May 10 of that year. Mme. Blavatsky died on May 8, 1891, just under two years later. But Mrs. Besant’s close contact with Mme. Blavatsky began only in the early summer of 1890, ten months before Mme. Blavatsky’s death; and of these ten months Mrs. Besant was absent from London for two or three months, lecturing in this country, and was in fact absent at the time of Mme. Blavatsky’s death. So that her opportunity really to learn from Mme. Blavatsky was short; and those who had known Mme. Blavatsky earlier, and have ever since been her followers, long ago reached the conclusion that Mrs. Besant learned very little, and that what she learned she has long since forgotten. Mrs. Besant ceased to be a member of The Theosophical Society in 1896, after she had fallen under Brahmanical influence and had violated fundamental theosophical principles; with her gift for publicity, she carried a certain number of people with her, and the same gift has added to their number. But, since the year 1896, what Mrs. Besant has said or done has been quite irrelevant to real Theosophy, or relevant only so far as she misuses that sacred name as a label for her activities. Her work is a travesty of Theosophy, and it has become a sacrilegious travesty.
To turn from this, let us now come to the vital questions: What is Theosophy? What is the Theosophical Movement? What is The Theosophical Society?
The theme is so great that each year one casts about almost anxiously for a way to give it adequate expression. Perhaps we may approach it in this way: Theosophy is a view of the universe and of life, beginning in unity, manifesting in diversity, and returning again to unity. The initial unity in which the universe begins may be described in the terms used by Philo of Alexandria, as the Logos, the source of all spiritual life, all consciousness, substance and law. Perhaps we can approach the spiritual concept of the Logos by the stepping-stones of the physical sciences, beginning with astronomy.
Much has been said, of recent years, concerning the distances between the stars and stellar systems, and we have been made familiar with the term “light year,” the distance which light travels in a year. If we realize that light would encircle the earth at the equator between seven and eight times in a second, or traverse the distance from the earth to the moon in a second and a fraction, and then consider the number of seconds in a year, we may begin to form an imaginative conception of a light year. The nearest star is at a distance of something less than five light years from the sun. The most distant is perhaps half a million times as far. So that there are these inconceivably vast spaces between the stars, and these distances seem to be permanent. So far as astronomers have gone in mapping the proper motions of the stars, there seems to be no indication that they started at a common source, or that they are converging toward a common goal; there seems to be no indication that the material of which the stars are formed originated, or was ever assembled, at a single point, in a single place, or that this material is on its way back to a common reservoir. On the contrary, astronomers appear to hold the view that there are two or more vast families of stars which are drifting past each other, with inconceivable distances between star and star, through the unimaginable immensities of space.
Yet, though the remoteness of star from star seems to be impassable and permanent, astronomers discern two bonds which bind them all together: kinship of substance and unity of law. The analysis of the spectroscope indicates that all stars are formed of similar elements, which are related to the elements we know here on earth; and mathematical science demonstrates that the same laws of motion are operative among the stars and in our daily, terrestrial experience. Thus, a pair of stars, which may be thousands of light years away from us, revolving about their common centre of gravity, obey the same laws that we are familiar with in the revolution of the moon around the earth.
So that, while there is no exchange of material, nor a common source from which all the material of the stars has been drawn, there is evidently an all-pervading power which, in each star, operates to form and develop the same kind of material; there is evidently an all-pervading law which orders and controls that material after it has been formed. So we reach the conception of a power, omnipresent among the stars, bridging the almost infinite spaces between them, a power which generates or moulds substance and which manifests law; a power invisible and intangible, known only through its manifestations.
This is, in a measure, a physical image of the Logos; we can think of the Logos, the Oversoul, as having the same character; an immense, invisible power, manifesting being, manifesting spiritual life and light. The word “Oversoul” appears to have been created in English by Emerson who, knowingly or unknowingly, translated the Sanskrit term, Adhi-Atma, Over-Soul, quite literally. Emerson’s Oversoul exhibits one side of what we have agreed to call the Logos: “There is one mind common to all individual men. Every man is an inlet to the same and to all of the same.” To the Oversoul he traces back the high intuitions, the noble qualities of mind and heart that reveal themselves in the life and works of man; it is the source of that light which lighteth everyone who cometh into the world, which unfolds itself in the heart and brings forth flowers of beauty, of wisdom, of holiness.
We think of the Logos as being the Oversoul in this sense, but also as being much more; not only the source and reservoir and sum total of all consciousness,—consciousness of beauty, consciousness of truth, consciousness of goodness; not only the reservoir of all intelligence, but the reservoir of all force and all substance likewise; and, most vital to us, the reservoir of our selves, the undivided source from which each one of us ultimately came, the undivided home to which each one of us shall ultimately return. So we trace our path from unity to diversity, from the One to the many. We are innumerable units of mankind, infinitely various, with countless gifts, possibilities, potentialities; all potentially immortal, all potentially omniscient, all potentially omnipotent. Yet this endless diversity ever holds within it the fundamental unity; the indwelling unity of life is from eternity to eternity.
We have come forth from the Oversoul through many experiences, all educative, all tending to develop in us something more of our divinity, bringing us nearer to our goal of omniscience and omnipotence, leading us toward the home whence we began our journey. And just because we all come from the same source and are all children of the same Oversoul, because of this, the bond between us is indissoluble. The bond between our spiritual natures is not simply derived from the Oversoul; it is the Oversoul itself, the one eternal, immortal, everlasting power. And, because of that bond between us, our return will be, not a lonely liberation, but a collective home-coming. In the spiritual sense we are an undivided and indivisible family.
For this reason, The Theosophical Society from its inception has held as its fundamental principle, its first object, the formation of the nucleus of a Universal Brotherhood of humanity; to bring into effect in the visible world, in the world of heart and spirit, that unity which already is, from eternity, in the Oversoul, and thus to conform to the everlasting Reality. So we may describe our purpose and our ideal in two phrases: the spiritual fatherhood of God, in the sense of the living Oversoul; and the spiritual brotherhood of man, in the sense of the union of our spiritual natures.
Every image of Divinity, whether in words or visible forms, that has been framed by the heart or mind or hand of man, draws on the Oversoul as its source, and expresses some power of the Oversoul. Yet we must always distinguish between the image and the reality; we must remember that every image, whether verbal or visible, reflects our limitations, and tends to impose these limitations on our thought of the Oversoul. Take, for instance, the Hindu image of the Lord of Hosts, the god Ganesha. He has a human body, as he sits cross-legged on his cushion, he has four arms, and holds a symbolic object in each of his four hands; he has an elephant’s head and trunk; and, for some reason that I have not been able to penetrate, he wears a handsomely embroidered cap with a conical top. Everything in that image is significant. Beneath his feet is the figure of a rat in low relief, the symbol of devouring Time, which consumes human lives. But god Ganesha is above Time. In one hand he holds a lotus bud, the symbol of the unrevealed beauty of the soul. The elephant’s trunk signifies the power which students of Theosophy call Buddhi, which is at once divine intelligence and spiritual will, because the trunk is at the same time an organ of perception and of action. So this quaint deity has his profound meaning.
Yet, if we were to say that the Oversoul is an elephant with four arms, or if, like the Rig Veda, we were to say that the Oversoul has a thousand heads, this would be symbolically, but not literally true! These are restrictions, distortions, of the illimitable reality. Man the creature impresses his own limitations on all that he creates. All symbols may be helpful; no symbol expresses the ultimate truth.
So we have used the phrase, “the spiritual fatherhood of God” knowing that it is a symbol, with a symbol’s limitations, because it expresses in few words the meaning we wish to convey. This is true also of the other phrase, “the spiritual brotherhood of man.” It does not mean what is called the herd consciousness, though herds of wild cattle or deer might, perhaps, teach human beings useful lessons in conduct and manners. Fortunately for our pride, the “lower animals” cannot express what they think of mankind. If they could speak their minds, many of them would never question the existence of personal devils. Our relation to the animals is one of the things for which we shall have, one day, to render an account before the throne of justice, and the account will be a heavy one.
Universal Brotherhood does not mean, for us, the herd consciousness, nor is it, as in Soviet Russia, a brotherhood of greed and spoliation. It is a spiritual brotherhood; and, before we can enter it in a real sense, we must lose ourselves.
The main thought of Theosophy may, therefore, be thus expressed: the manifestation of unity in diversity, and the return from diversity to unity; the spiritual fatherhood of God, and the spiritual brotherhood of man. So our fundamental principles are reasonable, intelligible, philosophical and, let us hope, inspiring and illuminating. They carry a message of light, of joy, of everlasting life.
Our method, as students of Theosophy, may be summed up in four words: sacrifice, service, study, self-surrender.
Sacrifice: in this sense,—the sacrifice of the unreal self, the “usurper,” in order that the real self may be enthroned. Homer tells of two warriors, Diomede and Glaucus, who meet and exchange armour as a pledge of friendship. One had armour made of bronze, the other had armour made of gold. Diomede, who gave up the bronze armour and received in exchange the golden armour, made the kind of sacrifice we have in mind: bronze for gold, the value of nine oxen for the value of a hundred oxen; the sacrifice of an unreal self, in order that the real self, the true representation and ray of the Oversoul, may become once more the king of our life.
Service: essentially necessary, not to be dispensed with, since we are all spiritually one in the Oversoul, all making the same journey. It is our destiny to bring every one of our brothers to recognize in himself that immortal life, to open his eyes to that splendid light; in this sense, service. But, for those who perceive the tremendous reality of the Oversoul, its potentiality in each of us, it is a service which becomes a passion. Feeling the pressure of that infinite potency in our hearts, catching the gleam of that light through the golden gates, how could we be other than stirred in heart, eager that our friends, our brothers, our other selves, should share that heritage? In the Sankhya Sutras of Kapila there is a parable, perhaps three thousand years old, of the prince who did not know he was a prince. We are as the prince in the fable. Let us imagine, then, a family of young princes who had been reared in ignorance of their birth in a remote forest, under the greenwood tree, in poverty, loneliness, hardship. Then let us suppose that one of the brothers should one day go forth, and by accident learn that his family was the royal house of the land. Think of his eagerness, his enthusiasm, as he goes home to his brothers and sisters, to carry to them this wonderful news. That is the spirit of our service, a service enkindled with a divine light.
Study: study of what? Study of the work of the Oversoul, the record of the Oversoul, as written down by those who have caught something of its light; yet not in the exclusive sense of the holy and splendid scriptures of the world, but rather of all works of the Oversoul, without exception. Every person, every incident, every substance is the Oversoul made manifest in one or another way. It is the parable of the hidden treasure as told in the Upanishads; the owner of the field in which the treasure is buried walks over it day by day, not knowing it is there. This is a symbol of our study; but we know that the treasure is there. Therefore, if we follow this method of study, our Theosophy will in no long time bring to each of us this somewhat strange reward: the glorification of the commonplace, the illumination of the deadly dull. If every commonplace fact and person be a projection of the Oversoul, then we are in the midst of treasures, not buried deep, easily to be unearthed. Here is the redemption of life from its sordid dulness, the illumination of the deadly dull by the light that shines at the back of the heavens. This is one of our rewards.
Self-surrender: to what? To take again the phrase already used: self-surrender to our heavenly Father, to the Oversoul itself. Self-surrender on these terms: that I shall exchange my limitations, my faults, my weaknesses, my sins, for all that the Oversoul has and is. Each one of us is “an entry to the same and to all of the same,” each of us is heir to the whole estate. When we stand together beneath the stars, my seeing does not conflict with yours; we can both see all the stars. So with the Oversoul; all of heaven is for each of us. Self-surrender in this sense; and, to quote from a more recent scripture, having made the surrender, we shall thank God we are rid of a knave. That is a fair and graphic image of the lower self, which is surrendered.
How come we to hold these ideals, to have within our reach this splendid view of the universe and of life? The answer is really the heart of the matter: because we have learned them from the Masters of Wisdom, who have already attained. They speak for the Oversoul and as the Oversoul. But no one should take a statement like this on trust; let him rather try it out, follow up the clues, seek the hidden treasure. We really know what we have verified ourselves, and, when we know in this way, we know that we know.
We think of the Masters of Wisdom as at one with the Oversoul, and therefore at one with each other and with the soul of humanity; they do not speak of themselves as a body of Masters, but as a Brotherhood, the only real brotherhood in the world, the only brotherhood whose members have fully realized that each is the Oversoul and all of the Oversoul; Masters in that sense, Brothers for that reason. Because they are one with that Oversoul which is the essential being of each of us, because they have made themselves one with the light which lightens every man that comes into the world, therefore, as their heritage and reward, they have won the power to enter every human heart that is not barred to them, to illumine every human soul that is not darkened against them. Potentially, therefore, the Masters have a limitless power of beneficence, in virtue of their oneness with the Oversoul. They have made the surrender; they have gained the gift of distributing among mankind the blessings, the hidden treasures, which the Oversoul is so ready to impart.
Under our Constitution, I may not speak for The Theosophical Society as such; but, as a student of Theosophy, I have the right to form and express an opinion. I believe, then, that, if The Theosophical Society has a mission, it is this: To persuade mankind to break down the doors which we build against the divine light and power of the Masters, to induce mankind to search for the hidden treasures which are so near the surface.
What stands in the way? Fantasies, dreams, nothing else. We wage with phantoms an unprofitable strife. So we would say to those who will listen: Consider your life; in it, perhaps, are some things of promise and of beauty, together with much that is drab. Instead of being content with so little, why not seek more? It is a big universe; why not take more of it?—not for self, since there can be no true taking until self be conquered. That self-centred focus of being is a phantom, the leader of the other phantoms. Not long ago, we were discussing an odd phrase used in Westmoreland, to describe one who has a villainous temper. Such a man is called the “ridden one”—ridden by the devil. Was not Sinbad the sailor in a like position? But Sinbad did not think that the Old Man of the Sea was a treasure, to be guarded at all costs; he was a heathen Oriental, and was gifted with good sense. But too many of us cherish the delusion that the old man of the sea, who is perched on our shoulders, with his feet twisted round our throats, is a most precious possession. Considered in the white light of truth, it is a strange fantasy that the self-engrossed egotism is not only to be tolerated, but is to be loaded with gifts. Until the old man of the sea returns precipitately to the sea, there will be no finding of treasures, there will be no real light. One of the Sufi poems beautifully expresses this, when the Higher Self says to the lower: “The house will not hold Me and thee.”
So the Masters are those who have sacrificed and attained, who have risen, step by step, to finer and finer vestures, each endowed with higher and nobler powers; the Masters have risen to oneness with the Oversoul. That is the true Nirvana, the great liberation; in the highest sense, that is the salvation of the soul. And they come back to us bringing gifts: as much of wisdom as we can draw into our small minds; as much beneficence as we can find room for in our narrow hearts; and with the insistence born of their great generosity, that, as we freely receive, we shall freely give.
The Masters come to us, therefore, with these gifts, and with the gift of a radiant hope. Think of what humanity is, feverishly engrossed in manifold activities, fascinated by them day by day, yet on the whole, commonplace, limited, dull. Then think of what it might be,—let us say, rather, what it shall be, what we shall contribute to make it, if we give ourselves, all that we are, all that we can be. Then, on the principle announced many centuries ago, that the little leaven leaveneth the whole lump, we may begin a transformation of humanity from sordid commonplace to a splendour that archangels might well envy.