Stumbling Blocks in Words
The Path, August, 1890
A fellow student came to me the other day and asked, “What is the relation of ‘space’ to ‘sat’? Is there any difference? In the Secret Doctrine I find that H.P.B., quoting from the disciples’ catechism, says that ‘space is that which is and ever was and is not created.'”
There is as much stumbling on mere words by students of Theosophy as on anything else. A simple word will often keep out the truth, and not only cause us to reach wrong conclusions, but frequently to enter upon disputes which sometimes end in quarrels. But in the question asked about “space” and “sat” there is an error in postulating “relation” for things which are without relation. “Sat” means being or beness, so it must be indivisible and unrelateable; “space” must be the same as “sat” because it is everywhere, being the one thing or aspect of things from which there is no escape. The moment we speak of “sat” or beness, we are forced to say that it exists somewhere, using the word “somewhere” in the abstract sense, and that “somewhere” is space. They cannot be dissociated from each other. So when I met the extract from the disciples’ catechism in the Secret Doctrine, I at once came to the conclusion that “sat” is the word to metaphysically express the same idea as we have in mind when we think of space, the one being abstract existence and the other abstract locality in which to place the existence.
At one time some Theosophists were discussing the true sort of life and practice for a Theosophist. And one said that he thought that the body ought to be “cultivated.” The rest at once entered into a discussion which lasted some time, during which the various arguments and illustrations of each were brought forward, when at the end it was suddenly discovered that there was not, in fact, any disagreement. The whole misunderstanding grew out of the one word “cultivation,” which should have been “purification.”
We should all be careful not only to use the right word to express the idea intended to be conveyed, but also to accurately understand what is the idea the other person is trying to express, and to do this regardless of what words may have been used. In doing so it is absolutely necessary to remember what aspect the terms are being used in. Take “Jiva” for instance. It means life, and may be made to mean soul or ego. Mr. Sinnett has adopted Jiva to designate the mere life-principle of the human organism. But all through the metaphysical writings of the Hindoos we can find the word used to describe the immortal self. And there is no more confusion in these writings than there is in those of English speaking nations. Napoleon used to say that he paid attention to find out what idea might be behind anything that was said to him, and did not listen so much to the words as to the ideas which they were used to shadow forth. Words do no more than shadow forth the ideas, and a great deal depends upon the mental touch, taste, and power of smell of the person to whom the words are addressed. Remembering that there are such stumbling blocks as these in the way, the wise Theosophist will not be made to fall.