Declaration of Independence
- Published: 18 April 2010
In July 1776, a group of fifty-six men, of whom at least fifty were members of the Masonic fraternity, signed a document that has come to be considered one of the great landmarks in human history. Largely authored by one of the most illumined and literate men of the eighteenth-century, Thomas Jefferson, that document—the Declaration of Independence—established the separation of the American colonies from England on the basis of certain philosophical premises current in the Age of Enlightenment. The significance of the Declaration has been said to lie in the fact that it translated concepts concerning the inherent rights that every human being was presumed to possess, simply by virtue of being human, from the philosophical sphere to the political arena.
The basis of American independence has focused the attention of nations throughout the world on the radical concept on which a democratic nation was first established. For the Theosophical student, this singular event may provide a useful occasion to examine certain correspondences between what may be called a collective intent to achieve national freedom and the stages required for the individual achievement of personal freedom. Students of the esoteric philosophy are inevitably concerned with the question of freedom, a term which may be taken as synonymous with liberation and even with Self-realization. The question of what constitutes true freedom has always engaged the philosophical mind. Philosophers both East and West have attempted to resolve the question of whether or not humans are essentially free. The men who signed the Declaration of Independence, however, did not debate the philosophical issue. They stated, rather, that all people have an inherent right to enjoy liberty and towards that end may establish their own government, which derives its powers from the governed.
An exploration of what may be termed the "American experience," based on the Declaration of Independence, may be helpful in understanding our own situation. Often ideas that first emerge in the collective consciousness of a group or institution must ultimately be brought into full realization by each individual, for only thus is their validity proved and the evolutionary progress of the whole assured. For example, we may suggest that the world today is experiencing a kind of "Roman moment" of history, a time when the forces of materialism are set in direct opposition to all that would uplift and advance the human spirit. In a parallel manner, every individual comes to the point in their life, a "Roman moment," when the forces that hold persons in bondage to material interests, selfish concerns, and personal desires are sharply opposed by their spiritual aspirations, their concern for the welfare of others, and a recognition of the brotherhood of humanity. Similarly, the American experience founded on a declaration of the equality of all men and women, and the consequent right of all to enjoy certain freedoms, must become the experience of all individuals seeking to become free from bondage to the past and to all that would enslave them.
The correspondences between the collective and individual experience of freedom include three aspects that deserve our attention. A study of the state of affairs in the American colonies in 1776 reveals, first, that the Declaration of Independence was drawn up and signed in the very midst of the struggle to achieve that independence and not after the war for independence had been won. In fact, in July 1776, the outcome of the conflict was even in some doubt, as the men who signed the Declaration knew full well when they mutually pledged "to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." Second, it must be noted that the Declaration marked not so much the achievement of freedom as the intent to establish that freedom by the enunciation of principles on which an independent state could be founded. The third aspect that deserves consideration is the fact that the union, which was visualized by the Declaration, was not achieved all at once, even when the conflict then raging was ended. The goal of union of the separate colonies was realized in a series of stages and after several failures (e.g., the Articles of Confederation were replaced by the U. S. Constitution, but even then the issue of federalism versus states' rights was resolved only after a bitter Civil War nearly a century after the Declaration of Independence had been adopted).
Now what is the significance of those three factors revealed by a study of the collective experience in achieving national independence as related to the individual or personal experience in the attainment of freedom or liberation? The group experience and individual realization have certain valid parallels. Just as the colonies were subject to a foreign power that many began to feel was an unjust relationship, so in our individual lives we may come to recognize that we are in bondage to desires, illusions, and prejudices that actually constitute a "foreign power" within us and from which we must free ourselves or else continue to pay tribute to that power. So the idea of freedom must first arise within us. We must know it is possible to break the bonds that have held us subject to the past or enslaved us in the present. There must be born in our consciousness an awareness of the inalienable right of the Self to be free, free from the illusions of the personal self, the desires and passions that bind us and shadow our lives. And then, in the very midst of the struggle to be free, we must declare our intention to liberate ourselves. There can be nothing vague about this, nothing equivocating: we must commit ourselves fully, pledging our total resources to the task of winning through to Self-realization, which is true freedom.
The first step, then, is a declaration of the way we intend to travel, a statement of the goal we intend to achieve. We must define the nature of the freedom we expect to gain. We must know what we are to be liberated from. It may not be possible to know in detail how we shall achieve our aim. Just so, the men meeting in Philadelphia to draw up a Declaration of Independence did not at the same time devise plans of military action or accompany the Declaration with schemes of military strategy. They set the goal toward which all subsequent actions would be directed. In a similar manner, we must clearly perceive the end we would achieve and recognize that all of our energies must be applied towards that end.
This first stage may be analogous to the prerequisite for reaching Bodhisattvahood, the state of compassionate enlightenment, as outlined in Mahayana Buddhism. In many Buddhist texts, the aspirant is told that at the outset there must arise in the mind, and be held steadily present in consciousness throughout all the struggles that follow, the thought of ultimate enlightenment, bodhicítta. The men of the colonies in 1776 had one thought clearly before them, the thought of independence as a free and self-governed nation. We too, if we would achieve Self-realization, must have a clear vision of our goal and set forth fearlessly and unhesitatingly our aim.
We cannot wait until the inner struggle is won before we announce our intention. Indeed, the very declaration we make may serve to intensify the conflict between the powers that would deny us our freedom and that immortal Self which must disentangle itself from the bonds of personal enslavement. Not every aspect of ourselves will join in the struggle nor even consent to engage in the revolution that must take place. It would be a mistake, for example, to believe that every one in the American colonies supported the cause of independence or even favored separation from England. Many wanted to continue the ties at any price. The Loyalist sympathizers were legion. So in our own nature, there will be many elements that militate against our achievement of spiritual freedom. Many aspects of our personal selves will resist any breaking of ties with the animal instincts, with our normal desires and customary ways of thinking and reacting. Some parts of us may even prove traitors to the goal we seek, and we may find ourselves seeking compromise with our own shadow, hoping to have the best of both worlds, as it were. To effect a revolution in ourselves is no easier than to establish a nation's independence.
Finally, out of the group experience exemplified in the Declaration of Independence, we may learn that freedom is sometimes achieved by stages and that ultimately true freedom is best guaranteed when there is a centrality of government which will uphold the rights and exact the obligations of each constituent part. In full Self-realization, the federal authority of the Atman has been established, but there can be no violation of the natural rights of the mind now freed from prejudice, of the emotions now purified of unwholesome desire, nor of the physical vehicle through which action that is selfless may flow unimpeded by reaction. But in the achievement of that Self-realization, we may need to proceed by stages, establishing first a kind of loose confederation among the vehicles, each demanding its own "rights" until each has learned that true freedom may require the surrender of some portion of those rights in order that the whole may prosper. If the mind, for example, claims complete independence, but the emotions are bound by desires for self-aggrandizement or self-gratification, how can the mind be truly free? It is then weighted by the pull of emotion and cannot be free to receive spiritual insight and respond to intuitive understanding. Only when the governance of the self is vested in the Self, the Atman, can there be true freedom for all aspects of the self.
The path to such freedom, to true liberation, has been given many names. In the East, it is called Yoga. Dr. I. K. Taimni has pointed out in Glimpses into the Psychology of Yoga that "the whole philosophy and science of Yoga is based upon the assumption that man is completely free to free himself from the illusions and limitations in which he is involved and to become established in the world of Reality to which he really belongs." Here essentially is the final freedom. It was exemplified by the action taken by fifty-six men in July 1776 and it is reconfirmed every time an individual determines to follow the path to Self-realization. The ultimate freedom is our freedom to free ourselves. We are similarly free to bind ourselves, to clasp about us the chains that spell enslavement, that hold us in bondage to the personal self and its desires and passions. The choice is always ours: "none else compels," as The Light of Asia so beautifully phrases the primary fact of our humanity. To be human means to have the inalienable right to a choice of ways.
From The Theosophist, vol. 97, September 1976
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