John Algeo – USA
[This series is revised from a National Lodge Study Course published by the Theosophical Society in America in 1997.]
The Voice of the Silence is one of many spiritual guidebooks, works intended to provide signposts for living and especially for inner development. Such works tend to be relatively short and aphoristic or poetical, examples from around the world being the Analects of Confucius, the Tao Te Ching of Lao-tzu, the Dhammapada of Buddhism, the Bhagavad Gita of Hinduism, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the Sermon on the Mount of Jesus, the Imitation of Christ of Thomas a Kempis, and the Interior Castle of Teresa of Avila.
In the Theosophical tradition, three such well-known works are Light on the Path by Mabel Collins, At the Feet of the Master by J. Krishnamurti, and The Voice of the Silence by H. P. Blavatsky. The Voice was one of the last two books HPB wrote (the other being The Key to Theosophy) and so is part of her final legacy to us. As the essence of her views on the Theosophical life, it has a special value. All such guidebooks, and especially The Voice, can be approached in a variety of ways, no single way being uniquely right. Readers should use this book in a way that is pertinent to their particular interests and background. Those interested in its historical background can read the very rich and informative introductory essay “How The Voice of the Silence Was Written” by Boris de Zirkoff in the Quest Book centennial edition (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1992).
Because various editions of The Voice have different pagination and it is impractical to give them all, here the verses of the work are identified by their numbers in the Golden Jubilee edition (Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House, 1939, reprinted 2005). After each set of verses, HPB’s notes are given. The whole book consists of three parts or “fragments,” so called because HPB said she wrote down only some of the verses she knew in the original source (The Book of the Golden Precepts). The title of the first fragment (verses 1-100) is that of the book itself: “The Voice of the Silence.” The second fragment (verses 101-195) is entitled “The Two Paths,” and the third fragment (verses 196-316) is “The Seven Portals.”
The book starts by telling us what it is and who it is for: “ These instructions are for those ignorant of the dangers of the lower iddhi.”1 It is a book of instructions intended for those who are unaware of certain dangers. Note 1: “The Pali word iddhi is the synonym of siddhi in Sanskrit. Siddhis, or psychic faculties, are the abnormal powers in man. There are two kinds of siddhis. One group embraces the lower, coarse, psychic, and mental energies; the other exacts the highest training of spiritual powers. Says Krishna in Shrimad Bhagavata: ‘He who is engaged in the performance of yoga, who has subdued his senses and who has concentrated his mind in me (Krishna), such yogis all the siddhis stand ready to serve’.” The Pali word iddhi and the Sanskrit siddhi are both from a root (ardh) meaning “to prosper,” suggesting that these powers are means of succeeding or thriving. The iddhis are powers of various sorts: physical, psychic, spiritual. The four iddhis of an ancient Indic king were said to be physical ones: personal beauty, long life, good health, and popularity; presumably those iddhis are also what get a president elected in a democracy.
In the early days of the Society, many members were attracted by psychic phenomena. HPB herself used the phenomena that she was capable of producing to attract attention to the work she had to do. The phenomena certainly succeeded in attracting that attention, but it also tended to detract from the really important matters: the philosophy and ethics of Theosophy. So at the end of her life, HPB tried in several ways to redirect attention from the lesser to the greater in importance.
The lower iddhis include extrasensory perception (seeing and hearing things in ways other than by the normal use of eyes and ears), telekinesis (the ability to move objects without touching them), and other “psi faculties” (so called from the Greek letter psi, the initial of the word from which we get “psychic”). HPB was concerned that modern people, particularly Americans, were spontaneously developing such psi faculties or forcing their development without knowing how to cope with them. Lists of the psychic iddhis in Indic writings include a great many powers, such as projecting the mind to make an image of oneself, becoming invisible, passing through solid objects such as walls, swimming in the ground as though it were water, walking on water, flying through the air, touching the sun and moon, rising to the highest heavens, shrinking to microscopic size, becoming extremely heavy or light, discovering hidden treasure, entering into another’s body, knowing all times (past, present, and future), choosing one’s time of death, and overcoming death.
The higher latent powers are spiritual abilities like compassion, understanding, intuitive insight, and an awareness of the mystical unity of all existence. They are dealt with especially in the third fragment of the book. The most important difference between the lower and higher powers is how and why we use them. The dangers of the lower powers are those of using any power for its own sake or for our personal benefit, so that it becomes a physical distraction rather than a spiritual help. Buddhism discourages the acquisition, practice, or display of iddhis, holding the psychic powers to be inferior to the spiritual ones. The Buddha said: “It is because I see danger in the practice of these mystic wonders that I loathe and abhor and am ashamed thereof.” Buddhist monks were forbidden to display such powers to the laity; and falsely to claim them led to expulsion from the monastic Order.
It may seem surprising that verse 1 says that the book consists of “instructions,” yet it is indeed a “how to” book. Also unexpected may be the book’s statement of whom it is for. At its front, HPB wrote that the book is “Dedicated to the Few.” She was probably referring to the relatively few of her own students who tried, not just to understand Theosophy intellectually or to entertain themselves with it, but to live it consciously and completely by dedicating their lives to the service of humanity—the aim that HPB continually emphasized was the real purpose of the Society and Theosophy.
The next verse continues: “ He who would hear the voice of Nada,2 ‘the Soundless Sound,’ and comprehend it, he has to learn the nature of Dharana.3” Two notes explain the technical terms it contains.
Note 2: “The ‘Soundless Voice,’ or the ‘Voice of the Silence.’ Literally perhaps this would read ‘Voice in the Spiritual Sound,’ as Nada is the equivalent word in Sanskrit for the Sen-sar term.” Sen-sar or Senzar is said to be the language of the initiates, once the common property of all humanity. Although it sometimes is spoken of as though it were an ordinary language like English or Sanskrit, other references make clear that it is quite different. It is like “archetypal symbolism”—verbal, pictorial, or narrative. Senzar is the “language” in which the Voice of the Silence speaks.
With its reference to the “Soundless Voice” or “Voice of the Silence,” this verse introduces the central metaphor of the first fragment, which is also that of the whole book, and also indicates the method used in the book. Nada as “the Soundless Sound” is apparently a paradox, but actually it is a simple reality, both physically and spiritually. Physically, sound is the way our brains interpret the air vibrations that impact our eardrums. Nada is a Sanskrit word meaning “sound, vibration, resonance.” But vibration is sound only when we have ears to receive it, a brain to process it, and a mind to interpret it. It takes two to make sound: one to produce the vibrations and one to perceive them. That is a metaphor for the whole process of manifestation. We sometimes wonder why the Absolute, being free of all relative limitations, should bother with our world at all. But by its very nature, the Absolute wills to be, to know, to communicate. And communication needs two. It is not enough to produce vibrations, which are only potential sound or soundless sound. Somebody has to hear them. We exist in order that the Absolute can know itself and can communicate.
On a more immediate level, our own higher self, which has produced the personality we identify as ourselves, is constantly trying to communicate with us. Its voice is our Voice of the Silence. What various traditions call enlightenment or salvation is just the realization of who we really are—not our limited personality, with its quirks and conditioning, its likes and dislikes, all its evanescent peculiarities—but our greater reality, which has been called by many names. It is the real “I” in us. It speaks to us, but in a very quiet voice: the Voice of the Silence. The purpose of this book of instructions is to tell us how to hear that Voice and thus to learn Senzar. And that brings us to the method used in the book. In a sense, The Voice of the Silence is a sort of Theosophical Yoga Sutras. Like the sutras, it consists of short, aphoristic verses, often very condensed and in need of explication. The process of explicating those verses, by each of us for ourselves, is the process of self-discovery—of discovering who we really are by listening to the Voice of the Silence within the depth of our being.
Note 3: “Dharana is the intense and perfect concentration of the mind upon some one interior object, accompanied by complete abstraction from everything pertaining to the external Universe, or the world of the senses.” The parallel with the Yoga Sutras is made explicit in verse 2, which says that to comprehend the Voice we have to learn the nature of dharana (pronounced roughly as “DAH-ra-NAH). Dharana is a Sanskrit word from the root dhr “to hold.” It is the sixth of the eight “limbs” or branches of yoga and is the first of the final three “internal” limbs. Of the eight, the first five “limbs” are said to be external because they concern our relationship with the world around us. They are: (1) yama, “abstentions,” five practices that avoid wrong behavior, which are ahimsa (harmlessness, not hurting other beings), satya (truth, not telling or acting out falsehoods), asteya (not stealing), brahmacharya (sexual continence or regularity), and aparigraha (not grasping, not trying to hold on to things or experiences); (2) niyama, “observances,” which are five practices that encourage right behavior: shaucha (cleanness), samtosha (contentment), tapas (self-control), swadhyhaya (study, literally self-study), and ishvara-prani-dhana (attending to the Lord); (3) asana, “posture”; (4) pranayama, “breath control”; and (5) pratyahara, “withdrawal” of attention from sense objects. The last three “limbs” are internal because they have to do with what is inside us: (6) dharana, “concentration”; (7) dhyana, “meditation” or continuity of thought; and (8) samadhi, “contemplation, comprehension” (literally “putting together”).
Yoga (which means “union”) is a process of becoming whole. It requires us to adjust our relationship with the world around us in five ways (the five external branches) and to come to terms with ourselves in three ways (the three internal branches). We might rethink these eight sorts of adjustment as follows: First, we must abstain from certain things (violence, untruthfulness, theft, lust, and covetousness). Second, we must observe certain practices (cleanliness, contentment, self-control, self-study, and self-surrender). Third, we must adopt the right posture―not just the traditional postures of meditation, but also posture in the sense of “attitude” or “frame of mind.” Fourth, we must control our breathing―not just the traditional forms of breath-control, but all of our exchanges with the world around us. Breathing is a symbol of our constant communication with our environment, of our exchange with all other living creatures of that which enables us to live. Fifth, we must stop focusing on the objects that our senses present to us, that is, being concerned primarily with the exterior world, and start instead paying attention to what goes on inside us. This brings us to the last three, the internal steps of becoming whole: Sixth, we must concentrate our attention on what is within us. This verse tells us that we cannot hear the Voice of the Silence until we have learned what concentration is. Many people rarely concentrate, but are in continual states of distraction. We must come together (“con”) on a center (“centrate”) in ourselves. The seventh and eighth steps (meditative continuity and comprehension) are dealt with in later parts of the book.
Verses 3 to 5 deal with the mind and its role in our perception of reality: “ Having become indifferent to objects of perception, the pupil must seek out the rajah of the senses, the Thought-Producer, he who awakes illusion.  The Mind is the great Slayer of the Real.  Let the Disciple slay the Slayer.” We in Western society may have difficulty in relating to those verses. Our difficult springs from our tendency to identify ourselves with our minds and thus to think that the only “real” consciousness is mental. The Wisdom Tradition says that consciousness, even within us, is of seven kinds. We are conscious (1) of our dense body (Hamlet’s “this too too solid flesh”), (2) of the model or inner form of our body, (3) of the vitality that flows through and around us, (4) of our passions and desires and emotions, (5) of our mind and its thoughts (which we often think of exclusively as our consciousness), (6) of our intuitions or insights, and (7) beyond all those, of our unity with everything around us (which most of the time is a potential consciousness only).
If we identify ourselves with only one of those seven types of consciousness, such as the mind, we limit our self-concept in ways that can have ill effects. We will have a hard time functioning effectively through the other types. So in all spiritual traditions, the basic question to be asked and answered is “Who am I?” That question is broached in these verses (3-5), particularly with respect to a wrong answer that Western people are likely to give: “I am my mind,” or as Descartes put it, “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am).
Verse 3 mentions becoming “indifferent to objects of perception.” That is the fifth step of classical yoga listed above. In Sanskrit it is called pratyahara, withdrawing our attention from the external world to the internal one. That is the first step in coming into an understanding of our own nature. We have to stop looking around outside us and start looking within. If we want to find something, we have to look where it is. There is an old story about a person who noticed his neighbor outside on the road that ran in front of their houses, searching frantically for something. Being a helpful person, he went out and asked his neighbor, “Have you lost something? Can I help you find it?” And the neighbor answered, “Oh, thank you. I have certainly lost something—a ring, my most precious possession, and I have to find it.” Together they looked all over the road for nearly an hour, but with no success. Then the first man said, “Just exactly where were you when you lost the ring?” And the neighbor answered, “I was in my basement, cleaning the furnace.” “But if you lost the ring in your basement, what are you doing out here looking for it in the street?” exclaimed the first man with astonishment. “Ah, well, you see,” answered his neighbor, “it is very dark in the basement, but there is a lot of light out here.” Pratyahara, being indifferent to objects of perception, tells us that if we want to find who we really are, we’d better look inside, even if there is not much light there, rather than outside ourselves.
Verse three also tells us to “seek out the rajah of the senses.” The rajah or king of the senses is the mind. Medieval psychology recognized that each of the senses perceives a different modality of reality: sight, sound, taste, touch, smell. But when we bite into an apple (for example), we do not perceive five different realities: a red globe, a crunching noise, a sweet flavor, a smoothness of skin or crispness of tissue, and an apple odor. Rather we experience all those various sensory datums as a single whole, which we call “an apple.” There we must have some faculty, in addition to our separate senses, that correlates what they tell us. That faculty, which was called the “common sense,” is what brings the other five senses into communion with each other. Today we use the term “common sense” in a somewhat different way; we use it to mean “good, practical judgment.” But it is easy to see how our meaning developed out of the earlier one: it is just “common sense” (in both its meanings) that our five senses are telling us about a single reality, not five different ones. The mind is our “common sense,” the king or ruler of the other five.
The mind is also the “Thought-Producer” because it makes ideas. But in the process, it can distort the information that the senses give it. When it correlates all the bits of sensory data that come to it, the mind builds up a picture of what they are about. And that picture may not correspond perfectly, or even very well, with the world out there that our senses have themselves only imperfectly perceived. It turns out that real “common sense” (in the modern meaning of the term) is one of the most uncommon things in the world.
With our minds, we create pictures, we draw maps, we imagine what everything around us is like. But we are very often wrong. We think we know the way things are, but we are frequently mistaken. We remember things incorrectly; we anticipate futures that never come; we draw conclusions on little evidence with faulty logic; we attribute motives to others that they do not have. In short, the mind awakes illusion. The mind is not us. But we have to seek it out, to recognize it for what it is, if we are not to mistake it for ourselves. We cannot find the True unless we know what is untrue. And so we must seek out the mind, in order to realize its nature.
The mind, as verse 4 tells us, “slays” the “Real.” We need to look carefully at both those terms, in order to realize what they mean. The Sanskrit word for “real” is sat, which is the present participle of the Sanskrit verb for “to be”; its basic meaning is “being.” It also means “the existing, the real, the true, the good.” The word satya “truth” (as in the Theosophical Society’s motto “There is no religion higher than truth”) is derived from it. What is real is what really is. And what really is, is good and true. In what sense does the mind “slay” what is true, good, and real? Our mind, by correlating the evidence of our senses, creates an image of reality for us. But in the process, it also distorts that reality and thus is the “great Slayer of the Real.” The “slaying” here is metaphorical. Because we see and understand through the mind, the mind determines what we know. It reveals some aspects of the world around us but at the same time obscures others, so we have only a partial and thus inaccurate view of what is real. If we are to know what is Real, we must overcome the limitations of the mind. We must “slay the Slayer.” That injunction does not mean that we should do away with the mind. If we were mindless, we would not be sages, but idiots. To “slay the Slayer” is not to eliminate the mind, but to compensate for its limited vision. The mind “slays” the Real by limiting our perceptions of it. So we “slay the Slayer” by limiting its limitations.
It was suggested above that The Voice is a sort of Theosophical Yoga Sutras. Verses 3 to 5 support that suggestion. The second verse of the Yoga Sutras tells us (in the translation of I. K. Taimni, The Science of Yoga): “Yoga is the inhibition of the modifications of the mind.” The modifications of the mind are those constant activities with which the mind paints us a picture of what it says is reality but by which it becomes “the great Slayer of the Real” because it paints an untrue picture. Yoga is learning to inhibit those modifications, that is, to “slay the Slayer.” The Voice of the Silence and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are saying the same thing in only slightly different words. They are both saying that we must learn to control the activities of the mind so that it does not mislead us and so that we do not identify our essential nature with it.
To be continued.