Theosophical Encyclopedia

Karma Yoga

This approach to yoga is based on action, as contrasted with intellectual analysis (JNANA YOGA) or devotion (BHAKTI YOGA). The Sanskrit term combines KARMA, “action,” and YOGA, “union.” The principal text on which karma yoga is based is the BHAGAVAD GITA, although that text also extrols bhakti (esp. in chs. 8-11) and jnana (esp. in chs. 12-18); in fact, it presents the three yogas as interrelated, that is, action should be permeated by love and directed by wisdom. Most actions, except involuntary ones, are motivated by self-interest (for self-preservation, economic gain, achieving success in competition, etc.), but karma yoga shifts the emphasis to doing one’s duty — toward oneself, one’s family, one’s country, etc. — as skillfully as possible but without thought of personal reward, i.e., renouncing the “fruit” of action, as the Gita puts it. Obviously, one cannot abstain from action, since one could not even maintain one’s physical being without action of some sort. As the Gita points out (3.5, 4.18), one’s very nature requires one to engage in action; even not doing anything is a kind of action.

Service and being content, no matter what...

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This term, ultimately from the rabbinical Hebrew qabbalah, “tradition,” in turn from the verb qibbel, “receive, accept,” denotes a form of mysticism and esotericism, originally transmitted by oral tradition. The Kabbalah probably dates to the second or third century CE in Palestine, and flourished in Babylonia in the sixth to eleventh centuries. It spread to Italy, Spain, and other parts of Europe. Its early stages received influences from NEOPLATONISM and GNOSTICISM. Its earliest major source of teaching was the Sefer ha-Zohar (Book of Splendor), first published in the thirteenth century by Moses de Leon (c. 1240-1305) but traditionally said to have been written in the second century by Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai. A second book that played a major role in Kabbalistic mysticism was the Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Formation). A third one is Sefer Ha-Bahir (Book of Illumination).

Gershom Scholem states that the Kabbalah is but one of many terms for the mystical and esoteric aspects of Judaism. The Talmud refers to razei torah or the “secrets of the Torah,” which include the Ma’aseh Bereshit (“work of creation”) and the Ma’aseh Merkabah (“work of the chariot”). Bereshit, “in the beginning,” is the first word in the Book of Genesis, and thus the Hebrew origin of the Greek name for the text. The Merkabah is a mystical tradition derived from the first chapter of the book of Ezekiel, in which Ezekiel has a vision of a heavenly chariot. This tradition is believed to have been current during the Second Temple period in Jewish history (c. 538 BCE - 70 CE). Its primary sources are the Greater and Lesser Hekhaloth, which speak of the various halls or palaces that the mystic must go through while ascending in the Merkabah.

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[The following four articles which appear in the second quarter 2012 issue of Theosophy Forward are reprinted from the working file of the new online Theosophical Encyclopedia, still in preparation and not yet available on the Web. They are posted posted onTheosophy Forward by permission of the Theosophical Encyclopedia. Questions about or suggestions for the articles may be directed to the Managing Editor of the online TE: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ]

The concept of cycles is fundamental to Theosophical philosophy, which posits that everything, from the minutest particle or energy to the largest cosmic system, is subject to the law of cycles. It is also called the Law of Periodicity.

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Brotherhood, Universal

In 1881 the Theosophical Society adopted a simplified version of the objects of the Society, the first of which was “To form the Nucleus of a Universal Brotherhood of Humanity.” Although minor modifications to the wording have taken place over the intervening years, the central theme has remained unchanged, and by 1894 the wording still used today had been adopted: “To form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or color.”

Universal Brotherhood

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Awareness, Spiritual

Spiritual awareness is a concept of central importance to the spiritual path that many Theosophists and others are seeking to follow. Because many persons think that they know the meaning of the word awareness, they may misunderstand its use of the word in this context. To be aware, according to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, is “having or showing realization, perception, or knowledge,” and it has an archaic (but still relevant) meaning of being watchful or wary. It is the sense of being “watchful” that is relevant to spiritual practice, but watchful in a special way.


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A legendary island said to be located in the Atlantic Ocean. While the myths and legends about Atlantis are not a part of mainstream Theosophy, the subject seems to have fascinated many people during the nineteenth century, and Theosophical literature includes many references to it. The earliest reference to Atlantis is in Plato’s dialogs Timaeus and Critias, where Egyptian priests, speaking with Solon (an Athenian statesman of about the sixth century BCE), described the island as a country bigger than Asia Minor and Libya, situated just beyond the Pillars of Hercules with a number of smaller islands beyond it. Plato states that Atlantis existed some 9000 years before his time, that it was an ideal commonwealth, and that its armies overran the Mediterranean region with only Athens resisting.


Medieval writers may have received other information about Atlantis from Arabian geographers, which encouraged their acceptance that such a country actually existed. Many widely scattered peoples have traditions about a deluge long ago, which some suggest may have been the memory of the submergence of Atlantis. When it was first published in 1882, Ignatius Donnelly’s Atlantis: the Antediluvian World caused an increased interest in the Atlantis myth.

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One of two great epic poems in Indian literature, the other being the Ramayana, the Mahabharata has more than 100,000 couplets, making it the longest epic poem in the world. It deals with the vicissitudes of the descendants (Bharatas) of the mythical first king of India, Bharata. His ninth descendant was Kuru; hence the kingdom in the story is known as Kurukshetra (Kuru's field), an area in north-central India. However, kuru is the imperative form of the Sanskrit root kr (“do, cause, make,” etc.), so its mythological interpretation deals with human behavior (from a Theosophical standpoint, with human involution and evolution). The epic is therefore less historical than metaphorical.

In this long story, the throne of the kingdom passes, generation after generation, to a younger son, rather than to the eldest, as was the custom, signifying Theosophically the involutionary cycle. At the opening of the story, the oldest brother is the blind king Dhritarastra (whose name echoes the Sanskrit word dhriti “steadfast, constant”) thus implying rigidity or conventionality. Because of his blindness, he is unfit to inherit the throne, which passes to his younger brother Pandu. Dhritarastra marries Gandhari, who blindfolds herself in order not to be superior to her husband. Therefore, their offspring are all born of blindness, symbolic of ignorance. They have a hundred sons, the eldest being Duryodana (whose name literally means "ill bred"); in fact all the sons' names begin with a Sanskrit prefix (dur-, dus-, duh-) that means "bad" (cf. Greek dys-); so they represent allegorically our bad habits or bad behavior, resulting from our ignorance or moral blindness. The "sons" of Pandu, on the other hand, are not really his offspring because he had been cursed with death if he were to have sex. Rather, they are the offspring of various Vedic gods: the eldest, Yudisthira, by Yama-Dharma, the god of righteousness; Bhima by Vayu, the wind god; Arjuna by Indra, the warrior god; and the twins Nakula and Sahadeva by the divine twin horsemen of the Sun, the Ashvins. So they are all semidivine. Being five in number, they represent symbolically our personal nature: intuition, intellect, kama-manas (lower or desire-mind), vital body (etheric double), and its "twin," the physical body. The mother of all five brothers is Kunti, the sister of Sri Krishna, who invoked the gods (with her husband's approval) by means of mantras.


Naturally, Duryodana believes he should succeed to the Kuru throne rather than Yudisthira. He first tries to kill the five brothers, called Pandavas, by burning a wax house built for them when they attend a religious festival. They escape disguised as Brahmins; and during their exile in the forest, they jointly marry Draupadi (who would represent, metaphorically, the life-soul or jiva). They also gain allies, so Duryodana and his brothers, called Kauravas (i.e., descendants of Kuru), are reluctantly forced to give the Pandavas back half of their rightful kingdom. Duryodana then challenges Yudisthira to a dice game (using loaded dice) and succeeds in sending his five cousins (with their mother and common wife) back into exile for twelve years. At the end of that time, he refuses to relinquish the kingdom, so the Great War is fought on the kingdom's traditional battlefield, Kurukshetra, between the Kauravas and their allies and the Pandavas and their allies, one of whom is Sri Krishna. Arjuna, the greatest warrior of his day, leads the Pandavas; Krishna declines to fight, but agrees to act as Arjuna's charioteer and counselor. The Bhagavad-Gita (“Song of God”) is a dialog between Arjuna and Krishna at the onset of that battle, which lasts for eighteen days and involves enormous bloodshed. The Pandavas finally win, symbolizing humanity’s predestined victory over our ignorance-born imperfections (Gita 18.59-61).


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