Theosophical Encyclopedia


A religion is a system of beliefs and actions shared by a group, giving the members of that group an object for their worship and a code of behavior, although early Shinto lacked the latter and only in more recent times has adopted ethical codes either from Confucianism, Buddhism, or Christianity. The object of worship or veneration of most religions is a transcendental Being (God, Allah, Jehovah, Shiva) who is considered the “creator of heaven and earth,” although early Jainism does not identify such a being, since that religion considers the universe to be beginningless and endless, i.e. not to have been created at some specific time. Religions also usually include some idea of both the purpose of life (teleology) and the consummation of it (eschatology) for those who adhere to its moral principles. Many religions also include ideas about the afterlife (heaven, a happy hunting ground) and some have a belief in rebirth or reincarnation, which suggests a gradual development of the soul toward some supreme goal, often called liberation (moksha, nirvana). Some religions teach that people who have not lived up to their moral code will suffer in an unpleasant world, usually identified as hell. Many, though not all, religions identify a hierarchy of supernatural beings (angels, archangels, houris) superior to humans but inferior to the supreme Being. Most religions also identify certain people who are especially identified as qualified, by their training or by a special gift they are perceived to have, to lead the rest of the members in worship (priests and nuns, rabbis, mullahs, medicine men).

The word religion is derived from Latin re-ligio, etymologically “bind back,” which some Theosophists interpret to indicate a reunion with one’s ultimate source and equate with the literal meaning of yoga, “union.” The Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, once defined religion as “an attitude of ultimate concern,” which could include materialism or even terrorism in its definition, hence is too broad for the customary use of the term. Any definition must cover all those belief systems usually identified as religions, not just Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions, but also Buddhism, Jainism, the various forms of Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Shinto, religious Taoism, Sikhism, Native American religions, Kahuna beliefs, African religions, the Baha’i faith, and (some would say), Confucianism. Since there is a considerable variation of beliefs in that list, a definition to cover all of them must be very general.

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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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