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The word “Theosophy” derives from the Greek theosophia, which is a combination of the terms theos (gods, or God) and sophia (wisdom). This term can be translated as “wisdom of the gods” (or God), “wisdom in things divine”, or “divine wisdom”, the latter being the preferred translation in the modern theosophical movement. A true theosophist, therefore, is a person endowed with wisdom. This wisdom, however, is not “human”, that is, it is not the result of experience, study, and memory. It is an inherent faculty of the divine aspect of human nature, which at this point in evolution is latent in most people.
The term “yoga”, according to Pânini, a 6th-century BCE Sanskrit grammarian, can be derived from either of two roots — yujir yoga (to yoke), or yuj-samâdhau (to concentrate). In the context of the Yoga-Sutras of Patañjali, the root yujsamâdhau is considered by traditional commentators as the correct etymology. Yoga as concentration implies the gathering of the attention to focus it on a single object of contemplation.
Yoga as union, however, is a very appropriate meaning in the context of Theosophy, since the purpose of theosophical teachings is to help the aspirant to unite, first the lower and higher consciousness, and then the latter with the universal. Ultimately speaking, this union is accomplished by developing a spiritual knowledge or perception of the fundamental unity of all existence.
With these definitions in mind, the yoga of Theosophy can be described as a path to the unification of our individual consciousness with the universal, by means of awakening the divine wisdom that is latent in every one of us.
The Goal and the Means
In most spiritual traditions, the aim of the spiritual efforts is to gain personal salvation, be this Heaven, Nirvana, or Liberation. In the theosophical context, however, the aim is not personal. The reason for this is based on the fundamental teaching that individual selves are not “real”, but are temporary reflections of the One Self. As H. P. Blavatsky, one of the founders of the Theosophical Society, wrote:
There is but ONE SELF in all the infinite Universe, and what we humans call “self” is but the illusionary reflection of the ONE SELF in the heaving waters of Earth. True Occultism is the destruction of the false idea of Self, and therefore true spiritual perfection and knowledge are nothing else but the complete identification of our finite “selves” with the Great All. It follows, therefore, that no spiritual progress at all is possible except by and through the bulk of Humanity. It is only when the whole of Humanity has attained happiness that the individual can hope to become permanently happy — for the individual is an inseparable part of the Whole. (1)
Since our personal self is but a fragmentary expression of the universal self, to aspire for the salvation of a fragment while the other fragments are still in the dark is nonsensical. It is like thinking that a finger can be perfectly healthy when the rest of the hand is sick.
What, then, is the motivation of an individual, for him to tread the spiritual path? As we know, the blind cannot lead the blind, or problems cannot be solved at the same level as the problem exists. In other words, to be able to help, we have to be beyond the need of help. The aim of theosophical practice at the level of the individual is to break free from the illusion of separateness, not to enjoy any kind of personal bliss, but because only then can we really help all other expressions of the One to realize Truth.
Let us now examine some general features of this approach. The first point to mention is that the yoga of Theosophy is a holistic path. Because human experience is part of a complex and multileveled process of evolution, no “tricks” such as chanting a particular mantra, visualizing a particular color, tapping some part of the body, or having faith in a particular person can fulfil human destiny. According to this yoga, the practice must involve the whole field of human endeavor. As can be read in Light on the Path:
Seek out the Way. . . . Seek it not by any one road. To each temperament there is one road which seems the most desirable. But the way is not found by devotion alone, by religious contemplation alone, by ardent progress, by self-sacrificing labor, by studious observation of life. None alone can take the disciple more than one step onwards. All steps are necessary to make up the ladder. (2)
We all have natural inclinations. Some may be intellectual, others devotional, others attracted to practical matters, and so on. We all tend to think that a certain kind of activity, because it feels natural to us, must constitute the path. But even though a certain approach may always be predominant in us, the theosophical yoga prescribes that we should make efforts on all aspects of the spiritual life, so that our growth is well-rounded.
Another important feature of this yoga is that its practice must happen, not in retirement — isolated from society, but in the midst of our daily life. Eastern traditions tend to see life merely as an illusion. It is obvious that something illusory is devoid of value. If, ultimately speaking, embodied life has no intrinsic value, then retirement from it seems a natural course of action for those who want to discover Truth.
The theosophical view is different. It agrees with the fact that, fundamentally, life is an illusion. But it is not merely an illusion. Life is the training ground by means of which the divine spark may unfold all its potentialities. From a certain point of view, we could say that life is a kind of simulation software or virtual reality for the training of the soul. The primary aim of the embodied soul, then, is not to attain liberation, but to evolve. Once the necessary growth is accomplished, liberation naturally ensues because the virtual reality is not needed any longer. From this perspective, daily life is not opposed to the spiritual practice, but becomes its field of action.
A Two-fold Work
What are the aims of this spiritual practice? According to the theosophical view, although the ultimate source of everything is One principle, the manifested universe is pervaded by duality. (3) Spirit and matter, consciousness and body are the two aspects of the One, and if we are going to realize this One Self, we need to bring both aspects of our manifested being “in tune” with the Ultimate Reality. For this reason, the yoga of Theosophy aims at working on two aspects: a) The unfolding of consciousness, and b) the purification of the vehicles of consciousness.
a) In the theosophical view, human beings are said to be a microcosm, that is, an expression and reflection of the universe. (4) This means that in human beings are present (at a lower degree) all the elements, forces, states of consciousness, and possibilities that exist in the cosmos. However, when we look at present humanity, it is hard to recognize this fact. The reason for this is that most of the divine possibilities that are expressed in a Master of the Wisdom are still latent in human consciousness.
Thus, an aim of the yoga of Theosophy is to stimulate the unfolding of the powers in consciousness — first the spiritual ones (which express in our lives as what we call wisdom, love, joy, peace, compassion) and then the psychic ones. This allows the spiritually awakened person to become a co-worker of Nature, aiding in the process of evolution.
b) Since consciousness cannot be expressed except through an appropriate vehicle, it is not enough to unfold consciousness. The second aspect of this work, in Annie Besant’s words, is: “self-purification, the purification of the lower nature, until every part of it vibrates perfectly in harmony with the higher.” (5)
Purification of the personal vehicles of consciousness is necessary so that they can respond harmonically to the unfolding consciousness, able to express its divine powers on all the different planes. Thus, the yoga of Theosophy includes a work of purification of the mental, emotional, and physical bodies:
- Purification of the mental body is attained by stimulating in the aspirant an interest for the higher, by opposing the tendency to restlessness and developing a habit of calmness, and by training the mind to focus on the present moment.
- The work on the emotional body includes the gradual purification of desires, moving from the craving for physical objects on to artistic or intellectual pursuits and interests, and from this to focusing on spiritual goals. Along with this, there must be a movement from self-interest to a universal one. In H. P. Blavatsky’s words: “When desire is for the purely abstract — when it has lost all trace or tinge of ‘self ’ — then it has become pure.” (6)
- Finally, the physical body must be purified from grosser materials by encouraging a pure diet and pure life. For this reason, a serious aspirant to follow this yoga should work to gradually adopt a diet that avoids the consumption of recreational drugs, alcohol, and meat, as well as any excesses in daily life.
Three Pillars and One
How is the aspirant going to proceed on this path? In theosophical literature one can find frequent references to three aspects of this discipline: 1) study, 2) meditation, and 3) service. However, for this list to be complete, we need to add a fourth aspect; one that is always present in the literature, although frequently in an implicit form — that of 4) self-transformation.
1) Study has several purposes and dimensions. Most of us are raised with a paradigm based on mundane values and aims. But these are frequently useless to a spiritual life, when not opposed. One first goal for the study of spiritual literature is to help us gain a perspective of life that is conducive to spiritual living. A second effect of theosophical study is that, by applying our minds to abstract and spiritual matters, the mental and emotional bodies are put into alignment and purified. Also, an interest for higher things is awakened in our consciousness. Another important aim of study is the learning about the path and how to tread it. But there are also other dimensions of study that transcend the books. Study must include our everyday experiences, so that we can distill the spiritual meaning of them, as well as the study of ourselves by means of self-examination.
2) Meditation can be regarded as consisting of two aspects. One is the “sitting” meditation, in which we take some time in our day to isolate ourselves from the environment and look inwardly. This practice ensures that we spend some time to focus on higher things, away from the worries and petty interests of daily life, so that our consciousness becomes comfortable with non-material pursuits. Meditation also serves to bring harmony to the emotional and mental bodies, as well as to awaken higher states of consciousness that are, at first, inaccessible in the midst of the busyness of life.
The second aspect of meditation is, again, our daily life. The state of focus and awareness that we begin to cultivate during our sitting meditation has to be gradually extended to our life, so that the whole living becomes a form of meditation. By means of this endeavor, the insights and states of silence and harmony that may be attained in meditation can have a bearing throughout our day.
3) Service, as we have seen, is the ultimate motivation for a theosophist’s efforts to awaken the theos-sophia, or divine wisdom, in him. In addition to this, service is also an essential means to tread this path. Study and meditation may become self-centered. A person may be very serious in practicing these disciplines because he or she wants to attain personal liberation from suffering.
According to the theosophical view, however, a person can go only so far if his motivation is self-centered. The very fact that he is striving for his own sake reinforces the mistaken idea that he is separate from the rest. This will obviously prevent him from attaining a state of union with the Ultimate. By making service a part of our lives, we will gradually transcend self-centeredness and begin to live a life where our actions are guided by the greater good.
Service constitutes any action or thought that is done for the welfare of others. It is not limited to feeding the hungry or helping the homeless. These activities are good and useful but, in addition to this, a theosophist should aspire to nurture more than the body. An important field of service is to nourish the mind and souls of people by helping them to better understand life and themselves. The study of theosophical teachings and the effort to live them are very important foundations for spiritual service. Only by acquiring knowledge and developing wisdom can we “point out the way — however dimly and lost among the host” (7) we may be.
4) Finally, “self-transformation” is the endeavor to purify and train the lower vehicles of consciousness while we face the challenges of living, as well as the effort to put into practice the insights that we gain in our study and meditation. It is only then that we begin to use daily life as our training ground.
The Occult Path
The work described so far must be done by the aspirant’s own devices, so that he becomes an individual able to stand on his own feet. Even though the Theosophical Society was founded to guide him in this endeavor, Life is the great guru in this part of the journey. But once he has attained a level of growth that qualifies him for a further step, and as long as his work is being done for the welfare of humanity, he will enter the occult path under the guidance of one of the Masters of the Wisdom.
This path has been described in theosophical literature in books such as The Masters and the Path by C. W. Leadbeater, The Path of Discipleship by Annie Besant, and others. An elaboration of the qualifications necessary to become a disciple of the Masters can be found in At the Feet of the Master by J. Krishnamurti, which constitutes a good example of the high ideal put before the aspirant that begins to practice the yoga of Theosophy. This path, however, should not be consciously sought out. It will inevitably present itself to the soul that is ready for it — in this or in a future life. On this path the efforts demanded will be greater, the challenges faced harder, the commitment needed deeper: because he will enter this path as an upright human being and exit it as a savior of humanity. And this cosmic transformation is no easy matter.
What has been described here is only the backbone of the yoga of Theosophy. the backbone of the yoga of Theosophy. The actual practices can be found all over the theosophical literature. If Theosophy is to become a positive influence for the spiritual growth of humanity, it is necessary that at least the more serious members of the Theosophical Society make definite efforts to live the theosophical teachings — to the extent that they can at the present moment. This alone produces the alchemical transmutation of knowledge into wisdom. Then, they will have something more powerful than words to share. Then, they will become factors of transformation.
- H. P. Blavatsky Collected Writings, vol. 11, pp. 104–105.
- Mabel Collins, Light on the Path, Part 1, Rules 17, 20.
- H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, vol. 1, p. 15.
- Ditto, p. 274.
- Annie Besant, In the Outer Court, lecture 1.
- H. P. Blavatsky Collected Writings, vol. 8, p. 129.
- H. P. Blavatsky, The Voice of the Silence, Fragment 2, verse 156.
This article was also published in The Theosophist, VOL. 142 NO. 2 NOVEMBER 2020
The Theosophist is the official organ of the President, founded by H. P. Blavatsky on 1 Oct. 1879.
To read the NOVEMBER 2020 issue, click HERE