Theosophy and Its Evidences, Part I

Annie Besant

Annie Besant LoC

Annie Besant

No more difficult work could be proposed, perhaps, to anybody of people, than the understanding of Theosophy and the effectual carrying on of its propaganda. Its philosophy is more abstruse than that of Hegel, while it is also far more subtle. Many of its evidences require so much study and self-denial ere they can be estimated that they will certainly remain hidden from the majority; not because they are in themselves incomprehensible, but because average, easy-going people have not the capacity of working them out.

The ethical teachings rest finally on the philosophy, and those who cannot, or will not, study the philosophy are reduced to accepting the ethics by themselves. These can, indeed, be shown to be useful, by that most potent of all arguments, the argument from experience; for they are most effective in promoting morality, i.e., in inducing social happiness. On this utilitarian ground, they can be taught, and can there hold their ground against any rivals in the same field. There they can use the conditional, but not the categorical, Imperative: the categorical remains veiled; the ultimate authority can be found only on the metaphysical heights, and those heights can be scaled but by the strenuous efforts of the patient and undaunted student.

Each such student can bear his testimony to what he has seen and known, but to all, save himself, his evidence remains second-hand. Personally won, it remains a personal possession, priceless to him, but of varying value to those who hear it from him.

Not on such evidence can Theosophy base itself in its appeal to the cultivated intelligence of the West, intelligence trained in the skeptical habit, and cautiously guarding itself against unproven assumptions. Nor let it be forgotten that the West has, in its own eyes, this justification: that it has freed itself from the bondage of superstition, and has won its intellectual victories, by the wise use of skepticism and the prudent suspension of judgment until assertion has been demonstrated to be truth.

It is then necessary, if Theosophy is to make its way in the West, and to give to it the much-needed basis of the scientifically spiritual, that Theosophists should present to the indifferent, as to the enquirer, sufficient prima facie evidence that it has something valuable to impart, evidence that shall arouse the attention of the one class and attract the other into the investigation of its claims.

The evidence must be such as can be examined at first hand by any person of ordinary intelligence, and it need not seek to establish anything more than that Theosophy is worth studying. If the study be fairly begun and the student capable of mastering its initial difficulties, its acceptance is certain, though the period of that full acceptance will depend on the student's mental characteristics and the type of his intelligence. As Madame Blavatsky says:

Once that the reader has gained a clear comprehension of them [the basic conceptions on which the Secret Doctrine rests] and realized the light that they throw on every problem of life, they will need no further justification in his eyes, because their truth will be to him as evident as the sun in heaven.                                                                                         

                                                                                                                                                     The Secret Doctrine, I, page 20

In order, however, to begin this study, this prima facie evidence must be given, and these basic conceptions of Theosophy must be roughly outlined. Only when this is done can anyone decide whether it is worthwhile to enter on the study and the deeper evidences of Theosophy.

The value of this evidence is a point to be decided ere serious study is commenced. Often, in our Lodges, when the members are engaged in a consecutive course of study, a casual visitor, admitted by courtesy, will get up and suddenly ask, "What is the evidence on which Theosophy is based, and of what use is it." This is as though a passerby, dropping in and listening to a teacher instructing a mathematical class on the theory of equations, should suddenly challenge him to prove the use of numbers and the rationale of the algebraic signs.

In any science, save that of Theosophy, a person who expected a class of students to stop, while the reasons for their study were explained to a stranger who knew nothing of their subject, would be recognized as taking up a foolish and irrational position. In Theosophy, we are always expected to break off our work in order to prove that we are not fools for doing it. If we show any unwillingness to do this, it is at once taken for granted that our position is unsound, and that we are afraid of investigation.

We do not have time to justify ourselves to each successive visitor who may be led by curiosity to obtain from a member an introduction to our Lodge meetings. This paper is to present finally some of the evidences that have determined us to seek in Theosophy the light that we have failed to find elsewhere.

The word "Theosophy" sometimes leads people wrong at the outset. It gives the idea that the Wisdom-Religion as it is sometimes called postulates a personal, and therefore a limited deity. This is not the case.

Divine Wisdom, Theosophia, or wisdom of the Gods, as Theogonia, genealogy of the Gods. The word Theos means a God in the Greek, one of the divine beings, certainly not "God" in the sense attached in our day to the term. Therefore, it is not "Wisdom of God," as translated by some, BUT DIVINE WISDOM, such as that possessed by the Gods.                                                                                                            

                                                                                                                                              H.P. Blavatsky, The Key to Theosophy, page 1

The name is not ancient, dating only from the third century, used first by Ammonius Saccas and his school. But the teaching itself dates back many a thousand years, unchanged in its main features; taught today in England to truth-seeking students as it was taught when Buddha wandered over Indian plains, or earlier still, when ancient Rishis guided their chelas along the path that leads to Wisdom.

Theosophy regards the Universe as a transitory manifestation of Eternal Existence, the summer-day flower of an eternal unknown Root. That Root is the One Reality, the only Permanent among the myriad and fleeting phenomena that surround us on every hand, and among which we ourselves are numbered. From that, Unity proceeds all diversity; into that Unity all diversity again returns. It is manifested in the atom as in the man, in what is spoken of as the non-living as well as in the living.

[It], the infinite and eternal Cause -- dimly formulated in the "Unconscious" and "Unknowable" of current European philosophy -- is the rootless root of "all that was, is, or ever shall be."

                                                                                                                                                  The Secret Doctrine, I, page 14

Periodically the aspect of the Eternal Existence that we call Life radiates as source of the manifested Universe, the Universe being but "the variously differentiated aspects" of the One Life. Thus, to the Theosophist, the most differentiated forms are essentially one: "matter" and "spirit" are but the two poles of the one magnet, inseparable, not thinkable as existing apart from each other. To use clumsy phraseology, spirit is the One Life in its early manifestations, matter is the One Life solidified: the objective Universe "is, so to say, held in solution in space, to differentiate again and crystallize out anew" during a period of manifestation.

The "spirit" or "divine soul" in man is a spark of the One Life, undifferentiated from its parent Fire, and therefore alike for every human being. It is the fate of this "spark" to win self-consciousness by passing round the cycle of forms, and in man reaching and finally perfecting self-consciousness; the fully human stage once reached, all further progress is a matter of personal endeavor, of conscious cooperation with the spiritual forces in Nature.

The pivotal doctrine of the Esoteric Philosophy admits no privileges or special gifts in man, save those won by his own Ego through personal effort and merit throughout a long series of metempsychoses and reincarnations.

                                                                                                                                                     The Secret Doctrine, I, page 17

This "pilgrimage of the Ego" is the central idea, so to speak, of Theosophy: this gaining of self-consciousness is the very object and outcome of the Universe: for this it was manifested, for this it exists, groaning and travailing in pain to perfect and bring forth the self-conscious spirit.

This bald statement must suffice as to the teachings of Theosophy. This paper is not to expound Theosophical ideas, but rather to set forth some prima facie evidence that Theosophy is worthy attention. Let us then turn to the evidence, and ere dealing with it in detail, let us consider the general nature of the proof that may be fairly demanded of anyone who is willing to study Theosophy, if it can be shown to him that the study is likely to be fruitful.

Evidence must, speaking generally, be congruous with the position that it seeks to demonstrate. The aspect of the subject under consideration must govern the nature of the evidence to submit. Physical evidences must demonstrate problems of physical life. Intellectual evidences must demonstrate problems of intellectual life. If there is the spiritual life that Theosophy posits, spiritual evidences must demonstrate it.

Granted that the proof must be suited to the subject, save where the spiritual is concerned. To seek to prove to a blind man the existence of color by holding up colored objects before his unseeing eyes would be considered absurd. Any suggestion that there may be spiritual eyes that are blinded in some, and that the use of those spiritual eyes may be needed for the discernment of certain classes of verities, is scouted as superstitious or fraudulent.

Every psychologist recognizes the difference between the Objective and the Subjective World, and in studying the subjective, he knows that it is idle to demand objective proof. The methods suited to the extended world are not suitable to the unextended. A proof addressed wholly to the reason is nonetheless cogent because it has neither form nor color. In verity, to the trained intellect the purely intellectual proof, has a certainty higher than that of any which appeals to the senses because the senses are more easily to be deluded than the intellect, where the latter has been strictly trained and disciplined. Where the spiritual intelligence has been duly evolved and trained, it speaks with a certainty as much above that of the intellect, as the intellect speaks with a certainty above that of the senses. It judges the conclusions of the intellect as the intellect judges those of the senses, and utters the final word on every question presented for adjudication.

The "average man" is apt to regard a physical demonstration as the most convincing that can be given. It appeals to the senses. "I must believe the evidence of my senses" is a phrase that often drops from the lips of the slightly instructed person. One of the early lessons learn by the student of physiology is that the senses are very easily deceived and are subject to various illusions and hallucinations.

Some ingenious Americans gave an instructive illustration of this fact. They saw the famous "basket-trick" performed by a wandering Indian. One of American drew what he "saw," while the second photographed the various stages of the scene. The artist's drawing showed the well-known succession of startling events, the camera showed nothing. The senses had been led astray by "glamour," and their testimony was unreliable. Still, for demonstrating physical facts, physical experiments are the most satisfactory, and, with certain precautions, may be taken as trustworthy proofs.

Physical phenomena are not relevant as proofs of intellectual and spiritual truths. No physical "miracle" can demonstrate a moral maxim. The doctrine, "Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you," is neither more nor less true because Buddha and Jesus could, or could not, cure certain diseases by means not understood by their followers.

The demonstration of a problem in Euclid is in no way assisted by the teacher being able to levitate himself, or to draw across the table to his hand without contact a box of mathematical instruments. He might be able to perform these feats and yet make a blunder in the working out of his demonstration. He might be incapable of such performances, and yet be a competent mathematical teacher.

Mathematical and logical proofs need no physical phenomena to accredit them. They stand on their own ground, are tried by their appropriate tests. Many people cannot follow a mathematical proof. It is impertinent to dazzle them into acquiescence by the display of some irrelevant physical ability. If they cannot appreciate the force of the demonstration, they must either suspend their judgment on the conclusion, or accept it at second-hand, i.e., on authority. They will be foolish if they deny the conclusion because the evidence for it is beyond their grasp; but they are perfectly justified in withholding their belief where they cannot understand.

If some important line of action depends on their acceptance or rejection of the conclusion, then they must make their own choice between acting on authority and suspending action until able to understand. The responsibility is theirs, and the loss of non-action, if loss follows, is theirs. The propounder of the proposition may fairly say:

This is true. I cannot make the proof any easier for you than I have done. If you cannot see it, you only can decide whether you will act on my assurance of its truth. Such and such consequences will follow your rejection of the conclusion. I have neither the right nor the power to enforce on you action founded on that which I personally know to be true but that you do not understand.

In Theosophy, the student will often find himself in such a dilemma. He will be left free either to proceed, accepting the authoritative conclusion provisionally or fully as a guide to action, or to decline to proceed, until the steps as well as the conclusion lie plainly before him. He will never find himself driven; but if he always stops until he has personally demonstrated a conclusion, he will often find himself losing what he might have gained by fearless confidence in teachers often proven.

For after all, the student of Theosophy is only advised to follow the methods adopted by pupils in every other science. It is not the blind faith of the religionist in propositions that cannot be verified that is asked from the Theosophical student. It is the reasonable trust of a pupil in his master, the temporary acceptance of conclusions every one of which is to be demonstrated the moment the pupil's progress makes the demonstration intelligible.

The study carries the pupil into the physical, the intellectual, the spiritual worlds, and in each the appropriate tests and proofs will be forthcoming: as physical proofs are out of court in the intellectual world, so physical and intellectual proofs are not available in the spiritual. Here again, Theosophy demands nothing differing in kind from that which is freely granted to our logicians and mathematicians by the physicists. As the former are unable to grant to the latter experimental physical evidences, so the spiritual adept is unable to grant to the logician and the mathematician proofs couched in their special intellectual forms.

Not therefore is his science superstition, nor his knowledge folly. He stands in the realm of the Spiritual, as secure, nay even more secure, than they stand in the realms of the Reason and of the Material. He can justify himself to them in their own worlds, by showing in the Material that he knows more than the physicist of the powers latent in matter, and in the Rational by showing that he knows more than the intellectual giants as to the workings and capacities of the Reason. In his own sphere, he is judged of none. He answers but to his Conscience and his Destiny.

The words "Teachers," "Masters," and "Adepts" imply that Theosophy, like all other philosophies and sciences, has its authoritative exponents. These form a Brotherhood, consisting of men and women of various nations, who by patient study and purity of life have acquired exceptional, but wholly natural, powers and knowledge. The Hindus speak of them as Mahatmas, literally "Great Souls" -- great in their wisdom, great in their powers, and great in their self-sacrifice. They are the custodians of a body of doctrine, handed down from generation to generation, increased by the work of each.

Into this body of doctrine, this vast collection of cosmological and historical facts, no new statement is allowed entrance until verified by repeated investigations, reiterated experiments by different hands. This forms the "Secret Doctrine," the "Wisdom-Religion," and of this, from time to time, portions have been given out, and have been made the basis of the great philosophies, the great religions, of the world.

By these, we may essay to track our road through history, gaining, as we go, the evidence for the existence of this body of doctrine from ancient down to modern times. We will seek (a) evidence from history; (b) evidence from world-religions; then we will glance at (c) the evidence from experiment; and (d) the evidence from analogy. Thus may we hope to show that Theosophy is worthy the attention of the thoughtful, and so perform the duty placed in our hands.

[From LUCIFER, January 15, 1891, pages 362-67.]

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