John Algeo – USA
Having metaphorically passed through the three Halls to the Vale of Bliss in verses 17 to 40, we now encounter a different symbol, one central to this first fragment from the Book of the Golden Precepts, namely, sound.
A. VERSES [41-50]. The next ten verses are concerned primarily with a metaphor of seven sounds, which are presented as the rungs of a ladder:
 Before thou sett’st thy foot upon the ladder’s upper rung, the ladder of the mystic sounds, thou hast to hear the voice of thy inner God [the Higher Self] in seven manners.
 The first is like the nightingale’s sweet voice chanting a song of parting to its mate.
 The second comes as the sound of a silver cymbal of the Dhyanis, awakening the twinkling stars.
 The next is as the plaint melodious of the ocean-sprite imprisoned in its shell.
 And this is followed by the chant of Vina.26
 The fifth, like sound of bamboo-flute, shrills in thine ear.
 It changes next into a trumpet-blast.
 The last vibrates like the dull rumbling of a thunder-cloud.
 The seventh swallows all the other sounds. They die, and then are heard no more.
 When the six 27 are slain and at the Master's feet are laid, then is the pupil merged into the ONE,28 becomes that ONE and lives therein.
B. COMMENT. Verse 41 begins by mentioning a ladder as a metaphor for the spiritual life. That mention echoes Jacob’s ladder: “And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it” [Genesis 28.12].
Jacob’s ladder was a popular image in the European Middle Ages, Renaissance, and later. The Kabbalistic Tree of Life, especially as it exists in all four worlds of human experience, is compared to Jacob’s ladder. A 1677 alchemical book called Mutus Liber, that is, “The Mute Book” because it was pictures with no words, shows Jacob’s ladder with angels who are blowing trumpets to wake up Jacob — thus connecting the ladder with sound, as also in this verse from The Voice. And about 1800, William Blake made a color engraving showing the ladder as a winding staircase stretching from the sleeping Jacob to the glorious heights of heaven.
The ladder and the staircase (as in “The Golden Stairs”) are similar metaphors. Both metaphors suggest rising from earth to heaven by stages, and both allow for two-way traffic: we ascend toward heaven, but the angels descend to us. They come from heaven as “messengers” (which is what the Greek word angelos meant). The seven-runged ladder is a frequent symbol in Freemasonry, for example, in the tracing board of the first Degree.
This ladder in The Voice, however, is that “of the mystic sounds.” We have to hear the voice of our “inner GOD” in seven manners. The seven rungs or seven sounds represent seven stages on the pilgrimage to one goal. They are also analogous to the seven principles, and so also to all the sets of seven that the Wisdom Tradition sets forth: planes, chakras, and so on.
In a footnote, HPB identifies the “inner God” as “The Higher Self.” She uses the latter term to refer to the atma or spark of the divine spirit in us — not, as the term is sometimes used in later Theosophical writings, for the individuality or reincarnating self. The inner divinity of the spark speaks to us in divers manners, according to our focus of consciousness, and those manners are symbolized by the seven sounds of the next seven verses.
The sound in verse 42 is the song of the nightingale (whose name means “night-singer”). That bird is associated with night, death, separation, and loss. It is thus a fitting symbol for the physical world and the dense body, the “grave” of the spirit. The nightingale is singing about parting or separation from its mate, so the verse suggests the impermanence of the physical world and its separation from spiritual consciousness. However beautiful the physical world may be, it is transitory. In “Sailing to Byzantium,” the Theosophical poet William Butler Yeats writes of a golden bird that sings of “what is past, or passing, or to come,” linking the beauty of this world with its impermanence.
The sound in verse 43 is that of a silver cymbal. Silver is associated with the moon (as is also the shape of a cymbal). The moon is associated with the linga sharira or model body, the second principle. The Dhyanis are the cosmic “meditators” (Sanskrit dhyana means “meditation”); they provide a model form for the creation by meditating. “Awakening the twinkling stars” suggests the first awakening of the monads, the Pilgrims of Eternity or divine sparks, from their death-like sleep in the physical, to begin the pilgrimage of enlightenment.
In verse 44 the sound is that of an ocean shell. One of the important musical instruments in Indian, Greek, and other cultures is the conch shell, which can be blown into in order to produce a sound that is melodious but ghostly, a “plaint.” As this sound is produced by air circulated through the whirls of the shell, it is like the vital energy or prana, which circulates through the shell of the body. The vital energy is thus imprisoned in our body, as is the spark in its various bodies or shells. In his poem “The Chambered Nautilus,” Oliver Wendell Holmes uses the image of a conch shell to symbolize the form that holds life, but that life outgrows.
Verse 45 introduces the vina, which is described in gloss 26: “The Vina is an Indian stringed instrument like a lute.” As The New Oxford Dictionary points out, the musical instrument called a vina or veena has several different varieties, all with seven strings (four main and three auxiliary); and so it can be seen as a symbol of human beings with our seven principles. Its four main strings connect the vina with the fourth principle of kama or desire. Even in English we talk about “plucking the heart strings,” so the association of a stringed instrument like the vina with the emotions is universal. The south Indian type of vina is like a lute; but the north Indian type has two gourds attached as sounding chambers, one at each end, just as we have both matter and spirit as the two aspects of our expression.
According to tradition, the vina was invented by a rishi or sage named Narada. The Theosophical Glossary says of him: “Esoterically Narada is the Ruler of events during various Karmic cycles, and the personification, in a certain sense, of the great human cycle; a Dhyan Chohan.” It is therefore appropriate that he should have invented the vina, the human instrument that produces sound. Also, the vina symbolizes humanity collectively. In verse 226 of the third fragment of The Voice, entitled “The Seven Portals,” the vina is referred to again: “Disciples may be likened to the strings of the soul-echoing vina; mankind, unto its sounding board; the hand that sweeps it to the tuneful breath of the great WORLD-SOUL.
Also the “chant of Vina” is the fourth or midmost of the seven sounds, which position connects it with the fourth or heart chakra. Its music is called a “chant” perhaps because chant is associated with sacred rather than secular music. The “chant of Vina” is the Song of Life within our hearts, a precursor to the Voice of the Silence.
The bamboo flute of verse 46 is a symbol of the mind or manas, the fifth principle. Krishna (the embodiment of the divine spirit in us) is a flute player, just as the monad “plays upon” or is expressed through the manas or mind. The ear is the entrance to the head, the bodily correspondence of the mind. And the sound of the flute is said to be shrill, like the intellect, which is also symbolized by a sword that cuts or divides reality. The bamboo plant is very frequent in Chinese and Japanese art. Its hollow core represents the empty mind of meditation. Its jointed stalk represents the steps on the path to enlightenment.
Verse 47 has a considerable change in volume; its sound is the trumpet blast, which awakens all who hear it. It is like the trumpet of the archangel on Doomsday, calling the dead from their graves. It is thus an appropriate symbol for the buddhi, which is the principle that awakens us from the sleep or death of earthly life to spiritual reality. Buddha is the one who is “awakened,” and so buddhi (the trumpet blast) is that which awakens and enlightens us. The angels on Jacob’s ladder in the Mutus Liber, cited earlier, are blowing trumpets to awaken the sleeper.
Verse 48 brings us to the seventh sound: thunder. The thunder, which is a “dull rumbling” that may be below the threshold of human hearing, is also the Voice of the Silence, as we learn in verse 49. It subsumes all the other sounds. To “die” or be “slain” (as in verse 50) is a symbol of being transformed or transmuted. We must die to the old to be reborn as the new. Shiva, the third person of the Hindu trinity, is the god of both death and rebirth, that is, of transformation.
Verse 50 tells us that the goal of the ladder of the mystic sounds is to bring us to unity with the highest within us. That is made explicit in the two glosses to that verse: gloss 27, “The six principles; meaning when the lower personality is destroyed and the inner individuality is merged into and lost in the seventh or Spirit,” and gloss 28, “The disciple is one with Brahman or the Atman.”
The sound of the thunder is a traditional and powerful symbol of how our “inner GOD” communicates with us. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad tells a story to which T. S. Eliot alludes in his poem The Waste Land, whose fifth and final section is called “What the Thunder Said.” The story is about the Lord of all creation, Prajapati, who had three sorts of children: gods, humans, and demons. All three studied with their Father and asked for his teaching.
First, the gods asked, and the Father spoke to them in the voice of the thunder: “Da!” and then asked, “Did you understand?” The gods replied, “Yes, you said to us ‘Damyata, control yourself’.” And the Father confirmed, “Indeed, you have understood.” For the gods are impetuous and need to restrain themselves.
Next, the humans asked for his teaching, and the Father spoke to them in the voice of the thunder: “Da!” and then asked, “Did you understand?” The humans replied, “Yes, you said to us ‘Datta, give’.” And the Father confirmed, “Indeed, you have understood.” For humans are selfish and need to share.
Finally, the demons asked for his teaching, and the Father spoke to them in the voice of the thunder: “Da!” and then asked, “Did you understand?” The demons replied, “Yes, you said to us ‘Dayadhavam, sympathize’.” And the Father confirmed, “Indeed, you have understood.” For demons are violent and need to become compassionate.
The thunder, which is the Voice of the Silence, says one thing to all of us, but each of us hears the truth that we need. There is one Ancient Wisdom, but each of us understands it in a way that is appropriate to us. It unifies all the diverse sounds of the ladder into one, and those who hear it become one with the Ground of Being and thus one with all others.
C. MEDITATION. One form of meditation is creative visualization, in which you bring up images in your imagination and then concentrate on them. Try a variation on that — creative audition. Imagine, one by one, the seven sounds described in verses 42-49. Start with the sound of a nightingale’s song, and let it blend into the gentle sound of a cymbal, then into those of a sea shell, a lute, a flute, a trumpet, and a distant rumbling thunder. Finally let the voice of the thunder become faint and disappear from hearing. What is each saying? When all are swallowed up in the seventh, what is left? If you have trouble concentrating on the sound alone, visualize the objects that produce the sounds, or visualize a ladder, at each of whose rungs a different sound is heard.
A. VERSES [51-58]. Following the ten verses on the ladder of the mystic sounds, the following verses take up the theme of dying, being slain, or merging; and they explore that theme from a variety of standpoints. It is important to keep in mind that the language is metaphorical and to look for the meaning beneath the symbol.
 Before that path is entered, thou must destroy thy lunar body, 29 cleanse thy mind-body 30 and make clean thy heart.
 Eternal life’s pure waters, clear and crystal, with the monsoon tempest’s muddy torrents cannot mingle.
 Heaven’s dew-drop glittering in the morn’s first sunbeam within the bosom of the lotus, when dropped on earth becomes a piece of clay; behold, the pearl is now a speck of mire.
 Strive with thy thoughts unclean before they overpower thee. Use them as they will thee, for if thou sparest them and they take root and grow, know well, these thoughts will overpower and kill thee. Beware, disciple, suffer not, e’en though it be their shadow, to approach. For it will grow, increase in size and power, and then this thing of darkness will absorb thy being before thou hast well realized the black foul monster’s presence.
 Before the mystic Power31 [Kundalini, the ‘Serpent Power’ or mystic fire] can make of thee a god, lanoo, thou must have gained the faculty to slay thy lunar form at will.
 The self of matter and the Self of Spirit can never meet. One of the twain must disappear; there is no place for both.
 Ere thy Soul’s mind can understand, the bud of personality must be crushed out, the worm of sense destroyed past resurrection.
 Thou canst not travel on the Path before thou hast become that Path itself. 32
The “lunar body” of verse 51 is reminiscent of the silver cymbal of verse 43, which also had lunar associations, each representing one of the seven human principles. Gloss 29 to this verse introduces an interesting link between those principles, involving some terminological confusion between early and later Theosophical literature. It says that the “lunar body” is “The astral form produced by the Kamic principle, the kama-rupa or body of desire.”
Blavatsky generally used “astral” to refer to the linga sharira or what was later called the etheric double. However, she also used the term more generally and sometimes indefinitely to refer to the ethereal or less dense vehicles of consciousness. Here she uses it specifically for the emotional body, a usage adopted by second generation and later Theosophists. There is also, however, a link between all the lower principles, from the physical body through the lower mind, which collectively form the personality. As a whole, they contrast with the mind-body, also called the causal body, which is the individual reincarnating entity, as in gloss 30: “Manasa-rupa. The first [lunar body] refers to the astral or personal self; the second [mind-body] to the individuality or the reincarnating Ego whose consciousness on our plane or the lower manas has to be paralysed.
The mind, properly speaking, is the reincarnating individuality. Its reflection in the personality is lower manas, which is not a separate principle, but manas operating through the brain. This verse and the glosses to it identify the three principal elements in our being: the transitory personality (lunar body), the enduring individuality (mind body), and the intuitional perception (heart), which we are to “make clean.” They are the vehicles through which the Higher Self (atma) functions in us.
All of the images in these verses — destroying the lunar body, keeping clear of the “monsoon tempest’s muddy torrents,” the pearl becoming “a speck of,” being absorbed by a “black foul monster’s presence,” crushing “the bud of personality,” destroying “the worm of sense” — all are metaphors for the same thing. They are different ways of saying that we must identify, not with the personality, but with the individuality and ultimately with the One Self, the divine spark within us. As long as we are on this plane, we must have a personality — it is the way we function here. Even the great teachers in our tradition, such as the Masters K.H. and M., have distinct personalities. We cannot be without a personality.
The real issue is whether we identify with that personality and think of ourselves as it. If we do, we have succumbed to all the dreadful images of these verses. But if we do not identify with the necessary but merely auxiliary personality, we can rise above it. If we do not wish to be entrapped by this plane, we must not suppose that the vehicle we use to function on it is the real “I.” The real “I” is altogether different from the physical personality. We must decide which we recognize as ourselves.
Verse 55 tells us that once we have “gained the faculty to slay thy lunar form at will” (that is, to transfer our sense of identity, of who we are, from the personality to the individuality), then the “mystic Power” can make a god of us (that is, we can take the next step, which is realizing that even the individuality is not “us” but that we are in fact the divine Self, and thus “a god”). That “mystic Power” is identified in a footnote: “Kundalini, the ‘Serpent Power’ or mystic fire” and in gloss 31: “Kundalini is called the ‘serpentine’ or the annular power on account of its spiral-like working or progress in the body of the ascetic developing the power in himself. It is an electric fiery occult or Fohatic power, the great pristine force which underlies all organic and inorganic matter.” Annular means “ring-like” or “circular” (from a Latin word referring to a finger ring) and is applied to kundalini because of its circulation through the body and the cosmos.
Earlier (in gloss 24 to verse 38) we were told that kundalini is buddhi considered as an active principle. Here it is connected with fohat. This suggests that buddhi and fohat are, if not the same, at least aspects of the same thing. In some forms of Western esotericism, God has a feminine aspect, Sophia or Wisdom, through which he creates the world. In Hinduism, the Shaivite school says that the divine Shiva has a female Shakti or power through which he creates. Those seem to be allegorical ways of talking about the relationship between atma and buddhi, the latter being also the principle of wisdom and, in its active kundalini aspect, one of creative power.
Verse 56 asserts that the “self of matter” and the “Self of Spirit” can never meet; one of the two must disappear. That is the same thing that the Master Christ taught when he said, “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other” (Matt 6.24). The two masters we must choose between are our personal self and our Higher Self. We must identify with either the mortal personality or the divine Self within us — we have to choose.
Hermann Hesse’s novella, Journey to the East (in German, Morgenlandfahrt, literally “journey to the land of morning”) ends with an image expressing the same idea. The narrator in the story has been on a quest, in the company of a band of seekers traveling to the East, guided by a mysterious, wise figure named Leo. They arrive in a great hall where the narrator is told records are kept of everything about each of the travelers (the akashic records, although they are not called that in the story), and he is shown the place where his records are to be found. He goes and consults them, to find that the only object in the drawer where his records should be is a curious, transparent glass double-figure, with a fluid circulating inside it, like a serpent. The fluid is flowing from one of the two joined figures to the other. The figure from which it flows is an image of the narrator, and that image is withering away as the fluid leaves it. The side to which the fluid moves is growing stronger and greater, and it is an image of the guide Leo. There the story ends. It is an ending that must puzzle many readers, but viewed Theosophically and in the light of The Voice of the Silence, its meaning is clear. The narrator is the personality, with which we habitually identify. Leo is the greater Self, the leader, our individuality, the lion or king of beasts, astrologically ruled by the sun (as the personality is represented by the moon). The serpentine, circulating (annular) fluid is kundalini, which is taking the life energy from the personality to the individuality. If we identify with the lunar personality, we will fade away. But if we realize our true identity, we will be the immortal sun of the individuality, radiating the light of the Higher Self.
Verse 58 (Thou canst not travel on the Path before thou hast become that Path itself) and gloss 32 on it resolve one of the paradoxes of the Theosophical tradition. The gloss says, “This Path is mentioned in all the mystic works. As Krishna says in the Jnaneshvari: ‘When this Path is beheld . . . whether one sets out to the bloom of the east or to the chambers of the west, without moving, O holder of the bow, is the traveling in this road. In this path, to whatever place one would go, that place one’s own self becomes.’ ‘Thou art the Path’ is said to the adept guru and by the latter to the disciple, after initiation. ‘I am the way and the Path’ says another MASTER.”
On the one hand, we are told “There is a road,” there is “Light on the Path. On the other hand, it has been said that “Truth is a pathless land.” How can there both be a path, and yet truth be pathless? This verse and its gloss is the key to unlock that paradox. The Path exists, but it does not exist apart from us who walk it. We are the path. If we think of it as something existing apart from us, we will misunderstand it. If we think that it has no existence, we will also misunderstand.
William Butler Yeats talked about this same paradox under a different metaphor, when at the end of his poem “Among School Children,” he asks rhetorically, “Oh body swayed to music, oh brightening glance, how can we know the dancer from the dance?” There is no dancer without a dance, nor is there any dance without someone who dances it. There is no path apart from the one who walks it, and by walking the path, we make it. We are the path.
The same idea is expressed by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, when in the last chapter of that work (18.66) he tells Arjuna, who has been struggling to know what his dharma is and what he should do: “Abandoning all dharmas, come unto Me alone for shelter.” Our dharma is our duty; it is also the teaching we follow; it is also our own inmost nature; it is who we truly are. Krishna tells Arjuna not to be concerned about any dharma outside of himself, but instead to realize who he really is. Arjuna is Krishna, just as the narrator in Hesse’s Journey to the East is Leo, and just as we are the divine Higher Self within ourselves.
C. MEDITATION. Think about who you are. How do you define yourself? In relation to other people? In relation to things you do to earn a living or amuse yourself? In terms of your sensations, emotions, thoughts? In terms of how you feel about yourself? Is there perhaps another you quite apart from all those? Try to get in touch with that other you. Try in stillness.