God as a circle

From a student

[The magazine Vidya , edited by associates of the United Lodge of Theosophists in Santa Barbara, USA, published the following article in its autumn 2015 issue; here slightly revised version.]

Theosophy God as a circle 2
“Symbols of divine truth were not created for the amusement of the ignorant; they are the alpha and omega of philosophic thought.”

H. P. Blavatsky (CW, Volume IX, p. 266)

In what sense can we speak of an image of God? Theosophical teachings are very clear on this point. To describe and formulate, even to name, is to put limits on the limitless, to ascribe attributes to the attribute-less. How can that which is Omnipresent, Eternal, Boundless and Infinite be given an image, a form, a name? To finite consciousness, we are told, the highest Deity-the Absolute-is the negation of thought. In Genesis it is most aptly described as “the Darkness on the face of the Deep,” in Mahayana Buddhism it is sunyata, “the Void” or Nothingness, in the Tao Te Ching, it is “the Tao which has no name.”

 Look, you cannot see It, It is Formless.

Listen, you cannot hear It, It is Soundless.

Grasp, you cannot touch It, It is Non-Being.

These three are indiscernible

And therefore are merged into One.

Tao Te Ching, XIV

However, in the PROEM of The Secret Doctrine, the reader is presented with the image of the circle, an immaculate white disk on a dull black ground which is described as the archaic symbol for “Kosmos in Eternity ... The one circle is divine Unity, from which all proceeds, whither all returns. Its circumference – a forcibly limited symbol, in view of the limitation of the human mind-indicates the abstract, ever incognisable PRESENCE, and its plane, the Universal Soul, although the two are one.”

What might be the significance of representing the infinite and boundless by the planar image of the circle? In Euclid, a surface is that which has length and breadth only; but a surface without thickness is infinitely thin-without a third dimension. In what sense is a surface infinitely thin akin to a surface infinitely large? Alternatively, we could conceive of a boundless sphere as an infinite number of boundless planes and circumferences. In both cases, the idea of circumference is “forcibly” limited, for how would one convey the idea of a circle without the continuously uniform curvature of its outer boundary? Without the boundary there is no shape, yet in the highest, abstract conception of Unity, there can be no edge, no perimeter or limit.

God is a circle whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere.

An unbounded plane is shorn of center or edge, left or right, near or far, higher or lower, radius or quadrant. There is no distance or location, no outside and inside, no here or there. Anyplace is everyplace, indistinguishable from the highest place, suggesting omnipresence and simultaneity. It is whole and complete both in regards to space and to time. If it is truly limitless, one cannot say there was a time when it was not, nor a future in which it will not be. Past, present and future are merged in the timeless. Here, we are told, the Universal Soul resides as the heart and essence of all. It is within every point of visible and invisible space, within every being and all of life and yet unites and transcends them all. The boundless circle embraces both being and non-being, Saguna and Nirguna. Void and fullness are conjoined. It is an infinite potentiality by and through which an endless series of universes can be born and sustained. As Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, he “establishes this whole universe with a single portion of himself and yet remains separate.” In what way does this creativity when taken together also suggest the idea of eternal Motion?

It is the ONE LIFE, eternal, invisible, yet Omnipresent, without beginning or end, yet periodical in its regular manifestations, between which periods reigns the dark mystery of non-Being; unconscious, yet absolute Consciousness; unrealizable, yet the one self-existing reality; truly, “a chaos to the sense, a Kosmos to the reason.” Its one absolute attribute, which is ITSELF, eternal, ceaseless Motion, is called in esoteric parlance the “Great Breath,” which is the perpetual motion of the universe, in the sense of limitless, eve – present SPACE. That which is motionless cannot be Divine. But then there is nothing in fact and reality absolutely motionless within the universal soul.”

The Secret Doctrine, i 2

Because the Absolute Deity is without limitation or attributes of any kind, it cannot be said to create or to act in any way. The transcendent and nameless, eternal Spirit, our highest conception of God or the Self, must not be confused with the “Word” or Logos that arises within it. Brahma, the male creative god of the Hindu pantheon, must be distinguished from Brahman, the supreme, sexless, impersonal Principle which is unborn, beginningless and endless. The process by which the former arises within the latter is best described as 'emanation' or “radiation”, but these are also merely words referring to mysteries of divine generation and creativity that transcend speech. Although the fragments of ancient cosmogonies available to us provide suggestive clues, these only point to living realities, perceived by the vision of the highest initiates. No human language could properly explain them to the imperfect intelligence of our age. At the same time, they are the inheritance of all humanity and alive within every human heart. Those who are ready to go beyond the limited anthropomorphic imagery that can cloud and emasculate the search for, and understanding of, the divine, are given abstract metaphors as guidance. Those who wish to begin approaching the ever deepening mysteries of cosmogenesis and anthropogenesis will likely find a rich and fruitful study in the Stanzas of Dzyan and the commentaries provided by H. P. Blavatsky. The concept of the circle is the key. After the “seven eternities” of rest, when the time for manifestation arrives, we are told, a central point arises within the boundless circumference.


Stanzas of Dzyan, III, 3

The “solitary ray” is the Pythagorean Monad, the gestating seed or germ of all to come. Yet it is also called the “unmanifest Logos” for duality has not yet “supervened.” The egg, like the circle is found in every world theogony “an emblem of eternity, infinitude, regeneration, and rejuvenation, as well as of wisdom.” However, the pre-dawn, homogeneous light (daiviprakriti) of manifestation does not emerge until the horizontal line unfolds from the central point, representing Cosmic Substance or mulaprakriti, the formless spiritual essence of all that becomes substance and form on every plane.

With the ancient wise, there was no name, and no idea, and no symbol, of a First Cause. With the Hebrews, the indirect conception of such was couched in a term of negation of comprehension-viz., Ain­Soph, or the Without Bounds. But the symbol of its first comprehensible manifestation, was the conception of a circle with its diameter line ... for the one takes its birth from the nought or the Circle, without which it could not be, and from one, or primal one, spring the nine digits, and, geometrically, all plane shapes. So in the Kabala this Circle, with its diameter line, is the picture of the ten Sephiroth or Emanations, composing the Adam Kadmon, the Archetypal Man, the creative origin of all things.”

The Secret Doctrine, i 391

The first duality, the horizontal diameter within the circle, the zero and the one, denotes the first flutter of manifestation as well as the number ten, the Pythagorean decad and symbol of the whole of manifestation. The end is in the beginning. The first vibration holds the meaning of the entire cycle. As Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, the whole of nature is part of one great universal sacrifice. United with the horizontal line at the nexus or central point emerges the vertical line, corresponding to Cosmic Ideation or Divine Thought, unfolding the first dimensionless cross, the sacrificial descent of spirit into matter.

Tao gives birth to One;

One gives birth to Two;

Two gives birth to Three.

Three gives birth to Ten Thousand Things.

The Ten Thousand Things uphold yin and embrace yang.

They harmonise through blending these vital breaths.

Tao Te Ching, XLII

The divine primordial Trinity found in many traditions gives light and birth to all. The sacred cross divides the circle into four quadrants, the essence and nodal points of all cyclic turning and sets the great wheel in motion: the four yugas, the four points of the compass, the four periods of the solar year, the four stages of human life, and the four quarters of each day. In this way we are given abstract geometrical and numerical concepts to begin contemplating the first, formless primordial emanations and the manner in which the unmanifest eternal and boundless Circle radiates the manifested periodical circle of ordered existence and movement. Deity geometrises. Number arises within no-number.

... The more spiritually-minded nations had made of the cross (as 3, 4 = 7), their most sacred divine symbol. In fact, Circle, Cross, and Seven - the latter being made a base of circular measurement- are the first primordial symbols. Pythagoras, who brought his wisdom from India, left to posterity a glimpse into this truth. His school regarded number 7 as a compound of numbers 3 and 4, which they explained in a dual manner. On the plane of the noumenal world, the triangle was, as the first conception of the manifested Deity, its image: “Father-Mother-Son“; and the Quaternary, the perfect number, was the noumenal, ideal root of all numbers and things on the physical plane.”

The Secret Doctrine, ii 582

Whether thought of as the zero in relation to the primary numbers, the circle in relation to center, horizontal and vertical, or the one white light, which, emerging from the darkness of Chaos, passes through a triadic prism to become the seven colours of the visible spectrum. This logoic center is also referred to in The Secret Doctrine as the Dhyan Chohanic host, the “Mind-Born sons of the first Lord” and the “Army of the Voice.” They are described as a “conscious center” of spiritual Energy and Ideation, which set “in motion the law of Cosmic Evolution.” They are also perfected beings from former periods of evolution prepared to serve in the new manvantaric cycle as the source and summary of an almost "endless series of hierarchies ... animating the invisible architecture of nature" while at the same time aiding and guiding the evolution of every being on every plane. Though the primordial form of every living thing “from atom to globe, from man to angel” is sphereoidal, each is also a seven-fold microcosmic reflection of the macrocosmic manifesting logos. Each and every man, woman and child is a God on earth, the “Word made flesh,” however ignorant we may be of this truth.

It is not difficult to see why then, the circle is a universal symbol found in the fundamental symbology of religious and spiritual traditions throughout the globe. In Zoroastrianism, the first circle is the “Circle of Infinite Deity,” a circle of perfect wisdom that only comes into wholeness through a process of cosmic powers emanating from each other. When that process is complete the first gives birth to a circle of boundless duration which in turn gives birth to manifested time-the conditioned world in which we live. Taoism calls attention to a circle in which the forces of seeming duality, yin and yang, are unified. Within the whole, there is a dynamic interplay, interdependence, perfect balance and ceaseless movement weaving together the contrary forces of light and dark, being and non-being, ideation and substance, male and female. In contrast, the Zen Buddhists use the empty circle as a symbol of enlightenment, the mind both perfectly serene and self-illuminated. In the iconography of Hinduism, the fiery circle surrounding the Shiva Nataraja, carries meanings that seem to fuse the idea of a flowing, rhythmic motion with the highest spiritual wakefulness, transcendent unity and cosmic law.

In traditions of sacred architecture, such ideas are represented by the dome. In many great Christian cathedrals the dome rises skyward at the heart of the floor plan, where cruciform extensions meet, invoking the heavenly realm of God – a breath-taking image of divine order and divine beneficence. The great Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom”) in Istanbul, later turned into an Islamic mosque, was the largest Byzantine cathedral for over 1,000 years, famous for its massive dome perforated by 40 arched windows. Besides the mystic character of interior light thus created, Islamic genius also devised the use of triangular pendentives to gracefully translate the enormous circular base of the dome into the square plan, thus echoing the archetypal rhythm of circle, three and four. Approximately six centuries earlier, Ashoka commissioned the Great Stupa at Sanchi to honour the buried relics of Gautama Buddha. Here the predominant feature of the architecture is also the dome though it cannot be entered; only circumambulated. Nonetheless, like the circle, it evokes the idea of omniscient wisdom, where knower, known and knowledge are united. At the same time, the serene arching hemisphere is a fitting expression of that limitless, divine compassion which the Buddha embodied – extending uniformly in all directions, embracing all, excluding none.

Close your eyes, and from your own consciousness of perception try and think outward to the extremest limits in every direction. You will find that equal lines or rays of perception extend out evenly in all directions, so that the utmost effort of perception will terminate in the vault of asphere. The limitation of this sphere will, of necessity, be a great Circle, and the direct rays of thought in any and every direction must be right line radii of the circle. This, then, must be, humanly speaking, the extremest all-embracing conception of the AinSophmanifest, which formulates itself as a geometrical figure, viz., of a circle, with its elements of curved circumference and right line diameter divided into radii. Hence, a geometrical shape is the first recognisable means of connection between the AinSoph and the intelligence of man.”

The Secret Doctrine, i 429

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