Truth: The Limitless Horizon – part one

John Algeo – USA

[This article is a revision of two earlier publications: “Truth: The Limitless Horizon,” American Theosophist 72.11 (December 1984): 413-25; and “Theosophical Truth Is a Many-Splendoured Thing,” Theosophist 127.5 (February 2006): 167-74.]


The motto of the Theosophical Society should be well known to all its members. It is “There is no religion higher than Truth,” from the Sanskrit "Satyan nasti paro dharmah." The word “dharma” in that motto has as one of its several meanings “religion.” But the word “dharma” is what linguists call “polysemous,” that is, “having many meanings.” Semantically speaking, “dharma” is a complex, if not limitless, thing.

According to John Grimes’s Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy, “dharma” literally means “what holds together.” So, in a sense, the Theosophical motto might be paraphrased as saying that the things which hold us together—including our ideas about what is real and important—are not more important than Truth. Truth in Sanskrit is “satya,” meaning “that which is.” And it is not possible for anything to be higher or more important than what is. If “dharma” is a semantically complex word, Truth is an even more complex reality.

A recent book, Just Trust Me: Finding the Truth in a World of Spin, by G. Randy Kasten (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 2011) distinguishes various kinds of truth: relative, probable, potential, consensus, temporary, contextual, and implied. Without going into that much detail, we might recognize just three kinds: factual (based on documentary evidence), personal (based on an individual’s belief system), and absolute (which is the ultimate reality of the cosmos, or of things as they are, and which is only approximated by human understanding).

What, then, is the difference between particular facts that can be documented, the personal beliefs according to which we function in our daily lives, and the Truth of things as they actually are? The last is ineffable, that is, it cannot be put into language or fully grasped by the human mind, but only approximated. It, however, is the “satya” Truth referred to in the Society’s motto; and the “dharma” religion of the motto is not just conventional churchly religion, but any system of human thought that attempts to approximate “satya” Truth. The assumptions that people, individually or collectively, make about the world are incomplete and inadequate. Theosophy can lead us to a fuller and better understanding of the Truth about the world, but even it cannot embody that Truth fully.

For example, karma, reincarnation, evolution, and the unity of all beings are complex Theosophical teachings that none of us understand fully. But if we are alive to the concept of karma, we will act in quite different ways than we would otherwise. If we are alive to the concept of reincarnation, we will respond to death in a quite different way than otherwise. If we are alive to the concept of evolution, we will regard the failings of ourselves and others in a different light than otherwise. If we are alive to the concept of the unity of all life, we will treat other human beings and animals and all of nature with a respect that is quite different than otherwise. So even if we do not fully understand such teachings, they can significantly alter our lives for the better.

A more extended example of our ordinary incomplete and inadequate ideas is the widespread assumption in the West that everything we are and everything we do is the result of two factors, namely, heredity and environment or, as they are often called, nature and nurture. And if we can expand those ordinary, incomplete, and inadequate ideas into a more helpful understanding of who and what we are, we can know ourselves more fully, which is the only way we can approach the limitless horizon of absolute Truth.

By “heredity,” we ordinarily understand the genetic inheritance we get from our parents; and by “environment,” we understand the social milieu in which we grew up and in which we continue to live. Now, those two factors, which can be called respectively “genetic heredity” and “social environment,” are certainly important. But they do not explain everything. And this simple, dualistic view of our nature creates problems, as all dualistic views do.

The ordinary Western assumption sees us as a mechanical product of either our DNA or our conditioning by society. And people who hold such an assumption may argue furiously about which is more important: DNA or conditioning, nature or nurture, heredity or environment. But the assumption is simplistic because it overlooks other kinds of heredity and environment than genetic and social, and most important of all, because it overlooks another factor that is neither heredity nor environment, but something quite different, a tertium quid, a third something that does not fit into the dichotomy of our ordinary assumptions.


Before we consider the tertium quid, let us think about what Theosophical truth has to tell us about environment and heredity. Theosophy points to three kinds of environment, not just one, and to three kinds of heredity, not just one. And Theosophy suggests that if we pay attention to all these six kinds of environment and heredity—if we are alive to them and if a realization of them lives in us—our lives will be different. And then the world itself will be different. Our ideas—our thoughts about things—have enormous effects on how we live and thus, in turn, on what the world is like. As the Master KH put it, “thoughts are things—have tenacity, coherence, and life . . . they are real entities” (Mahatma Letter 18). And as Krishnamurti famously said, “You are the world.” So how we think about things will change both us and the world in which we live. The Greek historian Plutarch (A.D. 46-120) is reported by the Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling (in her Harvard Commencement Address) to have said, "What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality."

As to the kinds of environment: in addition to our social environment, which is created by the other people around us, we have a terrestrial environment. The very land on which we live, together with its flora and fauna, is an environment that affects us. To live in the mountains and to live on the seashore are quite different experiences and will affect us differently. C. W. Leadbeater wrote an article entitled “The Influence of Surroundings” (republished in the July 2005 Theosophist), in which he talks about the importance of our terrestrial environment.

Leadbeater begins, “Influence is perpetually radiated upon us by all objects of Nature, even by the very earth upon which we tread.” He identifies three factors of natural objects that affect us: (1) the “life” or nature of the physical object itself (such as mountains or sea), (2) “the kind of elemental essence appropriate to its astral counterpart,” by which he may be referring to the Ray or combination of Rays that form the inner side of the object, and (3) “the kind of nature-spirits which it attracts.” The earthly world all around us is teeming with life and energy. And that living energy which environs us cannot fail to exert an influence on us. That influence is what I am calling our “terrestrial environment.”

In addition, however, we are part of a cosmic order. We and the earth on which we live are affected by other forces in our solar system, galaxy, metagalaxy, and the cosmos as a whole. The English poet Francis Thompson wrote: “All things by immortal power, / Near or far, / Hiddenly / To each other linkèd are / That thou canst not stir a flower / Without troubling of a star.” And the reverse is also true: The troubling of a distant star may stir a flower on earth because of the hidden links connecting them. How those mysterious links work, we do not know. But the testimony of poets, mystics, and astrologers is that they exist.

The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung became a student of such links, in astrology and in other connections. He posited a meaningful connection between causally unrelated events that he called synchronicity. Ultimately the explanation of such connections doubtless lies in the Greek alchemical motto hen to pan “All is one.” Whatever affects any part of a whole affects all of its parts. So, as we live in a holistic universe, our environment includes every part of that universe. This is our “celestial environment,” our environment beyond planet Earth.

Thus we have, not one, but three environments that help to mold us: social, terrestrial, and celestial. We may picture these as a triangle pointing downward. At the tip of the downward point is our terrestrial environment, and at the tips of the two points at either end of its upper horizontal base are our celestial and social environments.

Now, let us turn to the three kinds of heredity: in addition to our genetic heredity, which comes to us from our parents via DNA, we have also a skandhic heredity. It comes to us from our own past incarnations. We are each the child of our former selves. We begin each incarnation by inheriting influences we created in former personalities; and during each incarnation, we modify old and create new influences that will help to form the personality of our next incarnation. The skandhas are the material and psychical influences we create during any given lifetime, which then carry over to our next succeeding lifetime as the seeds from which a new personality is constructed.

Buddhism, from which the term “skandha” comes, talks of five “aggregates,” which are bodily form, sensation, perception, predisposition to respond, and stream of consciousness. C. W. Leadbeater presented a material explanation of how the skandhas work. He proposed that on each plane of experience—physical, emotional, mental—we have a body composed of the substance of that plane. He further proposed that each of those bodies has a “permanent atom,” whose vibrations are modified during each lifetime and which becomes the seed from which a corresponding body is developed in a succeeding lifetime. These permanent atoms function somewhat like a higher-level DNA, which come to us, however, not from our biological parents, but from our personality-parents, that is, our own previous incarnations.

Our skandhic heredity represents our past, but we have another heredity that represents our future. It is our dharmic heredity. Each of us has an individual dharma (Sanskrit svadharma), which is what we are destined to become or to do. Simple analogies are that a caterpillar’s svadharma is to become a butterfly, an acorn’s svadharma is to become an oak tree, some carbon’s svadharma is to become a diamond and other carbon’s svadharma is to become organic matter. Our dharmic heredity comes to us, neither from others nor from our own past lives, but instead from our higher self. It is our individual vocation or calling. It is what we are pulled to be during the sequence of all of our personal lifetimes.

So here too we have, not one, but three heredities that help to mold us: genetic, skandhic, and dharmic. We may picture these as a triangle pointing upward. At the tip of its upper apex is our dharmic heredity, and at the tips of the two points at either end of its lower horizontal base are our skandhic and genetic heredities. If we superimpose this upward hereditary triangle upon the downward environmental triangle, we have a hexagram, a six-pointed star, or Solomon’s seal, which is part of the emblem of the Theosophical Society and which symbolizes the union of opposites.

But even these six factors—various sorts of heredity and environment—taken all together, do not account fully for what we are and why we do what we do. Collectively they are what the Bhagavad Gita (13.1) calls the “Field.” They are the area in which our personal and individual evolution takes place. There is, however, yet another, a seventh, factor in us. And without that seventh factor, the other six are an empty wasteland, consisting of unused and unrealized potentials.

That seventh factor (the tertium quid added to sixfold environment and heredity) is our true Self. It is what the Gita calls the “Knower of the Field.” It is the ultimate “I” inside the ordinary “me.” It is the individual self or atma in us, which reflects the absolute Brahman. It is the “tvam” of the mantra “tat tvam asi” from the Chandogya Upanishad, that is, the “you” in “you are That.” It is the One Self reflected in us as the Auric Egg, the “Luminous Self,” the “Divine Spark,” or Augoeides. The word “Augoeides” comes from Greek “augo,” a combining form of the word “auge,” meaning “sunlight” or “a ray from the sun,” plus “eides” from the word “eidos,” meaning “a form.” So “Augoeides” is “that which has the form of a ray from the sun.” We are that ray from the sun that is the source of all being. All of these expressions are poetic ways of talking about what we are at the deepest level of our being, the level that underlies all of the personal expressions of our individuality over the ages.

If we wish to relate this greater Self to the various environmental and hereditary factors through which it expresses itself, we can place it in the middle of the hexagram, in the position occupied in the Theosophical emblem by the ankh, the Egyptian symbol of life. It represents the fact that we must be alive to all aspects of our environment and our heredity.

If we are alive to these Theosophical truths about our own nature, we will not waste time in making up excuses for our shortcomings by blaming them on our genetic heredity or our social environment. We will realize both that we are the Self inside us and that the Self acts within the boundaries of its sixfold heredities and environments, but it need not be limited by any of them.

A true story illustrates our ordinary unawareness of the many heredities and environments we deal with and our ignorance of the Self within us. Many years ago, a teacher I studied with, a very famous scholar of obscure languages and exotic cultures, told this story about himself. He had a daughter; he was very fond of her and indulged her in many ways. But on one occasion she did something that he thought was quite unacceptable. So he scolded her roundly, he called her on the carpet, he berated her, he read her the riot act. And when he was done, she looked at him with the eyes that only a favored daughter can turn upon her father, and she said, “Oh, daddy, I’m so sorry. I really don’t know what it was that made me do that. Which do you suppose it was—environment or heredity?”

That bright and clever young girl thought she had her father right where she wanted him. She invoked the ordinary assumption that everything we are and do is the result of either social environment or genetic heredity, and her father was, of course, responsible for both of those. So what she had done was his fault, not hers. But all our shortcomings are actually the result of the Self’s not yet having yet learned how to make wise choices within the hereditary and environmental boundaries in which it finds itself. The Self is not a victim; it is a learner. As the third of the Truths of the White Lotus puts it: “Each man is his own absolute law-giver, the dispenser of glory or gloom to himself; the decreer of his life, his reward, his punishment.” Life is an alembic in which we transmute the lead of our personal experience into the gold of our individual character. No one else can do that transformation for us. We must each learn to do it for ourselves.

So the truths of Theosophy, if we are alive to them, can free us from the limitations of our conditioning. The assumptions that many of us have grown up with, which are ideas that we continue to act on unconsciously, are not truth at all, but only a partial and distorted reflection of the way things really are.

End of part one – continued in part 2


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