When we think of the "third eye" several things come to mind. Some may associate it with animals such as iguanas or the ancient tuataras of New Zealand which still have a functional third eye, also called the pineal gland. Scientific evidence today supports the possibility that this organ was nature's first eye, particularly in the vertebrates and man. There are many mysteries here because the exact function of the pineal gland is still unknown to science. Microscopic examination has revealed that it is formed of cells that have the distinct features of the rod-shaped light-sensitive cells found in the retina, indicating its possible original function as an organ of sight. The pineal gland appears to receive signals from regions of the brain directly affected by the impulses traveling down the optic nerves, and it secretes the hormone melatonin, present also in the retina of the two eyes. This hormone appears to be involved in circadian rhythms or the sleep/wake cycle, a process scientists do not yet fully understand. Theosophical literature, however, maintains that in addition to its physiological functions, this pea-sized gland at the base of the skull is an important psychophysiological center or chakra involved with such activities as clairvoyance and intuition.
The world's myths and traditions offer a fertile source of information about human evolution and the third eye. Many of us have heard about the one-eyed giant Cyclops of Greek myth which Ulysses fights, or the mystical Eye of Siva, representing intuition or direct cosmic vision. These mythical traditions also feature early races of giants and titans said to have lived long ages ago. The timeless wisdom of this ancient lore provides vital knowledge about how mankind came into existence on earth, and blending the interpretations of science with ancient sources in light of theosophy can give us a new perspective on humanity's past and the third eye.
The primitive third eye was probably functional before our present two eyes formed and became dominant. Interestingly, both the pineal gland and the two eyes project out from tissue layers of the embryonic brain -- a common fact in embryology. This is highly suggestive of the evolution of the organs and senses in general. Biology recognizes the pineal gland as having been nature's first eye, at least in the most primitive vertebrates. Invertebrates and lower vertebrates evolved eyes of various kinds over hundreds of millions of years. One of the lowest vertebrates to have an eye is the larva of the sea squirt, and there is a primitive "third" eye structure also in fishes, amphibians, and reptiles -- even birds have a light-receptive pineal gland inside the skull. (Cf. The Third Eye by Richard Meakin, University of California Press, 1973) Some dinosaurs may also have had huge third eyes, judging by the openings in the tops of their skulls. The later mammalia and mammal-like dinosaurs had these openings as well, but this third eye soon receded under the skull, becoming the pineal gland found in man and in most higher vertebrates. Sheep, however, still have a pineal gland that is directly affected by bright light.
Science recognizes that all organic beings came from a central ancestry. The main difference in the theosophic account is that the highest beings -- gods and the human kingdom -- gave birth to the lower animal and plant kingdoms, rather than the reverse. Here humans do not come from an end-on transformation of body types evolving from more primitive bodies into higher ones as depicted by current scientific theory. Rather, the lowest gods or "angels" exuded astral models that became in time the first physical human forms. The earliest astral prehuman entities were essentially spiritual beings with outer vehicles appropriate to more ethereal planes of matter. Scientists assume that physical matter today is generally the same as it was hundreds of millions or billions of years ago, which is not necessarily the case. We do know that the earth went through gaseous and other stages of cooling -- a nebular stage, for instance -- before condensing into a solid form. Why should there not have been an analogous precipitation of the "organic" kingdoms of nature, including the early human races, as they became physical from more ethereal or astral conditions?
Creation stories preserve an encapsulated history of worlds and of mankind awesome in its scope. Their accounts relate not only to physical events, but to the causal, consciousness side of nature. Ancient traditions depict mankind and the other kingdoms of nature as having a common divine origin. As god-sparks they descend into matter through immense cycles of experience. The ancients understood evolution as an unfolding of the inner consciousness that informs matter. The sparks of divinity grow through experience, developing earthly vehicles and senses, as well as attributes such as intelligence and free will. This view runs contrary to Darwinian theory, which holds that blind matter alone evolved itself fortuitously into forms through mutation, natural selection, and external influences. No doubt these factors come into play, but they are not the primary causes of evolution.
Theosophy suggests that our inner being is based on the septenary pattern of the living universe, and that we share in its divinity. Our essential, immortal self retains a memory of all it has learned through vast cycles of descending into matter and ascending again to spirit. The indwelling monadic consciousness produces our soul or intermediate nature, which undertakes countless reimbodiments through the kingdoms of nature on its way to becoming human. In this journey there is a triple evolution of body, soul, and spirit, with each of these aspects evolving along its own particular line with its own memory. Humanity has evolved by means of this same pattern of cycling from ethereal to material and back to ethereal substance, a process sometimes described in theosophic literature as seven root-races, root-race being a generic term describing all of humanity existing in a given cycle. The first root-race is extremely ethereal, the fourth the most material, and the seventh again ethereal.
According to H. P. Blavatsky, in the early third root-race, said to have begun over 18 million years ago, physical nature was far more plastic, and the future human entity took on many shapes. These developments were accompanied by inner forces of consciousness blending with matter to form our psychological aspect, which works with physical nature to perfect the brain and enables the senses to function. The organs of sense developed with the outer "coats of skin," as the giant ethereal human ancestors gradually materialized. Mind is the connecting link between heavenly and terrestrial being, a necessary component of evolution and completion. There is no satisfactory scientific explanation as to why the human cerebral cortex, organ of the physical intelligence we prize so highly, nearly trebles in size during the first years after birth. I believe it reflects the momentous events that took place in early human evolution with the awakening of mind, dated in theosophical literature at around 18 million years ago.
This awakening of mind and its consequences are echoed in ancient myths. Norse mythology, for example, tells us that the god Odin had to sacrifice one of his eyes -- symbolizing the third eye of spiritual vision -- to drink from the Well of Wisdom (that is, to experience cycles of matter). This story and others about the fallen angels or Adam and Eve have historical reference to the early human stages of evolution and to the separation of the sexes toward the middle of the third root-race. During this epoch the brain, organ of intellect, developed enormously, and divine instructors are said to have taught the arts, sciences, and secrets of nature to infant humanity. They impressed our inner being with primal wisdom, assisted by the third eye's direct vision of divine realities. However, as this root-race of three-eyed giants became more physical and less innocent spiritually, the gods retreated.
According to The Secret Doctrine, spiritual and psychic involution coincides with physical evolution, so that the spiritual and psychic senses of the first human races became recessive during the development of the outer senses. The third eye
was an active organ . . . when the spiritual element in man reigned supreme over the hardly nascent intellectual and psychic elements. And, as the cycle ran down toward that point when the physiological senses were developed by, and went pari passu with, the growth and consolidation of the physical man. . . . that median "eye" ended by atrophying along with the early spiritual and purely psychic characteristics in man. -- 2:298
A little earlier Helena Blavatsky quotes an ancient commentary which says: "There were four-armed human creatures in those early days of the male-females (hermaphrodites); with one head, yet three eyes. They could see before them and behind them." She then observes in a footnote:
Viz., the third eye was at the back of the head. The statement that the latest hermaphrodite humanity was "four-armed," unriddles probably the mystery of all the representations and idols of the exoteric gods of India. On the Acropolis of Argos, there was a xovanon, a rudely carved wooden statue (attributed to Daedalus), representing a three-eyed colossus, which was consecrated to Zeus Triopas (three-eyed). The head of the "god" has two eyes in its face and one above on the top of the forehead. It is considered the most archaic of all the ancient statues . . .
The ancient commentary continues: "A KALPA later (after the separation of the sexes) men having fallen into matter, their spiritual vision became dim; and coordinately the third eye commenced to lose its power" (2:294).
Mankind's early variations in size and shape were partly experiments in physical nature made with the help of divine intelligences, and the most physical phase produced the greatest variation of human types. In earlier terrestrial cycles or "rounds," the human monads passed through phases of mineral, plant, and animal life, from the lowest to the highest. During these early rounds the human kingdom took on the basic patterns of plants and animals which had existed in former imbodiments of the earth, using ethereal substance to fashion their vehicles. This racial recapitulation by astral humanity produced general prototypes used by the animals, which specialized along their own particular lines, gradually diverging from the simple main human stock. Yet vertebrate species, including humans, retained certain basic things in common, such as the third eye, the five senses -- and even tails!
Biology recognizes that the human embryo passes from a single cell through states resembling the various kingdoms. For example, there is a fish stage with gill slits, a reptilian one with a tail, and also mammalian stages. Some children still are born with residual gill clefts or visible tails. The question is, why should any of these variations be allowed to show themselves now if the basic memory of this early evolution is not still impressed in our primordial protoplasm, and perhaps in the genes as well? Research indicates that humans have extra DNA which is stored but appears not to be used directly.
According to theosophy, the fourth root-race began as three-eyed and existed at the most material point in human physical evolution, where spirit and matter balanced on the arc of descent. They are said to have been huge in size, with titanic strength and great intelligence which enabled them to create advanced civilizations. But there was a price for the development of the brain-mind, five senses, personal ego, and lower passions: the third eye acted no longer as a spiritual organ, except in advanced humans whose third eye functioned in concert with their spiritual nature. In the majority, inner vision had to be awakened and acquired by artificial stimuli known to the archaic sages. Then the third eye gradually "petrified" and disappeared, drawn deep into the head. Even today, however, when the real self is active during trances and spiritual visions, this original eye is said to swell and expand (cf. The Secret Doctrine 2:294-5).
Every phase of evolution reflects a profound intelligence and wisdom. The inner forces of consciousness and their vital circulations work through the outer functions of sense organs and the body. The mind and senses are paths for occult energies that work through various psychophysical centers or chakras, among the highest of which is the pineal gland. These centers continue to develop as we evolve towards spirit. So while the third eye or pineal gland has certain physiological activities in conjunction with the pituitary gland -- together they regulate the rhythms of metabolism and growth -- it is also the physical organ of intuition, inspiration, spiritual vision, and divine thought. Blavatsky says that the pineal gland is "the very key to the highest and divinest consciousness in man -- his omniscient, spiritual and all embracing mind." It is "the pendulum which, once the clock-work of the inner man is wound up, carries the spiritual vision of the Ego to the highest planes of perception, where the horizon open before it becomes almost infinite" (Studies in Occultism, pp. 199-200). When the heart, the center of the human spiritual monad, vibrates in perfect harmony with the pineal gland, the two become as one. The pituitary gland, organ of the will, then vibrates in synchrony as well, resulting in a godlike being with virtually unlimited vision.
Even now the pineal gland is the source of clairvoyant abilities and intuitive awareness. Whenever we have a hunch, this gland is vibrating gently; when we have an inspiration or flash of intuitive understanding, it vibrates more strongly, though still gently. Nonetheless, "it has very hard going, mainly due to the work of the two eyes which overcame it. As time passes the two eyes will grow slowly more perfect in function, but will recede in importance; and the 'first eye' will come again into its own" (G. de Purucker, Man in Evolution, p. 203). How greatly it functions in each of us depends on how much we foster our spiritual capacities, for when active the pineal gland receives rays directly from cosmic mind.
As we progress on the arc of spiritual development, it is up to us individually to monitor and balance our energies. In most cases it is unwise to consciously interfere with the third eye or other psychophysical centers because our present understanding is simply not sufficient: we still have much to learn as embryo gods, beings of consciousness and matter, as we evolve spiritually. The most effective way to develop the potentials which are expressed through the third eye is by deliberately exercising the finest unselfish qualities of character and intuition in our everyday life. Following this path, the rest will then come in its own time as we are ready to receive it.
(From Sunrise magazine, February/March 2003; copyright © 2003 Theosophical University Press)