The Eternity of the Universe in toto as a boundless plane; periodically the "playground of numberless Universes incessantly manifesting and disappearing," called "the manifesting stars," and the "sparks of Eternity." "The Eternity of the Pilgrim" is like a wink in the Eye of the Self-Existence (Book of Dzyan). "The appearance and disappearance of Worlds is like a regular tidal ebb of flux and reflux." — The Secret Doctrine, Second Proposition, 1:16-17
Hundreds of years ago brave men set sail in little wooden ships to discover and map new worlds beyond the dreams of legend in their homelands. This century a new breed of pioneers is venturing forth with radio telescopes beyond the confines of our home solar system and Milky Way galaxy to give us a remarkable picture of the greater universe in which, as Paul said, "we live, and move, and have our being." (Acts 17:28)
The fantastic images of our universe as seen on the screens of supercomputers — gigantic galactic clusters, filaments, and bubble-like structures made up of millions of galaxies — call attention in new ways to the teachings of the ancient wisdom regarding the hierarchies of atoms, humans, and gods which comprise the organism of our universe.
Modern man's voyage of discovery in the greater universe gathered momentum in 1923 with the work of American astronomer Edwin Hubble confirming the existence of galaxies beyond our own home galaxy. Six years later Hubble further rocked the astronomical world with his discovery that all galaxies appear to be rushing away from each other and that our universe is expanding, perhaps following a primordial explosion of immense scale — the Big Bang. For a long time it was believed that galaxies were the largest structures to condense from the universe's fiery birth.
This view was seriously questioned in the 1930s by Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley, whose detailed surveys of selected areas of sky showed that galaxies flock together in clusters. This was confirmed by the 1956 survey of the entire sky visible from Palomar Observatory, where George Abell compiled his famous catalog of 2,712 rich clusters of galaxies out to a distance of three billion light-years. In the 1970s French astronomer Gerard de Vaucouleurs presented convincing evidence for what he called the Local Supercluster, consisting of thousands of galaxies with a mass equal to a million billion suns. Theorists, such as Soviet astronomer Yakov Zel'dovich, speculated that such structures are common in a universe of huge streaming filaments of galaxies separated by immense voids.
The discoveries of these early astronomers are supported by observations in the 19805 and '90s, many of which echo ancient traditions regarding the structure of our universe. In 1987 astrophysicist R. Brent Tully of the University of Hawaii used a supercomputer to corroborate that de Vaucouleurs' Local Supercluster was in fact part of a vast complex of super-clusters, each comprising millions of galaxies (Galaxies, Voyage through the Universe, Time-Life Books, Amsterdam, 1988).
Wherever the dish of the radio telescope is turned the universe astounds scientists with its ever grander structures. In 1989 scientists from the USA, Britain, and Australia compared notes on their studies of two narrow "cones" of observations probing 2.5 billion light-years north and south of the galactic plane. The astronomers discovered that galaxies are clumped at consistent intervals of between 400 and 800 million light-years in a series of great walls separated by equally huge voids.* On the largest scales astronomers working on this survey speculated that the universe may resemble foaming bubbles, shells, or intricate honeycombs of galaxies.
*"Astronews: Sky Surveys Reveal Regularly Spaced Galaxies" in Astronomy, June 1990, p. 10; J. Kanipe, "A Cross Section of the Universe" in Astronomy, Nov 1989, pp. 44-6; I. Petersen, "Seeding the Universe" in Science News, Mar 24,1990, pp. 184-7; D. Johnson, "Supercomputing the Universe" in Astronomy, Dec 1989, pp. 48-54; A. P. Fairall, "The Biggest Structures in the Universe" in 1991 Yearbook of Astronomy, pp. 136-45; R. Cowen, "Quasar Clumps Dim Cosmological Theory" in Science News, Jan 26, 1991, p. 52.
One is reminded of the beautiful analogies of the birth of a universe in the ancient wisdom tradition of many lands cited by H. P. Blavatsky in her Secret Doctrine. Hindu traditions, for example, tell of the expansion (outbreathing) of primordial matter like the churning of an ocean of milk, sending milk-white curds streaming through space (The Secret Doctrine 1:67).
The Mundaka Upanishad (I.i.7) describes the universe as coming forth from and returning to the Imperishable much as the web of a spider is cast forth and withdrawn. The same idea was expressed by Goethe:
Thus at the roaring loom of Time I ply,
And weave for God the garment thou see'st Him by. – quoted ibid. 1:83
This ancient, now modern, view of the universe was further reinforced by the work of Alexander Szalay of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA, in 1990, probing an unprecedented seven billion light-years into the uncharted reaches of the cosmos. Dr. Szalay's "pencil beam" surveys showed galaxies appearing in clumps spaced about 420 million light-years apart (but not in a direct line with the picture produced by the 1989 survey), indicating these massive structures are far more complex than had so far been observed (I. Petersen, "Probing a Universe of Bubbles and Voids" in Science News, Oct 27, 1990, p. 260).
Our beautiful home galaxy, the Milky Way, is unusual in the brotherhood of galaxies in that it is positioned between two walls of galaxies, about two-thirds from the northern boundary, known as the "Great Wall," approximately 200-400 million light-years to the galactic north. Just as our planet Earth circles the Sun, our Sun wheels majestically round the core of the Milky Way in 250 million years, drawing our solar system every microsecond into new areas of space. Last year astronomers at the Carnegie and Wick observatories reported evidence that the universal hierarchy extends to whole families of galaxies. According to this recent study, 136 galaxies in and around our own are streaming towards a region of space about 147 million light-years away, known since 1987 as the "Great Attractor" (P. Muirden, "The Great Attractor," in 1990 Yearbook of Astronomy, pp. 158-67; "Astronews: Best Evidence for the Great Attractor" in Astronomy, Sep 1990, p. 22). While our Sun draws us along on its journey in the greater realm of the galaxy, the entire Milky Way with its uncounted myriads of lives is "falling" towards an entity some 300 million light-years across, consisting of tens of thousands of luminous galaxies and a much larger amount of enigmatic "dark matter." Somewhere in the recesses of our consciousness this discovery reminds us of the ancient teaching that there is a hierarchy amongst the suns themselves in the management of the universe. Theosophical literature alludes to "Raja Suns" about which many solar systems wheel just as the planets follow their courses round the Sun. The discovery of the "Great Attractor" leads us to speculate that there may be greater beings amongst the galaxies whose dominion includes the myriad lives that inhabit and compose entire galactic clusters.
Wheels within wheels in constant motion. Yet to us tiny beings all appears largely unchanged from one day to the next, just as we were once beguiled by appearances into thinking that the earth was flat. Brave explorers in their sailing ships proved this to be a fallacy and gave us a global consciousness; now questing souls are reaching billions of light-years into the depths of space with radio telescopes and offering us something approaching a galactic awareness. We are starting to appreciate the reality of the ancient teachings that the universe is one of an infinite number of vast living organisms extending from the infinitely divisible atom to the supergalactic structures we are now seeing, and beyond, to macrocosmic entities. Theosophical teachings compare our Earth to an electron and our solar system to an atom in the body of a being so vast that we cannot see it. We see only other atoms, galactic molecules, and now larger molecular swarms surrounding us.
The Milky Way, a complete and self-contained universe, is, aggregatively, but one cosmic cell in the body of some supercosmic entity, which in turn is but one of an infinitude of others like itself. The great contains the small; the greater contains the great. Everything lives for and unto everything else. This is the reason why separateness has been called the "great heresy." It is the great illusion, for separateness is nonexistent. Nothing can live unto itself alone. Every entity lives for all, and the all is incomplete without the one entity, and therefore lives for it. – G. de Purucker, Fountain-Source of Occultism, p. 113
Let us now turn the telescope round the other way and look at the microcosmos of billions of cells that compose our bodies. In turn these cells are built of molecules and atoms, electrons and subatomic particles. Letting our minds take flight with the consciousness-expanding images of the ancient wisdom, is it not possible that many of these electrons could be inhabited by beings, who like us are pondering these wonderful thoughts?
Their universe is a single organ of our body, and their galaxy is a single molecule of a cell of that organ. This is consciousness, atman, not 'name and form' nama-rupa . . . Consciousness has no magnitude. It will fill space, it will fill an atom, and things incomparably smaller than one of our chemical atoms. It is dimensionless, because it has no shape, no form, no rupa. – G. de Purucker, The Dialogues of G. de Purucker, "Atomic and Galactic Consciousness," 3:165-7
Consciousness unbounded by physical size lends wings to the imagination beyond the dreams of science fiction. One might fantasize that the larger being of which we are a part could be no further progressed in evolution than ourselves; conversely, that hierarchies of divinely conscious beings could inhabit the atoms of our bodies whose "worlds and galaxies" live out their life cycles and reimbody in one of our split seconds! A catastrophe of unimaginable proportions befalling the galactic being of which we form a minute part, we infinitesimals might know nothing or little about it, just as its atoms and molecules, our worlds, might peregrinate as do the life-atoms which enter and leave us at every instant.
In a world beset with wars and economic recession, where the great majority of people struggle to meet the demands of daily existence, what possible significance could these scientific metaphysical speculations have for the man in the street? The fact that modern science is beginning to have some understanding of the ancient truth that we are part of a larger organism has ethical implications for us all. We are encouraged to lift our heads from transitory worries and seek the broader horizons of the night sky, alive with evidence of our brotherhood with the stars. From infinitesimal being to galactic supercluster we see intricate connections and realize that we each have our own role to play. We start to respect our bodies, our environment, and the universe as temples of life, and to treat ourselves and others with reverence. We realize that our actions today will affect the destiny of planets and suns of the distant future, when we, as evolving beings, shall inhabit celestial forms — stars and galaxies — to provide the environment for humanities of tomorrow, the evolved life-atoms of our own constitution.
☼ The author wishes to acknowledge the assistance of David Doody, Flight Operations Engineer, Magellan Project, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena.
(From Sunrise magazine, December 1987/January 1988; © copyright Theosophical University Press, 1987.)