Cyclic Renewal of the Theosophic Spirit

By W. T. S. Thackara

In nature, daily, seasonal, and geological renovation is a fact commonly observed. Sometimes, though, she renews herself in ways we may not at first appreciate. For example, at Yosemite National Park in California, forest rangers worked hard for decades to preserve the scenery through fire fighting, cutting down trees intruding into meadows, and so forth. All this seemed perfectly sensible until the rangers realized that years of fire prevention had allowed unrestricted growth to threaten the Giant Sequoias and disturb the park's ecosystem in other significant ways. Prior to man's intervention, lightning-caused fires had controlled the overgrowth, while restoring nutrients to the soil and germinating certain seeds. Now, with a better understanding of nature's creative process and the need for periodic housecleanings, the rangers are attempting to restore the balance with controlled burns where these are warranted.

They are also attempting to help the Park's visitors renew their own understanding of nature. Some years ago about fifty of us walked partway up Lembert Dome, just high enough to overlook Tuolumne Meadows and watch the sun sinking behind distant peaks. The ranger spoke of evening, his favorite time when all nature was even-ing itself out -- the even-tide: a point of balance when day gives way to night. Reading from Emerson, Thoreau, and other writers, he gently urged us to release for a moment the habits and thoughts of our 65-mile-an-hour culture and to reassess our relationship with nature. Where do we as humans fit in? Early man, he said, listened to the language of nature. We looked out upon the meadows in silence, and began to hear also. Amid the subtly changing colors of earth and sky, a light wind sang through the treetops and a bird, its parting day-song. Nearby, a flute answered with its own melody. The effect was magical. In that primeval solitude, we could feel nature's harmony, a unifying presence grand and wondrous. Somehow we had spoken to each other and there was understanding. When the time came to return to camp, the ranger left with us the words of John Muir:

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.
I used to envy the father of our race, dwelling as he did in contact with the new-made fields and plants of Eden; but I do so no more, because I have discovered that I also live in "creation's dawn." The morning stars still sing together, and the world, not yet half made, becomes more beautiful every day. -- The Wilderness World of John Muir, Edwin Teale, ed., p. 311

Not yet half made, in continual creation, constantly regenerating --important thoughts -- and a pattern we see reflected in every facet of human life as well. Individuals, families, cities, nations, business, educational, and religious institutions, civilizations: all are subject to nature's law of cyclic growth and renewal. Nothing stays the same. Old forms die, giving way to the birth -- or rebirth -- of the new.

Turning to inner or spiritual renewal, let us consider the idea that all religions spring from a common source and represent different paths to the same summit. This is a typically Oriental viewpoint, which until this century was almost unanimously rejected in the West. However, aside from explaining, in part, how God reaches non-Christians -- and conversely how non-Christians reach God -- the idea is supported by comparative religious studies. Despite obvious differences, all religions do share certain fundamental concepts, a "hidden harmony" of inspiration, or a "perennial philosophy" as Leibniz, Aldous Huxley, and others have suggested. All faiths address questions of ultimate concern: To what purpose do we live? For what purpose do we die? All recognize a supreme divine source under one name or another, whether it be called God, Allah, Brahman, Tao, or the Great Spirit. All teach the Golden Rule in one or another form, reminding us that we are responsible for our actions. All prescribe love, altruism, and virtue as necessary to spiritual regeneration; and all agree that we are essentially spiritual beings -- gods become mortal.

There remain, however, immense difficulties in getting to the original teachings of the founders of the world's religions. What did they actually say and mean? A typical chain of events in the life of a religious movement illustrates the problem: A teacher comes. He teaches. He is not well known in his time, perhaps because most people reject him; he does not fulfill their expectations of what a teacher should be, and his teachings do not fully jibe with their own beliefs. Indeed, they often appear novel, strange, and challenge established norms. But a few recognize the worth of the message, and these first followers or disciples, being deeply inspired, share it with others. In time a tradition is formed to preserve and transmit the teachings; and in those cultures where writing is practiced, the tradition may eventually be recorded. However, as this may occur decades or even centuries after the appearance of the teacher, his or her message may be partially lost, infused with foreign doctrines, or otherwise sullied.

Further difficulties arise when we learn that some teachings are considered too sacred to be written down: there are both public and private teachings, the higher mysteries being reserved for the "spiritually mature." That is an early Christian phrase. Of the books, tablets, or scrolls which record the public teachings, some are lost, others edited, deleting and inserting text to "improve" the clarity of obscure passages -- often hampered by variant readings due to scribal errors. The books are then translated, often mistranslated, copies are made from copies, reintroducing many of the aforementioned problems, and over the years, little by little, the original message erodes.

There are yet more serious problems: as soon as the teacher departs, discussion arises over the content of the message. One disciple thinks the Master intended so and so, another, thus and so. In trying to preserve and "explain" the true teachings, points of agreement are decided upon, dogmas erected, schools of interpretation formed, and there follows one schism after another -- not to mention the proliferation of counterfeit teachers -- until at length we have a smorgasbord of conflicting doctrines, systems, and groups. A replay of the tower of Babel and, regrettably, a pattern from which no major religious movement has been exempt.

Though we may rightfully question the fidelity and wholeness of the teachings we have inherited, this in no way impugns an individual's spiritual perception, which is a private matter, or the inspiriting force which gives each religion its life and reason for being. Significantly, the very confusion of opinion provides a compelling motive for a teacher's appearance. Almost without exception his mission is not to establish a new religion, but to reform the old one: to re-form, re-express, and re-vitalize what Cicero called the "universal religion" (Tusculan Disputations, 1, xii-xiv). Says Saint Augustine:

That which is called the Christian religion existed among the ancients, and never did not exist, from the beginning of the human race until Christ came in the flesh, at which time the true religion which already existed began to be called Christianity. -- Epis. Retrac., Lib. 1, xiii, 3

The words attributed to Jesus in Matthew clearly allude to renewal: he came not to destroy the Law but to "fulfill" it (5:17) -- the Greek term plerosai frequently conveying the sense of "to clarify the true meaning of" a thing.

The Bhagavad-Gita, India's most widely revered scripture, also mentions how the "secret, eternal doctrine" had been lost in the course of ages, and that Krishna, the eighth avatar or incarnation of Vishnu, was once again communicating it to Arjuna, his "friend and devotee" (4:1-3). Moreover, he explains that these renewals are periodic -- "whenever there is a decline of virtue and an insurrection of vice and injustice in the world" he produces himself among creatures:

and thus I incarnate from age to age for the preservation of the just, the destruction of the wicked, and the establishment of righteousness. -- 4:8 (Judge Recension, p. 24)

Most sacred traditions speak openly about the return of a savior and the restoration of spiritual values. Jews look forward to a messiah; Christians, to the second coming of Christ; Hindus, to the Kalki avatar; Zoroastrians, to Saoshyant; Buddhists, to Maitreya Buddha; the Hopis, to their lost white brother Pahana; the Mayans, to Kukulcan, and so on. The parallels are remarkable, since they come from cultures often separated by oceans, time, and other imposing barriers. How to account for this universality of belief?

Erosion of the doctrine and the rise of evil, however, are not the only reasons for such periodic renewals. A more pressing need stems from the fact that humanity is growing and its requirements are changing. A passage in Plato's Statesman shows just how well these ideas were known throughout the ancient world. This dialogue recounts a legend about cyclic renewals in the early history of the universe, earth, and its humanity:

There is a time when God himself guides and helps to roll the world [literally, "the All" -- the universe] in its course; and there is a time, on the completion of a certain cycle, when he lets go, and the world being a living creature, and having originally received intelligence from its author and creator, turns about and by an inherent necessity revolves in the opposite direction. -- §269c (Jowett)

In other words, there comes a time when the universe -- considered here as a living, intelligent being -- must reinvolve itself in matter and fashion from it suitable vehicles of expression: a cosmic Fall, so to speak, resulting not from disobedience, but from "inherent [karmic] necessity." As a consequence of this association with matter, the instructions from God began to be forgotten. "Discord again held sway" and the admixture of evil threatened to ruin the world, whereupon the pilot of the universe "again seated himself at the helm," brought the elements back into order, and "made the world imperishable and immortal" (§273).

At the beginning of the human cycle, the pattern is repeated -- "as above, so below":

In those days God himself was their [mankind's] shepherd, and ruled over them, just as man, who is by comparison a divine being, still rules over the lower animals. -- §271e

But when this Golden Age ended, humanity having outgrown its infancy, God and the demigods perforce "retired from view"; and men, thus deprived of the gods' immediate care, soon found themselves defenseless, without skill or resource, and unequal to the struggle for existence. The beasts had become ferocious and the earth's food, which formerly grew spontaneously, had failed. Wherefore,

the gifts spoken of in the old tradition were imparted to man by the gods, together with so much teaching and education as was indispensable; . . . [Men now] had to order their course of life for themselves, and were their own masters, just like the universal creature whom they imitate and follow, ever changing, as he changes, and ever living and growing, at one time in one manner, and at another time in another. -- §274d

The primary reason for cyclic renewals of the ancient theosophia (god-wisdom) is expressed here with clarity: mankind is maturing, becoming self-reliant, yet lives within the unseen protectorate of more advanced beings. When real need exists, the guardians of humanity intervene, imparting "so much teaching and education as is indispensable" to sustain man's progress.

What relevance does all this have for today's world? To bridge the last 2,500 years with a brief historical perspective, the 6th century BC saw a major infusion of spiritual force when a stellium of teachers appeared within a century of each other: Gautama Buddha of India, Lao-tse and Confucius in China, and Pythagoras in Greece. They came at a time of widespread decline. Egypt's most brilliant dynasties were already past history; India's spiritual luster was fading under the tarnish of rigid caste rule and Brahman exclusiveness. The esoteric heart of Greek religious expression, the Mysteries, soon became a state religion and an instrument of politics. The iron age, in India called kali yuga, was setting in. Yet, in the West after Pythagoras, there were among others Plato, the Stoic philosophers, Jesus, certain Jewish and Christian gnostics, and later the Neoplatonists. All held forth a light against the oncoming Dark Ages, which are said to have begun in 529 AD when Justinian closed Athens' last philosophical school. For the next millennium or so individuals and groups who differed from the ruling authorities either went underground or adopted a camouflage to shield them from the accusation of heresy.

By the fifteenth century, a new, freer spirit was beginning to be felt. Classical learning, which had been preserved through the Dark Ages by the Arab world, was reintroduced to Europe, bringing on the Renaissance. With the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo which restored the heliocentric view, the geocentric universe received a deathblow. Then came the Reformation, followed by an explosive rise of science in the seventeenth century and onward. Towards the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries the first English, French, and German translations of the Bhagavad-Gita and other Eastern scriptures came to the West, inspiring both the European and American Transcendentalist movements. The Rosetta Stone was decoded by Champollion and Egypt's impressive literary treasures could now be read, if not entirely understood. These and other archaeological finds, assisted by the newly-emerging discipline of comparative religions, were disclosing prototypes in more ancient traditions of stories and teachings in the Bible, showing the latter to be neither original nor unique, but rather a partial expression of the universal tradition.

Old molds of thought were collapsing as the age of inquiry and discovery opened an ever-widening horizon of knowledge. An unsuspected, undreamed-of universe was revealing itself which was far bigger, far more complex, and far more humbling, than most had realized, requiring a near-total reassessment of values. But -- and here was the rub -- whose values were to be believed? Again, conflicting claims -- this time chiefly between scientific theories and certain religious dogmas. A new era was dawning, yet the same old questions persisted. Science, despite its advances, had not answered the ultimate mysteries of life, and the churches had lost a great deal of credibility, moving many to ask themselves: had the gods fled? Had they ever existed? For many today, the questions remain.

Turning again to nature, to "climb the mountains and get their good tidings," what is their answer? Is it not written in starlight on the meadows, in the magnificent symmetries of landscape and flora, in the measured procession of the seasons, and in the presence of man -- who can make music if he chooses? Ours is a living, breathing, intelligent universe, and despite the prevalence of blinding materialism, our century has witnessed a profound resurgence of ideas expressing transcendent oneness. People everywhere are feeling the pulsing divine impress, realizing that the seeming chasm between ourselves and the gods, and each other, is far more illusory than had been thought.

But whence these ideas, these intuitions which elicit stirrings of ancient memories? Modern theosophical literature attributes them ultimately to the great cause of universal existence -- and to the presence in every age of men and women who by virtue of spiritual, intellectual, and ethical fitness are bearers and transmitters of divine wisdom. Whenever conditions permit, one or more of these individuals go into the world to rekindle an awareness of our spiritual origin, our kinship with all beings, and our divine potential -- that each of us is literally a god in embryo, a deathless "spark of eternity" embarked on a grand evolutionary journey which embraces the cosmos.

The great truths of Being "impressed on the plastic minds of the first races endowed with Consciousness" (1) are once again in the process of renewal. Ancient and modern theosophical writings are appealing to a growing audience who recognize in them a deep and comprehensive explanation of the cosmic purpose and design. However, these teachings have not been given forth to found yet another religious sect or a refuge for selfish spiritual pursuit. As in all ages, they are re-presented, foremost, to promote harmony, charity, and a higher view of life, to show truth in science and religion, and thereby foster a greater appreciation of one another's intrinsic worth.

But no truth, however grand and noble, has power for good unless we give it a place in our lives and sustenance for growth. Nature offers her lessons freely; yet we know equally that her truths must be earned. She unfolds herself gradually, not all at once, and there will always be some new mystery awaiting discovery, a new insight reminding us of who we are and of the responsibilities we share with lesser and greater lives everywhere. The seasons move on; each year, each lifetime, brings its harvest and its seeding for the future. Activity, repose, renewal -- a simple truth, and one which yields a vision of immense beauty and hope: we do live in "creation's dawn" -- and the world, with all its problems, is "not yet half made."

  • (From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Theosophical University Press)

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    1. H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine 1:269. (return to text)