The story of mankind cannot be understood without considering the birth of the planet of which we are all inseparable parts. If our universe is a living being, and our sun and earth also, we are then children of the living cosmos. This implies that there are intelligences above man, and beings below the animals and even plants. Without the guiding and sustaining influence of the hierarchies of superior beings which form the inner fabric of the cosmos, nature would become a meaningless chaos. They instigate and ideate the design of nature's working and are the forces behind its inbuilt healing system or ineluctable return to harmony.
As the human and other kingdoms each attain their evolution, so the earth achieves its form and embodiment. The elemental, mineral, vegetable, animal, human, and divine kingdoms are all essential to one another and to the whole. They are to the earth what cells, the life force, and thoughts are to human beings. Each individual enshrines a divine spark, and from the very beginning of our planet's reimbodiment all the kingdoms were present, not as they now are, but as seeds about to unfold.
Let us briefly consider the birth of worlds as cosmic beings. When such a birth commences there is no form because the energies and characteristics of the systems of worlds about to come forth have been inrolled and dormant for ages. Hindu and other cultures give figures for the lifespan of planets, suns, and other cosmic entities. Planets, they say, live for 4,320,000,000 years, and the time spent in their rest periods or death-cycles is the same.
When the moment arrives for our world to reawaken, it does so on a very ethereal level. First the godlike beings and elemental forces issue forth, laying the pattern for the inner and outer aspects of the earth-to-be. This is followed by the awakening of the other kingdoms, which lay the tracks on inner, non-material planes. As the less evolved kingdoms build for themselves more evolved bodies to work through, the earth assumes the shape, circulations, and energy flow, inner and outer, that we associate with this living planet of ours. Earth achieves its expression by means of its lesser lives, just as we attain physical incarnation by means of atoms, molecules, compounds, and cells contributing to form the fluids, tissues, and organs of our bodies, all energized by life forces and infilled with emotional and mental activities stimulated by the indwelling consciousness. And so it is with the planet: as its kingdoms alter, growing more and more material, so does the earth achieve the various phases of its reimbodiment. The life cycle of a planet takes place in a series of pulsations or "rounds," usually spoken of as seven in number. We are presently in the fourth and most material round; and henceforward our earth will grow increasingly ethereal until the end of its lifespan.
Evolution from the theosophic point of view extends through repeated reimbodiments, not only in the human kingdom, but for animals, plants, atoms, and worlds. Just as we have our invisible parts, so also does the sun with its planetary systems and their inhabitants, thus forming our living universe. All this presupposes an enduring part that lives in each person, each planet, each atom, something within that survives and gradually evolves through repeated reimbodiments -- in our case, a higher self or reincarnating ego in which is stored the wisdom of experience. Evolution, thus, is the process by which the potentials of this divine essence may unfold. Because we have unfolded that which makes us human, we are at the human stage of our evolution. The animals have unfolded that which makes of them animals, and so forth. In a future planetary cycle the higher animals may develop from within themselves that which will make it natural for them to slip over into the human kingdom, as many did in the early part of this present planetary reimbodiment.
From the standpoint of reincarnation mankind is millions of years old, its civilizations stretching back into legendary times. If we study myths and epics comparatively and give some credence to them, we will find much suggestive material that should be taken seriously, though not always literally. H. P. Blavatsky held that these old myths were designed by adepts who wove into them the teachings of the ancient wisdom. They may therefore be interpreted on many levels, such as the spiritual, intellectual, psychological, and physiological. These legends have survived with the early races by oral tradition, coming down to us like a racial memory, for any records would have been destroyed in the often violent interregnums that have intervened.
The ancients divided human history into many cycles related to the cosmic clock. In modern theosophy these periods are called root-races, subraces, family races, tribes, nations -- cycles of five hundred, a thousand, many thousands of years. Blavatsky projected the life cycle of humanity on this physical globe as divided into seven primary human stocks or root-races. Each root-race is divided into seven subraces, and each subrace into seven family races. These in turn consist of seven national cycles, each of which is built of seven tribal races. (Cf. H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine 1:642; G. de Purucker, Fundamentals of the Esoteric Philosophy,. 294-5; also "The Root-Race and Its Sub-Divisions," Studies in Occult Philosophy, pp. 35-9.)
One way to calculate the races and their subdivisions is to start with a figure for the ideal life of a human being (some 72 years) somewhat as follows: seven generations of men make up a nation, a cycle of some 500 years. Seven of these national cycles in turn go to form a tribal race, which endures some 3,600 years. An example of a tribal race would be the Slavs, including the Russians, Poles, Czechs, Bulgars, and so forth. Other examples would be those New World civilizations in full swing when Columbus came to the Americas; or the Teutons, such as the Germans and Scandinavians; also the Goths, Visigoths, and Vandal strains that settled Italy and Spain.
Seven tribal races form what Blavatsky termed a national race, enduring for a precessional cycle of some 25,920 years. The term "national race" is somewhat misleading, for it does not refer to a nation as we normally understand that word, but to a whole congeries of nations within the span of seven tribal races. An example would be the European national race, now one third done, including all the races of Europe -- Poles, Germans, French, Swiss, Russians, Greeks, Bulgars, English, Scandinavian, Dutch, Spanish, etc. Seven of these national races constitute a family race, which endures some 180,000 years. One family race would be the original inhabitants of the Americas: pre-Inca, pre-Aztec, and Mayan -- which in its lifespan included all the lesser cycles we have discussed. Another example would be the Mongolian, including such subgroups as the Chinese, Manchus, Japanese, Tibetans, Burmese, etc. Still another would be the peoples of Africa, which present an amazing diversity of languages, cultures, and physiological types. Seven such family races form a subrace, and seven subraces form a root-race.
All great civilizations result from the mixture of peoples -- there is no such thing as a pure race. The English, for instance, are a mixture of what are now indigenous inhabitants, including the Celts, Romans, Saxons, Norse, Normans, and others. The civilizations in China, India, and the Middle East all resulted from a mixing of racial strains. The Americas in general are in process of creating new races of various types: perhaps another cycle of some 25,920 years will commence, or possibly another family race of 180,000 years will arise, composed of various tribal and national units, each of which will have its day in the sun.
Going back to the beginning of mankind, HPB suggests that the first two root-races were more astral than physical, and their lifespan was much longer than that of the subsequent root-races. During these earliest root-races the human body was in the process of being evolved. By the middle of the third root-race this cycle was more or less completed and two remarkable events took place: the division into the two sexes, something remembered in nearly all religions and mythologies; and the awakening of man's inner nature, in particular the mind. This was achieved by the incarnation in each individual of his own higher self, thus inflaming the nascent mind into self-consciousness, a characteristic that differentiates us from the animals. Nearly all ancient traditions speak of this era as the time when divine instructors lived among humankind, impressing on their plastic minds certain root ideas that remain to this day. They also taught mankind the arts and sciences. These superior beings or adepts are sometimes termed divine kings, ruling by the right of their own effulgent divine nature.
The planetary cycle, however, was still on its downward swing into matter, and gradually as the fourth root-race came on, these instructors withdrew, at the same time founding the Mystery schools which preserved their noble wisdom. Tradition has it that these schools exist even today, although in our time they are not as openly professed as they were in the Classical world of the West and in other places.
It is said that the fourth or Atlantean root-race was the most material of the races. They produced magnificent civilizations, as hinted by Plato in one or two of his Dialogues. As Atlantis approached its midpoint, the seeds of our present or fifth root-race began to appear, because it is from the midpoint of the previous race that springs the following race. This midpoint is sometimes termed the iron age or kali yuga, an era when life grows increasingly intense. Time presses, and the lower and higher elements of humankind separate out. Finally the seeds of the next race are isolated geographically, while the old race in ever diminishing numbers runs out its course.
Our fifth root-race had its home in Central Asia, and in the course of thousands of years a variety of civilizations flowered there during the halcyon time of its golden, silver, and part of its bronze age. We are approaching the midpoint of the fifth root-race and have entered its iron age, which commenced according to Hindu figures with the death of Krishna in 3102 BC. This iron age is due to last 432,000 years. In the course of time forerunners of the sixth root-race will begin to appear in increasing numbers. In contrast with our fifth root-race, where the mental principle predominates, the sixth race will unfold more of buddhi or spiritual insight.
The subject of cycles is complex, for races overlap one another. The new race is born from the midpoint of its parent, and the two coexist side by side through a blurred and gradual transition. And often as the midpoint of a larger cycle approaches, nature conspires to give the earth a rest. She accomplishes this in all the ways familiar to students of geology, such as changes of climate, soil depletion leading to the creation of deserts; also, submergences of portions of lands and the flooding of others, or the raising of lands. As our European culture approaches its midpoint, Blavatsky speaks of such changes occurring in the Old World. On a much larger scale, the lands now occupied by our present root-race as it approaches its midpoint will unquestionably undergo vast changes -- some gradual, some catastrophic -- just as did the continents of Atlantis, which broke up over the long millennia and were replaced by new lands clean and free of old emanations.
Earth has seen many flowerings of human greatness and has had to suffer many depredations. But Mother Nature is still in command and in time will strike her balance. If we abuse the earth, then parts of it will become unlivable. Think of the titanic forces humankind is sending forth: not only the diverse energies of our technological civilization, but our hates, antagonisms, jealousies, greed; also their opposites, such as the forces of love, forgiveness, brotherhood, generosity, and understanding. Nature absorbs it all and will eventually react. No wonder there are times when earth seems to shake mankind as a dog shakes off fleas, until at the end of a cycle a new time emerges. Or perhaps a glaciation will occur covering an entire hemisphere under thousands of feet of ice, to lie fallow so that it can be revivified; or portions of continents may slip under the oceans and others rise.
What is the future of mankind? Just as it has taken the reincarnating souls of humanity a long, long time to reach where we are now, so it will take many, many more incarnations for mankind collectively to realize its destiny. The human race will begin gradually to achieve its potentials; to become truly human and then bring into human life the wise influence of its innate divinity. In some era in the far future a true brotherhood will surely be realized. The examples of the Christs and Buddhas illustrate what we too may one day become.
William Q. Judge writes that "nature exists for no other purpose than the soul's experience," words that summarize the cosmic process. Amid the rise and fall of races, the common ground is that all beings are souls on the pathway of unfoldment. The greatest and most enduring contributions of modern times may turn out to be the worldwide attempt to extend individual human rights and bring together all mankind into a brotherhood of thoughtful reciprocity. Of all the civilizations we know of and which have flashed their light across the horizon of time, our own may be unique in its global recognition of what is due each human soul. The very struggles which appear to be shaping are reflections of the awakening spirit of all human beings; and this pressure from below is breaking up the confining crust of tyranny, formalism, and orthodoxy, much as growing seeds burst through the earth.
The evolution of humanity takes place against the background of a living earth and a living cosmos, guided by superior beings. Reincarnation gives us insights into this panorama, for it pictures each person as an immortal pilgrim with a spark of the divine in his heart of hearts. All the potentials of this divine source reside within each of us -- and also in all other beings and even forces and worlds: in the bird winging its way through the blue sky, in the lightning and the storm, and in our beautiful earth so patiently nourishing its kingdoms. The knowledge of our divine ancestry and the brotherhood of all life brings with it responsibilities. Those of this persuasion can no longer go through life impulsively and unthinkingly, for we have put our feet on a path, and the first step on this path is to live not for ourselves, but to benefit mankind.
(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, April/May 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Theosophical University Press)