Quest for Human Identity

By I. M. Oderberg

The Field of Transformations (1) is the title of a remarkable translation of and commentary by Bika Reed on an ancient Egyptian sacred text, Revelation of the Soul of Shu. Its major theme is the bond between existence and meaning, referring to the awakening of human awareness and to the fact that "sacred texts of every tradition perpetuate the wisdom of this awakening." The author of the text itself records his own inner experiences after he introduces himself as "I am Shu, the creator coming forth from my own self." This must refer to the transmutations within himself as well as the transformations of the body.

Important questions that arise within us are: Who am I? Why am I here? and Where do I belong in the overall scheme of life? The answers will be found in the spontaneous recognition that all life is "spirit" in action, that is, consciousness (2) is inherent in everything, energies as well as substance. Within this consciousness is the urge to evolve: to express potentials latent within waiting for the right conditions to enable expression. Growth, therefore, is from within. We do not have to drape ourselves with the garments of many thousands of years ago to understand our predecessors (who were really ourselves in earlier guise). The aptitudes with which each of us has been born in our present time represent faculties instilled within ourselves during previous experiences and development.

The essence of Bika Reed's commentary suggests that "at the heart of human experience is the search for meaning. We can choose to identify ourselves with meaning -- the seed of all nature and the essence of immortality [in the sense of continuity] or we can identify ourselves with existence, the fruit of nature subject to decay." The sacred books of all the heritages that have reached our time carry within them a wisdom-tradition designed to stimulate this awakening of the soul's awareness of the seed within itself awaiting germination.

Methethy, Chief of the Royal Farmers of King Unas. "I stood in the dark hall of the Brooklyn Museum, unaware of time, so much was I struck by the gaze of his obsidian pupils. And as the keeper pushed me gently toward the door, a question rose in my mind: What kind of a field did such a man plow?" -- Bika Reed

A good illustration is the Gnostic material unearthed since the late eighteenth century, such as the texts found in the Nag Hammadi Library in Egypt in 1945. They had been hidden away by early Christian gnostics who wanted to preserve them against the destruction organized by the dominant dogmatists. Two such works are those attributed to Thomas -- The Gospel of Thomas and The Book of Thomas -- which clearly relate to the evocation of qualities and insights into human nature not to be found in Christianity today. Such Gnostic texts, as well as those contained in G. R. S. Mead's magnificent work, Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, shed light upon the atmosphere of the centuries preceding and following the birth of the Church form of Christianity, and disclose the type of teachings suppressed by those in authority. The Pistis Sophia, also translated by Mead, contains expressions ascribed to Jesus addressed to his immediate disciples which refer to a program of training that parallels courses used in the Mystery schools of antiquity. Thus, the relatively few documents of gnostic Christianity we now possess present a program which would develop the finest human qualities through individual spiritual effort.

Each ancestral nation had its own center wherein the "Mysteries" were evoked, resulting in the "epiphany" or presentment of the individual's own higher self, the innermost essence. There have been in recorded history many "Saviors" before Christ and many Buddhas before Sakyamuni -- Gautama born Siddhartha. These previous buddhas were human beings who had passed through a long process of unfoldment of the highest aspects of their inner nature and became the imbodiment of that enlightenment. And ancient references imply initiation into the higher forms of consciousness which resulted in such an irradiation that it was thought to be due to the incarnation of a "god."

The Mystery schools and their traditions around the world fostered a form of training designed to bring into outer expression the innate qualities of the soul. In India, commentaries such as the Upanishads evoked the inner essence of each human being undergoing the instruction and course of training to call it out of potentiality. We see this same approach in the Mayan traditions revolving around the city of Teotihuacan, the "city of the gods." As archaeologist Laurette Sejourne states in her important study (3) achieved after twenty years' residence among the Nahuatl-speaking people descended from the ancient Mexicans: "Far from implying any gross, polytheistic belief, the term Teotihuacan evokes the idea of human divinity and shows that the city of the Gods was the very place where the serpent learned to fly; that is, where the individual, through inner growth, attained to the category of a celestial being" (p. 86). The original "feathered Serpent" was Quetzalcoatl, the Toltec Savior who incarnated among them to bring their spiritual essence to birth in them.

Another instance comes from the rich contribution of Greek culture: the experience of pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides of the fifth century bce. He begins his long poem About the Nature of Things with an invocation to the "goddess," who I suggest is Wisdom, patroness of the Mysteries. To find this wisdom, he is carried in the chariot of the sun through the Western gate of the sunset to the doorway to truth. This ties the poem immediately to the "midnight sun" of the early Dionysians and Orphics. It is in the darkness that Parmenides meets the goddess Dike, Justice, and remains with her until she opens the sunrise and allows the chariot to return to the region of light. The Greek word dike means more than "justice" as we use this word, resembling rather the Egyptian Maat and the Sanskrit dharma: at once order, the way, duty, righteousness, truth, and religion. The key to unlock Parmenides' meaning lies in the Greek view of nature as having a divine component as well as a physical. As far as we can tell from the fragments we have, Parmenides deduced his whole system from the divinity of physis (nature), for him the one Reality. This is his "Being," filling space; and "real thinking" is postulating what is, in contrast to what is not.

Numerous other references could be provided pointing to this global effort to evoke the human essence in stages of unfoldment, as the flower unfolds from the bud. It springs from the hunger people have always felt to discover reality, what Parmenides called the Thing which is, both within and outside themselves. This quest for meaning and inner growth is very much alive today, for as Bika Reed says, "meaning is the ultimate reality of every life. No one desires to live a meaningless life."

  • (From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Theosophical University Press.)

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    1. Subtitled "A Quest for the Immortal Essence of Human Awareness," Inner Traditions International, Ltd., Rochester, Vermont, 1987. (return to text)

    2. What is consciousness? Too often the term is associated with sense-awareness, as when we say "we are conscious of someone or something in a room." Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth backs away from the view that consciousness is associated with the head. He stresses that for him "The whole living world is informed by consciousness." We may add: not only the world, but the vastness of infinite space, as exemplified by the precision of cosmic processes. (return to text)

    3. Burning Water: Thought and Religion in Ancient Mexico, 1976. (return to text)