Making Theosophy Living, Practical & Transformative

Raghavan Iyer (1930-1995) at the United Lodge of Theosophists in Santa Barbara, California, USA. Excerpts from his article “The Descent of Manas” constitute the second half of this article.

In “The Secret Doctrine” Vol. 1, p. 169, H. P. Blavatsky warns that of the various branches of Vidya or esoteric knowledge, “it is only the last one, “Atma-Vidya,” or the true Spiritual and Divine wisdom, which can throw absolute and final light upon the teachings” of the others. “Without the help of Atma-Vidya,” she warns, “the other three remain no better than surface sciences, geometrical magnitudes having length and breadth, but no thickness.” Unless “the key to [the] teachings is furnished by Atma-Vidya, they will remain for ever like the fragments of a mangled text-book, like the adumbrations [i.e. vague shadows, faint images, partially concealed sketches] of great truths, dimly perceived by the most spiritual, but distorted out of all proportion by those who would nail every shadow to the wall.”

In that passage, she is contrasting Atma Vidya – which literally means “Self Knowledge” or “Science of the Self,” Atma or Atman usually meaning the higher, spiritual, divine Self, the universal essence present within all – with other Vidyas mentioned in Hinduism, “namely, “Yajna-Vidya” (the performance of religious rites in order to produce certain results); “Maha-Vidya,” the great (Magic) knowledge, now degenerated into Tantrika worship; “Guhya-Vidya,” the science of Mantras and their true rhythm or chanting, of mystical incantations, etc.”

Very few students of Theosophy are involved with the Yajna Vidya, Maha Vidya, and Guhya Vidya that are spoken of there. But this passage is nonetheless very important since it also serves as a warning regarding anyone’s approach to Theosophy.

It is all too easy for Theosophy to remain – even for a completely sincere, serious, and devoted student of it – little more than “a surface science,” by which we mean that one may become so caught up in the vast, deep, and complex metaphysics and philosophical details that the light of Theosophy is not allowed to penetrate very much further or deeper than the brain-mind and intellect. Anyone can quite easily assess for themselves to what degree this is so in their own individual case: when a serious crisis, difficulty, or challenge confronts you – or even, for that matter, a relatively small one – how do you react and respond to it? How do you deal with it? If it overwhelms you, unbalances you, and throws you off course, affecting you in much the same way as it would affect any ordinary person who has not even encountered Theosophy or spiritual truths, this is quite a clear sign that one’s Theosophy has not yet gone much further than the mere surface of our being. We emphasise “not yet” because this can readily be altered and corrected.

Another sign of this issue is a desire to “nail every shadow to the wall,” i.e. to make emphatic, rigid, and often dogmatic statements and definitive assertions about those Theosophical subjects and teachings which have only barely been hinted at or only very briefly outlined by the Masters of Wisdom and Teachers of Theosophy. This is not to say that one should adopt a “wishy-washy” approach to the teachings but HPB has warned us that no student of Theosophy should consider himself or herself “as more than, at best, a pupil-teacher – one who has no right to dogmatize.” (“Five Messages from H. P. Blavatsky to The American Theosophists” p. 4) Similarly, in her “Gems from The East,” we read “Theosophy is the vehicle of the spirit that giveth life; consequently, nothing dogmatic can be Theosophical.” Obviously this concept has been misrepresented by some Theosophists, who claim that it is dogmatic even to repeat and present the teachings of H. P. Blavatsky and the Masters. No, that is certainly not dogmatic but the attempt to “nail every shadow to the wall” cannot help but “distort out of all proportion” even some of the greatest truths, both in our own perceptions and understanding and that of those to whom we may impart them.

In other words, (1) to take an entirely or almost entirely intellectual and theoretical approach to Theosophy, and (2) to try, whether consciously or semi-consciously, to make Theosophy into a fixed, rigid, religious system in which no alternative or differing viewpoints and perspectives are tolerated, welcomed, or even considered, – are very problematic. But no-one is to be blamed for this and no doubt all of us have succumbed to it to some extent at one time or another, hence HPB issuing the warning and pointing to Atma Vidya as the solution. In her article “Occultism versus The Occult Arts” she refers briefly to “ATMA-VIDYA, a term which is translated simply “Knowledge of the Soul,” true Wisdom by the Orientalists, but which means far more. This last [i.e. Atma Vidya] is the only kind of Occultism that any Theosophist who admires Light on the Path, and who would be wise and unselfish, ought to strive after.”

In Chapter 10 of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna imparts to Arjuna numerous details of metaphysical realities but then concludes the chapter with a question which is very applicable to all Theosophists: “But of what use to you is the knowledge of all these details, O Arjuna?”

Clearly, there is a use to which such knowledge can be put, otherwise there would be no point to the rest of the chapter that preceded that question. The point is that knowledge of occult details is meant to be applied, meditated upon, and put into practice, as far as possible, rather than remain a mass of theoretical information which may go no further than the brain-mind.

In the closing sections of “The Descent of Manas,” an article first written in 1980 by Raghavan Iyer and posthumously published much more recently in Vol. 1 of his three volume book “The Gupta Vidya,” we find some practical and inspiring advice on these very points. There, Iyer tells us that although Theosophy itself is “the esoteric teaching,” it is nonetheless possible to turn it into an “exoteric form” and that some have unfortunately done this. He points to three main solutions to this or ways to avoid it:

* Sufficient meditation

* Proper attention to duty (one’s Dharma)

* Adequate assimilation of the ideal of sacrifice, rooted in metaphysical understanding of Yajna (sacrifice)

One will find all three of these forming a large part of the message of the Bhagavad Gita but one will also find them throughout the authentic teachings of the modern Theosophical Movement. Take, for example, the compilations and explanations found in The Raja Yoga of Theosophy, The Theosophical Guide to Meditation, Practical Theosophy, Helpful Hints for Spiritual Progress, Daily Self-Study and Self-Examination, Living Consciously, The Two Paths, and other articles listed under the heading “SPIRITUAL LIVING AND PRACTICE” on our Articles page. We appreciate that for some, the three things just mentioned may not come very naturally or easily. But once one begins to truly and deeply reflect upon Atma or Atman – the ONE Universal Self of all and in all and expressing Itself as all – and once we make the effort to keep that in our thoughts and reflections every single day, it becomes far more naturally and easily a basis for thought and action. There is a big difference between KNOWLEDGE and WISDOM.

We now conclude with excerpts from “The Descent of Manas” by Raghavan Iyer:

Occultism begins when one ceases from all complaints, tortuous games and cowardly delay, and instead silently resolves to come to terms with the manifold karma of an incarnation. Rather than infecting and polluting the elementals of one’s astral photosphere by excessive statements of intention, idle speculation and resentment of supposedly external duties, one must embrace the initially painful recognition that duty is inherent to one’s status as a human being. Even a week of wise and cool reflection upon the dharma of being human and potentially divine can lighten a lifetime, but those who do not even make this effort will never understand the point. . . . Whereas, as soon as one takes a firm stand upon what is truly human, and through deep thought and meditation cuts to the core of essential self-respect and inescapable responsibility to the whole of life, one can create a passage in that aspect of Manas which is conjoined to the lower principles [i.e. the Lower Manas or lower mind; see Manas – The Mystery of Mind, Ego Is Not A Bad Word, and Antahkarana – The Path for explanations of the dual Manas or Mind principle], through which the light of Buddhi can illumine the field of duty. Thus Kurukshetra [i.e. the name of the battlefield in the Bhagavad Gita, on which Krishna guides and instructs Arjuna and which represents the battlefield of our own life and internal struggles] becomes Dharmakshetra [i.e. “field of duty”]. . . .

“To a sadhaka or seeker who thinks in this archetypal mode, the sole reason for skilfully performing any act in life is to render gentle and gracious service to others, to human beings as well as to life-atoms. There is, for example, no other metaphysically sound reason to clean and care for one’s physical body than the duty one owes oneself as a trustee of Nature and a servant of Humanity. If one grasps the idea of Monadic evolution metaphysically, and not merely statistically or speculatively, it will be evident that there are myriad opportunities daily for engaging in sacrificial acts of service to others. It is the exalted privilege of a self-conscious Monad to be able to serve all life-atoms through the concentrated power of compassionate thought. The humanity of the future will readily associate its healing exposure to the mellow light of the early morning sun, or its cool enjoyment of pellucid water, with a vivid awareness of invisible beings that are magically fused in a divine dance. Bringing Buddhic perception to creative acts, they will balance the antipodes of human nature, suffusing the most ordinary and simple tasks with the exhilarating fragrance of veiled serenity.

“Once a person becomes adept in this art of service, the whole of life becomes a song of ceaseless and silent sacrifice, the true ‘music of the spheres’ intimating the mystery of Apollo’s lyre. A point is soon reached at which one can scarcely believe that one could waste a single hour brooding over the shadowy self, though one will recognize that this is precisely what one did in life after life of ignorance, even in the presence of the Divine Wisdom and its loving exemplars. Then one will appreciate what the wise have always taught, that anyone who misuses, let alone flouts and betrays, a great opportunity, will not in any future life be able to come into a close relationship with any Spiritual Teacher. . . .

“The arcane teachings of the sevenfold nature of the earth and Man are not offered for the sake of those who would “nail every shadow to the wall.” . . . The esoteric teaching regarding septenary chains is intended for those who are dedicated to the sacrificial awakening of spiritual intuition in the service of all, and those who are prepared to make Buddhic application of Divine Wisdom in daily life. . . .

“Dynamically, only the Atman and Buddhi are of the spiritual plane because they have an eternally self-sustaining light-energy. The Atman is in perpetual motion and Buddhi is the diffused but indestructible light of the Atman. Atman and Buddhi do not typically incarnate in human beings. If they did, human beings would be gods. But before human beings can become gods, they must become heroes. For them to become heroes they must enter the thought-sphere of Manas and elevate it towards higher altitudes. . . .

“Manasic or ethical evolution rests on a fundamental distinction between what is self-sustaining, enduring and indestructible in the spiritual realm, and what is changing, evanescent and discontinuous in the material realm. Because of the downward movement of thought from the spiritual plane into the material plane and upward back to the spiritual plane, there is a constant possibility of the crass materializing of the spiritual, the effete etherealizing of the material. When a human being wakes up to the practical and profound alchemical implications of the metaphysical teaching that every moment one has the opportunity either to choose ethereal and refined conceptions or the opposite, then the doctrine of the seven globes comes alive. One can take even the most worldly material events and lend them beauty, significance and meaning from the standpoint of the immortal soul through the power of Manasic consecration. For the noetic mind it is natural even to take the most trivial subject and to give it a deeper meaning, whereas the mind caught in the coils of kama can take even sacred themes and constantly concretize them.

Those who understand what is really at stake . . . could then look at their feelings, their thoughts, and particularly their words, to find out how much they are raising consciousness and how often they are lowering it. The tone of voice becomes important; the light in the eyes becomes relevant; one’s first thought on waking and one’s last thought before speaking become valuable tests. When the spiritual life becomes real in these ways, life itself is transformed, enriched, elevated, even beatified.

“H. P. Blavatsky urges, as do the Mahatmas, that people become aware of these tendencies. Again and again the Masters of the East have written with great pain about the difficulty of teaching spiritual wisdom to a materialistic age because of the constant danger of over-categorization, over-definition and concretization, which are real dangers that affect what happens to the Teachings. While some of this is due to materialization of terms, obscuring the meanings behind the veil of words, the real problem is in consciousness, not language. The difference in the end is between Wisdom and knowledge, between the Sun and the planets, between the Atman and the other principles. Without the Soul Science, Gupta Vidyathe Secret Wisdom, and Atma VidyaSpiritual Self-knowledge, all the other facets of occult learning will be useless. They will merely become mechanical activities, mixed up with psychic fantasy. Although they may increase the operation of instinctual behaviour, and be often mistaken for the spiritual, they will have little to do with the spiritual, least of all with fully self-conscious spiritual impulses. . . .

“The great danger is that if one is caught up in the exoteric form of the esoteric teaching, through lack of meditation, inattention to duty, and insufficient assimilation of the ideal of sacrifice rooted in metaphysical understanding, one will merely activate a lunar astral form and generate the kama rupa [i.e. an empty shell, hollow appearance] of a disciple. In other words, everything will become merely the mimetics of mechanical motions. On the other hand, if one is truly in search of the immortal soul, viewing spiritual realities and seminal ideas as one’s true invisible companions, then one will be constantly probing into the hidden depths of one’s own nature in silence with calmness, serenity, contentment and cheerfulness. One will deepen and strengthen whatever elements of these qualities one can already find within, always putting the onus upon oneself, and never on the side of others or on the side of discontent, psychic noise and petulant complaint. The sovereign responsibility and golden opportunity in the use of this teaching are great because if it is applied in earnest each day, it will infallibly deepen all one’s perceptions. Seeing beyond the outer surface of terrestrial life to the inmost depths of every other human soul, one will truly become a friend and a helper of the entire human race.


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