What appears to the Western mind to be a very strange superstition prevails in India about wonderful persons who are said to be of immense age, and who keep themselves secluded in places not accessible to the ordinary traveller. So long has this been current in India that the name applied to these beings is well known in the Sanskrit language: “Mahatma,” a compound of two words, maha, great, and atma, soul. The belief in the existence of such persons is not confined to the ignorant, but is shared by the educated of all castes. The lower classes look upon the Mahatmas as a sort of gods, and think most of their wonderful powers and great age. The pundits, or learned class, and educated Hindus in general, have a different view; they say that Mahatmas are men or souls with unlimited knowledge of natural laws and of man’s history and development. They claim also that the Mahatmas — or Rishees, as they sometimes call them — have preserved the knowledge of all natural laws for ages, not only by tradition among their disciples, but also by actual records and in libraries existing somewhere in the many underground temples and passages in India. Some believers assert that there are also stores of books and records in secluded parts all over that part of Tibet which is not known to Europeans, access to them being possible only for the Mahatmas and Adepts.
The credence given to such a universal theory grows out of an old Indian doctrine that man is a spiritual being — a soul, in other words — and that this soul takes on different bodies from life to life on earth in order at last to arrive at such perfect knowledge, through repeated experience, as to enable one to assume a body fit to be the dwelling-place of a Mahatma or perfected soul. Then, they say, that particular soul becomes a spiritual helper to mankind. The perfected men are said to know the truth about the genesis of worlds and systems, as well as the development of man upon this and other planets.
Were such doctrines held only in India, it would be natural to pass the subject by with this brief mention. But when it is found that a large body of people in America and Europe hold the same beliefs, it is interesting to note such an un-Western development of thought. The Theosophical Society was founded in New York in 1875, with the avowed object of forming a nucleus for a Universal Brotherhood, and its founders state that they believe the Indian Mahatmas directed them to establish such a society. Since its foundation it has gained members in all countries, including people of wealth as well as those in moderate circumstances, and the highly cultured also. Within its ranks there flourish beliefs in the Mahatmas of India and in Reincarnation and its twin doctrine, Karma. This last holds that no power, human or divine, can save one from the consequences of acts performed, and that in this life we are experiencing the results due to us for all acts and thoughts which were ours in the preceding incarnation.
This has brought out a large body of literature in books and magazines published in the United States, England, India, and elsewhere. Newspapers are published in the interest of the new-old cult in the vernacular of Hindustan and also in old Ceylon. Even Japan has its periodicals devoted to the same end, and to ignore so widespread a movement would bespeak ignorance of the factors at work in our development. When such an eminent authority as the great French savant, Emile Bournouf, says
that the Theosophical movement must be counted as one of the three great religious influences in the world today, there is no need of an excuse for presenting its features in detail to readers imbued with the civilization of the West.
In my former paper I merely hinted at the two principal doctrines promulgated by the Theosophical Society; it is well now to notice the fact that the Society itself was organized amid a shout of laughter, which at intervals ever since has been repeated. Very soon after it launched forth, its president, Col. H. S. Olcott, who during our late war was a familiar figure in Washington, found a new member in Baron Henry Louis de Palm, who died and obligingly left his body to the Colonel to be cremated. The funeral was held at Masonic Hall, New York, and attracted great attention. It was Theosophical in its character. Col. Olcott presided, a Spiritualist offered an invocation, and a Materialist read a service. All this, of course, drew forth satire from the press, but served the purpose of gaining some attention for the young Society. Its history since then has been remarkable, and it is safe to say that no other similar body in this century has drawn to itself so much consideration, stirred up such a thinking among people on mystical subjects, and grown so rapidly amid the loudest derision and against the fiercest opposition, within the short space of fifteen years.
While the press has been sneering and enemies have been plotting, the workers in the Society have established centers all over the world, and are today engaged persistently in sending out Theosophical literature into every nook and corner of the United States. A glance at the Theosophical map shows a line of Branches of the Society dotting a strip of this country which reaches from the city of New York to the Pacific Coast; at either end this belt spreads out to take in Boston and New Orleans in the east and San Francisco and San Diego in the West; while near the middle of the continent there is another accumulation of centers. This is claimed to be strictly and mystically Theosophical, because at each end of the magic line of effort and at its central point there is an accumulation of nuclei. It is a fact that the branches of the Society in America are rapidly running up into the first hundred.
For some little time there existed in Washington a Branch of the Society called the Gnostic, but it never engaged in any active work. After it had been once incontinently dissolved by its president, who thereafter withdrew, leaving the presidency in the hands of another, the governing body of the American Theosophists formally dischartered the Gnostic, and its members joined other Branches. There is, however, today a Washington Branch named boldly after the much lauded and belittled Mme. H. P. Blavatsky, while the Theosophical map shows an accumulation of influences in Washington that point to an additional Branch, and inquiry in official quarters discloses the fact that the matter is already mooted.
The Theosophical map of which I have spoken is a curiosity, an anomaly in the nineteenth century. Few of the members are allowed to see it; but those who are say that it is a register of the actual state, day by day, of the whole United States Section — a sort of weather map, with areas of pressure and Theosophical humidity in all directions. Where a Branch is well founded and in good condition, the spot or sensitive surface shows clearness and fixity. In certain places which are in a formative condition there is another appearance symptomatic of a vortex that may soon bring forth a Branch; while, wherever the principle of disintegration has crept into an existing organization, there the formerly bright and fixed spots grow cloudy. By means of this
map, those who are managing the real growth of the movement can tell how it is going and aid it intelligently. Of course all this sounds ridiculous in our age; but, whether true or false, there are many Theosophists who believe it. A similar arrangement would be desirable in other branches of our civilization. The grand theories of the Theosophists regarding evolution, human races, religions and general civilization, as well as the future state of man and the various planets he inhabits, should engage our more serious attention; and of these I propose to speak at another time.
The first Echo from the burnished and mysterious East which reverberated from these pages sounded the note of Universal Brotherhood. Among the men of this day such an idea is generally accepted as vague and utopian, but one which it will do no harm to subscribe to; they therefore quickly assent, and as quickly nullify the profession by action in the opposite direction. For the civilization of today, and especially of the United States, is an attempt to accentuate and glorify the individual. The oft-repeated declaration that any born citizen may aspire to occupy the highest office in the gift of the nation is proof of this, and the Mahatmas who guard the truth through the ages while nations are decaying, assert that the reaction is sure to come in a relapse into the worst forms of anarchy. The only way to prevent such a relapse is for men to really practice the Universal Brotherhood they are willing to accept with the tongue. These exalted beings further say that all men are — as a scientific and dynamic fact — united, whether they admit it or not; and that each nation suffers, on the moral as well as the physical plane, from the faults of all other nations, and receives benefit from the others also even against its will. This is due to the existence of an imponderable, tenuous medium which interpenetrates the entire globe, and in which all the acts and thoughts of every man are felt and impressed, to be afterward reflected again. Hence, say the Adepts, the thoughts or the doctrines and beliefs of men are of the higher importance, because those that prevail among people of a low character are just as much and as easily reflected upon the earth as are the thoughts and beliefs of persons occupying a higher plane of culture.
This is a most important tenet, if true; for, with the aid of the discoveries just now admitted by science respecting hypnotism, we are at once able to see that an enormous hypnotizing machine is about. As this tenuous medium — called by the men of the East “Akasa,” and by the medieval philosophers the “Astral Light” — is entirely beyond our control, we are at the mercy of the pictures made in it and reflected upon us.
If to this we add the wonderfully interesting doctrine of Reincarnation, remembering also that the images made in the Astral Light persist for centuries, it is at once seen that upon returning again to earth-life we are affected for good or evil by the conduct, the doctrine and the aspirations of preceding nations and men. Returning here now, for instance, we are moved, without our knowledge, by the impressions made in the Astral Light at the time when the Indians, the Spaniards, and the harsh Puritans lived upon the earth. The words of the immortal Shakspere –
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interrèd with their bones,
receive a striking exemplification under this doctrine. For, as the evil thoughts and deeds are the more material and therefore more firmly impacted into the Astral Light, while the good, being spiritual, easily fade out, we are in effect at the mercy of the evil done. And the Adepts assert that Shakspere was, unconsciously to himself, inspired by one of their own number. I shall refer again to this branch of the subject. The scheme of evolution put forth by these beings and their disciples is so broad, deep and far-reaching as to stagger the ordinary mind. It takes in with ease periods of years running up into trillions and quadrillions. It claims that man has been on earth for millions of years more than science yet is willing to admit. It is not bound by the narrow scheme of biblical chronologists, nor startled by the magnificent age of civilizations which disappeared long ago. The keepers of this doctrine say that they and their predecessors lived in those older times, and have preserved not only the memory of them, but also complete records. These records, moreover, are not merely on perishable paper and palm leaf, but on imperishable stone. They point to such remains as the statues twenty-seven feet high found on Easter Island; to rows of gigantic statues in Asia, that by their varying heights show the gradual diminution of human stature, which kept pace with other degenerations; and, to crown all, they say that they possess today in the East the immense and well guarded collections of records of all sorts. Not only are these records said to relate to the physical history of man, but also to his astral and spiritual evolution.
Before closing this paper, I can only indicate one of their basic doctrines in the scheme of evolution. That is, that the evolution of the inner, astral form of man came first in order, and continued for an immense number of years before his physical structure was built up around it. This, with other portions of the doctrine, is vital and will aid much in an understanding of the complex questions presented to us by the history of the human race, both that which is known and that which is still resting on conjecture.
The records to which in my last paper I referred, as having been kept by the Adepts and now in the possession of their present representatives and successors — Adepts also — relate not only to the birth of planets in this solar system, but also to the evolution and development of man, through the various kingdoms of nature, until he reaches the most perfect condition which can be imagined. The evolution of the human being includes not only the genesis of his mortal frame, but, as well, the history of the inner man, whom they are accustomed to call the real one.
This, then, brings us to a very interesting claim put forward for the Wisdom Religion, that it pretends to throw light not only upon man’s emotions and mental faculties, but also upon his pre-natal and post-mortem states, both of which are of the highest interest and importance. Such questions as, “Where have I come from?” and, “What shall be my condition after death?” trouble and confuse the minds of all men, ignorant or cultured. Priests and thinkers have, from time to time, formulated theories, more or less absurd, as to those pre-natal and post-mortem states, while the Science of today laughs in derision at the idea of making any inquiry into the matter whatever. Theologians have offered explanations, all of which relate only to what they suppose will happen to us after death, leaving entirely out of view and wholly unanswered the natural question, “What were we before we were born here?” And, taking them on their own ground, they are in a most illogical position, because, having once postulated immortality for the soul — the real man — they cannot deny immortality in either direction. If man is immortal, that immortality could never have had a beginning, or else it would have an end. Hence their only escape from the dilemma is to declare that each soul is a special creation. But this doctrine of a special creation for each soul born upon the earth, is not dwelt upon or expounded by the priests, inasmuch as it is deemed better to keep it discreetly in the background.
The Wisdom Religion, on the other hand, remains logical from beginning to end. It declares that man is a spiritual being, and allows of no break in the chain of anything once declared immortal. The Ego of each man is immortal; “always was existent, always will be, and never can be non-existent”; appearing now and again, and reappearing, clothed in bodies on each occasion different, it only appears to be mortal; it always remains the substratum and support for the personality acting upon the stage of life. And in those appearances as mortal, the questions mooted above — as to the pre-natal and post-mortem states — are of vital interest, because knowledge or ignorance concerning them alters man’s thought and action while an actor on the stage, and it is necessary for him to know in order that he may so live as to aid in the grand upward sweep of the evolutionary wave.
Now the Adepts have for ages pursued scientific experimentation and investigation upon those lines. Seers themselves of the highest order, they have recorded not only their own actual experiences beyond the veil of matter, on both sides, but have collected, compared, analyzed and preserved the records of experiences of the same sort by hundreds of thousands of lesser seers, their own disciples; and this process has been going on from time immemorial. Let Science laugh as it may, the Adepts are the only true scientists, for they take into account every factor in the question, whereas Science is limited by brain-power, by circumstance, by imperfection of instruments, and by a total inability to perceive anything deeper than the mere phenomena presented by matter. The records of the visions and experiences of the greater and lesser seers, through the ages, are extant today. Of their mass, nothing has been accepted except that which as been checked and verified by millions of independent observations; and therefore the Adepts stand in the position of those who possess actual experimental knowledge of what precedes the birth of the Ego in a human form, and what succeeds when the “mortal coil” is cast away.
This recording of experiences still goes on; for the infinity of the changes of Nature in its evolution permits of no stoppage, no “last word,” no final declaration. As the earth sweeps around the sun, it not only passes through new places in its orbit, but, dragged as it is by the sun through his greater orbit, involving millions of millions of years, it must in that larger circle enter upon new fields in space and unprecedented conditions. Hence the Adepts go farther yet and state that, as the phenomena presented by matter today are different from those presented a million years ago, so matter will in another million of years show different phenomena still. Indeed, if we could translate our sight to that time, far back in the past of our globe, we could see conditions and phenomena of the material world so different from those now surrounding us that it would be almost impossible to believe we had ever been in such a state as that then prevailing. And the changes toward the conditions that will prevail at a point equally remote in advance of us, in time, and which will be not less than those that have occurred, are in progress now. Nothing in the material world endures absolutely unchanged in itself or its conditions, even for the smallest conceivable portion of time. All that is, is forever in process of becoming something else. This is not mere transcendentalism, but is an old established doctrine called, in the East, “the doctrine of the constant, eternal change of atoms from one state into another.”