“The Secret Doctrine” – Past and Future

This year we commemorate the 125th anniversary of the publication of The Secret Doctrine (SD) written by H. P. Blavatsky. In spite of the time elapsed since it first appeared, this book is still in print, and sold to many around the world, both within and outside the Theosophical Society. This fact is all the more remarkable when one tries to approach its pages and discovers how very challenging the text is.

In studying the SD, one can see that the reason for its difficulty is not only the abstract nature of the subjects there presented, but also that this book was aimed at attaining several far reaching goals, simultaneously. Mme Blavatsky’s book not only sought to help the aspirant on his or her search for truth, but also to bring about a cultural change. Let us explore some of these aims.

i) Esoteric Philosophy

The SD presented for the first time to the general public a partial translation of The Book of Dzyan—a secret text kept in the possession of the Brotherhood of Adepts. The Stanzas of Dzyan and Blavatsky’s commentaries on them present some deep tenets of the Esoteric Philosophy about the origin, development, and destiny of man and cosmos, providing a frame of reference to understand the purpose of life and the nature of our journey. However, the SD is not offered as a divine revelation of the whole naked truth. In Blavatsky’s words, she simply tried “to bring some peace on earth to the hearts of those who suffer, by lifting for them a corner of the veil which hides from them divine truth” [2] (emphasis added). Why did she present only a portion of the “divine truth”?

The first thing to keep in mind is that the higher aspects of Truth cannot be conveyed by means of words. Concepts can only hint at realities that must be perceived in a direct way by raising our consciousness to the spiritual realms. But then, when discussing about more concrete aspects, some care is necessary, because these teachings in many cases deal with the nature of cosmic forces (whether physical or psychic) which could be misused by selfish people. To make this kind of knowledge widely available would result in a curse rather than a blessing. [*]

In spite of this, much was given through the SD, setting the foundations for a comprehensive esoteric view of the deity, life, cosmos, and human beings. This was to become a primary source of inspiration in the “occult revival” of the nineteenth and twentieth century, influencing not only Theosophists, but also the founders of esoteric orders and movements such as Max Heindel, Alice Bailey, Rudolph Steiner, Paul Brunton, and others.

ii) Ancient ‘Wisdom-Religion’

Another aim of the SD was to show the existence of an ancient ‘Wisdom-Religion’ from which all spiritual traditions, past and present, began. This idea was not new in human history. It had been proposed at different times by philosophers and mystics, as for example Marsilio Ficino’s Prisca Theologia in the fifteenth century. However, it had been forgotten in the Western society of the nineteenth century. Fascinated with the fast-developing science and technology, and influenced by the recently formulated Darwinian theory of evolution, educated people tended to regard the past as a period of ignorance and underdevelopment from which little could be learned. This Western influence was also beginning to affect the East, branding their ancient teachings as mere superstition.

Not only was the idea that there could be any wisdom in the past absurd for many, but that there was a common source for all the different religions in the world was unacceptable.

Today, it is widely recognized that there was wisdom in past cultures and religions. The East revalued its ancient teachings, and the existence of a “perennial philosophy” is accepted by many in the West, especially in philosophical circles among the thinkers affiliated with the Traditionalist School.

And although there is today an effort towards interfaith dialog, most religions still reject the existence of a common source. This proposal challenges the idea that only one religion is true, undermining the exclusivity that some groups strive to maintain. Its acceptance, however, would be an important step towards ending the wars based on religious beliefs, thereby truly strengthening their efforts towards love and compassion.

iii) The Occult Science

In the late nineteenth century some scientists were claiming to be on the verge of being able to explain everything in the universe in terms of a mechanistic model; the implication being that there is not a place or need for the spiritual in a universe that runs automatically as a precise machine. This caused a number of intellectual people to turn towards atheism and materialism, such as was the case of Annie Besant before she came in touch with Theosophy.

Previous Theosophical literature had put forward the idea of the existence of an “Occult Science” developed by some extraordinary individuals known as the Masters of the Wisdom. They had discovered the reality of hidden dimensions of the universe that transcended the physical. Because they were able to pierce into a wider field of reality, they were in a position to understand the nature of the physical plane better than modern science.

This occult science opposes the idea that the universe is a mechanical machine. It postulates that everything is the expression of an impersonal universal intelligence, and that the spiritual is “closer” to the Real than the physical.

In the SD (especially in the third part of each volume) Mme. Blavatsky presented some of the findings of the Occult Science, contrasting them with those of the science of her time. She questioned some fundamental scientific ideas such as the indivisibility of the atom, the understanding of gravity, the theories of the formation of the solar system, etc. As I have shown in a previous article (The Theosophist, Nov. 2012) many of the criticisms in the SD were proved to be true during the twentieth century, although there are still many others which remain to be verified.

Thus, the SD showed how spirituality can be scientific, and how science can potentially embrace the non-physical. Today, the idea of a connection between science and spirituality, although still not prevalent, is accepted by many, and is a field in steady development.

 

A Holistic World View

In its attempt to understand life and the universe humanity has developed three approaches––the religious, the philosophical, and the scientific. In the distant past, the three were not sharply separated, but with the passing of time each became more and more specialized, progressively growing apart. Eventually, they became hostile toward one another. As a result of this, human understanding became fragmented and generated flawed views of life, either based on irrational faith, blind materialism, or sceptic intellectualism.

We may say that the overall goal of the SD, as its subtitle “The Synthesis of Science, Religion, and Philosophy” indicates, is to provide a system in which these three disciplines are integrated. This synthetic view, however, cannot be attained through the mutually exclusive approaches of modern science, religion, and philosophy. Their common ground can be perceived only through a knowledge of the occult science, the wisdom-religion, and the esoteric philosophy; the three aspects of that single world view presented by Mme. Blavatsky in the SD.

This holistic system is not a syncretism; a mere agglomeration of different points of view, with a little religion here, some philosophy there, and a few scientific facts added. Just as water is not simply a mix of the gases oxygen and hydrogen, but a new compound with its own characteristics, this system is a new and radically different understanding.

Many of the teachings presented in the SD are of a spiritual nature; dealing with subjects that are the province of religion. However, they are not religious teachings, as we understand the term. To begin with, they are not offered as a revelation to be unquestioningly accepted. Even though these teachings relate to things that are beyond the normal perceptions of most people, they are meant to help the student develop a perception of truth of his own. Thus, “belief” in the concepts read or heard is not enough. As in philosophy, they must be cogent. But even an intellectual understanding of the teachings is not sufficient. As in science, the student must strive to verify them by his own experience, as far as it is possible for him at the present stage.

Although these teachings offer a particular world view and ethics, and expects the student to be able to approach them rationally; they do not constitute a philosophy in the modern conception of the word. Modern philosophy is the outcome of the intellectual and rational powers of the philosopher, who thinks out a certain explanation for some fundamental questions of life. The SD is not the outcome of Mme. Blavatsky’s ingenuity, but “the uninterrupted record covering thousands of generations of Seers whose respective experiences were made to test and to verify [the teachings]”. [2]

This places the information provided by the SD within the realm of science. Scientific data is the outcome of the observation of a group of people (the scientists) especially trained for the task. The knowledge most people have about science is not direct, but rests on the authority of scientists. If a person wants to verify any scientific assertion he can undergo the proper training and develop the necessary knowledge and skills to become a scientist. The teachings presented in the SD can also be verified by anyone who undergoes the course of “occult training” to become an Adept. However, the methods of research of the occult science are not based on the use of physical instruments. They employ spiritual senses which, being still dormant in most people, makes this training far more difficult than the one needed to become a regular scientist. And here is where modern science differs from its occult counterpart. The former limits its field of activity to the realm of the physical, having no means to go beyond it, while the “occult scientist” can embrace the higher planes or dimensions of the universe, which are normally unrecognized by current scientists.

 

The Secret Doctrine Today

The world of ideas has changed since the time the SD was first published, and in many cases this change was in the direction pointed out by Mme. Blavatsky. This book can justly be regarded as a pioneer in several fields. But now the question may be asked, has the SD already accomplished its goals? What is its value today?

In studying this book, it becomes clear that many of the references to the science of the time, as well as to thinkers, psychologists, and spiritualists that were relevant in the 19th century are now dated. Even the understanding of some religions and philosophies little known at the time has changed, rendering some portions of the SD irrelevant. In addition, this work has lost part of the power that came with HPB’s criticism to some of the trending ideas of her time.

All this belongs to the transient aspect of the SD, the one that was produced specifically for its contemporary reader, but this book has also an enduring value, centred on the presentation of the Esoteric Philosophy. Here again, we must take into account that in the last 125 years a number of Theosophical books have appeared offering a presentation of the main teachings of the Esoteric Philosophy. It is true that many of these books have Blavatsky’s magnum opus as a primary source of reference, but one may ask, what is the role of the SD in the ever growing Theosophical literature? Is it still valuable other than as a reference book?

The Theosophical literature in general aims at helping the student in three different ways: a) by offering a different perspective of life so that he or she can gain an understanding that supports and inspires spiritual living; b) by teaching how to tread the spiritual path; and c) by serving as a path of yoga (specifically, of jñāna yoga) through which the student can raise his or her consciousness to realize the spiritual truths.

In examining the SD in relation to these aims, many agree that this is not the best Theosophical book for the beginner to try to acquire an ordered and coherent new perspective of life. Actually, HPB herself is reported to have said:

If one imagines that one is going to get a satisfactory picture of the constitution of the Universe from the SD one will get only confusion from its study. [3]

To address the need for a more systematic exposition of the Theosophical teachings, Mme Blavatsky published her book The Key to Theosophy. To be sure, once the student has a fairly good understanding of Theosophy he can find in the SD gems that will contribute to this understanding. However, the Theosophical literature today offers works better fitted to provide a systematic and comprehensive exposition of the Theosophical world view.

Something similar can be said of the second aim of study. More direct and practical teachings as to how to tread the spiritual path can be found in other books and articles within the Theosophical tradition. Here again, the author of the SD wrote The Voice of the Silence, which is an important contribution in this field.

It is when we come to the third aim listed above, that of study as a form of yoga, that the SD still stands unparalleled within the Theosophical literature.

Most books are written in a way that appeal to the intellect of the student—their main purpose being that of conveying certain information. However, Truth is essentially beyond the realm of ideas. As Mme. Blavatsky wrote, it has to be perceived by the higher faculty of intuition:

The whole essence of truth cannot be transmitted from mouth to ear. Nor can any pen describe it, unless man finds the answer in the sanctuary of his own heart, in the innermost depths of his divine intuitions. [4]

When dealing with spirituality, books that offer concepts may be useful, but they are limited. Dr Annie Besant pointed out on several occasions that we develop our higher mind not through mere reading, but through hard and strenuous thinking.

The SD is not a book to be merely read, but rather to be worked on. The complexity of the teachings and the multiple aims this book sought to attain makes the teachings somewhat fragmentary and difficult to understand at an intellectual level. In Mme. Blavatsky’s words:

A work which compares several dozens of philosophies and over half-a-dozen of world-religions, a work which has to unveil the roots with the greatest precautions, as it can only hint at the secret blossoms here and there—cannot be comprehended at a first reading, nor even after several, unless the reader elaborates for himself a system for it. [5]

The study of the SD requires active work by the student. He has to sort the information out, to place the relevant pieces together, and elaborate his own system. This forces him to think, to look inside for answers, trying to figure out the missing pieces he often encounters. Although this feature causes some people to shy away from its study, we must remember that the very effort to perceive the supra-conceptual Truth symbolized by the teachings will gradually deepen our faculty of spiritual perception. This is the reason why Mme. Blavatsky told Robert Bowen that the true student of the SD is a jñāna yogi. [6]

In the writer’s view, it is in this important aspect that The Secret Doctrine is still very valuable to the present student and is likely to remain so for many years in the future.

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Notes

[*] As a simple example of this we can mention that the SD taught about the presence of energy in the atom. When, decades later, this fact was discovered by science, the knowledge was used to build an atomic bomb.

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References

[1] H. P. Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. 11, 283.

[2] H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine vol. I, pp. 272-273.

[3] Robert Bowen, Mme. Blavatsky on How to Study Theosophy, p. 8.

[4] H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine vol. II, p. 516.

[5] H. P. Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. 12, p. 235.

[6] Robert Bowen, Mme. Blavatsky on How to Study Theosophy,13.

 

 

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