Is the Desire to “Live” Selfish?
Theosophist, July, 1884
The passage “to live, to live, to live must be the unswerving resolve,” occurring in the article on the Elixir of Life, published in the March and April Numbers of Vol. III of The Theosophist—is often quoted by superficial and unsympathetic readers as an argument that the teachings of occultism are the most concentrated form of selfishness. In order to determine whether the critics are right or wrong, the meaning of the word “selfishness” must first be ascertained.
According to an established authority, selfishness is that “exclusive regard to one’s own interest or happiness; that supreme self-love or self-preference which leads a person to direct his purposes to the advancement of his own interest, power, or happiness, without regarding those of others.”
In short, an absolutely selfish individual is one who cares for himself and none else, or, in other words, one who is so strongly imbued with a sense of the importance of his own personality that to him it is the acme of all his thoughts, desires, and aspirations, and beyond that all is a perfect blank. Now, can an occultist be then said to be “selfish” when he desires to live in the sense in which that word is used by the writer of the article on the Elixir of Life? It has been said over and over again that the ultimate end of every aspirant after occult knowledge is Nirvana or Mukti, when the individual, freed from all Mayavic Upadhi, becomes one with Paramatma, or the Son identifies himself with the Father in Christian phraseology. For that purpose, every veil of illusion which creates a sense of personal isolation, a feeling of separateness from the All, must be torn asunder, or, in other words, the aspirant must gradually discard all sense of selfishness with which we are all more or less affected. A study of the Law of Cosmic Evolution teaches us that the higher the evolution, the more does it tend towards Unity. In fact, Unity is the ultimate possibility of Nature, and those who through vanity and selfishness go against her purposes, cannot but incur the punishment of total annihilation. The Occultist thus recognizes that unselfishness and a feeling of universal philanthropy are the inherent laws of our being, and all he does is to attempt to destroy the chains of selfishness forged upon us all by Maya. The struggle then between Good and Evil, God and Satan, Suras and Asuras, Devas and Daityas, which is mentioned in the sacred books of all the nations and races, symbolizes the battle between unselfish and selfish impulses, which takes place in a man, who tries to follow the higher purposes of Nature, until the lower animal tendencies, created by selfishness, are completely conquered, and the enemy thoroughly routed and annihilated. It has also been often put forth in various theosophical and other occult writings that the only difference between an ordinary man who works along with Nature during the course of cosmic evolution and an occultist, is that the latter, by his superior knowledge, adopts such methods of training and discipline as will hurry on that process of evolution, and he thus reaches in a comparatively short time that apex to ascend to which the ordinary individual will take perhaps billions of years. In short, in a few thousand years he approaches that type of evolution which ordinary humanity attains in the sixth or seventh round of the Manvantara, i.e., cyclic progression. It is evident that an average man cannot become a Mahatma in one life, or rather in one incarnation. Now those, who have studied the occult teachings concerning Devachan and our after-states, will remember that between two incarnations there is a considerable period of subjective existence. The greater the number of such Devachanic periods, the greater is the number of years over which this evolution is extended. The chief aim of the occultist is therefore to so control himself as to be able to regulate his future states, and thereby gradually shorten the duration of his Devachanic existence between two incarnations. In the course of his progress, there comes a time when, between one physical death and his next rebirth, there is no Devachan but a kind of spiritual sleep, the shock of death, having, so to say, stunned him into a state of unconsciousness from which he gradually recovers to find himself reborn, to continue his purpose. The period of this sleep may vary from twenty-five to two hundred years, depending upon the degree of his advancement. But even this period may be said to be a waste of time, and hence all his exertions are directed to shorten its duration so as to gradually come to a point when the passage from one state of existence into another is almost imperceptible. This is his last incarnation, as it were, for the shock of death no more stuns him. This is the idea the writer of the article on the Elixir of Life means to convey when he says:
By or about the time when the Death-limit of his race is passed HE IS ACTUALLY DEAD, in the ordinary sense, that is to say, he has relieved himself of all or nearly all such material particles as would have necessitated in disruption the agony of dying. He has been dying gradually during the whole period of his Initiation. The catastrophe cannot happen twice over. He has only spread over a number of years the mild process of dissolution which others endure from a brief moment to a few hours. The highest Adept is, in fact, dead to, and absolutely unconscious of, the World—he is oblivious of its pleasures, careless of its miseries—in so far as sentimentalism goes, for the stern sense of duty never leaves him blind to its very existence. . . .
The process of the emission and attraction of atoms, which the occultist controls, has been discussed at length in that article and in other writings. It is by these means that he gets rid gradually of all the old gross particles of his body, substituting for them finer and more ethereal ones, till at inst the former sthula sarira is completely dead and disintegrated, and he lives in a body entirely of his own creation, suited to his work. That body is essential to his purposes; as the Elixir of Life says:
But to do good, as in every thing else, a man must have time and materials to work with, and this is a necessary means to the acquirement of powers by which infinitely more good can be done than without them. When these are once mastered, the opportunities to use them will arrive. . . . .
In another place, in giving the practical instructions for that purpose, the same article says:
The physical man must be rendered more ethereal and sensitive; the mental man more penetrating and profound; the moral man more self-denying and philosophical.
The above important considerations are lost sight of by those who snatch away from the context the following passage in the same article:
And from this account too, it will be perceptible how foolish it is for people to ask the Theosophists “to procure for them communication with the highest Adepts.” It is with the utmost difficulty that one or two can be induced, even by the throes of a world, to injure their own progress by meddling with mundane affairs. The ordinary reader will say: “This is not God-like. This is the acme of selfishness.” . . . . But let him realize that a very high Adept, undertaking to reform the world, would necessarily have to once more submit to Incarnation. And is the result of all that have gone before in that line sufficiently encouraging to prompt a renewal of the attempt?
Now, in condemning the above passage as inculcating selfishness, superficial readers and thinkers lose sight of various important considerations. In the first place, they forget the other extracts already quoted which impose self-denial as a necessary condition of success, and which say that, with progress, new senses and new powers are acquired with which infinitely more good can be done than without them. The more spiritual the Adept becomes the less can he meddle with mundane gross affairs and the more he has to confine himself to spiritual work. It has been repeated, time out of number, that the work on the spiritual plane is as superior to the work on an intellectual plane as the latter plane is superior to that on a physical plane. The very high Adepts, therefore, do help humanity, but only spiritually: they are constitutionally incapable of meddling with worldly affairs. But this applies only to very high Adepts. There are various degrees of Adept-ship, and those of each degree work for humanity on the planes to which they may have risen. It is only the chelas that can live in the world, until they rise to a certain degree. And it is because the Adepts do care for the world that they make their chelas live in and work for it, as many of those who study the subject are aware. Each cycle produces its own occultists who will be able to work for the humanity of those times on all the different planes; but when the Adepts foresee that at a particular period the then humanity will be incapable of producing occultists for work on particular planes, for such occasions they do provide by either giving up voluntarily their further progress and waiting in those particular degrees until humanity reaches that period, or by refusing to enter into Nirvana and submitting to re-incarnation in time to reach those degrees when humanity will require their assistance at that stage. And although the world may not be aware of the fact, yet there are even now certain Adepts who have preferred to remain statu quo and refuse to take the higher degrees, for the benefit of the future generations of humanity. In short, as the Adepts work harmoniously, since unity is the fundamental law of their being, they have, as it were, made a division of labour, according to which each works on the plane at the time allotted to him, for the spiritual elevation of us all—and the process of longevity mentioned in the Elixir of Life is only the means to the end which, far from being selfish, is the most unselfish purpose for which a human being can labour.