[On Common Doctrines]
A talk given at the World’s Parliament of Religions, September, 1893
Mr. Chairman; brothers and sisters; men and women; members of the Parliament of Religions: The Theosophical Society has been presenting to you but one-half of its work, but one-half of that which it has to present to the world. This is the Parliament of Religions. This is a Parliament of the Religions of the day. Theosophy is not only a religion; it is also a science; it is religious science and scientific religion, and at a Parliament of Religions it would not be possible, indeed it would not be proper, to present the science of Theosophy, which relates to so many matters outside of the ordinary domain of the religions of today. The time will come when religion will also be a science. Today it is not. The object of Theosophy is to make of religion also a science, and to make science a religion, so we have been presenting only one-half of the subject which we deal with, and I would like you to remember that. We could not go into the other part; it would be beyond the scope of this meeting.
Now, we have discovered during the last week, as many have discovered before by reading, by experience, and by travel, that the religions of the world are nearly all alike. We have discovered that Christianity is not alone in claiming a Savior. If you will go over to Japan you will find that the Buddhists of Japan have a doctrine which declares that any one who relies upon and repeats three times a day the name “Amita Buddha,” will be saved. That is one Savior of the Buddhists, who had the doctrine before Christianity was started. If you will go among the Buddhists elsewhere you will find that they also have a Savior; that by reliance upon the Lord Buddha, they claim they will be saved. If you will go to the Brahmins and the other religions of India, you will find they also have a Savior. In some parts of that mysterious land they say: “Repeat the name of Rama”—God—”and he will save you.” The Brahmins themselves have in their doctrines a doctrine which is called the “Bridge Doctrine”: that which has God for its aim, has God himself as the means of salvation; is itself God. And so wherever you go throughout this wide world, examining the various religions, you find they all have this common doctrine. Why should we then say that the latest of these religions is the inventor of the doctrine? It is not. It is common property of the whole human race, and we find on further inquiry that these religions all teach, and the Christian religion also, that this Savior is within the heart of every man, and is not outside of him.
We have discovered further by examining all these religions and comparing them with the Christian religion, which is the one belonging to the foremost nation of today, that in these other religions and in Christianity are found certain doctrines which constitute the key that will unlock this vast lock made up of the different religions. These doctrines are not absent from Christianity any more than they are absent from Buddhism or from Brahminism, and now the time has come when the world must know that these doctrines are common property, when it is too late for any people West or East to claim that they have a special property in any doctrine whatever.
The two principles which unlock this great lock which bars men sometimes from getting on, are called Karma and Reincarnation. The latter doctrine bears a more difficult Sanscrit name.
The doctrine of Karma put into our language is simply and solely Justice. What is justice? Is it something that condemns alone? I say, No. Justice is also mercy. For mercy may not be dissociated from justice, and the word justice itself includes mercy within it. Not the justice of man, which is false and erring, but the justice of Nature. That is also mercy.
For if she punishes you, it is in order that she may do a merciful act and show you the truth at last by discipline. That is the doctrine of Karma, and it is also called the ethical law of causation. It means that effect follows cause uniformly; not alone in mere objective nature, where if you put your hand in the fire it will surely be burned, but in your moral nature, throughout your whole spiritual and intellectual evolution. It has been too much the custom to withdraw from use this law of cause and effect the moment we look at man as a spiritual being; and the religions and philosophies of the past and the present have the proof within them that this law of cause and effect obtains on the spiritual, the moral, and the intellectual planes just as much as it does on the physical and objective. It is our object to once more bring back this law of justice to the minds of men and show them that justice belongs to God, and that he is not a God who favors people, but who is just because he is merciful.
The doctrine of reincarnation is the next one. Reincarnation, you say, what is that? Do you mean that I was here before? Yes, undoubtedly so. Do you mean to tell me that this is a Christian, a Buddhist, a Brahminical, a Japanese doctrine, and a Chinese one? Yes, and I can prove it; and if you will examine your own records with an unprejudiced and fearless mind, afraid of no man, you will prove it also. If you go back in the records of Christianity to the first year of it, you will find that for many centuries this doctrine was taught. Surely the men who lived near Jesus knew what the doctrine was. It was admitted by Jesus himself. He said on one occasion that Elias had already come back in the person of John, but had been destroyed by the ruler. How could Elias come back and be born again as John unless the law of nature permitted it? We find on examining the writers, the early Christian fathers who made the theology of the Christian churches admitting, by the greatest of them, Origen, that this doctrine was true. He, the greatest of them all, who wrote so much men could not read all his books, believed in it. It is said in the Christian scripture that Jesus also said so much they could not record it, and if they had, the volumes could not be counted. If these teachings were not recorded, we can imagine from what he spoke and from what his early followers believed, that this doctrine was taught distinctly by him in words.
It is the doctrine of which the Reverend Mr. Beecher, brother of the famous Henry Ward Beecher, in a book called The Conflict of Religions, said, “It is an absolute necessity to Christianity; without it Christianity is illogical. With it it is logical.” And a great writer, the Rev. William Alger, whose book, A Critical History of the Doctrine of a Future Life, is used in the religious educational institutions of all denominations with perhaps one exception, has written twice in two editions and said that after fifteen years study of the subject he had come to the conclusion that the doctrine was true and necessary.
Furthermore, we find that in these countries where Christianity arose—for Christianity is not a Western product— reincarnation has always been believed. You ask for human evidence. You believe in this city, not only in this city but everywhere, in a court of law, if many witnesses testify to a fact it is proven. Well, millions upon millions of men in the East testify that they not only believe in reincarnation, but that they know it is true, that they remember that they were born before and that they were here before, and hundreds and thousands of men in the West have said the same thing. That they not only believe it, but that they know it. Poets have written of it all through English literature. It is a doctrine that almost everybody believes in their hearts. The little child coming straight from the other shore, coming without any defects straight from the heavenly Father, believes that it has always lived.
If the doctrine of immortality which is taught by every religion is true, how can you split it in halves and say, you began to be immortal when you were born and you were never immortal before? How is it possible you did not live before if there is any justice in this universe? Is it not true that what happens is the result of your conduct? If you live a life of sin and wickedness, will you not suffer? If you steal, and rob, and lie, and put in operation causes for punishment, will you not be punished? Why should not that law be applied to the human being when born, to explain his state and capacity? We find children are born blind, deformed, halt, without capacity; where is the prior conduct which justifies such a thing, if they have just been born for the first time? They must have lived before. The disciples asked Jesus, “Why was this man born blind; was it for some sin he had committed?” When committed? When did he commit it if he had never been born before? Why ask Jesus, their master, this question, unless they believed the doctrine, unless, as we think, it is the true one and one then prevalent?
This doctrine of reincarnation, then, we claim is the lost chord of any religion that does not promulgate it. We say it is found in the Christian religion; it is found in every religion, and it offers to us a means whereby our evolution may be carried on, it offers an explanation to the question, Why are men born with different characters? We find one man born generous, and he will always be generous; we find another born selfish, and selfish he will be to the end of his life. We find one man born with great capacity, a great mind that can cover many subjects at once; or a special mind and capacity like that of Mozart. Why was he born so? Where did he get it if not from the character he had in the past? You may say that heredity explains it all. Then please explain how Blind Tom, born of negro parents who never knew anything about a piano, who never knew anything about music, was able to play upon a mechanically scaled instrument like the piano? It is not a natural thing. Where did he get the capacity? Heredity does not explain that. We explain it by reincarnation. Just so with Mozart, who at four years of age was able to write an orchestral score. Do you know what that means? It means the writing down the parts for the many instruments, and not only that, but writing it in a forced scale, which is a mechanical thing. How will that be explained by heredity? If you say that among his ancestors there must have been musicians, then why not before or after him? See Bach! If Bach could look back from the grave he would have seen his musical genius fading and fading out of his family until at last it disappeared.
Heredity will not explain these great differences in character and genius, but reincarnation will. It is the means of evolution of the human soul; it is the means of evolution for every animate and inanimate thing in this world. It applies to everything. All nature is constantly being reëmbodied, which is reincarnation. Go back with science. It shows you that this world was first a mass of fiery vapor; come down the years and you see this mass reëmbodied in a more solid form; later still it is reëmbodied as the mineral kingdom, a great ball in the sky, without life; later still animal life begins evolving until now it has all that we know of life, which is a reëmbodiment over and over again, or reincarnation. It means, then, that just as you move periodically from house to house in the city, you are limited by every house you move into, so the human being, who never dies, is not subject to death, moves periodically from house to house, and takes up a mortal body life after life, and is simply limited a little more or a little less, just as the case may be, by the particular body he may inhabit.
I could not go through all this subject to answer all the objections, but Theosophy will answer them all. The differences in people are explained by the fact that the character of the individual attracts him to the family that is just like himself, and not to any other family, and through heredity he receives his discipline, punishment, and reward.
The objections to reincarnation are generally based upon the question, why we do not remember. In the West that objection arises from the fact that we have been materialists so long, we have been deceived so long, that we have forgotten; we are not able to remember anything but what makes a violent impression on our senses. In the East and in some places in the West the people remember, and the time will come when the people in the West will remember also. And I warrant you that the children of the West know this, but it is rubbed out of their minds by their fathers and mothers. They say to the child, “Don’t bother me with such questions; you are only imagining things.” As if a child could imagine that it had been here before if it had not been. They never could imagine a thing which has not some existence in fact or that is not built up from impressions received. As you watch the newborn child you will see it throw its arms out to support itself. Why should the child throw out its arms to support itself? You say, instinct. What is instinct? Instinct is recollection imprinted upon the soul, imprinted upon the character within a child just born, and it knows enough to remember that it must throw out its arms to save itself from being hurt. Any physician will tell you this fact is true. Whether they explain it in the same way as I do or not, I don’t know. We cannot remember our past lives simply because the brain which we now have was not concerned with these past lives. You say you cannot remember a past life, and therefore you don’t believe it is true. Well if we grant that kind of argument, apply it to the fact that you cannot remember the facts of your present existence here; you cannot remember what dinner you ate three weeks ago; you cannot remember one-quarter of what has happened to you. Do you mean to say that all these things did not happen because you cannot remember? You cannot remember what happens to you now, so how do you expect to remember what happened to you in another life? But the time will come when man not so immersed in materiality will form his soul to such an extent that its qualities will be impressed upon the newborn child body and he will be able to remember and to know all his past, and then he will see himself an evolving being who has come up through all the ages as one of the creators of the world, as one of those who have aided in building this world. Man, we say, is the top, the crown of evolution; not merely as one who has been out there through favor, but as one who worked himself up through nature, unconsciously sometimes to himself, but under law, the very top and key of the whole system, and the time will come when he will remember it.
Now, this being the system of evolution which we gather from all religions, we say it is necessary to show that cause and effect act on man’s whole being. We say that this law of cause and effect, or Karma, explains every circumstance in life and will show the poor men in Chicago who are born without means to live, who sometimes are hunted by the upper class and live in misery, why they are born so. It will explain why a man is born rich, with opportunity which he neglects; and another man born rich, with opportunity which he does not neglect. It will explain how Carnegie, the great iron founder in America, was a poor telegraph boy before he was raised to be a great millionaire. It will explain how one is born with small brain power, and another born with great brain power. It is because we have never died; we have always been living, in this world or in some other, and we are always making causes and character for the next life as well as for this.
Do you not know that your real life is in your mind, in your thoughts? Do you not know a great deal is due to your own mind, and under every act is a thought, and the thoughts make the man, and those thoughts act upon the forces of nature? Inasmuch as all these beings come back and live together over and over again, they bring back the thoughts, the impressions of those they have met and which others have made upon them there. When you persecute and hurt a man now, you are not punished afterwards because of the act you did to him, but because of the thought under your act and the thought under his feelings when he received your act. Having made these thoughts, they remain forever with you and him, and when you come again you will receive back to yourselves that which you gave to another. And is not that Christianity as well as Brahminism and Buddhism? You say, No. I say, Yes; read it in the words of Jesus, and I would have you to show that you are right if you say, No. St. Paul I suppose is authority for you, and St. Paul says “Brethren, be not deceived; God is not mocked; for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” I ask you where and when shall he reap that which he has sown? He must reap it where he sowed it, or there is no justice. He must come back here and help to cure that evil which he caused; he must come back here if he did cause any evil and continue to do all the good he can, so he may help to evolve the whole human race, which is waiting for him also. Jesus said; “Judge not, that ye be not judged; for with what measure ye mete, so shall it be measured out to you again.” When? If you go to heaven after this life and escape all you have done, certainly not then, and you make Jesus to have said that which is not true, and make St. Paul say that which is not true.
But I believe that St. Paul and Jesus knew what they were talking about and meant what they said. So, then, we must come again here in order that God shall not be mocked and each man shall reap that which he has sowed.
It is just the absence of this explanation that has made men deny religion; for they have said: “Why, these men did not get what they sowed. Here are rich, wicked men who die in their beds, happy, with a shrive at the end of it. They have not reaped.” But we know, just as Jesus and St. Paul have said, they will reap it surely, and we say according to philosophy, according to logic, according to justice, they will reap it right here where they sowed it, and not somewhere else. It would be unjust to send them anywhere else to reap it but where they did it. That has been taught in every religion ever since the world began, and it is the mission of the Theosophical Society to bring back the key to all the creeds, to show that they are really at the bottom in these essential doctrines alike, and that men have a soul in a body, a soul that is ever living, immortal and can never die, cannot be withered up, cannot be cut in two, cannot be destroyed, is never annihilated, but lives forever and forever, climbing forever and forever up the ladder of evolution, nearer and nearer, yet never reaching the full stature of the Godhead. That is what Theosophy wishes men to believe; not to believe that any particular creed is true. Jesus had no creed and formulated none. He declared the law to be, “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” That was the law and the prophets. That is enough for any one. Love your neighbor as yourself. No more. Why, then, any creeds whatever? His words are enough, and his words and our ethical basis are the same. That is why we have no form of religion. We are not advocating religion; we are simply pointing out to men that the truth is there to pick up and prize it. Religion relates to the conduct of men; nature will take care of the results; nature will see what they will come to; but if we follow these teachings which we find everywhere, and the spirit of the philosophy which we find in all these old books, then men will know why they must do right, not because of the law, not because of fear, not because of favor, but because they must do right for rights own sake.