Universal Cyclopedia and Atlas, Rossiter Johnson, 1903
Theosophy [from Gr. θεόσοφία knowledge of divine things, deriv. of θεόσοφος wise about God; θεόσ God + σοφός, wise]: a name which, as specifying a religious philosophy, was originated by Ammonius Saccas in the third century of our era. The body of ethical, philosophic, and scientific doctrines to which that title applies is, however, as old as humanity itself, and contains everything that is true in all other and later systems. Esoterically preserved and transmitted in its entirety by adepts and initiates, from time immemorial, their messengers—known to the world as “great teachers” and “saviours”—have, at periodic intervals determined by cyclic law, exoterically taught as much of it as could safely be given out and which any considerable portion of our race could at such times receive and assimilate.
Theosophy teaches a knowledge of the laws governing the evolution of the universe. It is not based upon assumed divine revelation, but upon consciousness. It sees no unsolvable mystery anywhere, throws the words coincidence and chance out of its vocabulary, and affirms the omnipresence and omnipotence of law and perfect justice. Theosophy postulates an Eternal Principle, unknowable except in its manifestations, which is in and is all things, and which, periodically and eternally, manifests itself and recedes from manifestation—evolution and involution. Its opposite poles in the manifested universe are spirit and matter, which are coexistent and inseparable. In manifesting itself the spirit-matter differentiates on seven planes, which are of progressive density down to that within our sensuous perception, the substance in all being the same, but differing in the proportions of its two compound elements. Through all thrill ceaselessly vibrations which are the inexhaustible impulse from the First Cause. These vibrations are distinct, each from all the others, and each always the same in mode upon every plane, but differing in rate according to the rarity or density of the substance of the plane. By means of these vibrations are brought about all forces—phenomena in nature, specialized differentiations and effects of creation, preservation, and mutation—in the world of forms as well as upon the ethereal planes. Thus every atom of the universe is infused with spirit, which is life in one of its phases of manifestation, and endowed with qualities of consciousness and intelligence—likewise phases of the spirit—in conformity to the requirements of its differentiation. On the lowest material plane, which is that of humanity, the spirit focalizes itself in all human beings who permit it to do so. Its rejection is the cause of ignorance, from which flow all sin, suffering, and sorrow; by its conscious acceptance man becomes partaker of the Divine Wisdom, “one with the gods,” entering into possession of an ever-increasing power of consciousness, and attains oneness with the Absolute. This is the ultimate destiny of all beings; hence Theosophy affirms the perfectibility of the race and rejects the concept of innate unregenerable wickedness. From the theosophic point of view the world is compounded of the Egos or individual spirits, for whom it emanates from the Divine Will; and its evolution is due to the impulse imparted by its spiritual element, that force manifesting itself from the beginning in the primary conditions of life—far below the sentient stage—and having in the evolvement of higher forms, including man, the guidance and direction of intelligent, perfected beings from other and older evolutions. Hence man is deemed a conscious spirit, the flower of evolution; while below him, in the lower kingdoms, are other less-advanced classes of egos, all, however, on the way of ascent to the human stage, which they will eventually reach when man has gone on still higher. The perfecting of self-consciousness is the object of evolution. By this man is enabled to reach more exalted stages of existence. And his conditioned mortal life is for the purpose of affording him experience by which that self-consciousness may be developed and cognition of the spirit attained.
Man is a spirit and requires vehicles with which to come in touch with all the planes of nature included in evolution, and it is these vehicles that make of him an intricate, composite being, liable to error, but at the same time able to rise above all delusions. He is in miniature the universe, for he is, as spirit, manifesting himself to himself by means of seven differentiations. Therefore he is characterized in Theosophy as a septenate or sevenfold being. His immortal being comprises a trinity, spirit (Atman), the spiritual soul or discernment (Buddhi), and mind (Manas). This triad requires as vehicles or instruments through which to operate and gain cognition in matter four lower mortal principles. These are: The animal passions and desires, unintelligent and productive of ignorance through delusion (Kama); the life-energy (Jiva); the astral body (Linga Sarira), which is the connecting link between the ethereal principles and the corporeality; and, finally, the physical body (Sthula Sarira). The principle designated as Jiva is a special differentiation for the energizing of the human being from the great pranic ocean of the life-principle, which is one of the distinctive vibrations already spoken of, and a phase of manifestation of the spirit. It does not cease when the collective entity called man dies, but simply continues its vibrations in the myriad of lives that make up the cells of the body without animating them in harmonious aggregate action. The Linga Sarira belongs to the astral plane of matter, which, being next above that of our tangible world in refinement of its substance, is just beyond our normal sensuous perception. As the physical body is at death reabsorbed into the material elements whence it was drawn, so the astral body is eventually dissipated in and absorbed by the substance of its plane; but its permanence is much greater than that of the gross body. During life it is from the earliest moment until the last the model upon which are molded the physical molecules of which the body is composed, and through it the life-principle is enabled to animate the aggregate mass as a collective entity. These lower four principles or sheaths are the transitory, perishable part of man—not himself, but in every sense the instruments he uses—given up at the hour of death and rebuilt at every new birth. The trinity is the real man, the thinker, the individuality that passes from house to house, gaining experience at each rebirth, while it suffers and enjoys according to its deeds. In each successive earth-life he is known to others as a new personality, but in the whole stretch of eternity he is one individual, conscious of an identity not dependent on name, form, or recollections of personalities. This doctrine of reincarnation is the very base of Theosophy, for it explains life and nature as no other hypothesis can; and it is an essential to the scheme of evolution, for without such re-embodiment on the plane of experiences and atonements there could be no evolution of the human soul. The Ego returning to mortal life only goes into the family which either completely answers to its whole nature, gives an opportunity for its evolutionary progress, or is connected with it by reason of events in past incarnations and causes mutually created. Inseparable from the doctrine of reincarnation is that of Karma, or justice, sometimes called the “ethical law of causation.” Mere entry into life is no fit foundation for just reward or punishment, which must be the deserts for prior conduct. But such consequent awards determine entry into life, and with unerring equity establish the sequence of good and evil happenings in requital of the past. Effect is always in cause, and thus the body, brain, and intellectual faculties furnished by reincarnation being products of one’s own deserving, become the field from which must be gleaned the harvest planted by acts in the past. The law of Karma applies in physical nature as well as in ethics to solar systems, planets, races, nations, families, and individuals. With reincarnation the doctrine of Karma explains the misery and suffering of the world, and no room is left to accuse nature of injustice. The misery of any nation or race is the direct result of the thoughts and acts of the Egos who make up the race or nation. If they did wickedly in the past, they must suffer the inevitable consequences. To this end they must go on incarnating and reincarnating until the effects they caused have been exhausted. Though the nation thus suffering chastisement should for a time disappear, the Egos belonging to it could not leave the world, but would reappear as the founders of some new nation in which they would continue to receive their karmic due.
With reference to postmortem conditions, Theosophy teaches two states of existence somewhat analogous to the Christian “purgatory” and “heaven.” The first, immediately subsequent to earth-life, is Kama-loka, where the immortal triad takes leave of the lower principles remaining after separation from the body. Thence the Ego passes into Devachan. The former is, as its name indicates, a place—the astral plane penetrating and surrounding the earth—the latter a state of being, or rather of consciousness. In Kama-loka all the hidden passions and desires are let loose, and enough mentality is retained to make them tortures. When the astral body in which they cohere is disintegrated, as it is in time, they remain a sort of entity in the Kama-Rupa, a form of still less materiality than the Linga Sarira. Eventually this too is said to fade out, leaving only their essence, the Skandhas, fateful germs of karmic consequence, which, when the Ego emerges from the devachanic state, are by the law of attraction drawn to the new being in which it incarnates. Owing to the law of cohesion between the principles, which prevents their separation before a given time, the untimely dead must pass in Kama-loka a period almost equal to the length life would have been but for the sudden termination. Losing the body has not killed them. They still consciously exist in the astral body, and in the case of very wicked and forceful persons—some executed criminals, for instance—may be even more harmful on the astral plane than they were in life. Prolonged kama-lokic existence is no injustice to the victims of accident, since death, like everything else, is a karmic consequence. Finally, it may be said of Kama-loka that it is the last conscious state of the thoroughly evil human souls bereft of the spiritual tie and doomed to annihilation (Avichi). Having in life centered the consciousness in the kamic principle, preserved intellect and rejected the spirit, leading persistent lives of evil for its own sake, they are the only damned beings we know. Pure souls speedily pass from Kama-loka to the devachanic state. It is a period of rest; a real existence, no more illusionary than earth life, where the essence of the thoughts of life that were as high as character permitted expands and is garnered by the soul and mind. When the force of these thoughts is fully exhausted the soul is once more drawn back to earth, to that environment which will best promote its further evolution.
No new ethics are presented by Theosophy, as it is held that right ethics are forever the same. But in the doctrines of Theosophy are to be found the philosophical and reasonable basis of ethics and the natural enforcement of them in practice. The present worldwide interest in Theosophy dates from 1875, when Helena P. Blavatsky, a messenger of the adepts, appeared in New York, initiated the theosophic movement, and, with Henry S. Olcott, William Q. Judge, and several other persons, formed the Theosophical Society. Other revivals of the ancient doctrine, occurring in the last quarter of each century during several hundred years past, are matters of historic record; but, as their times were not propitious, they amounted to little in their effect upon humanity at large compared with the importance this one has attained. The Theosophical Society, though its members generally, no doubt, subscribe to theosophic doctrine, is not dogmatic, but admits to membership all who can conscientiously accept its three avowed objects: 1. “To form the nucleus of a Universal Brotherhood of Humanity without any distinctions whatever. 2. To promote the study of ancient and modern religions, philosophies, and sciences. 3. To investigate unexplained laws of nature and the psychical powers of man.” Starting with a membership of fifteen persons in 1875, it has spread all over the globe, until now it has hundreds of branches scattered through all the civilized and even the semi-civilized countries, and counts its members by thousands. Beyond its organization in importance, however, is the wonderful influence of theosophic teachings in coloring the literature, thought, ethics, and even scientific progress and religious expression of the world. The size of the Society gives but a very imperfect idea of the extent of its work.
The best books conveying instruction in detail concerning theosophic doctrine—but a meager skeleton of which has been offered in the foregoing—are the following: H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine (1888); Isis Unveiled (1877); The Key to Theosophy (1889); William Q. Judge, The Ocean of Theosophy (1893); A. P. Sinnett, Esoteric Buddhism (1883); Five Years of Theosophy, selections from The Theosophist (1885); Rama Prasad, Nature’s Finer Forces (1890); Patanjali’s (Judge’s version) Yoga Aphorisms (1889). A score of theosophic magazines are issued in half as many languages. The leading one of the Theosophical Society in America is The Path, published in New York.