Some frequently asked questions about Theosophy
What is the Theosophical Society?
The Theosophical Society is an organization founded in New York City in 1875 to investigate the nature of the universe and humanity's place in it, to promote understanding of other cultures, and to form a nucleus of universal brotherhood without distinctions among all human beings. The Society is composed of students belonging to any religion or to none. Its members are united by their approval of the Society's Three Objects. Today the Society has branches in some seventy countries, with its international headquarters in India.
What is Theosophy?
The primary meaning of the word is "Divine Wisdom", and refers to the direct spiritual knowledge experienced by mystics, yogis, and sages. In addition, the word Theosophy is used to denominate the teachings given by those who have attained this state of inner enlightenment. In this latter sense of the term, we need to distinguish between modern Theosophy and ancient or timeless Theosophy. Timeless Theosophy, also called by many names such as the “Wisdom Tradition” and the “Perennial Philosophy,” is a universal wisdom, fragments of which can be found in human cultures all over the world and at all times in history. It is the basis of the inner or mystical side of many philosophies and religions. Modern Theosophy is a contemporary statement of that tradition as set forth through the Theosophical Society.
What does this Wisdom Tradition teach?
The three basic ideas of Theosophy are (1) the fundamental unity of all existence, so that all pairs of opposites—matter and spirit, the human and the divine, I and thou—are transitory and relative distinctions of an underlying absolute Oneness, (2) the regularity of universal law, cyclically producing universes out of the absolute ground of being, and (3) the progress of consciousness developing through the cycles of life to an ever-increasing realization of Unity.
That sounds abstract—what do those ideas mean in daily life and how do we live by them?
These abstract ideas have some very specific and practical implications, for example the following:
- You and I are different expressions of the same life, so whatever happens to either of us happens to both of us—our well-being is linked: help your neighbor, and thereby help yourself.
- Life and death are cyclic faces of our existence alternating each other in continuous succession. This is part of a perfect process of spiritual unfoldment: do not be afraid of death.
- The purpose of being alive is to gather experience and learn, the purpose of dying is to assimilate the experience and develop: live with awareness and a learning spirit.
- We develop as human beings, not by forsaking the world, but by cooperating with nature to preserve and perfect it: respect the environment and be ecologically responsible.
- Disharmony and evil are the result of ignorance and selfishness: live in harmony and goodness so as to teach others by your life as well as by your words.
What specific doctrines do Theosophists believe in?
The Theosophical Society is nondogmatic and promotes freedom of thought for each one of its members. Theosophists, therefore, are encouraged to accept nothing on faith or on the word of another, but to examine these ideas and adopt only those that satisfy their own sense of what is real and important. Modern Theosophy offers thus a way of looking at life rather than a creed, and presents ideas like the following for your consideration:
- There is a Unity of all life animating every separate form in the universe.
- Life and consciousness are present in all matter, in different degrees of expression.
- The universe is multidimensional, with planes of experience beyond the physical.
- Human beings are constituted by a physical, vital, emotional, mental, and spiritual dimensions.
- There is an evolution of spirit and intelligence as well as of physical matter.
- The reality of free will and self-responsibility.
- Human beings can participate consciously in their evolution, and accelerate or retard the process.
- The law of reincarnation brings the soul once and again back into physical life to unfold its potentialities.
- The law of karma regulates this process, adjusting causes and effects on the physical, moral, and spiritual planes.
- The power of thought affects one's self and surroundings.
- Since we are all one, altruism and a concern for the welfare of others, is a duty the key to happiness.
- The essentially perfect nature of humans will eventually manifest, as a result of the process of evolution.
What practices do Theosophists follow?
Members of the Theosophical Society are not asked to adopt any practice that does not appeal to their inner sense of reason and morality. Therefore, every Theosophist decides what practices and manner of living are appropriate for him or her. Some suggested practices implied by Theosophical ideas like those listed above are: regular meditation, both to gain insight into themselves and as a service to humanity; a vegetarian diet, avoiding the use of furs or skins for which animals are killed; avoiding the use of products that artificially affect the normal state of awareness, like alcohol or drugs (except under a doctor's order); support of the rights of all human beings for fair and just treatment, therefore supporting women's and minority's rights; respect of differences of culture and support of intellectual freedom.
What do Theosophists do in their meetings?
There is freedom for the members to organize their meetings in any way that may lead to the fulfilment of the Society's Objects. Meetings may typically consist of a talk followed by discussion; or the research, study, and discussion of a topic or book. Theosophy has no developed rituals, although meetings may be opened and closed by brief meditations or the recitation of short texts, and some groups use a simple ceremony for welcoming new members. There are no privileged symbols or icons in Theosophy, but various symbols from the religious traditions of the world are honored. There are no clergy or gurus, other than democratically chosen officers (President, Secretary, Treasurer, etc.), which only have authority in administrative questions.
How do Theosophists regard churches and religions?
Theosophy holds that all religions are expressions of humanity's effort to relate to one another, to the universe around us, and to the ultimate ground of Being. Particular religions differ from one another because they are expressions of that effort adapted to particular times, places, cultures, and needs. Theosophy is not itself a religion, although it is religious, in being concerned with humanity's effort to relate to ultimate values. In recognition of the value of religious practice and devotion as vehicles for self-transformation, Theosophy recommends, as Annie Besant exhorted, that one should “live one’s religion, not leave it.” Individual Theosophists profess various of the world's religions—Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Zoroastrian, Hindu, Buddhist, among others. Some have no religious affiliation. The Society itself is an expression of the belief that human beings, however diverse their backgrounds, can communicate and cooperate. As such, the Society provides an ideal platform for interfaith dialogue and mutual respect.
What is the message of Theosophy today?
The problems humanity faces—war, overpopulation, exploitation, prejudice, oppression, greed, hate—are just the symptoms of a disease. We need to treat the symptoms, but to cure the disease, we need to eliminate its cause. The cause of the disease is ignorance of some basic truths. First, that we are not unconnected, independent beings whose particular welfare can be achieved at the expense of the general good. The cure for this is the recognition that we are all one with each other, and ultimately with all life in the universe.
Despite the superficial cultural and genetic differences that divide humanity, we are remarkably homogeneous. Biologically, we are a single human gene pool, with only minor local variations. Psychologically, we all experience pleasure and pain, hope and fear, and are looking to be happy. Intellectually, we have the same curiosity about our place in the universe and the same power to discover truth.
However, in order to really feel this, we have to realize a second truth: that we are not essentially our physical or psychological make up, but a spiritual Self that is beyond any limitation and separation. As long as we are identified with our personalities, it will be difficult to feel that we are all united, because our lower mind can only perceive separation. It is only as we realize more and more our spiritual nature that we can feel part and parcel of the totality of existence. And as the feeling of unity with all other human beings, with all other life forms, begins to be a dominant factor in our lives, we will realize that we cannot either harm or help another without harming or helping ourselves.
To know this is to be healthy in body, whole in mind, and holy in spirit. That ideal is expressed in the following words, known as the "Universal Invocation," written by Annie Besant, the second President of the Theosophical Society:
O hidden Life, vibrant in every atom,
O hidden Light, shining in every creature,
O hidden Love, embracing all in oneness,
May all who feel themselves as one with thee
Know they are therefore one with every other.