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Madame Blavatsky on How to Study Theosophy



First Published 1960
ISBN 81-7059-191-0 (U.S.A.)


These notes of teachings given by Madame Blavatsky towards the close of her life have already appeared in print at various times in a number of journals. They were made by Robert Bowen, an elderly naval man who joined Madame Blavatsky’s circle and questioned her persistently about what attitude a student ought to take towards The Secret Doctrine . He made careful notes of the answers she gave him and subsequently read them over to her to make sure that he had not mistaken her meaning. The notes were later brought to light by Bowen’s son, the late Captain P. G. B. Bowen, who was at the time a member of the Theosophical Society in Dublin, and they were first printed in the January–March, 1932, issue of Theosophy in Ireland, just over forty years after they were written. Painstaking enquiries which have since been made in Dublin have failed to bring to light any other similar material from the same source.

Much of the value of the Bowen notes lies in the fact that they contain principles which can be applied not only to the study of The Secret Doctrine but to all theosophical studies. Repeatedly they assert that any descriptive Theosophy is not to be taken as a necessarily correct picture of the universe. It is rather a secondary pattern which is brought into being in the course of an experience of a Truth which is beyond words, beyond description and beyond relative values. Such a Theosophy is intended not to portray Truth but to lead towards it.

It will be seen that, by these standards, the value and authority of any descriptive Theosophy are not necessarily to be judged according to whether that Theosophy agrees accurately with scientific facts or principles or with the descriptive Theosophy propounded by some other person. The value of any exposition of Theosophy must lie in the depth of experience to which it can lead the student who is strong enough and daring enough to pass beyond its form or pattern to its occult or hidden reality.

Another piece of advice repeated through the notes is that, for its fuller understanding, any theosophical teaching ought to be brought into a universal setting. As an aid to this, Madame Blavatsky strongly recommended that the student should try to gain a deep appreciation of the three fundamental propositions which are to be found in the Proem of The Secret Doctrine. These propositions are reprinted in this booklet, after the notes, for convenience of reference and study.



H. P. B. was specially interesting upon the matter of The Secret Doctrine during the past week. I had better try to sort it all out and get it safely down on paper while it is fresh in my mind. As she said herself, it may be useful to someone thirty or forty years hence.

First of all then, The Secret Doctrine is only quite a small fragment of the Esoteric Doctrine known to the higher members of the Occult Brotherhoods. It contains, she says, just as much as can be received by the World during this coming century. This raised a question—which she explained in the following way:

‘The World’ means Man living in the Personal Nature. This ‘World’ will find in the two volumes of the S. D. all its utmost comprehension can grasp, but no more. But this was not to say that the Disciple who is not living in ‘The World’ cannot find any more in the book than the ‘World’ finds. Every form, no matter how crude, contains the image of its ‘creator’ concealed within it. So likewise does an author’s work, no matter how obscure, contain the concealed image of the author’s knowledge. From this saying I take it that the S. D. must contain all that H. P. B. knows herself, and a great deal more than that, seeing that much of it comes from men whose knowledge is immensely wider than hers. Furthermore, she implies unmistakably that another may well find knowledge in it which she does not possess herself. It is a stimulating thought to consider that it is possible that I myself may find in H. P. B.’s words knowledge of which she herself is unconscious. She dwelt on this idea a good deal. X said afterwards: ‘H. P. B. must be losing her grip,’ meaning, I suppose, confidence in her own knowledge. But Y and Z and myself also, see her meaning better, I think. She is telling us without a doubt not to anchor ourselves to her as the final authority, nor to anyone else, but to depend altogether upon our own widening perceptions.

[Later note on above: I was right. I put it to her direct and she nodded and smiled. It is worth something to get her approving smile!—(Sgd.) Robert Bowen.]

At last we have managed to get H. P. B. to put us right on the matter of the study of the S. D. Let me get it down while it is all fresh in mind.

Reading the S. D. page by page as one reads any other book (she says) will only end in confusion. The first thing to do, even if it takes years, is to get some grasp of the ‘Three Fundamental Principles,’ given in Proem . Follow that up by study of the Recapitulation—the numbered items in the Summing Up to Vol. I (Part I). Then take the Preliminary Notes (Vol. II) and the Conclusion (Vol. II).

H. P. B. seems pretty definite about the importance of the teaching (in the Conclusion) relating to the times of coming of the Races and Sub-Races [Ed—see FOOTNOTE]. She put it more plainly than usual that there is really no such thing as a future ‘coming’ of races. ‘There is neither COMING nor PASSING, but eternal BECOMING,’ she says. The Fourth Root Race [Ed—see FOOTNOTE] is still alive. So are the Third and Second and First—that is, their manifestations on our present plane of substance are present. I know what she means, I think, but it is beyond me to get it down in words. So likewise the Sixth Sub-Race is here, and the Sixth Root Race, and the Seventh, and even people of the coming ROUNDS. After all that’s understandable. Disciples and Brothers and Adepts can’t be people of the every day Fifth Sub-Race, for the race is a state of evolution.

But she leaves no question but that, as far as humanity at large goes, we are hundreds of years (in time and space) from even the Sixth Sub-Race. I thought H. P. B. showed a peculiar anxiety in her insistence on this point. She hinted at ‘dangers and delusions’ coming through ideas that the New Race had dawned definitely on the World. According to her the duration of a Sub-Race for humanity at large coincides with that of the Sidereal Year (the circle of the earth’s axis—about 25,000 years). That puts the new race a long way off.

We have had a remarkable session on the study of the S. D. during the past three weeks. I must sort out my notes and get the results safely down before I lose them.

She talked a good deal more about the ‘FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLE’. She says: If one imagines that one is going to get a satisfactory picture of the constitution of the Universe from the S. D. one will get only confusion from its study. It is not meant to give any such final verdict on existence, but to LEAD TOWARDS THE TRUTH. She repeated this latter expression many times.

It is worse than useless going to those whom we imagine to be advanced students (she said) and asking them to give us an ‘interpretation’ of the S. D. They cannot do it. If they try, all they give are cut and dried exoteric renderings which do not remotely resemble the TRUTH. To accept such interpretation means anchoring ourselves to fixed ideas, whereas TRUTH lies beyond any ideas we can formulate or express. Exoteric interpretations are all very well, and she does not condemn them so long as they are taken as pointers for beginners, and are not accepted by them as anything more. Many persons who are in, or who will in the future be in the T. S. are of course potentially incapable of any advance beyond the range of a common exoteric conception. But there are, and will be others, and for them she sets out the following and true way of approach to the S. D.

Come to the S. D. (she says) without any hope of getting the final Truth of existence from it, or with any idea other than seeing how far it may lead TOWARDS the Truth. See in study a means of exercising and developing the mind never touched by other studies. Observe the following rules:

No matter what one may study in the S. D. let the mind hold fast, as the basis of its ideation, to the following ideas:

(a) The FUNDAMENTAL UNITY OF ALL EXISTENCE. This unity is a thing altogether different from the common notion of unity—as when we say that a nation or an army is united; or that this planet is united to that by lines of magnetic force or the like. The teaching is not that. It is that existence is ONE THING, not any collection of things linked together. Fundamentally there is ONE BEING. The BEING has two aspects, positive and negative. The positive is Spirit, or CONSCIOUSNESS. The negative is SUBSTANCE, the subject of consciousness. This Being is the Absolute in its primary manifestation. Being absolute there is nothing outside it. It is ALL-BEING. It is indivisible, else it would not be absolute. If a portion could be separated, that remaining could not be absolute, because there would at once arise the question of COMPARISON between it and the separated part. Comparison is incompatible with any idea of absoluteness. Therefore it is clear that this fundamental ONE EXISTENCE, or Absolute Being, must be the REALITY in every form there is.

I said that though this was clear to me I did not think that many in the Lodges would grasp it. ‘Theosophy,’ she said, ‘is for those who can think, or for those who can drive themselves to think, not mental sluggards.’ H. P. B. has grown very mild of late. ‘Dumskulls’ used to be her name for the average student.

The Atom, the Man, the God (she says) are each separately, as well as all collectively, Absolute Being in their last analysis, that is their REAL INDIVIDUALITY. It is this idea which must be held always in the background of the mind to form the basis for every conception that arises from study of the S. D. The moment one lets it go (and it is most easy to do so when engaged in and of the many intricate aspects of the Esoteric Philosophy), the idea of SEPARATION supervenes, and the study loses its value.

(b) The second idea to hold fast to is that THERE IS NO DEAD MATTER. Every last atom is alive. It cannot be otherwise since every atom is itself fundamentally Absolute Being. Therefore there is no such thing as ‘spaces’ of Ether, or Akasha, or call it what you like, in which angels and elementals disport themselves like trout in water. That’s a common idea. The true idea shows every atom of substance no matter of what plane to be in itself a LIFE.

(c) The third basic idea to be held is that Man is the MICROCOSM. As he is so, then all the Hierarchies of the Heavens exist within him. But in truth there is neither Macrocosm nor Microcosm but ONE EXISTENCE. Great and small are such only as viewed by a limited consciousness.

(d) Fourth and last basic idea to be held is that expressed in the Great Hermetic Axiom. It really sums up and synthesizes all the others.

As is the Inner, so is the Outer; as is the Great so, is the Small; as it is above, so it is below: there is but ONE LIFE AND LAW; and he that worketh it is ONE. Nothing is Inner, nothing is Outer; nothing is GREAT, nothing is Small; nothing is High, nothing is Low, in the Divine Economy.

No matter what one takes as study in the S. D. one must correlate it with those basic ideas.

I suggest that this is a kind of mental exercise which must be exceedingly fatiguing. H. P. B. smiled and nodded. One must not be a fool (she said) and drive oneself into the madhouse by attempting too much at first. The brain is the instrument of waking consciousness and every conscious mental picture formed means change and destruction of the atoms of the brain. Ordinary intellectual activity moves on well beaten paths in the brain, and does not compel sudden adjustments and destructions in its substance. But this new kind of mental effort calls for something very different—the carving out of ‘new brain paths’, the ranking in different order of the little brain lives. If forced injudiciously it may do serious physical harm to the brain.

This mode of thinking (she says) is what the Indians call Jnana Yoga. As one progresses in Jnana Yoga, one finds conceptions arising which, though one is conscious of them, one cannot express nor yet formulate into any sort of mental picture. As time goes on these conceptions will form into mental pictures. This is a time to be on guard and refuse to be deluded with the idea that the new found and wonderful picture must represent reality. It does not. As one works on, one finds the once admired picture growing dull and unsatisfying, and finally fading out or being thrown away. This is another danger point, because for the moment one is left in a void without any conception to support one, and one may be tempted to revive the cast-off picture for want of a better to cling to. The true student will, however, work on unconcerned, and presently further formless gleams come, which again in time give rise to a larger and more beautiful picture than the last. But the learner will now know that no picture will ever represent the TRUTH. This last splendid picture will grow dull and fade like the others. And so the process goes on, until at last the mind and its pictures are transcended and the learner enters and dwells in the World of NO FORM, but of which all forms are narrowed reflections.

The True Student of The Secret Doctrine is a Jnana Yogi, and this Path of Yoga is the True Path for the Western student. It is to provide him with sign posts on that Path that The Secret Doctrine has been written.

[Later note: I have read over this rendering of her teaching to H. P. B. asking if I have got her aright. She called me a silly Dumskull to imagine anything can ever be put into words aright. But she smiled and nodded as well, and said I had really got it better than anyone else ever did, and better than she could do it herself.]

I wonder why I am getting all this. It should be passed to the world, but I am too old ever to do it. I feel such a child to H. P. B., yet I am twenty years older than her in actual years.

She has changed much since I met her two years ago. It is marvellous how she holds up in the face of dire illness. If one knew nothing and believed nothing, H. P. B. would convince one that she is something away and beyond body and brain. I feel, especially during these last meetings since she has become so helpless bodily, that we are getting teachings from another and higher sphere. We seem to feel and KNOW what she says rather than hear it with our bodily ears. X said much the same thing last night.

(Sgd.) Robert Bowen,

19TH APRIL, 1891

from the Proem of The Secret Doctrine

I. An Omnipresent, Eternal, Boundless and Immutable PRINCIPLE, on which all speculation is impossible, since it transcends the power of human conception and can only be dwarfed by any human expression or similitude. It is beyond the range and reach of thought—in the words of the Mändükya, ‘unthinkable and unspeakable’.

To render these ideas clearer to the general reader, let him set out with the postulate that there is one Absolute Reality which antecedes all manifested, conditioned Being. This Infinite and Eternal Cause—dimly formulated in the ‘Unconscious’ and ‘Unknowable’ of current European philosophy—is the Rootless Root of ‘all that was, is, or ever shall be.’ It is of course devoid of all attributes and is essentially without any relation to manifested, finite Being. It is ‘Be-ness’ rather than Being, Sat in Sanskrit, and is beyond all thought or speculation.

This Be-ness is symbolized in The Secret Doctrine under two aspects. On the one hand, absolute Abstract Space, representing bare subjectivity, the one thing which no human mind can either exclude from any conception, or conceive of by itself; on the other, absolute Abstract Motion representing Unconditioned Consciousness. Even our Western thinkers have shown that consciousness is inconceivable to us apart from change, and motion best symbolizes change, its essential characteristic. This latter aspect of the One Reality is also symbolized by the term the Great Breath, a symbol sufficiently graphic to need no further elucidation. Thus, then, the first fundamental axiom of The Secret Doctrine is this metaphysical One Absolute BE-NESS—symbolized by finite intelligence as the theological Trinity.

II. The eternity of the Universe in toto as a boundless plane; periodically ‘the playground of numberless Universes incessantly manifesting and disappearing,’ called the ‘Manifesting Stars,’ and the ‘Sparks of Eternity.’ ‘The Eternity of the Pilgrim is like a wink of the Eye of Self-Existence,’ as the Book of Dzyan puts it. ‘The appearance and disappearance of Worlds is like a regular tidal ebb of flux and reflux.’

This second assertion of The Secret Doctrine is the absolute universality of that law of periodicity, of flux and reflux, ebb and flow, which physical science has observed and recorded in all departments of nature. An alternation such as that of Day and Night, Life and Death, Sleeping and Waking, is a fact so common, so perfectly universal and without exception, that it is easy to comprehend that in it we see one of the absolutely fundamental Laws of the Universe.

III. The fundamental identity of all Souls with the Universal Over-Soul, the latter being itself an aspect of the Unknown Root; and the obligatory pilgrimage for every Soul—a spark of the former—through the Cycles of Incarnation, or Necessity, in accordance with Cyclic and Karmic Law, during the whole term. In other words, no purely spiritual Buddhi (Divine Soul) can have an independent conscious existence before the spark which issued from the pure Essence of the Universal Sixth Principle—or the OVER-SOUL—has (a) passed through every elemental form of the phenomenal world of that Manvantara, and (b) acquired individuality, first by natural impulse, and then by self-induced and self-devised efforts, checked by its Karma, thus ascending through all the degrees of intelligence, from the lowest to the highest Manas, from mineral and plant, up to the holiest Archangel (Dhyäni-Buddha). The pivotal doctrine of the Esoteric Philosophy admits no privileges or special gifts in man, save those won by his own Ego through personal effort and merit throughout a long series of metempsychoses and reincarnations.

EDITOR’S FOOTNOTE: · Root Race: In Theosophical literature, the term root race has a specialized meaning. In this context, the word “race” connotes something quite distinct from the standard dictionary definition. The popular definition of race involves minor physical and cultural variations within the human species. In Theosophical literature, however, it refers to something altogether different. Specifically, the term root race or race refers to major developmental phases that occur over time within human consciousness. The first root race is said to be that stage at which the most basic level of perception was developed. During the second stage, the ability for active expression was evolved. This was followed by the third stage characterized by the development of emotion. In the fourth root race, the analytical powers of the mind begin to appear. We are now said to be in the fifth root race—the evolutionary phase in which the mind develops its synthesizing powers. These stages, which are successive, are great evolutionary changes spanning eons of time. All of humanity is said to pass through each of the successive root races—with each individual soul incarnating many times at every stage of development.

This footnote was based on the following sources:

The Peopling of the Earth by Geoffrey Barborka
Theosophy: An Introductory Study Course by John Algeo

This text is available as in booklet form from the Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, Illinois. Phone: 630-665-0130 Web:

Online Glossary

Online Glossary

The online glossary consists of selected excerpts from G. de Purucker’s Occult Glossary, first published by Rider & Co., London. Second and Revised Edition copyright © 1996 by Theosophical University Press. Reprinted with permission by Theosophical University Press . To view the online version of the Occult Glossary in its entirety, click here. here .

Atman (Sanskrit) The root of atman is hardly known; its origin is uncertain, but the general meaning is that of "self." The highest part of man — self, pure consciousness per se. The essential and radical power or faculty in man which gives to him, and indeed to every other entity or thing, its knowledge or sentient consciousness of selfhood. This is not the ego.

Avidya (Sanskrit) A compound word: a, "not"; vidya, "knowledge"; hence nonknowledge, ignorance — perhaps a better translation would be nescience — ignorance or rather lack of knowledge of reality, produced by illusion or maya.

Brahma (Sanskrit) A word of which the root, brih, means "expansion." It stands for the spiritual energy-consciousness side of our solar universe, i.e., our solar system, and the Egg of Brahma is that solar system.

A Day of Brahma or a maha-manvantara is composed of seven rounds, a period of 4,320,000,000 terrestrial years; this period is also called a kalpa. A Night of Brahma, the planetary rest period, which is also called the parinirvanic period, is of equal length.

Seven Days of Brahma make one solar kalpa; or, in other words, seven planetary cycles, each cycle consisting of seven rounds (or seven planetary manvantaras), form one solar manvantara.

One Year of Brahma consists of 360 Divine Days, each day being the duration of a planet's life, i.e., of a planetary chain of seven globes. The Life of Brahma (or the life of the universal system) consists of one hundred Divine Years, i.e., 4,320,000,000 years times 36,000 x 2.

The Life of Brahma is half ended: that is, fifty of his years are gone — a period of 155,520,000,000,000 of our years have passed away since our solar system, with its sun, first began its manvantaric course. There remain, therefore, fifty more such Years of Brahma before the system sinks into rest or pralaya. As only half of the evolutionary journey is accomplished, we are, therefore, at the bottom of the kosmic cycle, i.e., on the lowest plane.

Buddhi (Sanskrit) Buddhi comes from a Sanskrit root budh, commonly translated "to enlighten," but a better translation is "to perceive," "to cognize," "to recover consciousness," hence "to awaken," and therefore "to understand." The second counting downwards, or the sixth counting upwards, of the seven principles of man. Buddhi is the principle or organ in man which gives to him spiritual consciousness, and is the vehicle of the most high part of man — the atman — the faculty which manifests as understanding, judgment, discrimination, an inseparable veil or garment of the atman.

Dhyan(i)-Chohan(s) A compound word meaning "lords of meditation" — kosmic spirits or planetary spirits.

Ego (Latin) A word meaning "I." In theosophical writings the ego is that which says "I am I" — indirect or reflected consciousness, consciousness reflected back upon itself as it were, and thus recognizing its own mayavi existence as a "separate" entity. On this fact is based the one genuine "heresy" that occultism recognizes: the heresy of separateness.

The seat of the human ego is the intermediate duad — manas-kama: part aspiring upwards, which is the reincarnating ego; and part attracted below, which is the ordinary or astral human ego. The consciousness is immortal in the reincarnating ego, and temporary or mortal in the lower or astral human ego.

Individuality Theosophists draw a sharp and comprehensive distinction between individuality and personality. The individuality is the spiritual-intellectual and immortal part of us; deathless, at least for the duration of the kosmic manvantara — the root, the very essence of us, the spiritual sun within, our inner god. The personality is the veil, the mask, composed of various sheaths of consciousness through which the individuality acts.

The word individuality means that which cannot be divided, that which is simple and pure in the philosophical sense, indivisible, uncompounded, original. It is not heterogeneous; it is not composite; it is not builded up of other elements; it is the thing in itself. Whereas, on the contrary, the intermediate nature and the lower nature are composite, and therefore mortal, being builded up of elements other than themselves. Strictly speaking, individuality and monad are identical, but the two words are convenient because of the distinctions of usage contained in them; just as consciousness and self-consciousness are fundamentally identical, but convenient as words on account of the distinctions contained in them.

Kalpa (Sanskrit) This word comes from a verb-root klrip, meaning "to be in order"; hence a "period of time," or a "cycle of time." Sometimes a kalpa is called the period of a maha-manvantara — or "great manvantara" — after which the globes of a planetary chain no longer go into obscuration or repose, as they periodically do, but die utterly. A kalpa is also called a Day of Brahma, and its length is 4,320,000,000 years. Seven rounds form a Day of Brahma, or a planetary manvantara. (See also Brahma, Manvantara)

Seven planetary manvantaras (or planetary cycles, each cycle consisting of seven rounds) form one solar kalpa (or solar manvantara), or seven Days of Brahma — a week of Brahma.

The difficulty that many Western students have had in understanding this word lies in the fact that it is unavoidably a "blind," because it does not apply with exclusive meaning to the length of one time period alone. Like the English word age, or the English phrase time period, the word kalpa may be used for several different cycles. There is likewise the maha-kalpa or "great kalpa," which frequently is the name given to the vast time period contained in a complete solar manvantara or complete solar pralaya.

Kama (Sanskrit) "Desire"; the fourth substance-principle of which man's constitution is composed. Kama is the driving or impelling force in the human constitution; per se it is colorless, neither good nor bad, and is only such as the mind and soul direct its use. It is the seat of the living electric impulses, desires, aspirations, considered in their energic aspect. Usually however, although there is a divine kama as well as an infernal one, this word is restricted, and wrongly so, to evil desire almost exclusively.

Karma (Karman, Sanskrit) This is a noun-form coming from the root kri meaning "to do," "to make." Literally karma means "doing," "making," action. But when used in a philosophical sense, it has a technical meaning, and this technical meaning can best be translated into English by the word consequence. The idea is this: When an entity acts, he acts from within; he acts through an expenditure in greater or less degree of his own native energy. This expenditure of energy, this outflowing of energy, as it impacts upon the surrounding milieu, the nature around us, brings forth from the latter perhaps an instantaneous or perhaps a delayed reaction or rebound. Nature, in other words, reacts against the impact; and the combination of these two — of energy acting upon nature and nature reacting against the impact of that energy — is what is called karma, being a combination of the two factors. Karma is, in other words, essentially a chain of causation, stretching back into the infinity of the past and therefore necessarily destined to stretch into the infinity of the future. It is unescapable, because it is in universal nature, which is infinite and therefore everywhere and timeless; and sooner or later the reaction will inevitably be felt by the entity which aroused it.

Karma is in no sense of the word fatalism on the one hand, nor what is popularly known as chance, on the other hand. It is essentially a doctrine of free will, for naturally the entity which initiates a movement or action — spiritual, mental, psychological, physical, or other — is responsible thereafter in the shape of consequences and effects that flow therefrom, and sooner or later recoil upon the actor or prime mover.

Kundalini (Sanskrit) A term whose essential meaning is "circular" or "winding" or "spiral" or "coiling" action, or rather energy, and signifies a recondite power in the human constitution. Kundalini-sakti is derivative of one of the elemental forces of nature. It works in and through, in the case of man, his auric egg, and expresses itself in continuous action in many of the most familiar phenomena of existence even when man himself is unconscious of it. In its higher aspect Kundalini is a power or force following winding or circular pathways carrying or conveying thought and force originating in the higher triad. Abstractly, in the case of man it is of course one of the fundamental energies or qualities of the pranas. Unskilled or unwise attempts to interfere with its normal working in the human body may readily result in insanity or malignant or enfeebling disease.

Logos, Logoi (Greek) In old Greek philosophy the word logos was used in many ways, of which the Christians often sadly misunderstood the profoundly mystical meaning. Logos is a word having several applications in the esoteric philosophy, for there are different kinds or grades of logoi, some of them of divine, some of them of a spiritual character; some of them having a cosmic range, and others ranges much more restricted. In fact, every individual entity, no matter what its evolutionary grade on the ladder of life, has its own individual logos. The divine-spiritual entity behind the sun is the solar logos of our solar system. Small or great as every solar system may be, each has its own logos, the source or fountainhead of almost innumerable logoi of less degree in that system. The term, therefore, is a relative and not an absolute one, and has many applications.

Manas (Sanskrit) The root of this word means "to think," "to cogitate," "to reflect" — mental activity, in short. The center of the ego-consciousness in man and in any other quasi-self-conscious entity. The third substance-principle, counting downwards, of which man's constitution is composed.

Manvantara (Sanskrit) This word is a compound, and means nothing more than "between two manus"; more literally, "manu-within or -between." A manu, as said, is the entities collectively which appear first at the beginning of manifestation; the spiritual tree of life of any planetary chain of manifested being. The second verbal element of "manvantara," or antara, is a prepositional suffix signifying "within" or "between"; hence the compound paraphrased means "within a manu," or "between manus." A manvantara is the period of activity between any two manus, on any plane, since in any such period there is a root-manu at the beginning of evolution, and a seed-manu at its close, preceding a pralaya.

A planetary manvantara — also called a maha-manvantara or a kalpa — is the period of the lifetime of a planet during its seven rounds. It is also called a Day of Brahma, and its length is 4,320,000,000 years.

Maya, Mayavic (Sanskrit) The word comes from the root ma, meaning "to measure," and by a figure of speech it also comes to mean "to effect," "to form," and hence "to limit." There is an English word mete, meaning "to measure out," from the same IndoEuropean root. It is found in the Anglo-Saxon as the root met, in the Greek as med, and it is found in the Latin also in the same form.

Ages ago in the wonderful Brahmanical philosophy maya was understood very differently from what it is now usually understood to be. As a technical term, maya has come to mean the fabrication by man's mind of ideas derived from interior and exterior impressions, hence the illusory aspect of man's thoughts as he considers and tries to interpret and understand life and his surroundings; and thence was derived the sense which it technically bears, "illusion." It does not mean that the exterior world is nonexistent; if it were, it obviously could not be illusory. It exists, but is not. It is "measured out" or is "limited," or it stands out to the human spirit as a mirage. In other words, we do not see clearly and plainly and in their reality the vision and the visions which our mind and senses present to the inner life and eye.

The familiar illustrations of maya in the Vedanta, which is the highest form that the Brahmanical teachings have taken and which is so near to our own teaching in many respects, were such as follows: A man at eventide sees a coiled rope on the ground, and springs aside, thinking it a serpent. The rope is there, but no serpent. The second illustration is what is called the "horns of the hare." The animal called the hare has no horns, but when it also is seen at eventide, its long ears seem to project from its head in such fashion that it appears even to the seeing eye as being a creature with horns. The hare has no horns, but there is then in the mind an illusory belief that an animal with horns exists there.

That is what maya means: not that a thing seen does not exist, but that we are blinded and our mind perverted by our own thoughts and our own imperfections, and do not as yet arrive at the real interpretation and meaning of the world or of the universe around us. By ascending inwardly, by rising up, by inner aspiration, by an elevation of soul, we can reach upwards or rather inwards towards that plane where truth abides in fullness.

Metempsychosis (Greek) A compound vocable which may be rendered briefly by "insouling after insouling," or "changing soul after soul." Metempsychosis contains the specific meaning that the soul of an entity, human or other, moves not merely from condition to condition, migrates not merely from state to state or from body to body; but also that it is an indivisible entity in its inmost essence, which is pursuing a course along its own particular evolutionary path as an individual monad, taking upon itself soul after soul; and it is the adventures which befall the soul, in assuming soul after soul, which in their aggregate are grouped together under this word metempsychosis.

In ordinary language metempsychosis is supposed to be a synonym for transmigration, reincarnation, preexistence, and palingenesis, etc., but all these words in the esoteric philosophy have specific meanings of their own, and should not be confused. It is of course evident that these words have strict relations with each other, as, for instance, every soul in its metempsychosis also transmigrates in its own particular sense; and inversely every transmigrating entity also has its metempsychosis or soul-changings in its own particular sense. But these connections or interminglings of meanings must not be confused with the specific significance attached to each one of these words.

The essential meaning of metempsychosis can perhaps be briefly described by saying that a monad during the course of its evolutionary peregrinations throws forth from itself periodically a new soul-garment or soul-sheath, and this changing of souls or soul-sheaths as the ages pass is called metempsychosis.

Monad A spiritual entity which to us humans is indivisible; it is a divine-spiritual life-atom, but indivisible because its essential characteristic, as we humans conceive it, is homogeneity; while that of the physical atom, above which our consciousness soars, is divisible, is a composite heterogeneous particle.

Every monad is a seed, wherein the sum total of powers appertaining to its divine origin are latent, that is to say unmanifested; and evolution consists in the growth and development of all these seeds or children monads, whereby the universal life expresses itself in innumerable beings.

Purusha (Sanskrit) A word meaning "man," the Ideal Man, like the Qabbalistic Adam Qadmon, the primordial entity of space, containing with and in prakriti or nature all the septenary (or denary) scales of manifested being. More mystically Purusha has a number of different significancies. In addition to meaning the Heavenly Man or Ideal Man, it is frequently used for the spiritual man in each individual human being or, indeed, in every self-conscious entity — therefore a term for the spiritual self. Purusha also sometimes stands as an interchangeable term with Brahma, the evolver or "creator." Probably the simplest and most inclusive significance of Purusha as properly used in the esoteric philosophy is expressed in the paraphrase "the entitative, individual, everlasting divine-spiritual self," the spiritual monad, whether of a universe or of a solar system, or of an individual entity in manifested life, such as man.

Reimbodiment This term means that the living and migrating entity takes upon itself a new body at some time after death. Its meaning, therefore, is a highly generalized one, and the specific significance is that of assuming new imbodiments periodically. It teaches something more than that the soul merely preexists, the idea being that the soul takes unto itself a succession of new bodies — on whatever plane it may happen to be. This particular aspect or branch of the general doctrine of the migration of living entities tells us not what kind of body the soul newly assumes, nor whether that body be taken here on earth or elsewhere, that is to say, whether the new body is to be a visible body or an invisible one in the invisible realms of nature. It simply says that the life-center reimbodies itself; and this is the essence of the specific meaning of this word.

Reincarnation An anglicized word of Latin derivation, meaning "reinfleshment," the coming again into a human body of an excarnate human soul. The repetitive reimbodiment of the reincarnating human ego in vehicles of human flesh — this being a special case of the general doctrine of reimbodiment. This general doctrine of reimbodiment applies not solely to man, but to all centers of consciousness whatsoever, or to all monads whatsoever — wheresoever they may be on the evolutionary ladder of life, and whatsoever may be their particular developmental grade thereon.

The meaning of this general doctrine is very simple indeed. It is as follows: every life-consciousness-center, in other words, every monad or monadic essence, reincorporates itself repeatedly in various vehicles or bodies, to use the popular word. These bodies may be spiritual, or they may be physical, or they may be of a nature intermediate between these two, i.e., ethereal. This rule of nature, which applies to all monads without exception, takes place in all the different realms of the visible and invisible universe, and on all its different planes, and in all its different worlds.

Transmigration This word is grossly misunderstood in the modern Occident, as also is the doctrine comprised under the old Greek word metempsychosis, both being modernly supposed to mean, through the common misunderstanding of the ancient literatures, that the human soul at some time after death migrates into the beast realm and is reborn on earth in a beast body. The real meaning of this statement in ancient literature refers to the destiny of what theosophists call the life-atoms, but it has absolutely no reference to the destiny of the human soul, as an entity.

Upâdhi (Sanskrit) A word which is used in various senses in Indian philosophy, the vocable itself meaning "limitation" or "a peculiarity" and hence "a disguise"; and from this last meaning arises the expression "vehicle," which it often bears in modern theosophical philosophy. The gist of the word signifies "that which stands forth following a model or pattern," as a canvas, so to say, upon which the light from a projecting lantern plays. An upadhi therefore, mystically speaking, is like a play of shadow and form, when compared with the ultimate reality, which is the cause of this play of shadow and form. Man may be considered as a being composed of three (or even four) essential upadhis or bases.

The Human Journey: Quest for Self-Transformation

The Human Journey  
Quest for Self-Transformation

(Slightly edited from the original print version)

By Joy Mills

© The Theosophical Publishing House
Adyar, Chennai 600 020, India
The pivotal doctrine of the esoteric philosophy admits no privileges or special gifts in man, save those won by his own Ego through personal effort and merit throughout a long series of metempsychoses and reincarnations.
(The Secret Doctrine, Vol. I, p. 17)

To obtain life in human form is said by the Buddhist to be the greatest privilege. The same concept has been expressed by ?ri ?ankarâchârya in his classic work on Vedânta, Viveka Chudâmani, often translated as “The Crest Jewel of Wisdom.” There it is said: “Among sentient creatures, birth as a man is difficult of attainment. . .” (Chatterji, Mohini M., Viveka Chudamani, verse 2). But just what can be meant by such statements? What is it to be human? Much has been written in recent years about the dehumanization of our human condition by the technological devices that we have created. Many voices are being raised in protest against a view that would categorize us either as an animal, albeit a superior one, or as a machine, however skillful in operation. Very much really depends on how we define our humanity and ourselves.

The Jewish theologian, Dr Abraham J. Heschel once stated: “Every generation has a definition of man it deserves” (Who is Man? 1965, p. 23). He added: “It is characteristic of the inner situation of contemporary man that the plausible way to identify himself is to see himself in the image of a machine” (Ibid, pp. 23–4). We might add, “a machine with interchangeable parts.” Our contemporary dilemma lies in the fact that we usually frame our definition in terms of what rather than who a person is. Our “what-ness” places us in the category of things, but being human is really a process in which we are constantly engaged. It is a journey towards knowing, feeling, and comprehending more; towards a transformation that will carry us beyond ourselves. It is a journey in which the very process of travelling is not distinct from the unfolding awareness of our own mystery—the beautiful and awesome mystery of being human.

According to Laurens van der Post, Dr Carl Jung once said: “The core of the individual is a mystery of life, which is snuffed out when it is ‘grasped’….True understanding seems to me to be one which does not understand, yet lives and works . . .” (van der Post, C. G. Jung and the Story of Our Time, 1975, p. 122). It is by living and working that we ultimately define ourselves as human. It is through this process that we come to know ourselves as truly human. The search for human identity has been the subject of great literature, art, and philosophy throughout the ages. It has been central to every religious tradition. It forms the foundation of all great mythologies. In all cultural systems, sooner or later the human enters on the stage of existence. Then things become different; something not altogether explicable happens. There is a stirring, a shaking, a “never-again-the-same” quality as life takes on purpose and meaning.

To approach an understanding of our human identity, we may begin by acknowledging the various facets that compose our individual identity. We have physical bodies with their unique characteristics; we have feelings, thoughts, and aspirations. In times of deep inner reflection, moreover, we have an awareness of something more: something beyond yet near; something neither wholly of ourselves nor wholly other; something indefinable yet real and true.

H. P. Blavatsky, in setting forth the perennial philosophy, defined the human as a saptaparna, a seven-leaved plant. The seven “leaves” or principles, as they are generally called, are variously given in theosophical literature. We may narrow our definition to that which is essential for us to be truly human. This includes the two highest principles: Âtman, the universal Self, and Buddhi, its spiritual soul or consciousness. (HPB termed the combination of Âtma-Buddhi as constituting the Monad or the Pilgrim). As HPB stated: “. . . the two higher principles, can have no individuality on Earth, cannot be man, unless there is (a) the mind, the Manas-Ego, to cognize itself, and (b) the terrestrial false personality, or the body of egotistical desires and personal will, to cement the whole, as if round a pivot to the physical form of man” (The Secret Doctrine, II, p. 241).

Essentially, three factors are involved in understanding our human state: (1) the Monad (Âtma-Buddhi), which expresses itself through (2) the mind—or the entire psychological nature, which, in turn, functions through (3) a “terrestrial . . . personality.” The focus of our human journey towards Self-realization is at the central point of manas or mind. Here the true battles are fought and won. Here is the field of choice where the great decisions must consciously be made. The power of conscious choice is truly a human characteristic. Not only must we face the consequences of our choices, we must recognize that others cannot make our choices for us. Many scriptures echo this fundamental truth. As one writer has put it, if we fail to exercise this power, we “shorten the stature of our soul.”

It may be suggested that the central lesson of the Bhagavad Gitâ is not so much that Arjuna must act as that he must act out of his own choice. He must reach his own decision and understand the basis on which his action rests. For Arjuna—symbolic of each one of us—longed to have someone else solve his dilemma. This, the Divine Teacher (?ri Krishna) could not do. Indeed, no true teacher can ever solve the problems confronting the student. The Immortal Charioteer in each of us can but give us the vision—the true perspective of comprehensive understanding. On that vision we may base our choices intelligently and with dispassion. As the Viveka Chudâmani reminds us:

The nature of the one reality must be known by one’s own clear spiritual perception and not through a pandit . . . the form of the moon must be known through one’s own eye. . . .

Who but oneself (Âtman) is capable of removing the bondage of avidyâ, kama, and karma . . . even in a thousand million kalpas. . . .

Disease is never cured by [pronouncing] the name of medicine without taking it; liberation is not achieved by the [pronunciation of the] word Brahman without direct perception
(Op. cit., verses 56, 57, 64).

To give further emphasis to the central task of our journey, we may briefly turn to another and perhaps even more useful classification of the human principles. In discussing the septenary classification that she favored, HPB also presented a tabulation of systems adopted in various other schools ( The Secret Doctrine , I, p. 157). Commenting specifically on the Târaka Râja Yoga classification, she stated that “for all practical purposes [this] is the best and simplest,” adding that “though there are seven principles in man, there are but three distinct upädhis [bases], in each of which his Âtmâ may work independently of the rest” (Op. cit., p.158).

The word upâdhi (from the verbal root dhi), which means “to hold” or “to nourish,” is generally translated as “container” or “receptacle.” But it also has the connotation of something that imposes limitation and gives qualification to that which is being held, nourished or contained within it. Therefore, the three upâdhis through which the universal (Âtman) becomes particularized both limit and nourish the One Consciousness in its individualized expression. These three upâdhis are given as:

  1. Kâranopâdhi, spiritual soul or Buddhi, the base which provides the principle of causality;
  2. Sukshmopâdhi, or the mind, including kâma rupa, the body or form of egotistical desires, as well as of volitions and feelings, the word sukshma itself meaning not only subtle, precise, intangible, but carrying also the connotation of the subtler principles relating to the psychological nature of the human being;
  3. Sthulopâdhi, or the dense physical with its etheric and prânic aspects, the word sthula meaning that which is tangible, gross, bulky, and therefore referring to the perishable body which has mass and weight, the vehicle in which the human and spiritual soul is invested for an incarnation.

While this examination of the principles of the human constitution may seem not only very technical, but also far removed from our immediate enterprise as human beings, its unique importance will become evident when we consider further that HPB explicitly stated “. . . there exists in Nature a triple evolutionary scheme for the formation of the three periodical upâdhis; or rather three separate schemes of evolution, which in our system are inextricably interwoven and interblended at every point. These are the Monadic (or spiritual), the intellectual, and the physical evolutions” (Op. cit., p.181). Elucidating this doctrine, Dr G. de Purucker pointed out that these three lines “are coincident, contemporaneous, and fully connected in all ways: an evolution of the spiritual nature of the developing creature taking place on spiritual planes; an evolution of the intermediate nature of the creature (in man, the psycho-mental part of his constitution); and a vital-astral-physical evolution, resulting in a body or vehicle increasingly fit for the expression of the powers appearing or unfolding in the intermediate and spiritual parts of the developing entity” ( Man in Evolution , Chapter 5, pp. 54–5).

To complete the picture, HPB added: “Each of these three systems has its own laws, and is ruled and guided by different sets of the highest Dhyânis or Logoi. Each is represented in the constitution of Man, the Microcosm of the Macrocosm; and it is the union of these three streams in him, which makes him the complex being he now is” (The Secret Doctrine, I, p. 181). Actually, it is we alone who unite in ourselves these three streams of evolution. We do so through that specific factor which marks us as human—the presence of manas. Manas is the principle which makes self-consciousness and (therefore) choice possible. It is to this principle that we must give the utmost attention, for to betray its promise is to forfeit our humanity. To refuse to think is to deny our human condition.

The battleground is the field of conscious choice. This is the road we will travel. For indeed there is a road, as HPB is reputed to have said. Though it “is steep and thorny, beset with perils of every kind,” it is still a road, “and it leads to the very heart of the Universe.” To travel on that road is to risk all, but this is the glory and the agony of the human journey. It is also the “pathless Path” and it is for each of us to “seek out the way.” Again, to use HPB’s words: “For those who win onwards there is reward past all telling—the power to bless and save humanity; for those who fail, there are other lives in which success may come” (For the full statement, see Collected Writings, vol. XIII , p. 219).

Let us turn our attention then to the human journey and the path that lies before us. In her exposition of the fundamental propositions on which the occult doctrine itself is based, HPB directed our attention to the work involved:

The pivotal doctrine of the Esoteric philosophy admits no privileges or special gifts in man, save those won by his own Ego through personal effort and merit throughout a long series of metempsychoses and reincarnations. (The Secret Doctrine, vol. I, p. 17)

Relating this essential teaching to the threefold evolutionary stream, we may suggest that three primary processes are involved. First, there is reincarnation, by which the developing consciousness sheaths itself in successive vehicles appropriate to the awakening life within. Secondly, there is metempsychosis, by which the psycho-mental constituents of our nature are inwardly transformed by “personal effort and merit” into the likeness of the “Heavenly” or archetypal “man.” [see footnote 1] Thirdly, there is the “process” (which is no process, but a full awakening) that we may call Enlightenment—when the spiritual nature stands fully revealed in its awesome splendour.

These processes are indeed “coincident, contemporaneous, and fully connected in all ways,” because they relate to three kinds of time. Reincarnation takes place in chronological or linear time. Linear time enables us to speak of past and future lives. It allows us to say, “This is my present incarnation.” Metempsychosis occurs in mythic time. It has the “once-upon-a-time” quality of all myth and allegory in which transpires the hero-journey of the soul. In mythic time, a beginning is possible at any moment in terms of linear time. One does not need a new incarnation to undertake the quest for self-transformation. The eternal quest is begun the moment the choice is made to take the road that leads to the “heart of the universe.” And Enlightenment (which, as stated earlier, is not a process) takes place outside of time altogether. It is the “now” which is always—that “now” which can enter the world of time at any moment, as the experience of the Buddha clearly showed. It may be ascribed to what has been called mystic time—that time beyond time, that timeless moment in which total transformation occurs.

It has become axiomatic to say that today we stand at the crossroads. Today is a time of transition and even —of violent change. Old patterns of life no longer suffice to meet the crises of the present. On our decisions today will rest not only our own survival as human beings, but the survival of all life on the planet. There are many who cry out that we have already chosen the fatal fork in the road and are well along the way to self-destruction and world-annihilation. If that is so, then what we need most urgently is the courage to retrace our steps. We then need to return to the treacherous junction by facing the consequences of our old choices (our karma) and start anew on the genuine road that leads to our goal.

Myth and fairy tale are replete with examples of those who took the wrong turn and found themselves, as did Christian in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress , in a “slough of despond.” They had to extricate themselves in order to retrace their steps, but all the while living with the results of unhappy choices until they could once again set out on the great journey with renewed strength. All about us may be signs that we are embarked on the wrong road. Sometimes we act very much like passengers on a bus, chattering away about our own petty concerns and the trivialities of existence. We never look out the window to see where we are going, heedless of the terrain across which we are traveling. We are fully content to leave the driving to someone else.

But when we finally do awaken to the direction we have been taking or to the fact that we have been drifting aimlessly without clear direction, we realize that we can take a hand in determining our destination. As all the great myths relate, we then must begin in earnest on the hero journey of the soul and, like Ulysses of old, we set out

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars. . .
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
. . . that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

[see footnote 2]

Our work—the human opus—which has been clearly depicted in religious scriptures as well as in myth and legend is to take up the human journey—the quest for self-transformation. The forces that are arrayed against us are no longer those that would enslave the body, but those that hold in bondage the mind and heart. We ourselves set these forces in motion through all our past unconscious wanderings in the wastelands and deserts of ignorance. We must win through to our immortality, as The Secret Doctrine makes amply clear. Just one quotation may suffice as illustration of this point:

The Doctrine teaches that in order to become a divine, fully conscious god—aye, even the highest—the Spiritual primeval INTELLIGENCES must pass through the human stage. And when we say human, this does not apply merely to our terrestrial humanity, but to the mortals that inhabit any world, i.e., to those Intelligences that have reached the appropriate equilibrium between matter and spirit, as WE have now . . . Each entity must have won for itself the right of becoming divine, through self-experience. (The Secret Doctrine vol. I, p. 167)

A lonely journey it may be, yet we are never alone. If we will but look, the signposts are clearly marked by generations of Adept Teachers. “Awake, arise” is the call heard through the Upanishads. “Follow me” is the injunction of the Christos. Our journey is from the everyday self through the Self to the One Self. As HPB put it in The Voice of the Silence :

Saith the Great Law: In order to become the KNOWER of ALL-SELF thou hast first of Self to be the knower. To reach the knowledge of that Self, thou hast to give up self to non-self, being to non-being. And now thy self is lost in Self, thyself unto Thy self, merged in that Self from which thou first didst radiate. (Fragment 1, verses 19 and 90)

The mode of travel by which our journey is accomplished is that of metempsychosis—a doctrine sadly misunderstood and misinterpreted, unless viewed in the light of the occult philosophy. HPB’s reference to it as an essential element in the achievement of our humanity is clear evidence that the doctrine refers to the necessary psychological transformation that must take place if we are to win our immortality. Reincarnation alone is insufficient to achieve the goal set before us. The mere accumulation of existences—whether seven hundred or seven thousand—can no more make of us a god than eating forever the leaves of one special plant will transform the caterpillar into a butterfly. Indeed, the process of metamorphosis that certain organisms undergo is analogous to our task of metempsychosis, except that ours must be undertaken in full conscious awareness. Hence it is that HPB speaks of a “long series of metempsychoses and reincarnations.” As suggested earlier, the latter occurs in linear time, while metempsychosis operates in another dimension of time altogether—what many writers have called “mythic time.”

The pathway to such transformation lies in the willingness of each one of us to plunge into the mysterious depths of our own human identity. This process—as we shall see—has been well defined in every tradition and mythology. It is the age—old hero (or heroine) quest of the encounter with the dragons of the psychic realm, the shadows and complexes about which contemporary psychology has so much to say. As it was for Dante , it may well involve our descent into hell (facing all the karma of our own past) before an ascent can be made. It is the mystic quest of the medieval alchemist in which the pure gold of the spirit must be distilled from the crude material of the personality. In religious terms, it is spoken of as liberation, salvation or enlightenment. It involves the redemption of the human spirit, the liberation of the one true Self that ever abides in all beings. The Way of metempsychosis is both simple and difficult. It is fraught with danger but also filled with ecstasy.

Metempsychosis has been usually translated as “changing soul after soul” and has been a symbol for the passing of the ego during successive incarnations into human bodies. Yet the term contains a much more profound meaning. Essentially it refers to that evolutionary stream which HPB defined as “intellectual” (manasic) or, more properly, the kâma-manasic stream compounded of thought, choice, reflection, desire and volition. In brief, the doctrine of metempsychosis refers to the adventures that befall the soul.

As the doctrine is fundamentally Platonic, it can best be understood in light of Plato’s concept of the soul. Here it may be recalled that HPB spoke of the Platonic philosophy as “the most elaborate compendium of the abstruse systems of old India” and of Plato as “the greatest philosopher of the pre-Christian era [who] mirrored faithfully in his works the spiritualism of the Vedic philosophers who lived thousands of years before himself, and its metaphysical expression” (Isis Unveiled , vol. I, page xi).

An examination of the Platonic doctrine will amply justify the thesis that metempsychosis is an essential process relating to our psychological (or intellectual) evolution and that its importance for us today cannot be overlooked. For it is truly in the change of humanity’s consciousness wherein lies the hope for peace and the full recognition of our brotherhood with all. Therefore, metempsychosis should neither be confused with the process of reincarnation nor dismissed as an alternative term for transmigration. Each term has its own unique significance in the total evolutionary development of the human.

Throughout Plato’s dialogues , the responsibility of the individual soul is emphasized. In the Phaedo, for example, Socrates tells his listeners: “. . . if the soul is really immortal, what care should be taken of her, not only in respect of the portion of time which is called life, but of eternity! And the danger of neglecting her from this point of view does indeed appear to be awful.” (The Dialogues of Plato, trans. by B. Jowett, vol. II, p. 255) Again and again Plato stresses that the soul brings judgement upon herself by her own actions when through ignorance or passion she transgresses the Divine Law, or when by her own efforts she turns from the depths of misery to ascend the heights of spiritual realization. The Platonic myths found in the Timaeus the Phaedo , the Phaedrus , and the Symposium all deal beautifully with the nature of the soul and the choices confronted on her journey through birth and death, as well as her final restoration to her true home.

As the editors of the Shrine of Wisdom text, The Human Soul in the Myths of Plato, point out, “. . . when Plato speaks of the souls of men changing into the souls of animals, this must not be taken to mean that the human soul becomes literally the soul of an animal, but rather that it lives in a purely natural manner, content only with the things of the body and without energizing its more divine faculties.” Herein lies the key to the true meaning of metempsychosis: in a fundamental change of consciousness. It involves a change from being attached to desires and passions to a state that reflects the awareness and understanding of unity flowing from the spiritual realm. In theosophical terminology, it is a change—a metempsychosis—from manas imprisoned and enslaved by kâma to manas inspired and enflamed by buddhi.

Thomas Taylor, the great eighteenth century Platonist so frequently quoted by HPB, stated the principle involved very clearly in his introduction to Plato’s Timaeus: “Again, when our souls are represented after falling to the present body [reincarnation] as suffering a transmutation into brutes, this, as Proclus beautifully observes, must not be understood as if our souls ever became the animating principles of brutal bodies [the usual concept of transmigration of the human into animal forms], but that by a certain sympathy they are bound to the souls of brutes, and are, as it were, carried in them . . . .” More explicitly, Plato records Socrates in the Phaedo as saying that “. . . such as are addicted to gluttony, arrogant injuries, and drinking, and this without any fear of consequences, shall enter into the tribes of asses and brutes. . .” while “such as hold in the highest estimation injustice, tyranny, and rapine, shall enter into the tribes of wolves, hawks and kites.” According to the Platonic doctrine, the outer form reveals the characteristics which the manner of our life dictates. Karma is truly inexorable! And only a change from within—a complete reversal implied by the term metempsychosis—can carry us forward into the truly human and onward into the fully spiritual state. It should be noted that for Plato only those devoted to philosophy could be assured of rebirth in human form! To be human, we must act in a human manner.

The ease with which the human state can be lost is nowhere better illustrated than in the dramatic account of metempsychosis The Transformations of Lucius, which was written in the second century AD by Lucius Apuleius, a brilliant adherent of Neo-Platonism. This work is often published under the title The Golden Ass . Thomas Taylor, in his introduction to the central myth of that work, called Apuleius “the greatest of the ancient Latin Platonists,” although he was still “inferior to any one of that golden race of philosophers of which the great Plotinus stands at the head.” Both Taylor and later commentators on Apuleius’ text present evidence that it was not “invented” by him, but rather was based on far older sources. Apuleius’ text represented a continuation of the ancient mystery schools—Mithraic, Dionysian, Egyptian, and others—while Apuleius himself had certainly been initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries.

Our current interest in this remarkable text, however, lies not in what it has to tell us about the mystery traditions of past ages, but rather in its remarkable relevancy to our present situation. Presently, there is an urgent necessity for a true change in consciousness—the redirection of thought from its outer entanglements to a realization of human unity and brotherhood. And the story that Apuleius told is that of the human journey that every individual must take today—even at the risk of losing human status. Only a profound metempsychosis can bring about a world at peace with itself.

The story that Apuleius related is much intermixed with extraneous elements which form “blinds” to the essential meaningfulness of the tale. So it is that genuine occultism has always been veiled in allegory and symbol, as HPB stated clearly in The Secret Doctrine. She herself so often pointed to the role of myth and symbol, as well as allegory and legend, in veiling the true secrets of existence. Ultimately, as one of her Adept Teachers pointed out in a letter to A. P. Sinnett, “the Secrets are incommunicable. The illumination must come from within.” (The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, Letter 20, chron.) In The Golden Ass, we have the story of a young man, Lucius (whose name itself means “light”), who sets out on a journey to his mother’s home—a very apt symbol for both the return to the abode of Sophia, the eternal wisdom, and to his own inner or spiritual soul. Lucius encounters numerous adventures en route and meets people of all stations in life and of all occupations. Interspersed throughout the novel are countless tales—sometimes amusing, sometimes instructive, and sometimes even disgusting. [Many translations of the work exist, but for a modern English rendering the best is by the English poet, Robert Graves. There is an excellent commentary by the well-known Jungian psychologist, Dr Marie-Louise von Franz, A Psychological Interpretation of the Golden Ass of Apuleius.]

On his first stop on the journey, Lucius meets a young attractive girl by the name of Fotis, a word that also means “light.” But it is reflected light, and it is through her—and his infatuation with her—that Lucius is transformed into an ass. Wearing an ass’s head, Lucius is now able to say only “hee-haw,” although his inner consciousness is left untouched by the outer appearance. Accordingly, the tragedy of the losing our essential humanity is compounded when we realize the extent to which the máyávic realm of reflected light has led us astray. Our identification with our desires and attachments to sensory illusions so often makes fools (asses, we may say) of us! So it is that the contemporaneity of the story is dramatically illustrated. How many today are “bewitched” (as was Lucius) and driven off course by the lure of psychic powers which Fotis claimed to have. As The Voice of the Silence reminds the aspirant:

Beware, Lanoo, lest dazzled by illusive radiance thy soul should linger and be caught in its deceptive light. This light shines from the jewel of the great ensnarer (Mára). The senses it bewitches, blinds the mind, and leaves the unwary an abandoned wreck. (Fragment 1, vv. 33–4)

How many today—young and old alike—are blinded by the dazzling light of the pseudo-occult, by promises of quickly gained psychic abilities, or by their own search for self-gratification? Like Lucius, they figuratively (if not literally) wear asses’ heads as a result of their bewitchment. Truly, Lucius is but one figure in an ancient line of personified principles representative of the Anthropos—the man who in all ages represents every individual human in the quest for wholeness. And, of course, Lucius (as well as all other representatives of Anthropos) becomes lost on his journey through his own selfish desire for power. Parsifal is another example as the Grail legends tell us the same story. The Gnostic tradition is replete with references to the “Light-Man” (the personified principle of light) who must undertake a journey into the Stygian darkness of matter. From those depths, he must liberate the original being within through a process of inner transformation and return in full Self-consciousness to the kingdom of light. From the Rig Veda description of the primordial Purusha through all the myths of countless cultures, through the Gnostic, Hermetic and alchemical traditions to Dante’s recounting of his journey through the underworld to the Paradise of Light, the image of Lucius has lived on into our own time, whether consciously recognized or simply unconsciously experienced.

Today, the astrological image of the Aquarian period provides a graphic symbol of the eternal Anthropos. It reminds us that the task of the human in this age is to become conscious of the larger inner presence which is the central point of our being: the Monad, or Âtma-Buddhi. Through the process of “soul-making” (or metempsychosis) we must preserve lest we lose our humanness. Like Lucius, we must ourselves remove the ass’s head by eating the rose—a symbol of self-sacrifice that Lucius was told was the only cure for his “disease.” And further, we must stand naked—to be without any false coverings that hide the true immortal Self. The process is ever the same—an inner transformation by which the human soul is awakened to its true nature. And it is always (as HPB stated in defining the “pivotal doctrine of the esoteric philosophy”) through “personal effort and merit” that we proceed on the human journey that leads to the ultimate transcendence of the human condition.

The question inevitably arises as to the means by which metempsychosis is accomplished. If it is by “personal effort and merit” as HPB stated, what is the nature of that effort? How may we engage in such a work while in the midst of our ordinary lives? The method by which soul transformation is accomplished has been variously defined. In The Key to Theosophy, HPB referred to the process of theurgy or “divine work.” That term is very old and is part of the vocabulary of the mystery traditions. And, as HPB stated in a footnote (see Abridgement of the Key to Theosophy edited by Joy Mills, p. 2), theurgy “was a mystic belief—practically proven by initiated adepts and priests—that, by making oneself as pure as the incorporeal beings—i.e., by returning to one’s pristine purity of nature—man could move the gods to impart to him Divine mysteries. . .” So, what does this mean in very practical terms?

Returning to the story of Lucius as told by Apuleius in The Golden Ass, we may find some interesting clues that will help us understand the work to be undertaken. In the course of his adventures, Lucius falls in with some robbers (a symbol of those who willfully transgress the law). The robbers hold in bondage a young girl by the name of Charite (symbol of the buddhic nature of compassion held a slave by those elements that are attached to worldly wealth). To comfort both Lucius and Charite, an old woman (who is trying to reform the robbers) tells them the classic fable of Amor and Psyche. Of that fable, Thomas Taylor wrote that this fable “was designed to represent the lapse of the human soul from the intelligible world to the earth” and the subsequent “redemption” of the soul by her own efforts. The soul (or Psyche) is the bride of Amor (pure Love). Psyche is filled with an intense desire to see the form of Amor precipitated on earth. This is symbolic of our thirst for sentient existence that results in our taking incarnation in accordance with karmic law. Psyche wanders in search of Amor, but she is told that there are four tasks she must accomplish before she can be reunited with her “god.” It is in these four difficult labors that we find clues to the human journey, which must be undertaken to achieve our ultimate goal—our conscious union with the divine soul (or Monad) within. Moreover, it is here on earth in physical incarnation that the metempsychosis must be effected.

Let us explore the four tasks that lay before Psyche. In one way or another, they symbolize the fourfold work faced by every aspirant engaged on the human journey towards Self-transformation. Couched in the language of myth and allegory, these four labors may be given many interpretations, but they point clearly to the nature of the inner work we have before us.

The first task that Psyche must perform is the sorting out of a hopeless muddle of seeds. A mound of barley, millet, peas, lentils, and beans is placed before her. She is told she must separate and arrange them. In this task, she is called upon to discover within herself what we may call an ordering principle. At the outset of the return journey, we have to learn the lesson of discrimination. If there is within us a hopeless muddle—a tangle of ideas and mixed-up emotions—we have to put ourselves in order. We have to sort things out and understand what is important and what is not, what is true and what is false. This is never easy. We can risk losing ourselves in the hopelessness of the task—which means we do nothing—or we may risk choosing the wrong values and thereby creating a worse muddle.

In the fable, Psyche is happily able to perform this task through the help of some ants that come to her aid. The ants represent a kind of instinctual ordering principle, while the seeds may be said to represent the spiritual germs of higher qualities potentially present within us. Those germs need to be nourished if the higher qualities would fructify in our lives here and now. But care must be taken to discriminate between the nurturing of spiritual seeds and the desire for material or psychic powers!

Psyche now faces her second task, which is to gather a hank of wool from some sheep whose fleece shines as gold. Those familiar with various Egyptian and Greek myths will recall the symbology of the ram and legends of the golden fleece. In this labor, the occult significance becomes somewhat more complex. To put it simply, we may note that the ram or sheep is associated with the zodiacal sign of Aries and suggests aggressive impulsiveness and powerful emotional drives. In our story, Psyche is aided by a reed which tells her that she will have no problem if she waits until the sun has gone down; then the rams who have become quite frenzied in the blazing fury of the noonday sun grow quiet and approachable. So it is that only when the emotional nature grows calm that we are able to pluck from it the golden fleece or golden treasure which represents the essential values of the emotions.

Here, the lesson to be learned is that the emotions are not to be killed, but are to be brought into a state of calm where they may reflect the light of buddhi. Then we must know the right moment when we can “pluck” the treasure. The reed, which helps Psyche, is an Egyptian symbol for secret knowledge conveyed by the inner voice as a whisper, much as the passing air does as it quietly passes through an open reed. Both ants (which appear as helpers in the first task) and reeds are often used as symbols of the small hints of truth that come to us when both body and emotion are quiet. Only when we bring our outer nature into an orderly and silent state, can we hear the whispers of truth that come from the realm of the Spirit.

The final two tasks given to Psyche reflect the increasing difficulty of treading our human journey. For it has been truly said, “the road winds uphill all the way.” The third task given to Psyche requires her to fill a crystal bottle with water from the spring that feeds the rivers Styx and Cocytus, the streams of the underworld. Here again she is given aid for the fable relates that the eagle of Zeus takes the bottle, fills it with the water and brings it back to Psyche. To explore the full significance of this symbolism would require volumes and we suggest only a few ideas that may be helpful. As thought is given to the work assigned to Psyche, further aspects of this labor unfold themselves. It may be apparent that the confluence of the two streams represents the union within us of the highest and the lowest, the spiritual and the material, the stream itself representing that vital energy known in occult literature as kundalini. The eagle of Zeus, the highest of the gods, may be said to represent the high-soaring flight of intuitive spiritual perception, while the crystal bottle is often considered a symbol of manas or the mind, into which the creative energy (kundalini) is to be poured. As indicated by the very risky nature of the task, all of this is truly a very tricky business. More than one person attempting the arousal of kundalini has fallen into the river Styx, which is to say, has been destroyed and figuratively—if not literally—lost their soul. For it is psychic suicide to play about with those energies represented here as the streams of the underworld which could be misused or abused for personal, egotistic and materialistic ends. Today all too many are beguiled by the desire for power or the glamour of psychic phenomena, thus falling into the “rivers of the underworld” and losing all in the end. To fill the vessel of the mind with the truly creative energy of buddhi requires a pure life, an intuitive spiritual perception, and insight born of compassionate understanding.

While aid is given to Psyche in accomplishing the first three tasks, there is no assistance given for the fourth labor set before her. Now must she descend alone into the underworld. That descent is mirrored in many myths and legends of countless cultures throughout the world (the crucifixion of Christ in the Christian tradition is but one example). Now Psyche is to enter the underworld, unaided, in order to retrieve the box containing divine beauty—the ointment or oil of spiritual life. She is told not to open the box, but inevitably she does and immediately falls into a deep slumber only to be awakened by Amor. Again, the symbolism is so rich with significance that one needs to ponder long on the various aspects of the task assigned to Psyche, the soul.

First, she goes alone with no help as provided in the previous tasks. Ultimately, we must take the human journey for ourselves. And here in the “underworld” of dense, physical matter, we must find the box of beauty—the box that contains the life-giving ointment of the Spirit. Here in physical incarnation lies buried the supreme secret that must be uncovered in order that the soul may be transformed into a new life of Love, Beauty, and Truth. The soul has fallen into a slumber and needs to be awakened into that new existence in which all egoity has disappeared and one knows oneself as truly one with all life. The human soul is to be transformed into the spiritual soul. Âtman and physical are known as one. This is the profound mystical experience. Love, Beauty, and Truth are here in this very world of illusion. Unless they are found here and revealed here through our lives, they will not be found anywhere. In the final metempsychosis, the self or soul that was must die if the Immortal Self is to be born.

Thus the tale of Amor and Psyche may be told in terms of our present human condition. It is the age-old story of the work to be undertaken—a work that cannot be denied if we would awaken to our full human potential as gods in the becoming. In today’s world where guru-production has become almost an industry and where the concept of meditation has too often been cheapened by the marketing of techniques demanding no personal effort, we may overlook the age-old truth that those who would gain liberation cannot escape the labor necessary to bring about the transformative process.

In our scientifically sophisticated age, we may dismiss the recipes and formulae of the medieval alchemists as superstition. We may dismiss the tales and myths of ancient cultures as fanciful imaginings. But theosophical insights unveil the psychological and spiritual truths hidden in all of these past tellings. Whether known as yoga in the east or the ancient art of alchemy in the western tradition, the theurgical task is still before us if we would win our immortality. In today’s psychological jargon, it may be called self-actualization or individuation. Whatever the name assigned to the human opus, we are dealing directly with the psycho-mental transformations which constitute the hero journey of the soul.

Mr. A. P. Sinnett, one of the early members of the Theosophical Society and the recipient of numerous letters from HPB’s own Adept Teachers, wrote of the royal art of spiritual regeneration:

The transmutation of the normal physical consciousness of man into the divine consciousness was the magnum opus on which the true alchemists were engaged, and much that is grotesque imbecility in the directions and recipes they have left behind, if we read it simply as nineteenth century chemists, becomes beautiful spiritual philosophy in strictest harmony with the laws governing human spiritual evolution, when we put a symbolical construction on the quaintly expressed formulae relating to coctions and distillations and the mercury of the wise and fiery waters and ferments (A. P. Sinnett, The Growth of the Soul; for HPB’s own comments on the subject, see her article “Alchemy in the Nineteenth Century,” Collected Writings, vol. IX).

While we have used the stages depicted in the fable of Amor and Psyche (as retold by Apuleius in The Golden Ass) to symbolize the work before us today on our human journey, we could equally have alluded to the stages outlined in all alchemical texts and to which HPB often referred in her writings. Both depictions emphasize the psychological implications of the process before us. For HPB, who clearly restated for our time the principles of the mystery-tradition, stated explicitly that the next developmental stage in our evolution would have “more to do. . . with psychology than with physics. . . ” (The Secret Doctrine, II, p. 135). To repeat, the focus of our work today is at the psychological level, the second of the three streams of evolution. It involves dealing with the intellectual or kâma-manasic field of operation within us where the process to be undergone is known as metempsychosis. This is the critical area of the psycho-mental complex where the battle for the preservation of our humanness is waged. As said so often by HPB and her successors, as well as by her Teachers, it is a change in consciousness that is required today. And it is this message that is being repeated by many of the leading thinkers of our time. Consciousness, or intelligence, is primary. Only a profound change in consciousness can bring about those changes in the world that will halt our nearly willful destruction of the planet.

The divine alchemy of individual transformation brings about as a logical consequence the transformation of the world. The ancient yet ageless road of self-ransformation must be taken today in full awareness of the theurgical task before us. There is no other way to go. If we ourselves are in darkness, the world cannot know light. Within ourselves are met all the possibilities for world destruction or world redemption. When we know how to bear the pain and burden of the world’s sorrow, we will know how to transmute that sorrow into supreme joy. “Thou art enlightened—choose thy way,” says The Voice of the Silence (Fragment 3, verse 310). Recall the Upanishadic verse:

From the unreal lead me to the Real.
From darkness lead me to Light.
From death lead me to Immortality.

Yet there is no one to lead us on the human journey, unless we lead ourselves. For the road “admits no privileges or special gifts” in us except those we have earned out of our own struggles, failures, and successes through all of incarnate experience. And if there is no one to lead us, there is also nowhere to be led. For even here and now, the opened “box of beauty” containing Love, Truth, and Goodness are all about us. We have but to open our eyes to see. The passage that is the human journey is won by our own efforts through numberless external existences and countless internal transformations. When we have won through, as win through we must and will, we shall truly see the Real embedded in the unreal. We shall behold the Light shining through all that is now dark and we shall know our Immortality in this transient moment of time.

One day, in that mythic time of ever-nowness will come the climax of our journey so beautifully portrayed in The Voice of the Silence:

Behold, the mellow light that floods the eastern sky. In signs of praise both heaven and earth unite. And from the fourfold manifested powers a chant of love ariseth, both from the flaming fire and flowing water, and from sweet smelling earth and rushing wind. Hark! . . .from the deep unfathomable vortex of that golden light in which the Victor bathes, ALL NATURE’S wordless voice in thousand tones ariseth to proclaim:

(Fragment 3, vv. 311–5)

Fare forward, Pilgrim!


The term 'Heavenly Man' occurs in many places in The Secret Doctrine, and deserves special study study by the earnest student. An excellent analysis was provided by the late E.L. Gardner in his small work The Heavenly Man: the Divine Paradigm published by the Theosophical Publishing House, London, in 1952.

Alfred Lord Tennyson, Ulysses; the full poem may be found in many anthologies, as well as in Tennyson's collected works.

Apuleius. (Robert Graves, trans.), The Golden Ass: The Transformations of Lucius . USA: Penguin Books, 1950.

Blavatsky, H. P.
        Collected Writings. Wheaton, Ill: Theosophical Publishing House, 1977-91.
       Isis Unveiled. Wheaton, Ill: TPH, 1972.
      The Key to Theosophy. Wheaton, Ill: TPH, 1972.
      The Secret Doctrine, Adyar, India: TPH, 1888.
      The Voice of the Silence. (Golden Jubilee Edition) Adyar, India: TPH, 1953.

Bunyan, John. (N.H. Keeble, trans.), Pilgrim’s Progress . Oxford University Press, 1998.

Chatterji, Mohini M. Viveka-Chudamani . Adyar, India: TPH, 1947.

De Purucker, G. Man in Evolution . Pasadena, California. Theosophical University Press. Second and Revised Edition, 1977.

Gardner, E.L. The Heavenly Man: The Divine Paradigm. London: TPJ, 1952.

Hao Chin, Vicente, editor. The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett . Chronological edition. Quezan City, Philippines: TPH, 1993.

Heschel, Abraham J. Who is Man? Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1965.

Jowett, B., trans., The Dialogues of Plato. London: Oxford University Press, 1931.

Sinnett, A. P. The Growth of the Soul. London: TPH, 1896.

Shrine of Wisdom, ed., The Human Soul in the Myths of Plato. London: The Shrine of Wisdom, 1936.

Taylor, Thomas. The Cratylus, Phaedo, Parmenides, Timaeus and Critias of Plato. Minneapolis, U.S.A.: The Secret Doctrine Reference Series, Wizard Bookshelf, 1975.

van der Post, Laurens. C. G. Jung and the Story of Our Time. New York: Pantheon Books, 1975.

von Franz, Dr. Marie-Louise. Psychological Interpretation of The Golden Ass of Apuleius. USA:
Spring Publications, The Analytical Psychology Club of New York, Inc. 1970

The text is available as a booklet from the Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, Illinois. Phone: 630-665-0130 Web:


These articles represent a variety of topics and points of view from various Theosophical writers, both past and present. The opinions expressed therein are solely the opinions of the writers and not necessarily those of the Theosophical Society.


Abdill, Edward C.


Algeo, John


Anderson, Mary




Arundale, George


Ashish, Sri Madhava


Barborka, Geoffrey A.


Bendit, Laurence J.


Besant, Annie


Bowen, Robert


Blavatsky, H. P.


Brooks, Richard


Bruce, David P.


Burnier, Radha


Chandler, Daniel Ross


Carbonell,  Eneida


Codd, Clara


Collins, Mabel


Cooke, Millen


Cook, Sidney A.


Coon, Arthur M.


Ellwood, Robert


Hodson, Geoffrey


Hoskins, Ianthe

Humphreys, Christmas


Huxley, Aldous


Gandhi, Indira


Gewurz, Elias


Grynbaum, Gail A.


Jinarajadasa, C.

Johnson, Charles


Kunz, Dora van Gelder


Leadbeater, Charles W.


Lysy, Anton


Mahapatra, Narayan


Mehta, Rohit


Mills, Joy


Olcott, Henry Steel


Oliveira, Pedro


Perkins, James S.


Plummer, L. Gordon


Purucker, Gottfried de


Ransom, Josephine


Ram, N. Sri

Rogers, L.W.

Ross, William J.


Sangharakshita, Bhikshu


Schlosser, Edith


Sellon, Emily


Shearman, Hugh


Sheldrake, Rupert

Taimni, I. K.


Zahara, Helen V.




Esoteric World Chapter 1

Chapter 1 Russia, 1831–1849

Helena Petrovna von Hahn was born at Ekaterinoslav, a town on the river Dnieper, in Southern Russia, on August 12, 1831. She was the daughter of Colonel Peter von Hahn and Helena de Fadeyev, a renowned novelist. On her mother's side, she was the granddaughter of the gifted Princess Helena Dolgorukov, a noted botanist and writer. After the early death of her mother in 1842, Helena was brought up in her maternal grandparents' house at Saratov, where her grandfather was Civil Governor.

Helena was an exceptional child, who at an early age was aware of being different from those around her. Her possession of certain psychic powers puzzled her family and friends. At once impatient of all authority, yet deeply sensitive, she was gifted in many ways. A clever linguist, a talented pianist, and a fine artist, she was yet a fearless rider of half-broken horses, and always in close touch with nature. At a very early age she sensed that she was in some way dedicated to a life of service and was aware of a special guidance and protection.

When almost eighteen, in a mood of rebellious independence and possibly with a plan to become free of her surroundings, she married the middle-aged Nikifor V. Blavatsky, Vice-Governor of the Province of Yerivan. The marriage, as such, meant nothing to her and was never consummated.

1a. The Birth of Helena Petrovna Von Hahn, August 12, 1831, Ekaterinoslav, Southern Russia [Sinnett 1886, 18–20]

The baby [Helena Petrovna] was born on the night between [August 11 and 12, 1831]—weak, and apparently no denizen of this world. A hurried baptism had to be resorted to, therefore, lest the child died with the burden of original sin on her soul. The ceremony of baptism in "orthodox" Russia is attended with all the paraphernalia of lighted tapers, and "pairs" of god-mothers and god-fathers, every one of the spectators and actors being furnished with consecrated wax candles during the whole proceedings. Moreover, everyone has to stand during the baptismal rite, no one being allowed to sit in the Greek religion, as they do in Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, during the church and religious service. The room selected for the ceremony in the family mansion was large, but the crowd of devotees eager to witness it was still larger. Behind the priest officiating in the center of the room, with his assistants, in their golden robes and long hair, stood the three pairs of sponsors and the whole household of vassals and serfs. The child-aunt of the baby—only a few years older than her niece, aged twenty-four hours—placed as "proxy" for an absent relative, was in the first row. Feeling nervous and tired of standing still for nearly an hour, the child settled on the floor unperceived by the elders, and became probably drowsy in the over-crowded room on that hot day. The ceremony was nearing its close. The sponsors were just in the act of renouncing the Evil One and his deeds, a renunciation emphasized in the Greek Church by thrice spitting upon the invisible enemy, when the little lady, toying with her lighted taper at the feet of the crowd, inadvertently set fire to the long flowing robes of the priest. The result was an immediate conflagration, during which several persons—chiefly the old priest—were severely burnt. That was [a] bad omen, according to the superstitious beliefs of orthodox Russia; and the innocent cause of it—the future Mme. Blavatsky—was doomed from that day in the eyes of all the town to an eventful life, full of trouble.

1b. Vera P. de Zhelihovsky (HPB's sister), 1842–1846, Saratov, Russia (where HPB's maternal grandparents lived) [Collated from Zhelihovsky 1894–5, 203, 204, 203; and Sinnett 1886, 30–35, 37–39]

Helena was a precocious child, and from her earliest youth attracted the attention of all with whom she came in contact. Her nature was quite intractable to the routine demanded by her instructors; she rebelled against all discipline, recognized no master but her own good will and her personal tastes. She was exclusive, original, and at times bold even to roughness.

When her mother was dying, although her eldest daughter was only eleven years old, she was filled with well-founded apprehensions for her future, and said: "Ah well! perhaps it is best that I am dying, so at least I shall be spared seeing what befalls Helena! Of one thing I am certain, her life will not be as that of other women, and that she will have much to suffer!!"

At the death of our mother, we went to live with her parents. The great country mansion occupied by us at Saratov, was an old and vast building, full of subterranean galleries, long abandoned passages, turrets, and most weird nooks and corners. It looked more like a medieval ruined castle than a building of the past century. The man who took care of the estate for the proprietors had been known for his cruelty and tyranny. The legends told of his ferocious and despotic temper, of unfortunate serfs beaten by him to death, and imprisoned for months in dark subterranean dungeons, were many and thrilling. Our heads were full of stories about the ghosts of the martyred serfs, seen promenading in chains during nocturnal hours and other stories that left us children and girls in an agony of fear whenever we had to cross a dark room or passage. We had been permitted to explore, under the protection of half a dozen male servants and a quantity of torches and lanterns, those awe-inspiring "catacombs." Still Helena would not remain satisfied with one solitary visit, nor with a second either. She had selected the uncanny region as a safe refuge where she could avoid her lessons. A long time passed before her secret was found out, and whenever she was found missing, a deputation of strong-bodied servant men was despatched in search of her. She had erected for herself a tower out of old broken chairs and tables in a corner under an iron-barred window, high up in the ceiling of the vault, and there she would hide for hours, reading a book known as "Solomon's Wisdom," in which every kind of popular legend was taught. Once or twice she could hardly be found in those damp subterranean corridors, having—in her endeavors to escape detection—lost her way in the labyrinth. For all this she was not in the least daunted or repentant, for, as she assured us, she was never there alone, but in the company of "beings" she used to call her little "hunch-backs!" and playmates.

Intensely nervous and sensitive, speaking loud, and often walking in her sleep, she used to be found at nights in the most out-of-way places, and to be carried back to her bed profoundly asleep. Thus she was missed from her room one night when she was hardly twelve, and the alarm having been given, she was searched for and found pacing one of the long subterranean corridors, evidently in deep conversation with someone invisible for all but herself. She was the strangest girl one has ever seen, one with a distinct dual nature in her, that made one think there were two beings in one and the same body; one mischievous, combative, and obstinate—every way graceless; the other mystical and metaphysically inclined. No schoolboy was ever more uncontrollable or full of the most unimaginable and daring pranks as she was. At the same time, when the paroxysm of mischief-making had run its course, no old scholar could be more assiduous in his study, and she could not be prevailed to give up her books, which she would devour night and day as long as the impulse lasted. The enormous library of her grandparents seemed then hardly large enough to satisfy her cravings.

Fancy, or that which we all regarded in these days as fancy, was developed in the most extraordinary way, and from her earliest childhood, in my sister Helena. For hours at times she used to narrate to us younger children, and even to her seniors in years, the most incredible stories with the cool assurance and conviction of an eyewitness and one who knew what she was talking about. When a child, daring and fearless in everything else, she got often scared into fits through her own hallucinations. She felt certain of being persecuted by what she called "the terrible glaring eyes" invisible to everyone else and often attributed by her to the most inoffensive inanimate objects; an idea that appeared quite ridiculous to the bystanders. As to herself, she would shut her eyes tight during such visions, and run away to hide from the ghostly glances thrown on her by pieces of furniture or articles of dress, screaming desperately, and frightening the whole household. At other times she would be seized with fits of laughter, explaining them by the amusing pranks of her invisible companions. Every locked door notwithstanding, Helena was found several times during the night hours in those dark apartments in a half-conscious state, sometimes fast asleep, and unable to say how she got there from our common bedroom on the top story. She disappeared in the same mysterious manner in daytime also. Searched for, called and hunted after, she would be often discovered, with great pains, in the most unfrequented localities; once it was in the dark loft, under the very roof, to which she was traced, amid pigeons' nests, and surrounded by hundreds of those birds. She was "putting them to sleep" (according to the rules taught in "Solomon's Wisdom"), as she explained. And, indeed, pigeons were found, if not asleep, still unable to move, and as though stunned, in her lap at such times.

For her all nature seemed animated with a mysterious life of its own. She heard the voice of every object and form, whether organic or inorganic; and claimed consciousness and being, not only for some mysterious powers visible and audible for herself alone in what was to every one else empty space, but even for visible but inanimate things such as pebbles, mounds, and pieces of decaying phosphorescent timber.

At about [6.6 miles] from the Governor's villa there was a field, an extensive sandy tract of land, evidently once upon a time the bottom of a sea or a great lake, as its soil yielded petrified relics of fishes, shells, and teeth of some (to us) unknown monsters. Most of these relics were broken and mangled by time, but one could often find whole stones of various sizes on which were imprinted figures of fishes and plants and animals of kinds now wholly extinct, but which proved their undeniable antediluvian origin. The marvelous and sensational stories that we, children and schoolgirls, heard from Helena were countless. I well remember when stretched at full length on the ground, her chin reclining on her two palms, and her two elbows buried deep in the soft sand, she used to dream aloud, and tell us of her visions, evidently clear, vivid, and palpable as life to her! How vividly she described their past fights and battles on the spot where she lay, assuring us she saw it all; and how minutely she drew on the sand with her finger the fantastic forms of the long dead sea monsters, and made us almost see the very colors of the fauna and flora of those dead regions. While listening eagerly to her descriptions of the lovely azure waves reflecting the sunbeams playing in the rainbow lights on the golden sands of the sea bottom, of the coral reefs and stalactite caves, of the sea-green grass mixed with the delicate shining anemones, our imagination galloped off with her fancy to a full oblivion of the present reality. She never spoke in later years as she used to speak in her childhood and early girlhood. The stream of her eloquence has dried up, and the very source of her inspiration is now seeming lost! She had a strong power of carrying away her audiences with her, of making them see actually, if even vaguely, that which she herself saw. Once she frightened all of us youngsters very nearly into fits. We had just been transported into a fairy world, when suddenly she changed her narrative from the past to the present tense, and began to ask us to imagine that all that which she had told us of the cool blue waves with their dense populations, was around us, only invisible and intangible, so far. "Just fancy! A miracle!" she said; "the earth suddenly opening, the air condensing around us and rebecoming sea waves. Look, look . . . there, they begin already appearing and moving. We are surrounded with water amid the mysteries and the wonders of a submarine world!"

She had started from the sand, and was speaking with such conviction, her voice had such a ring of real amazement, horror, and her childish face wore such a look of a wild joy and terror at the same time, that when, suddenly covering her eyes with both hands, as she used to do in her excited moments, she fell down on the sand, screaming at the top of her voice, "There's the wave . . . it has come! . . . The sea, the sea, we are drowning!" Everyone of us fell down on our faces, as desperately screaming and as fully convinced that the sea had engulfed us, and that we were no more!

1c. Nadyezhda A. de Fadeyev (HPB's aunt), 1831–1849, Russia [Sinnett 1886, 26–28]

From her earliest childhood she was unlike any other person. Very lively and highly gifted, full of humor and of most remarkable daring, she struck everyone with astonishment by her self-willed and determined actions. Thus in her earliest youth and hardly married, she disposed of herself in an angry mood, abandoning her country, without the knowledge of her relatives or husband, who, unfortunately was a man in every way unsuited to her and more than thrice her age. Her restless and very nervous temperament, one that led her into the most unheard of, ungirlish mischief; her unaccountable—especially in those days—attraction to, and at the same time fear of, the dead; her passionate love and curiosity for everything unknown and mysterious, weird, and fantastical; and, foremost of all, her craving for independence and freedom of action—a craving that nothing and nobody could control—all this, combined with an exuberance of imagination and wonderful sensitiveness, ought to have warned her friends that she was an exceptional creature, to be dealt with and controlled by means as exceptional. The slightest contradiction brought on an outburst of passion, often a fit of convulsion. Left alone with no one near her to impede her liberty of action, no hand to chain her down or stop her natural impulses, and thus arouse to fury her inherent combativeness, she would spend hours and days quietly whispering, as people thought, to herself, and narrating, with no one near her, in some dark corner, marvelous tales of travels in bright stars and other worlds, which her governess described as "profane gibberish"; but no sooner would the governess give her a distinct order to do this or the other thing than her first impulse was to disobey. It was enough to forbid her doing a thing to make her do it, come what would. Her nurse, as indeed other members of the family, sincerely believed the child possessed "the seven spirits of rebellion." Her governesses were martyrs to their task, and never succeeded in bending her resolute will, or influencing by anything but kindness her indomitable, obstinate, and fearless nature.

Spoilt in her childhood by the adulation of dependents and the devoted affection of relatives, who forgave all to "the poor, motherless child"—later on, in her girlhood, her self-willed temper made her rebel openly against the exigencies of society. She would submit to no sham respect for or fear of the public opinion. She would ride at fifteen, as she had at ten, any Cossack horse on a man's saddle! She would bow to no one, as she would recede before no prejudice or established conventionality. She defied all and everyone. As in her childhood, all her sympathies and attractions went out towards people of the lower class. She had always preferred to play with her servants' children rather than with her equals, and as a child had to be constantly watched for fear she should escape from the house to make friends with ragged street boys. So, later on in life, she continued to be drawn in sympathy towards those who were in a humbler station of life than herself, and showed as pronounced indifference to the "nobility" to which by birth she belonged.

1d. Nadyezhda A. de Fadeyev, Spring & Summer, 1849, Russia [Sinnett 1886, 54–55]

[Helena] cared not whether she should get married or not. She had been simply defied one day by her governess to find any man who would be her husband, in view of her temper and disposition. The governess, to emphasize the taunt, said that even the old man [Nikifor V. Blavatsky] she had found so ugly, and had laughed at so much, calling him "a plumeless raven"—that even he would decline her for a wife! That was enough: three days after she made him propose, and then, frightened at what she had done, sought to escape from her joking acceptance of his offer. But it was too late. Hence the fatal step. All she knew and understood was—when too late—that she had been accepting, and was now forced to accept—a master she cared nothing for, nay, that she hated, that she was tied to him by the law of the country, hand and foot. A "great horror" crept upon her, as she explained it later; one desire, ardent, unceasing, irresistible, got hold of her entire being, led her on, so to say, by the hand, forcing her to act instinctively, as she would have done if, in the act of saving her life, she had been running away from a mortal danger. There had been a distinct attempt to impress her with the solemnity of marriage, with her future obligations and her duties to her husband, and married life. A few hours later, at the altar, she heard the priest saying to her, "Thou shalt honor and obey thy husband," and at this hated word, "shalt," her young face was seen to flush angrily, then to become deadly pale. She was overheard to mutter in response, through her set teeth, "Surely, I shall not."

And surely she has not. Forthwith she determined to take the law and her future life into her own hands, and she left her "husband" for ever, without giving him any opportunity to ever even think of her as his wife.

Thus Mme. Blavatsky abandoned her country at seventeen, and passed ten long years in strange and out-of-the-way places, in Central Asia, India, South America, Africa, and Eastern Europe.

  • Sinnett, A. P., ed. 1886. Incidents in the Life Of Madame Blavatsky, Compiled from Information supplied by her Relatives and Friends. London, George Redway; reprint New York: Ayer Co., 1976. Pp. xii + 324. Selections 1a, 1b, 1c, 1d.
  • Zhelihovsky, Vera P. de. 1894–5. "Helena Petrovna Blavatsky." Lucifer 15–16 (November–April): 202–8, 273–9, 361–4, 469–77, 44–50, 99–108. Selection 1b.
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