The Society’s Third Object
By John Algeo
Originally printed in the March - April 2004 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Algeo, John. “The Blossom and the Serpent.” Quest 92.2 (MARCH-APRIL 2004):60-65.
It is likely that Frank Baum, the Theosophist author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, knew Madame Blavatsky’s spiritual guidebook, The Voice of the Silence, which had been published just eleven years before his well-known children’s book. Like The Wizard of Oz, The Voice of the Silence describes a quest-journey, one during which the pilgrim must pass through three Halls—of Ignorance, Learning, and Wisdom. In the second of those Halls, the pilgrim soul finds “the blossoms of life, but under every flower a serpent coiled.” In a note on that passage, HPB identifies the second Hall as “the astral region, the psychic world of supersensuous perceptions and of deceptive sights . . . No blossom plucked in those regions has ever yet been brought down on earth without its serpent coiled around the stem. It is the world of the Great Illusion.” (p. 75)
The Voice of the Silence was written “for those ignorant of the dangers of the lower iddhi,” or psychic powers. Those powers are symbolized by the blossom with a serpent coiled around its stem or by a field of poppies, whose fragrance overpowers our minds and submerges us in narcotic sleep. The danger of the lower iddhis is that their attractiveness can entice us from our journey and preoccupy us with spiritually irrelevant phenomena and with ego-gratifying distractions.
We have been warned against the lower iddhi or psychic powers from the days of the ancients until our own time. The fifth-century Neoplatonic philosopher Proclus said of these lower powers, "The Gods admonish us not to look upon them before we are fenced around with the [higher] powers brought to birth by the Mystery rites." And the Chaldean Oracles likewise advise, "Thou should'st not look on them before the body is perfected; for ever do they fascinate men's souls and draw them from the Mysteries." G. R. S. Mead, a Theosophical authority on these ancient writers, adds, "The lower visions were to be turned from in order that the higher theophanies, or manifestations of the Gods, might be seen" (Chaldean Oracles 2:66).>
Closer to our own time, the instructions given to a fourteen-year-old Krishnamurti and published as At the Feet of the Master also warn about this danger:
Have no desire for psychic powers; they will come when . . . it is best for you to have them. To force them too soon often brings in its train much trouble; often their possessor is misled . . . or becomes conceited and thinks he cannot make a mistake; and in any case the time and strength that it takes to gain them might be spent in work for others. They will come in the course of development. . . . Until then, you are better without them. (p.31)
The third Object of the Theosophical Society is “to investigate unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in humanity.” Some people think of those latent powers as exclusively or mainly the “lower iddhis,” which include clairvoyance, precognition, telepathy, and so on. Those things are indeed one kind of latent power, but to investigate them, impartially and in a scientific spirit, is not the same as to attempt to develop them in oneself. Indeed, attempting to activate such latent powers in oneself or in another may interfere with a proper—that is, a competent, reliable, and impartial—investigation of them.
Moreover, there are different and higher kinds of iddhis, which are spiritual powers—such as insight, wisdom, compassion, harmony, and so on—which require the most rigorous self-development to bring them from latency into activity. The lower iddhis are real, and they are normal (though not at our stage of evolution), but they are also dangerous. Everything which is, is good and holy, when rightly used at the right time. As Ecclesiastes says, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” There will be a time for developing the lower iddhis, but this is the season for cultivating Wisdom and Love, Creativity and Peace. Those are unexplained laws of nature and latent powers truly worthy of our investigation here and now.
The investigation of unexplained natural laws and latent human powers has been a purpose, though not the central one, of the Theosophical Society from its earliest days. The impetus to found the Society came from a lecture given at one of H. P. Blavatsky’s soirées by an engineer-architect, George H. Felt, on “The Lost Canon of Proportion of the Egyptians.” His lecture dealt with the geometrical symbolism on the wall of an Egyptian temple, but Felt also claimed to have discovered how Egyptian priests invoked and commanded spirits of the elements. That claim, and Felt’s promise to demonstrate it, elicited interest in others at the meeting and led to a proposal to found a society to pursue such matters, as well as more generally the investigation of science and religion.
Although the impetus for the Society’s founding was an interest in phenomena, its objects, as set forth in its 1875 bylaws, were more general: “to collect and diffuse a knowledge of the laws which govern the universe.” By 1878, those objects were further diversified to include other purposes, such as to “study to develop his [man’s] latent powers” and ending “finally and chiefly, aid in the institution of a Brotherhood of Humanity . . . of every race.” From that time onward, it was clear that brotherhood was the central and primary purpose of the Society. By 1886, the emphasis on phenomena had been de-emphasized by restricting their pursuit from all members of the Society to only some: “The third object, pursued by a portion of the members of the Society, is to investigate unexplained laws of nature and the psychical powers of man.” By 1888, the third object was associated with “a distinct private division of the Society under the direction of the Corresponding Secretary [HPB].” And by 1896, the third Object had taken the form it still has in the Society worldwide: “To investigate unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in man,” with the omission of the term “psychic.”
The inner founders of the Society were always clear on this issue. In one of his earliest letters to A. P. Sinnett (no. 5), the teacher known as KH wrote: “The term ‘Universal Brotherhood’ is no idle phrase. Humanity in the mass has a paramount claim upon us. . . . It is the only secure foundation for universal morality . . . and it is the aspiration of the true adept.” And again (letter no. 12) he wrote, “The Chiefs want a ‘Brotherhood of Humanity,’ a real Universal Fraternity started; an institution which would make itself known throughout the world and arrest the attention of the highest minds.” They emphatically did not want a “School of Magick” (letter no. 11) and in general dismissed the importance and value of all psychic phenomena.
Why then, it is sometimes asked, was the attention of the Society shifted from a focus on the paranormal to one on brotherhood and cultural understanding? But that is the wrong way to put it. In view of KH’s early and strong emphasis on brotherhood and cross-cultural understanding as the Society’s purposes, we might ask instead why, at the Society’s founding, phenomenal matters were emphasized at all. The answer to that question is fairly clear.
The inner founders wanted a society to be formed for the purposes KH set forth in his letter to A. P. Sinnett. But KH and his colleagues were not the ones forming the Society; ordinary people, who had their own priorities, were the first members, and they came together to satisfy their personal interests. The late nineteenth century was a time of intense conflict between religion and science. In 1873, only two years before the foundation of the Society, a New York University professor, John William Draper, had published History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, which is still read today.
Nineteenth-century science was aggressively materialistic in opposition to an intellectually stultified Christianity that refused to accept facts about the history and nature of the world. The conflict thus presented Westerners with a choice between godless materialism and pious ignorance. Consequently many people were looking for something different, a third way that would affirm spiritual and nonmaterial values yet be reasonable and scientifically based. HPB reflected on that yearning in a letter she wrote to her sister Vera about the time of the founding of the Theosophical Society (Letters of H. P. Blavatsky, p. XXX)“Humanity has lost its faith and its higher ideals; materialism and pseudo-science have slain them. The children of this age no longer have faith; they demand proof, proof founded on a scientific basis—and they shall have it. Theosophy, the source of all human religions, will give it to them.”
At the time of the Society’s founding, Spiritualism and an interest in psychic matters were expressions of the search many people were making for a logical explanation of the world in nonmaterialistic terms. It was such an explanation—of both the normal and the apparently paranormal—that HPB proposed Theosophy would supply. Accordingly, the Society attracted persons eager for such an explanation and also those who were interested in witnessing, at first hand, phenomena that science could not explain and that conventional religion found threatening. Thus the Society included among its objects the investigation of such matters, and HPB performed some striking phenomena to demonstrate the possibility of things in heaven and earth that were not dreamt of in philosophy or science.
The investigation of unexplained laws and latent human powers has thus always been a part of the Society’s calling, albeit not the basic reason for its foundation. Such investigation is more a means to demonstrate certain truths than an ultimate purpose for the Society’s existence. A number of prominent members of the Society did, however, activate some of those powers that are latent in all of us, particularly that of clairvoyance, which is the ability to see certain aspects of reality that are invisible to most people.
There is more to reality than any of us can perceive. There are colors outside the range of light visible to our eyes—infrared and ultraviolet. There are sounds outside the range of vibrations our ears can hear—low-pitched rumbles that precede an earthquake, which animals hear and which cause them to flee, or high-pitched whistles that a dog can hear and will respond to. Similarly, there are tastes, odors, and sensations that our senses cannot pick up. But more than that, there are kinds of potential stimuli that we have no senses to perceive at all: X-rays, radio waves, beta waves, and so on. We have invented machines that are affected by such stimuli and can translate them into signals we are able to perceive, but we do not experience those stimuli directly. So also, many Theosophists believe in the existence of superphysical stimuli that physical machines cannot respond to, but that a few persons are able to detect by means of the faculty we call clairvoyance.
Relatively dependable clairvoyance is a rare phenomenon, and fully reliable clairvoyance does not exist. The Society has never had many who were gifted with or developed this faculty. HPB had it, as she herself describes in some of her letters to her relatives, as well as the ability to materialize objects and perform a variety of other phenomena. She got into trouble, however, by using that ability to satisfy the curiosity of people. Her motive was a good one—to attract people to the philosophical truths behind the phenomena, but most who witnessed it wanted only more marvels, not philosophy.
C. W. Leadbeater was clairvoyant too, as attested perhaps most notably by his recognition that a young teenage boy—dirty and unkempt, whom his tutor had judged to be retarded—was destined to be a great teacher and speaker: J. Krishnamurti. And yet Leadbeater made mistakes, for example in his clairvoyant observations of the past, as his secretary C. Jinarajadasa pointed out to him.
Dora Kunz, a president of the American Section, was clairvoyant, particularly in certain ways. She had a remarkable ability to look at the health aura of a person and identify physical illnesses from abnormalities in that aura, as confirmed by medical examination. And from that ability, she developed a supplementary diagnostic and healing technique called Therapeutic Touch, now widely used by nurses. Many can bear personal testimony to its effectiveness. But she also made other kinds of decisions based on inadequate grounds, despite her gifts.
Geoffrey Hodson had clairvoyant ability; most notably he described his perception of angelic or deva forms, as well as the forms produced by music on the inner dimensions of reality. Hodson was also tested at one time for his ability to perceive between two alternative paths of electrons that were fired randomly along one or the other of the two paths. Not only was his perception of the paths being followed by the electrons correct at a higher than chance level, but he was able to tell when the machine emitting the electrons had malfunctioned and was not producing any, even though the machine’s operator was unaware of the fact at the time. Yet he was not always reliable and was taken in by the fraudulent Cottingsley Fairy photographs, as was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
No clairvoyant ability is always accurate and reliable, not even that of genuine clairvoyants. Why should that be? It is an obvious fact that several people witnessing the same event will see it differently. The sworn court testimony given by eyewitnesses is sometimes conflicting, and a demonstration of the unreliability of our physical observations is sometimes made in psychology classes. The instructor will arrange to have the class interrupted by someone who comes into the room, does something quite bizarre, and then immediately leaves. The instructor then asks the class to write an account of what they have just seen: what did the person look like, what was done, what was the apparent purpose of the action? The resulting accounts will vary significantly in the most basic information. People do not see the same event in the same way.
If our physical observations are unreliable, being influenced by many factors, including our expectations, how much more so must be observations on superphysical dimensions. Physicists now tell us that the act of observation changes the thing observed, an effect we hardly notice on the level in which we live but one that is notable in the subatomic world. In subtler dimensions of reality—such as the emotional and mental—the observer and the observed are one in a way that is far truer than in the physical dimension. Consequently, in those subtler dimensions, what the observer experiences must be affected by the observer’s own background, expectations, and assumptions, just as they are in the physical world, but to a much greater extent in those subtler realms. Moreover, if skilled and practiced clairvoyants can make mistakes, what about less skilled and more amateur ones?
It is also noteworthy that the famous clairvoyants talked little about how they developed their own talents along those lines or the process by which they used them. There may be good reason for their reticence. What is appropriate for one person, who is exceptional in many ways, may not be advisable for the rest of us. Human beings at our stage of evolution should not be forcing psychic development. There are doubtless reasons why a few had the ability naturally or were able to develop it, but it is not advisable for most people to play around with psychic matters. HPB, we are told (Mahatma Letters 491), had to be separated from some aspect of her nature (whatever that may mean) to develop her latent powers along those lines. C. W. Leadbeater had specific instructions, he tells us, from his Master, clearly for specific purposes. Dora Kunz seems to have been born with psychic abilities, which in itself is not unusual as many young children have some trace of it, though it normally fades out. Geoffrey Hodson’s abilities, like Leadbeater’s, seem also to have been developed under tuition.
There are, of course, many people who claim clairvoyance of one sort or another, but very few, if any, have demonstrated the results that the four mentioned above did. Some self-proclaimed clairvoyants are frauds, pure and simple. Some are perhaps self-deluded. Some doubtless have a degree of clairvoyant ability, that is not well developed or under control. Assessing clairvoyance is no easy matter. The great problem is the one of consistent replicability. Clairvoyants are affected by their environment, so reliable scientific tests are hard to apply to them—probably impossible in a strict sense. And what cannot be reliably tested cannot be depended upon.
Some scholar-scientists have sought to investigate extraordinary perception and other psychic abilities. Two who have done the most rigorous work along those lines are Ian Stevenson, who has investigated memories of past incarnations, and Rupert Sheldrake, who has investigated cognition outside the limits of known physical channels. But the scientific community as a whole unfortunately tends to ignore their work, doubtless because their findings conflict with the dominant paradigm of scientific thought.
The third Object, insofar as it applies to things like clairvoyance, was never intended to be for all members of the Society. But the powers latent within us are not limited to clairvoyance and other psychic abilities. Meditation, which the Society teaches and many members practice, taps into latent powers of a different sort. Indeed we all have latent spiritual powers whose development and application will do more to improve the life of the individual and of society than any possible psychic expansion.
It is not timidity that restricts us from investigating the paranormal in a concerted and scientific way. It is a judgment of what is possible, advisable, and profitable in ways that matter. The appropriate investigation of psychic powers requires the training, experience, and dedication of scientists like Ian Stevenson and Rupert Sheldrake. However, the rest of us can investigate such matters in an anecdotal way. We can collect accounts of events that cannot be easily explained by a materialist view of the world, and we can consider them in the light of the Theosophical tradition. The intense and focused investigation of such accounts requires someone with the proper training and the determination to apply it (like Stevenson and Sheldrake), and such people cannot be just materialized. They are a rare breed. What all of us can do is to be aware of possibilities that surpass the normal at our stage and to record them for those who have the special competence needed for their rigorous investigation.
But another sort of investigation of unexplained laws and latent powers requires no competence other than that which all of us can develop in ourselves. And that is an awareness of who we are, where we are, and why we are here. The technique for such investigation is also no mystery. It consists of study, meditation, and service. Study of what the great sages of the past thought and of how our contemporaries responded to those wise thoughts will provide us with a map or blueprint for our own self-development. Meditation on the great truths from the past and on our own inner reality will internalize our study and make us, not just intellectually informed, but inwardly wise. Service is the inevitable result of inward wisdom; those who are wise express their wisdom by being helpful to other beings. And paradoxically, serving others is the only way to a full realization of what we have studied and what we have meditated upon.
The most important of all unexplained laws is that which relates us to all other living creatures. The greatest of all latent powers is the ability to apply the law of relationship in everyday life. That ability is wisdom, compassion, peace, and spiritual power. It is what the third Object is really about.