The Theosophical Society in America

The Ethics and Sociology of Fohat

By Robert Ellwood

Originally printed in the Winter 2009 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Ellwood, Robert. "The Ethics and Sociology of Fohat." Quest  97. 1 (Fall 2009): 21-23.

Robert EllwoodI would like to talk about what might be called the ethics and sociology of Fohat. For I am convinced that this Fohat is far from being merely an abstruse theoretical notion, esoteric in every sense of the word. Obscure it may be to many people, but what it has to deal with is as plain and practical as an ironing board, and it is at the heart of some of the major moral issues of our time. Get Fohat right and half the things people argue about would dissolve like morning mist, and we might even bring peace to the galaxy.

That is simply because Fohat is how we Theosophists talk about the link between mind and matter, spirit and flesh. It is, as I understand it, similar to what is called prana in Vedanta, chi or ki in the East Asian martial arts, or the Force in Star Wars: the creative energy by which the One manifests as the Many, and no less by which our own inner One, through the mind, manifests who we are and what we do through the medium of the body.

But this connection between spirit and flesh is where the problem usually is, isn't it? Jesus declared that "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Matt. 26:41). How often we find ourselves reiterating the same thing, and, to quote the apostle Paul, find that "what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I" (Rom. 7:15). How do we link our own personal mind and matter in such a way that such miscommunication does not occur?

On a larger scale, it could be argued that the whole of modern scientific, technological civilization rests on a certain understanding of the Fohat function, the linking of spirit and matter. While it has earlier sources, in Aristotle and certain medieval scholastics, most of the praise or blame is often given to Rene Descartes, the seventeenth-century French philosopher and scientist. It was he who taught us to look at nature, including the human body, as a basically unconscious, unfeeling, nuts-and-bolts kind of mechanism, which scientists can understand by means of physical forces and natural laws. Mind was something of a very different nature that was somehow also there, but it was essentially unconnected with matter—a view sometimes caricatured as "the ghost in the machine."

Attributing the idea of such a total abyss between mind and body to Descartes may in fact be a bit unfair. A recent article in the New Yorker held that he actually believed the opposite, quoting him as writing that we "experience within ourselves certain...things which must not be referred either to the mind alone or to the body alone," and that these arise "from the close and intimate union of our mind with the body." Nonetheless, many in the burgeoning scientific revolution chose to ignore that link, preferring to forget what lay behind the eye at the telescope or microscope, save as it functioned as a data-recording and interpreting machine, and failing to remember even that the eye itself was of flesh rather than just another lens.

This was simply because Descartes' approach enables science and technology to do what they do best. It works, produces results, as virtually all of what makes up our modern lives outwardly bears witness. Nature is best bent to our will, even the nature of our bodies and minds, so it seems, if treated as an almost infinitely complex machine, but one founded on a few basic energies and subject to mechanical and mathematical models. The force that moves the sun and others star is not, as Dante sang, divine love, but rather gravity and other blind forces. So is the human body and even the human mind, as seen by much of modern medicine and psychology. This hard-edged vision, though it may merely be seeing surfaces, works so as to make a real, measurable difference, or so we believe.

The great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber spoke of I-thou and I-it relationship. The former is an intersubjective relationship, as between two people who deeply feel and understand one another; the latter is when an object, animal, or even another person is viewed merely instrumentally, as an "it," which I may use however it suits my purposes. Though this may not be what Buber intended, the post-Cartesian model of nature that works best for science and technology in effect reduces most of nature, including most animals and not a few people, to "its" in this sense: that is why laboratory animals are given numbers rather than names and described in terms of their Latin taxonomy rather than by familiar English words such as "dog" or "cat."

There are other ways to relate to animals. A recent book, Piers Vitebsky's The Reindeer People (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), is about the Eveny, a reindeer-herding tribe in northern Siberia. Those of us who are vegetarians and animal rightists certainly could not approve of all aspects of Eveny culture. Their domestic animals, and the wild animals they hunted, undoubtedly were exploited as they were milked, killed, skinned, eaten. Yet the traditional Eveny mentality toward them was far different from that of the modern hunter who simply goes out with a high-powered, telescopic-sighted rifle hoping to bring down a trophy, or the modern scientist or a factory farmer who sees himself as merely exercising his right to "dominion."

With the Eveny, the relationship of human and animal is more complex. Even domestic animals, Vitebsky tells us, are not seen as subordinate but as another race whose purposes run parallel to those of humans. A skilled caretaker can know as many as 2000 of his herd by name and speaks to them about plans and movements. Each tribesperson may even have a particular reindeer consecrated to him or her as a personal kujjai, an animal "double" who shares the human's life on some unimaginably profound level. The eyes of this sacred quadruped have, for his or her human, the magical depth of a shaman's; she protects her human in supernatural ways, and if she dies, it probably means the reindeer has given herself in place of the person, who is thereby saved and eternally grateful to his kujjai.

Even more mysterious are wild reindeer and other game animals. Killing is not a right, for the hunt involves engagement with Bayanay, the "master of animals." Under his divine direction all wild animals migrate, feed, breed, and die. It is said the animals are his pets or children, but more profoundly he is the animals. They are his incarnations or manifestations. One can only take an animal if he offers himself at the request of Bayanay. The Lord of the Wild will do so only for a hunter who treats the animal's body and soul correctly, with honor and reverent use. Surely all this is a connection on the Fohat level.

I am not one to say all modern science and technology are bad or that we should just go back to the archaic way of life and live like the traditional Eveny, even if that were possible. Theosophy insists that while we may occasionally regress because of our refusal to take part in circumstances as they are, this is not healthy, nor can it last long before the entity or race self-destructs. We must continue on. I like to think that the Sixth Root Race will go beyond the scientific materialism of the Fifth (our own) to conjoin concepts of a living, conscious nature with the advances that science and technology have brought forth.

To do so, our Sixth Race grandchildren will need the vision illustrated by Henry Steel Olcott's inaugural lecture as first president of the Theosophical Society, when he argued for a wisdom beyond the narrow dogmatisms of both pulpit and laboratory and for a unitary worldview that could also limn the future. Our descendants will need to understand Fohat very well, for it is the key, whether known by that (perhaps Mongolian) term or not.

In The Secret Doctrine, we learn that Fohat is closely related to the One Life, and is "the transcendent binding Unity of all Cosmic Energies, on the unseen as well as the manifested plane" (I, 110-11). This is an important principle, for it tells us that the same "stuff" that causes the flower, or the human being, to unfold from within out, also operates the universe as a whole. Fohat tells us that everything is alive and conscious in its own way—not necessarily in the human way—but has an inwardness we can intuit, understand, and respect.

This is a concept that, if we could get it across and, as it were, give it sociological meaning, could make a real difference. In my humble view, one of the more benighted controversies today is that between so-called creationism, usually taken to mean creation by an external, personal God, and Darwinian evolution, usually taken to mean a purely materialistic "origin of species" by natural selection, without God or consciousness. So-called intelligent design is sometimes proposed as a mediating idea but is generally damned as nothing but a blind for creationism.

The intellectual fallout from this controversy has been devastating. It has painted science as cold and insensitive to any spiritual aspiration, and at the same time has made for an antireligious backlash by the so-called new atheists, whose books, as dogmatic as they may be in their own way, have become surprising best-sellers. But where does this leave us?

I would say it leaves us with Theosophy, and with Fohat. To me the logical response is intelligent design, but intelligent design from within, guiding evolution, both material and psychological, out of an ultimate Ground—an "Unknown Root," in the language of The Secret Doctrine—that is beneath and beyond time altogether.

A major issue in physics nowadays is the possibility that on the deepest level, and in the shortest span, time does not exist. It is not a constant, but an effect of something even deeper. The vehicle of that effect could be Fohat, the link to universal and individual consciousness, where abide the timeless ideas or forms of nature expressed in time, as light and shadow from a constant sun playing over a landscape. In this view, the effects of time can be seen as not the most basic thing. There is another level on which we really are the same person despite the years, or even apparent life and death, and, in the divine mind, it is the same universe despite the ages. A child once said, "We have time to keep everything from happening all at once," but perhaps on the profoundest level, the seeds of all that has or will happen are there now. As in so many areas, physics is getting closer and closer to Theosophy, for the Stanzas of Dzyan also tell us that, before motion and the more complicated kinds of manifestation, "time was not."

An article in a recent issue of Newsweek gives accounts of persons who experienced deep coma: by most criteria they were dead but were revived. Yet afterwards their memory, intellect, and personality all reappeared intact. As this perceptive article tells us:

This is, on some level, deeply mysterious. We experience consciousness embedded in time, a succession of mental states continually recreated in our brains, even during sleep. But when the brain shuts down, where does the mind go?
That is the crux of one of the oldest debates in philosophy. The materialistic view is that...memories resided in the physical state of the cells and synapses of [the patient's] brain, a state is that preserved for some period after the heart stops beating.
But there's another answer to the question....This is the view that the mind is more than the sum of the parts of the brain, and can exist outside it. "We still have no idea how brain cells generate something as abstract as a thought," says Dr. Sam Parnia, a British pulmonologist and a Fellow at Weill Cornell Medical College. "If you look at a brain cell under a microscope, it can't think. Why should two brain cells think? Or 2 million?"

Is Fohat at work here between the thought and the cell? Some might object that calling the mysterious link between cosmic and individual mind and matter "Fohat" is just an example of the "naming fallacy": you don't know what something is, so you give it a name and convince yourself that now it is no longer so mysterious. The naming fallacy has had very wide use, I would say, in psychology and in politics. At best what the naming fallacy can do is suggest the overall domain within which, rightly or wrongly, we want to place a problematic phenomenon. To give mental afflictions medical-sounding names—to speak of schizophrenia instead of possession, for example—subtly puts them in the realm of materialistic medicine rather than of mysticism, regardless of how much we really know about the ultimate causes of disturbing dreams and visions, or of trance and ecstasy.

Likewise, I appreciate the word "Fohat" because it puts these phenomena in the world of The Secret Doctrine. And that adds a dimension that I think is very important, for it relates the mind-body relationship within us to the manifestation of the universe and its ultimate source. It tells us the Cartesian world is not ultimate, that consciousness must ultimately be incorporated into any final theory of the universe or multiverse. Indeed, as cosmology advances toward this Point Omega, we Theosophists may be tempted to say, "Ha! We knew it all along." The idea, however, is not to prove we were right but to contribute a useful model for this kind of universe, and to do so in a poetic language that is adequate to its grandeur: a drama in which Fohat is the steed that bears us far into the heart of meaning, where mind and matter, time and eternity, dissolve into Oneness.

I am not so naive as to say that all we need to do is proclaim ideas like these and wars cultural and military would cease overnight. But, both from Theosophists and from many others of true goodwill, ideas like these are being heard alongside the din of bombs and battle. Fohat gives, then, a basis in thought and reality for the values of the coming Sixth Race. We need to give Fohat a passport to the trouble spots of the world, including our own consciences.


Robert Ellwood is professor emeritus of religion at the University of Southern California and a past vice-president of the Theosophical Society in America. He is the author of over twenty-five scholarly books and texts in religious studies, as well as several Quest Books publications including Finding the Quiet Mind, Finding Deep Joy, Theosophy, and Frodo's Quest: Living the Myth in The Lord of the Rings. He currently resides in Ojai, California.