THEOSOPHY - The Tree of Life

An Article by Geoffrey Farthing

A study paper from The Theosophical Journal.
Geoffrey Farthing

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adyar banyan tree

The 450-year-old spreading giant Banyan Tree, located at the Theosophical Society estate at Adyar, Chennai, India, is one of the biggest Banyan trees in the world. wikipedia

In the November/December 1990 edition of The American Theosophist there was an article by John Algeo entitled "The Tree of Theosophy". This was an appreciation, from a scholar's point of view, of Theosophy and the Theosophical Society; original 'trunk' together with it's numerous branch organizations.

John Algeo described "an intellectual history of modern Theosophy".  This history, he said, was one of concepts, values and practices along with sources, development and effects. He referred to it as a system of ideas, like a great spreading banyan tree.  Later on he referred to an evolution of concepts in the theosophical movement.  Later still, under a paragraph entitled "External history" he again referred to 'modern' Theosophy which he said,"did not spring fully formed from the brow of Helena Blavatsky in 1875".  He postulated that, "typical 19th century thought was incorporated into 'modern' Theosophy" and referred to "what is unique to Theosophy, either ideas or their combination".

Not much fault can be found with most of these statements if, indeed, Theosophy is to be regarded as a set of ideas with a literary history, but is it really that?  Throughout the article Theosophy is referred to in terms of ideas and concepts.  What are these but mind constructs, the symbols used for thinking purposes, expressible by ordinary or maybe extraordinary words as the occasion may demand.  This is the academic viewpoint.

Is it legitimate to regard Theosophy in these terms?  When we remember the origins of the present theosophical movement, which began with the founding of the Theosophical Society in 1875, it can hardly be said that it was based on ideas.  At that time there was much spiritualistic phenomena, some of it admittedly fraudulent but some of it quite genuine.  The spiritualists of the time had no plausible philosophical explanation for these phenomena.  Their 'authorities' were their "spirits".  H.P.B. declared that she was sent to America to try to give an explanation of what was then so commonly happening.  She said that she was there to defend genuine mediums against the attacks of those who thought that all spiritualism was just fraud.  She declared, after having seen the variety of phenomena that occurred at the Eddy household, that she could not only see what was going on clairvoyantly but also that she could at will produce like phenomena, and on many occasions afterwards to many people she demonstrated that she could.  Her ability to do these things did not in any way stand on literature or history or on any words or ideas.  They stemmed from knowledge and power: the knowledge of the forces of nature and the power to manipulate them.  That last sentence is obviously not in technical, theosophical terms.

The founding of the Theosophical Society was instigated primarily by two Masters of the Wisdom, one of them being H.P.B.'s teacher. A number of the Masters, however, were concerned with the early Theosophical Society, and its early literature, notably Isis Unveiled [published 1877].  Mme Blavatsky and Col. Olcott, who was also a pupil of the Masters, were the earthly agents not only for the practicalities of setting up the Society but also for the writing and production of Isis Unveiled, a work of almost incredible erudition wherein quotations from over 1,300 other books are made.  Whence this vast learning?  Could any ordinary human being have acquired it?  Olcott said that some seven Masters had a hand in its writing, and H.P.B. later told us that they had literally taken over her body.  It should be remembered that Isis Unveiled was H.P.B.'s first major work.

John Algeo is at pains to point out that Theosophy is subject to development.  Obviously in the very long term this must be the case.  Even the Masters and H.P.B. had to acquire their knowledge and their powers, and this process must have taken many lives. Their maturity in these things was a matter of development but over centuries.  Was what they learnt, however, merely a matter of words?  Could such knowledge and power possibly have had a date or an age such that the term 'modern' could be applied to it?

We could ask what was the nature of the means of communication that H.P.B. used to give the spiritualists her explanations of their phenomena: obviously she could only talk or write in words. She had to use words to describe something of the constitution of man and of the forces in Nature.  If, however, she was able to manipulate these forces and apply them practically to affect the elements in Nature and the principles in man to produce phenomena, she must have possessed a 'know-how' other than words.  Similarly the elements in Nature and the principles of man must have been actualities in their own right, not ideas.  In her explanation the words she used and the practices she described applied to real things.  Her manipulation of the forces involved produced real palpable effects which others could see or otherwise cognize.

Now those of us who have spent years trying to discover Theosophy, learn that it applies to the nature of Nature itself and to its modus operandi.  These are real things and the knowledge of them is quite apart from any written word, whether it be 'modern' or whether it be 'ancient'.  This knowledge is variously called Theosophy, the Ancient Wisdom, Esoteric Science, the Wisdom-Religion and so on. In coming to know something of what Theosophy is we come to realize with absolute certainty that man is unitary with the whole cosmic process.  That process in its entirety is reflected into the totality of his being.  It is for this reason that aspirants to wisdom are exhorted to know themselves, and this is the key to a knowledge of Theosophy.  Of course we must all start by learning Theosophy from books and those books should preferably be by those who themselves know what they are writing about.

Instead of the tree illustrated in The American Theosophist at the head of John Algeo's article there should have been a representation of the mythical Yggdrasil tree with its roots in the heavens and its branchlets and leaves on earth.  This tree represents something of the way the Cosmos works.  Manifestation, that is objective manifestation, is represented by the leaves of the tree.  These are all things knowable by us through our senses, for example, the myriads of life-forms on earth.  We are told, however, that every such thing has its real origin in the invisible regions which must for us, for the time being, be purely subjective, but they are not necessarily unknowable for all that. Spiritual development discloses slowly something of their nature. This knowledge is Theosophy.  It is the knowledge of how things really are, how the Cosmos works.  Although, paradoxically, the major characteristic of this process is ceaseless change, the principles upon which it works are changeless. They are the same now as they were at the beginning of time (whenever that was). If we will study the symbolism of the Yggdrasil tree we are not only studying the nature of Cosmos but our own natures.  We slowly discover, if we will take the necessary inward journey, that we are possessed in fact of 'principles' as described in the original classical literature.  We also come to the realization that our inmost nature is shared by all other men.  It also slowly dawns on the true aspirant prepared to work and devote time to the quest that potentially we are, in our inmost nature, divine beings. This is the experience of the mystics.  When we add to that experience that of the nature of Nature at her various levels and the Law by which she works, we can eventually manifest the knowledge and the powers of the Masters.  One who is aiming to do this is an aspiring Theosophist.

It was, as said, some of these Masters who, through H.P.B., gave us the vast literature we have for study.  Geoffrey Barborka, in his book H.P.B., Tibet and Tulku, tells us something of the extraordinary nature of H.P.B.  (It was he who stated the number of works quoted from in Isis Unveiled.) At the time Isis was written H.P.B. hardly knew English and although she says she had studied much during the course of her training with her Master, she never claimed to have acquaintanceship with that large number off works.  Not only to have read them but also to be able to remember their content so as to be able to quote relevant passages from them, is surely hardly short of a miracle, and this knowledge was evinced in H.P.B.'s first book.  Yet John Algeo would have us believe that there were three developmental stages in Theosophy, of which this was the first, and that we should be careful what we regard as Theosophy in terms of these three stages.  In the bibliography in Boris de Zirkoff's edition of The Secret Doctrine there are over sixty pages listing the books referred to in the text and some twenty works per page on average.  This makes some 1,200 works referred to, which is of the same order as the number quoted from in Isis.  In The Secret Doctrine much more of Theosophy, as Occultism, was given out, even though, as the book says, it was relatively only a little.

Later John Algeo refers to the Theosophy taught by the Theosophical Society.  Did, or even could, the Theosophical Society as such, with its three objects in which Theosophy is not mentioned, ever in fact teach any Theosophy?  He goes on to mention some other movements which put out variants on the Theosophical teachings.  He refers to them as para-Theosophy, and suggests that they are offshoots from the theosophical tree, but note he has allowed second generation Theosophy to be part of, not an offshoot from, his tree.  In fact he says later, "the Besant-Leadbeater version of Theosophy (notice that it is a separate version) came to form the core of the Adyar Society’s teachings".  If we allow that the Society has teachings, this is undoubtedly true: the Besant-Leadbeater version of Theosophy has come to be regarded as Theosophy virtually world wide.  It is interesting in this connection that after H.P.B.'s death there grew up the idea, supported by successive Presidents, that Theosophy was a matter of opinion: this was to accommodate the idea of freedom of thought.  Later writers with their considerable variations on the original teaching were excused on this score. What they wrote, it is claimed, was their view of the subject, but then they entitled their books First Principles of Theosophy, An Outline of Theosophy, A Textbook of Theosophy and so on. They did not start these works by saying that this was 'their view of Theosophy'.  In The Ancient Wisdom Annie Besant does say, with regard to her new presentation of it, that when students come to study the original as given by H.P.B. she hopes they will not have too much to unlearn!  What could such a statement mean?  In any case is Theosophy, the knowledge of cosmic processes, a matter of belief or opinion?  Is it on personal views that the cosmic process is ordered?

Furthermore, if we relate Theosophy to the nature and functioning of Cosmos, is it possible that there can be different versions of it?  Can it in fact change?  Maybe there can and perhaps should be different presentations of it, and indeed there are, but all these presentations must surely be consistent between themselves and as to the facts.  The facts do not change. 

We do not have many other expositions of the Ancient Wisdom in plain language but we do have some.  There is, for example, a useful outline of one by P.G. Bowen in The Occult Way.  For those who are prepared to look beneath the surface, many of Gurdjieff's teachings are obviously in line, and, very importantly, when we have the necessary keys there is a tremendous amount of allusion to real Theosophy in the ancient scriptures of the world, particularly those of the East.  In the Kabala, in Sufism, Alchemy and other systems there are important expositions of Occultism.  A number of keys to their allegories and symbolism was given out for the first time in The Secret Doctrine.

Not only can we liken Theosophy to the Yggdrasil tree, a symbolic tree of life itself, with no possibility of dead wood at its heart but, to change the metaphor, we can also liken Theosophy to an iceberg where only a small part of it is visible, perceptible by our physical senses.  By far the greater part of the iceberg is invisible, below the surface.  We can liken this invisible part to the spiritual realms wherein our mythical tree has its roots. These realms are the vast inner realms of Cosmos, the causative realms of powers, energies, archetypal patterns and characteristics.  We can ask, how is this metaphorical surface significant?  Here we must be mindful of the teaching of Theosophy.  Man is essentially dual.  There is the manifest part of him, that is, all that is expressed in his personality during life, his physical body with its life principles, his emotional nature and his mind (his personal mind).  Then there is the spiritual man, the individuality, the Ego, with its higher mind and its spiritual principles.  The 'surface' is between the lower mind and the higher aspects of mind. 

In terms of personal selves we operate above the surface at ordinary mind levels, which cannot respond directly to anything emanating from the more spiritual levels, because their operations are of a completely different order.  The personal is temporary and mortal, the spiritual is impersonal or Egoic, and is immortal and divine; its essential nature is one with the cosmic ONE.  The actual surface between the two, technically known as the Antahkarana, is something that has to be formed.  It is a necessary bridge between the lower and the higher mind.  Its significance is that the lower mind can only deal in ideas, concepts, beliefs, authoritarian dogmas and other dicta. Theosophy for it must be a matter of words, symbols and acquired learning (knowledge), and maybe of some emotional feeling.  A symptom of this personal knowledge is that we do not know 'right from wrong'.  We have to live our lives according to precepts, to commandments, to codes of ethics and social rules.  At this level our ideas and concepts are truth for us.  If they are religious or ‘theosophical' we invest them with significant value and meaning(to us).  We can and often do become vehemently defensive about them, the more so the more valuable or important or spiritual they seem to us to be.

None of this applies at Egoic level.  It is at this level that a man knows his own nature.  He knows it reflects in every particular the essential nature of Nature herself.  His perceptive powers are of an order far higher than those of our ordinary man, however erudite or clever.  He has access to all knowledge from a source not available to the lower mind at all.  He knows right from wrong in terms of criteria far different from those of the personal man.  He does not have twinges of conscience.  He is himself the source of conscience for his personal counterpart.  He does not have to 'acquire' knowledge, he is in direct contact with all knowledge.  What powers there are in the Cosmos are his. 

This is all impossible for us operating at personality level, and almost impossible to comprehend.  It is beyond even our imagining. Our Ego, even though invested with these god-like attributes, cannot manifest them at our level.  It can only do so through us down here so to speak, when we have purified ourselves and fulfilled all other (karmic) conditions.  It is in this wherein lies the importance of spiritual training and a knowledge of the verbal and written teachings of Theosophy.  Unfortunately, for us as persons, no real knowledge of our Egoic selves can be gained from such book learning, study or any literary exercise, no matter how excellent the words.  The best we can hope for from these sources is guidance and some inspiring elevation of consciousness.

Nevertheless to start we are enjoined to study, and we are also enjoined to think, spending much more time thinking than reading. We have to develop faculty.  This all helps to form the bridge, the Antahkarana.

Now although there are two poles, so to speak, of mind, the lower and the upper, the mind is one principle but with two aspects. With proper use our lower mind can become the agent for the formation of the bridge.  In its essential nature that bridge is basically personal.  It is to be destroyed when we become fully operating spiritual entities, but, and this is stressed in the literature, not before.  So, with our lower minds we study.  We read the literature, we learn to aspire after higher things, our emotions and imagination are fired.  This begins to affect our lives: a 'purification' process starts; our living is changed accordingly.  Interest shifts from the lower to the higher things of life and something of the bridge is gradually formed, but however little of that bridge is so created, it can then act as a conductor of impulses from the Ego, the higher mind, to the personality.  Then our judgments and our sets of values change. We begin to know the difference between right and wrong by an inner certainty quite apart from any codes of behaviour.  As this awareness grows, so the bridge building progresses cumulatively. Then our studying begins to have value in terms different from the mere acquisition of ideas or concepts.  Our understanding is growing.  Our meditation practices take on a different character. We begin to make significant discoveries for ourselves.  It is a matter of joy and great encouragement when we find confirmation of these discoveries in our literature.  We gain confidence gradually; we are becoming Theosophists in a proper sense.  We are beginning to really know what Theosophy is.

In The Voice of the Silence it says, almost at the start, "The mind is the slayer of the real".  Obviously the personal mind is here referred to: we should heed this warning in regarding Theosophy as ideas.  We should also distinguish clearly between Theosophy and the Theosophical Society.

Theosophy is the shoreless ocean of universal truth, love and wisdom, reflecting its radiance upon the earth, while the Theosophical Society is only a visible bubble on that reflection.  Theosophy is divine Nature, visible and invisible, and its Society human nature trying to ascend to its divine parent.  Theosophy, finally, is the fixed eternal Sun, and its Society the evanescent comet trying to settle in our orbit to become a planet, ever revolving within the attraction of the sun of truth.  It was formed to assist in showing to men that such a thing as Theosophy exists, and to help them to ascend towards it by studying and assimilating its eternal verities.

The Key to Theosophy, Chap.IV

Geoffrey Farthing, May 1991

The following text taken from Esoteric in 2014 makes the same point: link

One of the hallmarks of modern pseudo-theosophy and superficial thought at all times is to make believe that it is not necessary to read the classics. Weak and lazy minds try to convince themselves and others that it is enough to take a look at the works of contemporary authors.

As a result, in the two main varieties of pseudo-theosophy - the 1920s Besantian pseudo-Masonic ritualism and the 1990s pseudo-academic “modernizing” skepticism - the false idea has been adopted that H.P. Blavatsky’s works are “outdated”, and their Ethics unnecessary or at least inconvenient.

One could as well say that Shakespeare, Plato, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, or the Bhagavad Gita, the Dhammapada, the Upanishads and the very search for truth in itself are all “out of fashion”.

Classical authors are contemporary to every time, and the main problem with lazy minds is that they suffer from a form of blindness. Albert Einstein wrote these wise words about ancient and recent thought:

“Somebody who reads only newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses. He is completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of his times, since he never gets to see or hear anything else. And what a person thinks on his own without being stimulated by the thoughts and experiences of other people is even in the best case rather paltry and monotonous.”

Einstein added:

“There are only a few enlightened people with a lucid mind and style and with good taste within a century. What has been preserved of their work belongs among the most precious possessions of mankind. We owe it to a few writers of antiquity that the people in the Middle Ages could slowly extricate themselves from the superstitions and ignorance that had darkened life for more than half a millennium.”

He got to this final conclusion:

“Nothing is more needed to overcome than the modernist’s snobbishness.”

[ “Ideas and Opinions”, Albert Einstein, based on “Mein Weltbild” and other sources, Bonanza Books, New York, 1954, 374 pp., see pp. 64-65.]

Indeed, true ethics and theosophy are hard to grasp from the point of view of those shallow thinkers and would-be scholars who can’t read the classics or think by themselves.


Article first appeared in The American Theosophist May-June 1991
(contains some editing by Robert Kitto, Trustee, The Blavatsky Trust.)
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