THEOSOPHY, Vol. 89, Issue 5, July/August 2001
(Pages 206-211; Size: 12K)


[Article number (15) in this Department]

Is there a contradiction between altruistic sacrifice and a desire to advance spiritually?

This question arose during a workshop on spiritual evolution, coming somewhere between discussions on the meaning of true happiness and how anyone could possibly forgo one's own salvation to make that manvantaric pledge to work toward the redemption of all living beings. Can the personality make a promise for the spirit within? Are we tainted by the promise that the good path leads to bliss? The opening words of the Isha Upanishad, adopted by Mahatma Gandhi, suggests a relationship between the sacrifice and bliss: "Tena tyaktena bhunjita," by renouncing it [the world], enjoy it.

The many facets to this question make it far more complex than one suspects on the outset, because comprehension depends on the individual perspective. People in general want to grow spiritually, even if they recognize that piety or rigorously devout practice can torture the body and soul as well as any hedonistic pleasure. Extremes between discipleship and dogma exist within the theosophical movement just as they do the religious hierarchy, unfortunately. The opportunity for misstep and missed opportunity is found in the Wm. Q. Judge's warning that the mind is continually self-deluded. The personal responsibility for self-review is enormous. Too often we abandon the religious terminology, such as salvation, before we realize we still must come to terms with its original intent if we are to consciously approach a true understanding of charity, harmony, and truth. Preparing our way for heaven or devachanic bliss is part of the ongoing cultural dialogue that we should not dismiss with self-righteous assurances that theosophy leads to the truth. Being honest with ourselves is at least as hard as being honest with others. This is a journey, after all. We are beings in motion and matter.

English artist William Blake (1757-1827) expressed our conflict as: "He who binds to himself a joy / Does the winged life destroy; / But he who kisses the joy as it flies / Lives in Eternity's sunrise." Three students of theosophy explore a few facets of this question of altruistic sacrifice and spiritual advancement along different lines of inquiry.


When we find that material acquisition, sensual gratification, even intellectual knowledge still leave us with that nagging "divine discontent," then we look to the uncharted subjective realm of the inner and spiritual life and begin to burn with the primal questions that rise up in every human being as the spell of objective life loosens its hold. When we feel those age-old questions -- what is a life worth living, how can my life have some real significance, where am I going, what is my essential identity -- when we feel these in our gut rather than in our head, then we are accelerating along the "on ramp" of the spiritual path.

When we turn our backs on the worn out satisfactions of much of physical and social life, we begin to think about the path of spiritual development, "a road less traveled." We start to see the importance of a disciplined inner life, becoming weary of being the passive recipients of stray thoughts and fanciful diversions that eventually leave us empty. We begin to discriminate, in the spirit of the Indian Upanishads, between "the better and the dearer." Within this spinning constellation of readjustment and alignment, we come face to face with sacrifice, the twin sister of the Greek Sophia (Wisdom).

The idea of spiritual development and altruism are really one and the same. The idea of spiritual selfishness is really an oxymoron. If we understand that spiritual development is the process of transforming ourselves into a fuller living expression of the unity of all life, then we come to realize that working for others is the highest active human expression of the fact that life is one. Assuming this is true, if we experience an inner conflict about whether to help another or act on behalf of our own spiritual development -- in other words, if we see the two as mutually exclusive -- we are not seeing clearly. Nothing pleases the soul nature more or is more liberating than when we can help another; for in the act, the whole of life is moved forward, uplifted, and an increment of the pain of the world is alleviated. That there is a greater joy in giving than receiving is the common experience. Saint Francis expresses this in the famous prayer attributed to him, "It is in giving that we receive."

Spiritual evolution is the natural path of all beings, and it is natural to want to participate consciously in the great impulse of spiritual life just as it is natural to do all we can for those we love. And the more we see that we are in one great family, the more our love will expand. It would seem that the more spiritually developed we become, the more we will identify with all beings and want to be of service, and the more we attempt to be of use in life, the greater will be our realization that wisdom (spiritual development) is necessary.


Altruism in its highest sense is that love dedicated to the benefit of others. Can this be motivated by selfish interest? How does a desire for spiritual growth relate to altruism, or is it related at all? Currently, we are surrounded by multifarious self-help groups that promise spiritual growth and possible realization through various means, most of them for a fee. The true process is one of realization rather than acquirement. Charging a fee for profit to bestow spirituality reveals a mistaken notion as to the purpose as well as the way of life.

If we perceive the purpose of life to be one of a conscious realization of the unity of life, is it possible to consider spiritual growth in an egotistic manner? This would indeed reflect a sense of selfishness or desire to be better than others. Once we abandon concern for the welfare of others, we have relinquished true spirituality even though we might have developed many psychic powers, which are not to be confused with spiritual powers.

Altruism, devotion, study, and sound philosophy are the components used for the unfolding of one's spiritual awareness. What is the climate for each of these qualities? When considered from the view of our sevenfold nature there is an admixture of possibilities. A mixture of oil and water creates a separation hence no blending or assimilation. The need would seem to be one of synthesis rather than specialized concentration in one area or another. The Bhagavad-Gita enumerates three qualities in nature: Sattva (truth), Rajas (action), and Tamas (darkness or inertia). It teaches further the presence of a higher Sattva that is a synthesis of the three, or the highest truth. This would be that perception which looks directly upon ideas such as Patanjali (Yoga Aphorisms, 26) describes.

Altruism, then, is the expression of a balanced application of devotion, study, and sound philosophy through service that includes all life. This requires simultaneously harmonizing with nature, and as we serve, a gradual unfolding of our potential leaves no room for egotism or selfish desire. In some belief systems, intellectual development without true spiritual understanding can achieve a level of reward akin to the lowest Nirvana, through sheer force of will and technical observances. But the indwelling spirit is not "mocked," as the Galatians (6:7) scriptures remind us: we reap what we sow. The ultimate goal cannot be purchased or otherwise acquired by trade. The renunciation of the fruit of our actions, the Gita explains, is the sure path.


As Siddartha, not yet the Buddha, first set out on the journey that eventually led to enlightenment, this, according to The Light of Asia (fourth book) by Sir Edwin Arnold, is what he said:

... now the hour is come when I should quit
This golden prison, where my heart lives caged,
To find the truth; which henceforth I will seek,
For all men's sake, until the truth be found.
This grand, noble statement contains two aspects: first, the desire to discover the truth for oneself (i.e., to advance spiritually); second, the desire to use that truth to help humanity (i.e., altruistic sacrifice). The two -- altruism and spiritual advancement -- are seamlessly bound together. One cannot be accomplished without the other. Where one is present and the other absent, there will be retardation of progress.

There are those who say that good works and motives are not important; what is important is to seek out the truth in the core of one's being and disregard all else. They err. For the desire to advance spiritually unaccompanied by the desire to help one's fellows produces only a cold and brittle asceticism: pride, aloofness, indifference to the pain of others. This will bar one from ever achieving the goal.

There are others who say that to try to advance oneself spiritually is in itself selfish and hinders true progress. Good works, good motives; these alone are what is needed. They too err. For altruism unaccompanied by the desire to advance spiritually produces well-meaning but faulty do-gooders and philanthropists, people who often do more harm than good. The way to the goal is barred for them as well.

The true path is one in which the intense desire to plumb the depths of one's own being in order to seek out the truth is wedded to the longing to bring peace and harmony to the hearts of all. In the lives of the great ones who precede us -- the Buddha, Jesus, Moses, St. Francis, Gandhi and many others -- we find full embodiments of both spirituality and altruism. If either the one or the other were lacking in any of them, they would not have become the mighty souls they were. Let us emulate these great ones. As stated in The Voice of the Silence (p. 36), "To live to benefit mankind is the first step. To practice the six glorious virtues is the second."

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