THEOSOPHY, Vol. 41, No. 3, January, 1953
(Pages 117-121; Size: 16K)
(Number 15 of a 20-part series)

[Compiler's Note: All 20 articles have the same name.]


TWO of the most important subjects which may be considered from a Theosophical perspective are dealt with in the opening of Section XIII, entitled, "On the Misconceptions about the Theosophical Society." The first is that of asceticism, concerning which H.P.B.'s remarks certainly may be considered as crucial deviations from both religious and materialistic conventionality. The student will note, however, that H.P.B. does not undertake anything like an exhaustive analysis of asceticism in the Key, dealing only with the counteracting of "prevailing conceptions." She appears to wish, first, to inform the inquirer that Theosophists "never impose any hard and fast obligations in this respect," but that, secondly, one whose karmic readiness fits him for the special disciplines of practical occultism must have exhausted or passed beyond the usual "ties and wishes which bind him to the world." H.P.B. further states that the life of self-denial, or, more properly, a life consecrated by self-abnegation, cannot proceed by rule or rote. She provides no "ascetic formulas," yet at the same time asserts that some of the ultimate secrets of beinghood can never be revealed to those who have not reached entirely beyond the psychic sway of the senses and the vicissitudes of emotional bondage which accompany psychic involvement.

All supplementary reading on this topic expands upon this duality of Theosophic orientation in regard to asceticism. The Lucifer article "What is Truth?", for instance, contains many clarifying passages. First, at the opening of the article, H.P.B. emphasizes an integral connection between the quest for truth and self-discipline:

In every age there have been Sages who had mastered the absolute and yet could teach but relative truths. For none yet, born of mortal woman in our race, has, or could have given out, the whole and the final truth to another man, for every one of us has to find that (to him) final knowledge in himself.... Still each of us can relatively reach the Sun of Truth even on this earth, and assimilate its warmest and most direct rays, however differentiated they may become after their long journey through the physical particles in space. To achieve this, there are two methods. On the physical plane we may use our mental polariscope; and, analyzing the properties of each ray, choose the purest. On the plane of spirituality, to reach the Sun of Truth we must work in dead earnest for the development of our higher nature. We know that by paralyzing gradually within ourselves the appetites of the lower personality, and thereby deadening the voice of the purely physiological mind -- that mind which depends upon, and is inseparable from, its medium or vehicle, the organic brain -- the animal man in us may make room for the spiritual; and once aroused from its latent state, the highest spiritual senses and perceptions grow in us in proportion, and develop pari passu with the "divine man." This is what the great adepts, the Yogis in the East and the Mystics in the West, have always done and are still doing.
In subsequent paragraphs in this article, moreover, H.P.B. speaks of another obstacle to the discovery of Truth, identifying most social conceptions of "respectability" with "Sham, Humbug and Falsehood":
Now conventionality -- pure and simple -- is a congenital Lie, as it is in every case a "simulation of feelings according to a received standard" (F. W. Robertson's definition); and where there is any simulation there cannot be any truth. How profound the remark made by Byron, that "truth is a gem that is found at a great depth; whilst on the surface of this world all things are weighed by the false scales of custom," is best known to those who are forced to live in the stifling atmosphere of such social conventionalism, and who, even when willing and anxious to learn, dare not accept the truths they long for, for fear of the ferocious Moloch called Society.
It is worth-while to pursue the relatedness of these two paragraphs, for together they throw considerable light upon the history of religions. Asceticism and conventional morality have nothing intrinsic in common, but, in terms of religious history, the two have often become confused. Perhaps this is because both asceticism and conventional morality involve beliefs in the prime necessity for restraint. Asceticism is commonly conceived to be the "giving up" of various desires and pleasures of sensuous existence, and conventional morality, in every established religion, has resided in negative commandments. The important difference, however, between conventional morality and pure asceticism is that restraint practiced in the interest of the latter is a matter of conserving energy for higher and more meaningful expenditure. This sort of asceticism is not a frightened retreat before the awful visage of sin, but rather a measured progression away from those planes of thought and action which perpetuate ignorance. In the Key, H.P.B. writes, "These means must be used intelligently and wisely, not blindly and foolishly; like an athlete who is training and preparing for a great contest, not like the miser who starves himself into illness that he may gratify his passion for gold."

Religions have almost invariably attempted to institutionalize asceticism, and in so doing have encouraged unnatural pretensions to ascetic attainments on the part of believers. In the light of H.P.B.'s remarks, this can be seen to be a grievous error, for asceticism can never be practiced by groups or institutions, nor even by individual obedience to specific recommendations. While it is true that the theosophic life may embody correlative striving and a similarity of aim, purpose and teaching in respect to asceticism, the governing of each one's progress in this respect must rest with himself; "group pressure" may have constructive social usages in some contexts, but has no place in furthering the progressive awakenings of the human soul.

The tendency to materialization, "natural" in Kali Yuga, obviously has focussed strongly upon the subject of morality. Forms of self-commandment, originally intended to focus dedication to a higher life "in sanctified solitude," are imitated by rules of conduct advocated by religious and social groups. This politicalizing of morality must be resisted, for the reason that nothing is more dangerous than self-righteousness nor more destructive of clear perception than the belief that one can attain to high morality by following codes or customs. This, it would seem, is the explanation of H.P.B.'s vehement attack upon "conventionality" in "What is Truth?" and also in several passages in The Key to Theosophy. Those who mistakenly think that they have understood and achieved morality by following negative commandments are apparently prevented from discovering the nature of genuine morality. Thus, the materialized misrepresentations of an ancient, philosophically inspired asceticism become, finally, the enemies of asceticism. [Note: A link to "What is Truth?" has been placed at the end of this article. --Compiler.]

It is probably for this reason, too, that H.P.B. found it necessary to proclaim that she herself was not an ascetic, as she did in 1881 in her article, "A Year of Theosophy." Once again she was guarding against the common human propensity to regard asceticism as an exoteric matter:

It is also imagined that the President and Corresponding Secretary (especially the latter) are, if not actually Yogis and Mahatmas themselves, at least persons of ascetic habits, who assume superior moral excellence. Neither of these suppositions is correct, and both are positively absurd.... Colonel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky do not pretend to asceticism, nor would it be possible for them to practise it while in the thick of the struggle to win a permanent foothold for the Society in the face of every possible obstacle that a selfish, sensuality-loving world puts in the way. What either of them has heretofore been, or either or both may in the future become, is quite a different affair. At present they only claim to be trying honestly and earnestly, so far as their natural infirmities of character permit, to enforce by example and precept the ideas which are embodied in the purposes and rules of the Theosophical Society.
These statements are clear intimation that H.P.B. felt that asceticism should never be a matter of public reputation, but an entirely private enterprise; and, moreover, an enterprise subject to the karmic fitness of opportunity. [Note: A link to "A Year of Theosophy" has been placed at the end of this article. --Compiler.] In her Lucifer article, "Occultism versus the Occult Arts," published in May, 1888, the whole orientation of her discourse is directed towards upsetting over-simplified and superficial conceptions of Occultism and asceticism. She wrote, then, in particular, to those who tended to "rush in where angels fear to tread." Those whose karma does not allow a dedication to full asceticism, she suggests, can only suffer loss of clarity of mind and feeling by ambitious attempts. She writes: "Much of this may be avoided if people will only abstain from rushing into practices neither the nature nor importance of which they understand. No one is expected to carry a burden beyond his strength and powers." A key passage in the same article further indicates that the ascetic life is no casual enterprise upon which one can embark as one would launch himself into some terrestrial affiliation:
There are those whose reasoning powers have been so distorted by foreign influences that they imagine that animal passions can be so sublimated and elevated that their fury, force, and fire can, so to speak, be turned inwards; that they can be stored and shut up in one's breast, until their energy is, not expanded, but turned toward higher and more holy purposes: namely, until their collective and unexpanded strength enables their possessor to enter the true Sanctuary of the Soul and stand therein in the presence of the Master --the Higher Self! For this purpose they will not struggle with their passions nor slay them. They will simply, by a strong effort of will, put down the fierce flames and keep them at bay within their natures, allowing the fire to smoulder under a thin layer of ashes. They submit joyfully to the torture of the Spartan boy who allowed the fox to devour his entrails rather than part with it. Oh, poor blind visionaries!

As well hope that a band of drunken chimney-sweeps, hot and greasy from their work, may be shut up in a Sanctuary hung with pure white linen, and that instead of soiling and turning it by their presence into a heap of dirty shreds, they will become masters in and of the sacred recess, and finally emerge from it as immaculate as that recess.

The doctrine of sublimation of passions has been one of the unfortunate immaturities of Western psychology. None of the destructive or selfish emotions can become a part of higher aspiration. Passions cannot be "sublimated," though the total energic forces of the sevenfold man can be marshalled and directed to higher purposes. It is interesting to note that with the gradual maturing of psychological science, the word "sublimation" is used less and less, with growing recognition that destructive or egocentric feelings must be eliminated entirely, as never transformable into their opposites. The "animal soul" which must be "killed instead of lulled" is man's own creation, a creation which is neither "kama" nor the "fleshly self," but man's submergence in the latter, and a distorted modification of the former. We cannot, clearly, "sublimate" distortions, but only pure energies. [Note: A link to "Occultism versus the Occult Arts" has been placed at the end of this article. --Compiler.]

The first passage quoted from "What is Truth?" suggests a final point of emphasis. When H.P.B. states the necessity of "paralyzing gradually within ourselves the appetites of the lower personality," the word "gradually" implies that the only genuine asceticism is an organic part of initiation into knowledge, never negative revulsion from the world of sin, nor ambition to achieve virtue or powers by renunciations.

COMPILER'S NOTE: The following is a separate item which followed the above article but was on the same page. I felt it was useful to include it here:

Desire in itself is not evil. On this point Buddha's teaching must not be misunderstood. Desire for the pleasures, or rather for the joys, that minister to the real self, is wholly good. It is desire for the pleasures that minister to the lower self; it is the desire to affirm the lower self, to live in it, to cling to it, to rest in it, it is the desire to identify oneself with the individual self and the impermanent world which centres in it, instead of with the Universal Self and the eternal world of which it is at once the centre and the circumference; -- it is this desire, taking a thousand forms, which is evil, and which proves itself to be evil by causing ceaseless suffering to mankind. 

--The Creed of Buddha

[Note: Here are the links to the three articles by HPB that were quoted from, commented on, and pointed to in the above article by the Editors. --Compiler.]
(1) "What is Truth?"
(2) "A Year of Theosophy"
(3) "Occultism versus the Occult Arts"

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