THEOSOPHY, Vol. 40, No. 9, July, 1952
(Pages 409-413; Size: 15K)
(Number 9 of a 20-part series)

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


THE introduction of specific discussion concerning the individual soul and its attributes, so long deferred in the writing of the Key, begins on page 77 with a quotation from Colonel Olcott's Buddhist Catechism. What, it is natural to ask, could possibly be of more importance than a doctrine asserting the continuity of soul? Since, moreover, it is precisely the acquirement of individuality through periodic rebirths which H.P.B. designates as the "pivotal doctrine of the esoteric philosophy," why should not discussion of the soul have occurred earlier? And why does H.P.B. first utilize the teachings of Buddhism in introduction of the subject?

Buddhism, of all the world religions, has the reputation of being the least dogmatic. At least, the tradition of Buddha's insistence upon avoidance of dogma has been perpetuated even in the midst of those creedal oversimplifications which human nature seems to apply to every religion. On the matter of the soul, Buddha held, fixed opinions are apt to be especially disastrous. Buddha may be thought to have shown supreme wisdom by refusing to speak of the soul except in a specific context of discussion, never for a moment considering that a mere word, such as "Soul," could possibly represent the complex and subtle reality of man's true nature. And it would seem that H.P.B., in thus turning to Buddhism at the outset of her discussion of the soul, meant to impress upon readers that the categorical method of expression is here out of place. When the Buddhist Catechism, as quoted, says that "soul" may be regarded as a "word used by the ignorant to express a false idea," and when H.P.B. later states that the same individuality undergoes birth after birth, the student is plainly being asked to consider existence of the "soul" as a paradoxical subject.

This point of departure may be held to be of profound importance, for it suggests a synthesizing view, incorporating the concerns of the great skeptics of history as well as those of the great affirmative teachers. In her article, "What Are the Theosophists?", H.P.B. indicates that the Theosophical Movement actually involves votaries of both sorts -- not only "mystics" like Patanjali, Plotinus and Jacob Boehme, but also men who refuse to proceed upon any other than strictly logical deductions, such as Kapila, Epicurus and James Mill. The latter, perhaps, were blessed with an overabundance of Buddha's wariness of categorical answers to the great questions of soul and immortality, yet undoubtedly represent a necessary phase of theosophical caution in respect to catch-all dogmas. [Note: A link to "What Are the Theosophists?" has been placed at the end of this article. --Compiler.]

H.P.B. elsewhere relates that Kapila was uncompromising in his attacks upon the special "revelations" of the Brahmins; he apparently insisted that human thought have at least visible foundations, there being a great deal of worth-while work and learning available on this plane of existence. Similarly, Epicurus insisted that men not betray half their birthright by seeking an escape from everyday concerns in a world of mystical imagination, denying the full meaning of the existing moment which the wise man must know to be a part of human purpose to appreciate. Epicurus, it is true, has been supposed to be the apostle of pure hedonism, but so have other and greater teachers become known for a line of emphasis in their teachings which represented but a portion of the whole. To understand that the Theosophical Movement embraces whatever truth is to be found in contrasting philosophies is to become well guarded against exclusiveness or narrowness of mind. All this may be implied by H.P.B.'s choice of Buddhistic paradoxes as the means for introducing the philosophy of soul, which philosophy it is the work of Theosophy to affirm, only providing it be understood that the Soul itself far transcends any doctrine or formulation.

Considerations in respect to the specific nature and destiny of soul may well have been postponed in the Key for two further reasons: First, the most philosophical and systematic beginning, in inquiry, according to the theosophical tradition, is with the Universals, not the particulars, of human experience. When passages in the earlier sections of the Key refer to the universal nature of Deity -- the causative principle standing behind all growth -- attention is focussed upon the spiritual link, which each man shares with all his fellows, and with every other living thing. Unless this identity in spiritual nature is grasped, the nature of individuality is likely to be misconceived. Second, while man's nature in this period of evolution gravitates so decidedly towards the personal, discussion of immortality can easily lead away from philosophy to mere preoccupation with one's own imagined future.

It is possible to find in such reflection some explanation as to why many men of integrity and good character, while possessed of both excellent minds and a fine sense of responsibility "toward all life and all beings," express disapproval of discussion of either soul or immortality. A carelessly partisan attitude toward those who long to eliminate metaphysical speculation might produce the charge that such men prefer to believe that they are but one-life creatures; they apparently do so prefer, but the reasons for the preference need to be examined. If one recalls Krishna's statement to the effect that the exact conditions obtaining after death are not to be discovered, or Socrates' indifference to his precise fate after death, we can see that there is profound justification for mistrusting excessive concern with "immortality."

An objection to flights of metaphysics can be, and often is, raised on ethical grounds, it being held that the man who worries about what is going to happen to him after death will not pay sufficient attention to his social responsibilities here and now. Many of those who so object are obviously reacting against the "individual salvation" theme of various theologies, and perhaps, for them, there is intuitive realization that no real strengthening of moral fibre can take place in this way. It is, after all, perception of the interdependence of all nature and the brotherhood of man which inspires moral growth, and speculation upon one's individual fate is often a deterrent to such realization. On the other hand, what the opponents of metaphysics and teachings of immortality need to recognize is that the great religious teachers have said what they have had to say in affirmation of immortality only to increase man's awareness of the enduring significance of human striving for the good, the true and the beautiful -- only to give grounds for clearer faith in an innate sense of justice, so easily discouraged by a one-life purview. It is, of course, consistent with these purposes to declare the fact of immortality as a law of nature.

So a consideration of reincarnation is reached in the Key only after the establishment of propositions concerning the One Life and the One Law -- a sequence also found in the scheme of development in The Secret Doctrine. The individual soul is not considered as a "thing in itself," but is first discussed in relation to Karma. Thus, the Key, beginning on page 77, draws attention from universals to relative particulars, but never separates the concept of soul-destiny from moral law. The doctrine of the Skandhas is the fulcrum for the transition -- a subject, incidentally, upon which virtually nothing is said in The Secret Doctrine. Perhaps the idea of the Skandhas provides a simple approach to the subject of individuality, and obviously, some sort of simplification is needed when the treatment must necessarily be brief. It appears, then, that both the soul and reincarnation should be discussed only when the essentials of the karma philosophy, as assimilated by one who knows either something of the tremendous purview of The Secret Doctrine or the function of the Skandhas, as rendered in Buddhist teachings, are interwoven with all that is said concerning man's fate after death and his future lives.

The quotations from the Buddhist Catechism (p. 77) involve man's dual nature, without which no "karma" could be understood in a Theosophic sense, and offer logical completion to the implications of the First and Second Fundamental Propositions as hitherto presented. H.P.B. writes:

When we come to the question that the new personality in each succeeding re-birth is the aggregate of "Skandhas," or the attributes, of the old personality, and ask whether this new aggregation of Skandhas is a new being likewise, in which nothing has remained of the last, we read that: 'In one sense it is a new being, in another it is not.'
Here, then, is Karma in terms of the skandhas, which are a link between the personality and the individuality. And here, again, we see that the essential concept of the Second Fundamental Proposition now becomes a description of the manner and method by which each man creates his own weal or woe. In the Theosophical Glossary, under "Skandha," the same teaching is given other dimensions:
There are five -- esoterically, seven --attributes in every human living being, which are known as the Pancha Skandhas.... These unite at the birth of man and constitute his personality. After the maturity of these Skandhas, they begin to separate and weaken, and this is followed by jarâmarana, or decrepitude and death.
The teaching of the Skandhas is closely connected with that of memory, the power which provides continuity in evolution. This is not, of course, the memory of the physical brain, but the impacted memory "in every atom of will and sensation." (At this point, another necessity for postulating the first fundamental principle becomes clear, for unless there is that within each form of life which is eternal -- "a universal Vital principle independent of our matter" -- such continuity would be impossible. In every atom, then, resides "the mysterious power of evolution and involution, the omnipresent, omnipotent, and even omniscient creative potentiality.")

The life-span of man, then, is one during which full opportunity is given to the soul to synthesize the various forms of learning made possible to him by the aggregation of his skandhas, just as, in the formation of the solar system or a universe, considerable time must elapse before these come to a full "maturity" of their patterns of interrelationship. The individual soul, consequently, can select which of his "memories" will be heeded and which de-energized by transmutation of energy.

Around all soul, it is held, are degrees of refined substance which serve as the continuum of memory. It is sometimes called the "Astral Light," and may be considered, in effect, the radiation from all of the memories of universal nature. Here, also, must be the place of man's "free will" in his choosing of the influences he will heed. Whether he is affected by what have been called the "dregs" of the lower astral light, or by the potentially constructive "memories," is for his own choosing. Hence he moves in a sea of sensitive life, a life diffused in such a manner as to give to every atom will, sensation, and memory. His path of evolution is "checked by his Karma," which becomes the complex path of decisions made among his memories -- memories not "his" alone but which are rather links in the chain of cause and effect binding him to all others.

Pondering questions of individuality and personality thus forced to our attention, we are, perhaps, in a better position to understand the full meaning of the broad principles outlined as the Three Fundamental Propositions of The Secret Doctrine, and to see, as well, why H.P.B.'s teachings on the Soul were never oversimplified by her and should not be oversimplified by her students.

[Note: Here's the link to "What Are the Theosophists?", HPB's article that was mentioned by the Editors. --Compiler.]

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