THEOSOPHY, Vol. 49, No. 6, April, 1961
(Pages 264-267; Size: 12K)


[Article number (7) in this Department]

IN discussing the occult divisions of man's inner constitution as taught by ancient Mystery Schools, H.P.B. indicates that the most detailed occult doctrines were held in unwavering secrecy -- and that "the penalty of revealing Mystery doctrines was death." (Key to Theosophy, p. 96.) Many students have found it difficult to understand why, for instance, the revelation of a septenary constitution for cosmos and man should be considered so dangerous -- and even more difficult, certainly, to understand how any true school of occultism could even proscribe the penalty of death, no matter what the provocation.

As for the Egyptians, H.P.B. explains that "they gave out the teaching in broad outline," which implies that both the Egyptian classification and the philosophical divisions described by Pythagoras did not constitute all possible specific details, so that one can hardly say that a publicizing of any of various divisions within man's nature would lead to "death" for the revealer. On this point, H.P.B. writes that "the knowledge itself and its actual existence had never been made a secret of by the Hierophants of the Temple, wherein MYSTERIES have ever been made a discipline and stimulus to virtue." But, even here, the rule of secrecy was enforced and penalties attached, especially when the seven principles were linked to such a doctrine as that of the sevenfold planetary chain. In The Secret Doctrine I, xxxv, H.P.B. gives a suggestive answer to an inquirer concerning this particular grade or degree of secrecy:

The danger was this: Doctrines such as the planetary chain, or the seven races, at once give a clue to the seven-fold nature of man, for each principle is correlated to a plane, a planet, and a race; and the human principles are, on every plane, correlated to seven-fold occult forces -- those of the higher planes being of tremendous power. So that any septenary division at once gives a clue to tremendous occult powers, the abuse of which would cause incalculable evil to humanity. A clue, which is, perhaps, no clue to the present generation -- especially the Westerns -- protected as they are by their blindness and ignorant materialistic disbelief in the occult; but a clue which would, nevertheless, have been very real in the early centuries of the Christian era, to people fully convinced of the reality of occultism, and entering a cycle of degradation, which made them rife for abuse of occult powers and sorcery of the worst description.
The most recondite secrets of the Mystery schools were apparently another matter, and one who had been entrusted with knowledge pertaining to the control of psychical phenomena and who later misused them or divulged them unlawfully was practicing what H.P.B. calls in Isis Unveiled "conscious witchcraft." He had acquired powers "dangerous to fellow creatures." And it was in this context that the threat of death was added to those of expulsion from the Mystery order. During these particular cycles in the history of occultism, the disciplines of tradition and complete obedience to those who had been sought as revealers of the Mysteries served as a protection. The Ages of philosophy had not yet begun, and it apparently was not intended that, before the natural time had arrived, all should feel free to constitute themselves their own authorities. As a further illustration of the distinction between the traditional occultism of the larger Mystery schools and the occult tradition of Theosophy, H.P.B. quotes Theon of Smyrna as saying that "neither are the Mysteries communicated to all who are willing to receive them; ... there are certain persons who are prevented." With the turn of conjoining psychic and manasic cycles precedent to 1875 a distinctively theosophic tradition came into effect -- illustrated by H.P.B.'s statement in The Key that "we have, strictly speaking, no right to refuse admission to anyone -- especially in the Esoteric Section of the Society, wherein 'he who enters is as one newly born'." The penalties also were, of course, entirely different. If the secrets of the Esoteric Section were revealed -- and it is implied that these were considerably detailed -- H.P.B. merely states that "the law of retribution (Karma) would very soon overtake one who so broke his pledge, and perhaps as soon as the contempt of every honourable man would, even on this physical plane."

The tradition of a death penalty for revelation of the most powerful occult forces was, in effect, simply the extreme emphasis upon a matter of extreme importance -- involving the disciple's loyalty, integrity, and continuing rejection of all temptations to practice self-seeking sorcery. These were the traditions of what H.P.B. called "the old religions," in the esoteric representation of which extremes of discipline were insisted upon. But that there is a distinction between even this aspect of the "old religions" and the distinct Theosophic tradition was made apparent by H.P.B. in Isis Unveiled II, 99:

Every approach to the Mysteries of all these nations was guarded with the same jealous care, and in all, the penalty of death was inflicted upon initiates of any degree who divulged the secrets entrusted to them. We have seen that such was the case in the Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries, among the Chaldean Magi, and the Egyptian hierophants; while with the Hindus, from whom they were all derived, the same rule has prevailed from time immemorial. We are left in no doubt upon this point; for the Agrushada-Parikshai says explicitly, "Every initiate, to whatever degree he may belong, who reveals the great sacred formula, must be put to death."

Naturally enough, this same extreme penalty was prescribed in all the multifarious sects and brotherhoods which at different periods have sprung from the ancient stock. We find it with the early Essenes, Gnostics, theurgic Neo-platonists, and mediæval philosophers; and in our day, even the Masons perpetuate the memory of the old obligations in the penalties of throat-cutting, dismemberment, and disemboweling, with which the candidate is threatened.

H.P.B. then comments further and implies a distinction between "wise men," such as Pythagoras and Plato, who "took part in the Mysteries," and the less wise guardians of an older and more authoritarian tradition:
It is positively absurd to judge the ancients from our own standpoint of propriety and virtue. And most assuredly it is not for the Church -- which now stands accused by all the modern symbologists of having adopted precisely these same emblems in their coarsest aspect, and feels herself powerless to refute the accusations -- to throw the stone at those who were her models. When men like Pythagoras, Plato, and Iamblichus, renowned for their severe morality, took part in the Mysteries, and spoke of them with veneration, it ill behooves our modern critics to judge them so rashly upon their merely external aspect. (Isis I, 100.)
The Theosophic tradition is distinct simply because it is identified with the primacy of individual responsibility, and therefore with a conception of "leaving all results to the Law." The reason why the theosophic student cannot imagine a Buddha or an H.P.B. condemning a man to death is because they could not and would not have done so -- belonging as they did to a different order of influence and perceptiveness. Yet it is possible to search with some degree of sympathetic understanding for the invoking of the death penalty for the betrayal of occult trust in ages past -- although the execution of the decree might be left to Karma. Man does have, as we must admit, evil propensities. In our time the evil of which men are capable expresses itself by the refinement of physical engines of destruction, which may be used for the coercion of others. In a sense, all "evil" begins with a desire to coerce, and in bygone ages the emphasis in effecting coercion had to do with sorcery. One might imagine the present world, divided with much of fratricidal intent, employing in its opposing forces the various tools of black magic, including destructively-intended hypnotism. This sort of danger is far more virulent for the world at large than the threat of atomic detonation, for such practices would people the psychic currents with malevolent influences rendering progress towards individual responsibility even more difficult than it now is.

Finally, there is one perspective which, from a philosophical standpoint, should not be overlooked: the element of privacy or secrecy is mandatory for the evolution of the human pilgrim. He must learn to keep many things to himself. He must learn to respect confidences, and he must respect the fact that his word, once given, can never be broken simply because of a new and contradictory impulse. The harsh penalties of the Mystery schools of the ancient religions were designed to impress this point indelibly. In our own age, the age of a manasic cycle in which responsibility must be discovered, rather than be enjoined, the same results, at a higher level, must be attained by the self-disciplines of philosophy.

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:


The four Platonic Cardinal Virtues are Temperance, Courage, Magnanimity, and Prudence. ... Temperance is the fleeing of bodily lusts, sensual gratification, and pleasure -- the attainment of utter purity. Courage is but the overcoming of the fear of death, that is, fear of the soul of being outside of the body. This implies indifference to all earthly advantages, or anything which cannot be taken away with the soul at the time of death. Magnanimity is the contempt of all advantages on earth. Prudence is wisdom in turning away from lower things, and turning to the things above. 

--KENNETH GUTHRIE: The Philosophy of Plotinos

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