THEOSOPHY, Vol. 41, No. 9, July, 1953
(Pages 414-417; Size: 21K)


[Article number (20) in this Q&A Department]

HOW should a Theosophist handle the situation when a rank materialist, having discovered the Theosophist's Gita or similar book, starts to bandy the teachings about in a flippant way?

(a) Though circumstances to an extent determine the action, there might be some ideas that would sharpen one's discrimination. For instance, the Gita is never injured by what anyone might say; also, maybe the Gita is too "special" for us, and, not having brought the Gita home to our own lives, we feel inadequate for a simple explanation of the book. Finally, we should probably be prepared to say a few words at any time on anything -- be humble and unpretentious, but not timid, when a question arises.

The occasion cited might be a trial for us to see to what extent we have thought through the philosophy. If we have taken the Gita into our lives we should have little trouble explaining "our friend" to even a "rank materialist." It seems that the greatest harm would not be to the Gita, but to a potential friend who might misinterpret our actions if they were unwise and emotional.

(b) The point of the question in general is clear and demands careful consideration, but The Bhagavad-Gita is a dialogue considered worthy of study by many thinkers who are not nominal Theosophists -- orientalists and philosophers, for instance -- and reflection can be interpreted variously. Thus the conception of a "Theosophist's Gita" perhaps suggests too much proprietorship, since what is really involved is the Theosophist's interpretation, the esoteric interpretation of this ancient Indian epic. (An example of a more exoteric, yet constructive and still symbolic treatment of this classic may be found in "On the Lookout," May issue of THEOSOPHY.) All these things can be called to the "rank materialist's" attention and will probably cause him to qualify his criticisms, especially if the Theosophist is able to refer to public appreciations of the Gita such as the one made recently by scientist Robert Oppenheimer, or another voiced by Mark Van Doren of Columbia during a recent CBS "Invitation to Learning" broadcast. [Note: I have copied the material from the "On The Lookout" Department that is mentioned above and placed it at the end of this answer to the first question.--Compiler.]

Let us suppose, then, that the aforesaid materialist starts to "bandy" about the teachings of a "similar book," or one similarly pondered -- namely, H. P. Blavatsky's The Voice of the Silence. The Voice fits the essential problem posed by the question better, we think, since it was "Dedicated to the Few" by H. P. Blavatsky. All theosophists embody this spirit of "the Few" to some degree. One achievement on "the path of woe," woe for the personal self, is the crossing of Portal the second: "Shila, the key of Harmony in word and act...." This Portal, among other things, has to do with the balance of "the Head" and "the Heart." It is only through a balance of these principles that true wisdom may be cognized. We have to rely, finally, upon these twin forces of ourselves, present also in our "materialist," for an educational improvement of the situation. Indignation will help not at all. How foolish and humiliating it would be to tackle a critic at his own game with insufficient forces -- that is, unless we can reason clearly and concisely.

The real point, however, is that things pertaining to the spiritual life and Soul are only personally verifiable. The final proof of that which the materialist may deny through intellectual gymnastics is available only through the realm of individual aspiration to and living of "the higher life." In this view, the view of the Real, "spirituality" stands forth plainly. Thus mere arguments can easily be carried to excess on such subjects, the essential proof being out of reach until a balance of "the Heart" and "the Head" is found.

(c) It is plain that "rank materialist" refers to anti-religious materialism in the question, but it still would be a "sin of omission" on our part to silently pass over some unnecessarily derogatory connotation caused by the term's misuse. While H.P.B. used this and similar terms in Isis, the Key, and in more than one of her articles, it was in a certain sense. "Rank materialist" is used in the question, it seems, in a general sense -- as a stereotype. The inherent danger of employing terms loosely, especially regarding other people's beliefs and attitudes, is illustrated by the syllogism: "I met a materialist who was very bigoted, therefore all materialists are rank." Of course, this sort of "reasoning" is unconscious or subconscious, but it invariably forms the bulwark of all prejudices. This is no denial of the fact that when H.P.B. used the adjective "rank," she meant exactly that: "repugnant," "utter," "absolute," "grossly coarse." But let us not forget that her reference was to a certain type of materialist -- and what is defined in the Encyclopedia Britannica as cosmological and scientific materialism simply furnished a doctrine around which "our rank materialist" builds his personal wall of bigotry. A dispassionate description of a cosmological and scientific doctrinal materialist was provided by F. H. Bradley who stated that such a person is but "a brother metaphysician with a rival theory of first principles." Generalized materialism -- what the Encyclopedia calls "naïve" -- is not, by the way, fatal; it is alterable by education. The Britannica says "naïve materialism" is "due to a cause which still, perhaps, has no small power, the natural difficulty which persons who have had no philosophical training experience in observing and appreciating the importance of the immaterial facts of consciousness."

Note: Before going on to the second question in this article, here's a copy of the 3-page section (out of 12 total; the other 9 covering other subjects) of the "On The Lookout" Department of THEOSOPHY magazine that was pointed to in the (b) section of the above answer to the question. The reference to it said that it was to be found in the "May" issue, but that was a mistake, as I found it in the June issue.--Compiler.

THEOSOPHY, Vol. 41, No. 8, June, 1953
(Pages 373-375)



Discussions under the above heading, conducted by the Public Affairs Department of the CBS network, are well titled. This sort of adult education effort obviously makes constructive use of radio, meriting popular support. The Winter 1952-53 report of "Invitation to Learning's" weekly discussions of "Great Books and Significant Ideas" will be of especial interest to Theosophists, because of a panel discussion of the psychological and social significance of The Bhagavad-Gita.


The theme of the Winter series was "War and Peace," with reference to books suggestive of the ethical implications of wartime killing. The panel for the Gita broadcast consisted of Mark Van Doren, Columbia University English Professor, Pierre Szamek, critic and lecturer, and Lyman Bryson, Permanent Chairman of the program. Mr. Van Doren's spontaneous remarks are particularly notable, and of the three commentators he seems the most determined to establish a common denominator between Eastern and Western aspirations by means of the philosophy of the Gita. After a summary of the "plot" of the Gita for the benefit of the radio audience -- with obvious allusions to Krishna's recommendation that Arjuna fight out the field in "lawful war" -- Mr. Van Doren deplored exaggerating "the extent to which the song, the Bhagavad-Gita, is about the question whether 'A' should kill 'B'":

Doesn't it go on from that point to become almost as abstract as it is possible to be? The question is generalized until it covers not merely this specific predicament in which Arjuna finds himself.

Szamek: It is, indeed!

Van Doren: It ultimately concerns the predicament of men in general in the world when they want to know why they should do anything.

Szamek: Well, from there the problem passes on to all of the aspects of human endeavor -- to action, to knowledge, to meditation, to matter and causality, to evil and reality, and it leaves us, I think, with a rather involved sense of bewilderment because when we think we have the answer it slips away. It's all amorphous; it's all quicksilver. It's a difficult thing to comprehend, this Sanskritic mind.

Van Doren: So is the human mind, isn't it? I mean, is there such a thing as the Sanskritic mind, seriously?

Bryson: You mean the inscrutable Oriental doesn't seem to you a very real person, Mr. Van Doren?

Van Doren: Well, the inscrutable Western, the inscrutable Occidental, they're all inscrutable. The mind, when it is serious and when it is really trying to answer the most difficult of all questions, whether it's one question or several, becomes an inscrutable thing, because the questions are inscrutable. I had a very interesting experience when I was reading this book again. I kept thinking of western poets and philosophers who were not too different in their thought from whomever it was wrote this song. I don't mean to say that one copied the other or anything of that sort, but I suspect that the human mind, when it is at grips with one of the most difficult questions of all, is nothing more or less than the human mind.

Bryson: It's the trivialities that make the difference and cause the wars, Mr. Van Doren?

Van Doren: I find Dante here, I find Plato here, I find Jesus here, I find some American writers. I wonder whether this famous difference between the west and the east is really profound. It's an important difference, but maybe its crucial importance and its dangerous importance is in connection with the trivialities.


The usual tendency in discussion of the Gita is to emphasize the "activism" of the West and the "passivism" of the East, but here, again, Mr. Van Doren demurred, and, seeking a universal philosophical meaning, said, "If the Gita were read in terms of its greatest abstractions it would yield something like the Golden Rule." Sanskritist Pierre Szamek concedes this point and the discussion continues:

Szamek: There is a Golden Rule in the Gita, a very distinctly phrased Golden Rule. As a matter of fact, the philosophy it expresses is an extremely lofty one. The Golden Rule is: "He is supreme, oh, mighty one, who looks on the pleasure and pain of all beings as he looks on them in himself." And this is from one of the passages in the Gita itself, clearly stated.

Van Doren: I kept thinking about these parallels not just for the fun of it, but because I really do believe it's important to discover that the human mind is the same everywhere.

While Theosophists may feel that such treatment of the Gita's philosophical message still falls far short of William Q. Judge's commentaries, both the program and Mr. Van Doren's efforts are clearly useful. All that is needed is a further "reading between the lines," as recommended by Mr. Judge.


Edmond Taylor's comments on the Gita in Richer by Asia indicated his awareness of further dimensions of thought in the great epic poem. Taylor saw the great civil war between the Pandus and Kurus as merely background for a profound philosophical treatment of man's nature. In his chapter "New Wine in Old Bottles" Taylor wrote:

The hero of the poem, the dispossessed prince, Arjuna, is called upon to do battle with his kinsmen and friends for the recovery of his rightful heritage. Like Hamlet, like many confused liberals of modern times, Arjuna is torn between contradictory ideals and duties, and falls into a state of neurotic depression upon the eve of battle. The god, Krishna, appears and, somewhat in the manner of a modern psychiatrist, teaches Arjuna to reconcile his inner conflicts, to accomplish his duty as a warrior without betraying the more spiritual values of Hindu culture, including the ideal of nonviolence. Depending upon what element of Krishna's teaching one considers the most essential, the poem can be read as a tract in favor of integral nonviolence or as a dialectic for justifying violence in a righteous cause.

With Judge's rendition of the Gita receiving more attention as interest in Eastern philosophy increases, we may perhaps yet see such a point of view as the following in contemporary presentation. In his Notes on the Bhagavad-Gita (p. 16), Judge writes:

The enumeration of generals and commanders gone into by the prime minister in reply to the king must be a catalogue of all the lower and higher faculties in man, containing also, in the names adopted, clues to powers of our being only at present dimly guessed at in the West or included in such vague terms as Brain and Mind. We find these generals given their appropriate places upon either side, and see also that they have assigned to them various distinctive weapons, which in many cases are flourished or exhibited in the preliminary movements, so that our attention may be drawn to them....

In reference to the second object of the Theosophical Society ... to study ancient religions, philosophies and sciences and to demonstrate the importance of such study. ... How would one go about demonstrating the importance of such study?

(a) The individual who desires to demonstrate the importance of the study of ancient religions, philosophies, and sciences must first possess an understanding of these fields. Explanation and demonstration of a given study requires much individual experience as well as the ability to express clearly one's ideas -- above all the student must himself know the importance of his study.

We all must take care to present a true picture of the value of our studies. Nothing can be more disheartening to an inquiring mind than to see sectarianism being practiced by the Theosophist, and non-sectarianism being preached. As is said in Because: "The only way to convince a person that Theosophy is good is by being a good Theosophist" -- that is to be always eager for comparative study, as by pursuing the second object of the original Society.

Theosophy is not an evangelical philosophy. As has often been said, Theosophy is for those who want it, i.e., those who want to study. The philosophy appeals to persons who have a deep desire for truth -- those who have been searching for it, and who want to know themselves, their connection in the universe and the "why" of things. An individual with an outlook such as this would need no demonstration of the importance of studying ancient lineages of human thought.

(b) To demonstrate is to show or illustrate by action, by acting the part. This calls for a groundwork of firsthand perception or understanding on one's own part. It is interesting that this is a demonstration of the importance of the study and not a demonstration of the ancient religions, philosophies and sciences. To show importance is to indicate a relationship -- importance to someone or something of these ancient works. The importance would seem to be the light they throw on present thought and on contemporary problems.

One obvious method of showing the importance to others and ourselves is for us to align ourselves with others of a like determination: to become associates of U.L.T. This is one reason for the public program of U.L.T. How better could we show the importance of a Cause than by giving it our full support, both publicly and privately? [Note: "U.L.T" means "The United Lodge of Theosophists".--Compiler.]

(c) Historically speaking, many weary labyrinths of thought will be seen in their true light when the ancient, correlated with the present, will show the rational explanation of the fundamentals of life. This, after all, is the primary consideration of this question. How otherwise can one measure and comprehend the similarity of both constructive and adverse thought of the ancients with the trends of today in terms of their origin?

These three -- philosophies, religions and sciences -- have both enslaved and freed mankind. To know how and when, is to learn much about ourselves -- for men in all times are psychologically similar.

(d) Prior to demonstrating one must obviously first possess an understanding of the fields open to such study. More basic still, however, is the student's direct realization that Theosophy or truth is approachable by countless paths -- sometimes seemingly contradictory paths. This insight supported alike the eclectic study of the early Alexandrian Theosophists and H.P.B. in her comparative studies of religions and sciences in Isis Unveiled and the S.D. And in both cases the attempt was made to show the importance of such study so that all men might come to see that "their" truth, under certain symbolisms, was another's under different guise; hence the grounds for tolerance. In the days of the original T.S., the emphasis was on showing the importance of ancient Eastern Thought. It probably can be said that H.P.B. covered the essential points in these fields of study. Since many Western thinkers are now recognizing the importance of Buddhism, has not the emphasis shifted? Along this line, the Second Object, as adopted by U.L.T., refers to the "study of ancient and modern religions, philosophies, and sciences...." It would seem that such a study of recent developments dovetails well with the idea of understanding the present Theosophical Movement.

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(August 1953)
[Article number (21) in this Q&A Department]

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