What is Theosophy?
Theosophy is a word compounded from two Ancient Greek words ‘Theos’ and ‘Sophos’ (Latin version ‘Sophia’) meaning “god” and “wisdom” respectively, hence Divine wisdom. It is an inclusive term for the truths contained in all the main world religions, but also includes some of the mystical and occult teachings of the ancient Mystery Schools; also the insights underlying the ancient Mythologies.
To more precisely answer the question, we need to distinguish between modern Theosophy and ancient or timeless Theosophy. Timeless Theosophy, also called by many names such as the “Wisdom Tradition” and the “Perennial Philosophy,” is a tradition found in human cultures all over the world and at all times in history. It is the basis of the inner or mystical side of many philosophies and cultures. Modern Theosophy is a contemporary statement of that tradition as set forth through the Theosophical Society.
Through the study of theosophy we learn that there are some basic ideas that underling the Wisdom Tradition which can be summarised as follows;
- Divine Unity – The whole of existence, all of life, is an indivisible unity or wholeness. Some call it the Divine Mind or Divine Consciousness, some God, others Nature. This Divine Unity forms the basis of the concept of Universal Brotherhood which is the first Object of the Theosophical Society.
- Evolutionary Purpose – All life is evolving by a process of unfoldment which increasingly reveals this inherent wholeness. It is a return to the Source — the perfection from which all life emanated.
- Life as the Play of Consciousness – Divine Consciousness is in everything. It is universal in minerals and plants, but in animals individuality begins to develop. A human being is a self-conscious individual and therefore responsible for directing his or her own actions.
- Reincarnation – For humans, evolution is spiritual growth through a seemingly endless chain of experience within a cycle of births, deaths and rebirths.
- The Universe is ruled by Law – The life process is governed by the impersonal law of cause and effect, called ‘karma’.
- Symbols of Reality – Because these ideas are difficult to express in words or go beyond rationalised thinking, they have been taught in the great religions by symbols, myth and parable.
- The Spiritual Path – By feeling love and compassion for all that lives, by practising self-awareness and by meditation, each of us can tread the path of Self-realisation back to the Source, or God or conscious union with the Divine Mind.
These abstract ideas have some very specific and practical implications, for example the following:
- The world we live in is basically a good place, to be used wisely, to be treasured, and to be honoured: rejoice in life.
- We develop as human beings, not by forsaking the world, but by cooperating with nature to preserve and perfect it: respect the environment and be ecologically responsible.
- You and I are different expressions of the same life, so whatever happens to either of us happens to both of us our well-being is linked: help your neighbour, and thereby help yourself.
- Disharmony and evil are the result of ignorance and selfishness: live in harmony and goodness so as to teach others by your life as well as by your words.
The Theosophical Society is nondogmatic, and Theosophists are encouraged to accept nothing on faith or on the word of another, but to adopt only those ideas that satisfy their own sense of what is real and important. Theosophy is a way of looking at life rather than a creed. Modern Theosophy, however, presents ideas like the following for our consideration, and many Theosophists hold these ideas, not as fixed beliefs, but as a way of looking at life that explains the world as they experience it:
- karma (or moral justice),
- the existence of worlds of experience beyond the physical,
- the presence of life and consciousness in all matter,
- the evolution of spirit and intelligence as well as of physical matter,
- the possibility of our conscious participation in evolution,
- the power of thought to affect one’s self and surroundings,
- the reality of free will and self-responsibility,
- the duty of altruism, a concern for the welfare of others, and
- the ultimate perfection of human nature, society, and life.
Meetings vary from group to group but consist generally of open minded exploration of the objectives of the society. This may be in the form of discussion, or a talk followed by discussion or the study of a topic or through workshop and other practical means. Theosophy has no developed rituals, although meetings may be opened and closed by brief meditations or the recitation of short texts, and some groups use a simple ceremony for welcoming new members. There are no privileged symbols or icons in Theosophy, but various symbols from the religious traditions of the world are honoured, such as the interlaced triangles and the ankh (the Egyptian symbol of life). There are no clergy or leaders, other than democratically chosen officers.
Theosophy holds that all religions are expressions of humanity’s effort to relate to one another, to the universe around us, and to the ultimate ground of being. Particular religions differ from one another because they are expressions of that effort, adapted to particular times, places, cultures and needs. Theosophy is not itself a religion, although it is religious, in being concerned with humanity’s effort to relate to ultimate values. Individual Theosophists profess various religions of the world, including, but not confined to, Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Zoroastrian, Hindu and Buddhist. Some have no religious affiliation at all. The Society itself is an expression of the belief that human beings, however diverse their backgrounds, can communicate and cooperate.
The problems humanity faces, war, overpopulation, exploitation, prejudice, oppression, greed, hate are just the symptoms of a disease. We need to treat the symptoms; but to cure the disease, we need to eliminate its cause. The cause of the disease is ignorance of the truth that we are not merely unconnected, independent beings whose particular welfare can be achieved at the expense of the general good. The cure is the recognition that we are all one with each other and with all life in the universe, and then applying this realisation to daily life.
Despite the superficial cultural and genetic differences that divide humanity, we are remarkably homogeneous; physically, psychologically, intellectually, and spiritually. Biologically, we are a single human gene pool, with only minor local variations. Psychologically, we respond to pleasure and pain in the same way. Intellectually, we have the same curiosity about our place in the universe and the same power to discover truth. Spiritually, we have a common origin and a common destiny.
We are part and parcel of the totality of existence stretching from this planet Earth to the farthest reaches of the cosmos in every conceivable dimension. When we realize our integral connection with all other human beings, with all other life forms, with the most distant reaches of space, we will realize that we cannot either harm or help another without harming or helping ourselves. We are all one.
To know this is to be healthy in body, whole in mind, and holy in spirit. That ideal is expressed in the following words, known as the “Universal Invocation,” written by Annie Besant, the second President of the Theosophical Society:
O hidden Life, vibrant in every atom,
O hidden Light, shining in every creature,
O hidden Love, embracing all in oneness,
May all who feel themselves as one with thee
Know they are therefore one with every other.