New Light on Old Ideas

Radha Burnier

Lecture delivered at the 116th International Convention at Adyar, December 1991. Originally published in The Theosophist, February 1992.

Motion, said Madame Blavatsky, is the attribute of ultimate Reality. The word ‘Reality’ could suggest something inert because our own minds are inert. But according to those who know, ultimate Being is unimaginable, boundless dynamism and creative energy. Eastern tradition speaks of it as pulsation (spanda), and as Brahman which is breath, the breath which blows out into manifestation this incredible universe – with all its beauty and endless new creations: forms, colours, sounds, everything that we know with the senses and much we do not know.

Motion or movement is everywhere, for the source in its essence is infinite energy. It passes continually from one form to another. Every living thing is in a flux, changing all the time. Existence is in fact not possible without taking and giving. We breathe in what comes from outside and breathe out to others. Particles of our body are being frequently replaced, while we regularly shed some part of ourselves. Annie Besant may have referred to an ancient truth when saying that all of the manifested universe is a sacrifice. Everything lives upon and depends for its life on something else, not in the sense that all must be carnivores, but because all draw energy from elsewhere.

In the course of conversion, we are told, there is loss of energy. Each time a change occurs, there is some decay and disintegration. Nothing ever becomes younger, neither the tree nor we, neither the planets, nor the universe. Wood rots, metals rust, bodies die, mountains and galaxies too change and disappear. This is Siva at work, the great principle of disintegration, who uses as his instrument kala (death and time). Siva means ‘good’, for disintegration and decay are necessary and good.

Modern thinkers point out that the process of ageing is the direction of time. Supposing we become older one year and younger another year, there would be confusion about time. But as time is the direction of disintegration, that is loss of energy, the ancient people were justified in using the word kala for both death and time. The Buddha was categorical that what is put together must fall apart. Since all organisms are made up of particles of matter, physical or super-physical, they are all only temporary aggregates held together for a time by the life-energy passing through them. This principle of sustenance is Vishnu, the preserver. Without it, there would be too quick and constant a change for things to exist. No forms would remain long enough to be known as such. When there is no energy to keep an organism together, disintegration begins, which means disorder. However, we may note that in the cosmic process, even what we see as disorder, may be a movement within a grand order.

Scientists say everything is reduced to disorder when left to itself. This means that the particular forms and temporary characteristics of mountains, mouse, man or stars disappear in time. The extraordinary thing is, they are not left to themselves and there is never a complete chaos. The ultimate fate of universes may be what they call ‘heat death’, when galaxies and solar systems become a homogeneous soup of particles. In this pralaya all forms are demolished, but never that which gives form its coherence for a temporary period of two days as in the case of a butterfly, or of two billion years as in a stellar body. Energy never diminishes and, as far as anybody knows, is without beginning and end. Timeless energy, creative and supremely conscious, whether manifest or unmanifest, was called by the ancient by names such as Sakti, Siva, Purusha and Prakriti.

What that energy is, we cannot conceive. We have only a peep into its effects in the field of manifestation: a man dies, a baby is born; a flower withers, new ones come up; particular forms disappear, other take over. Whether we call this Life or Consciousness or God it is continually building new forms. This is Brahma, the creative principle ever releasing in new shapes some part of the energy of the One Existence.

Perhaps we need to realize that the only real, because timeless, thing is energy. All forms are transient, arising like waves on the sea, like reflections of one great light. Dew sparkles in the morning only with the light of the sun. It has no permanence, but shines for a time with a borrowed light. Similarly the entire universe with its myriad forms, functions, and movements of both matter and consciousness may be deemed to be a reflection, which a scientist indicates by saying: ‘The material universe swims as it were on the surface of a deep reservoir of potential energy.’

Evolution is said to be unmindful of individuals, and careful only of species. Even species may matter little: they too die out. What matters may be the great design or plan of which they are a part, a vast harmonious movement which works towards a grand aim about which we have only intimations or guesses. As things die and patterns change, with the ending of certain sequences and the beginning of others new levels of order are established. The whole process is a marvel, for there is neither randomness, nor predetermination. In a random universe, there cannot be a steady development to higher levels, yet nothing is predetermined in a monotonous pattern of predictability. The creative power at work has no limits to its creativity, spontaneity and freedom.

No one knows the why of all this. Why are all electrons alike? Why are all roses similar? Some people answer by saying that there is memory in other ‘fields’ of energy, which shapes the forms, reminding us of Plato’s teaching about archetypes and the theosophical concept of akasic records. Patterns, moulds, designs, ideals exist at an invisible level like the design of the architect which first arises in his mind, is then put on paper, then actually executed in brick or stone. The bricks may deteriorate, the building will collapse, but the mind can give birth to other creations. What is in the field of mind or consciousness is more real than the other structure. Madame Blavatsky wrote that everything proceeds from within outwards, from intangible planes to manifested material levels. The reality of the universe is rooted in other unmanifest fields.

It is possible for us to catch glimpses of ideal forms, but not with the senses, or by thinking and projecting ideas. Ideas are only pictures thrown up by the mind, based on sensory experiences. These thought-forms or ideas are as transient and unreal as the forms that we touch and see. They also disintegrate and become chaotic, and many evils result from distorted ideas.

Why do ideas which in the beginning uplift human consciousness later degenerate and do harm? It may be because ideas and thought are material forms. At the material level everything decays and loses energy when transferred. As Whitehead said:

When the idea is new, its custodians have fervour; live for it and if need be, die for it. Their inheritors receive the ideas, perhaps now strong and successful, but without inheriting the fervour. So, the idea settles down to a comfortable middle age, turns senile and dies; but the institutions organized around it do not stop. They go on by sheer force of acquired momentum, like the dead knight borne on his horse.

This refers to the days when knights wore heavy armour, and even after being pierced to death, the armour kept the lifeless body upright on the horse, deceiving onlookers.

Movements and institutions which have lost the original ‘fervour’ or energy continue like the dead knight on the horse. They may survive for a comparatively shorter or longer time, but they all corrupt society. Persistence of a tradition, institution or idea is no proof of its vitality, value or validity. Initially lofty ideas often get converted into superstition and then perpetuate evil and exploitation.

The basis of science is enquiry into the fundamental substances of the universe, their mutual relationship, and so forth. But it degenerates into pursuit of cumulative knowledge for the purpose of destruction. The number of scientists, technologists and experts engaged in arms industries and war machines is stunning. Many of them do not care to what use their knowledge and discoveries are put. Commercialism overcomes scientific research, its fundamental aim is forgotten, and scientists seek only money, celebrity and vanity.

In the religious field it is the same. Religions have begun with noble ideas, embodying realized truth. These ideas of universal love, of compassion, tenderness and service, teachings about purifying the mind of its egotism and sense of separateness, were communicated to ordinary people by great minds. But being transferred from generation to generation, they have degenerated into forms of bigotry and fanaticism, systems for controlling lives, teaching distrust and murder. So, organized religion has done tremendous evil.

Noble ideas about human dignity have been one of the motive impulses of revolutionary social movements also. Many revolutions began with high idealism, and a recognition of the precious nature of individual life. Marxism began with the desire to preserve human dignity and rights, but it ended as an excuse for suppression of freedom of thought, and liquidation of citizens on a mass scale.

Travesties exist in the field of art too. Great works of art begin with profoundly moving experience, and a vision of the truth below the surface of things. Great artists see external beauty as the reflection of an inner, immortal loveliness, and conveyed something of spiritual value through their works. But the ideas get repeated, forms are duplicated, expertise replaces inspiration and there is travesty, not art.

Even simple ideas about daily life get corrupted beyond recognition. Ahimsa is non-injury, but people have tied a poor man to a cot in order to feed bedbugs in the name of ahimsa. The Christian commandment not to kill makes no distinction between human and other lives, but people arrogate to themselves the right to kill all non-human life. Mechanical transmission of ideas involves continual loss of energy, and therefore corruption in human society. Society is rampant with violence and superstition, because the light of truth is absent, and forms dominate. Because ideas like ‘might is right’, ‘money and position make a man superior’ remain in circulation, they deceive people, like the dead knight on the horse.

But Schiller wrote: ‘The universe is a Thought of the Deity. This ideal Thought-form has overflowed into actuality….It is the calling of all thinking beings to rediscover in this existent Whole the original design – the unity of the composite.’ Here he provides the clue to ideas being regenerative, and not destructive. Ideas are noble, uplifting when they mirror the design, the thought-form of the deity. All great ideas involve rediscovery through communion with the mind of the immortal designer, the deathless energy which for ever expresses itself in creative movement. Great ideas must invariably reflect something of eternal truth.

Ideas are not truth. As soon as truth is spoken, it ceases to be wholly true. But it will be a noble idea, truth given form, suffering the limitation of form, stepped down in conversion, yet carrying with it something of the energy of truth. This is the ‘fervour’ or power, which it has, although the listener may not hear fully the significance or see the truth behind the idea.

All great movements founded on great ideas had the energy of truth, and therefore they expanded and grew. The Buddha spoke only to the few whom he could meet during journeys made by foot, but the teaching became the light not only of Asia, but of the world. Certain ideas recur again and again through human history: freedom, brotherhood, sacrifice, compassion. Why does not humanity utterly repudiate them? Why are there always some people who, against all odds, are compassionate, brave, generous? The idea of freedom, for example, has never been suppressed. There have always been and will be Socrateses and Brunos ready to go the stake. No dictator or tyrant can abolish these ideas, because they are inherent in consciousness, life, deity, whatever we call the energy that never fades. This energy is ancient yet ever new, it has no beginning or end. It is old because all truths are flashes of its light. It is new because truth is like light, experienced only in the present. So, ideas which reflect truth are puissant means to bring about good.

To quote Whitehead again: ‘There are ideas which have been in their tombs for centuries and rising again have revolutionized human society…the old idea has been seen freshly in a new aspect.’ All religions speak old truth, but each new religion teaches them in new forms. They all speak for instance of unity and love, but with a new force and in a fresh idiom.

What is needed for human progress is not new ideas. A fund of ideas may produce inventions and novelties, but not goodness. What we need therefore is not new ideas, but new light on old ideas, fresh perceptions of ancient truths. The world does not benefit from ideas that are repeated, but ideas which are re-seen, with a mind open to the design in the timeless field of deity.

Intuition is the opening of the mind, which does not take place when it is loaded with preconceptions, with what Whitehead called inert ideas. All desire is preconception, the urge to satisfy an idea already in the mind. The mind must be free of both desire and prejudice to contact divine forms and designs. Hence Plotinus said that knowing demands the organ fitted to the object; eyes to see, ears to hear and so forth. The organ fitted to see the Ideal Forms in the intangible field of Reality is a pure mind free of desire, harmonized, not grasping, sensitive to the within as well as to the outside.

Theosophy is not a matter of having ideas about brotherhood, reincarnation or karma. All these ideas become stale, achieve nothing, and decay when communicated. The concept of brotherhood is based on the truth of unbreakable harmony, the music of the eternal energy we spoke about. That harmony cannot be heard by a self-enclosed mind full of its own noise. Something must break down in that mind. The scientist Yukawa noted that prior to creativity there must be a struggle within oneself, a breaking down of the egotistic composition of the mind. When the mind is open, free, perceptive, it sees brotherhood as a truth.

Karma also is often a cliché, especially in the orient. Hence Krishnamurti said: You do not believe in karma, for he who does is very careful about how he behaves and thinks. But most people who speak about karma, go on doing foolish, harmful things. The concept of karma takes on a different meaning when it is lighted by an actual glimpse into the relationship of the part and the whole. When the mind rises above its divisiveness, it has intuition of the truth behind the idea of karma. Then we know how to relate ourselves to others and how to act rightly.

Theosophy is essentially a living wisdom. If it is not, then it is not really Theosophy. Wisdom cannot be dead, a mere clutter of ideas. Theosophy will regenerate human society only if we have insight into the divine Ideas or Thoughts manifest everywhere in Nature and in life.

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Radha Burnier was born at Adyar, Madras, India, in 1923. She is the daughter of Bhagirathi and N. Sri Ram, who was the fifth President of the Theosophical Society. She was educated at the Olcott Memorial High School. She later became a distinguished dancer in the Bharata Natyan tradition of classical Indian dance and performed widely. As a result of her career as a dancer she featured in the critically acclaimed film by Jean Renoir, The River. She holds a M.A. degree in Sanskrit from the Benares Hindu University and has been associated with Indological publications of the Adyar Library and Research Centre for several decades.

Mrs Burnier was General Secretary of the Indian Section from 1960 to 1978 and was elected international President of the Theosophical Society in 1980. She has been reelected ever since. Her lecture tours, which span a period of almost fifty years, have taken her to Europe, Asia, the Americas, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, South-East Asia, Australia and New Zealand. She is the editor of The Theosophist, founded by H. P. Blavatsky in Bombay in 1879. Her articles have appeared in numerous theosophical journals around the world. She is the author of Human Regeneration; Truth, Beauty and Goodness; There is No Other Path to Go; The Way of Self-Knowledge; The Universal Yoga Tradition and The Future of the Theosophical Society, among others.

Radha Burnier has also been a trustee of the Krishnamurti Foundation India for many years. She was closely associated with J. Krishnamurti and after her election, in July 1980, he accepted her invitation to visit Adyar in October 1980 after a period of 47 years.

Radha Burnier has also been a trustee of the Krishnamurti Foundation India for many years. She was closely associated with J. Krishnamurti and after her election, in July 1980, he accepted her invitation to visit Adyar in October 1980 after a period of 47 years.

She combines in herself searching erudition and scholarship, a profound grasp of the essentials of Theosophy plus an insightful understanding of Advaita Vedanta, Buddhism, Taoism and Yoga. As President of the Theosophical Order of Service, among other things she has encouraged practical action to lessen the suffering of animals world wide.

Picture of Radha Burnier

Radha Burnier