Theosophy, Objective And Subjective

Norbert Lauppert

This article, originally published in The Theosophist, June 1982, highlights the need for an open mind when approaching Theosophical studies and an understanding that various approaches to Theosophy have been valid for those who hold them.

It is the purpose of this article to show the impossibility of defining Theosophy in a universally valid objective system, because anything we can say is necessarily conditioned and tinged by our personal receptivity and our capacity to express it.

In an article What is Truth? in the February 1888 issue of her journal, Lucifer, H.P. Blavatsky wrote:[1]

… is there such a thing as absolute truth in the hands of any one party or man? Reason answers: ‘there cannot be.’ There is no room for absolute truth upon any subject whatsoever in a world as finite and conditioned as man himself. But there are relative truths, and we have to make the best we can of them. In every age there have been Sages who had mastered the absolute and yet could teach but relative truths. For none yet, born of mortal woman in our race, has, or could have given out, the whole and the final truth to another man, for everyone of us has to find that (for him) final knowledge in himself. As no two minds can be absolutely alike, each has to receive the supreme illumination through itself, according to its capacity, and from no human light … Outside a certain highly spiritual and elevated state of mind during which Man is at one with the UNIVERSAL MIND – he can get nought on earth but relative truth, or truths, from whatsoever philosophy or religion…

And in The Key to Theosophy we find a declaration of a similar kind regarding the Theosophical Society:[2]

The Society can be regarded as the embodiment of Theosophy only in its abstract motives; it can never presume to call itself its concrete vehicle so long as human imperfections and weaknesses are all represented in its body; … If Eastern comparisons may be permitted, Theosophy is the shoreless ocean of universal truth, love, and wisdom, reflecting its radiance on the earth, while the Theosophical Society is only a visible bubble on that reflection. … It was formed to assist in showing to man that such a thing as Theosophy exists. …

In that connection we may also note the words of the Mahatma K.H. in his letter to A.P. Sinnett, dated 5 August 1881:[3]

The truth is that till the neophyte attains to the condition necessary to that degree of illumination to which, and for which, he is entitled and fitted, most if not all of the Secrets are incommunicable. The receptivity must be equal to the desire to instruct. The illumination must come from within.

Therefore there neither is nor can there be any system of objective Theosophy with fixed and detailed formulations. There are only certain fundamental ideas upon which each one must build up his own views, holding them tentatively, and constantly open to new perceptions.

No Picture Will Ever Represent the Truth

In that respect we may profit from the notes of the teachings given by H.P. Blavatsky toward the end of her life which were made by one of her pupils, Commander Robert Bowen.[4] ‘As one progresses in Jnana Yoga’, he writes, ‘one finds conceptions arising which, though one is conscious of them, one cannot express nor yet formulate into any sort of mental picture. As time goes on these conceptions will form into mental pictures. This is a time to be on guard and refuse to be deluded with the idea that the new found and wonderful picture must represent reality. It does not. As one works on, one finds the once admired picture growing dull and unsatisfying, and finally fading out or being thrown away. This is another danger point, because for a moment one is left in a void without any conception to support one, and one may be tempted to revive the cast-off picture for want of a better to cling to. The true student will, however, work on unconcerned, and presently further formless gleams come, which again in time give rise to a larger and more beautiful picture than the last. But the learner will now know that no picture will ever represent the TRUTH. This last splendid picture will grow dull and fade like the others. And so the process goes on, until at last the mind and its pictures are transcended and the learner enters and dwells in the World of NO FORM, but of which all forms are narrowed reflections.’

How each one will advance from picture to picture will necessarily be a matter of his individual disposition. But for each one the warning is clear that he ought not to mistake his own personal picture for the Reality itself. Some years ago, I came across an instructive metaphor: our consciousness (it said) is locked up in a tower with, here and there, narrow windows opening into the surrounding world. Between these windows there are wide areas through which we can see nothing. We habitually arrange the pictures which we see through the isolated windows in such a way that, side by side, they seem to give us a coherent view. But that view is wrong. Moreover, this tendency of ours produces the further problem; if a new window were to offer a fresh view to our consciousness, would we be able successfully to incorporate that view into the picture we had hitherto supposed to be complete?

This is the difficulty which any attempt to give a systematic statement of Theosophical teachings has to meet. Madame Blavatsky was well aware of it. Again and again she pointed out that many things remain inexpressible and inexplicable.

That position was, of course, not very satisfactory for many who set out to propagate Theosophy. No wonder that a number of second generation leaders went on trying to remedy the apparent deficiency.

A general survey of Theosophical ideas had already been given by Mr. A.P. Sinnett in his book, Esoteric Buddhism, in the year 1883. That this attempt was only partially successful we can see from a letter written to him by Madame Blavatsky in January 1884 where she says:[5]

You must know that instead of the whole Esoteric Doctrine you have but half-a-dozen stray pages, picked at random out of the six-and-thirty volumes of the secret books of Khiuti; that there are gaps between every tenet none of which is complete; and you have been told by the Mahatma in letters you showed us and told by me many times that you could not expect to be given that which pertains only to initiation. No Lay chela can get it nor can one understand the thing properly. … As ‘Fragments’ of Occult Science you have succeeded admirably and can claim to have given out to the world crumbs of genuine occult doctrine. As a whole – Esoteric Buddhism cannot of course be considered … to be the alpha and omega of our Doctrine.

The Human Constitution – Various Interpretations

How difficult – or rather impossible – it is to give universally valid statements may be seen if we look at the descriptions of the constitution of the human being, given by different philosophical, religious and occult schools.

According to the traditional Christian classification that dominated Western thought for one and a half millenniums, man consists of but two parts – a mortal body and an immortal soul. It was indeed revolutionary when H.P. Blavatsky, in her book Isis Unveiled (1878), called attention to the old Greek classification in which the human being was seen to be threefold, and where not only the physical body but the soul was regarded as mortal; only the spirit was an imperishable being partaking of Universal Life. Several years later, after the Theosophical Society had been transferred to India, the ancient ‘Arhat-Buddhistic’ classification (as it was called in the Letters of Mahatma K.H.) was employed. According to this classification man was a sevenfold being, consisting of a mortal quaternary and an immortal duad, and the fate of his middle principle, manas, depended on whether his thoughts during his earthly life were engaged in material or in spiritual things. In so far as manas had attached itself to man’s earthly part – kama and the urges of the body – it shared the latter’s impermanence; in so far as it had been open to illumination by the inner, spiritual forces, it became absorbed by atma-buddhi, man’s higher Self, and helped to develop his growing individuality. Besides this classification derived from Buddhist esotericism, there existed in India several others. The vedanta system assigned only five constituent parts to man, besides his partaking in the universal atman, and these parts were seen more from the point of view of the outer sheaths wherein the atman abides in the mayavic worlds of matter – and so those parts were not called ‘principles’ but ‘mayakoshas’. It was understandable that to C.W. Leadbeater, fascinated as he was by his psychic visions, this classification had greater appeal than the more spiritual view of the Buddhist system. Annie Besant followed suit, altering the Vedantic system only by dividing the manomayakosha into two parts – the Mental body and the Astral body – and making man, including the atman, again a sevenfold entity.Graphic: Lauppert - Constitution of Human Being

Besides the Vedantic classification of Hindu psychology, there was another in The Secret Doctrine called the ‘Taraka Yoga system’. This system spoke neither of ‘principles’ nor ‘koshas’ or of sheaths but of ‘upadhis’ – bases, carriers or vehicles – allotting three of them to the atman – karanopadhi, the upadhi of causes, sukshmopadhi, the psychic upadhi, and sthulopadhi, the dense body. Now it is remarkable that the Mahatma K.H., when committing Mr Sinnett temporarily to the charge of T. Subba Row for instruction, wrote to him in June 1882:[6]

This [the doctrines of cosmogony, inner man, etc.] Subba Row will help you to learn, though his terms – he being an initiated Brahmin and holding to the Brahmanical esoteric teaching – will be different from those of the ‘Arhat Buddhist’ terminology. But essentially both are the same – identical in fact.

The declaration of the Mahatma that the fourfold division of the Taraka Yoga system is identical with the sevenfold division of his own ‘Arhat Buddhist’ system must make it abundantly clear that all these systems are only attempts to describe things that cannot be defined with certainty in material terms. None of them, therefore, can claim the right to be universally valid. Each student must chose from among the different systems that one which is most akin to his subjective ideas and supports him best in his spiritual striving, but he must beware of attempting to impose it on others.

Difficulties in Formulating Occult Knowledge

The effort of the second generation of Theosophical writers to give an exact formulation to the entire occult knowledge was doomed to failure from the start by the very fact that it was made on the basis of the contemporary scientific knowledge which is, in many respects, obsolete today. At that time scientists were convinced that they knew nearly everything there was to be known; today they are aware of the fact that, although they know much more about the universe than they did a hundred years ago, there are still many riddles to be solved. It is essential that we, too, are aware of that fact, and also that in reality we ourselves ‘know’ nearly nothing. We have only accepted certain things that we have heard or read. Any kind of orthodoxy is, therefore, out of place in the study of Theosophy.

Fundamental Ideas

Of course there are certain fundamental ideas that characterize the Theosophical philosophy, but they are of a very general nature, as, for example, that contained in the paragraph from The Secret Doctrine with which Ianthe H. Hoskins prefaced her booklet, Foundation of Esoteric Philosophy:[7]

The radical unity of the ultimate essence of each constituent part of compounds in Nature – from the star to mineral atom, from the highest Dhyan Chohan to the smallest infusorium, in the fullest acceptation of the term, and whether applied to the spiritual, intellectual, or physical worlds – this is the one fundamental law in Occult Science.

Miss Hoskins comments: ‘This teaching of the fundamental Unity is the hallmark of the theosophical system. It follows that no doctrine based on an ultimate duality – of spirit and matter for ever separate, of God and man as essentially distinct, of good and evil as eternal realities – can have a place in Theosophy.’

There are further, the well-known ‘three fundamental propositions’ in the Proem of The Secret Doctrine:[8]

I. An Omnipresent, Eternal, Boundless and Immutable PRINCIPLE, on which all speculation is impossible, since it transcends the power of human conception and can only be dwarfed by any human expression or similitude. It is beyond the range and reach of thought. …

II. The Eternity of the Universe in toto as a boundless plane; periodically ‘the playground of numberless Universes incessantly manifesting and disappearing’ … ‘like a regular tidal ebb of flux and reflux’.

III. The fundamental identity of all Souls with the Universal Over-Soul, the latter being itself an aspect of the Unknown Root; and the obligatory pilgrimage for every Soul – a spark of the former – through the Cycle of Incarnation, or Necessity, in accordance with Cyclic and Karmic law, …’

Perhaps the Three Truths, from the Idyll of the White Lotus by Mabel Collins that are quoted at the end of the first part of Light on the Path, might also be numbered among the fundamental ideas of Theosophy:

The soul of man is immortal, and its future is the future of a thing whose growth and splendour has no limit. The principle which gives life dwells in us, and without us, in undying and eternally beneficent, is not heard, or seen, or smelt, but is perceived by the man who desires perception. Each man is his own absolute lawgiver, the dispenser of glory, or gloom to himself; the decreer of his life, his reward, his punishment.

But here is, properly speaking, the limit of objective Theosophy; for what conclusion each person draws from these ideas must be based on his own individual nature, and hence must be subjective.

Moreover, even in such an apparently simple teaching as Reincarnation there are underlying problems: who or what, for example, is reborn? So long as our intuition is not sufficiently awakened to be aware of it, reincarnation does not exist for us, for each new incarnation is, in practice, a new being, more the child of the former one than the former being itself. Similarly with all the other teachings there arise difficulties as soon as we go into details, and interpretations vary widely.

The True Theosophical Attitude

The true Theosophical attitude, therefore, cannot be the adherence to certain definite doctrines, but rather the understanding of all the foresaid; above all, it means to understand that the inner is more important that the outer, and that each person, as the outer expression of his own inner self, must go his own way, for all the apparently different ways lead to the same goal.

Each one of us has made for himself a mental picture of what he calls Theosophy (and we do the same thing for everything else in the world), and these pictures must necessarily be subjective. We usually do not know even our next of kin as they are in themselves; we know the mental pictures we have made of them, and there may be moments when we are amazed to find a totally new quality in them. Each one must find his own way through these pictures in order to reach Reality, and each one can do so only along his own individual path.

Our Own Path

In the Siva Sutra, and in the Pratyabhijna Hridayam (both belonging to the Saivitie school of philosophy), these facts are expressed in a particularly clear and concise form.

In the Siva Sutra we read:[9]

Caitanyam atma = of the Nature of Cit, i.e. of divine consciousness, is atma, the spirit of man (I. 1)

Atma cittam = an expression of atma, the spirit, is citta, our psyche, our mental- emotional consciousness (III. 1)

Jnanam bandah = our earthly knowledge, i.e. the mental pictures we have made, is that which imprisons us. (III. 2)

And in the Pratyabhijna Hridayam the wise one says that though Atma is a contracted form or Cit, the divine consciousness, it becomes surrounded by the maya of the forms of the manifested universe and ‘descending … it becomes … assimilated with the images of objects present in the field of consciousness.’

‘When the individual mind perceives that fact, it can pierce inwards towards its central source [and so] be made to revert to the state of pure consciousness, and … become [again] Cit; or the Reality itself.’[10]

The way in which these verses are formulated shows clearly that each person can do this only along his own path. No one can safely take the road of another. ‘Each man is to himself absolutely the way, the truth, and the life’ (Light on the Path). For that very reason he will not be able to define objectively, in a form that is acceptable to all, what he finds on that way. As soon as he tries to clothe his findings in mental terms and words, they necessarily become subjective. For pedagogical reasons we may, of course, use such subjective definitions – in fact we must do so if we wish to communicate – but we must always be aware of their subjective nature.

Western people are generally too much disposed to categorical statements. Western Logic, for example, knows only the statements ‘it is’ and ‘it is not’. Eastern logic, on the other hand, as Lama Anagarika Govinda declares in his book Creative Meditation and Multidimensional Consciousness, admits four kinds of logical statements:

1. It is;

2. It is not;

3. It is and it is not;

4. One can neither say that it is nor that it is not.

So we may read, for instance, in the fifth verse of the Isa Upanishad:

It moves: It moves not.

It is far, and it is near.

It is within all this,

And it is without all this.

These statements, quoted by Fritjof Capra in his book The Tao of Physics, are a concise expression of the Eastern teaching that the essentials of things cannot be defined.[11] In the same book we also find the following quotations from the Avatamsaka Sutra, a passage that demonstrates in a very impressive manner the fact that the transcendent essence of things, though omnipresent, it ‘unseizable’.[12]

In the heaven of Indra, there is said to be a network of pearls, so arranged that if you look at one you see all the others reflected in it. In the same way each object in the world is not merely itself but involves every other object and in fact is everything else. ‘In every particle of dust there are present Buddhas without number.’

Truth is Above Classifications

Thus we come back to the thesis proposed at the beginning of the article, that although there is absolute truth – God is Truth – yet Truth is above and beyond all dogmatic classifications as is indicated in the motto of the Theosophical Society, satyan nasti paro dharmah. Truth is beyond any expression of it; it cannot be ‘seized’; we can only try to catch a glimpse of it by lifting our consciousness out of its mental grooves. But, as H.P. Blavatsky says in the article already quoted, even if a person should succeed in experiencing and realising the Truth, he would not be able to express it in words. The only thing he can do is to set up a signpost that shows to others the direction he has taken.


[1] H.P. Blavatsky, Collected Writings, Vol. IX, pages 30-44.

[2] H.P. Blavatsky, The Key to Theosophy, pp. 56-57.

[3] The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett, Letter No. 49, p. 278.

[4] Robert Bowen, Madame Blavatsky on How to Study Theosophy, T.P.H., Adyar, 1973, pp. 12-13.

[5] The Letters of H.P. Blavatsky to A.P. Sinnett, Theosophical University Press, Pasadena, 1973, Letter No. XXVIII, pp. 63-64.

[6] The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett, Letter No. 76, p. 370.

[7] Foundations of Esoteric Philosophy arranged by Ianthe Hopkins from the writings of H.P. Blavatsky, T.P.H., London, 1980, pp. 12-13.

[8] H.P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, Vol. I, Proem, T.P.H., Adyar, edition of 1938, pp. 79-81, edition of 1978, pp. 14-17.

[9] Quoted from Dr. I.K. Taimni’s book The Ultimate Reality and Realization, T.P.H., Adyar, 1976, pp. 93 and 96.

[10] Quoted from Dr. I.K. Taimni’s book The Secret of Self-Realization, T.P.H., Adyar, 1974, pp 24, 29 and 60.

[11] Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics, Bantam Books edition, 1977, p 139.

[12] Ibid. p 287.

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Dr Norbert Lauppert has been a member of the Theosophical Society since 1927. He was a former General Secretary of the Austrian Section of the TS and editor of the Theosophical Quarterly, Adyar, for German-speaking regions.