H.P. Blavatsky on the concept of evolution

“The Occultists believe in an inherent law of progressive development” (H.P. Blavatsky)

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In New York, November 17th, 1875 Helena Petrovna Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society with the goal of studying occult phenomena. She allegedly had met the Coptic magician Paulos Metamon and founded the Spiritualist Society shortly after having been shipwrecked in Egypt. She published her first major work around two years later, entitled Isis Unveiled: A Master Key to the Mysteries of Ancient Modern Science and Theology. The work represents the emergence of a kind of “third position” in the form of Western esotericism (and its synthesis with Eastern esotericism), in contrast to dogmatic Christian theology and materialistic science.

Volume 1 is focused on critiquing materialist science’s non-teleological view of biological evolution. After this, she criticizes the theology of the Roman Catholic Church and accused it of straying from its original teachings. Intriguingly, she purported to have written it while in a trance-like state.

In contrast to mainstream Christian theology, she insisted that it was the Gnostics, Neoplatonists, Hermetic and Egyptian mystery teachings that transmitted an account of the true nature of reality that would effect a synthesis of modern, Western science and Eastern mysticism, rather than reject the one and embrace the other. The goal of these wisdom religions, as with Blavatsky’s theosophy, was to free the divine spark from its fleshy prison. In this sense, the theological anthropology of Blavatsky’s theosophy has a distinctly neo-Gnostic bent, and also shares a great deal in common with ancient Hinduism and Buddhism.

Indeed, in May 1877 the Theosophical Society, renamed their organization to ‘the Theosophical Society of the Arya Samaj of Aryavart’, after the Hindu Vedic revivalist movement of the, and Blavatsky would soon travel to India and Sri Lanka, where she formally converted to Buddhism. She continued to familiarize herself with both Hindu and Buddhist texts, although the Advaita Vedanta exercised a particularly strong influence on her thought.

While there, Colonel Olcott and Blavatsky met with Alfred Percy Sinnett (1840–1921)and Allan Octavian Hume (1829–1912), and they all were alleged to have met Tibetan initiates, specifically Morya and Koot Hoomi. and together the four came into contact with two socalled Tibetan initiates, the mahatmas (great soul) Koot Hoomi and Morya. This would represent a radical departure from their focus on Hermetic teaching and Egyptian magic, and an increasing emphasis on Vedic and Tibetan teachings.

It is important to note that she did not consider Darwin’s account of evolution by natural selection as “wrong,” but simply incomplete due to its exclusion of the relevance of teleology. She states, “Darwinism only meets Evolution at its midway point- that is to say when astral evolution has given place to the play of ordinary physical forces with which our present senses acquaint us” and also, “The fact is, that only the partial truth of many of the secondary “laws” of Darwinism is beyond question… (Helena Blavatsky 1888 The Secret Doctrine Vol II p. 662)

She elaborates:

“Modern, or so-called exact science, holds but to a one-sided physical evolution, prudently avoiding and ignoring the higher or spiritual evolution, which would force our contemporaries to confess the superiority of the ancient philosophers and psychologists over themselves. The ancient sages, ascending to the UNKNOWABLE, made their starting-point from the first manifestation of the unseen, the unavoidable, and from a strict logical reasoning, the absolutely necessary creative Being, the Demiurgos of the universe. Evolution began with them from pure spirit, which descending lower and lower down, assumed at last a visible and comprehensible form, and became matter. Arrived at this point, they speculated in the Darwinian method, but on a far more large and comprehensive basis”

She insists that biological evolution, although real, should be understood in terms of cycles rather than a linear development.

“ The ancients divided time into endless cycles, wheels within wheels, all such periods being of various durations, and each marking the beginning or the end of some event either cosmic, mundane, physical or metaphysical. There were cycles of only a few years, and cycles of immense duration”

She continues:

“ As the Theosophist has no desire to play at being a squirrel upon its revolving wheel, he must refuse to follow the lead of the materialists. He, at any rate, knows that the revolutions of the physical world are, according to the ancient doctrine, attended by like revolutions in the world of intellect, for the spiritual evolution in the universe proceeds in cycles, like the physical one. Do we not see in history a regular alternation of ebb and flow in the tide of human progress? Do we not see in history, and even find this within our own experience, that the great kingdoms of the world, after reaching the culmination of their greatness, descend again, in accordance with the same law by which they ascended? till, having reached the lowest point, humanity reasserts itself and mounts up once more, the height of its attainment being, by this law of ascending progression by cycles, somewhat higher than the point from which it had before descended. Kingdoms and empires are under the same cyclic laws as planets, races, and everything else in Kosmos”

In a teleological vein, she wrote:

“Now it is universally admitted that the whole system of Nature is moving in a particular direction, and this direction, we are taught, is determined by the composition of two forces, namely, the one acting from that pole of existence ordinarily called “matter” towards the other pole called “spirit,” and the other in the opposite direction. The very fact that Nature is moving shows that these two forces are not equal in magnitude.

The plane on which the activity of the first force predominates is called in occult treatises the “ascending arc,” and the corresponding plane of the activity of the other force is styled the “descending arc.” A little reflection will show that the work of evolution begins on the descending arc and works its way upwards through the ascending arc. From this it follows that the force directed towards spirit is the one which must, though not without hard struggle, ultimately prevail.

In the evolution of man there is a topmost point, a bottom point, a descending arc, and an ascending arc. As it is “Spirit” which transforms itself into “matter” and (not “matter” which ascends — but) matter which resolves once more into spirit.”

So also:

“The whole order of nature evinces a progressive march towards a higher life. There is design in the action of the seemingly blindest forces. The whole process of evolution with its endless adaptations is a proof of this. The immutable laws that weed out the weak and feeble species, to make room for the strong, and which ensure the “survival of the fittest,” though so cruel in their immediate action — all are working toward the grand end.” (Helena Blavatsky 1888 The Secret Doctrine Vol I p. 277).

“But there are certainly “designers,” though these are neither omnipotent nor omniscient in the absolute sense of the term. They are simply Builders, or Masons, working under the impulse given them by the ever-to-be-unknown, (on our plane) Master Mason — the ONE LIFE and Law. … That they work in cycles and on a strictly geometrical and mathematical scale of progression, is what the extinct animal species amply demonstrate; that they act by design in the details of minor lives (of side animal issues, etc.) is what natural history has sufficient evidence for.” (Helena Blavatsky 1888 The Secret Doctrine Vol II p. 732).

Indeed, spirituality held a crucial place in her account of evolution:

“our “ignorant” ancestors traced the law of evolution throughout the whole universe. As by gradual progression from the starcloudlet to the development of the physical body of man, the rule holds good, so from the universal ether to the incarnate human spirit, they traced one uninterrupted series of entities. These evolutions were from the world of spirit into the world of gross matter; and through that back again to the source of all things. The “descent of species” was to them a descent from the spirit, primal source of all, to the “degradation of matter.”

In other words, we did not begin as material, but as purely spiritual beings who were subsequently degraded into material beings by becoming incarnate. It is through this synthesis of material science with spirituality that she articulated her spiritual cosmology:

“It now becomes plain that there exists in Nature a triple evolutionary scheme, for the formation of the three periodical Upadhis; or rather three separate schemes of evolution, which in our system are inextricably interwoven and interblended at every point. These are the Monadic (or spiritual), the intellectual, and the physical evolutions. These three are the finite aspects or the reflections on the field of Cosmic Illusion of atma, the seventh, the one reality.

1. The Monadic is, as the name implies, concerned with the growth and development into still higher phases of activity of the Monad in conjunction with:

2. The Intellectual, represented by the Manasa-Dhyanis (the Solar Devas, or the Agnishwatta Pitris) the “givers of intelligence and consciousness”* to man and:

3. The Physical, represented by the Chhayas of the lunar Pitris, round which Nature has concreted the present physical body. This body serves as the vehicle for the “growth” (to use a misleading word) and the transformations through Manas and — owing to the accumulation of experiences — of the finite into the infinite, of the transient into the Eternal and Absolute.

Each of these three systems has its own laws, and is ruled and guided by different sets of the highest Dhyanis or “Logoi”. Each is represented in the constitution of man, the Microcosm of the great Macrocosm; and it is the union of these three streams in him which makes him the complex being he now is”

One of her more elaborate accounts integrates a panpsychic doctrine with her doctrine of evolution:

“As to Natural Selection itself, the utmost misconception prevails among many present-day thinkers who tacitly accept the conclusions of Darwinism. It is, for instance, a mere device of rhetoric to credit “Natural Selection” with the power of originating species. “Natural Selection” is no Entity; but a convenient phrase for describing the mode in which the survival of the fit and the elimination of the unfit among organisms is brought about in the struggle for existence. Every group of organisms tends to multiply beyond the means of subsistence; the constant battle for life-the “struggle to obtain enough to eat and to escape being eaten” added to the environmental conditions-necessitating a perpetual weeding out of the unfit. The élite of any stock thus sorted out, propagate the species and transmit their organic characteristics to their descendants. All useful variations are thus perpetuated, and a progressive improvement is effected. But Natural Selection, in the writer’s humble opinion, “Selection, as a Power,” is in reality a pure myth; especially when resorted to as an explanation of the origin of species. It is merely a representative term expressive of the manner in which “useful variations” are stereotyped when produced. Of itself, “it” can produce nothing, and only operates on the rough material presented to “it.” The real question at issue is: what CAUSE — combined with other secondary causes — produces the “variations” in the organisms themselves. Many of these secondary causes are purely physical, climatic, dietary, etc., etc. Very well. But beyond the secondary aspects of organic evolution, a deeper principle has to be sought for. The materialist’s “spontaneous variations,” and “accidental divergencies” are self-contradictory terms in a universe of “Matter, Force and NECESSITY.” Mere variability of type, apart from the supervisory presence of a quasi-intelligent impulse, is powerless to account for the stupendous complexities and marvels of the human body for instance. The insufficiency of the Darwinists’ mechanical theory has been exposed at length by Dr. Von Hartmann among other purely negative thinkers. It is an abuse of the reader’s intelligence to write, as does Hæckel, of blind indifferent cells, “arranging themselves into organs.” The esoteric solution of the origin of animal species is given elsewhere. Those purely secondary causes of differentiation, grouped under the head of sexual selection, natural selection, climate, isolation, etc., etc., mislead the Western Evolutionist and offer no real explanation whatever of the “whence” of the “ancestral types” which served as the starting point for physical development. The truth is that the differentiating “causes” known to modern science only come into operation after the physicalization of the primeval animal root-types out of the astral. Darwinism only meets Evolution at its midway point-that is to say when astral evolution has given place to the play of the ordinary physical forces with which our present senses acquaint us. But even here the Darwinian Theory, even with the “expansions” recently attempted, is inadequate to meet the facts of the case. The underlying physiological variation in species — one to which all other laws are subordinate and secondary — is a sub-conscious intelligence pervading matter, ultimately traceable to a REFLECTION of the Divine and Dhyan-Chohanic wisdom.” (SDii648–9)

Compare this with the remarkable creation account found in the Buddhist Pali Canon, DN27 Aggañña Sutta: On Knowledge of Beginnings.

“10. ‘There comes a time, Vasettha, when, sooner or later after a long period, this world contracts.825 At a time of contraction, beings are mostly born in the Abhassara Brahma world. And there they dwell, mind-made, feeding on delight, self-luminous, moving through the air, glorious — and they stay like that for a very long time. But sooner or later, after a very long period, this world begins to expand again. At a time of expansion, the beings from the Abhassara Brahma world, [85] having passed away from there, are mostly reborn in this world. Here they dwell, mind-made, feeding on delight, self-luminous, moving through the air, glorious826 — and they stay like that for a very long time.

11. ‘At that period, Vāseṭṭha, there was just one mass of water, and all was darkness, blinding darkness. Neither moon nor sun appeared, no constellations or stars appeared, night and day were not distinguished, nor months and fortnights, no years or seasons, and no male and female, beings being reckoned just as beings.827 And sooner or later, after a very long period of time, savoury earth828 spread itself over the waters where those beings were. It looked just like the skin that forms itself over hot milk as it cools. It was endowed with colour, smell and taste. It was the colour of fine ghee or butter, and it was very sweet, like pure wild honey.

12. ‘Then some being of a greedy nature said: “I say, what can this be?” and tasted the savoury earth on its finger. In so doing, it became taken with the flavour, and craving arose in it.829 Then other beings, taking their cue from that one, also tasted the stuff with their fingers. They too were taken with the flavour, and craving arose in them. So they set to with their hands, breaking off pieces of the stuff in order to eat it. And [86] the result of this was that their self-luminance disappeared. And as a result of the disappearance of their self-luminance, the moon and the sun appeared, night and day were distinguished, months and fortnights appeared, and the year and its seasons. To that extent the world re-evolved.

13. ‘And those beings continued for a very long time feasting on this savoury earth, feeding on it and being nourished by it. And as they did so, their bodies became coarser,830 and a difference in looks developed among them. Some beings became good-looking, others ugly. And the good-looking ones despised the others, saying: “We are better-looking than they are.” And because they became arrogant and conceited about their looks, the savoury earth disappeared. At this they came together and lamented, crying: “Oh that flavour! Oh that flavour!” And so nowadays when people say: “Oh that flavour!” when they get something nice, they are repeating an ancient saying without realising it.

14. ‘And then, when the savoury earth had disappeared, [87] a fungus831 cropped up, in the manner of a mushroom. It was of a good colour, smell, and taste. It was the colour of fine ghee or butter, and it was very sweet, like pure wild honey. And those beings set to and ate the fungus. And this lasted for a very long time. And as they continued to feed on the fungus, so their bodies became coarser still, and the difference in their looks increased still more. And the good-looking ones despised the others … And because they became arrogant and conceited about their looks, the sweet fungus disappeared. Next, creepers appeared, shooting up like bamboo…, and they too were very sweet, like pure wild honey.

15. ‘And those beings set to and fed on those creepers. And as they did so, their bodies became even coarser, and the difference in their looks increased still more… [88] And they became still more arrogant, and so the creepers disappeared too. At this they came together and lamented, crying: “Alas, our creeper’s gone! What have we lost!” And so now today when people, on being asked why they are upset, say: “Oh, what have we lost!” they are repeating an ancient saying without realising it.

16. ‘And then, after the creepers had disappeared, rice appeared in open spaces,832 free from powder and from husks, fragrant and clean-grained.833 And what they had taken in the evening for supper had grown again and was ripe in the morning, and what they had taken in the morning for breakfast was ripe again by evening, with no sign of reaping. And these beings set to and fed on this rice, and this lasted for a very long time. And as they did so, their bodies became coarser still, and the difference in their looks became even greater. And the females developed female sex-organs,834 and the males developed male organs. And the women became excessively preoccupied with men, and the men with women. Owing to this excessive preoccupation with each other, passion was aroused, and their bodies burnt with lust. And later, because of this burning, they indulged in sexual activity.835 But those who saw them indulging threw dust, ashes or [89] cow-dung at them, crying: “Die, you filthy beast! How can one being do such things to another!” Just as today, in some districts, when a daughter-in-law is led out, some people throw dirt at her, some ashes, and some cow-dung, without realising that they are repeating an ancient observance. What was considered bad form in those days is now considered good form.836

17. ‘And those beings who in those days indulged in sex were not allowed into a village or town for one or two months. Accordingly those who indulged for an excessively long period in such immoral practices began to build themselves dwellings so as to indulge under cover.837

‘Now it occurred to one of those beings who was inclined to laziness: “Well now, why should I be bothered to gather rice in the evening for supper and in the morning for breakfast? Why shouldn’t I gather it all at once for both meals?” And he did so. Then another one came to him and said: “Come on, let’s go rice-gathering.” “No need, my friend, I’ve gathered enough for both meals.” Then the other, following his example, gathered enough rice for two days at a time, saying: “That should be about enough.” Then another being came and said [90] to that second one: “Come on, let’s go rice-gathering.” “No need, my friend, I’ve gathered enough for two days.” (The same for 4, then 8, days). However, when those beings made a store of rice and lived on that, husk-powder and husk began to envelop the grain, and where it was reaped it did not grow again, and the cut place showed, and the rice grew in separate clusters.

18. ‘And then those beings came together lamenting: “Wicked ways have become rife among us: at first we were mind-made, feeding on delight… (all events repeated down to the latest development, each fresh change being said to be due to ‘wicked and unwholesome ways’)… [91] [92] and the rice grows in separate clusters. So now let us divide up the rice into fields with boundaries.” So they did so.

19. ‘Then, Vāseṭṭha, one greedy-natured being, while watching over his own plot, took another plot that was not given to him, and enjoyed the fruits of it. So they seized hold of him and said: “You’ve done a wicked thing, taking another’s plot like that! Don’t ever do such a thing again!” “I won’t”, he said, but he did the same thing a second and a third time. Again he was seized and rebuked, and some hit him with their fists, some with stones, and some with sticks. And in this way, Vasettha, taking what was not given, and censuring, and lying, and punishment, took their origin.

20. ‘Then those beings came together and lamented the arising of these evil things among them: taking what was not given, censuring, lying and punishment. And they thought: “Suppose we were to appoint a certain being who would show anger where anger was due, censure those who deserved it, and banish those who deserved banishment! And in return, we would grant him a share of the rice.” [93] So they went to the one among them who was the handsomest, the best-looking, the most pleasant and capable, and asked him to do this for them in return for a share of the rice, and he agreed.

21. “‘The People’s Choice” is the meaning of Mahā-Sammata, 838 which is the first regular title839 to be introduced. “Lord Of The Fields” is the meaning of Khattiya,840 the second such title. And “He Gladdens Others With Dhamma” is the meaning of Raja,841 the third title to be introduced. This, then, Vāseṭṭha, is the origin of the class of Khattiyas, in accordance with the ancient titles that were introduced for them. They originated among these very same beings, like ourselves, no different, and in accordance with Dhamma, not otherwise.

Dhamma’s the best thing for people

In this life and the next as well.

22. ‘Then some of these beings thought: “Evil things have appeared among beings, such as taking what is not given, censuring, lying, punishment and banishment. We ought to put aside evil and unwholesome things.” And they did [94] so. “They Put Aside842 Evil And Uwholesome Things” is the meaning of Brahmin,843 which is the first regular title to be introduced for such people. They made leaf-huts in forest places and meditated in them. With the smoking fire gone out, with pestle cast aside, gathering alms for their evening and morning meals, they went away to a village, town or royal city to seek their food, and then they returned to their leaf-huts to meditate. People saw this and noted how they meditated. “They Meditate”844 is the meaning of Jhayaka,845 which is the second regular title to be introduced.”

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Experienced psychology writer and practitioner of psi abilities. Looking forward to contributing to a worldwide awakening to the reality of psi phenomena.

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