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Alfred Percy Sinnett was a British journalist and occultist who played an important part in the affairs of the Theosophical Society during its first generation. In the early 1880s A.P. Sinnett corresponded with the Mahatmas Koot Hoomi and Morya. In these letters the Masters gave Sinnett the basic ideas of theosophy on the constitution of man, the planetary chain, the world periods, life after death in Devachan and Kama-loka, the progress of humanity, Buddha and Nirvana. In 1883 Mr. Sinnett wrote "Esoteric Buddhism" based on his understanding of these teachings. This classic was the first simple exposition of Theosophy in modern times.
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Publication in electronic format based on the Fifth Edition, London, 1885
ISBN 9788890787423 epub first release
Special contents of this edition are Copyright © 2013 Loris Bagnara Editions
All Rights Reserved.
This publication is licensed to the original purchaser only and may not be published for proprietary use of any person other than the purchaser or his successor in title pursuant to the Terms and Conditions accepted either at the time of purchase or registration with the ebook distributor.
Preface of the Editor – (2013)
Preface to the annotated edition – (1885)
Preface to the original edition – (1883)
— CHAPTER I — Esoteric Teachers
— CHAPTER II — The Constitution of Man
— CHAPTER III — The Planetary Chain
— CHAPTER IV — The World Periods
— CHAPTER V — Devachan
— CHAPTER VI — Kâma Loka
— CHAPTER VII — The Human Tide-Wave
— CHAPTER VIII — The Progress of Humanity
— CHAPTER IX — Buddha
— CHAPTER X — Nirvana
— CHAPTER XI — The Universe
— CHAPTER XII — The Doctrine Reviewed
APPENDIX I – by the Author
APPENDIX II – by the Editor
The present publication is based on the Fifth Edition, 1885, annotated and enlarged by the author. With respect to that original edition, the text has been cleaned by some minor misspelling; the punctuation — sometimes confused — has been simplified; the quotations have been clearly highlighted and differentiated — where possible — from the main text; the original notes of the Author have been incorporated into the text in square brackets and marked by '*' symbol (the symbol '**' marks the few notes of the Editor). This results in a text more readable and suitable for modern reading devices.
The Sinnetts were living there in Feb 1879 when Blavatsky and Olcott, founders of the Theosophical Society, landed in Bombay. On 25 Feb 1879 a letter arrived for them from Sinnett as editor of the Pioneer expressing interest and a willingness to publish any facts. Sinnett then published some articles on spiritualism; he and his wife also invited these two strangers to visit and stay for a time at their home, but Blavatsky and Olcott did not reach Allahabad until 4 Dec 1879, where they remained for six weeks. Sinnett and his wife became members. The subsequent publicity given to Theosophy in the Pioneer assisted its membership growth, but it would soon cost Sinnett his job.
In 1880 Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott visited the Sinnetts at their summer-home in Simla. The Mahatma Letters, which generated the controversy that later helped lead to the split of the Theosophical Society, were mostly written to Sinnett or his wife, Patience. These letters were all published much later, after Blavatsky and Olcott were both dead.
In 1881, at Simla, Sinnett with Allen Octavian Hume established the Simla Eclectic Theosophical Society; Hume was it's president the first year, and Sinnett the second year.
In these years Sinnett wrote his first book: The Occult World, published in 1881 in London, and in 1882 in Boston; he wrote also a book, not published, referred to by Countess Wachtmeister as Memoirs which, at least in part, detailed the "Occult phenomena taking place in the presence of Madame Blavatsky [...]".
When Edward Maitland and Dr Anna Kingsfords anonymous book The Perfect Way, or the Finding of Christ appeared in Feb 1882, Sinnett wrote a book review of it for The Theosophist magazine.
Meanwhile, the proprietors of the Pioneer were becoming embarrassed by Sinnett's journalistic support of Blavatsky and informed him that his contract would not be renewed. There then followed an abortive attempt by Madame to raise funds to start her own periodical to be called the Phoenix.
After visiting Blavatsky at her new residence at Adyar in Mar 1883, Sinnett sailed for England. Arriving in London in April 1883, he joined the Theosophical Society there, then under the presidency of Dr Anna Kingsford. For a period, Sinnett was Vice-President of the Theosophical Society, but his independent views made it difficult for him to cooperate fully with other officials, although Sinnett's book The Occult World had attracted many individuals to the society.
During his association with the society, Sinnett received a number of Mahatma letters, supposedly from the mysterious Masters who had directed the formation of the society. Sinnett's book Esoteric Buddhism, published in London in 1883, was said to have derived from communications from the "Master K. H.” on human evolution and cosmogony. One of the Mahatma letters comes addressed to him about the current controversy over who should be the President of the London T.S. This letter calls him the "Vice-President of the Parent Society”, which supposedly means he is next under Olcott.
It was in this period moreover that Sinnet became friendly with Frederic W. Myers, who (with Edmund Gurney and Henry Sidgwick) had founded the Society for Psychical Research a year earlier.
Constance Wachtmeister (who joined the Theosophical Society in 1881) stated that she met Blavatsky at the home of the Sinnetts in 1884 in London.
In the Summer of 1884, when Blavatsky was a guest in England, an American arrived who would be the cause of Sinnett's falling out with Blavatsky. Laura Holloway was a medium who had read Sinnett's work Occult World and wanted to become a pupil of the Mahatma Koot Hoomi. In a private seance, Laura was possessed by the spirit of Koot Hoomi who spoke to Sinnett directly for the first time, instead of through a letter. Williams says that Blavatsky was alarmed at this idea that someone else could possibly pull the strings and tried to corral Laura to her side, but Sinnett rebelled at this, realizing that at least some of the letters purportedly from the Mahatmas were really written by Blavatsky herself.
Sinnett wrote a book called Karma published in 1885. That same year his wife as "Mrs A. P. Sinnett” wrote a book called The Purpose of Theosophy. He edited Incidents in the Life of Madame Blavatsky which was published in 1886 in New York and London. In 1886 he was stated to be at work upon another novel to be called United.
In 1890, with others, he was a director of the Hansard Publishing Union. In 1892 he wrote a book The Rationale of Mesmerism. In 1893 he wrote A New Theory of Stonehenge. The Black and White mocked him in 1893 for referring to a recently discovered process "psychometry” which purports to read the history of objects by touching them.
By 1887, Sinnett and his wife had formed associations with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the pioneering ceremonial magic society. In 1896 the poet William Butler Yeats, a prominent member of the Golden Dawn, wrote that Sinnett was in charge of the order's neophytes. Sinnett was also friendly with the important occult and mystical writer Arthur Edward Waite, and with Mary A. Atwood, who sent Sinnett her library of alchemical texts.
Sinnett's wife Patience died 9 Nov 1908; thirteen years later, he died 25 Jun 1921 at the age of 81.
As conveying an indirect acknowledgement of the general harmony to be traced between these teachings and the recognized philosophical tenets of certain other great schools of Indian thought, I may here refer to criticisms on this book, which were published in the Indian magazine The Theosophist in June, 1883, by “a Brahman Hindoo”. The writer complains that in interpreting the esoteric doctrine, I have departed unnecessarily from accepted Sanskrit nomenclature; but his objection merely is that I have given unfamiliar names in some cases to ideas already embodied in Hindoo sacred writings, and that I have done too much honour to the religious system commonly known as Buddhism, by representing that as more closely allied with the esoteric doctrine than any other.
So much the better — I take leave to rejoin — from the point of view of Western readers, to whom it must be a matter of indifference whether the esoteric Hindoo or Buddhist religion is nearest to absolutely true spiritual science, which should certainly bear no name that appears to wed it to any one faith in the external world more than to another. All that we in Europe can be anxious for, is to arrive at a clear understanding as to the essential principles of that science, and if we find the principles defined in this book claimed by the cultured representatives of more than one great Oriental creed as equally the underlying truths of their different systems, we shall be all the better inclined to believe the present exposition of doctrine worth our attention.
In regard to the complaint itself, that the teachings here reduced to an intelligible shape are incorrectly described by the name this book bears, I cannot do better than quote the note by which the editor of The Theosophist replies to his Brahman contributor. This note says:
For my own part I need only add that I fully accept and adopt that explanation of the matter. It would indeed be a misconception of the design which this book is intended to sub-serve, to suppose it concerned with the recommendation, to a dilettante modern taste, of Old World fashions in religious thought. The external forms and fancies of religion in one age may be a little purer, in another a little more corrupt, but they inevitably adapt themselves to their period, and it would be extravagant to imagine them interchangeable. The present statement is not put forward in the hope of making Buddhists from among the adherents of any other system, but with the view of conveying to thoughtful readers, as well in the East as in the West, a series of leading ideas relating to the actual verities of Nature, and the real facts of man’s progress through evolution, which have been communicated to the present writer by Eastern philosophers, and thus fall most readily into an Oriental mould. For the value of these teachings will perhaps be most fully realized when we clearly perceive that they are scientific in their character rather than controversial. Spiritual truths, if they are truths, may evidently be dealt with in a no less scientific spirit than chemical reactions. And no religious feeling, of whatever colour it may be, need be disturbed by the importation into the general stock of knowledge of new discoveries about the constitution and nature of man on the plane of his higher activities. True religion will eventually find a way to assimilate much fresh knowledge, in the same way that it always finally acquiesces in a general enlargement of Knowledge on the physical plane. This, in the first instance, may sometimes disconcert notions associated with religious belief — as geological science at first embarrassed biblical chronology. But in time men came to see that the essence of the biblical statement does not reside in the literal sense of the cosmological passages in the Old Testament, and religious conceptions grew all the purer for the relief thus afforded. In just the same way when positive scientific knowledge begins to embrace a comprehension of the laws relating to the spiritual development of man — some misconceptions of Nature, long blended with religion, may have to give way, but still it will be found that the central ideas of true religion have been cleared up and strengthened all the better for the process. Especially as such processes continue, will the internal dissensions of the religious world be inevitably subdued. The warfare of sects can only be due to a failure on the part of rival sectarians to grasp fundamental facts. Could a time come when the basic ideas on which religion rests, should be comprehended with the same certainty with which we comprehend some primary physical laws, and disagreement about them be recognized by all educated people as ridiculous, then there would not be room for very acrimonious divergences of religious sentiment. Externals of religious thought would still differ in different climates and among different races — as dress and dietaries differ — but such differences would not give rise to intellectual antagonism.
Basic facts of the nature indicated are developed, it appears to me, in the exposition of spiritual science we have now obtained from our Eastern friends. It is quite unnecessary for religious thinkers to turn aside from them under the impression that they are arguments in favour of some Eastern, in preference to the more general Western creed. If medical science were to discover a new fact about man’s body, were to unveil some hitherto concealed principle on which the growth of skin and flesh and bone is carried on, that discovery would not be regarded as trenching at all on the domain of religion. Would the domain of religion be invaded, for example, by a discovery that should go one step behind the action of the nerves, and disclose a finer set of activities manipulating these as they manipulate the muscles? At all events, even if such a discovery might begin to reconcile science and religion, no man who allows any of his higher faculties to enter into his religious thinking would put aside a positive fact of Nature, plainly shown to be such, as hostile to religion. Being a fact it would inevitably fit in with all other facts, and with religious truth among the number. So with the great mass of information in reference to the spiritual evolution of man embodied in the present statement. Our best plan evidently is to ask, before we look into the report I bring forward, not whether it will square in all respects with preconceived views, but whether it really does introduce us to a series of natural facts connected with the growth and development of man’s higher faculties. If it does this we may wisely examine the facts first in the scientific spirit, and leave them to exercise whatever effect on collateral belief may be reasonable and legitimate later on.
Ramifying, as the explanation proceeds, into a great many side paths, it will be seen that the central statement now put forward constitutes a theory of anthropology which completes and spiritualises the ordinary notions of physical evolution. The theory which traces man’s development by successive and very gradual improvements of animal forms from generation to generation, is a very barren and miserable theory regarded as an all-embracing account of creation; but properly understood it paves the way for a comprehension of the higher concurrent process which is all the while evolving the soul of man in the spiritual realm of existence. The present view of the matter reconciles the evolutionary method with the deeply seated craving of every self-conscious entity for perpetuity of individual life. The disjointed series of improving forms on this earth have no individuality, and the life of each in turn is a separate transaction which finds in the next similar transaction, no compensation for suffering involved, no justice, no fruit of its efforts. It is just possible to argue on the assumption of a new independent creation of a human soul every time a new human form is produced by physiological growth, that in the after spiritual states of such soul, justice may be awarded; but then this conception is itself at variance with the fundamental idea of evolution, which traces, or believes that it traces the origin of each soul to the workings of highly developed matter in each case. Nor is it less at variance with the analogies of Nature; but without going into that, it is enough for the moment to perceive that the theory of spiritual evolution, as set forth in the teaching of esoteric science, is at any rate in harmony with these analogies, while at the same time it satisfactorily meets the requirements of justice, and of the instinctive demand for continuity of individual life.
This theory recognizes the evolution of the soul as a process that is quite continuous in itself, though carried out partly through the instrumentality of a great series of dissociated forms. Putting aside for the moment of profound metaphysics of the theory which trace the principle of life from the original first cause of the cosmos, we find the soul as an entity emerging from the animal kingdom, and passing into the earliest human forms, without being at that time ripe for the higher intellectual life with which the present state of humanity renders us familiar. But through successive incarnations in forms whose physical improvement, under the Darwinian law, is constantly fitting them to be its habitation at each return to objective life, it gradually gathers that enormous range of experience which is summed up in its higher development. In the intervals between its physical incarnations it prolongs and works out, and finally exhausts or transmutes into so much abstract development, the personal experiences of each life. This is the clue to the true explanation of that apparent difficulty which besets the cruder form of the theory of re-incarnation which independent speculation has sometimes thrown out. Each man is unconscious of having led previous lives, therefore he contends that subsequent lives can afford him no compensation for this one. He overlooks the enormous importance of the intervening spiritual condition, in which he by no means forgets the personal adventures and emotions he has just passed through, and in the course of which he distills these into so much cosmic progress. In the following pages the elucidation of this profoundly interesting mystery is attempted, and it will be seen that the view of events now afforded us is not only a solution of the problems of life and death, but of many very perplexing experiences on the borderland between those conditions — or rather between physical and spiritual life — which have engaged attention and speculation so widely of recent years in most civilized countries.
European philosophy, whether concerned with religion or pure metaphysics, has so long been used to a sense of insecurity in speculations outrunning the limits of physical experiment, that absolute truth about spiritual things is hardly recognized any longer by prudent thinkers as a reasonable object of pursuit; but different habits of thought have been acquired in Asia. The secret doctrine which, to a considerable extent, I am now enabled to expound, is regarded not only by all its adherents, but by vast numbers who have never expected to know more of it than that such a doctrine exists, as a mine of entirely trustworthy knowledge from which all religions and philosophies have derived whatever they possess of truth, and with which every religion must coincide if it claims to be a mode of expression for truth.
This is a bold claim indeed, but I venture to announce the following exposition as one of immense importance to the world, because I believe that claim can be substantiated.
I do not say that within the compass of this volume the authenticity of the esoteric doctrine can be proved. Such proof cannot be given by any process of argument; only through the development in each inquirer for himself of the faculties required for the direct observation of Nature along the lines indicated. But his prima facie conclusion may be determined by the extent to which the views of Nature about to be unfolded, may recommend themselves to his mind, and by the reasons which exist for trusting the powers of observation of those by whom they are communicated.
Will it be supposed that the very magnitude of the claim now made on behalf of the esoteric doctrine, lifts the present statement out of the region of inquiry to which its title refers — inquiry as to the real inner meaning of the definite and specific religion called Buddhism? The fact is, however, that esoteric Buddhism, though by no means divorced from the associations of exoteric Buddhism, must not be conceived to constitute a mere imperium in imperio — a central school of culture in the vortex of the Buddhist world. In proportion as Buddhism retreats into the inner penetralia of its faith, these are found to merge into the inner penetralia of other faiths. The cosmic conceptions, and the knowledge of Nature on which Buddhism not merely rests, but which constitute esoteric Buddhism, equally constitute esoteric Brahmanism. And the esoteric doctrine is thus regarded by those of all creeds who are “enlightened” (in the Buddhist sense) as the absolute truth concerning Nature, Man, the origin of the Universe, and the destinies toward which its inhabitants are tending. At the same time, exoteric Buddhism has remained in closer union with the esoteric doctrine than any other popular religion. An exposition of the inner knowledge, addressed to English readers in the present day, will thus associate itself irresistibly with familiar outlines of Buddhist teaching. It will certainly impart to these a living meaning they generally seem to be without, but all the more on this account may the esoteric doctrine be most conveniently studied in its Buddhist aspect: one, moreover, which has been so strongly impressed upon it since the time of Gautama Buddha that though the essence of the doctrine dates back to a far more remote antiquity, the Buddhist colouring has now permeated its whole substance. That which I am about to put before the reader is esoteric Buddhism, and for European students approaching it for the first time, any other designation would be a misnomer.
The statement I have to make must be considered in its entirety before the reader will be able to comprehend why initiates in the esoteric doctrine regard the concession involved in the present disclosures of the general outlines of this doctrine as one of startling magnitude. One explanation of this feeling, however, may be readily seen to spring from the extreme sacredness that has always been attached by their ancient guardians to the inner vital truths of Nature. Hitherto this sacredness has always prescribed their absolute concealment from the profane herd. And so far as that policy of concealment — the tradition of countless ages — is now being given up, the new departure which the appearance of this volume signalizes will be contemplated with surprise and regret by a great many initiated disciples. The surrender to criticism which may sometimes perhaps be clumsy and irreverent, of doctrines which have hitherto been regarded by such persons as too majestic in their import to be talked of at all except under circumstances of befitting solemnity, will seem to them a terrible profanation of the great mysteries. From the European point of view it would be unreasonable to expect that such a book as this can be exempt from the usual rough-and-tumble treatment of new ideas. And special convictions or common-place bigotry may sometimes render such treatment in the present case peculiarly inimical. But all that, though a matter of course to European exponents of the doctrine like myself, will seem very grievous and disgusting to its earlier and more regular representatives. They will appeal sadly to the wisdom of the time-honoured rule which, in the old symbolical way, forbade the initiates from casting pearls before swine.
Happily, as I think, the rule has not been allowed to operate any longer to the prejudice of those who, while still far from being initiated, in the occult sense of the term, will probably have become, by sheer force of modern culture, qualified to appreciate the concession.
Part of the information contained in the following pages was first thrown out in a fragmentary form in The Theosophist, a monthly magazine, published at Madras, by the leaders of the Theosophical Society. As almost all the articles referred to have been my own writing, I have not hesitated to weld parts of them, when this course has been convenient, into the present volume. A certain advantage is gained by thus showing how the separate pieces of the mosaic as first presented to public notice, drop naturally into their places in the (comparatively) finished pavement.
The doctrine or system now disclosed in its broad outlines has been so jealously guarded hitherto, that no mere literary researches, though they might have curry-combed all India, could have brought to light any morsel of the information thus revealed. It is given out to the world at last by the free grace of those in whose keeping it has hitherto lain. Nothing could ever have extorted from them its very first letter. It is only after a perusal of the present explanations that their position generally, as regards their present disclosures or their previous reticence can be criticized or even comprehended. The views of Nature now put forward are altogether unfamiliar to European thinkers; the policy of the graduates in esoteric knowledge, which has grown out of their long intimacy with these views must be considered in connection with the peculiar bearings of the doctrine itself.
As for the circumstances under which these revelations were first foreshadowed in The Theosophist, and are now rounded off and expanded as my readers will perceive, it is enough for the moment to say, that the Theosophical Society, through my connection with which the materials dealt with in this volume have come into my hands, owes its establishment to certain persons who are among the custodians of esoteric science. The information poured out at last for the benefit of all who are ripe to receive it, has been destined for communication to the world through the Theosophical Society since the foundation of that body, and later circumstances only have indicated myself as the agent through whom the communication could be conveniently made.
Let me add, that I do not regard myself as the sole exponent for the outer world, at this crisis, of esoteric truth. These teachings are the outcome, as regards philosophical knowledge, of the relations with the outer world which have been established by the custodians of esoteric truth through me. And it is only regarding the acts and intentions of those esoteric teachers who have chosen to work through me, that I can have any certain knowledge. But, in different ways, some other writers seem to be engaged in expounding for the benefit of the world — and, as I believe, in accordance with a great plan, of which this volume is a part — the same truths, in different aspects, that I am commissioned to unfold. Probably the great activity at present of literary speculation dealing with problems that overstep the range of physical knowledge, may also be in some way provoked by that policy, on the part of the great custodians of esoteric truth, of which my own book is certainly one manifestation. Again, the ardour now shown in “Psychical Research”, by the very distinguished, highly gifted, and cultivated men, who lead the society in London devoted to that object, is, to my inner convictions — knowing as I do something of the way the spiritual aspirations of the world are silently influenced by those whose work lies in that department of Nature — the obvious fruit of efforts, parallel to those with which I am more immediately concerned.
It only remains for me to disclaim, on behalf of the treatise which ensues, any pretension to high finish as regards the language in which it is cast. Longer familiarity with the vast and complicated scheme of cosmogony disclosed, will no doubt suggest improvements in the phraseology employed to expound it. Two years ago, neither I, nor any other European living, knew the alphabet of the science here for the first time put into a scientific shape — or subject at all events to an attempt in that direction — the science of Spiritual Causes and their Effects, of Super-physical Consciousness, of Cosmical Evolution. Though ideas had begun to offer themselves to the world in more or less embarrassing disguise of mystic symbology, no attempt had ever been made by any esoteric teacher, two years back, to put the doctrine forward in its plain abstract purity. As my own instruction progressed on those lines, I have had to coin phrases and suggest English words as equivalents for the ideas which were presented to my mind. I am by no means convinced that in all cases I have coined the best possible phrases and hit on the most neatly expressive words. For example, at the threshold of the subject we come upon the necessity of giving some name to the various elements or attributes of which the complete human creature is made up. “Element” would be an impossible word to use, on account of the confusion that would arise from its use in other significations; and the least objectionable on the whole seemed to me “principle”, though to an ear trained in the niceties of metaphysical expression this word will have a very unsatisfactory sound in some of its present applications. Quite possibly, therefore, in process of time the Western nomenclature of the esoteric doctrine may be greatly developed in advance of that I have provisionally constructed. The Oriental nomenclature is far more elaborate, but metaphysical Sanskrit seems to be painfully embarrassing to a translator — the fault, my Indian friends assure me, not of Sanskrit, but of the language in which they are now required to express the Sanskrit ideal. Eventually we may find that, with the help of a little borrowing from familiar Greek quarries, English may prove more receptive of the new doctrine — or rather, of the primeval doctrine as newly disclosed — than has been supposed in the East.
Every one who has been concerned with Indian literature, and still more, any one who in India has taken interest in talking with cultivated Natives on philosophical subjects will be aware of a general conviction existing in the East that there are men living who know a great deal more about philosophy in the highest acceptation of the word — the science, the true knowledge of spiritual things, — than can be found recorded in any books. In Europe the notion of secrecy as applied to science is so repulsive to the prevailing instinct, that the first inclination of European thinkers is to deny the existence of that which they so much dislike. But circumstances have fully assured me during my residence in India that the conviction just referred to is perfectly well founded, and I have been privileged at last to receive a very considerable mass of instruction in the hitherto secret knowledge over which Oriental philosophers have brooded silently till now; instruction which has hitherto been only imparted to sympathetic students, prepared themselves to migrate into the camp of secrecy. Their teachers have been more than content that all other inquirers should be left in doubt as to whether there was anything of importance to learn at their hands.
With quite as much antipathy at starting as any one could have entertained to the old Oriental policy in regard to knowledge, I came, nevertheless, to perceive that the old Oriental knowledge itself was a very real and important possession. It may be excusable to regard the high grapes as sour so long as they are quite out of reach, but it would be foolish to persist in that opinion if a tall friend hands down a bunch and one finds them sweet.
For reasons that will appear as the present explanations proceed, the very considerable block of hitherto secret teaching this volume contains, has been conveyed to me, not only without conditions of the usual kind, but to the express end that I might convey it in my turn to the world at large.
Without the light of hitherto secret Oriental knowledge, it is impossible by any study of its published literature — English or Sanskrit — for students of even the most scholarly qualifications, to reach a comprehension of the inner doctrines and real meaning of any Oriental religion. This assertion conveys no reproach to the sympathetic, learned, and industrious writers of great ability who have studied Oriental religions generally, and Buddhism especially, in their external aspects. Buddhism, above all, is a religion which has enjoyed a dual existence from the very beginning of its introduction to the world. The real inner meaning of its doctrines has been kept back from uninitiated students, while the outer teachings have merely presented the multitude with a code of moral lessons and a veiled, symbolical literature, hinting at the existence of knowledge in the background.
This secret knowledge, in reality, long antedated the passage through earth-life of Gautama Buddha. Brahmin philosophy, in ages before Buddha, embodied the identical doctrine which may now be described as Esoteric Buddhism. Its outlines had indeed been blurred; its scientific form partially confused; but the general body of knowledge was already in possession of a select few before Buddha came to deal with it. Buddha, however, undertook the task of revising and refreshing the esoteric science of the inner circle of initiates, as well as the morality of the outer world. The circumstances under which this work was done, have been wholly misunderstood, nor would a straightforward explanation thereof be intelligible without explanations, which must first be furnished by a survey of the esoteric science itself.
From Buddha’s time till now the esoteric science referred to has been jealously guarded as a precious heritage belonging exclusively to regularly initiated members of mysteriously organized associations. These, so far as Buddhism is concerned, are the Arahats, or more properly Arhats, referred to in Buddhist literature. They are the initiates who tread the “fourth path of holiness”, spoken of in esoteric Buddhist writings. Mr Rhys Davids, referring to a multiplicity of original texts and Sanskrit authorities, says:
And then making a series of running quotations from Sanskrit authorities, he says:
These passages, and all like them, convey to European readers, at all events, an entirely false idea as to what sort of person an Arhat really is, as to the life he leads while on earth, and what he anticipates later on. But the elucidation of such points may be postponed for the moment. Some further passages from exoteric treatises may first be selected to show what an Arhat is generally supposed to be.
Mr Rhys Davids, speaking of Jhana and Samadhi — the belief that it was possible by intense self-absorption to attain supernatural faculties and powers — goes on to say:
Very little in the sources of information on the subject that have hitherto been explored will be found clear. But I am now merely endeavouring to show that Buddhist literature teems with allusions to the greatness and powers of the Arhats. For more intimate knowledge concerning them, special circumstances must furnish us with the required explanations.
Mr Arthur Lillie, in Buddha and Early Buddhism, tells us:
And so on with illustrations. Mr Lillie has not quite accurately divined the nature of the truth lying behind this popular version of the facts; but it is hardly necessary to quote more to show that the powers of the Arhats and their insight into spiritual things are respected by the world of Buddhism most profoundly, even though the Arhats themselves have been singularly indisposed to favour the world with autobiographies or scientific accounts of “the six supernatural powers”.
A few sentences from Mr. Hoey’s recent translation of Dr Oldenberg’s Budda: his Life, his Doctrine, his Order, may fall conveniently into this place, and then we may pass on. We read:
A multiplication of such quotations would merely involve the repetition in various forms of exoteric conceptions concerning the Arhats. Like every fact or thought in Buddhism, the Arhat has two aspects, that in which he is presented to the world at large, and that in which he lives, moves, and has his being. In the popular estimation he is a saint waiting for a spiritual reward of the kind the populace can understand — a wonder-worker meanwhile by favour of supernatural agencies. In reality he is the long- tried and proved-worthy custodian of the deepest and innermost philosophy of the one fundamental religion which Buddha refreshed and restored, and a student of natural science standing in the very foremost front of human knowledge, in regard not merely to the mysteries of spirit, but to the material constitution of the world as well.
Arhat is a Buddhist designation. That which is more familiar in India, where the attributes of Arhatship are not necessarily associated with professions of Buddhism, is Mahatma. With stories about the Mahatmas, India is saturated. The older Mahatmas are generally spoken of as Rishis; but the terms are interchangeable, and I have heard the title Rishi applied to men now living. All the attributes of the Arhats mentioned in Buddhist writings are described with no less reverence in Indian literature, as those of the Mahatmas, and this volume might be readily filled with translations of vernacular books, giving accounts of miraculous achievements by such of them as are known to history and tradition by name.
In reality, the Arhats and the Mahatmas are the same men. At that level of spiritual exaltation, supreme knowledge of the esoteric doctrine blends all original sectarian distinctions. By whatever name such illuminati may be called, they are the adepts of occult knowledge, sometimes spoken of in India now as the Brothers, and the custodians of the spiritual science which has been handed down to them by their predecessors.
We may search both ancient and modern literature in vain, however, for any systematic explanation of their doctrine or science. A good deal of this is dimly set forth in occult writing; but very little of this is of the least use to readers who take up the subject without previous knowledge acquired independently of books. It is under favour of direct instruction from one of their number that I am now enabled to attempt an outline of the Mahatmas’ teaching, and it is in the same way that I have picked up what I know concerning the organization to which most of them, and the greatest, in the present day belong.
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