In later years Hermes Trismegistus, the Thrice-Greatest One, further developed these principles, adding to them the mystical treasures of Egyptian wisdom. It has been said by Lactance that "Hermes, one knows not how, succeeded in discovering nearly all the truth." During the first few centuries of the Christian era his works enjoyed a considerable vogue, and he also had a very great influence on the Renaissance period. The Hermetic books, with all their mysteries, have become part of the theosophical gospel, as well as the doctrines of Plato and of the Neo-Platonists, Plutarch's treatises on Isis and Osiris, the philosophies of Plotinus and Iamblichus, the teachings of Philo and of the Gnostics, and the works of innumerable others, who in seeking to throw light on the super-physical realms seem often only to have succeeded in plunging them into greater darkness. Augmented by all these obscure products of philosophy and metaphysics, the new Theosophy gives the impression of a gigantic and impenetrable maze, but it must be admitted that its followers have drawn from it maxims whose justice and high morality are beyond question.
The general trend of its teachings is indicated by the following sublime passages from the Bhagavad Gita, or Lord's Song:—
"He attaineth Peace, into whom all desires flow as rivers flow into the ocean, which is filled with water, but remaineth unmoved—not he who desireth desires. Whoso forsaketh all desires and goeth onwards free from yearnings, selfless and without egoism—he goeth to Peace. . . . Freed from passion, fear and anger, filled with Me, taking refuge in Me, purified in the fire of wisdom, many have entered into My Being. However men approach Me, even so do I welcome them, for the path men take from every side is Mine, O Partha."
But the many imitations and variations of this wonderful Song have despoiled it of some of its freshness and beauty, so that in these days it is rather like the airs played on barrel-organs whose original tunefulness is forgotten through wearisome repetition.
Theosophists are also concerned, with studying the sevenfold nature of man and of the universe, with the existence of invisible worlds, the graduated stages of death and rebirth, and the attainment of divine wisdom through perfect purity of life and thought. They are opposed to racial prejudices, social classifications, and all distinctions that separate and divide mankind, and they inculcate the greatest possible respect for, the widest possible tolerance between, the world's different religions. Like Christian Scientists they do not believe in the practice of hypnotic suggestion, but they disagree with the materialism of the Scientists, holding that, in the search for truth, purity of life is the one essential, and worldly prosperity of small importance.
In 1912 and 1913 Mrs. Tingley visited Europe and made numerous converts in England, Italy, France, Germany and the Scandinavian countries, while the Theosophical Conference held at Point Loma in 1915, in the interests of peace and universal brotherhood, was an immense success. The Theosophists have always been ardent workers in the cause of international peace, and while awaiting the dawn of a New Age when war shall be unknown, they strive to forestall its advent in their Californian paradise.
Dramatic and musical performances are given in theatres built in the Greek style; there is a college of Raja-Yoga, where thousands of pupils of all races are initiated into the mysteries of Karma and Reincarnation; a School of Antiquity, "temple of the living light," where the secret of living in harmony with nature is taught; frequent lectures, conferences, sports and games; while animated conversations concerning memories of past lives have an undying fascination for the adherents of this doctrine which sends so many missionaries out into the world every year.
Unlike other sects, the Theosophists do not seem anxious to publish their numbers abroad—whether because they make too many converts, or too few, it is impossible to say!—but there must certainly be hundreds of thousands scattered throughout the United States, India, and the Anglo-Saxon countries.
The foregoing chapter scarcely seems complete without some reference to the other two centres where an attempt has been made to express the ideals of Theosophy in concrete form—one in the East, at Adyar, Madras, the other in the West, at Krotona, near Los Angeles, California. The former came into being in 1882 under Madame Blavatsky's own leadership, and has grown from a small property of only 27 acres to one of 263 acres. With its many fine buildings it has a river-frontage (on the Adyar river) of one mile, and a sea-frontage of two-fifths of a mile. Here Mrs. Besant—World-President of the Theosophical Society, apart from Mrs. Tingley's followers—makes her home, leaving it only for periodical lecturing tours throughout India, or for visits to London and other European centres. Her lectures at Queen's Hall, London, in the years immediately preceding the war, and again in 1919, were remarkable for the crowds who flocked to listen to one who, whether her views find agreement or not, is universally admitted to be in the front rank of living orators. Adyar possesses an excellent library, with many valuable books and manuscripts relating to the ancient religions of India; a publishing house, the Vasanta Press, whence are issued yearly numerous theosophical books, pamphlets and magazines, for purposes of study and propaganda; a lecture hall which seats 1500 people, but into which as many as 2300 have found admittance on special occasions; a Masonic temple; an extensive building for the housing of resident students; and very beautiful grounds with a palm-grove and an ancient banyan tree, in whose shade many of the most important theosophical lectures and conferences are held, and around which more than 3000 people of all nationalities have often been gathered to hear the discourses of the President and her colleagues. A striking feature of the grounds is the massive sculptured trilithons, about 2000 years old, brought from a ruined temple in southern India, and erected here in picturesque surroundings.
The colony at Krotona is of more recent origin, and its environment is similar in some respects to that of Point Loma. Founded in 1912 by A. P. Warrington, the head of the American section of the Theosophical Society under Mrs. Besant's leadership, it stands on high ground on the outskirts of Hollywood, a suburb of Los Angeles, with magnificent views of the Santa Monica Mountains and of the valley leading to the sea twelve miles away. This "Institute of Theosophy" takes its name from the School of Science, Art and Philosophy founded by the great Pythagoras, and aspires to be to-day what his Krotona was in the past—a centre of spiritual enlightenment. It is run on co-operative lines, and on a non-profit basis. There are no "servants" in the community, and the means of support is from a ground-rent or tax charged to each house-builder, from the renting of rooms, and from voluntary donations. The buildings are in picturesque Moorish or Spanish style, their white walls gleaming amid the brilliant flowers and luxuriant greenery of this favoured climate. They include a fine Lending Library and Reference Room, a scientific research laboratory, a publishing house, an administration building, and many pretty villas and cottages. There is also a temple, in whose auditorium religious ceremonies, meetings, lectures and concerts take place, and an open-air stadium where each year a miracle play is to be produced, the one first chosen being a dramatisation of Sir Edwin Arnold's "Light of Asia," which ran for three weeks in the summer of 1918.
The English Headquarters of the Society are now at 23 Bedford Square, London.
"Tell us then, Mary, what hast thou seen upon thy way?"
"I have seen the shroud and the vestments and the angelic witnesses, and I have seen the glory of the Resurrected."
Saints and prophets of all lands and all ages bear an unconscious resemblance one to another. The craving for truth, the unquenchable desire to escape from reality, leads them into realms of mystery and dream, where simple peasants and labourers, religious men and agnostics, philosophers and mystics, all meet together. Their unsuspicious minds are easily dazzled by the least ray of light, and deceived by the most unlikely promises, and it is not surprising that they are often imposed upon and led to accept false ways of salvation.
Many of the mystics show a desire to revert to the Esoteric Christianity dear to Saint John, the disciple whom Jesus loved; or to that of Mani, whose doctrine—unjustly distorted by his detractors—was concerned with direct initiation and final mergence in the Divinity. But it is not easy to progress against the stream of the centuries, and with the Catharists of Hungary, the Albigenses of Provence, and the Templars massacred in the name of St. Augustine—that ancient Manichean who became the worst enemy of his fellow-believers—Esoteric Christianity seemed to have died out. Nevertheless the desire for it has never been destroyed, and continues to inspire the teachings of all those who revolt against dogmas that tend to restrict the soul's activities instead of widening them.
Logically, all viable religious evolution is a departure from the Christianity which has moulded our present-day thought and morality and is the centre of all our hopes. But every new revival has to reckon with it. Madame Blavatsky, for instance, made Gautama Buddha—the king's son who became a beggar by reason of his immense compassion for mankind—the central pivot of her esotericism, which was Buddhist rather than Christian in essence; but Annie Besant, the spiritual leader of modern Theosophy, has returned to Christianity and acknowledges the divinity of the Son of Man. This symbolic example should reassure Christian believers, showing how even those who depart from Christianity contribute, in spite of themselves, to its continuous growth.
Crowds of new phenomena are now demanding entry into the divine city of religion. There is, first of all, science, undertaking to present us with a morality conforming to the Gospel teachings, which it claims have become a dead letter. But if twenty centuries of Christianity have not transformed human nature, neither has science. Materialism and commercialism have failed just as the Church, with her spirit of exclusion and domination, has failed. The fact that all these have worked separately and in hostility to one another is perhaps the reason, for mutual understanding and respect, once established between them, might well result in a new revelation worthy of the new humanity which shall emerge from this tragic age. A superior idealism, at once religious, social and scientific, must sooner or later bring new light and warmth to the world, for a world-crisis which has shaken the very foundations of our existence cannot leave intact its logical corollary, faith, in whose vicinity threatening clouds have long been visible. As at the dawn of Christianity, the whole world has seemed to be rent by torturing doubts and by the menace of an approaching end. After having been preserved from destruction by Christ for two thousand years, it suddenly found itself in the throes of the most appalling upheaval yet experienced, with the majority of its inhabitants engaged in a murderous war. The dream of human brotherhood, glimpsed throughout the centuries, seemed to be irretrievably threatened, and once more arose the age-old question as to how the Reign of Love was to be introduced upon earth.
The present era shows other striking analogies to the early days of Christianity, as, for instance, in the democratic movement tending to establish the sovereignity of the people. But it is no longer exceptional men, like prophets, who proclaim the dawn of the age of equality, but the masses themselves, under the guidance of their chosen leaders. In the book of Enoch the Son of Man tears kings from their thrones and casts them into Hell; but this was only an isolated seer daring to predict misfortune for those who built their palaces "with the sweat of others." The old-time prophets desired to reduce the rich to the level of the poor, and a man denuded of all worldly goods was held up as an ideal to be followed. This naturally necessitated mendicity, and it was not till some centuries had passed that the Church herself became reconciled to the possession of riches. Our own age, however, desires to uplift the poor to the level of the rich, and a more generous spirit is manifested, in accordance with the progress made by the science of social reform. Still it is, at bottom, the same spirit of brotherhood, enlarged and deepened, which now seeks to level from below upwards instead of from above downwards. Distrust and suspicion are directed chiefly towards the "New Rich," products of the war, who have built up their fortunes on the ruin and misery of others, and to these might be addressed the words of Jesus to the wealthy of His time—"Be ye faithful stewards"—that is to say, "Make good investments for the Kingdom of God in the interests of your fellow-men."
We are witnessing a revival of the "good tidings for the poor," in whom may be included the whole human community. For the revolution of to-day differs from that of the simple Galileans, and is of grave and universal portent, proceeding, as it does, from men who have thought and suffered, and profited by the disorder and misery of thousands of years.
The Gospel is in process of being renovated. All these new churches and beliefs can only serve to strengthen the great work in which the "Word" is incarnated. Whether produced by deliberate thought or by unconscious cerebration, whether professed by "saints" or practised by "initiates," they hold up a mirror to the soul of contemporary humanity with all its miseries and doubts; and for this reason, whatever their nature or origin, they are deserving of sympathetic study.
There are great religions and small ones, and as with works of art, we are apt to find in each, more or less, what we ourselves bring to it. Jeremiah, when travelling through Ancient Egypt, felt indignation at the sight of gods with hawks' or jackals' heads; while the touching confessions of the dead, consigned to papyrus—"I have not killed! I have not been idle! I have not caused others to weep!"—only drew from him exclamations of anger and contempt. Herodotus, a century later, also understood nothing of this world of mysterious tombs, with its moral teachings thousands of years old, or of the great spiritual revelation with which the land of the Pharaohs is impregnated. Both alike—Jeremiah, unmoved by the cruelty and hardness of Jehovah, Herodotus, oblivious to the sensuality and immorality of his own gods, who, according to Xenophon, were adepts at thieving and lying—shook their heads in dismay before the Egyptian symbols. But Plato, on the contrary, was able to appreciate the harmonious beauty of a divine Trinity, sublime incarnation of that which is "eternal, unproduced, indestructible . . . eternally uniform and consistent, and monoeidic with itself."
There are, no doubt, many Jeremiahs to-day, but there are also understanding souls capable of taking an interest in even the most bizarre manifestations of religious faith. These throw a revelatory light upon some of the most painful problems of our time, as well as upon the secret places of the human soul where lurks an ever eager hope, often frustrated, and alas, often deceived.
All religious sects and reformers since the time of Christ have only succeeded in modifying, renovating, uplifting or debasing the eternal principles already enunciated by the Son of Man. He it was who founded the integral religion for all time, but as it permits of the most varied interpretations, innumerable and widely divergent sects have been able to graft themselves upon its eternal trunk. After Him, said Renan—who has been wrongly considered an opponent of Christ—there is nothing to be done save to develop and to fertilize, for His perfect idealism is the golden rule for a detached and virtuous life. He was the first to proclaim the kingdom of the spirit, and has established for ever the ideal of pure religion; and as His religion is a religion of feeling, all movements which seek to bring about the kingdom of heaven upon earth can attach themselves to His principles and to His way of salvation.
Further, any religious movement which appeals to our higher instincts must eventually contribute to the triumph of human brotherhood and to the beautifying of human life—which increases the interest of studying all attempts at revival and reform. Such a study will prevent us from being overwhelmed by the uglinesses of life, or from becoming sunk in a morass of material pleasures, and will open up ways of escape into the heavenly realms.
The true teaching of Jesus has, as a matter of fact, never yet been realised in practice. It holds up an ideal almost unattainable for mortals, like the light of a fixed star which attracts us in spite of its unthinkable distance. But we may, perhaps, by roundabout ways, ultimately succeed in giving a definite form to the Platonic dreams which ever hover around the shores of our consciousness. Among the "saints" and "initiates" who work outside the borders of accepted dogma, there are often to be found some whose originality and real spiritual worth is not generally recognised, and instead of turning away from their "visions" and "revelations," we should rather examine them with close attention. Even if our faith gains nothing, we shall be sure to pick up psychological treasures which could be turned to the profit of science.
We have been re-living, in these recent years, the "desolation" of the prophets, only that the suffering of the few in former times became with us the suffering of all. There is the same difference between the troubles of ancient Judea and those of the modern world, as there is between her miniature wars and the colossal conflict whose aftermath is with us still.
Yet now, as in the time of Isaiah, the nations long for eternal peace, and the desire for a world more in harmony with man's deepest thoughts and wishes is one of the dominant causes of religious schism and revolt.
Let us hope that the world-wide catastrophe that we have witnessed may yet lead to the realisation of the ideal expressed by Jesus, and by the ancient prophet before Him:—
"And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." And again—"The work of righteousness shall be peace; and the effect of righteousness quietness and assurance for ever. And my people shall dwell in a peaceable habitation, and in sure dwellings, and in quiet resting places."
Many are being stirred to new life and action by dreams which hold, in almost every case, some fragment of the longed-for truth, however foolish or illogical in expression; and we should in consequence approach the dreamers with all the sympathy of which we are capable. Often their countenances are made beautiful by love, and they will, at the least, provide us with a golden key to the fascinating mysteries of man's subconscious mind. What though their doctrines vanish from sight under the scalpel of analysis? It is no small pleasure to contemplate, and even to examine closely, such delightful phantoms.