Friday, 31 July 2015

First anniversary!

Yes, it's been a full year now that the Montreal Theosophy Project has been blogging on a regular weekly basis. In this past year we've tried to add our own humble contribution to the vibrant theosophical internet activity that is going on and we've announced a few public lectures which have had a nice response, thank you. We started off trying to convey the diversity and quality of the sizeable legacy of classic theosophical texts and writers with both short-length posts and longer ones. Along the way, we added a book review feature to highlight important and relevant works of theosophical interest. We hope to continue to develop and expand in quality and diversity over the next year. Much thanks to all who have visited our modest cyberspace portal.

That we all labor together transmitting the same charge and succession,
We few equals indifferent of lands, indifferent of times,
We, enclosers of all continents, all castes, allowers of all theologies,
Compassionaters, perceivers, rapport of men,
We walk silent among disputes and assertions, but reject not the disputers: nor anything that is asserted,
We hear the bawling and din, we are reach'd at by divisions, jealousies, recriminations on every side,
They close peremptorily upon us to surround us, my comrade,
Yet we walk unheld, free, the whole earth over, journeying up and down till we make our ineffaceable mark upon time and the diverse eras,
Till we saturate time and eras, that the men and women of races, ages to come, may prove brethren and lovers as we are. 
 — (Walt Whitman, To him that was Crucified, Leaves of Grass, 397)

image thanks to :

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Blavatsky on the Arba-il or Sacred Four 2

The Gnostic Ophite Tetrad probably refers to the Ophite diagram in Origen, which can be interpreted variously (Contra Celsus, Book 6, Chapter 24 to 38). It looks similar to a neoplatonized version of the Ophite cosmology from Synesios (see ): "Male thou and female, Voice thou and silence, Nature engendered of Nature. Thou King, Aeon of Aeons, What is it lawful to call thee? Father of all Fathers, Father of thyself, Propator [Forefather] who hast no father, O Son of thyself But the initiated mind Says this and that, Celebrating with dances The Ineffable Bythos." [Hymn III]

One can find a similar Sethian/Ophite tetrad in the Nag Hammadi text, Eugnostos (See The Nag Hammadi Library, 1990, pp. 227-28) : 1- Unbegotten Forefather; 2-Self-Begetter; 3- Man of Depth; 4-Sophia. (see also Ophite Gnosticism, Sethianism and the Nag Hammadi Library, Tuomas Rasimus,Vigiliae Christianae, Vol. 59, No. 3 (Aug., 2005), pp. 235-263).

Coincidently, there's another somewhat obscure connection of the Arba-il with Gnosticism - the word 'Barbelo', has been conjectured to be derived from that term. See Wace, p. 714):

HPB gives a Babylonian example (see Rawlinson’s The Five Great Monarchies of the Ancient Eastern World, Or, The ..., Volume 2, p.15)

In this case, the tetrad concept can be found as far back as Sumerian sources, which takes us back to the beginning of Near East religion (see the Epic of Gilgamesh, N.K. Sandars, Penguin, 1960, p. 164). A Sumerian creation fragment from Nippur has (Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis, 1945, 72): When Anu, Enlil, Enki, and Ninhursagga Had created mankind,...

In Christian mysticism, the concept can be found with people like John of Ruusbroec and George Gichtel with the quaternary of the Father, Son, Holy Spirit and Sophia. For another example from Christian theology, one can turn to Alchemy. Jung calls this concept the ''Three and the One'' Alchemical quaternary and he cites a text by a certain Orthelius in relation to the above image (from the Rosarium philosophorum 1550 , (Jung, p. 429)):

''There are said to be two treasures: one is the written word and the other is the word become fact (verbum factum). In the verbum scriptum Christ is still in swaddling clothes in his cradle (in cunis suis involutus); but in the verbum dictum et factum the word is incarnate in God’s creatures, and there, in a manner of speaking, we may touch it with our hands. From them we must raise up our treasure, for the word is nothing other than the fire, the life, and the spirit which the Holy Trinity did scatter abroad from the beginning of creation, and which brooded (incubavit) on the face of the waters, and which was breathed into (inspiratus) all things by the word of God, and embodied in them, as it is written: ‘’The spirit of God filled the whole world.’’ Some have expressed the opinion that this world spirit (spiritus mundi) was the third person of the Godhead; but they have not considered the word ‘Elohim,’’ which, being plural extends to all persons of the Trinity. They say this spirit proceeded from thence and was by it created, that I became corporeal and is the chief constituent of the Saviour (salvatoris) or Philosophical Stone, and is the true medium whereby body and soul are held united during our life.'' Jung, C.G. (1968). Psychology and Alchemy, Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 12, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. pp.428-29

Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Devi
For the Kabalistic tetrad, in the Sefer Yetzirah 1, 9. I think de Zirkof adds an appropriate reference to 1, 12 which would refer to the tetrad of one, air, water, fire. She no doubt has her reasons using that reference for what she terms the abstract kabalistic trinity. Interestingly, Aryeh Kaplan gives a very similar, albeit more straightforward interpretation in his commentary of the Sefer Yetzirah (1997, 71) 1, 9 he refers to a kabalistic tetrad of Keter, Chakmah, Binah and Ruach Hakodesh. "This 'Holy Spirit' can be seen as the intermediate between Voice and Speech. It is thus also intermediate between Chakmah and Binah consciousness. Ruach HaKodesh is the divine inspiration and information that one can bring back from a state of Chakmah consciousness to one's normal state of Binah consciousness. Such Ruach HaKodesh is like Keter, which stands between Chakman and Binah, but which is above them. Both Chakhmah and Binah are functions of the mind itself, while Ruach HaKodesh is the 'breath of God' mentioned in the verse, 'I will fill him with the Breath of God, with Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge.'

To sum up, below is a chart of the concept of the mystic four that takes into account original sources that have come to light more recently. I think it remains a fairly obscure concept, but seems to have had some noticeable presence in ancient theologies, with a deep theosophical significance and so from Rawlinson to Inman to Blavatsky and Jung, it can be considered a bona fide theme in comparative religion, with Blavatsky maintaining that there is a spiritual symbolism common to them all:

Sethian Gnostic
1 - Brahma
Unbegotten Forefather
2 - Siva
3 -Vishnu
Man of Depth
4 – Devi Mahatmya
Ruach Hakodesh

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Blavatsky on the Arba-il or Sacred Four - Part 1

Segueing from a reference in the previous post, the following post will not deal with the area of theosophical metaphysics, but will be a more anthropological and textual analysis of the term Arba-il (aka Sacred Four, Mystic Four, Quaternary, Upper Tetraktys - not to be confused with the lower quaternary or the guardians of the four directions) and the comparative religious aspects therein. For an explanation of the metaphysical concept, see the Secret Doctrine, Vol. I, Stanza 2.4 (pp.59-60).

Here's a somewhat cryptic passage from the SD, p. 337 (Primordial Substance and Divine Thought) (It gets repeated, somewhat clearer, on p. 447 and is actually taken from from Isis Unveiled, vol. 2, p.272):

In the Sepher Jezireh, the Kabalistic Book of Creation, the author has evidently repeated the words of Manu. In it, the Divine Substance is represented as having alone existed from the eternity, boundless and absolute; and as having emitted from itself the Spirit.* “One is the Spirit of the living God, blessed be Its name, which liveth for ever! Voice, Spirit, and Word, this is the Holy Spirit;”† and this is the Kabalistic abstract Trinity, so unceremoniously anthropomorphised by the Christian Fathers. From this triple One emanated the whole Kosmos. First from One emanated number Two, or Air (the Father), the creative element; and then number Three, Water (the Mother), proceeded from the air; Ether or Fire completes the mystic four, the Arba-il.‡ “When the Concealed of the Concealed wanted to reveal Himself, he first made a point (primordial point, or the first Sephiroth, air, or Holy Ghost), shaped into a sacred form (the ten Sephiroth, or the Heavenly man), and covered it with a rich and splendid garment, that is the world.”§
Footnote(s) ———————————————
* The manifested Spirit; Absolute, Divine Spirit is one with absolute Divine Substance: Parabrahm and Mulaprakriti are one in essence. Therefore, Cosmic Ideation and Cosmic Substance in their primal character are one also. † “Sepher Jezireh,” chap. 1, Mishna ix. ‡ Ibid. It is from Arba that Abram is made to come. § “Sohar,” I., 2a.

The Aramaic term, Arba-il, is somewhat mysterious, Westcott, a learned Kabbalist mason, provided a definition in Blavatsky’s posthumous Theosophical Glossary: Arba-il (Chald.). The Four Great Gods. Arba is Aramaic for four, and il is the same as Al or El. Three male deities, and a female who is virginal yet reproductive, form a very common ideal of Godhead. [w.w.w.] The term can be found in Thomas Inman’s Ancient Faiths (an author Blavatsky speaks highly of):

Inman, on page 279, references the Arba-il to Henry Rawlinson, known as the father of Assyriology, in an 1864 paper, "Bilingual Readings—Cuneiform and Phœnician. Notes on some Tablets in the British Museum, containing Bilingual Legends (Assyrian and Phœnician)".

Blavatsky develops the concept in her own way in Isis Unveiled¸vol. 2 (p. 170 et seq.) relating it to the Pythagorean upper Tetraktys, giving a more spiritual interpretation than the materiatelistic explanations of Inman and Rawlinson:

Below is a brief summary chart of some of the examples of the Arba-il that HPB gives:

1 - Brahma
2 -Vishnu
3 - Siva
Holy Ghost
4 - Nari

Brahma, Vishnu & Shiva praying to Devi Mahatmya, Tantric painting 1660
The concept is somewhat obscure, but one can find more examples. For example, from India, a more obvious example perhaps, there's the grouping of Brahma, Visnu and Siva with Devi-Mahatmya: Without Her force, no body would be able even to more their limbs. That Supreme Auspicious Goddess is the preserving energy of Visnu, is the Creative power of Brahma, and is the destroying force of Siva. (Devi-Mahatmya 3. 30. 28-30)
The image above is an example from Christian theology: The Coronation of the Virgin by El Greco (1541 – 1614). Oil on canvas. 90 x 100 cm c.1592-1605? Prado, Madrid, Spain
In part two more examples will be examined. Part 2
PS. A nice recent article on the Sacred Four:

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Theosophy basics: Blavatsky on the number seven

The number seven provides a fundamental structural organizing principle in the theosophical worldview, substantiated by various comparative arguments based on a perennialist perspective.

Besides the passage below, there's a nice short, early text (Theosophist, June, 1880):

There's a slightly later text that is a little more sophisticated (The Septenary Principle in Esotericism, 1883):

Then in volume two of the Secret Doctrine (25- The Mysteries of the Hebdomad, 1888), you have a very intricate and complex 50-page study on the septenary concept in Theosophy (the chart above is from p. 596):

"All systems of religious mysticism are based on numerals. With Pythagoras, the Monas or unity, emanating the duad, and thus forming the trinity, and the quaternary or Arba-il (the mystic four), compose the number seven. The sacredness of numbers begins with the great First — the ONE, and ends only with the nought or zero — symbol of the infinite and boundless circle which represents the universe. All the intervening figures, in whatever combination, or however multiplied, represent philosophical ideas, from vague outlines down to a definitely-established scientific axiom, relating either to a moral or a physical fact in nature. They are a key to the ancient views on cosmogony, in its broad sense, including man and beings, and the evolution of the human race, spiritually as well as physically. The number seven is the most sacred of all, and is, undoubtedly, of Hindu origin. Everything of importance was calculated by and fitted into this number by the Aryan philosophers — ideas as well as localities. Thus they have the Sapta-Rishi, or seven sages, typifying the seven diluvian primitive races (post-diluvian as some say). Sapta-Loka, the seven inferior and superior worlds, whence each of these Rishis proceeded, and whither he returned in glory before reaching the final bliss of Moksha.* Sapta-Kula, or seven castes — the Brahmans assuming to represent the direct descendants of the highest of them.

Then, again, the Sapta-Pura (seven holy cities); Sapta-Duipa (seven holy islands); Sapta-Samudra (the seven holy seas); Sapta-Parvata (the seven holy mountains); Sapta-Arania (the seven deserts); Sapta-Vruksha (the seven sacred trees); and so on. In the Chaldeo-Babylonian incantation, this number reappears again as prominently as among the Hindus. The number is dual in its attributes, i.e., holy in one of its aspects it becomes nefast under other conditions. Thus the following incantation we find traced on the Assyrian tablets, now so correctly interpreted.

"The evening of evil omen, the region of the sky, which produces misfortune. . . . "Message of pest. "Deprecators of Nin-Ki-gal. "The seven gods of the vast sky. "The seven gods of the vast earth. "The seven gods of blazing spheres. "The seven gods of celestial legion. "The seven gods maleficent. "The seven phantoms — bad. "The seven phantoms of maleficent flames. . . . "Bad demon, bad alal, bad gigim, bad telal . . . bad god, bad maskim. "Spirit of seven heavens remember . . . Spirit of seven earths remember . . . etc."

This number reappears likewise on almost every page of Genesis, and throughout the Mosaic books, and we find it conspicuous (see following chapter) in the Book of Job and the Oriental Kabala. If the Hebrew Semitics adopted it so readily, we must infer that it was not blindly, but with a thorough knowledge of its secret meaning; hence, that they must have adopted the doctrines of their "heathen" neighbors as well. It is but natural, therefore, that we should seek in heathen philosophy for the interpretation of this number, which again reappeared in Christianity with its seven sacraments, seven churches in Asia Minor, seven capital sins, seven virtues (four cardinal and three theological), etc.

Have the seven prismatic colors of the rainbow seen by Noah no other meaning than that of a covenant between God and man to refresh the memory of the former? To the kabalist, at least, they have a significance inseparable from the seven labors of magic, the seven upper spheres, the seven notes of the musical scale, the seven numerals of Pythagoras, the seven wonders of the world, the seven ages, and even the seven steps of the Masons, which lead to the Holy of Holies, after passing the flights of three and five." (Isis Unveiled II, pp. 407-08, 1877)

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Book Review: Masters of Wisdom: The Mahatmas, Their Letters, and the Path - Edward Abdill

And so a new book on the Mahatma letters has been released by mainstream publisher Penguin Books. Who are these mysterious mahatmas, adepts, brothers, so closely connected with Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society and who have been the source of so much questioning, curiosity and doubt? The mystery was considerably lessened (and at the same time increased) by the actual publication, in the early twenties, of their many letters to various individuals, namely the thick Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett, and the Letters of the Masters of the Wisdom, vols. 1 & 2. And one could say that these publications, especially the first one, represent the last big mainstream impact of the theosophical movement, causing quite a stir at the time and going through something like ten editions in ten years.
Although   the letters are at times quite personal with lots of discussions about practical business, nonetheless they are also often quite eloquent, framed in the time-honored literary tradition of letters of spiritual advice. Moreover, prior to their publication, these letters were apparently widely copied and circulated and influenced a lot of the early writings, notably Sinnett’seminal Esoteric Buddhism, which remains one of the clearer expositions of the distinctive notions of cosmology and spiritual evolution.
Indeed the original letters to Sinnett have been scanned by the British Museum and have taken quite a new life on the internet:
The book gives a broad, succinct overview of many aspects covered in the various letters, in 21 compact chapters:
1-Blavatsky and the mahatmas; 2-Mahatmas: What Are They? Who Are They?;3-Early Letters; 4-God, Evil, and Occult Philosophy;5- Karma; 6-Our Sevenfold Nature; 7-From Death to Rebirth;8- Science; 9-Working to Mold the Future; 10-Founding of the Theosophical Society; 11-Alleged Encounters with Masters; 12-Forgery and Plagiarism; 13-There is a Road; 14-The Search for Meaning; 15-The Golden Stairs;16-Pitfalls on the Path; 17- Selfishness, Pride, and Egoism; 18-Desire and Attachment; 19-Study, Meditation, and Service; 20-Lay Chelas and Chelas; 21-Working as Colleagues with the Masters
 The original letters on cosmology, reincarnation and karma can actually be pretty difficult and Abdill does a good job of simplifying and systematizing the concepts, borrowing liberally from Blavatsky’s writings to clarify certain obscurities. He also does a good job at showing the human practical side of this mysterious esoteric brotherhood, in the sense that they can be seen to express themselves quite frankly and lucidly when it comes to Blavatsky’s often enigmatic character, not without a certain sense of humour. But even this critical aspect has useful pedagogical value if one considers that, in the case of many American and European recipients, they were merely very minutely and patiently addressing the problems and pitfalls of a materialist, individualistic western society steeped in the colonialist mentality of the time that, to a certain extent, continue to mark modern western society.   
The author shows a good  familiarity with the material and gives an accessible, contemporary interpretation noticeably based in the Besant/Leadbeater/clairvoyance/chakra/Christian approach and so one encounters the occasional quirky concept not easily traceable to Blavatsky or her teachers, in a certain sense showing that a more straightforward anthology with less commentary and more historical/ technical annotations could also be a viable approach.
Nonetheless, I think that overall, the book shows that it is possible to build a coherent contemporary presentation of all the basic theosophical tenets firmly grounded in this enigmatic collection of letters and so makes for a solid introduction for those who wish to explore the original writings; a welcome return of the Mahatma letters to mainstream publishing.

PS. The author issued this correction on his facebook page:
"Retraction: On page 120 of Masters of Wisdom I quoted Olcott's claim that Judge told Mrs. Besant that if she went to Adyar he (Olcott) might poison her. Subsequently I have learned that Olcott may have been mistaken. Olcott’s memory may have become faulty or he may have taken a metaphorical statement literally. Whatever the case, I hope we can all focus on the very real contributions Judge and Olcott made to the Theosophical cause and let the events of 1894-95 die. As is almost always the case in disputes, there are two sides and perhaps a third which is the truth. I regret having included the quote and should there be further editions of the book I shall remove it."