Radha Burnier 2003

The Way of Self-Knowledge

by Dr Radha Burnier

To reach Nirvana one must reach self-knowledge and self-knowledge is of loving deeds the child

H. P. Blavatsky "The Voice of the Silence"

Madame H. P. Blavatsky in whose honour this Lecture has been instituted was, in the words of her teachers, 'a woman of most exceptional and wonderful endowments.' She was gifted not only with what would appear as endowments in the eyes of the world, that is with artistic capacities and intellectual brilliance of an outstanding nature, but also with penetrative perception seeing through to the hidden truths of nature and of life. In homage and gratitude to her, we shall seek here to understand the problem of human bondage and deliverance, a problem over which she has cast much light but which each individual has to understand and unravel through his own exertion, aided though he may be by wiser guides.

H. P. Blavatsky declared with no hesitation that though Theosophy is not a religion, it is Religion itself. It is the Wisdom-Religion which is the source from which all the true religions which have been taught in the world have taken their origin. It is Divine Wisdom such as that possessed by the Gods. [2] It is an unveiling of old, very old truths. Though it has been propounded in many forms, it yet remains the secret wisdom or secret doctrine, known in ancient India as gupta vidya, for its essence is incommunicable, since it is a self-revelation, a shining forth of powers which have hitherto been latent. ' The illumination must come from within.' [3]

In the words of H.P.B. 'A Religion in the true and only correct sense, is a bond uniting men together - not a particular set of dogmas and beliefs. Religion, per se, in its widest meaning is that which binds not only men, but also all beings and all things in the entire universe into one grand whole.' [4] It is so universal and all-embracing a bond of unity that no man, and no speck - from gods and mortals down to animals, the blade of grass and atoms - can be outside its light. On the truth of such a Wisdom-Religion, known otherwise as Theosophy, is based the first Object of the Theosophical Society which seeks to promote a universal brotherhood without exceptions. The universal brotherhood aimed at by the Theosophical Society cannot be a weak fraternity, a gathering together of people at an external level, or a desire to bring about a better social relationship. It has to be rooted much deeper and it must lead all those who accept the aims of the Society into an ever-stronger realization of that One Being which is the principle which gives life to all and which is also the bond of unity among them. Universal brotherhood must have a 'regenerating, practical' quality and power, if it is to be of real value.

Know by Personal Experience

'Earnest students of Theosophy must wish to do more than study theoretically the truths which are taught in theosophical literature. They must endeavour to know the truth by their own personal experience with the object of acquiring the wisdom and power needed to help others effectively and judiciously, instead of blindly and haphazardly.' [5] It is only in the measure that the fundamental truth of the One Indivisible Existence is gradually realized through the study of what we call Theosophy that it is really Theosophy. Mere intellectual speculation and argument over cosmological or anthropological topics and conceptual understanding of various details covered by the considerable theosophical literature at our disposal is not synonymous with knowing Theosophy. 'The recognition of the higher phases of man's being on this planet is not to be attained by mere acquirement of knowledge. Volumes of the most perfectly constructed information cannot reveal to man life in the higher regions. One has to get a knowledge of spiritual facts by personal experience.' [6] The term 'higher' means more spiritually perfect, as the author of the sentence has pointed out elsewhere.

As stated in the little booklet entitled Madame Blavatsky on How to Study Theosophy: 'It is worse than useless going to those whom we imagine to be advanced students and asking them to give us an interpretation of the secret doctrine. They cannot do it. If they try, all they give are cut and dried exoteric renderings which do not remotely resemble the Truth. To accept such interpretation means anchoring ourselves to fixed ideas, whereas Truth lies beyond any ideas we can formulate or express.' Exoteric interpretations may be useful if they are taken as mere pointers and not as anything more.' If one imagines that one is going to get a satisfactory picture of the constitution of the universe from The Secret Doctrine one will get only confusion from its study. It is not meant to give any such final verdict on existence, but to lead towards the Truth.'

H. P. Blavatsky advises that while studying The Secret Doctrine - one might equally well say, while studying Theosophy - the mind must hold fast to certain basic truths, the first of which, according to her, is the fundamental Unity of All Existence. In holding to this truth, at whatever level it may be, while studying, living and acting, a religious awareness comes into being which must be the beginning of true theosophical knowledge. 'Spirit or Life is indivisible.' [7] 'Every molecule is part of the universal life.' [8] Orientation towards the indivisible One and the intuitive glimpse of the truth of the One is religious awareness.

Theosophy itself not being other than Religion in the truest sense of the word, its study must bring about such religious awareness. Here we may recall that pregnantly meaningful statement that the first step is the last step. [9] Perhaps this can be interpreted to mean, among other things, that if one would proceed in a certain direction even the first step must be taken in that direction and not in the opposite one.

The opposite one would lead only to untruth. Therefore if the Wisdom-Religion is what one seeks to realize, from the beginning one's study, life and action must be of such a nature that out of them arises the sense of some thing religious which carries one in the right direction. H.P.B. explains the truth of unity as follows: This unity is a thing altogether different from the common notion of unity - as when we say that a nation or an army is united ... existence is One Thing, not any collection of things linked together. Fundamentally there is One Being ... Being absolute, there is nothing outside it. It is All-Being. It is indivisible, else it would not be absolute. If a portion could be separated, that remaining could not be absolute, because there would at once arise the question of comparison between it and the separated part. Comparison is incompatible with any idea of absoluteness.' [10]

Sorrow and Evil

The Katha Upanishad, an ancient work, declares that he who sees only diversity here (namely, in creation) passes from death to death. It is hardly necessary to say that it is by seeing diversity that man creates sorrow for himself. Separating the 'me' from 'you' and all others, he spends his life in competition, in conflict, in fruitlessly trying to become more - more powerful, more important, more recognized, and so forth. Because the eyes of man have not yet been illumined by religious perception, human nature and human life have been the same for millions of years. Pointing this out, a sage wrote: 'It is the same now as it was a million of years ago: Prejudice based upon selfishness; a general unwillingness to give up an established order of things for new modes of life and thought ... pride and stubborn resistance to Truth if it but upsets their previous notions of things such are the characteristics of your age.' [11] All human society, structured as it is by human thought, incites and sustains those emotions, thoughts, theories and actions which lead to ever-further separation and to more and more sorrow as a result. Sorrow and evil are the twin products of the untruth in the divided and divisive minds of men.

Both sorrow and evil exist only in the human sphere of existence. Though animals suffer - unfortunately they suffer excruciating pain as a result of human cruelty - they do not have to endure sorrow, which is the lot of man only, for sorrow is of the mind. Sorrow is a part of the mind's subjugation to the past. It is the recalling of past experiences and projection of future happenings, and it is the self-consciousness of thinking over one's own condition. Evil too does not exist save in the human sphere. Nature has no evil in it. A tiger pouncing on a deer acts according to its nature, unconsciously and innocently, free from evil. But endowed with mind, and the capacity to think about right and wrong, human beings create evil, having wandered away from their own true nature, and shed their innocence and spontaneity. All that we consider as evil is the result of human action alone. 'The real evil proceeds from human intelligence and its origin rests entirely with reasoning man who dissociates himself from Nature. Humanity, then, alone is the true source of evil.' [12]

Wisdom is "Practical?"

Purity is regained when action emanates from a religious awareness in which there is no separation between the 'me' and the other. Wisdom consists in such action. Wisdom is in all its aspects different from knowledge. Knowledge in the ordinary sense of the term is knowledge of facts. It is an accumulation of information. It does not demand that there must be action according to the facts or information known. Wisdom is of an entirely different character, for it cannot exist without translating itself into the quality of relationships and action. Therefore wisdom is always 'practical'. Wherever there is a divergence between thought and action, theory and practice, there is absence of wisdom. Such divergence is a denial of truth. Theosophy being the Wisdom-Religion demands that there should be continual progress in putting an end to the chasm between thought and theory on the one hand, and action and relationship on the other. Theosophical study is valid only if it actually destroys the gulf.

The study of Theosophy implies that contacts and relationship with the world at every level must lead nearer to the realization of the indivisibility of being. The manifestation of uncountable and incomprehensibly diverse forms in creation has a purpose and is part of a plan. Diversity imprisons the human mind in illusion, sorrow and evil, when it results in competition and struggle. But when seen with a clarified vision, it can also lift the mind into silence and wonder. Through observation of the incredible diversity, more intense awareness comes of the underlying oneness, the aloneness of the force which lives and moves in the forms, than was possible for the primeval consciousness which never moved among the many. Forms take birth and are dissolved day by day, hour by hour in continual flux and change. He who has been called the 'first among men,' the Lord Buddha, taught that all compounded things must be uncompounded. There is no exception to this. All forms, however beautiful and noble, must change. All systems, civilizations, outer things, must perish and will rise again. 'What is objective life itself but a panorama of vivid unrealities.' [13] The student has to observe and brood on this, and realize through contemplative observation of the phenomenal world of things, the trans-phenomenal power of life, 'which cannot be heard or seen or smelt, but is perceived by the man who desires perception.'

The scientist knows that matter is destructible and changes form, but energy remains. The theosophist learns that all forms are mutable and are compounded, but there is in the unseen but perceivable realms the immutable and the uncompounded.

Daily life which is passed without quiet observation and pondering over all that goes on in the world, and through such observation receives intimations of the undying, undivided and underlying existence, is a state of blindness, or what the Upanishad calls the condition of mortality. Immortality is only for him who is not blinded by the fluctuation of phenomena and the diversity of forms but permits his eyes to become more and more sensitive to the inner essence.

Sense the Oneness in Nature

The understanding of Theosophy also requires that one should observe not only the forms and phenomena of the gross, the concrete world, but also the movements and activities in the psychological world by which man is bound and conditioned. Light on the Path teaches: 'Regard earnestly all the life that surrounds you. Learn to look intelligently into the hearts of men. Regard most earnestly your own heart'. To these words are added the commentary: 'Study the hearts of men, that you may know what is that world in which you live and of which you will to be a part. Regard the constantly changing and moving life which surrounds you, for it is formed by the hearts of men; and as you learn to understand their constitution and meaning, you will by degrees be able to read the larger world of life.' Here, too, the study of the human mind and heart must lead not to further division but to a sensing of the oneness in human nature. In looking at the ways of the mind, it is easy to point to the slime and mud in others and say, 'He is evil' or 'He is ugly'. Looking at oneself the description proceeds in the opposite terms, finding always something admirable, something worthy of respect and recognition.

Thus the process of division continues and the aggravation of evil takes place in the world, for all the world is acting thus and thus only. The numerous wars of class, race, religion, family and so forth have arisen from saying, 'You are that' and 'I am this'. The fact that all men think in such terms, always dividing and separating, merely proves clearly to the thoughtful individual that the human mind is the same in all, for everywhere it divides. The very nature of that mind which all of us share and, which belongs to all of us is that it works by distinctions. It creates the image of 'I', made up of the many descriptions one has given to oneself, based on past memories and self-conscious identification of those memories into a single imaginary thread. As H.P.B. has made clear in The Key to Theosophy, 'Mr. Smith, really means the long series of daily experiences strung together by the thread of memory and forming what Mr. Smith calls 'himself'- this bundle of experience is what the study of Theosophy should make one realize, not merely talk about, as the false personality. 'The conscious perception of one's personality on earth is but an evanescent dream.' [14]

With the clear discovery that every person is attributing to himself a false personality which he takes to be the true self, there is knowledge that at the level of the mind too, there is oneness, because it is seen that wherever the mind acts, it acts in this very same fashion. Therefore H.P.B. said that there is no such thing as 'your mind' and 'my mind'; there is only mind. To regard earnestly the hearts of men and also one's own heart is to see the illusion into which one is led by the long-existing habit of describing, naming and drawing conclusions upon the nature of oneself and of others.

According to the teaching of H.P.B., 'Man is the microcosm. As he is so, then all the hierarchies of the heavens exist within him. But in truth there is neither macrocosm nor microcosm, but One Existence. Great and small are such only as viewed by a limited consciousness. ' That one existence 'transcends the power of human conception and can only be dwarfed by any human expression or similitude. It is beyond the range and reach of thought' - in the words of the Mandukya Upanishad 'it is unthinkable and unspeakable.' [15] Wisdom or Theosophy is a religious awareness, as we said before. It comes into being only when there is perception, however dim, that every where, in all things, omnipresent, is that One Existence; and to name and describe its many manifestations, and to draw conclusions, which cannot but be defective because they belong to thought, is to wrap oneself in a state of illusion. The true student of Theosophy learns to watch and understand without naming and presuming that he knows. His observation leads to the recognition that essentially the human mind is the same; here too there comes a realization of the unity.

Progress in Theosophy is the journey from the unreal to the real, from darkness to light, from death to immortality. The beginning of that progress is in understanding that the infinite cannot be known by the finite. The imperishable cannot be found by involvement in the perishable and the compounded. The study of Theosophy in the true sense is the study not only of theosophical literature; it is the study of the book of life, the observation of human nature, the contemplation of Nature and the phenomena of the created world in such a way that there is a sense of the One Existence. In one of the Upanishads it is stated that concentration or Dharana is the constant flow of the mind towards the One. There is the dropping away of all thought which separates. All thought and all perception lead on to a movement of consciousness in the stream of the One, when there is Dharana.

Theosophical life is thus a natural growth into altruism. Wisdom cannot be obtained by someone who does not have the love of humanity - nay, of all life - at heart. 'Hast thou attuned thy being to humanity's great pain, O candidate for light? Thou hast? ... Thou mayest enter.' Thus says The Voice of the Silence. Love cannot come about in a mind which sees only diversity. Only when the mind has glimpses of unity, does it begin to care. Then it cannot rest till it finds the way out of sorrow. Realization that sorrow and evil lie neither in circumstances nor in the course of history, but in the human mind and in human action, logically progresses into the investigation of the structure and source of sorrow and evil in the psychology of man.

The Lord Buddha taught that sorrow must be realized as the first truth and to examine the deep roots of sorrow is the next step. Here begins the work of acquiring self-knowledge. It is vastly different from seeking relief from personal difficulties. Such relief can never be obtained for where there is a selfish end there can be no wisdom and without wisdom there is no relief. The highest aspirations for the welfare of humanity become tainted with selfishness if, in the mind of the philanthropist, there lurks the shadow of desire for self benefit or a tendency to do injustice, even when these exist unconsciously to himself ...This will never do.' [17] This will never do, for wisdom is obtained only by those who have an 'unselfish hunger' for it.

Altruism is Yoga

To see sorrow as a truth implies a deep concern for the millennia-old condition of the world, and the ardent desire to succour 'the great orphan' which is humanity. The existence of sorrow does not present itself as a truth when it is casually or superficially noticed. True altruism too is different from 'wanting to help', in the ordinary sense of the term. Truly altruistic action is a form of yoga, referred to by the Sanskrit words Karma Yoga. It has to be totally free from the vanity of imagining that one is in the superior position of a person who is able to help. The history of mankind demonstrates that despite the good desires of many people intending well by others, the world has remained the same. The mere desire to do good to another in no way qualifies a person with the wisdom which is necessary to be truly helpful. Only the individual who is prepared through deep study, which includes observation of Nature and of human nature, fits himself to learn service in the true sense.

Life is creative to a supreme degree, and operates with unimaginable and astounding newness in every little point where it exists. Its mode of growth or unfoldment can never be foreseen by a personal mind, for the magnitude of the creative power cannot be comprehended within the limits of the mechanical activities of thought. 'The world - meaning that of individual existences - is full of those latent meanings and deep purposes which underlie all the phenomena of the Universe, and Occult Science - i.e. reason elevated to supersensuous wisdom - can alone furnish the key wherewith to unlock them to the intellect.' [18] What is good at any point is that which leads to the manifestation in fullest measure of the powers and faculties of the consciousness and the life within. Only 'pride and resistance to truth' make one presume that one can know what is good for another. The true altruist acts under no such presumption. Great delicacy, humility and sensitivity are the marks of a maturity which is needed before one can help. 'Be humble if thou wouldst attain to Wisdom.' [19]

H.P.B. writes that' Altruism is an integral part of self-development.' As the consciousness of an individual becomes saturated by altruistic feeling, he becomes endowed with the qualities which we have mentioned and thereby his development takes place. It is one of the paradoxes of the inner life that one must learn to help and be actually helpful without feeling that one is in a position to help. It is the most humble who is the most wise and the best qualified to be of service to the world. Altruism is a textural change in the quality of the mind more than specific action of any particular kind. When there is the right state within, right action takes place automatically.

Remember always that true Occultism or Theosophy is the "Great Renunciation of self" unconditionally and absolutely, in thought as in action. It is ALTRUISM and it throws him who practises it out of calculation of the ranks of the living altogether.' [20] As we have seen, altruistic realization is that state in which self-will and the desire to mould life into patterns of one's own making come to an end. Altruism is impossible as long as the personal self with its vanity and pride exists. Altruistic progression is skill in the wiping out of the personal self, which takes place through understanding the movements of that personal self. 'It is not "the fear of God" which is "the beginning of Wisdom", but the knowledge of self which is Wisdom itself'. Self- knowledge or Atma Vidya, to use the Sanskrit term, 'is the only kind of altruism that any theosophist ... who would be wise and unselfish ought to strive after' [21]

These extracts are taken from The Blavatsky Lecture of 1979. Dr Burnier has been International President of The Theosophical Society since 1980 and is guest speaker at this year's (2005) English Summer School


1. H. P. Blavatsky, The Voice of the Silence
2. H.P.B., The Key to Theosophy
3. The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, no.49
4. Lucifer; vol. 3
5. H.P.B., The Key to Theosophy
6. The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, no.11
7. Ibid., no 13
8. Ibid, no 14
9. J. Krishnamurti
10. Madame Blavatsky on How to Study Theosophy
11. The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, no.1
12. Ibid., no
13. Ibid., no 16
14. Ibid., no 16
I5. Madame Blavatsky on How to Study Theosophy
16. H.P.B., The Secret Doctrine, Proem
17. The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, no.2
Ibid., no 31
19. H.P.B., The Voice of the Silence
20. H. P. B" Practical Occultism
21. Ibid.

reproduced from 'Insight' Summer 2005, The Journal of The Theosophical Society in England