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The Great Secret
DO not look to find in this volume a history of occultism, or a methodical monograph on the subject. To such a work one would need to devote whole volumes, which would of necessity be filled with a great measure of that very rubbish which I wish above all to spare the reader. I have no other aim than to tell as simply as possible what I have learned in the course of some years that were spent in these rather discredited and unfrequented regions.
I bring thence the impressions of a candid traveler who has traversed them rather as one seeking to observe than as a believer. These pages contain, if you will, a kind of summary, a provisional stock-taking. I know nothing that may not be learned by the first comer who will travel the same road. I am not an initiate; I have sat at the feet of no mysterious and evanescent masters, coming from the ends of the earth, or from another world, expressly to reveal to me the ultimate verities and to forbid me to repeat them. I have had no access to those secret libraries, to those hidden sources of the supreme wisdom which, it seems, are somewhere to be found but will always be for us as though they were not, since those who win through to them are condemned, on pain of death, to an inviolable silence. Neither have I deciphered any incomprehensible books of magic, nor found a new key to the sacred books of the great religions. I have but read and studied most of what has been written of these matters, and amidst an enormous mass of documents, absurd, puerile, tedious, and useless, I have given my attention to those works of outstanding value which are really able to teach us something that we do not find elsewhere. In thus clearing the approaches to an inquiry that is only too often encumbered by a wearisome amount of rubbish, I shall perhaps facilitate the task of those who may wish, and be able, to go farther than I have traveled.
Thanks to the labors of a science which is comparatively recent, and more especially to the researches of the students of Hindu and Egyptian antiquities, it is very much easier today than it was not so long ago to discover the source, to ascend the course and unravel the underground network of that great mysterious river which since the beginning of history has been flowing beneath all the religions, all the faiths, and all the philosophies: in a word, beneath all the visible and every-day manifestations of human thought. It is now hardly to be contested that this source is to be found in ancient India. Thence in all probability the sacred teaching spread into Egypt, found its way to ancient Persia and Chaldea, permeated the Hebrew race, and crept into Greece and the north of Europe, finally reaching China and even America, where the Aztec civilization was merely a more or less distorted reproduction of the Egyptian civilization.
There are thus three great derivatives of primitive occultism, Arya-Hindu or Atlanto-Hindu: (1) the occultism of antiquity — that is, the Egyptian, Persian, Chaldean, and Hebrew occultism and that of the Greek mysteries; (2) the Hebrew-Christian esoterism of the Essenes, the Gnostics, the Neoplatonists of Alexandria, and the cabalists of the middle ages; and (3) the modern occultism, which is more or less permeated by the foregoing, but which, under the somewhat inaccurate label of occultism, denotes more especially, in the language of the theosophists, the spiritualism and metapsychism of to-day.
As for the sources of the primary source, it is almost impossible to rediscover them. Here we have only the assertions of the occultist tradition, which seem, here and there, to be confirmed by historical discoveries. This tradition attributes the vast reservoir of wisdom that somewhere took shape simultaneously with the origin of man, or even if we are to credit it, before his advent upon this earth, to more spiritual entities, to beings less entangled in matter, to psychic organisms, of whom the last-comers, the Atlantides, could have been but the degenerate representatives.
From the historical point of view we have absolutely no documents whatever if we go back a greater distance than five, or six, or perhaps seven thousand years. We cannot tell how the religion of the Hindus and Egyptians came into being. When we become aware of it we find it already complete in its broad outlines, its main principles. Not only is it complete, but the farther back we go the more perfect it is, the more unadulterated, the more closely related to the loftiest speculations of our modern agnosticism. It presupposes a previous civilization, whose duration, in view of the slowness of all human evolution, it is quite impossible to estimate. The length of this period might in all probability be numbered by millions of years. It is here that the occultist tradition comes to our aid. Why should this tradition, a priori, be despised and rejected, when almost all that we know of these primitive religions is likewise founded on oral tradition — for the written texts are of much later date, — and when, moreover, all that this tradition teaches us displays a singular agreement with what we have learned elsewhere?
At all events, even if we have need of occult tradition to explain the origin of this wisdom, which to us, with good reason, has a savor of the superhuman, we can very well dispense with it in all that concerns the essential nature of this same wisdom. It is contained, in all its integrity, in authentic texts, to which we can assign a place in history; and in this connection the modern theosophists, who profess to have had at their disposal certain secret documents, and to have profited by the extraordinary revelations with which the adepts or Mahatmas, members of a mysterious brotherhood, are supposed to have favored them, have taught us nothing that may not be read in the writings accessible to any Orientalist. The factors which distinguish the occultists — for example, the theosophists of Blavatski's school, which dominates all the rest — from the scientific Indianists and Egyptologists are in nowise connected with the origin, the plan, and the purpose of the universe, the destiny of the earth and of man, the nature of divinity, and the great problems of ethics; they are, almost exclusively, problems touching the prehistoric ages, the nomenclature of the emanations of the unknowable, and the methods of subduing and utilizing the unknown energies of nature.
Let us first of all consider the points upon which they are agreed; which are, for that matter, the most interesting, for all that deals with the prehistoric era is of necessity hypothetical and the names and functions of the intermediary gods possess only a secondary interest; while as for the utilization of unknown forces, this is rather the concern of the metapsychical sciences to which we shall refer in a later chapter.
"What we read in the 'Vedas,' " says Rudolph Steiner, one of the most scholarly and, at the same time, one of the most baffling of contemporary occultists; "What we read in the 'Vedas,' those archives of Hindu wisdom, gives us only a faint idea of the sublime doctrines of the ancient teachers, and even so these are not in their original form. Only the gaze of the clairvoyant, directed upon the mysteries of the past, may reveal the unuttered wisdom which lies hidden behind these writings."
Historically it is highly probable that Steiner is right. As a matter of fact, as I have already stated, the more ancient the texts, the purer, the more awe-inspiring are the doctrines which they reveal; and it is possible that they themselves are, in Steiner's words, merely an enfeebled echo of sublimer doctrines. But if we are not gifted with the vision of a seer we must be content with what we have before our eyes.
The texts which we possess are the sacred books of India, which corroborate those of Egypt and of Persia. The influence which they have exerted upon human thought, if not in their present form, at least by means of the oral tradition which they have merely placed on record, goes back to the beginnings of history, has extended itself in all directions, and has never ceased to make itself felt, but as regards the Western world their discovery and methodical study are comparatively recent. "Fifty years ago," wrote Max Müller in 1875, "there was not a scholar in existence who could translate a line of the 'Veda,' the 'Zend-Avesta,' or the Buddhist 'Tripitaka,' to say nothing of other dialects or languages."
If the historical data were to assume from the outset in the annals of mankind the significance which they were afterward to acquire, the discovery of these sacred books would probably have turned all Europe upside down; for it was, without a doubt, the most important event which had occurred since the advent of Christianity. But a moral or spiritual event very rarely propagates itself quickly through the masses. It is opposed by too many forces which would gain by its suppression. This particular event remained confined to a small circle of scholars and philologists, and affected the meta-physician and the moral philosopher even less than might have been expected. It is still awaiting the hour of its full expansion.
The first question to present itself is that of the date of these texts. It is very difficult to answer this question exactly; for while it is comparatively easy to determine the period when these books were written it is impossible to estimate the time during which they existed only in the memory of man. According to Max Müller there is hardly a Sanskrit manuscript in existence that dates farther back than 1000 A. D., and everything seems to show that writing was unknown in India until the beginning of the Buddhist era (the fifth century B. C.); that is until the close of the period of the ancient Vedic literature.
The "Rig-Veda," which contains 1028 hymns of an average length of ten lines, or a total of 153,826 words, was therefore preserved by the effort of the memory alone. Even to-day the Brahmans all know the "Rig-Veda" by heart, as did their ancestors three thousand years ago. We must attribute the spontaneous development of Vedic thought, as we find it in the "Rig-Veda," to a period earlier than the tenth century B. C. Three centuries before the Christian era — once more, according to Max Müller — Sanskrit had already ceased to be spoken by the people. This is proved by an inscription whose language is to Sanskrit what Italian is to Latin.
But according to other Orientalists the age of the "Chandas" probably goes back to a period two or three thousand years before Christ. This takes us back five thousand years: a very modest and prudent claim. "One thing is certain," says Max Müller, "namely, that there is nothing more ancient, nothing more primitive, than the hymns of the 'Rig-Veda,' whether in India or the whole Aryan world. Being Aryan in language and thought, the 'Rig-Veda' is the most ancient of our sacred books." 1
Since the works of the great Orientalist were written other scholars have set back the date of the earliest manuscripts, and above all of the earliest traditions, to a remarkable extent; but even so these dates fall short by a stupendous amount of the Brahman calculations, which refer the origin of their earliest books to thousands of centuries before our era. "It is actually more than five thousand years," says Swami Dayanound Saraswati, "since the 'Vedas' have ceased to be a subject of investigation"; and according to the computations of the Orientalist hailed, the "Shastras," in the chronology of the Brahmans, must be no less than seven million years old.
Without taking sides in these disputes the only point which it is important to establish is the fact that these books, or rather the traditions which they have recorded and rendered permanent, are evidently anterior — with the possible exceptions of Egypt, China, and Chaldea — to anything known of human history.
This literature comprises, in the first place, the four "Vedas": the "Rig-Veda," the "Sama-Veda," the "Yadjour-Veda," and the "Atharva-Veda," completed by the commentaries, or "Brahmanas," and the philosophical treatises known as "Aranyakas" and "Upanishads," to which we must add the "Shastras," of which the best known is the "Manava-Dharma-Shastra," or "Laws of Manu" — which, according to William Jones, Chezy, and Loiseleur Deslongchamps, date back to the thirteenth century before Christ — and the first "Puranas."
Of these texts the "Rig-Veda" is incontestably the most ancient. The rest are spread over a period of many hundreds, perhaps even of many thousands, of years; but all, excepting the latest "Puranas," belong to the pre-Christian era, a fact which we must always keep in view; not because of any feeling of hostility toward the great religion of the West, but in order to give the latter its proper place in the history and evolution of human thought.
The "Rig-Veda" is still polytheist rather than pantheist, and it is only here and there that the peaks of the doctrine emerge from it, as, for example, in the stanzas which we shall presently quote. Its divinities represent only those amplifical physical forces which the "Sama-Veda," and above all the "Brahmanas" subsequently reduce to metaphysical conceptions, and to unity.
The "Sama-Veda" asserts the unknowable and the "Yadjur-Veda" pantheism. As for the "Atharva," according to some the oldest, and according to others the most recent, it consists above all of ritual.
These ideas were developed by the commentaries of the "Brahmanas," which were produced more especially between the twelfth and seventh centuries before Christ; but they may probably be referred to traditions of much greater antiquity, which our modern theosophists claim to have rediscovered, though without supporting their assertions by sufficient proof.
Consequently, when we speak of the religion of India we must consider it in its entirety, from the primitive Vedism by way of Brahmanism and Krishnaism, to Buddhism, calling a halt, should the student so prefer, some two or three centuries before our Christian era, in order to avoid all suspicion of Judo-Christian infiltration.
All this literature — to which may be added, among many others, the semi-profane texts of the "Ramayana" and the "Mahabarata," in the midst of which blossoms the "Bhagavata-Gita," or "Song of the Blessed," that magnificent flower of Hindu mysticism — is still very imperfectly known, and we possess of it only so much as the Brahmans have chosen to give us.
This literature confronts us with a host of problems of extreme complexity, of which very few have as yet been solved. It may be added that the translation of the Sanskrit texts, and especially of the more ancient, are still very unreliable. According to Roth, the true pioneer of Vedic exegesis, "the translator who will render the 'Veda' intelligible and readable, mutatis mutandis, as Homer has been since the labors of Voss, has yet to appear, and we can hardly anticipate his advent before the coming century."
In order to form some idea of the uncertain character of these translations, it is enough to turn, for an example, to the end of the third volume of the Religion Védique of Bergaigne, the great French Orientalist. Here we shall find the disputes which arose between the most famous Indianists, such as Grassmann Ludwig, Roth and Bergaigne himself, as to the interpretation of almost all the essential words of the "Hymn to the Dawn" (I, 123). As Bergaigne says, "It exposes the poverty of the present interpretation of the 'Rig-Veda.' " 2
The neotheosophists have endeavored to solve certain of the problems propounded by Hindu antiquity; but their works, though highly interesting as regards their doctrine, are extremely weak from a critical point of view; and it is impossible to follow them on paths where we meet with nothing but hypotheses incapable of proof. The truth is that in dealing with India we must abandon all hope of chronological accuracy. Contenting ourselves with a minimum of certainty, which undoubtedly falls far short of reality, and leaving behind us a possibly stupendous waste of nebulous centuries, we will refer only to the three or four thousand years that saw the birth and growth of the "Brahmanas"; when we find that there existed at that period among the foot-hills of the Himalayas, a great religion, pantheist and agnostic, which later became esoteric; and this, for the moment, is all that concerns us.
And what of Egypt? some will say. What of her monuments and her hieroglyphics? Are they not much more ancient? Let us listen in this connection to the learned Egyptologist Le Page Renouf, 3 one of the great authorities on this subject. He holds that the Egyptian monuments and their inscriptions cannot serve as a basis for establishing definite dates; that the calculations based on the heliacal rising of the stars are not convincing, as in the texts it is probable that the transit of the stars is referred to rather than their rising. He is, however, convinced that according to the most moderate calculations the Egyptian monarchy was already in existence more than two thousand years before the Book of Exodus was written.
Now Exodus probably dates from the year 1310 B. C., and the date of the Great Pyramid cannot be fixed at less than 3000 or 4000 years before our era. These calculations, like those which make the Chinese era begin 2697 years before Christ, lead us back strangely enough, to the period assigned by the students of Indian history to the development of the Vedic ideal; a development which presupposes a period of gestation and formation infinitely more remote. For the rest, they do not deny that the Egyptian civilization, like the Hindu civilization, may be very much more ancient. Another great Egyptologist, Leonard Horner, between the years 1851 and 1854, had ninety-five shafts sunk in various parts of the Nile Valley. It is established that the Nile increases the depth of its alluvial bed by five inches in a century — a depth which owing to compression should be less for the lower strata. Human and animal figures carved in granite, mosaics, and vases, were found at depths of seventy-five feet or less, and fragments of brick and pottery at greater depths. This takes us back some 17,000 or 18,000 years. At a depth of thirty-three feet six inches a tablet was unearthed, bearing inscriptions which a simple calculation shows to have been nearly 8000 years old. The theory that the excavators may have hit, by chance, upon wells or cisterns must be abandoned, for the same state of affairs was proved to exist everywhere. These proofs, it may be remarked, furnish yet one more argument in support of the occultist traditions as regards the antiquity of human civilization. This prodigious antiquity is also confirmed by the astronomical observations of the ancients. There is, for example, a catalogue of stars known as the catalogue of Súrya-Siddhânta; and the differences in the position of eight of these fixed stars, taken at random, show that the Súrya-Siddhânta were made more than 58,000 years ago.
Was Egypt or India the direct legatee of the legendary wisdom bequeathed by more ancient peoples, and notably by the probable Atlantides? In the present state of our knowledge, without relying upon occultist traditions, it is not yet possible to reply.
Less than a century ago virtually nothing was known of ancient Egypt. The little that was known was based upon hearsay and the more or less fantastic legends collected by later historians, and above all on the divagations of the philosophers and theurgists of the Alexandrian period. It was only in 1820 that Jean-Francois Champollion, thanks to the threefold text of the famous Rosetta Stone, found the key to the mysterious writing that covers all the monuments, all the tombs, and almost every object of the land of the Pharaohs. But the working out of the discovery was a long and difficult business, and it was almost forty years later that one of Champollion's most illustrious successors, de Rougé, was able to say that there was no longer any Egyptian text that could not be translated. Innumerable documents were deciphered and as regards the material sense of most of the inscriptions an all but absolute certainty was attained.
Nevertheless it seems more and more probable that beneath the literal meaning of the religious inscriptions another and an impenetrable meaning is concealed. This is the hypothesis toward which the most objective and most scientific Egyptologists have inevitably tended, in view of the antiquity of many of the words employed, although they immediately add that it cannot be definitely confirmed. It is therefore highly probable that beneath the official religion taught to the vulgar, there was another reserved for the priests and the initiate, and here the theory which the scholars are compelled to entertain once more confirms the assertions of the occultists, and notably those of the Neoplatonists of Alexandria, as regards the Egyptian mysteries.
However this may be, there are texts as to whose authenticity there is not the slightest doubt — the "Book of the Dead," the "Books of Hymns," and Ptahhoteph's "Collection of Moral Sentences" — the most ancient book in the world, since it is contemporary with the pyramids — and many more, which enable us to form a very exact idea of the (at first) lofty morality, and above all of the fundamental theosophy of Egypt, before this theosophy was corrupted to satisfy the common people and transformed into a monstrous polytheism, which, for that matter, was always more apparent than real.
Now the older these texts the more closely does their teaching approximate to the Hindu tradition. Whether they are in fact earlier or later than the latter is after all a question of secondary importance; what interests us more deeply is the problem of their common origin, a sole and immemorial origin whose probability increases with every step adventured into the prehistoric ages.
The farther back we go the more plainly is this agreement upon the essential points revealed. For example, the ideal which the Egyptian religion, in its beginnings, conceived of God. We shall find a little farther on the Hindu original or replica, just as we shall have occasion to compare the two theogonies, the two cosmogonies, the two systems of ethics, which are evidently the sources of all the theogonies, all the cosmogonies, and all the ethical systems of humanity.
For the Egyptian who has preserved the faith of the earliest days there is only one sole God. "There is none other God than He." "He is the sole living Being in substance and in truth." "Thou art alone and millions of living beings proceed from Thee." "He hath created all things, and He alone is uncreated." "In all times and places, He is the sole substance and is unapproachable." "He is One, the only One." "He is yesterday, to-day, and to-morrow." "He is God by God created, existing of Himself — the twofold Being, self-begotten, the Begetter of all since the beginning."
"It is more than five thousand years," — says de Rougé, "since men first sang in the valley of the Nile the hymn to the unity of God and the immortality of the soul.... In this belief in the unity of the Supreme God and His attributes as Creator of and Lawgiver to Man, whom he endowed with an immortal soul, we have the primitive conceptions, encrusted like indestructible diamonds in the mythological superfetations accumulated by the centuries which have passed over this ancient civilization." 4
It is true that we have not here, in this definition of the Deity, the penetration and subtlety, the metaphysical spaciousness, the happiness of expression, the verbal magnificence — in a word, the genius, — which we shall find in the Hindu definitions. The Egyptian temperament is colder, drier, more sober, less graceful, more realistic; it has a more concrete imagination, which is not fired by the inaccessible, the infinite, as is the spirit of the Asiatic peoples. Moreover, we must not lose sight of the fact that we are not yet acquainted with the secret meaning which may lie hidden beneath these definitions. But at all events, as we understand them, the idea expressed is the same, denoting a single origin which, in conformity with esoteric tradition and pending further enlightenment, we may call the Atlantean idea. This supposition, incidentally, is confirmed by the famous passage in Timæus, according to which, as is stated by the Egyptian priest speaking to Solon, Egypt twelve thousand years ago, had an Atlantean colony.
As for Mazdeism or Zoroastrianism, the third of the great religions, the problem of its derivation is a simpler one, although that of its chronology is equally complicated. Zoroaster, or rather one of the Zoroasters — the last of them, — lived, according to Aristotle, in the seventh century before Christ. Pliny places him a thousand years before Moses, and Hermippus of Smyrna, who translated his works into Greek, four thousand years before the fall of Troy, and Eudoxius six thousand years before the death of Plato.
Modern science, as Edouard Schure has demonstrated, deriving his proofs from the scholarly research of Eugene Burnouf, Spiegel, James Darmesteter, and Harlez, declares that it is not possible to determine the period of the great Iranian philosopher who wrote the "Zend-Avesta"; but in any case he places him 2500 years B. C. Max Müller, on the other hand, gives us proof that Zoroaster, or Zarathustra, and his disciples lived in India. "Some of the Zoroastrian gods," he says, "are only reflections, distortions, of the primitive and authentic gods of the 'Vedas.' "
Here, then, there is not the slightest doubt as to the priority of the Hindu books, and here at the same time is yet another confirmation of the fabulous antiquity of these books or traditions.
These preliminary observations, which would require volumes for their exposition, are enough — and for the moment it is this that concerns us — to prove that the teaching which we find, in the after ages, at the bottom of all the religions, in the shape of mysteries, initiations, and secret doctrines, dates, according to the most cautious calculations, from thousands of years ago. They will suffice, at all events, to dispel the somewhat puerile argument of those who maintain that it is comparatively recent and has been influenced by the Judo-Christian revelations. This argument is no longer seriously maintained, but there are those who evade the difficulty by saying: Yes, there are truths in this primitive religion, and even texts which can be more or less definitely dated, antecedent to Moses and to Christ; but who can sift from these the successive interpolations which have transformed them?
There are in India, it appears, more than twelve hundred texts of the "Vedas" and more than 350 of the "Laws of Manu," to say nothing of those of the sacred books which the Brahmans have not surrendered to us; and it cannot be denied that there are obvious interpolations in these texts and in the doctrines which they contain. We must never lose sight of the fact that the Oriental religion which is commonly and most improperly known as Buddhism falls into three great periods, which correspond pretty closely with the three periods into which Christianity might be divided; namely, Vedism, or the primitive religion, which the Brahmans commented upon, complicating it and corrupting it to their own advantage, until it became the Brahmanism which Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, or Sakyamuni, revolted against and reformed in the fifth century B. C.
The Indianists, thanks above all to the historical landmarks afforded them by the caste system, and the changes of language and of meter, have learned to distinguish easily enough these three currents in the suspect texts, and beneath the luxuriance and complications of the interpolations the broad outlines and essential truths which are all that matter to us are always visible.
1 Max Müller, "Origin and Development of Religion."
2 La Religion Védique d'apres les Hymnes du Rig-Véda, A. Bergaigne; Vol. III. p. 283 et seq.
3 "Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of Ancient Egypt," by P. Le Page Renouf.
4 De Rougé, Annales de la Philosophic Chritienne; Vol. XX, p. 327.