Students of Theosophy talk of the spiritual life and spiritual evolution, but do they always understand what they mean by these terms? The general tendency is to oppose spirit to matter, and from the very start a division is made which does not exist save in the realm of illusion. In Religion, in science, as also in various schools of philosophy, spirit and matter are understood to be two distinct and opposite concepts.
To know what spiritual evolution is in a practical way, it is necessary for us at the very start to understand very definitely that spirit and matter are neither different nor opposing forces but two aspects of one and the same reality. It is how we look at them that makes the difference. Looked at from one angle of vision, spirit appears as matter; looked at from another angle of vision, matter appears as spirit. Neither is superior or inferior to the other. Both of them exist and work together. Make a division between them and all understanding of cosmic or individual processes, spiritual, psychical or material, becomes impossible.
First, then, let us get it very clearly in our minds that when we speak of spiritual evolution we only mean this—evolution of matter from the point of view of the spirit. Spiritual evolution is not evolution of the spirit only, but evolution of spirit-matter from the point of view of the spirit. So also material evolution is nothing else but evolution of spirit-matter from the point of view of matter. Understand this and you will begin to understand that there is not a real gulf between the true scientist and the true philosopher. They are approaching the same thing from two different points of view. Browning uttered a profound truth when he said: "...nor soul helps flesh more, now, than flesh helps soul!" To make a division between the two, therefore, is to take an attitude that may be philosophical but is not scientific at the same time, or may be scientific but is not spiritual, philosophical and ethical at the same time. When matter and spirit are seen to be indivisible, to be but aspects of the same truth, we have started on our quest aright.
If spiritual evolution is evolution of spirit-matter from the point of view of the spirit, how shall we apply this idea to ourselves? Are human beings material or are they spiritual? They are neither wholly material nor wholly spiritual; they are a combination of spirit-matter. Looked at from one point of view, our body is a material form composed of atoms, molecules, cells, organs; looked at from another point of view, our body is composed of living intelligences, nature spirits, angels, devas, gods, shining ones. In ancient Indian philosophy the body was regarded as a collection of thirty-three crores of gods. It is a living organism composed of lives, intelligences of different degrees of perception, possessing different capacities of expression. We would be confused and lost in a maze if we took the attitude that on one side and in one part we are matter, and on another side and in another part we are spirit. We are spirit-matter, not spirit and matter.
Now what are we? Let us understand the idea that we as actors and our actions are one, that we are made up of our actions. Actions are desire-impelled or thought-engendered or both. So, we are composed of thoughts, feelings, desires, be they right or be they wrong, and they give rise to actions, desirable or undesirable, pleasure-producing or pain-giving. But when we begin to probe further we find that we have something else within us. There is always a conflict between our desires and our thoughts. Our desires impel us in a particular way, to do a particular thing, and our thoughts interfere and say, "No, that is not right, that must not be." Often the desires win; sometimes the thoughts; but there is a conflict. If we observe that conflict we find that we have something more than desires and thoughts, something that enables us to decide which desires are good and which bad; which thoughts are correct and which incorrect. To judge and to decide what is what, we usually take the help of the voice of conscience. Often we do not follow its prompting, and then we have what is called "a pang of conscience."
Each one's conscience is for him or her the final and supreme seat of judgment. Spiritual evolution is from that point of view the culture of the voice of conscience. It implies what we all know, that our voice of conscience in every case and on every occasion does not speak correctly. Many a time we act according to its dictates and then find that we acted wrongly under the given circumstances. Our voice of conscience, then, is undergoing change and is evolving. We need to understand what it is and from where it comes.
First, the voice of conscience is the voice of our accumulated experiences, experiences gathered and assimilated in the past—the past not only of this present life but of prior lives as well—by the processes of our desire nature, our thought nature and our actions. Are there any principles or laws whereby the activity of our conscience in reference to our actions, feelings, thoughts, can be understood by us? If we experiment with ourselves we shall find that there is a way of understanding it.
With reference to our actions, the voice of conscience speaks to us when they are not charitable—that is, if we can make it speak truly; for, as we saw, the voice of conscience does not always speak the truth, nor does it speak the whole truth, because it is the voice of our accumulated experience and we are not perfect. Hence the advice of a Christian prelate to his followers: "No doubt you may follow your voice of conscience, only make sure your conscience is not that of a fool." Culture of the voice of conscience, then, is what we are looking for. Charity in reference to all actions needs to be cultivated, using the word "charity" in a wider sense. It may happen, however, that sometimes the voice of conscience points out it speaks to us that our actions are charitable when really they are not.
In reference to the feelings, it says: "Your feelings are not harmonious." Harmony is the keynote of all right feeling. We move between elation and depression—tremendous joy on one occasion and tremendous sorrow on another occasion, and we are affected by the seesaw of pleasure and pain, cold and heat, popularity and unpopularity. There is lack of harmony and rhythm, and when the voice of conscience speaks clearly and forcibly it says: "Your feelings are not harmonious, and therefore your actions are not charitable." It may speak to us in a thousand ways, but when we analyse all that it says in reference to our actions and feelings, ultimately it will come to that.
In reference to our thoughts, it says: "Your thoughts are hurried and impatient." What are the thoughts that disturb us? Those that have for their energy and force the spirit of impatience. We are the manifestations of this predominant vice of impatience.
We are impatient of thought, inharmonious of feeling, uncharitable of action. When our actions are charitable, when our feelings are harmonious, when our thoughts are patient, then we are living the spiritual life; the moment we depart from that we go into the material life.
People normally do not look for anything higher than the voice of conscience. But, though very rarely, in a mood of exaltation, in an atmosphere that is idealistic, mystic, or spiritual, we can feel that there is in us something higher than the voice of conscience. On occasions the strange, still, small voice of God speaks to us a language which is different from the ordinary, familiar language of conscience. Spiritual evolution or the culture of conscience consists in the establishment of an intimate and harmonious relationship between that still, small voice and our ordinary voice of conscience. More and more attention paid to the latter makes audible to us, now and then, at rare intervals, the voice of our Inner God, which speaks with authority. And though, while it speaks, things may not be clear to us, though its great message, once delivered, may leave us somewhat confused, its urge is so tremendous that men and women are helpless before it, and they feel impelled to act in accordance with it. Our voice of conscience may, and often does, go wrong, but the still, small voice, if heard and heeded, always comes right. In the understanding of that lies the fact about what spiritual evolution is.
Theosophy teaches that this still, small voice of God belongs to our spiritual self. Our real spiritual self can focus its light only on our conscience, and through it, it contacts our thoughts and mind, our feelings and emotions, our brain and the body of action. The spiritual self that we really are is not able to manifest its powers in most of us at the present moment, because we have not trained ourselves as bodies, feelings, minds, to listen always to the voice of conscience. We are carried away by our desires and impulses; we are carried away by our thoughts, analytical and critical; we are carried away by what people say about us and about the circumstances in which we are placed. Our thoughts and desires which impel us to act are not energized by our voice of conscience all the time. Desires and thoughts well up within us, but we do not ask: "What has my voice of conscience to say about it?" In nine cases out of ten we act impulsively and are wise after the event. We consult the voice of conscience after having finished the action and having made a muddle. That is why the energy of the soul, the light of the spirit-being that we are, does not come to us always and continuously. But it is there, and spiritual evolution is the evolution that makes that contact more permanent and more regular, the contact with the still, small voice of God speaking in three definite ways to the accumulated experience of our lower nature.
First, it shines as the light of reason. Through reason the soul contacts all the accumulated experience of our thoughts; that which can control and guide the thoughts and the mental processes is the reason aspect of the soul, that which is sometimes spoken of as the higher mind, that which sees the underlying connection between the variety of thoughts and thinking processes.
Secondly, there is the light of intuition. Intuition is that light of the soul which makes possible the culture of our feelings and emotions. Just as reason contacts the mental processes of our lower nature, so intuition makes its contact with our feelings and desires and emotions.
Thirdly, just as in the lower nature desires and thoughts produce action, so in the higher nature intuition and reason working together bring into existence that higher kind of action which is creative or willful.
The light of the will, the light of intuition and the light of reason are, then, the three great lights that illuminate the voice of conscience and are able to speak to it definitely. Not all of us have this triple light of the soul; that is why our spiritual evolution has either stopped or is proceeding at a snail's pace. In moments of intense suffering or anguish, or in the hour of some uplifting experience, the still, small voice of the God that we are speaks; but the constant endeavour to bring the light of reason to our thoughts, the light of intuition to our emotions, and to make all our actions creative by the power of will—that is lacking in most of us. To do these three things is to have fulfilled the needs and purposes of spiritual evolution.
Three qualities are necessary for acting by will, through the channels of intuition and reason—qualities that will make action charitable, emotions harmonious, thoughts patient.
The dominant virtue or characteristic of reason is energy—energy that makes reason break the fetters of mortality and see the illusion of space and time. Take an instance: Are the Christ and the Buddha dead and gone today? For those who are energized by reason, the Great Ones and their message are present, living, now, here. So the energy of reason destroys the material limitations of time and space and moves on and on; and when one has that energy of reason all other energies get transformed. It is the real source of health, spiritual, psychic, intellectual and physical. That energy of reason makes us realize the immortality of other beings and of ourselves.
Next, the quality that gives birth to intuition is heart-knowledge. It pertains to Buddhi and is different from mind-knowledge. There is the same difference between mind- and heart-knowledge as between reason and intuition. When heart-knowledge speaks, it speaks through the faculty of intuition. Its characteristic is that it illuminates the whole subject at one flash, which reason does not do. Reason unfolds step by step, in the process of time; but the light of intuition is like sunlight which suddenly bursts into a room when the windows are thrown open, and which illuminates everything it comes in contact with. The light of intuition shines only when the emotions, the feelings and the desires are under control. People often ask why it is that they do not get intuitions. Intuition is one of the faculties of the soul and nobody is devoid of it in his innermost nature; but its influence is not felt in the lower self because the desire or feeling nature, which is the substratum on which intuition can naturally alight, is in a disturbed and inharmonious condition. The sun of intuition cannot reflect itself on the ruffled waters of our emotions; the sun throws its perfect image on the waters only when the latter are steady and quiet. Reason cannot dwell in an impatient mind; intuition cannot dwell in a heart full of discords.
For the unfoldment of the creative will something higher than the light of Manas-reason or of Buddhi-intuition is required. The Light of Atma, the Self, gives us the power to create in a real way—to create with patience and harmony, through reason and intuition. What we ordinarily call the will is often not the real will; what in us we name "will," in other people we call "obstinacy"! The real will always creates harmony, concord, unity—the manifestations of right action. It is the golden fire which is the core of intuition. When the active will of the spirit begins to operate, all our actions become sacrificial, altruistic, sacramental. When intuition works, all pairs of opposites in reference to feelings, all rights and wrongs, pleasures and pains, correct and incorrect things, vanish and resolve themselves into a unity; only the blissful aspect of rhythm exists. When the energy of reason works, all our thought processes, through absence of impatience, become pure and compassionate. Creative will is the pristine power of the soul which lives by creative activity.
Now, what shall we do to conscience so that the still, small voice of the Inner God may speak to that conscience? The quality of dispassion, Vairagya, needs to be developed. Our voice of conscience tells us to do a thing, but does not speak to us in the language of dispassion, because it leads us along the grooves we have made for ourselves by our past actions, feelings and thoughts. People often say, "My voice of conscience spoke, thefore I acted." But is it dispassionate? Or is it a passionate voice arising out of our own accumulated past which is not perfect? When it is a dispassionate voice it is bound to get the threefold light of the soul. There is no exception.
To sum up, there are seven qualities that need to be developed: Charity (Dana) for action, Harmony (Shila) for emotion, Patience (Kshanti) for thought—the three lower; Dispassion (Vairagya) for the voice of conscience connecting the lower with the higher, Energy (Virya) for reason, Heart-Knowledge (Dhyana) for intuition, Will (Prajna) for creative activity. These are the seven Paramitas, the seven virtues mentioned in The Voice of the Silence. The spiritual path is marked by seven stages, and it is said that there are seven portals of initiation and seven golden keys, one for each portal. These portals and keys are within us: lower hands, lower heart, lower head; higher hands, higher heart, higher head; and the relation that exists between these. When the relation is established and maintained between the lower and higher, we live as spirit-beings; when we live in the lower, we exist as matter-beings.
The process of spiritual evolution is going on in all of us, in this temple of the body created by living intelligences for the living spirit which resides within it—that immortal spirit which, in Gita terminology, "has hands and feet in all directions; eyes, heads, mouths, and ears in every direction"—and we are it. But often the temple is polluted by our uncharitable actions, inharmonious feelings, impatient thoughts, and then it ceases to be a fit habitat of the spirit.
The cross on which the spirit is crucified continually is fourfold: actions, desires, thoughts, the voice of conscience. The Crist is triple: will, intuition, reason; in the language of Theosophy: Atma, Buddhi, Manas. To control that fourfold lower nature by the sevenfold virtues—that is the path of spiritual evolution that takes us from the world of mortality into immortality, the world of the Masters, which is not somewhere far away in space, but is right here. To see with the single eye of spirit the thousand things of the flesh, and see them all co-ordinated in one unbreakable whole, that is to see spiritually. To try to realize that all beings are but aspects of the one great Spiritual Being; all heads think the thoughts of the one Thinker; all hands perform the actions of the one Actor; all hearts feel that love of the one Lover—and we are that Thinker, Actor, Lover—that is to live in and as Spirit. We are It. And there is no higher power anywhere outside of us. The beginning of the task is the culture of conscience, and through the first and early steps that we studied, we shall embark upon the ocean, leaving behind the world of darkness, and see stretching before us the New World of Immortal Life.
How often does one see strong-hearted men and determined women moved by a strong aspiration towards an ideal they know to be the true one, battling successfully, to all appearance, with Ahriman and conquering him. Their external Selves, have been the battleground of a most terrible, deadly strife between the two opposing Principles; but they have stood firmly—and won. The dark enemy seems conquered; it is crushed in fact, so far as the animal instincts are concerned. Personal selfishness, that greed for self, and self only, the begetter of most of the evils—has vanished; and every lower instinct, melting like soiled icicles under the beneficent ray of Ahura Mazda, the radiant EGO-SUN, has disappeared, making room for better and holier aspirations. Yet, there lurks in them their old and but partially destroyed vanity, that spark of personal pride which is the last to die in man. Dormant it is, latent and invisible to all, including their own consciousness; but there it is still. Let it awake but for an instant, and the seemingly crushed-out personality comes back to life at the sound of its voice, arising from its grave like an unclean ghoul at the command of the midnight incantator. Five hours—nay, five minutes even—of life under its fatal sway, may destroy the work of years of self-control and training, and of laborious work in the service of Ahura Mazda, to open wide the door anew to Angra Mainyu. Such is the result of the silent and unspoken but ever-present worship of the only beautiful creation of the Spirit of Selfishness and Darkness.