Those who are students of religions and mysticism of the East as of the West, will be familiar with two similes used for the human soul: that of the traveller, and that of the pilgrim. Often man is depicted as a traveller who is visiting the Earth to enjoy himself, to learn to gather experience. Sometimes that traveller is called the wanderer because he is a stranger in a strange land, and unaware of the manners, customs, even language of the country he is visiting; he wanders here and there, coming upon objects and events that puzzle him and whose meaning he is trying to seek. In more profound and truer mystical traditions man is compared to a pilgrim. It is said that the human soul is on a pilgrimage; he has undertaken a journey that has a sacred purpose. He is bound for a holy place and therefore life is not for mere enjoyment; the soul has an objective that must ever be kept before his vision.
These two ideas are not conflicting: The human soul is on a journey; all human souls are seeing sights, learning lessons and gathering experience; all are moving from stage to stage of evolution. But many souls do not recognize that they are bound for a particular destination, that there is a purpose to life, and that purpose is holy and sacred. Most men and women are wanderers; they live aimlessly, not even knowing why they live. Some are travellers who think they know the object and the goal of life. But with such it is more an instinctive belief, some old intuitive urge, and their minds are not clear as to the reality of their travels. In this class there are also those whose urge prompts them to live nobly, and they say, "What does it matter what is to become of the soul; let me do that which I think to be right, and the rest must take care of itself."
Because all men and women are travellers, though they be often wanderers, all are bound to find out in time that life is a pilgrimage; that the human soul is bound for a holy place, and to reach it in proper fashion one must take the right road and walk that road in the right manner. Between the wandering traveller and the deliberate pilgrim there is a gap, and evolution fills that gap. As one evolves and grows, one recognizes more and more that life has a purpose, that life is sacred. How does any man or woman come to this recognition? Two common phenomena—or to be exact, two aspects of one phenomenon—bring about the change. Living the ordinary life, every man, every woman, comes upon events and occurrences day after day, and the inquiring mind asks questions and seeks answers. There are lazy minds who say, "It is not for us to ask; who are we that we should question?" Fortunately, such lazy minds are few. Most minds have not altogether lost their alertness and so they inquire, "What is the meaning of this event? Why did this happen? How did that occur?"
If they persist in questioning until they obtain answers, they are bound to come upon the fundamental idea that life is neither a meaningless farce nor a ghastly tragedy, but that events have meaning and life has a purpose. The difficulty is that even among those who have an alert and inquiring mind, outer events, occurrences in the lives of others, even of neighbours and friends, do not bring them to a realization of life's purpose. Only when in their own personal lives an out-of-the-way event takes place, do they begin to ask—why and how? Especially when, in their own experience, suffering and sorrow overtake them, they inquire, "Why should this be?" Because we are not always able to connect our pain and suffering to the actual cause that produced them, we get puzzled. Pain and suffering are useful, inasmuch as they compel people to pause and to inquire. We do not always, day by day, ask why and how this or that happens. But we are compelled from within to inquire when pain results, when that happens which we do not like. And then the first vague perception arises in us: Life cannot all be meaningless. That is the first negative stage; the next is a positive stage, when our search has led us to assert: Life has a purpose and a meaning, it has a goal and an objective, life is a pilgrimage, and the human soul is a pilgrim.
Modern science assigns to Nature a purpose. The old idea that all processes of Nature result from "a fortuitous concurrence of atoms" is given up; nowadays scientists speak of design in Nature, of a living, throbbing Nature working out a mighty Pattern, and the working out is called evolution. Science yet does not know what the ultimate Pattern will be, but science recognizes that Nature is working out a Pattern. The ancient Scientists, Sages and Seers, Mystics and Occultists, knew the beginning, the middle and the end of that Pattern. The Great Masters of Theosophy are the direct heirs and descendants of those Gnyanis of old, and therefore in the philosophy of Theosophy we come across a description of evolution, vaster and more comprehensive than what modern science is able to offer us.
Theosophy teaches that Life is a pilgrimage and that each of us is a pilgrim. In the ancient days, to impart the lesson of this truth to the masses, the religious teachers instituted the custom of pilgrimages. They advocated that people should visit certain holy places—Tirthas—and thus recognize themselves as Tirthikas—pilgrims. Nowadays, like all other venerable institutions of old, this one of pilgrimage has become a formality and a farce. The main purpose of the old Teachers in instituting pilgrimages was to bring men and women to the realization that Life was a pilgrimage, and each holy place, Tirtha, represented a stage in the long evolution of the soul. These places are symbolic representations of the path of soul-evolution; just as the very idea of pilgrimage indicates purposive evolution, so do these places symbolically represent important stages in human evolution.
The path of pilgrimage is a very long one and more than one life is required to complete the process. The human soul is the Eternal Pilgrim. The whole of life, from eternity to eternity, is a Pilgrimage. There are two implications of this expression—the Eternal Pilgrim. One is that evolution is a very long process. The human soul is not merely an eternal wanderer, whirling and whirling aimlessly, but is a pilgrim, and on his pilgrimage must look upon all events as holy and sacred, and perform all duties as if they were sacraments. A true pilgrimage, from beginning to end, is a sacred process. And in this conception we come across the ethical and practical application of the subject.
What constituents in our makeup are the pilgrim? Theosophy teaches that the Spirit in man is duad, Atma-Buddhi, and this is the Eternal Pilgrim. It leaves its high spiritual, innocent but ignorant state and descends into dense and denser matter; it passes through kingdom after kingdom, unfolding potential faculties. Atma-Buddhi is the pilgrim who, as he moves on his pilgrimage, gathers knowledge and experience, till he acquires self-consciousness at the middle point of his pilgrimage. In the first half of the pilgrimage, it moves by what is called natural impulse inherent in it. It moves onwards and downwards till it reaches the human stage.
At that stage it acquires free-will, the power to choose, the faculty of thought and reflection, the quality of discernment and discrimination. Then it takes its further pilgrimage in its own hands and marches onward, not by natural impulse any more, but by self-induced and self-devised ways and means. Now, the self-consciousness acquired by the Eternal Atma-Buddhi, if not looked after, if not maintained and sustained, will die. By our self-effort, we have to make that self-consciousness immortal. As Atma-Buddhi, each of us is immortal and divine; but Arma-Buddhi does not know itself as itself; by the power of Manas, we know ourselves and that particular knowledge gives every human being the opportunity to know himself as immortal and divine.
This point of the radical difference between human beings and all else in Nature must be understood. Unless we are convinced, through perception and understanding, that by our own self-effort we can guide our own life, and that there is sufficient knowledge which any of us can acquire, we will not be able to succeed.
So that is the second great lesson, the first being that Life has a purpose and a meaning, a sacred and holy purpose—a pilgrimage. Secondly, as self-conscious human beings we have to make the effort ourselves. We need no outside support and help; all we need is the guidance of adequate and true knowledge.
The task before us is to make the whole of life a sacred and holy process. We do not know our long past, and it is not necessary to know the coming future. Our task is to be alive and to act in the present. The past sleeps in us and we carry it with us through life. The present is that past awake. From that past comes not only our bad Karma and evil fate; from there also come our opportunities, and every event in our lives is an opportunity. We need an incentive and an inspiration to make our present sacred and holy. That inspiration is to be found in one word—Duty. Dharma in Sanskrit offers us a better conception of what we have to do—that duty must be performed according to Law; that there must be order and harmony in the performance of every duty; that the performance of duty is the highest religion; that each one, according to his or her own nature and calling in life, must act, and such action alone will be duty. Law, order, religion, inner quality—all these are conveyed in the word Dharma, which ordinarily we translate as duty.
When we look around us and study life with the light of Theosophy, we find that good men and women are unhappy and do not grow and progress because their conception of duty is not accurate. Some think that duty means slavery. To be a slave to anyone is to go away from the Path of Duty; and we cannot enjoy our own freedom and liberty when we enslave others. Liberty obtained through right duty alone is true; otherwise obtained, it is not liberty, but licence.
The Path of Duty, the performance of Dharma, is the central lesson of the Bhagavad Gita. Numerous are the lessons on Dharma that Krishna teaches to Arjuna, but two are fundamental; they may be called the principles of the Life of Dharma or Duty. First:
It is better to do one's duty, even though it be devoid of excellence, than to perform another's duty well. It is better to perish in the performance of one's own duty; the duty of another is full of danger. (III, 35)
Now our own duty is Sva-Dharma and its implication is important—the duty of the Sva, the Inner Self, to all outer events, to all other beings. In the doing of our duty there can never be rejection, or even the non-recognition, of the soul in man, the soul who is man. There is confusion and unhappiness because in doing their duties most people do not take into account their own soul. They want to please somebody, irrespective of what is good or true. To give way to others is as wrong as to insist on having our own way. The correct attitude is to consult the soul, to see that the integrity of the soul within us is not destroyed. But how can we consult the soul, if we do not know that we are the soul?
Theosophy says to each individual, "Within you is the Immortal Divinity, pure and wise; it is hemmed in, covered over, with mounds of likes and dislikes, tons of desires and feelings; it is buried by your slavish attitude to life and to others. Purify your likes and dislikes, cleanse your desires and elevate your feelings, break the fetters of slave-mentality, and the soul will shine forth." Just as a person, when he resolves to go on a pilgrimage, gathers necessary material, so also anyone desiring to make his life holy by right performance of duty needs the knowledge of his own soul. When he knows that he is the soul capable of controlling his thoughts and desires, then will he be able to understand and practise the second teaching about Dharma that Krishna gave to Arjuna: "Thy concern is with action only, not with its fruit. Do not be incited to actions by the hope of their reward, nor let thy life be spent in inaction." Not caring for the results, duty must be performed because of the demands of the soul within. This is difficult, but only for a time. Very soon such difficulties will vanish.
To make life a pilgrimage, now and here, is to tread the path of Dharma, to walk the way of duty. Knowledge is necessary and Theosophy has made that knowledge available. Many people study and know intellectually, but they do not apply; those who are sincere and earnest are vigilant; they inquire and they seek aid from co-students, from others who, like them, are endeavouring to practise, to walk the path of duty. Mutually helping one another, all of us grow in the perception and understanding of our own duty. We also begin to learn that there exist today, even in this dark Kali-Yuga, the Emancipated Ones, who retain the integrity of their own emancipation by themselves performing their duty towards Orphan Humanity. Their teaching and their example offer the pattern of a Perfect Pilgrimage. They stand for us as the perfect Eternal Pilgrims, untouched by the ravages of time, unaffected by the movements of space—Pillars of Immortal Light who have survived the wreck of civilizations.