Chapter 2:

Victorian Theosophy

One of the commentaries of the Secret Doctrine most respected among theosophists is Geoffrey A. Barborka's The Divine Plan.

It is true that none of the theosophical organizations endorse officially the writings of anyone, even including those of HPB. Nevertheless, it is also true that in practice, a number of teachings (as well as certain approaches to their study) are taken for granted by most members as being theosophical. Also, certain books are generally accepted as representing correctly the true teaching of HPB and her teachers. One such is Barborka's. Yet this is how Barborka characterizes his presumed synthesis of the Secret Doctrine:

Pondering on the vast reaches to which one may extend one's thought, so that millions and millions of stars may be envisioned, and yet there is no limit to the immensities of Space, one must of necessity become imbued with the idea that law and order prevail throughout infinity--that there is in very truth a Divine Plan. Everything partakes of this Plan: worlds, suns, nebulae, galaxies, island universes--these exist because of this Divine Plan, they are indeed part of it. All the beings in the worlds are also integral parts of the Plan. The universe exists because it represents the unfoldment of the vast Scheme. Other universes likewise manifest the operation of the Divine Plan.

The Divine Plan is a manifestation of Divine LAW. Just as the sun emits innumerable rays which are of the same essence as their emanating source, so rays are emitted from Divine Law, which are of the same essence as their Source; therefore these rays are Divine Laws. These maintain the Divine Plan.1

Before commenting on that passage, a point should be made. Every student of any aspect of the new age, or of the perennial philosophy, owes a debt of gratitude to Barborka for providing such a handy compendium of the Secret Doctrine as viewed from the point of view of the metaphysical key. Therefore, what follows is not intended to minimize in any way the value of the great service he has done to students of these subjects. Rather, it is precisely because his exposition of the Secret Doctrine in the metaphysical key is so well presented, that he has been singled out in this exploration. The problems discussed in what follows, in other words, are not problems that should be identified as unique to Barborka. They are instead problems typical of any metaphysical approach to understanding that which is.

Big minds, puny God?

Barborka's statement seems to be but a new version of the so-called argument from design for God's existence. This manner of thinking is still popular among Christians--and other theists--who happen to be uneducated in developments in philosophy over the past three centuries. Barborka expresses himself as if he personally knew for a fact that "God" or "Divinity" has a conceptual, linear mind not too dissimilar from ours, and that such a "mind" is responsible for the alleged "Divine Plan."

Clearly, as Immanuel Kant and many others after him have shown in various ways, there are in such views intrinsic problems.2 These difficulties may be summarized (and oversimplified, for lack of space) in one of two ways. Looking from one end at what they claim, they imply that the alleged "mind of God" is so small, that its workings can be understood fairly perfectly by a human mind. Looking at the claims from the other end, they imply that the mind of this particular human being is so big that it can perfectly understand what "God" is, and to know fairly accurately what that "Divinity" is "thinking."

In other words, either "God" is too small, or the mind of the metaphysician in question is too big. In either case, "God" seems to turn out to be much punier than most of us would have thought, which is actually the opposite result intended by metaphysicians. They would much rather be able to "have the cake, and eat it too," since they want us to believe that "the mind of God" is genuinely grand.

Perhaps the metaphysicians' problems stem partly from the fact that they also want us to accept the subliminal message that the metaphysician's mind is so clever, that it can thus understand clearly what "God" is "thinking." and what such a "God" intends to do in the future. In other words, perhaps an important subliminal message we are expected to accept without question is that the one who is truly "grand" is the metaphysician in question, since that person can presumably figure all of this out for us. If this is not self-enhancing intellectual arrogance, it is hard to think what else could be.

Theosophical theology

But there is a far more serious misinterpretation of Blavatsky's teaching implied in such a purely conceptual understanding of it: No mention is to be found in the statement made by Barborka, nor anywhere else in his book, about the necessity (according to HPB) for psychological transformation to take place before one engages in such purely intellectual musings. Yet such speculations were presented for fully one century after HPB's death as if they were "Theosophy," by practically every single theosophical leader and writer on the subject.

What Barborka outlines in his book is actually a theology. In other words, it is a presentation of concepts--in the context of accepting, without the kind of soul-searching questioning, that is involved in a radical psychological transformation--a number of principles that are believed to be "Theosophical." Since such a mental exercise is thoroughly unrelated to human transformation, it is therefore totally unrelated (except perhaps in a very peripheral and superficial way) to what H.P. Blavatsky and her teachers meant by theosophy.

The metaphysical way of interpreting the Secret Doctrine--employed to the exclusion of any other possibility--was applied from the very beginning. In fact, in his book Barborka is in a sense but making a compendium of "Secret Doctrine studies" that had gone on before him. For instance, another widely respected commentator of the Secret Doctrine, W.P. Wadia, had said some forty years earlier that:

The desire to become practical occultists, if pure and genuinely unselfish, will bring the realization that practical occultism is but the lowest form of applied metaphysics.

... Psychic and spiritual teachings are not more fully understood because their metaphysical basis is not contemplated upon. Is it to be wondered at, then, that the fundamentals of the esoteric science are metaphysical in character, and that the books of H.P.B. abound in lengthy and many-sided considerations of metaphysical propositions? The Secret Doctrine is full of metaphysical universals and particulars, of philosophical principles and details for the same reason that the Vedas and the Upanishads, the six points of view of the six Indian Schools are also full of them. The Gnostics and the Neo-Platonists, the Pythagoreans and Essenes before them also taught metaphysically. Every attempt to dissociate metaphysics from science, philosophy from psychology, has resulted in the degradation of the omnipresent omni-science into a personal god, of man's divinity into carnal bestiality, of the Wisdom-Religion into a religious creed.3

Theosophy upside down

When Wadia says that "practical occultism is but the lowest form of applied metaphysics," he is stating that an intellectual understanding is prior to, and more important than, psychological and spiritual transformation. This is an exact reversal of what HPB and her teachers had said, that first there must be inner transformation, before there can be any study that could be called "theosophical." After all, it should be recalled that such a transformation can take place, according to HPB in the passage quoted earlier, even if one has "average intellectual capacities."

While it is true that HPB makes many references to metaphysical and philosophical teachings, it is also true that she makes many other kinds of (non-metaphysical and even anti-metaphysical approach to the study of the Secret Doctrine, however, obliterates that huge body of teaching, for the sake of excluding anything that is not conceptual and intellectual. In the process of thus excluding most of HPB's teaching, the metaphysical approach also dispenses with the psychological key to the study of the secret doctrine. Yet, according to HPB and her teachers, without the psychological key--without transformation--whatever study a person does is exoteric. It is external to the secret doctrine.

Another element present in Wadia's statement--and indeed in the majority of metaphysical expositions in general--is a penchant for arrogance, for thinking that because one has a "clear" idea of the way the universe is put together (according to one's theory) therefore one is in a superior and perhaps even transcendent position, relative to other human beings. This too is typical of Victorian thinking and behavior, as has often been noted by students of that quaint and picturesque period. As Ralph Noyes pointed out,

Between ourselves and the world around us there is a more complex interplay than we used to think.

In the days of the great Victorian anthropologists--J.G. Frazer, in The Golden Bough, was their belated and last exemplar--the traffic was seen as wholly in one direction. Benighted savages awed by the great forces of Nature which they could neither control nor understand, had as we then saw it, taken refuge in foolish superstition and fruitless magic. Latter-day gentlemen of suitable social class and adequate learning could afford some good-natured loftiness about these primitive imaginings. Technology had conquered much; science stood near to a final understanding of the mindless forces around us; our species had nearly triumphed. It was not long since Lord Kelvin had urged a sharp reduction in the intake of student physicists to Imperial College, London, on the grounds that little now remained to be done except to tidy up some loose ends at the edge of knowledge.4

Such unmitigated presumption and smug self-assurance is typical not only of Victorian society: believers in metaphysical systems--such as Victorian Theosophy--share with 19th Century European society a similar sense of certainty based on what is perceived as the logical elegance of the system in question.


1 Geoffrey A. Barborka, The Divine Plan, Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House, 1964, p. 1.

2 See Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, translated by Norman Kemp Smith, New York: St. Martin's, 1965 [1781].

3 W.P. Wadia, Studies in the Secret Doctrine, Bombay: Theosophy Company, 1961 [1922-1925], vol. 1, p. 75.

4 Ralph Noyes, editor, The Crop Circle Enigma. Grounding the phenomenon in science, culture and metaphysics, photographs by Busty Taylor, Bath, U.K.: Gateway, 1991 [1990], p. 34.

The Secret Doctrine | Victorian Theosophy | Victorian Zen | The Mystery Language | Seven Keys
The Stanzas of Zen | The Voice of the Silence | The Kalachakra Tantra | Krishnamurti and Transformation

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