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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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Awareness - Life - Form
GA 89

Theosophical Cosmology I

26 May 1904 Berlin

The course of lectures on the basic elements of theosophy which I announced some time ago will have to come later, at a time when numbers will perhaps be greater.15The following announcement appeared in the German journal Vahan No. 9, March 1904: ‘In April and May Dr Steiner will be giving lectures on the basic concepts of theosophy at Motzstr. 17 every Thursday at 8 p.m.’ The lectures were put off until the autumn, however; they have been published (in German) in Ursprung und Ziel des Menschen. Grundbegriffe der Esoterik (GA 53). I have put off the date for those lectures and decided to use the next few Thursdays to develop some aspects of cosmology, or world evolution, that is, the teaching in theosophical terms on the origins of the world and the creation of man within this world.

I am, of course, well aware that I am proposing to deal with one of the most difficult chapters in theosophical teaching, and it is probably right to tell you that in some lodges the decision has been made not to treat the subject for the time being, as it is too difficult. I have nevertheless decided to do it, for I believe that with the indications I am able to give, this will be useful to some of you. We may not be able to go into the whole of such a difficult subject immediately, but it should be possible to give encouragement, so that at a later time we may enter more deeply into the matter.

Those of you who have been in the theosophical movement for some time will know that questions as to how the world did actually come into existence, and how it has gradually evolved up to the present time when entities such as ourselves are able to inhabit it, have been the very first to be considered in the theosophical movement. Not only did one of the first books which drew the western world’s attention to ancient views of the world, H. P. Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled,16Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna (1831–91). Isis Unveiled, New York 1877; The Secret Doctrine, London 1888. deal with such questions of the origin and evolution of the world, but the book to which we are probably indebted for the greatest number of our adherents, Sinnett’s Esoteric Buddhism,17Sinnett, Alfred Percy (1840–1921). Esoteric Buddhism, 1883. See also Rudolf Steiner’s references to this work in a lecture given in Berlin on 12 December 1912 (in German, in GA 62), in the lecture course The Occult Movement in the 19th Century, tr. D. S. Osmond, London: Rudolf Steiner Press 1973 (in GA 254) and in Rudolf Steiner’s biography, chapter 7. has done the same. How does a solar system evolve, and the planets and constellations? How did the Earth evolve, what stages has it gone through and what would still lie before it? These questions are considered in full in Esoteric Buddhism. Then Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine appeared in the late ’80s, and in the first volume she, too, considered the question as to how the human race developed in Earth evolution.

Now I need just refer to a single point to show the whole problem. If you open volume 1 of Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine you will find that some of the statements made in Sinnett’s Buddhism are said to be erroneous and are in part corrected by her.18See introduction to the 1st volume of The Secret Doctrine. The theosophical writers had partly misunderstood these things and partly presented them in a way that led to misunderstanding. Mrs Blavatsky therefore had to put them right. She said that a kind of Babylonian confusion of tongues had arisen with regard to theosophical cosmology,19In The Secret Doctrine, Mrs Blavatsky wrote that it had been difficult to find the right terminology. ‘In these early letters [of the mahatmas], in which terms had to be invented and words coined, the “Rings” very often became “Rounds” and the “Rounds”, “Life-Cycles”, and vice versa. To a correspondent who called a “Round” a “World-Ring”, the Teacher wrote: “I believe this will lead to a further confusion. A Round we are agree to call the passage of a Monad from Globe A to Globe G or Z. ... The ‘World-Ring’ is correct ... Advise Mr... strongly, to agree upon a nomenclature before going any further.’” [page 191] See also Note 4. and that leading figures [in the Theosophical Society] certainly were not immediately well informed on these matters.

You all know that the contents of the Secret Doctrine were given by great, sublime masters who were far ahead of our average level of development. Before it was published, a book had appeared in which Sinnett, author of Esoteric Buddhism, published a number of letters by a mahatma.20In The Occult World, London 1881. We can thus see the problems which arise with understanding this secret doctrine, and we can understand that people who, like Sinnett and Blavatsky, were endeavouring to receive those doctrines were literally sighing, as it was so difficult to understand the doctrines that were given to them. ‘Oh,’ one teacher said, ‘being used to grasp things with a different set of mind, you cannot understand what we have to say, however much you endeavour to gain understanding of it.’ If we consider these words, the problems will be evident. Views that could be misunderstood arose wherever people spoke of cosmology.21In the series of essays ‘Aus der Akasha-Chronik’ (later Cosmic Memory. Atlantis and Lemuria, GA 11), we read: ‘... that the inspirations of the great teacher mentioned in Esoteric Buddhism [by Sinnett] do not contradict what I am presenting here, but that the misunderstanding only arose because the author of that work translated the wisdom of those inspirations, which is difficult to put in words, into the human language of today, doing so in his own way.’ This is therefore well established, and I hope I may ask your forbearance as I try to say something on this doctrine.

Let me say something to begin with that will clarify the relationship of theosophical cosmology to modem science and its methods. Someone might come and say: ‘Consider the advances made by astronomers; we owe this to the telescopes, to the mathematical and photographic methods which have given us knowledge of distant stars.’ Modern science with its careful methods appears—in the opinion of scientists—to have the one and only right to establish anything about the evolution of the cosmic system. It appears that in modern science it is acceptable to disapprove of anything others say about the evolution and origin of the cosmic system. Many an astronomer will object: ‘What you theosophists are telling us about cosmology are ancient doctrines taught by the Chaldeans or Vedic priests and part of the oldest wisdom known to humanity; but what significance can anything said millennia ago have, since the teaching of astronomy has only gained reasonable certainty since Copernicus?’ It merely seems, therefore, that the contents of the first volume of Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine confounds the things astronomers armed with telescopes and so on explain to us. But a theosophist need not be in conflict with anything an astronomer says. There is no need for this, though there are theosophists who believe they must fight against modem astronomy in order to make room for their own doctrines. I know only too well that leading figures in the theosophical movement think themselves able to teach the astronomers. A simple example may serve to demonstrate the standpoint some theosophists take against astronomers.

Take a poet whose works give pleasure and edification. Perhaps someone else will be his biographer and will try to make the soul and spirit which lives in the poet understandable and explain it. There is also another way of looking at a person, and that is the physiological or scientific way. Let us assume a scientist studies the poet. He will of course only consider the physiological and physiognomic aspects which are of interest to him. He will tell us about anything he is able to see in the poet and combine with his scientific thinking. As theosophists we would say the scientist is describing and explaining the poet from the standpoint of the physical plane. The scientist won’t say a single word, however, about the poet’s biography, as we call it, or about his soul and spirit. We thus have two approaches that run side by side, though they need not collide. Why shouldn’t there be a scientific study and parallel to it one which considers soul and spirit, with each valid in its own way? Neither is interfering with the other.

The same applies to scientific cosmology, with the information astronomers give us on the cosmic edifice and the evolution of the cosmic system. They will tell us what can be accessible to the ordinary senses. At the same time, however, it is possible to consider the matter in terms of spirit and soul, and if we take the cosmic edifice in this way, we’ll never collide with astronomy; both ways of looking at things will sometimes substantiate one another, for they run side by side and are independent of one another.

For instance, when the scientific physiology of the brain was still far from where it is today, people were already providing biographies of great minds. An astronomer cannot object, therefore, that the occult approach is out of date and impossible since Copernicus put astronomy on a different basis. The occult sources are completely different from this; they existed long before the eye was trained to study the heavens through telescopes, and before photography had reached the point where it was possible to photograph stars. Copernican science offers something very different from occult research; and the one power in the human soul is not at all dependent on the other. The power which gives us insight into the element of spirit and soul goes back such a long way that no historian is able to tell us where this way of looking at the cosmic edifice did have its beginnings. It is not possible to establish how the great minds came to develop these occult insights.

Occult schools existed in Europe before the Theosophical Society was established in 1875. However, the knowledge we now present in popular form was then only shared within closed groups. The law not to let it go beyond these schools was strictly observed. People wanting to join such a school had to do serious work on themselves before the first truths were given to them. The view was that people had to make themselves ready before they could receive such truths. They had many degrees in those schools through which people would progress, degrees of trial; and when anyone was found to be unready they would have to continue to prepare themselves. If I were to describe the degrees to you, it would make you dizzy to think of the strictness that was applied. Matters concerning world evolution were considered to be among the most important and only taught at the highest levels. In the 17th century, which has had a great influence on civilization, this knowledge was in the hands of the Rosicrucian movement.22See lecture given in Berlin on 4 November 1904 on the Rosicrucian Mystery in The Temple Legend, GA 93, tr. J. M. Wood; London: Rudolf Steiner Press 1997. Originally this had come from knowledge held in the East, and European followers were given it at many different levels.

By the end of the 18th and above all the beginning of the 19th century, those occult schools vanished from Europe’s culture. The last of the Rosicrucians withdrew to the Orient. This was the age when humanity had to organize conditions of life according to external knowledge; the invention of the steam engine came then, and the scientific study of cells and so on. Occult wisdom had nothing to say to this, and the individuals who had reached the highest peak of that wisdom, people of the highest degree, withdrew to the Orient. Occult schools existed also after this, but they are of little interest to us; I must mention them, however, for Mrs Blavatsky and Mr Sinnett went to the source springs when they received their cosmological knowledge from Buddhist Tibetan occult schools.

A long period of cultural development in Europe had brought the European brain, the European ability to think, so far that difficulties arose in grasping occult truths. These could only be grasped with difficulty. When this early knowledge of theosophical cosmology came to public awareness, partly through Esoteric Buddhism and partly through The Secret Doctrine, the followers of occult schools pricked up their ears,23See lecture given in Domach on 10 October 1915 in The Occult Movement in the Nineteenth Century, GA 254, tr. D. S. Osmond; London: Rudolf Steiner Press 1973. and it seemed wrong to them that the strict rule of not letting anything go outside their schools had been broken. The followers of the theosophical school knew, however, that it was necessary to make some of it known.

Western science could not do anything with such knowledge, however, for no one was able to check the truth of what Mrs Blavatsky and Mr Sinnett had written. Above all people did not know what to do with the glorious cosmological song which consists of the Stanzas of Dzyan and was published at the beginning of Mrs Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine.24David Reigle, Tibetologist, has since identified the stanzas as coming from the books of the Kiu-Te, probably also as the fifth, esoteric part of the Kalachakra Tantra entitled Jnana. See Life and Work of Helena Blavatsky by Sylvia Cranston. See also what Rudolf Steiner said about Tibet in his talk with the workmen at the Goetheanum on 20 May 1924 in From Beetroot to Buddhism, GA 353, tr. A. R. Meuss; London: Rudolf Steiner Press 1999. The verses tell the history of the universe. Their authenticity was put in doubt; no scientist could do anything with them; initially they appeared to go against anything European scholars knew. There was one man, Max Müller, the orientalist, whom I respect most highly; he spoke energetically in favour of Oriental wisdom.25Max Müller (1823–1900), well-known expert on the Orient, language and religion in the 19lh century. Member and protagonist of the Theosophical Society for as long as it based itself on purely Indian philosophy. Everything he could get hold of in this sphere was made accessible to Europeans by Max Mueller. But neither he nor other European academics knew what to do with the things Mrs Blavatsky made known. At the time people merely said anything said in Secret Doctrine was mere fantasy. The reason was that the academics had never found any of it in the Indian books.

Mrs Blavatsky said that great riches of ancient literature were still to be found in the place from which her secrets had come, but that the most important thing about that wisdom had been kept from the eyes of European scholars. European thinking was such that even the little which it had been possible to tell could not be understood; commentaries were lacking that held the key to understanding. The books which showed how individual statements should be taken were in the safekeeping of native Tibetans who had received the teaching; at least that is what Mrs Blavatsky said.

However, others who have reached advanced levels also said that this literature provides historical evidence that there was an original wisdom which in things of the spirit went far beyond anything people in the world know today. The Oriental sages say that this original wisdom exists in books which are in their safekeeping, and that it did not come to us from human beings like ourselves, but from divine sources. The Orientals speak of an original divine wisdom.

Max Mueller said in a lecture to his students that following certain investigations it was impossible to maintain that there had been such original wisdom. Having heard Max Mueller’s opinion through Mrs Blavatsky, a great Brahmin Sanskrit scholar said: ‘Oh, if Max Mueller were a Brahmin and I were able to take him to a particular temple, he would be able to see for himself that there is such ancient divine wisdom.’26See Blavatsky, Secret Doctrine, vol. 1. The things Mrs Blavatsky presents in the Stanzas of Dzyan partly come from such hidden sources which she opened up. If she had invented those verses herself we would be looking at an even greater miracle.

We do not, however, have to depend on getting the occult knowledge of world evolution from the old writings. Powers exist in the human being which enable him to perceive and explore the truths himself, if he develops these powers in the right way. Anything we are able to learn in this way agrees with the knowledge Mrs Blavatsky brought with her from the Far East. It emerges that in Europe, too, occultists preserved knowledge that was passed from teacher to pupils and was never entrusted to books. The occultists were therefore able to test the knowledge Mrs Blavatsky presented in her Secret Doctrine against their own knowledge, and above all against things they had gained out of their own powers. Someone trained in the European way can also check the information given in Mrs Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine. And it has been checked and confirmed,27Clearly referring to C. G. Harrison’s The Transcendental Universe, lectures on occult science, theosophy and the catholic faith, London 1893/94. but it is nevertheless difficult for European occultists to cope with it. Let me say just one thing. European occult knowledge has been influenced in a quite specific way by Christian and cabbalistic elements which have given it a certain bias. If we ignore this, however, and go back to the basis of this knowledge, it is possible to have complete agreement with the knowledge which Mrs Blavatsky uncovered for us.

Although it has been possible in a way to check the cosmology Mrs Blavatsky had brought for us, it is difficult to explain to scholars what we mean when we speak of the origin of the world, doing so from occult knowledge. It is, of course, remarkable what they achieve in deciphering ancient records, making great efforts to decipher Babylonian cuneiform writing and Egyptian hieroglyphs; but Max Mueller himself has said that nothing they have discovered from those records does as yet give them a picture of the history of the world’s origin. We see the scholars labouring on the shell, as it were, without penetrating to the kernel. This is not to say anything against the careful work and fine bits of detail the scholars have been labouring over. I would merely draw attention to the books published relating to the Bible and Babel dispute.28Friedrich Delitzsch (1850–1922) professor of Assyriology and Semitic languages, had established a connection between certain Old Testament passages and Babylonian writings about the creation (Bibel und Babel, Leipzig 1902). Lectures he gave on the subject in 1902 and 1903 triggered serious disputes, and there were a number of published refutations. Rudolf Steiner wrote about this in an essay on the supersensible world which was published in Lucifer-Gnosis, GA 34, in May 1904. All this is piecemeal; the scholars do not get beyond the shell. You feel they have no idea of the ways that take one to the key to these secrets. It is just like when someone begins to translate a book from another language into his own. Initially it is imperfect. That is how it is with the translation of ancient creation myths by today’s' scholars. They are shards of ancient wisdom taught from generation to generation in the mystery schools. Only people who had reached a certain degree of initiation could know something about it. I’ll come back to this again at the end of these lectures.

It is the initiates, therefore, who are able to come to these things in their own experience. You will ask: ‘What is an initiate, actually? People often speak of ‘initiates’ in theosophy and occult societies.’ An initiate is someone who has developed powers that lie dormant in every human being and are capable of development,29Soon after this lecture Rudolf Steiner published the series of essays on how to gain knowledge of higher worlds in Lucifer- Gnosis. having done so to a high degree. The initiate has developed them to such a degree that he is able to understand the nature of those powers in the cosmos, in the cosmic edifice, which come into consideration for what I want to discuss with you. Well, you’ll say: ‘People always say that such powers lie dormant in the human being, but there’s no certainty of this.’ This is simply due to a misunderstanding. The mystic or occultist is not saying anything which any scholar may not also say in his field. Imagine someone tells you a mathematical truth. If you have never learned mathematics yourself, you will not have the knowledge to test this truth. No one would deny that one needs to have the necessary abilities before one can judge a mathematical truth. No authority can decide the issue, only the individual who has experienced it can judge it. In the same way only someone who has himself experienced, lived through an occult truth, can judge it. People of our time are, however, demanding that occultists should prove anything they have to say immediately and for any average level of understanding. They will quote the words: ‘Anything which is true must be capable of proof, and anyone should be able to understand it.’ Yet occultists say nothing else but what any other scholar would also say in his field, and they do not ask for more than any mathematician would also demand.

We may ask why occult truths are being presented today. Until now, occult schools have followed the principle that the knowledge should not go beyond a small number of people. Those on the ‘right’ still follow the principle today.30See also lectures of 10-15 October 1915 in The Occult Movement in the Nineteenth Century (see Note 22), and on 1 and 7 November 1915 [in German] in Die okkulte Bewegung im neunzehnten Jahrhundert, GA 254. Yet anyone who has the experience and is able to read the signs of the times will know that this is no longer appropriate today. And this very fact, that it is no longer appropriate, has given rise to the theosophical world movement. Today, the rational mind is most highly developed. Associative thinking in conjunction with the senses has led to advances in industry and technology. This rational, intellectual thinking had its greatest triumphs in the 19th century. External intellectual thinking has never been as highly developed as it is today. 1 spoke of Oriental sages having original wisdom, and this was very different in form from our thinking today. Even the greatest masters among them did not have this acuity of logical thinking, this pure logicality; nor did they need it. Because of this it was also difficult to understand them. They had intuition, inner vision. True intuition does not come with logical or associative thinking; what happens is that a truth presents itself directly to the mind of the individual concerned. He will know it and there will be no need for proof.

The teachers in the theosophical movement now have the right to present part of the occult wisdom. We have the right to express the wisdom which has been given to us in form of intuition, putting it in the thought forms of modern life. A thought is a power like electricity, a power like steam power, like heat energy; and the thoughts presented within the theosophical movement are power for anyone who takes them in, giving himself up to them and not meeting them with immediate distrust. Hearing them, one will not notice it immediately, for the seed will only germinate later. No theosophical teacher asks anything but that people should listen to him. He is not asking for blind faith, only that people should listen. Neither acceptance as a matter of belief nor unbelieving rejection are the right attitude. Listeners should merely think the thoughts through for themselves, leaving aside belief or doubt, yes or no. They need to be ‘neutral’ and let the teaching come alive in their minds just to ‘try it out’. If you let theosophical thoughts be alive in you in this way, you will not just have thoughts in you, but a spiritual energy will pour in, to be active in you and bear fruit.

Western European civilization has developed thinking to such a high degree that people find it easiest to come to anything through thinking. Even the most faithful church-going Christians cannot now imagine the kind of faith people had in the past. That source spring of conviction has dried up. We have to make our thoughts fruitful in a very different way today. In the past, thinking was not widespread and spiritual knowledge could therefore only be presented in occult schools. Today we must turn to the power of thought with the things of the spirit; we then fire the thoughts so that they come alive in us. A spiritual speaker speaks to his listeners in a way that is very different from that of other speakers. He speaks in a way that makes a kind of spiritual atmosphere, spiritual powers, flow from him. Listeners should receive a thought without accepting or rejecting it, as something wholly objective, live with that thought, meditate on it and let it come alive in them. The thought will then generate energy or power in us.

Today we must make the occult truths concerning the origin and evolution of the world known in form of European thoughts and the modern scientific approach. The lectures will thus concern the conditions that preceded the beginnings of our own world. We will go back to long-ago times when the entity evolved from the greyest twilit darkness which was later to become human. We will go back to the stage where this human being was received by earthly powers, surrounded with earthly matter, up to the point where we are today. We’ll get to know the pre-earthly and earthly evolution of our world edifice and see how theosophy opens up a prospect on the future. We will see the direction in which our world evolution is going to continue. All this will be shown without going against the ideas of modem astronomy. Awakening the powers that lie dormant in us we will ourselves perceive the great goal towards which we are moving—to gain cosmological wisdom. Let us consider this cosmological wisdom in the sessions that follow.