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The Brotherhood of Life

by John P. Van Mater
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  • (Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, August/September 2002. Copyright 2002 Theosophical University Press. Article is reproduced by persmission.)
The Brotherhood of Life
Your view and mine may have some small differences, but in the main, I venture to say, we all think of our lovely Earth with its kingdoms as linked in a worldwide ecosystem. Not just the so-called living kingdoms, but Earth itself - the sunshine and storm, the seasons, the wind and the snow. This is our world, and we are integral parts of it, not merely perched here on a ball of matter circling round our sun.

A great deal depends on how we look upon Earth and the surrounding universe. What are our inherited shibboleths, our unthinking presuppositions? Do we feel that our plants, animals, and we humans are the only living things? that the globe we live upon and the other planets, our sun, all the suns that people the night sky - that all these, though showering forth energies of many kinds, are nonetheless dead, unconscious? that all worlds have resulted from the blind operation of certain laws and processes? If so, what are laws? Are we assuming that there is no intelligence anywhere except among our humans, plants, and animals?

The strange and interesting fact is that our own intuitions tell us differently, no matter what science or religion or philosophy may teach. When we see sunrises and sunsets, or hear the wind moving in the trees, or watch the spring flowers come forth, or when at night we look up at the wise old stars, there stir in us feelings and insights, momentary flashes of comprehension that we cannot capture and make our own. They do not seem to fit into our finite minds. But they inspire us to feel that we are intimate parts of Earth's activities, that we are somehow linked in our consciousness with the procession of the stars.

Isn't this what the poets through the centuries have been telling us? All the creative efforts - music, drama, poetry, art - give us insights into the livingness of things. In this area science appears to be coming to a crossroad. The ramifications of modern research and discovery are leading scientists to reconsider the question of consciousness, and by implication the question of what is living and what (if anything) is dead. To cite some examples:

In the new physics atomic particles seem to show the power of choice; naturalists in books and on television are revealing the complex wonders of supposedly simple creatures; biologists are finding that cells are not only complicated almost beyond belief, but appear to have a type of intelligence and form of communication and cooperation. Are cells beings or things? Traditional Darwinism has all but disappeared. Gone are heredity in the old sense, survival of the fittest, blind accumulation of small changes. The fossil record is full of saltations or jumps.

We have to ask what impulses brought these about? Is it merely organizations of matter acted upon by chance? Is consciousness a by-product of matter, or is it the basic urge behind evolution?

Let us examine for a moment the ancient view of Earth and cosmos. The prevailing religious and philosophical outlook in former times was that all systems, all units are living, conscious: atoms, cells, crystals, men, planets, suns, universes. Electricity, magnetism, gravity, light, and other forces of nature were also considered as living. All these evidence the life of the cosmos. All are expressions of beings, monads in various stages of evolution.

According to the ancients, the cosmic ladder of lives stretches from the tiniest subatomic particle and below to the grandest universe or clusters of universes and beyond. Since they held that every unit is a consciousness, a monad of infinite potential, they saw the cosmos as filled with divine intelligences of myriad types, all seeking to unfold themselves through evolution by means of repeated imbodiments.

As Thomas Henry I Huxley wrote:

Looking at the matter from the most rigidly scientific point of view, the assumption that, amidst the myriads of worlds scattered through endless space, there can be no intelligence, as much greater than man's as his is greater than a blackbeetle's; no being endowed with powers of influencing the course of nature as much greater than his, as his is greater than a snail's, seems to me not merely baseless, but impertinent.*
One would have to say infinitely more intelligences, both above man and below the black beetle. The higher beings - call them gods, Seraphim, Dhyani buddhas, Amshaspends, the names are legion in the various religions and philosophies - form the inner planet, sun, etc., just as man's spirit, intelligence, consciousness, mind, emotions, make up the inner life of what we know as Mary Jones or Frank Smith. Without these qualities and forces there would be no Mary Jones or Frank Smith, nothing but the material shell. And so it is with the universe, according to ancient thought.

It too is ensouled with hosts of informing intelligences at all levels, and it is the activities of these higher beings, however termed, that ensure the harmonious lifestyle or laws of their cosmos. They are the guarantors that law shall prevail and harmony be re-established whenever it has been disturbed. Hence the universal operations of cause and effect, action and reaction, not merely at the physical level, but in the worlds of emotion, desire, will, and thought. These are energies that go forth and impact on nature and all beings, and nature will react in time. This sowing and reaping, this process of restoring equilibrium, is termed karma, a word familiar to most people today. The current definition of life restricts living things solely to the organic kingdoms plants, animals, humans. The rest are considered dead things, relegated to the inorganic areas, which include the minerals, the worlds of all kinds that twinkle in the night sky, and the forces and laws that move and govern them. In fact the forces and laws of nature are generally considered to be lifeless and operating blindly, that is, not animated or directed by intelligence of any kind.

For the sake of clarity we should define what we mean by life, because when we use the term most people quite naturally think only of the three organic kingdoms - plants, beasts, and men - which scientists regard as living. Almost all ancient speculators and a growing number of naturalists and biologists use the term in a larger connotation to describe the forces and energies that enliven both the organic kingdoms and the so called inorganic kingdoms and worlds. Our own suggestion would be to use LIFE as applying to worlds, atoms, everything, whereas organic life would indicate the plant, animal, and human kingdoms.

The modern theosophic effort seeks to introduce the concept of the living universe governed by cause and effect or karma. When the universe reimbodies, it does so just like man and his lesser units, atoms, molecules, cells, etc., when he reincarnates. The new universe is the karma of the old universe: its newly awakened lives at all levels bring themselves, each such life being the karma of its past. Collectively they form the expression of the vaster being of which each living atom is an irreplaceable part.

All beings, then, are sparks of the universal essence or oversoul at various stages in their self unfoldment or evolution, which takes place through periodic reimbodiments. The spark that is your essence and the spark that is my essence have unfolded that which makes us human beings; we are at the human stage. Animals have unfolded that which makes them animals. The gods are gods because they have unfolded the godlike. And all the lives of all the kingdoms form the tissue of lives which is the expression of the universal being, the living universe.

It might be asked, why drag in life or consciousness when describing the universe or crystals or light or the wind and rain? These are simply natural phenomena, not involved with the question of life or non life. The distinction is pivotal. For as said earlier, the situation facing the scientist grows more intense as discoveries in various fields indicate the possibility that consciousness may exist on many levels. But the question remains, can the cosmic process be explained in purely physical terms? It can be described, but can it be explained? Can intelligent and semi intelligent agencies, realities, and laws operating behind the scenes, be disregarded as having no tangible part in the cosmic process in the growth of a child or unfolding of a flower? in sunspots and the solar wind? in frost patterns on windows? Examples abound everywhere that are full of mysteries. Are they merely aspects of physics and chemistry, or does consciousness of some kind play a role in all these phenomena?

Recently I chanced upon a clipping from the Pasadena Star News (August 19, 1986) describing how Dr. Murray Gell Mann and 72 Nobel Prize winners are opposing the teaching of creationism in our public schools. We certainly object to the literal acceptance of God creating the world in six days. At the same time, we need not accept that the birth of worlds is merely an astrophysical phenomenon and nothing more; or that the forces and powers of man - his thoughts, aspirations, understanding, awareness - are nothing but complex by products of matter. Children are being trained in the material sciences, and rightly so. But there is a middle ground between these two extremes which would expose them to the grand religious and philosophic explanations of the facts that the physical sciences describe on the material level.

What I am trying to make clear is that experiencing or sensing the livingness of Earth and cosmos involves metaphysical questions which science by reason of its own delvings is now beginning to have to face. What is life? What is substance? What is consciousness? Are life and consciousness products of matter, or is matter one of the expressions of consciousness? Or are they two sides of the same coin?

The oneness and interdependence of Earth and the life of Earth is something that cannot be gainsaid. Physical ecology is proving this fact constantly. Man is destroying nature's harmony with his depredations; he is ransacking Earth, cutting down its forests, abusing the soil, polluting the atmosphere, and poisoning the rivers and oceans. How long will nature tolerate this violation? One reason for our willingness to plunder Earth may well be that we have lost our feeling of oneness with nature and its kingdoms. Nature is just out there offering her riches to be used indiscriminately. After all, Earth is only a lump of matter.

Let us not fool ourselves. Earth is our mighty mother and will in time strike her balance. Oxygen will grow scarce, food less plentiful, the soil less fertile; floods may erode away the land, ice once again cover a whole hemisphere, another Gobi or Sahara replace a now thriving region or, perhaps, portions of lands may sink and others rise.

All this so that Earth may renew itself, lie fallow and gain strength. Our lovely globe and the cosmos in which it moves are a vast brotherhood of life. This brotherhood, this oneness, is the fact. Nature with all its diversity is a working brotherhood. It is man who is unbrotherly at times, shattering the harmony and balance. He does so at his own peril.

Each age has its egotisms, each believes "now at last we see things as they truly are." Often past beliefs seem strange to us because thinkers of former days may have held consciousness to be the basic reality, matter an illusion. Whereas today we consider matter to be the basic cause and reality, and consciousness a fortuitous and unique event that has struggled forth somehow on our tiny planet in our inconspicuous solar system.

Yet the resounding opinion through the ages has been the oneness of this living universe with all its lives, great and small. Man is the microcosm of the macrocosm, a universe in miniature; man with a spark of the divine in his heart of hearts urging him to see more grandly and to act more nobly. Sun and stars, flowers and skylarks, beautiful clouds, serene mountains and deserts. Noisy cities with their wealth and squalor, joy and sorrow, health and disease, selfishness and nobility. All are aspects of a cosmic process which over the countless millennia will challenge wayward man to make of himself something more truly human, indeed more godlike, and thus take his place as a self conscious collaborator in the brotherhood of all life.

  • (Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, August/September 2002. Copyright 2002 Theosophical University Press. Article is reproduced by persmission.)



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