THEOSOPHY, Vol. 43, No. 3, January, 1955
(Pages 111-116; Size: 18K)
[Part 18 of a 29-part series]
ONE definition of a Mahatma, in current usage among Theosophists, is that of one "constitutionally incapable of doing wrong." While the very fact that this or a similar phrase is utilized so often in study class work indicates that belief in ethical perfectibility is natural and innate, it is also -- or at least should be -- disconcerting to realize that the Roman hierarchy maintains a nearly identical doctrine to buttress the claim of papal authority. Whatever distinctions exist between the guarantee that papal pronouncements are "free from error" and this Theosophical belief seem to revolve around the words fallible and infallible, so these we propose to examine.
First, however, let us note that it is not impossible to establish precedent for the idea of moral infallibility among the ancients. This is easily done. For instance, one may remark the many times when Krishna, in The Bhagavad-Gita, suggests that Arjuna may himself some day arrive at a point beyond which all confusion, and even the possibility of transgressing moral law, are left behind. An especially clear forerunner of the "constitutionally incapable of wrong" phrase is provided in Chapter Four, for there Krishna tells his disciple that once the pupil has made himself fit for the highest teaching, "the wise who see the truth will communicate it unto thee; knowing which thou shalt never again fall into error, O son of Bharata."
The emphasis here seems to be upon a kind or degree of knowledge which enables one to transcend the psychic imbalances from which human errors flow, and it may also be inferred that initiates into such knowledge, those who may be rightly called Sages or Adepts, are infallible as to ethical motivation.
Like all other statements pertaining to moral excellence, however, this assertion is easily liable to conflicting interpretations and, in some instances, has been invoked by Theosophists who wish to press a claim for the superhuman excellence of all remarks made by a favored personal leader. The reasoning employed in such instances is that if Masters are "infallible," and if H.P.B. be recognized as their one chosen spokesman in the last century, the "logical" successors of H.P.B. must also enjoy something approaching divine guidance. But, without even taking into account the fact that H. P. Blavatsky repudiated, in advance, all claim to this sort of apostolic successorship, as did Wm. Q. Judge after her death, such unconditional glorification bespeaks a lack of familiarity with both the derivation and the original philosophical meaning of infallible.
For, turning again to Joseph Shipley's Dictionary of Word Origins, under the word insult, we note that fallible derives from the Latin fallita, which means "coming short." The English word "fail" comes directly from an old French term failir -- "to be wanting." Therefore, in original usage, one who is regarded as infallible would simply be one who was "never found wanting" -- who never fails his fellows through either treachery or indifference. The association of infallibility with an inability to make any sort of a mistake grew during the centuries when medieval dogmas were consolidated; it was then found necessary to argue that a duly elected Pope could make no mistakes when pontificating ex cathedra, or, as Webster puts it "incapable of error in defining doctrines touching faith or morals." Thus those developments of history which gave a special meaning to infallibility, in order to strengthen belief in the absolute authority of the Pope, worked a transformation in the usage of a psychologically significant term.
Along with preachment of the doctrine of Papal infallibility came one interesting concession -- that a "Pope might be liable to error" when acting or thinking "as a person," but that when he pronounced on doctrines he was guided by God himself, and thus could make no mistakes. On this view, the same man could be both fallible and infallible, whereas the ancient theosophical teaching implied that Adepts, while incapable of being "found wanting" at any hour of the day, could easily -- also at any hour -- reflect ordinary human error. According to the records left for us by H. P. Blavatsky, at any rate, her own instructors admitted as much, without any hesitation. They, and she, however, did present the view that one who has acquired sufficient spiritual understanding will never reverse the direction of truth in any thought or deed. What seems to be implied here is that final judgment as to rightness or wrongness can only be pronounced in terms of the total series of effects involved in any action, and that one who has reached the status of Adept or Great Teacher is simply one who has gradually acquired sufficient understanding so that the broad effects of all efforts will work for the benefit of humanity.
Madame Blavatsky wrote in her Secret Doctrine that she had "never claimed personal infallibility," and since this statement is but one of many made by her, one can only infer that self-appointed "Theosophical Leaders," who wished to be considered H.P.B.'s successors or equals, should have admitted the same. One of H.P.B.'s most complete affirmations of her own "liability to error" appears in The Secret Doctrine, II, 640, in the context of the conclusion of Part 3 of that volume. She writes:And here, we must be allowed a last remark. No true theosophist, from the most ignorant up to the most learned, ought to claim infallibility for anything he may say or write upon occult matters. The chief point is to admit that, in many a way, in the classification of either cosmic or human principles, in addition to mistakes in the order of evolution, and especially on metaphysical questions, those of us who pretend to teach others more ignorant than ourselves -- are all liable to err. Thus mistakes have been made in "Isis Unveiled," in "Esoteric Buddhism," in "Man," in "Magic: White and Black," etc., etc.; and more than one mistake is likely to be found in the present work. This cannot be helped. For a large or even a small work on such abstruse subjects to be entirely exempt from error and blunder, it would have to be written from its first to its last page by a great adept, if not by an Avatar. Then only should we say, "This is verily a work without sin or blemish in it!" But, so long as the artist is imperfect, how can his work be perfect? "Endless is the search for truth!" Let us love it and aspire to it for its own sake, and not for the glory or benefit a minute portion of its revelation may confer on us. For who of us can presume to have the whole truth at his fingers' ends, even upon one minor teaching of Occultism?With all these qualifications in mind, then, of what use is the word infallible? Very little, it appears. But involved with this much abused term is a basic conception not only useful, but necessary, whenever one ponders the nature of great Theosophical Sages. The word infallible came into usage, perhaps, and has remained in use, because it is natural for men to find ways of expressing complete trust in a worthy teacher. Throughout The Bhagavad-Gita Krishna affirms that there is a wisdom, beyond and behind the words of the Vedas, which liberates its knowers from bondage to the familiar forms of human error. This wisdom is the "Secret Doctrine," always the same in principle or essence, yet, of necessity, presented with different emphases and differing terms according to the conditions surrounding the one who imparts it at any given time. Krishna further tells Arjuna, though, that perfect renunciation must be attained before one will even be able to understand the rudiments of that wisdom. Finally, however, by a series of self-initiations, he finally brings his kamic nature under such firm control that he is no longer led astray by vagrant desires.
With this background and these qualifications in mind, we can proceed to grant that the "ex cathedra" dogma of Catholicism has, like all similar teachings of religion, a partial basis both in ancient lore and present psychological fact. The sincere patriot who perceives a great opportunity for rendering service to his nation may acquire enough of infallibility to insure that the motive behind his decisions will be pure -- that is, so bound up is he in the determination to improve the destiny of those to whom he feels a special obligation, that he thinks and acts impersonally. Sometimes a political leader, like Gandhi, may transcend a conception of service to nation, and perceive that the only duty which never changes is that which is due to all humanity. To carry this example further, would anyone care to contend that, because Gandhi may have made mistakes in minor facts or in dates while speaking to his students and followers, he was just as fallible as anyone else? Was he ever "found wanting" according to the highest ethical criteria, once he had acquired the full realization of his influence and obligations?
So the question of infallibility is but another one of the puzzles clarified by H.P.B.'s basic article "What is Truth?" No mortal, she wrote, can ever attain to more than "relative truth" -- which means that every transcriber of doctrines is limited by words and method of transmission. But this does not mean that no teacher is worthy of our full trust. Whatever "errors" he makes will never harm the destiny nor mar the vision of pupils, so long as they do not transform those teachings into partisan dogmas. The teacher, in theosophical parlance, is simply one who offers a spiritual line of direction for use in one's thought and study. So long as the thoughts offered bring increased understanding, that teacher is infallible, in that his influence moves uninterruptedly in "the direction of truth." [Note: For those who would like to read it, once you have finished reading this article, I've placed a link to HPB's "What is Truth?" article at the end of this one.--Compiler]
Many theosophical inquirers have been repelled by H.P.B.'s assertion that she was instructed in the essential tenets of The Secret Doctrine by adept teachers, for this, they say, seems to imply, first, that she accepted the principle of absolute authority through revelation and, second, that she recommended the same acceptance to those who followed her. Nothing, however, could be farther from the recorded truth. Again and again she stated that each must constitute his own authority, and that the only legitimate process of revelation is self-induced discovery.
On page 81 of The Friendly Philosopher, Robert Crosbie quotes from Man, a Fragment of Forgotten History, in listing "the six glorious virtues." The fifth of these, "Samadana," is there described as an attainment "which renders the student constitutionally incapable of deviating from the right path." We note that here the reference includes the category of "student," and does not reserve this infallibility for a Master of Wisdom, thus indicating that gradual attainment of purer motivations, to the point where one no longer subverts truth or justice, is possible for any man, even though his knowledge be incomplete. This does not mean, however, that the "student" will be able to transmit doctrines or teachings with complete perfection -- since not even an adept can construct any form which is absolutely perfect. Thus H.P.B.'s "admission of errors," in this light, is less a confession of personal frailty than the enunciation of a necessary principle to be borne in mind by any student of doctrinal teachings.
Referring again to the matter of clarifying distinctions between Churchly and Theosophical conceptions of infallibility, then, it should be clear that it is precisely the claim of absolute authority as to phrasings of doctrine -- which is the root of the ex cathedra dogma -- that Theosophical teachers reject. One is infallible only to the degree that he has attained "samadana," which signifies constancy of pure motivation. The life of such an one is all of a piece, moreover, so far as motivation is concerned, so that we will not find, in Theosophic lore, the notion that one can be pure when serving the interests of an institution, and kamically dominated on other occasions. Aside from the fact that Theosophy grants that all good men will be at their absolute best when serving impersonal causes, theological insistence upon the association of infallibility with attainment of a certain official status needs vigorous opposition. For no one can be appointed or elected to infallibility, nor can even he who has attained to the supreme virtue of samadana be expected to produce complete and unimprovable perfection in the formulation of teachings.
A final question remains: Why is it that the notion of infallibility has been so appealing -- appealing not only to those who seek moral assurance through belief in priestly authority, but also to many Theosophists? Is it not that the quality of tamas, being universal in its application to the lower nature, works in influence of nearly all persons, leading them to wish for easy, sure ways to doctrinal accuracy and moral rectitude? But for the Theosophist who follows H.P.B.'s admonitions, no doctrine is "exact" or "absolutely authoritative" until rendered such by one's own testing and verifying -- and even then the exactitude resides in its psychological content, not in any particular expression. Nor is that higher moral rectitude called samadana transmissible from one unto another, like a badge or symbol of office. Remains, however, the important fact that a Theosophist's decision to ponder with continual respect the teachings and recommendations of an H. P. Blavatsky may originate in a truly "infallible" intuition.
COMPILER'S NOTE: The following is a separate item which followed the above article but was on the same page. I felt it was useful to include it here:
COMING OF AGE
Interregnums -- that is, periods of transitory chaos which follow the collapse of the traditional values of a civilization -- are of limited duration. ... The day is not far when the present interregnum will end, and a new "horizontal" ferment will arise -- not a new party or sect, but an irresistible global mood, a spiritual springtide like early Christianity or the Renaissance. It will probably mark the end of our historical era, the period which began with Galileo, Newton and Columbus, the period of human adolescence, the age of scientific formulations and quantitative measurements, of utility values, of the ascendancy of reason over spirit.
Its achievements were gigantic; the spasms of its death struggle are terrifying. But they cannot last much longer. As the frequency of the convulsions increases, the amplitude of their violence grows; the point of exhaustion has come within almost measurable range. There might be one or two more world wars but not a dozen. It is a question of decades, not centuries.
Those who are basically optimists can afford to face facts; they .... will not brandish the surgeon's knife at the social body, because they know that their own instruments are polluted. They will watch with open eyes and without sectarian blinkers for the first signs of the new horizontal movement. When it comes, they will assist its birth. ... And meanwhile their chief aim will be to create oases in the interregnum desert. ... Let us plant oases.
[Note: Here's the link to HPB's article, entitled "What is Truth?", that was mentioned and quoted from in the above article by the Editors.--Compiler]
[Logic. Ordered Thought. Religion. Revelation.
Following Threads of Thought. H.P.B.'s Writings.
Fundamental Propositions. Study of Inference.
Semantics. English. Sanskrit. Propositions.
Premises. Build a Philosophy. Direct Experience.
Plato. Aristotle. Science. William Q. Judge.
[Part 19 of a 29-part series]
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