The Theosophical Society in America

Thinking Aloud: Blavatsky on Evolution

By Anna Lemkow

Originally printed in the Spring 2009 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Lemkow, Anna. "Humanity, Environment, and Spirit." Quest  97. 2 (Spring 2009): 72-73.

Anna LemkowPerennial philosophy is an open-ended wisdom whose meaning is expanding through the course of time and which requires continuing reformulation in terms consonant with the growth of knowledge. I believe that H. P. Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine represents one such reformulation. It is, among other things, a monumental treatise on cosmic evolution or, more accurately, on a cyclic process that includes both involution and evolution.

Blavatsky saw evolution as the universal process by which all things are produced, undergo change, grow, and develop. To suggest its nature, she used a few familiar illustrations. When a seed, a minute particle hardly distinguishable from any other kind of seed, is planted, it eventuates, through stages of development, in a fully grown tree or plant with flowers and fruit unique to its kind. Again, a fertilized ovum in the womb passes through many embryonic stages until a fully formed human infant is produced, and the infant in turn develops into an adult. This, too, is a kind of evolution—a human being has evolved from a germ.

Analogously, preceding the materialization of a building such as a great cathedral, there must be a conception in the architect's mind, followed by plans, followed by the actualization of the building from those plans. Thus an edifice has "evolved" from an idea. Or it may be defined as the coming into visibility of what was invisible, or the bringing into activity of something that was until then only a latent possibility.

The point is, whatever evolves must have some antecedent existence, whether mental or physical. The seed, according to Blavatsky, has within it an ideal design or plan (as Plato would have agreed), though each of its embodiments in nature is idiosyncratic and unique, since no tree or plant or leaf is identical to any other.

One might say that Blavatsky integrated the idea of evolution with the venerable idea of the universal hierarchy of being. Thus stated, the hierarchical principle is no longer rigid; it has become the working principle of a dynamic process involving all levels of being, "a progressive development toward a higher life." In her emphasis on process, Blavatsky foreshadowed the present shift in science from static or structure-oriented to process-oriented thinking.

Blavatsky delineates a journey in consciousness, encompassing a hierarchy of levels of being of which terrestrial evolution is a small but integral part. This journey begins with the involutionary arc of world formation, in which the emphasis is upon the geological development of material substances, followed by the evolutionary arc, wherein all beings, all life forms are coparticipants, first developing individuality and a sense of self through proliferation of species, then gradually, through conscious experience, realizing their unity and oneness with the source of being, which is divine and ineffable.

More generally, Blavatsky challenged the orthodoxies of both the science and theology of her day. Her assertions (such as her view of the dynamic nature of matter) seemed implausible and even preposterous at the time, but many of them have since been vindicated by science. A case in point is her conception of evolution. An essentially similar view is now advanced by other exponents of the perennial philosophy without crediting her as their source. (She herself always insisted that she was only reiterating the most ancient—and perennial—teaching.) More to the point, ideas similar to hers have recently emerged among scientists at the cutting edge of evolutionary theory.

Blavatsky applauded Darwin's contribution as far as it went. But she rejected the idea that evolution consists of a slow, mechanical accumulation through the ages of small increments of advantage. She saw it, on the contrary, as an unfolding in progressive stages of inner or inherent potentialities that exist within the process itself. Furthermore, it was for her a dual process: the involution of a diffused and generalized consciousness into separate, specialized material forms, thereby developing the structure of the world with all its chemical and physical complexity, followed by the evolution of conscious life through the development of self-aware, self-determined, and finally self-transcendent forms. The two processes worked synchronously, every step in the evolution of responsive forms being likewise a step in the acquisition of knowledge, leading finally to conscious freedom, or spiritualization.

Furthermore, Blavatsky proposed that there are three separate but interwoven streams of evolution: the spiritual, the intellectual, and the physical, each with its own rules or inner laws. All three streams are represented in the constitution of man, the microcosm of the macrocosm (nature itself), and it is this which makes us the complex beings we are (Secret Doctrine, I, 181).

To my knowledge, Blavatsky was the first writer to regard matter not as dead, passive, and inert, but as living, dynamic, and energetic, and to speak of a cosmic evolutionary process that amalgamates the traditional hierarchical order and the scientific theory of evolution.

A number of recent thinkers have propounded views like those of Blavatsky. They include the Hindu sage Sri Aurobindo; the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who in the 1920s pioneered the philosophy of process; and the philosopher, statesman, and scientist Jan Christian Smuts, whose book Holism and Evolution was published in 1926. Still later came the paleontologist, mystic, and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whose controversial writings are still anathema to many scientists, although he is proving to be one of the most influential minds of our age.

In retrospect, as far as evolutionary theory is concerned, Blavatsky introduced several new ideas, including the concepts that evolution proceeds on three different levels, each with its own rules and modus operandi, and that evolution is a cosmic process to which the development of mind is critical. Among scientists, these ideas emerged only very recently.

Anna F. Lemkow was born in Saratov, Russia, the city where HPB received her childhood education. Raised in western Canada, Anna moved to New York when she began work for the United Nations in the field of economic and social development. A long-time Theosophist and speaker at the Parliament of World Religions in 1993, Anna still resides in New York. This article is adapted from her book, The Wholeness Principle: Dynamics of Unity within Science, Religion, and Society (Quest Books, 1990).