The Theosophical Society in America

Viewpoint: The Web of Life

 By Radha Burnier
President, Theosophical Society
 [condensed from the Daily News Bulletin,125th International Convention]

What is life? From where did life arrive? No one knows. However, the web of life surrounds us and is tangible to our senses. The Mundaka Upanishad (1.16.9) says: “As a spider spins and withdraws its thread, so from the Imperishable arrives the universe. By contemplative power Brahman (the Supreme) expands.”

The Supreme Reality builds the web, which is the living universe, with one unbroken thread, stretching farther and farther down to this dense, material world and, when the time comes, it will withdraw the thread and later spin a new web.

As we study the universe, numerous varieties can be noticed within it, differing in age—ancient rocks, newer rocks, extinct species, and living ones. “This world was not brought into its present condition,” Annie Besant declared, “by one creative word. Slowly and gradually and by prolonged meditation did Brahma make the world.” Brahman expands, slowly, by our limited standards, by breathing out a few elements and combining them in wonderful ways. All life forms are organized, stage by stage, through the ages as evolution proceeds, according to the flow of the creative Thought in the inner, intangible realms.

The concept of a life web and the interconnectedness of life forms is not new. Many ancient peoples were not only aware that life forms are knit together in marvelous ways, but they experienced the sacredness of the life-giving breath of Brahman, which vivifies all manifestation. To the ancient Indians, mountains and rivers, trees and animals and the Earth itself were divine. The Taoists saw this visible world as a reflection of the supreme tranquility of pure Spirit. Australian aboriginals, close to nature, knew where water flowed invisibly below the earth and thereby at times they saved the lives of ignorant white intruders into their country’s vast desert. Such sensitivity has been lost, as materialistic views have increasingly invaded the human mind.

The wholeness and sanctity of life is a new concept only to the Western world. In medieval Europe, Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake as a heretic four hundred years ago because he proclaimed that the One Infinite Existence is everything without exception: “In it everything has being, not only actualities—a universe that is—but all universes that may be.” As the Church’s influence waned, it yielded place to the narrowness and aridity of the rational philosophy that even now holds sway. But fortunately there is the beginning of what is called a paradigm shift from the concept of a mechanistic, purposeless, material universe, to an interconnected, limitless, living world with mysterious dimensions.

Since the mechanistic view has had a stranglehold on the human mind and has spread into every nook and corner of the earth, only slow progress is being made towards realizing the truth described in Theosophical literature: “Nature has linked all parts of her Empire together by subtle threads of magnetic sympathy, and there is a mutual correlation even between a star and a man” (Mahatma Letters, p. 263).

The mutual relationship and cooperation between the denizens of the earth are indeed marvelous. There are countless cooperative relationships between individuals and species. They offer each other transport, shelter, warnings of impending danger, and other forms of help. No single species, we are told, could persist if it were alone on the planet. It would eventually exhaust all the available nutrients and, having no way to convert its own waste products into food, it would die. Life is necessarily a cooperative venture.

While biologists are exploring such details about interdependency, physicists are puzzling over questions about electrons in one part of the universe influencing others at a great distance. The same force that makes apples fall holds the moon and planets in their orbits: “All parts of the universe seem to be evolving in a similar way, as though they share a common origin,” according to the astronomer Sir William Reese. The survival of the cosmos depends on a fine degree of tuning; for example, were the ratio of gravity and expansion energy to change even a tiny bit, the universe would collapse or never come into existence. There is a cosmic harmony that maintains the right conditions, proportions, and order for life to exist and evolution to proceed.

The evolutionary process unfolds the invisible spiritual attributes inherent in the source—Brahman—figuratively the spider. Beauty is everywhere, because the supreme source is beauty. Plants and trees, which draw nutrition from the earth, convert what they absorb into colors, textures, and shapes that ravish the eyes. The shells of creatures in the sea and coral reefs, songs of birds, and a myriad other things in the cosmos reveal in part the divine splendor.

The web of life is not only what is perceptible; underlying what is seen are energies of a spiritual kind. Cooperation between living creatures is one of the expressions of the spiritual. The Law of Sacrifice applies to all that exists and teaches every creature to give of itself for the sake of others. As the Gita says, by mutual adoration all forms of life enrich themselves. Scientists and others who study the effects at the material level of the unseen divine energies emanating from the Source will one day become philosophers and mystics who know that the web is not different from the spider, symbol of the Eternal.