Setting the Stage
An introduction to the "Body of Knowledge" known as Theosophy
Part 27 - Ancient And Modern Science Part Iii
THEOSOPHY, Vol. 83, No. 7, May, 1995
(Pages 210-216; Size: 16K)
(Number 3 of a 7-part series)
LIFE abhors silence. Its voice is not a cry; it is a song. In order to hear this song, one must listen to the life that is within and without. Life teaches harmony and brotherhood. Ultimately, the study of life is valuable if a human being acquires a profounder conviction in the fact of universal brotherhood. It is spiritual knowledge of the One Self and One Life within each and all that is the key to the mystery of life. In order to acquire spiritual knowledge one must look within and without.
Biology literally means the study or science of life. The observations of all the biologists, ancient and modern, can be distilled down to a few basic ideas. These fundamental biological truths are: (a) life manifests in a diversity of forms, but it is fundamentally a unity -- an interconnected web of life; (b) the forms of life are maintained by the intake and transformation of energy, but that energy is the essence of life which is neither created nor destroyed; (c) all manifested forms of life obey natural laws, but law is the essence of life; and (d) all forms of life have evolved from pre existing forms, but life in essence is evolution -- a process of growth from within without. These unifying principles of biology bind all living beings into one great whole; they explain life in its manifested and essential nature, and they are the expression of philosophical truths. In general, modern biologists study the outer forms of life, while ignoring the significance of the inner spiritual life. They have made progress in understanding the chemical and physiological processes involved in the generation, preservation, and reproduction of the forms, but the essence and origin of life is still a mystery.
Modern biologists can trace in detail the sequence of events in the development of the shape and structures of the embryo and fetus, but they still do not know what provides the pattern which the cells and chemical processes follow to form a specific and distinctive form of life. Modern biologists understand the chemical basis of the genetic code, but they still do not know how the original DNA was formed, how the process of gene replication, which regulates the production of different parts of the cell and organism, is turned on and off, or why different genes have different rates of mutation, rather than random rates of mutation. Modern biologists can trace the evolution of species from a few original types, but they have not found the origin of those original types.
The scope of modern biology extends from the study of the molecules and chemical processes that make up the cells (molecular biology), through the study of the organization of these cells into complex organs with their vital processes (physiology), to the study of the interaction of whole organisms and groups of organisms with one another and the environment in which they live (ecology and evolutionary biology).
Modern biology is the study of living organisms. Biologists distinguish living animate organisms from inanimate objects by certain characteristics. Living organisms are highly organized into complex structures and functions which contribute to the survival of the organism, such as a nervous, circulatory and reproductive system. They maintain a stable inner chemical environment quite different from their surrounding environment (homeostasis). They consume, transform, and utilize energy (metabolism). They selectively respond to different stimuli (irritability). They reproduce other organisms like themselves. They are capable of self sustained growth and have a definite pattern of growth and development. They adapt to their environment. In all, modern biologists are mechanistic and reductionistic in that they view life and explain all the biological vital phenomena from the basis of chemistry and physics.
Ancient biologists anticipated a number of the landmark discoveries of modern biologists. They studied the wide range of living organisms and recognized the vital functions that distinguished animate from inanimate objects. However, their view of life extended not only without, but also within to the psychic and spiritual departments of nature. Their concept of life was universal in scope and spiritual in essence.
The ancient Hindu system of medicine, Ayurveda, literally means "knowledge of life." In this system, life is represented as a combination of body, mind and spirit. It has its changeable aspect because the body is changeable, but it is also enduring because spirit -- the basis of the body -- is enduring. Life also endures through the transmigration of mind and the continuity of consciousness. Life was seen to be an independent vital principle, a subtle essence existing prior to the form. The phenomena of life were seen to be the results of chemical combinations in organic forms, as well as biomechanical and psychophysiological forces.
Aristotle, considered by many modern biologists to be the greatest biologist of antiquity for his extensive observations on the diversity, structure and functioning of organisms, believed that a living body possesses a soul which is the principle of its vitality and source of its vital powers and functions. He taught, "What has soul in it differs from what has not, in that the former displays life".
Turning to the ancient Hindus, one is immediately impressed with the anatomical and physiological knowledge they possessed. They anticipated many of the landmark discoveries of modern biology. For example, according to the ancient Hindu biologists, the circulatory system includes arteries (siras), veins (dhamani), capillaries (pratan) and the heart. They minutely described the path of arterial and venous blood from and to the heart long before William Harvey delivered his controversial lectures in 1615. They understood the nervous system to include sympathetic, cranial and spinal nerves, as well as the spinal cord. Charaka and Susruta traced foetal development from fertilization of the germ cell, through the differentiation of tissues from original layers of cells, to the development of the organs month by month. They taught that the germ cell, the fertilized ovum, contained potentially the entire organism that developed out of it, and that the constituent elements of the germ cell determined the physiological characteristics and predispositions of the offspring.
Theosophy restates the ancient Wisdom Religion. It includes all the natural sciences as it is knowledge regarding the physical, psychic, and spiritual departments of nature. The fundamental principles of Theosophy shed light on the mysteries that perplex modern biologists, while demonstrating that these scientists have discovered the manifestation of universal truths in biological phenomena.
The first fundamental proposition of Theosophy is that Deity is an absolute principle. Life is a distinct vital principle independent of any physical or chemical process. The vital force is active in organic matter and latent in inorganic matter, but the entire universe is pervaded by that vital principle of life which is itself an aspect of the One Life -- omnipresent and eternal Deity. The fundamental spiritual identity of all beings is the basis of the unity and interdependence of life. One would expect to find many examples in modern biology of the fundamental unity of life manifesting in the world of living organisms.
Molecular biologists recognize that 99 percent of all the organic matter that largely makes up the cells of living organisms can be reduced to six chief elements: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur, and phosphorus. These elements are further reducible to electrons, protons, neutrons, and their sub atomic particles. The great diversity of organic matter is reducible to the same units that make up inorganic matter. Classical cell theory concludes that all organisms are made up of units of life called cells. However modern biologists have discovered even the cells are made up of smaller nearly identical organs, systems and lives. The great diversity of organisms are reducible to smaller units or "lives."
Energy is neither created nor destroyed. The flow and transformation of energy is the basis of organic life. The one ultimate source of all energy used by living organisms is the sun. Sunlight is converted into sugars in plants by the process of photosynthesis. These carbohydrates are consumed by animals and converted into energy during the process of metabolism. It is no wonder that the ancient sages considered the sun to be a symbol of universal life and the absolute divine principle -- the one source of all life physical and spiritual.
The interdependence of life is the fundamental principle of the science of ecology. The integrity of the food chain and the survival of species depends on a delicate balance between predator and prey in an ecosystem. The survival of some species depends on symbiosis or their ability to utilize the vital processes of one another. Other organisms survive only because they live off another organism in a parasitic relationship.
The second fundamental proposition of Theosophy is the universality of the law of periodicity. Cycles are observed in all departments of nature and recorded at every level of biological research. The cell cycle is a recurring sequence of activity and rest, growth and division, that cells go through. At one stage the cell is taking in nutrients and sustaining itself. At another stage it separates and reproduces itself. In fact, one difference between cancer cells and "normal" cells is that the former are constantly in the stage of reproducing themselves. They never rest. They have lost the natural balance and periodicity of nature.
At the level of organisms, biologists observe that cycles govern the vital functions. There are circadian rhythms that vary on a twenty four hour basis. These internal clocks coincide with the periodicity of daylight and darkness. Variations in body temperature, immune response, hormonal levels, and metabolic rate follow a rhythm in harmony with the cycle of day and night. The seasonal reproduction and blooming of plants is sensitive to periodic increases and decreases in the duration of daylight. Animals mate and migrate according to the cycles of light and dark that characterize the different seasons.
Ecologists studying the interactions of organisms and groups of organisms observe cycles that make up an ecosystem. There is a cycle of nutrients in the food chain that provides a continuous circulation of energy and elements such as carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus. In this great cycle animals interact with plants and land animals interact with aquatic animals. If any link in the chain is broken the entire ecosystem is threatened.
The third fundamental proposition of Theosophy is the universality of the process of evolution from within without. Evolutionary biologists attribute the evolution of species to "natural selection." Variations in organisms that help them adapt favorably to their environment and procure food limited in supply will naturally increase the survival of those organisms. It is theorized that these organisms will pass on their genetic information to their descendants and eventually the species changes and mutates. In other words, the theory of natural selection expresses the manner in which favorable variations become stereotyped when reproduced. The question remains what cause, when combined with other secondary physical, climactic, and dietary influences produces the variations in the organisms themselves? Also, what is the origin of the few root types of plants and animals from which all the species have differentiated? Most modern biologists answer that it is gene mutation that is the inner cause.
According to Theosophy the inner cause must be ultimately sought for on the plane of mind and spirit. But the intermediate causes, between mind and spirit at one pole and matter and environmental forces at the other, are the astral models on the astral1 plane. They are the origin of the primeval root types of the species. It is the astral design body which provides the model that guides the development of the embryo. It is the "spiritual plasm" that guides the "physical plasm".
In conclusion, the study of ancient and modern biology reveals the interdependence and harmony in nature which is the lesson of life. Even though modern biology tends to ignore the spiritual aspect, here and there individuals faintly hear the song of life. As stated in The Lives of a Cell, by Lewis Thomas, ... "we are as dependent on the rest of life as are the leaves or midges or fish. We are part of the system.... We have become, in a painful, unwished for way, nature itself." Referring to humanitys role as handyman for the earth, he concludes:
I would much prefer this useful role, if I had any say, to the essentially unearthly creature we seem otherwise on the way to becoming. It would mean making some quite fundamental changes in our attitudes towards each other, if we were really to think of ourselves as indispensable elements of nature. We would surely become the environment to worry about the most. We would discover, in ourselves, the sources of wonderment and delight that we have discerned in all other manifestations of nature.
COMPILERS NOTE: I added this footnote; it was not in the article. If it doesnt paint an accurate enough picture, or is incorrect, I hope the Editors of THEOSOPHY magazine will spot it and point it out to me, so that I can make the necessary corrections.
"Astral" means the Electro Magnetic spectrum at every level. The "Astral Body" is the electromagnetic design body that the physical molecules adhere to in the building up of every form, in every kingdom, on the physical plane. The theosophical "Astral Light" is the "Ether" of modern science. It is the source of the idea known as the "Recording Angel" -- because every thought, word, and deed is recorded, stored, and magnetically reflected back to its source at a dynamically proper time: in other words, when conditions naturally warrant or permit it. We call this Karma, or Lawful action and reaction. All of us are also magnets for imprints in the "Astral Light" which were put there by others and which are similar to us in character. So we constantly affect and infect each other in this way -- for good or for bad.