THEOSOPHY, Vol. 42, No. 7, May, 1954
(Pages 321-324; Size: 12K)


[Part 10 of a 29-part series]

THE word devotion has several ideal connotations not usually intended in common usage. As with all terms relating to religion and the religious life, the "feeling tone" of devotion suggests a bit of blind faith, a portion of fanaticism and relatedness to those dual notions upon which Erich Fromm so effectively comments -- the glory of God and inherent debasement of sinful man. Yet we discover that The Bhagavad-Gita, an ethical, mystical and philosophical treatise, is called "The Book of Devotion," with each of its chapters headed by the word devotion.

According to Krishna, apparently, each man may practice several kinds of devotion in succession, or even at the same time. There is "devotion through the right performance of action," "devotion through application to the speculative doctrines," "devotion to the omnipresent spirit," etc. Krishna is spoken of as "the master of devotion," or else as "the Lord of Devotion." This presumably means that the Christ of India had learned the science of full application of his powers and energies in all directions, possessing "that power of steadfastness holding the man together, which by devotion controls every motion of the mind, the breath, the senses and the organs" (p. 126). Krishna, then, was not attempting to make Arjuna devoted to him as a mighty sage, but rather to learn the same science of devotion that Krishna knew, and here we come upon a point of considerable significance in relation to Theosophical history, involving an apparent contradiction in Theosophic orientation.

Theosophical texts counsel both independence of opinion and reverence for a line of great teachers. Thus a new student, especially if he is at all alert, will early become aware of the psychological difficulty thus introduced; the attitude of "reverence" and the attitude of extreme self-reliance and independence of mind do not seem to go together at all, either historically or logically. At this point, perhaps, the first thing an older student of Theosophy should make clear to the "newcomer" is that this difficulty, so easily apparent during the early stages of Theosophical study, will remain a difficulty for all eternity, and that Theosophy, perhaps above all else when defined in terms of doctrine, is the "doctrine" that continual awareness of this very paradox is a prerequisite to the attainment of wisdom.

It is, of course, fairly easy to solve this problem with words, but a much more difficult task to solve it in action and in relation to fellow students. The verbal solution is gained simply by saying that a distinction must be allowed between a student's open-hearted desire to consider carefully everything said by an accepted teacher, and accepting as fact and truth everything imparted; more important, perhaps, the "teacher" must always be correctly regarded in terms of the ideas presented by him -- not in terms of the personality presented.

Yet reverence, to make matters more complicated, cannot in any full sense have as an object a mere idea. It is a quality which, while spiritual and impersonal, yet touches lightly the personal -- for it focusses on a relationship between living beings, however exalted the recipient of "reverence" may be. Only at the opposite extremes do we see the lack of balanced use of this quality which prompts some to fawn upon teachers and others to be crude or disrespectful.

But there is a difference between "reverence" and "devotion." The reverent man need not be independent of reliance upon his teacher and, as a matter of fact, seldom is, but the truly devoted student is of necessity a seeker after truth "with an inspiration of his own to solve universal problems." Why this must actually be so is revealed quite clearly in the lineage of the word devotion itself, coming from vote. Joseph Shipley's Dictionary of Word Origins tells the story succinctly:

When the ancients devoted themselves to a thing -- or devoted a thing to a god -- they made a vow concerning it: L. de, in regard to, + vovere, vot--, to vow. Vow itself is via OFr. vou from the same L. votum; hence vow and vote are doublets; the vote registers the determination. (In some uses, vow is aphetic for avow, which is a doublet of avouch.) The word vote meant first a solemn pledge; then an ardent wish; then a formal manner of making one's wish or intention known: thus the modern sense. And to devote oneself (to a religious life) is to become a votary.
In other words, the "solemn pledge" had to be undertaken by each individual for himself on his own responsibility. But when recognized religion made it possible for numbers of men to become votaries by merely taking certain formal steps, the relationship of devotion to the higher self of each became obscured. Doubtless the same sort of institutionalized weakening of original meaning can be observed in every direction in social life as, for instance, in respect to the "marriage vow." The tendency to regard marriage as chiefly a social or religious contract must have been an inadequately philosophical derivation from that sort of pledge between men and women described in William Q. Judge's article, "Living the Higher Life."

With an ironic twist, Webster notes that the devoted person, who may be regarded as "dedicated," or "vowed," also may be considered as "doomed." To be "doomed" is clearly the fate of those who have tried to adopt someone else's method of devotion, rather than devising their own methods from the principles of Theosophic science -- which alone men may entirely share together. The "doom" is assured by two sets of factors. First, devotion to another's ideals and objectives without the pledging of oneself on one's own grounds links the "devoted" person to the fate of the group he has joined. His destiny is circumscribed, since, though he has apparently attempted a larger individuality by submerging himself in the personality of the group, this new individuality has no guarantee of permanence. When the fortune of the group or organization fails, he becomes a part of the failure. Second, whenever one is identified with a particular group, he, therefore, as a partisan, separates himself from all other groups, and more importantly, from the view of the totality of humankind as a natural brotherhood.

Thus we see that the usual linking of "devotion" to "fidelity" is unsatisfactory, philosophically. The "faithful" person may be the soul of honor in all observable human relationships, but he is not necessarily "faithful" to his unspoken obligation to remain autonomous in the sphere of moral decision. Great benefits may derive from the discipline of keeping his pledged word to anyone he has promised to serve in a certain manner, but if the whole of his relationship is determined by fidelity -- if his faithfulness is not deliberately restricted to specific promises made and, instead, allowed to embrace an amorphous area of sentimental feeling -- he has lost much of his capacity to improve the relationship. He may be "faithful" to a leader or an organization, but, in the strictest sense, he can be only devoted to principles. If his devotion is primarily to truth as he sees it -- that is, to those descriptions of truth we call principles and ideals -- he must be willing to forego any specific personal allegiances whenever a choice is to be made between persons and principles.

The words "cooperate" and "collaborate" are somewhat related to this discussion; they also are terms commonly misused. To cooperate, according to Webster's, means simply "to act jointly with another or others," whereas to collaborate means "to cooperate voluntarily, especially to share in literary, scientific or other intellectual production." The accent in the last sentence should be upon the word "production," indicating that the true "collaborator" is adding something of his own to the joint enterprise -- being creative rather than simply adaptable. Thus the opprobrium attached to the word collaboration in connection with the infamous "Quislings" of Hitler's day is a misuse of the term.

Whenever a person follows a prescribed course of conduct simply for self-protection or advancement, and without spontaneous creative desire in the enterprise, he may be "cooperating," but he is not "collaborating." The man of true devotion may be a collaborator, while the faithful person may simply be a cooperator. This distinction becomes particularly important if one is attempting to distinguish between a theosophical line of thought and action and forms of behavior characteristically associated with the history of religions. The merely "cooperative" Theosophist is the "too religious" Theosophist -- that is, one who eagerly seeks direction in all the affairs of life, including his study and thought. The "collaborating" Theosophist is one who finds some unique way of advancing the Theosophic cause, either in means devised for promulgation of theosophic principles, or in terms of specific educational endeavors which would not be likely to be originated without his own capacities.

It is the basic Theosophic contention, we may remember, that every man is capable of being devoted instead of faithful, a collaborator instead of simply a cooperator. Thus, in the theosophic life, the way of the student is at the same time more difficult and more rewarding. The requirement is not adaptation, but creation and origination, with balancing attention given to the need for blending one's efforts constructively with the efforts of others.

The true "Lords of Devotion," then, are not experts in conventional piety, nor sentimentalists, nor "dependent personalities," but rather those who stand upon the courage of their own exploratory convictions. In consequence, a "lord of devotion," like Krishna, must know how to "devote" himself in many ways in his dealings with his fellows.

Next article:
[Ethics. Morality. Good. Mores.
Authoritarianism. Manner. Custom.
Habit. Motive. Character.
Conventionality. Self-Discipline.]
[Part 11 of a 29-part series]

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