THEOSOPHY, Vol. 83, No. 5, March, 1995
(Pages 138-145; Size: 17K)
(Number 1 of a 7-part series)

ANCIENT AND MODERN SCIENCE

CHEMISTRY: PART I

THE SECOND Object of the Theosophical Movement includes the study of ancient and modern Science. In modern times, scientific facts and the scientific method are viewed as synonymous with truth and the pursuit of the truth about nature. What can be gained from the investigation of ancient as well as modern Science?

Ancient Science, particularly in Egypt and India, reached great heights of practical application that in some ways have transcended, if not anticipated, modern scientific knowledge and theory. A comparative study of modern and ancient Science reveals that the sophisticated instruments of modern scientists have rediscovered ancient, or rather eternal, truths expressed in the laws of nature. These eternal and universal truths, which also can be expressed in philosophical terms, are the fundamental principles of Theosophy.

Chemistry, predicted by H.P.B. to be the science of this century, is an appropriate starting point for the study of ancient and modern Science. Chemistry analyzes the composition of different substances, their physical and chemical properties, and the specific conditions under which they combine with other substances. It is the foundation for understanding the other basic physical sciences -- Physics, Astronomy, and Biology. Practical applications of Chemistry affect every aspect of civilization.

A relationship can be seen between the physical accomplishments of a civilization and its theoretical and practical knowledge of Chemistry. Progress in Chemistry helps to enhance industry, agriculture and the arts. Its application to food and medicines vitally affects the health of individuals, and the manufacture of perfumes and cosmetics provides a large variety of consumer products. The great civilizations that flourished in ancient Egypt and India would be expected to offer evidence of profound knowledge of Chemistry.

The words "chemistry" and "alchemy" may very well have been derived from the root "Khem," an ancient name for Egypt. In Isis Unveiled, H.P.B. indicates that Egypt was a great storehouse of chemical knowledge, some of which surpassed the achievements of modern chemists. This was especially the case in preserving the integrity of chemical compounds. "Indestructible cements" were used by the Egyptians in the binding of stone and metal which have not lost their adhesiveness to this day. Corpses were preserved for thousands of years by a process of embalming and mummification. Paper and linen could be made to withstand the destructive combustion of flames. Copper was so elasticized that a sword could be twisted without breaking. The "art" of medicine reached great heights through their practical knowledge of pharmacology and anesthesia. The Egyptians also possessed great sophistication in applying Chemistry to the arts. Their paints and dyes are unsurpassed in brilliance and endurance.

However, Egypt was not the first to achieve great heights in knowledge of Chemistry. Brajendranath Seal states in his book, Positive Sciences Of The Ancient Hindus (Shri Jainendra Press, 1985, pp. 64-65), that for more than a thousand years India dominated the markets of the East through three breakthroughs in the practical application of Chemistry to industry: the preparation of color-fast dyes, the extraction of blue pigment from the indigo plant, and the chemical hardening of steel. He refers to ancient Hindu sources that detail a process for making a powder which, if inhaled, would produce sleep, and a process of preparing a stick so that it would produce light without fire.

Seal offers evidence that the ancient Hindu chemists anticipated the fundamental ideas of modern atomic theory. Paramandalya taught that atoms were spherical in shape. Parispanda expounded that all atoms were in incessant motion as whirling and vibrating particles. The Nyaya-Vaiseshika school anticipated the modern theories of chemical bonding and reactions. Convinced that atoms could not exist in an uncombined state, they taught that atoms combined to arrange themselves in different compounds (molecules). The different arrangements of the atoms, in numerical proportions, accounted for the variety of substances and specific chemical and physical properties of the substance. The Jain's school taught that the forces that linked atoms and held them together in the formation of substances were positive and negative in nature (electromagnetic). The physical properties of compounds depended on the nature of the linking of atoms. Most importantly the ancient Egyptians and Hindus did not limit their investigations to gross physical matter, but extended their observations into the finer forces and states of matter. Alchemy was that branch of chemistry which studied the hidden spirit of the elements.

H.P.B. made three predictions regarding the progress of modern Science and Chemistry. One was that a great revolution was going on in Chemistry, the result of which would be the birth of a new Alchemy. A second prediction was that by the end of the Nineteenth Century, Materialism would receive its death blow. The third was that Chemistry and Physiology would be the great magicians of the future that would open the eyes of Humanity to the great physical truths of nature.

She stated that these physical truths are that the physical and chemical constituents of all are found to be identical. Not only the chemical compounds are the same, but the same infinitesimal lives compose the atoms of the mineral, vegetable, and animal kingdoms. Also that, ultimately, the finest particles of matter, whether called organic or inorganic, are each and every one a life. How far has Chemistry progressed in fulfilling the predictions of H.P.B.?

In the Nineteenth Century, the simplest constituent of matter with specific chemical and physical properties that cannot be physically changed into a simpler variety of substance, was called an element. The smallest particle of an element retaining those specific properties was called an atom. In 1803 John Dalton presented the theory that atoms were like hard, inelastic billiard balls. This mechano-physical materialistic theory did receive its "death blow" in the latter part of the century. In 1896 the French chemist, Henri Becquerel, accidentally left a small quantity of pitchblend on a photographic plate. One of his keys was wedged between the pitchblend and the photographic plate. When the plate was later developed, it had an image of the key, which led to the discovery of radio-activity. This changed the concept of the atom, which could radiate smaller particles -- nuclei and electrons.

By 1919, Niels Bohr had developed a new model of the atom. The nucleus was further divided into protons and neutrons. The electrons were conceived as small negatively charged particles spinning around the nucleus in several different shells or orbitals. By the 1940's chemists realized the claims of transmutation made by the old alchemists. They were able to change one chemical element into another by bombarding nuclei with sub-atomic particles. Although the cost was too high to make the process practical, chemists were able to manufacture minute amounts of gold from a different substance.

From the 1960's to the 1980's, even more sub-atomic particles were discovered. The proton and neutrons were further divided into varieties of quarks. Electrons were divided into smaller particles called leptons. The chemical view of nature is gradually approaching the view expressed by H. P. Blavatsky in The Secret Doctrine over one hundred years ago. At the level of the atom and its sub-atomic particles, all forms of physical matter are ultimately composed of the same constituents. These particles behave like "lives."

The distinction between organic and inorganic compounds disappears at the level of the atom. The same atoms and sub-atomic particles pervade all forms of matter -- organic and inorganic. Electrons could hardly be considered "dead." Electrons whiz around at about 186,000 miles a second; they gravitate, resonate, change orbitals, have an electric charge, and react predictably to the presence of other electrons and forms of energy. They even spin in opposite directions.

In studying modern Chemistry in the light of Theosophy it becomes apparent that chemists have rediscovered in physical manifestations the fundamental universal principles expressed in The Secret Doctrine. The First Fundamental Proposition of Theosophy is that Deity -- the absolute, eternal, omnipresent, and changeless, reality that is the one "root" of all -- has two co-eternal manifested aspects, Spirit and Matter. Neither can be created or destroyed, but throughout the period of universal manifestation they are transformed into various degrees and forms of energy, matter, and consciousness.

The fundamental law of Chemistry is that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed -- the principle that underlies all formulas describing every chemical reaction. The basic chemical reactions involve a sharing or redistribution of electrons (oxidation-reduction reactions) or a sharing and exchange of hydrogen atoms (acid-base reactions). No electrons or atoms are created or destroyed in these reactions; they are shared or recombined.

Philosophically, Deity, the one reality, is an absolute abstraction. The reality of Nature is intangible to the senses and an abstraction to the intellect. What is perceived on the basis of physical appearance is an illusion. A fundamental doctrine of modern Chemistry is that gross visible physical matter is an illusionary phenomenon based on the interaction of finer, unseen, particles and forces. The sub-atomic particles behave like energy waves, or like vibrating sounds and colors. They are guided by laws of symmetry and numerical proportion, all of which are abstractions of Intelligence and a Reality Principle of Unity.

The Second Fundamental Proposition of Theosophy is the universality of the law of cycles. One expression of this universal law is that of cause and effect, which restores equilibrium whenever balance is disturbed. Chemists observe the operation of this fundamental law in every chemical reaction and equation. Because matter cannot be created or destroyed, when two compounds interact to produce a new compound, the number of atoms on one side of the chemical equation symbolizing that interaction has to equal the number of atoms on the other side plus some energy. This balance must occur in all chemical reactions in nature.

The intermolecular and inter-atomic forces that hold the atoms and molecules together or keep electrons spinning around the nucleus are also in equilibrium. The repulsive electrical force that would hurl the electron out of the atom is balanced by the gravitational force of the nucleus attracting the electron to the atom. The atom thus maintains its configuration because of the balance of those two opposing forces. The bonds that hold atoms together to form stable compound molecules, such as salt or water, maintain a balance of positive and negative charges.

Sevenfold divisions appear again and again in the cycles of nature. This is exemplified in the periodic table of the elements, where the elements are arranged according to atomic weight and atomic number in vertical columns (groups) and horizontal rows (periods). There are seven groups, or columns, plus an eighth group of chemically-inert noble gases. All the elements in the same column have similar chemical properties.

There is a periodicity that guides the behavior of the elements in other fundamental chemical processes. Electrons do not whirl around the nucleus chaotically but follow seven distinct paths or orbitals. Each orbital can hold a definite number of electrons. Every element in the same column of the periodic table has the same number of electrons in its outermost orbital path, except for the unique element hydrogen.

The Third Fundamental Proposition describes the evolutionary process in accordance with cyclic and karmic law. The process of perfection through evolution is like a spiral. The beginning and the ending of the evolutionary period is in Spirit, but at the end of the evolutionary spiral, consciousness and the substance used by consciousness has been raised to a higher degree of perfection relative to the point where that period of evolution started.

In The Seven Mysteries Of Life (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981) by Guy Murchie, the author states that the growth of a crystal is in the nature of a spiral. The molecules are not stacked on top of each other like building blocks. Crystalline growth begins with the introduction of an imperfection in one of the layers of the crystalline molecules. Layers of molecules arrange themselves around the imperfect layer in a form resembling a spiral staircase. Molecular imperfection must be present to initiate growth into a gem-perfect crystal. (See The Secret Doctrine I, 450, 623.) This process of chemical evolution is analogous to the process of human evolution. The Ego, Manas(1), incarnates into the physical human form at the midpoint of the evolutionary cycle, yet arises out of that imperfect condition to a higher stage of knowledge and purity.

Theosophy includes knowledge of the spiritual and material departments of nature, indicating the existence of a spiritual and material aspect of every atom, molecule, and element in the universe. Thus, Chemistry must also have both a spiritual and material aspect. Attention to the inner, invisible, spiritual aspect distinguishes ancient from modern Chemistry.

The physical atom is a compound made up of finer particles and forces. According to Theosophy, the physical atom is capable of infinite divisibility. The spiritual atom, on the other hand, is the indivisible, intelligent, and guiding center of force within the physical atom. Before an element manifests on the physical plane, it is an "element" on a more ethereal plane. The ancients knew of more than four elements -- earth, water, fire and air. These were symbolic names given to some of what H.P.B. calls "the Primary Elements," the spiritual essences of the compound physical elements. The seven Primary Elements can each be divided into forty-nine sub-elements, some of which are known to modern chemists.

The true alchemists of the Middle Ages were not engaged in transforming base metals into gold. Their primary interest was to transform the lower, base, ignoble, and selfish "elements" of the lower personal Man into a refined and purified vehicle for the divine Man, the "God" within. Thus the chemical processes of nature not only reflect universal truths, but can also be used, as the alchemists did, to symbolize the hidden aspects of Nature and Man. The true alchemists preserved the fundamental teachings of the ancient Wisdom-Religion in symbolic chemical and alchemical terminology. The universal truths are the "Philosopher's Stone," the "Alkahest"(2) that enables students of ancient and modern Science to transform human nature.


Next article:
Ancient and Modern Science
Physics: Part II


TWO (2) FOOTNOTES LISTED BELOW:

COMPILER'S NOTE: I added these footnotes; they were not in the article. If any of them don't paint an accurate enough picture, or are incorrect, I hope the Editors of THEOSOPHY magazine will spot them and point the inaccuracies out to me, so that I can make the necessary corrections.

(1) "Manas" means Mind.
Back to text.

(2) "Alkahest" -- the universal solvent in Alchemy (the Higher Self in each of us).
Back to text.
 


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