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The World Periods
Alfred Percy Sinnett
An extract from Esoteric Buddhism
A STRIKING illustration of the uniformities of Nature is brought out by the first glance at the occult doctrine in reference to the development of man on the earth. The outline of the design is the same as the outline of the more comprehensive design covering the whole chain of worlds. The inner details of this world, as regards its units of construction, are the same as the inner details of the larger organism of which this world itself is a unit. That is to say, the development of humanity on this earth is accomplished by means of successive waves of development which correspond to the successive worlds in the great planetary chain. The great tide of human life, be it remembered - for that has been already set forth - sweeps round the whole circle of worlds in successive waves. These primary growths of humanity may be conveniently spoken of as rounds. We must not forget that the individual units, constituting each round in turn, are identically the same as regards their higher principles, that is, that the individualities on the earth during round one come back again after completing their travels round the whole series of worlds and constitute round two, and so on. But the point to which special attention should be drawn here is that the individual unit, having arrived at any given planet of the series in the course of any given round, does not merely touch that planet and pass on to the next. Before passing on, he has to live through a series of races on that planet. And this fact suggests the outline of the fabric which will presently develop itself in the reader’s mind, and exhibit that similarity of design on the part of one world as compared with the whole series, to which attention has already been drawn. As the complete scheme of Nature that we belong to is worked out by means of a series of rounds sweeping through all the worlds, so the development of humanity on each world is worked out by a series of races developed within the limits of each world in turn.
It is time now to make the working of this law clearer by coming to the actual figures which have to do with the evolution of our doctrine. It would have been premature to begin with them, but as soon as the idea of a system of worlds in a chain, and of life evolution on each through a series of rebirths, is satisfactorily grasped, the further examination of the laws at work will be greatly facilitated by precise reference to the actual number of worlds and the actual number of rounds and races required to accomplish the whole purpose of the system. For the whole duration of the system is as certainly limited in time, be it remembered, as the life of a single man. Probably not limited to any definite number of years set irrevocably from the commencement, but that which has a beginning progresses onward towards an end. The life of a man, leaving accidents quite out of the account, is a terminable period, and the life of a world system leads up to a final consummation. The vast periods of time, concerned in the life of a world system, dazzle the imagination as a rule, but still they are measurable; they are divisible into sub-periods of various kinds, and these have a definite number.
By what prophetic instinct Shakespeare pitched upon seven as the number which suited his fantastic classification of the ages of man, is a question with which we need not be much concerned; but certain it is that he could not have made a more felicitous choice. In periods of sevens the evolution of the races of man may be traced, and the actual number of the objective worlds which constitute our system, and of which the earth is one, is seven also. Remember, the occult scientists know this as a fact, just as the physical scientists know for a fact that the spectrum consists of seven colours, and the musical scale of seven tones. There are seven kingdoms of Nature, not three, as modern science has imperfectly classified them. Man belongs to a kingdom distinctly separate from that of the animals, including beings in a higher state of organization than that which manhood has familiarized us with as yet; and below the mineral kingdom there are three others, which science in the West knows nothing about; but this branch of the subject may be set aside for the present. It is mentioned merely to show the regular operation of the septenary law in Nature.
Man - returning to the kingdom we are most interested in - is evolved in a series of rounds (progressions round the series of worlds), and seven of these rounds have to be accomplished before the destinies of our system are worked out. The round which is at present going on is the fourth. There are considerations of the utmost possible interest connected with precise knowledge on these points, because each round is, as it were, specially allotted to the predominance of one of the seven principles in man, and in the regular order of their upward gradation.
An individual unit, arriving on a planet for the first time in the course of a round, has to work through seven races on that planet before he passes on to the next, and each of those races occupies the earth for a long time. Our old-fashioned speculations about time and eternity, suggested by the misty religious systems of the West, have brought on a curious habit of mind in connection with problems bearing on the actual duration of such periods. We can talk glibly of eternity, and, going to the other end of the scale, we are not shocked by a few thousand years, but directly years are numbered with precision in groups which lie in intervening regions of thought, illogical Western theologians are apt to regard such numbering as nonsense. Now, we at present living on this earth - the great bulk of humanity, that is to say, for there are exceptional cases to be considered later - are now going through the fifth race of our present fourth round. And yet the evolution of that fifth race began about a million of years ago. Will the reader, in consideration of the fact that the present cosmogony does not profess to work with eternity, nerve himself to deal with estimates that do concern themselves with millions of years, and even count such millions by considerable numbers?
Each race of the seven which go to make up a round - i.e. which are evolved on the earth in succession during its occupation by the great wave of humanity passing round the planetary chain - is itself subject to subdivision. Were this not the case, the active existences of each human unit would be indeed few and far between. Within the limits of each race there are seven subdivisional races, and again within the limits of each subdivision there are seven branch races. Through all these races, roughly speaking, each individual human unit must pass during his stay on earth, each time he arrives there, on a round of progress through the planetary system. On reflection, this necessity should not appal the mind so much as a hypothesis which would provide for fewer incarnations. For, however many lives each individual unit may pass through whole on earth during a round, be their numbers few or many, he cannot pass on until the time comes for the round wave to sweep forward. Even by the calculation already foreshadowed, it will be seen that the time spent by each individual unit in physical life can only be a small fraction of the whole time he has to get through between his arrival on earth and his departure for the next planet. The larger part of the time - as we reckon duration of time - is obviously, therefore, spent in those subjective conditions of existence which belong to the “World of Effects,” or spiritual earth attached to the physical earth, on which our objective existence is passed.
The nature of existence on the spiritual earth must be considered pari passu with the nature of that passed on the physical earth, and dealt with in the above enumeration of race incarnations. We must never forget that between each physical existence the individual unit passes through a period of existence in the corresponding spiritual world. And it is because the conditions of that existence are defined by the use that has been made of the opportunities in the next, preceding physical existence, that the spiritual earth is often spoken of in occult writing as the world of effects. The earth itself is its corresponding world of causes.
That which passes naturally into the world of effects after an incarnation in the world of causes is the individual unit or spiritual monad; but the personality just dissolved passes there with it, to an extent dependent on the qualifications of such personality - on the use, that is to say, which the person in question has made of his opportunities in life. The period to be spent in the world of effects - enormously longer in each case than the life which has paved the way for existence there - corresponds to the “hereafter” or heaven of ordinary theology. The narrow purview of ordinary religious conceptions deals merely with one spiritual life and its consequences in the life to come. Theology conceives that the entity concerned had its beginning in this physical life, and that the ensuing spiritual life will never stop. And this pair of existences which is shown by the elements of occult science, that we are now unfolding, to constitute a part only of the entity’s experience during its connection with a branch race which is one of seven belonging to a subdivisional race, itself one of seven belonging to a main race, itself one of seven belonging to the occupation of earth by one of the seven round-waves of humanity which have each to occupy it in turn before its functions in Nature are concluded - this microscopic molecule of the whole structure is what common theology treats as more than the whole, for it is supposed to cover eternity.
The reader must here be warned against one conclusion to which the above explanations - perfectly accurate as far as they go, but not yet covering the whole ground - might lead him. He will not get at the exact number of lives an individual entity has to lead on the earth in the course of its occupation by one round, if he merely raises seven to its third power. If one existence only were passed in each branch race the total number would obviously be 343, but each life descends at least twice into objectivity in the same branch - each monad, in other words, incarnates twice in each branch race. Again, there is a curious cyclic law which operates to augment the total number of incarnations beyond 686. Each subdivisional race has a certain extra vitality at its climax, which leads it to throw off an additional offshoot race at that point in its progress, and again another offshoot race is developed at the end of the subdivisional race by its dying momentum, so to speak. Through these races the whole tide of human life passes, and the result is that the actual normal number of incarnations for each monad is not far short of 800. Within relatively narrow limits it is a variable number, but the bearings of that fact may be considered later on.
The methodical law which carries each and every individual human entity through the vast evolutionary process thus sketched out, is in no way incompatible with that liability to fall away into abnormal destinies or ultimate annihilation which menaces the personal entities of people who cultivate very ignoble affinities. The distribution of the seven principles at death shows that clearly enough, but viewed in the light of these further explanations about evolution, the situation may be better realized. The permanent entity is that which lives through the whole series of lives not only through the races belonging to the present round-wave on earth, but also through those of other round-waves and other worlds. Broadly speaking, it may, in due time, though at some inconceivably distant future, as measured in years, recover a recollection of all those lives, which will seem as days in the past to us. But the astral dross, cast off at each passage into the world of effects, has a more or less independent existence of its own, quite separate from that of the spiritual entity from which it has just been disunited.
The natural history of this astral remnant is a problem of much interest and importance; but a methodical continuation of the whole subject will require us in the first instance to endeavour to realize the destiny of the higher and more durable spiritual Ego, and before going into that inquiry there is a good deal more to be said about the development of the objective races.
Esoteric science, though interesting itself mainly with matters generally regarded as appertaining to religion, would not be the complete comprehensive and trustworthy system that it is, if it failed to bring all the facts of earth life into harmony with its doctrines. It would have been little able to search out and ascertain the manner in which the human race has evolved through eons of time and series of planets, if it had not been in a position to ascertain also as the smaller inquiry is included in the greater, the manner in which the wave of humanity with which we are now concerned has been developed on this earth. The faculties, in short, which enable adepts to read the mysteries of other worlds, and of other states of existence, are in no way unequal to the task of travelling back along the life-current of this globe. It follows that while the brief record of a few thousand years is all that our so-called universal history can deal with, the earth history, which forms a department of esoteric knowledge, goes back to the incidents of the fourth race, which preceded ours, and to those of the third race, which preceded that. It goes back still further indeed, but the second and first races did not develop anything that could be called civilization, and of them therefore there is less to be said than of their successors. The third and fourth did - strange as it may seem to some modern readers to contemplate the notion of civilisation on the earth several millions of years ago.
Where are its traces? they will ask. How could the civilization with which Europe has now endowed mankind, pass away so completely that any future inhabitants of the earth could ever be ignorant that it once existed? How then can we conceive the idea that any similar civilisation can have vanished, leaving no records for us?
The answer lies in the regular routine of planetary life, which goes on pari passu with the life of its inhabitants. The periods of the great root races are divided from each other by great convulsions of Nature, and by great geological changes. Europe was not in existence as a continent at the time the fourth race flourished. The continent on which the fourth race lived was not in existence at the time the third race flourished. and neither of the continents which were the great vortices of the civilizations of these two races are in existence now. Seven great continental cataclysms occur during the occupation of the earth by the human life-wave for one round-period. Each race is cut off in this way at its appointed time, some survivors remaining in parts of the world, not the proper home of their race; but these, invariably in such cases, exhibiting a tendency to decay, and relapsing into barbarism with more or less rapidity.
The proper home of the fourth race, which directly preceded our own, was that continent of which some memory has been preserved even in exoteric literature - the lost Atlantis. But the great island, the destruction of which is spoken of by Plato, was really but the last remnant of the continent. “In the Eocene age,” I am told, “even in its very first part, the great cycle of the fourth race men, the Atlanteans, had already reached its highest point, and the great continent, the father of nearly all the present continents, showed the first symptoms of sinking - a process that occupied it down to 11,446 years ago, when its last island, that, translating its vernacular name, we may call with propriety Poseidonis, went down with a crash.
“Lemuria” (a former continent stretching southwards from India across what is now the Indian Ocean, but connected with Atlantis, for Africa was not then in existence) “should no more be confounded with the Atlantis continent than Europe with America. Both sank and were drowned, with their high civilizations and ‘gods;’ yet between the two catastrophes a period of about 700,000 years elapsed, Lemuria flourishing and ending her career just about that lapse of time before the early part of the Eocene age, since its race was the third. Behold the relics of that once great nation in some of the flat-headed aborigines of your Australia.”
It is a mistake on the part of a recent writer on Atlantis to people India and Egypt with the colonies of that continent, but of that more anon.
“Why should not your geologists,” asks my revered Mahatma teacher, “bear in mind that under the continents explored and fathomed by them, in the bowels of which they have found the Eocene age, and forced it to deliver them its secrets, there may be hidden deep in the fathomless, or rather unfathomed ocean beds, other and far older continents whose strata have never been geologically explored; and that they may some day upset entirely their present theories? Why not admit that our present continents have, like Lemuria and Atlantis, been several times already submerged, and had the time to reappear again, and bear their new groups of mankind and civilization; and that at the first great geological upheaval at the next cataclysm, in the series of periodical cataclysms that occur from the beginning to the end of every round, our already autopsized continents will go down, and the Lemurias and Atlantises come up again?
“Of course the fourth race had its periods of the highest civilization.” (The letter from which I am now quoting was written in answer to a series of questions I put.) “Greek, and Roman, and even Egyptian civilizations are nothing compared to the civilizations that began with the third race. Those of the second race were not savages, but they could not be called civilized.
“Greeks and Romans were small sub-races, and Egyptians part and parcel of our own Caucasian stock. Look at the latter, and at India. Having reached the highest civilization, and, what is more, learning, both went down; Egypt, as a distinct sub-race, disappearing entirely (her Copts are but a hybrid remnant); India, as one of the first and most powerful offshoots of the mother race, and composed of a number of sub-races, lasting to these times, and struggling to take once more her place in history some day. That history catches but a few stray, hazy glimpses of Egypt some 12,000 years back, when, having already reached the apex of its cycle thousands of years before, the latter had begun to go down.
“The Chaldees were at the apex of their occult fame before what you term the Bronze Age. We hold - but then what warrant can you give the world that we are right? - that far greater civilizations than our own have risen and decayed. It is not enough to say, as some of your modern writers do, that an extinct civilization existed before Rome and Athens were founded. We affirm that a series of civilizations existed before as well as after the glacial period, that they existed upon various points of the globe, reached the apex of glory, and died. Every trace and memory had been lost of the Assyrian and Phoenician civilizations, until discoveries began to be made a few years ago. And now they open a new, though not by far one of the earliest pages in the history of mankind. And yet how far back to those civilizations go in comparison with the oldest, and even then history is slow to accept. Archaeology has sufficiently demonstrated that the memory of man runs back vastly further than history has been willing to accept, and the sacred records of once mighty nations, preserved by their heirs, are still more worthy of trust. We speak of civilizations of the ante-glacial period, and not only in the minds of the vulgar and the profane, but even in the opinion of the highly-learned geologist, the claim sounds preposterous. What would you say then to our affirmation that the Chinese - I now speak of the inland, the true Chinamen, not of the hybrid mixture between the fourth and fifth races now occupying the throne - the aborigines who belong in their unallied nationality wholly to the highest and last branch of the fourth race, reached their highest civilization when the fifth had hardly appeared in Asia. When was it? Calculate. The group of islands discovered by Nordenskiöld of the Vega was found strewn with fossils of horses, sheep, oxen, &c., among gigantic bones of elephants, mammoths, rhinoceroses, and other monsters belonging to periods when man, says your science, had not yet made his appearance on earth. How came horses and sheep to be found in company with the huge antediluvians?
“The region now locked in the fetters of eternal winter, uninhabited by man - that most fragile of animals - will very soon be proved to have had not only a tropical climate, something your science knows and does not dispute, but having been likewise the seat of one of the most ancient civilizations of the fourth race, whose highest relics we now find in the degenerate Chinaman, and whose lowest are hopelessly (for the profane scientist) intermixed with the remnants of the third. I told you before that the highest people now on earth (spiritually) belong to the first sub-race of the fifth root race, and those are the Aryan Asiatics the highest race (physical intellectuality) is the last sub-race of the fifth - yourselves, the white conquerors. The majority of mankind belongs to the seventh sub-race of the fourth root race - the above-mentioned Chinamen and their offshoots and branchlets (Malayans, Mongolians, Tibetans, Javanese, &c., &c.) - with remnants of other sub-races of the fourth and the seventh sub-race of the third race. All these fallen, degraded semblances of humanity are the direct lineal descendants of highly civilized nations, neither the names nor memory of which have survived, except in such books as ‘Populvuh,’ the sacred book of the Guatemalans, and a few others unknown to science.”
I had inquired was there any way of accounting for what seems the curious rush of human progress within the last two thousand years as compared with the relatively stagnant condition of the fourth-round people up to the beginning of modern progress. This question it was that elicited the explanations quoted above, and also the following remarks in regard to the recent “rush of human progress.”
“The latter end of a very important cycle. Each round, each race, as every sub-race, has its great and its smaller cycles on every planet that mankind passes through. Our fourth-round humanity has its one great cycle, and so have its races and sub-races. ‘The curious rush’ is due to the double effect of the former - the beginning of its downward course - and of the latter (the small cycle of your sub-race) running on to its apex. Remember, you belong to the fifth race, yet you are but a western sub-race. Notwithstanding your efforts, what you call civilization is confined only to the latter and its offshoots in America. Radiating around, its deceptive light may seem to throw its rays on a greater distance than it does in reality. There is no rush in China, and of Japan you make but a caricature.
“A student of occultism ought not to speak of the stagnant condition of the fourth-round people, since history knows next to nothing of that condition, ‘up to the beginning of modern progress,’ of other nations but the Western. What do you know of America, for instance, before the invasion of that country by the Spaniards? Less than two centuries prior to the arrival of Cortez there was great a rush towards progress among the sub-races of Peru and Mexico as there is now in Europe and the United States. Their sub-race ended in nearly total annihilation through causes generated by itself. We may speak only of the ‘stagnant’ condition into which, following the law of development, growth, maturity and decline every race and sub-race falls during the transition periods. It is that latter condition your universal history is acquainted with, while it remains superbly ignorant of the condition even, India was in some ten centuries back. Your sub-races are now running toward the apex of their respective cycles, and that history goes no further back that the periods of decline of a few other sub-races belonging most of them to the preceding fourth race.”
I had asked to what epoch Atlantis belonged, and whether the cataclysm by which it was destroyed came in an appointed place in the progress of evolution, corresponding for the development of races to the obscuration of planets. The answer was: -
“To the Miocene times. Everything comes in its appointed time and place in the evolution of rounds, otherwise it would be impossible for the best seer to calculate the exact hour and year when such cataclysms great and small have to occur. All an adept could do would be to predict an approximate time, whereas now events that result in great geological changes may be predicted with as mathematical a certainty as eclipses and other revolutions in space. The sinking of Atlantis (the group of continents and isles) began during the Miocene period - as certain of your continents are now observed to be gradually sinking - and it culminated first in the final disappearance of the largest continent, an event coincident with the elevation of the Alps, and second, with that of the last of the fair islands mentioned by Plato. The Egyptian priests of Saïs told his ancestor, Solon that Atlantis (i.e. the only remaining large island) had perished 9000 years before their time. This was not a fancy date, since they had for millenniums preserved most carefully their records. But then, as I say, they spoke but of the Poseidonis, and would not reveal even to the great Greek legislator their secret chronology. As there are no geological reasons for doubting, but, on the contrary, a mass of evidence for accepting the tradition, science has finally accepted the existence of the great continent and archipelago, and thus vindicated the truth of one more ‘fable.’
“The approach of every new obscuration is always signalled by cataclysms of either fire or water. But, apart from this, every root race has to be cut in two, so to say, by either one or the other. Thus, having reached the apex of its development and glory, the fourth race - the Atlanteans - were destroyed by water; you find now but their degenerate fallen remnants, whose sub-races, nevertheless, each of them, has its palmy days of glory and relative greatness. What they are now, you will be some day, the law of cycles being one and immutable. When your race, the fifth, will have reached its zenith of physical intellectuality, and developed its highest civilization (remember the difference we make between material and spiritual civilizations), unable to go any higher in its own cycle, its progress towards absolute evil will be arrested (as its predecessors, the Lemurians and the Atlanteans, the men of the third and fourth races, were arrested in their progress towards the same) by one of such cataclysmic changes, its great civilization destroyed, and all the sub-races of that race will be found going down their respective cycles, after a short period of glory and learning. See the remnants of the Atlanteans, the old Greeks and Romans (the modern belong to the fifth race). See how great and how short, how evanescent were their days of fame and glory. For they were but sub-races of the seven offshoots of the root race. [Branches of the subdivisions, according to the nomenclature I have adopted previously.] No mother race, any more than her sub-races and offshoots, is allowed by the one reigning law to trespass upon the prerogatives of the race or sub-race that will follow it; least of all to encroach upon the knowledge and powers in store for its successor.”
The “progress towards absolute evil.” arrested by the cataclysms of each race in turn, sets in with the acquisition, by means of ordinary intellectual research and scientific advancement, of those powers over Nature which accrue even now in adeptship from the premature development of higher faculties than those we ordinarily employ. I have spoken slightly of these powers in a preceding chapter, when endeavouring to describe our esoteric teachers; to describe them minutely would lead me into a long digression on occult phenomena. It is enough to say that they are such as cannot but be dangerous to society generally, and provocative of all manner of crimes which would utterly defy detection, if possessed by persons capable of regarding them as anything else but a profoundly sacred trust. Now some of these powers are simply the practical application of obscure forces of Nature, susceptible of discovery in the course of ordinary scientific progress. Such progress had been accomplished by the Atlanteans. The worldly men of science in that race had learned the secrets of the disintegration and reintegration of matter, which few but practical spiritualists as yet know to be possible, and of control over the elementals, by means of which that and other even more portentous phenomena can be produced. Such powers in the hands of persons willing to use them for merely selfish and unscrupulous ends must not only be productive of social disaster, but also for the persons who hold them, of progress in the direction of that evilly spiritual exaltation which is a far more terrible result than suffering and inconvenience in this world. Thus it is, when physical intellect, unguarded by elevated morality, runs over into the proper region of spiritual advancement, that the natural law provides for its violent repression. The contingency will be better understood when we come to deal with the general destinies towards which humanity is tending.
The principle under which the various races of man as they develop are controlled collectively by the cyclic law, however they may individually exercise the free will they unquestionably possess, is thus very plainly asserted. For people who have never regarded human affairs as covering more than the very short period with which history deals, the course of events will perhaps, as a rule, exhibit no cyclic character, but rather a chequered progress, hastened sometimes by great men and fortunate circumstances, sometimes retarded by war, bigotry, or intervals of intellectual sterility, but moving continually onwards in the long account, at one rate of speed or another. As the esoteric view of the matter, fortified by the wide range of observation which occult science is enabled to take, has an altogether opposite tendency, it seems worth while to conclude these explanations with an extract from a distinguished author, quite unconnected with the occult world, who nevertheless, from a close observation of the mere historical record, pronounces himself decisively in favour of the theory of cycles. In his “History of the Intellectual Development of Europe” Dr J W. Draper writes as follows: -
“We are, as we often say, the creatures of circumstances. In that expression there is a higher philosophy than might at first sight appear . . . .From this more accurate point of view we should therefore consider the course of these events, recognizing the principle that the affairs of men pass forward in a determinate way, expanding and unfolding themselves. And hence we see that the things of which we have spoken as though they were matters of choice, were in reality force upon their apparent authors by the necessity of the times. But in truth they should be considered as the presentation of a certain phase of life which nations in their onward course sooner or later assume. To the individual, how well we know that a sober moderation of action, an appropriate gravity of demeanour, belong to the mature period of life, change from the wanton wilfulness of youth, which may be ushered in, or its beginning marked by, many accidental incidents; in one perhaps by domestic bereavements, in another by the loss of fortune, in a third by ill-health. We are correct enough in imputing to such trials the change of character; but we never deceive ourselves by supposing that it would have failed to take place had those incidents not occurred. There runs an irresistible destiny in the midst of all these vicissitudes . . . There are analogies between the life of a nation and that of an individual, who, though he may be in one respect the maker of his own fortunes, for happiness or for misery, for good or for evil, though he remains here or goes there, as his inclinations prompt, though he does this or abstains from that, as he chooses, is nevertheless held fast by an inexorable fate - a fate which brought him into the world involuntarily, as far as he was concerned, which presses him forward through a definite career, the stages of which are absolutely invariable - infancy, childhood, youth, maturity, old age, with all their characteristic actions and passions - and which removes him from the scene at the appointed time, in most cases against his will. So also it is with nations; the voluntary is only the outward semblance, covering, but hardly hiding, the predetermined. Over the events of life we may have control, but none whatsoever over the law of its progress. There is a geometry that applies to nations an equation of their curve of advance. That no mortal man can touch.”
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