The Ancient Wisdom

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The Ancient Wisdom

By A Besant

Mans Ascent

So stupendous is the ascent up which some men have climbed, and some are climbing, that when we scan it by an effort of the imagination we are apt to recoil, wearied in thought by the mere idea of that long journey. From the embryonic soul of the lowest savage to the liberated and triumphant perfected spiritual soul of the divine man – it seems scarcely credible that the one can contain in it all that is expressed in the other, and that the difference is but a difference in evolution, that one is only at the beginning and the other at the end of man’s ascent.

Below the one stretch the long ranks of the sub-human – the animals, vegetables, minerals, elemental essences; above the other stretch the infinite gradations of the superhuman – the Chohans, Manus, Buddhas, Builders, Lipikas; who may name or number the hosts of the mighty Ones? Looked at thus, as a stage in a yet vaster life, the many steps within the human kingdom shrink into a narrower compass, and man’s ascent is seen as comprising but one grade in evolution in the linked lives that stretch from the elemental essence onwards to the manifested God.

We have traced man’s ascent from the appearance (Page 292) of the embryonic soul to the state of the spiritually advanced, through the stages of evolving consciousness from the life of sensation to the life of thought. We have seen him retread the cycle of birth and death in the three worlds, each world yielding him its harvest and offering him opportunities for progress. We are now in a position to follow him into the final stages of his human evolution, stages that lie in the future for the vast bulk of our humanity, but that have already been trodden by its eldest children, and that re being trodden by a slender number of men and women in our own day.

These stages have been classified under two headings – the first are spoken of as constituting “the probationary Path,” while the later ones are included in “the Path proper” or “ the Path of discipleship.” We will take them in their natural order. 

As a man’s intellectual, moral, and spiritual nature develops, he becomes more and more conscious of the purpose of human life, and more and more eager to accomplish that purpose in his own person. Repeated longings for earthly joys, followed by full possession and by subsequent weariness, have gradually taught him the transient and unsatisfactory nature of earth’s best gifts; so often has he striven for, gained, employed, been satiated, and finally nauseated, that he turns away discontented from all that earth can offer. “What doth it profit?” sighs the wearied soul: “All is vanity and vexation. Hundreds, yea, thousands of times have I possessed, and finally have found disappointment even in possession.” (Page 293)  

“These joys are illusions, as bubbles on a stream, fairy-coloured, rainbow-hued, but bursting at a touch. I am athirst for realities; I have had enough of shadows; I pant for the eternal and the true, for freedom from the limitations that hem me in, that keep me prisoner amid these changing shows.” 

This first cry of the soul for liberation is the result of the realisation that, were this earth all that poets have dreamed it, were every evil swept away, every sorrow put an end to , every joy intensified, every beauty enhanced, were everything raised to its point of perfection, he would still be aweary of it, would turn from it void of desire. It has become to him a prison, and, let it be decorated as it may, he pants for the free and limitless air beyond its inclosing walls. 

Nor is heaven more attractive to him than earth; of that too he is aweary; its joys have lost their attractiveness, even its intellectual and emotional delights no longer satisfy. They also “come and go, impermanent” like the contacts of the senses; they are limited, transient, unsatisfying. He is tired of the changing; from very weariness he cries out for liberty. 

Sometimes this realisation of the worthlessness of earth and heaven is at first but a flash in consciousness, and the external worlds reassert their empire and the glamour of their illusive joys again laps the soul into content. Some lives even may pass, full of noble work and unselfish achievement, of pure thoughts and lofty deeds, ere this realisation of the emptiness of all that is phenomenal becomes the (Page 294) permanent attitude of the soul.

But sooner or later the soul once and for ever breaks with earth and heaven as incompetent to satisfy his needs, and this definite turning away from the transitory, this definite will to reach the eternal, is the gateway to the probationary Path. The soul steps off the highway of evolution to breast the steeper climb up the mountain side, resolute to escape from the bondage of earthly and heavenly lives, and to reach the freedom of the upper air. 

The work which has to be accomplished by the man who enters on the probationary Path is entirely mental and moral; he has to bring himself up to the point at which he will fit to “meet his Master face to face” : but he very words “his Master” need explanation. There are certain great Beings belonging to our race who have completed Their human evolution, and to whom allusion has already been made as constituting a Brotherhood, and as guiding and forwarding the development of the race. 

These Great Ones, the Masters, voluntarily incarnate in human bodies on order to form the connecting link between human and superhuman beings, and They permit those who fulfil certain conditions to become Their disciples, with the object of hastening their evolution and thus qualifying themselves to enter the great Brotherhood, and to assist in its glorious and beneficent work for man.

The Masters ever watch the race, and mark any who by the practice of virtue, by unselfish labour for human good, by intellectual effort turned to the (Page 295) service of man, by sincere devotion, piety, and purity, draw ahead of the mass of their fellows, and render themselves capable of receiving spiritual assistance beyond that shed down on mankind as a whole. If an individual is to receive special help he must show special receptivity.

For the Masters are the distributors of the spiritual energies that help on human evolution, and the use of these for the swifter growth of a single soul is only permitted when that soul shows a capacity for rapid progress and can thus be quickly fitted to become a helper of the race, returning to it the aid that had been afforded to himself. When a man, by his own efforts, utilising to the full all the general help coming to him through religion and philosophy, has struggled onwards to the front of the advancing human wave and when he shows a loving, selfless, helpful nature, then he becomes a special object of attention to the watchful Guardians of the race, and opportunities are put in his way to test his strength and call forth his intuition.In proportion as he successfully uses these, he is yet further helped, and glimpses are afforded to him of the true life, until the unsatisfactory and unreal nature of mundane existence presses more and more on the soul, with the result already mentioned – the weariness which makes him long for freedom and brings him to the gateway of the probationary Path.

His entrance on his Path places him in the position of a disciple or chelâ, on probation, and some one Master takes him under His care, recognising (Page 296) him as a man who has stepped out of the highway of evolution, and seeks the Teacher who shall guide his steps along the steep and narrow path which leads to liberation. 

That Teacher is awaiting him at the very entrance of the Path, and even though the neophyte knows not his Teacher, his Teacher knows him, sees his efforts, directs his steps, leads him into the conditions that best subserve his progress, watching over him with the tender solicitude of a mother, and with the wisdom born of perfect insight. The road may seem lonely and dark, and the young disciple may fancy himself deserted, but a “friend who sticketh closer than a brother” is ever at hand, and the help withheld from the senses is given to the soul.

There are four definite “qualifications” that the probationary chelâa must set himself to acquire, that are by the wisdom of the great Brotherhood laid down as the conditions of full discipleship. They are not asked for in perfection, but they must be striven for and partially possessed ere Initiation is permitted.The first of these is the discrimination between the real and the unreal which has been already dawning on the mind of the pupil, and which drew him to the Path on which he is now entered; the distinctions grows clear and sharply defined in his mind, and gradually frees him to a great extent from the fetters which bind him, for the second qualification, indifference to external things, comes naturally in the wake of discrimination, from the clear perception of their worthlessness. (Page 297)

He learns that the weariness which took all the savour out of life was due to the disappointments constantly arising from his search for satisfaction in the unreal, when only the real can content the soul; that all forms are unreal and without stability, changing ever under the impulses of life, and that nothing is real but the one Life that we seek for and love unconsciously under its many veils. This discrimination is much stimulated by the rapidly changing circumstances into which a disciple is generally thrown, with the view of pressing on him strongly the instability of all external things.

The lives of a disciple are generally lives of storm and stress, in order that the qualities which are normally evolved in a long succession of lives in the three worlds may in him be forced into swift growth and quickly brought to perfection. As he alternates rapidly from joy to sorrow, from peace to storm, from rest to toil, he learns to see in the changes the unreal forms, and to feel through all a steady unchanging life. He grows indifferent to the presence or the absence or the absence of things that thus come and go, and more and more he fixes his gaze on the changeless reality that is ever present. 

While he is thus gaining in insight and stability he works also at the development of the third qualification – the six mental attributes that are demanded from him ere he may enter on the Path itself. He need not possess them all perfectly, but he must have them all partially present at least ere he will be permitted to pass onward.

First he must (Page 298) gain control over his thoughts, the progeny of the restless, unruly mind, hard to curb as the wind. (Bhagavad Gitâ, vi. 34). Steady, daily practice in meditation, in concentration, had begun to reduce this mental rebel to order ere he entered on the probationary Path, and the disciple now works with concentrated energy to complete the task, knowing that the great increase in thought power that will accompany his rapid growth will prove a danger both to others and to himself unless the developing force be thoroughly under his control.

Better give a child dynamite as a plaything, than place the creative powers of thought in the hands of the selfish and ambitious. Secondly, the young chela must add outward self-control to inner, and must rule his speech and his actions as rigidly as he rules his thoughts. As the mind obeys the soul, so must the lower nature obey the mind. The usefulness of the disciple in the outer world depends as much on the pure and noble example set by his visible life, as his usefulness in the inner world depends on the steadiness and strength of his thoughts. Often is a good work marred by carelessness in this lower part of human activity, and the aspirant is bidden strive towards an ideal perfect in every part, in order that he may not later, when treading the Path, stumble in his own walk and cause the enemy to blaspheme. 

As already said, perfection in anything is not demanded at this stage, but the wise pupil strives towards perfection, knowing that at his best he is (Page 299) still far away from his ideal.

Thirdly, the candidate for full discipleship seeks to build into himself the sublime and far-reaching virtue of tolerance – the quiet acceptance of each man, each form of existence, as it is, without demand that it should be something other shaped more to his own liking. Beginning to realise that the one Life takes on countless limitations, each right in its own place and times, he accepts each limited expression of that Life without wishing to transform it into something else; he learns to revere the wisdom which planned this world and which guides it, and to view with wide-eyed serenity the imperfect parts as they slowly work out their partial lives.

The drunkard, learning his alphabet of the suffering caused by the dominance of the lower nature, is doing as usefully in his own stage as is the saint in his, completing his last lesson in earth’s school, and no more can justly be demanded from either than he is able to perform. One is in the kindergarten stage, learning by object-lessons, while the other is graduating, ready to leave his university; both are right for their age and their place, and should be helped and sympathised with in their place.

This is one of the lessons of what is known in occultism as “tolerance.” Fourthly must be developed endurance, the endurance that cheerfully bears all and resents nothing, going straight onwards unswervingly to the goal. Nothing can come to him but by the Law, and he knows the Law is good. He understands that the rocky pathway that leads up the mountain-side straight to the summit (Page 300) cannot be as easy to his feet as the well-beaten winding highway.

He realises that he is paying in a few short lives all the karmic obligations accumulated during his past, and that the payments must be correspondingly heavy. The very struggle into which he is plunged develop in him the fifth attribute, faith – faith in his Master and in himself, a serene strong confidence that is unshakeable. He learns to trust in the wisdom, the love, the power of his Master, and he is beginning to realise – not only to say he believes in – the Divinity within his own heart, able to subdue all things to Himself. The last mental requisite, balance, equilibrium, grows up to some extent without conscious effort during the striving after the preceding five.

The very setting of the will to tread the Path is a sign that the higher nature is opening out, and that the external world is definitely relegated to a lower place. The continuous efforts to lead the life of discipleship disentangle the soul from any remaining ties that may knit it to the world of sense, for the withdrawal of the soul’s attention from lower objects gradually exhausts the attractive power of those objects. They “turn away from an abstemious dweller in the body,” ( Bhagavad Gitâ, ii, 59.) and soon lose all power to disturb this balance. Thus he learns to move amid them undisturbed, neither seeking nor rejecting any. He also learns to balance amid mental troubles of every kind, amid alternations of mental joy and mental pain, this balance being further taught by (Page 301) the swift changes already spoken of through which his life is guided by the ever-watchful care of his Master.

These six mental attributes being in some measure attained, the probationary chelâa needs further but the fourth qualification, the deep intense longing for liberation, that yearning of the soul towards union with deity that is the promise of its own fulfillment. This adds the last touch to his readiness to enter into full discipleship, for, once that longing has definitely asserted itself, it can never again be eradicated, and the soul that has felt it can never again quench his thirst at earthly fountains; their waters will ever taste flat and vapid when he sips them, so that he will turn away with ever-deepening longing for the true water of life.

At this stage he is “the man ready for Initiation,” ready to definitely “enter the stream” that cuts him off forever from the interests of earthly life save as he can serve his Master in them and help forward the evolution of the race. Henceforth his life is not to be the life of separateness; it is to be offered up on the altar of humanity, a glad sacrifice of all he is, to be used for the common good. 

During the years spent in evolving the four qualifications, the probationary chelâa will have been advancing in many other respects. He will have been receiving from his Master much teaching, teaching usually imparted during the deep sleep of the body; the soul, clad in the well-organised astral body, will (Page 302) have become used to it as a vehicle of consciousness, and will have been drawn to his Master – to receive instruction and spiritual illumination.

He will further have been trained in meditation, and this effective practice outside the physical body will have quickened and brought into active exercise many of the higher powers; during such meditation he will have reached higher regions of being, learning more of the life of the mental plane. He will have been taught to use his increasing powers in human service, and during many of the hours of sleep for the body he will have been working diligently on the astral plane, aiding the souls that have passed on to it by death, comforting the victims of accidents, teaching any less instructed than himself, and in countless ways helping those who needed it, thus in (Page 303) humble fashion aiding the beneficent work of the Masters, and being associated with Their sublime Brotherhood as a co-labourer in a however modest and lowly degree.

Either on the probationary Path or later, the chelâa is offered the privilege of performing one of those acts of renunciation which mark the swifter ascent of man. He is allowed “to renounce Devachan,” that is, to resign the glorious life in the heavenly places that awaits him on his liberation from the physical world, the life which in his case would mostly be spent in the middle arupa world in the company of the Masters, and in all the sublime joys of the purest wisdom and love. If he renounce this fruit of his noble and devoted life, the spiritual forces that would have been expended in his Devachan are set free for the general service of the world, and he himself remains in the astral region to await a speedy rebirth upon earth.

His Master in this case selects and presides over his reincarnation, guiding him to take birth amid conditions conducive to his usefulness in the world, suitable for his further progress and for the work required at his hands. He has reached the stage at which every individual interest is subordinated to the divine work, and in which his will is fixed to serve in whatever way may be required of him. He therefore, gladly surrenders himself into the hands he trusts, accepting willingly and joyfully the place in the world in which he can best render service, and perform his share of the glorious work (Page 304) of aiding the evolution of humanity.

Blessed is the family into which a child is born tenanted by such a soul, a soul that brings with him the benediction of the Master and is ever watched and guided, every possible assistance being given him to bring his lower vehicles quickly under control. Occasionally, but rarely a chelâ may reincarnate in a body that has passed through infancy and extreme youth as the tabernacle of a less progressed Ego; when an Ego comes to the earth for a very brief life-period, say for some fifteen or twenty years, he will be leaving his body at the time of dawning manhood, when it has passed through the time of early training and is rapidly becoming an effective vehicle for the soul.

If such a body be a very good one, and some chelâ be awaiting a suitable reincarnation, it will often be watched during its tenancy by the Ego for whom it was originally built, with the view of utilising it when he has done with it; when the life-period of that Ego is completed, and he passes out of the body into Kamaloka on his way to Devachan, his cast-off body will be taken possession of by the waiting chelâ, a new tenant will enter the deserted house, and the apparently dead body will revive. Such cases are unusual, but are not unknown to occultists, and some references to them may be found in occult books.

Whether the incarnation be normal or abnormal, the progress of the soul, of the chelâ himself, continues, and the period already spoken of is reached when he is “ready for Initiation”; through that (Page 305) gateway of Initiation he enters, as a definitely accepted chelâ, on the Path. This Path consists of four distinct stages, and the entrance into each is guarded by an Initiation. Each Initiation is accompanied by an expansion of consciousness which gives what is called “the key to knowledge” belonging to the stage to which it admits, and this key of knowledge is also a key of power, for truly is knowledge power in all the realms of Nature.
When the chelâ has entered the Path he becomes what has been called “the houseless man,” (The Hindus call this stage that of Parivrajaka, the wanderer; the Buddhist calls it that of Srotapatti, he who has reached the stream. The chelâ is thus designated after his first Initiation and before his second.) for he longer looks on earth s this home – he has no abiding-place here, to him all places are welcome wherein he can serve his Master.

While he is on this stage of the Path there are three hindrances to progress, technically called “fetters,” which he has to get rid of, and now – as he is rapidly to perfect himself – it is demanded from him that he shall entirely eradicate faults of character, and perform completely the tasks belonging to his condition. The three fetters that he must loose from his limbs ere he can pass the second Initiation are: the illusion of the personal self, doubt, and superstition. The personal self must be felt in consciousness as an illusion, and must lose forever its power to impose itself on the soul as a reality.

He must feel himself one with all, all must live and breathe in him and he in all. (Page 306) Doubt must be destroyed, but by knowledge, not by crushing out; he must know reincarnation and karma and the existence of the Masters as facts; not accepting them as intellectually necessary, but knowing them as facts in Nature that he has himself verified, so that no doubt on these heads can ever again rise in his mind.

Superstition is escaped as the man rises into a knowledge of realities, and of the proper place of rites and ceremonies in the company of Nature; he learns to use every means and to be bound by none. When the chelâ has cast off these fetters – sometimes the task occupies several lives, sometimes it is achieved in part of a single life – he finds the second Initiation open to him, with its new “key of knowledge” and its widened horizon. The chelâ now sees before him a swiftly shortening span of compulsory life on earth, for when he has reached this stage he must pass through his third and fourth Initiations in his present life or in the next. (The chelâ on the second stage of the path is for the Hindu the Kutichaka, the man who builds a hut; he has reached a place of peace. For the Buddhist he is the Sakridagamin, the man who receives birth but once more.)

In this stage he has to bring into full working order the inner faculties, those belonging to the subtle bodies, for he needs them for his service in the higher realms of being. If he has developed them previously, this stage may be a very brief one, but he may pass through the gateway of death once more ere he is ready to receive his third Initiation, (Page 307) to become “the Swan,” the individual who soars into the empyrean, that wondrous Bird of Life whereof so many legends are related. ( The Hindu calls him the Paramahamsa, beyond the “ I “; the Buddhist names him the Arhat, the worthy.)

On this third stage of the Path the chelâ casts off the fourth and fifth fetters, those of desire and aversion; he sees the One self in all, and the outer veil can no longer blind him, whether it be fair or foul. He looks on all with an equal eye; that fair bud of tolerance that he cherished on the probationary Path now flowers out into an all-embracing love that wraps everything within its tender embrace. He is “the friend of every creature,” the “lover of all that lives” in a world where all things live. 

As a living embodiment of divine love, he passes swiftly onwards to the fourth Initiation, that admits him to the last stage of the Path, where he is “beyond the Individual,” the worthy , the venerable. ( The Hamsa, he who realises “I am THAT,” in the Hindu terms; the Anagamin, the man who receives birth no more, in the Buddhist.)Here he remains at his will, casting off the last fine fetters that still bind him with threads however fragile, and keep him back from liberation. He throws off all clinging to life in form, and then all longing for formless life; these are the chains and he must be chainless; he may move through the three worlds, but not a shred of theirs must have power to hold him; the splendours of the “formless world” must charm him no more than the concrete glories of the worlds of form.(Page 308)

Then – mightiest of all achievements – he casts off the last fetter of separateness, the “I “ever making faculty –(Ahamkara, generally given as Mana, pride, since pride is the subtlest manifestation on the “I” as distinct from others.) – which realises itself as apart from others, for he dwells on the plane of unity in his waking consciousness, on the buddhic plane where the Self of all is known and realised as one. This faculty was born with the soul, is the essence of individuality, and it persists till all that is valuable in it is worked into the Monad, and it can be dropped on the threshold of liberation, leaving its priceless result to the Monad, that sense of individual identity which is so pure and fine that it does not mar the consciousness of oneness.

Easily then drops away anything that could respond to ruffling contacts, and the chelâ stands robed in that glorious vesture of unchanging peace that naught can mar. And the casting away of that same “Imaking” faculty has cleared away from the spiritual vision the last clouds that could dim its piercing insight, and in the realisation of unity, ignorance – (Avidya, the first illusion and the last, that which makes the separated worlds – the first of the Nidanas – and that which drops off when liberation is attained.) – the limitation that gives birth to all separateness – falls away, and the man is perfect, is free.

Then has come the ending of the Path, and the ending of the Path is the threshold to Nirvana. Into that marvellous state of consciousness the (Page 309) chelâ has been wont to pass out of the body while he has been traversing the final stage of the Path; now, when he crosses the threshold, the nirvanic consciousness becomes his normal consciousness, for Nirvana is the home of the liberated Self. (The Jivanmukta, the liberated life, of the Hindu; the Asekha, he who has no more to learn, of the Buddhist.) He has completed man’s ascent, he touches the limit of humanity; above him there stretch hosts of mighty Beings, but they are superhuman; the crucifixion in flesh is over, the hour of liberation has struck, and the triumphant “It is finished!” rings from the conqueror’s lips. See! – he has crossed the threshold, he has vanished into the light nirvanic, another son of earth has conquered death.

What mysteries are veiled by that light supernal we know not; dimly we feel that the Supreme Self is found, that lover and Beloved are one. The long search is over, the thirst of the heart is quenched forever, he has entered into the joy of his Lord.

But has earth lost her child, is humanity bereft of her triumphant son? Nay! He has come forth from the bosom of the light, and He standeth again on the threshold of Nirvana, Himself seeming the very embodiment of that light, glorious beyond all telling, a manifested Son of God. But now His face is turned to earth, His eyes beam with divinest compassion on the wandering sons of men, His brethren after the flesh; He cannot leave them comfortless, scattered as sheep without a shepherd. Clothed in the majesty of a mighty renunciation, glorious with the (Page 310) strength of perfect wisdom and “power of an endless life,” He returns to earth to bless and guide humanity, Master of Wisdom, kingly Teacher, divine Man.

Returning thus to earth, the Master devotes Himself to the service of humanity with mightier forces at His command than He wielded while He trod the Path of discipleship; He has dedicated Himself to the helping of man, and He bends all the sublime powers that He holds to the quickening of the evolution of the world. He pays to those who are approaching the Path the debt He contracted in the days of His own chelaship, guiding, helping, teaching them as He was guided, helped, and taught before.

Such are the stages of man’s ascent, from the lowest savagery to the divine manhood. To such goal is humanity climbing, to such glory shall the race attain. (Page 311) 



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