Our Terms & Words
Jan 17, 1995 09:09 PM
by Eldon B. Tucker
Following are some comments on our theosophical terminology, in
partial response to your last message to me, and other comments
I've recently read by others on "theos-l".
Our Terms & Words -- Eldon Tucker
Looking carefully at some of our older texts, examining them
word-by-word, we see in such books as "The Key to Theosophy"
material that is getting out of date. There are some words that
have dropped from the English language. The books contain
references to the science and religious outlook of a previous
century. The analogies and metaphors that the philosophy is
described in depend upon a way of looking at things that is
appropriate to the 1800's rather than the 1900's and beyond.
As those books are republished, I'd like to see them updated.
I'd agree that the out-of-date English words should go. I've
found a few dozen in a number of books that I've computerized.
Apart from those obsolete words, what is it that needs upgrading
in the materials, to make them focused for our age? It is
precisely those terms and language adopted to popular thought and
worded in the language of the day that needs upgrading! The
Sanskrit terms are relatively timeless.
Consider "Karma". As a word, is just as relevant now as it was
100 years ago. We were right in the past to use "karma" rather
than "justice," and it is still right to do so. With that usage,
the word has made its way into the English language, and the idea
has been preserved. It is a word in its own right, representing
a unique concept, and not a passing reinterpretation of some
Someone might protest against using Sanskrit terms. But it's not
the archaic oriental language that needs to be dropped, but
rather last century's attempt "to put into modern language" our
philosophy that must go. And we should probably avoid making the
same mistake. When we mix the timeless philosophy with the idiom
of the day, we produce materials that quickly get out of date and
lose their value.
On what is our terminology based? We have a heavy reliance upon
Sanskrit. But we also draw upon terms from the various religions
and philosophies of the world, including, for example, Greek
terms like "Logos." It is important, though, to not draw too
strict a correspondence between the borrowed terms and the
meanings that are assigned in the Esoteric Philosophy; the
meanings may vary.
Why, it might be asked, don't we drop all these terms, and just
use simple English terms? Because the meaning would not be
properly conveyed, and it would increase, not reduce, the
confusion! Consider the writings of the Tibetan teacher C.
Trungpa. He adopted English terms, but in reading his books, the
reader must learn a different meaning for each English term. It
is far more difficult for the reader to have to remember the
differing meanings, and keep from being confused by the existing
connotations of the English words, that to learn entirely new
For the student of Theosophy, there are many new terms to learn.
But this is not different from any other area of study. Every
field of thought has its own terms, its own jargon, its own
language. The terminology we learn with psychology, chemistry,
mathematics, or even auto mechanics (e.g. "distributor cap" or
"crankshaft") is different. Having to learn a new language with
each different field of study is always required of us.
What is really objected to in the popular presentation of
Theosophy is not the use of its own terms, but the fact that
Theosophy itself is harder to pin down. Consider six reasons why
this may be so.
1. The terms are often adopted from various religions and
philosophies, but they do not always mean the same thing in
Theosophy. A source of confusion arises from assuming they
retain the original meaning.
2. Terms are used sometimes as an exoteric blind, where a
misleading simpler interpretation hides a deeper, esoteric truth.
There may be more to what we read than the obvious,
most-apparent, simple meaning!
3. A theosophical author may use terms inaccurately, through
carelessness, a partial misunderstanding of the idea, or in
wanting to give the idea his own twist or unique interpretation.
4. The terms used by one writer may be based upon a different
model of Theosophy that another writer follows. The terms are
accurate only when we understand the context in which they are
being used, i.e. the writer's particular school of Theosophy.
The term "astral", for instance, means something different to
Blavatsky than in the Besant/Leadbeater variant of Theosophy.
5. There are different levels of meaning to the terms, and the
core concepts. Each increasingly deeper level of meaning
embraces the simpler understandings, but gives a new dimension to
understanding. Consider the many levels of meaning, for
instance, to "nirvana", from the simplest meaning of personal
annihilation to the more profound meanings found in the
6. And last, but not least, the confusion in terms arises
because we are studying a subject quite different than other
subjects. We study a field of thought that goes beyond the power
of words to express, we stand at the doorstep to the Mysteries,
and consider what lays before us. We have words that are the
starting point to "diving" into the Teachings, leaving the words,
books, and everything we knew in the past behind.
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