Esoteric vs. Exoteric
All the major religious and mystical traditions have had exoteric teachings for the public, and deeper, esoteric teachings for those who have proved themselves worthy to receive them, in accordance with the old saying: â€˜Live the life if you would know the doctrine.â€™
The Church father Origen (185-254 CE) wrote of an esoteric doctrine existing in the non-Christian religions of his time:
In Egypt, the philosophers have a most noble and secret Wisdom concerning the nature of the Divine, which Wisdom is disclosed to the people only under the garment of allegories and fables. ... All the Eastern nations â€“ the Persians, the Indians, the Syrians â€“ conceal secret mysteries under the cover of religious fables and allegories; the truly wise of all nations understand the meaning of these; but the uninstructed multitudes see the symbols only and the covering garment. (ET 61-2)
Origen claimed that in Christianity, as in all other religions, there was a similar esoteric system.
According to the New Testament, Jesus said to his disciples: â€˜To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but for others they are in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understandâ€™ (Luke, 8:10). While speaking to the multitude in a veiled manner, â€˜privately to his own disciples he explained everythingâ€™ (Mark, 4:34), and advised them not to â€˜throw your pearls before swineâ€™ (Matthew, 7:6).
According to Clement of Alexandria (150-215 CE), â€˜Markâ€™ preached three different gospels. The New Testament version was intended for â€˜beginnersâ€™, but there was also a Secret Gospel of Mark for those who were â€˜perfectedâ€™, i.e. initiated. Clement advised one of his students that the existence of this secret gospel should be denied â€˜even under oathâ€™, for â€˜the light of the truth should be hidden from those who are mentally blindâ€™. The third gospel was so mystical that it was not written down but was imparted orally to the chosen few (JM 120-1).
The fragments that remain of The Secret Gospel of Mark include an account of Jesus raising a young man from the dead, which may be an early version of the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead in Johnâ€™s Gospel. In the Secret Gospel, the risen young man is then initiated by Jesus, who â€˜taught him the mystery of the Kingdom of Godâ€™. This indicates that for the gnostics, being raised from the dead is an allegory for spiritual rebirth through initiation.
The Jews had a system of mystical research embodied in the Kabbala, a word meaning â€˜traditionâ€™, i.e. the traditional teaching handed down from teacher to pupil. The Zohar (â€˜splendourâ€™), the main kabbalistic textbook, says that anyone who understands the Hebrew Bible in its literal meaning is a fool; every word of it has â€˜a secret and sublime sense, which the wise knowâ€™. The great Jewish rabbi of the Middle Ages, Maimonides, wrote: â€˜We should never take literally what is written in the Book of the Creation, nor hold the same ideas about it that the people hold. ... Taken literally, that work contains the most absurd and far-fetched ideas of the Divineâ€™ (ET 62).
The Greeks and Romans had their lesser, outer, or exoteric Mysteries and their greater, inner, or esoteric Mysteries, as did the Persians, the Syrians, the Egyptians, the Essenes, the Druids, the Mayas, and the American Indians, for example. The lesser Mysteries consisted largely of symbolic dramatic rites or ceremonies relating to the mysteries of nature, together with a certain amount of instruction. Candidates who were admitted to the greater Mysteries received deeper instruction, after taking a strict vow of secrecy, and eventually experienced the truth of the doctrines at first hand through inner initiatory experiences.
Among the Greeks, the lesser Mysteries were conducted in the springtime at Agrai near Athens, while the greater Mysteries were celebrated in the autumn at Eleusis. In the lesser Mysteries the candidates who experienced the first rites were called mystai (the closed of eye and mouth), while in the greater Mysteries the mystai became epoptai (the clear-seeing) and attained communion with their higher self (MS 32).
The main initiation hall (Telesterion) at Eleusis.
The Hindu and Buddhist traditions also had their secret schools for better qualified and more trustworthy students. The Buddha, for example, once took a handful of simsapa leaves and explained that just as the few leaves in his hand were vastly outnumbered by the leaves overhead, so the truths he had taught were only a few of the truths that he knew. He reserved his deeper teachings for selected disciples whom he taught in secret. His policy was â€˜to refuse no one admission into the ranks of candidates for Arhatship, but never to divulge the final mysteries except to those who had proved themselves, during long years of probation, to be worthy of Initiationâ€™ (BCW 14:370).
H.P. Blavatsky mentions several reasons for the reticence and secrecy that often surround deeper mystical teachings:
Firstly, the perversity of average human nature and its selfishness, always tending to the gratification of personal desires to the detriment of neighbours and next of kin. Such people could never be entrusted with divine secrets. Secondly, their unreliability to keep the sacred and divine knowledge from desecration. It is the latter that led to the perversion of the most sublime truths and symbols, and to the gradual transformation of things spiritual into anthropomorphic, concrete, and gross imagery â€“ in other words, to the dwarfing of the god-idea and to idolatry. (Key 12)
Sometimes, however, truths are concealed for selfish reasons:
Purely Brahmanical considerations, based on greed of power and ambition, allowed the masses to remain in ignorance of great truths; and the same causes led the Initiates among the early Christians to remain silent, while those who had never known the truth disfigured ... things ... (SD 2:60)
G. de Purucker says that certain teachings have traditionally been kept secret because they are the noble reward for those who have proven themselves worthy and devoted, and because they would be misunderstood by untrained minds. If the teachings were given out indiscriminately, intuitive but untrained people would worship the teachers as â€˜godsâ€™, the ignorant would persecute them as â€˜devilsâ€™, and the sceptics would deride and mock both the teachers and their message (FEP 253).
The mahatmas stress that more advanced teachings cannot be divulged all at once; the recipient must be prepared gradually:
The truth is that till the neophyte attains to the condition necessary for that degree of Illumination to which, and for which, he is entitled and fitted, most if not all of the Secrets are incommunicable. The receptivity must be equal to the desire to instruct. The illumination must come from within. ... [K]nowledge ... can only be communicated gradually; and some of the highest secrets ... might sound to you as insane gibberish ... (ML2 283; MLc 72-3)
This is echoed by Blavatsky:
The whole essence of truth cannot be transmitted from mouth to ear. Nor can any pen describe it, not even that of the recording Angel, unless man finds the answer in the sanctuary of his own heart, in the innermost depths of his divine intuitions. (SD 2:516)
Certain teachings are potentially dangerous and could be misused for selfish purposes. Blavatsky says that imparting certain portions of the secret science to the unprepared multitude would be â€˜equivalent to giving a child a lighted candle in a powder magazineâ€™.
Doctrines such as the planetary chain, or the seven races, at once give a clue to the seven-fold nature of man, for each principle is correlated to a plane, a planet, and a race; and the human principles are, on every plane, correlated to seven-fold occult forces â€“ those of the higher planes being of tremendous power. So that any septenary division at once gives a clue to tremendous occult powers, the abuse of which would cause incalculable evil to humanity. A clue, which is, perhaps, no clue to the present generation â€“ especially the Westerns â€“ protected as they are by their very blindness and ignorant materialistic disbelief in the occult; but a clue which would, nevertheless, have been very real in the early centuries of the Christian era, to people fully convinced of the reality of occultism, and entering a cycle of degradation, which made them rife [ripe] for abuse of occult powers and sorcery of the worst description.
The documents were concealed, it is true, but the knowledge itself and its actual existence had never been made a secret of by the Hierophants of the Temple, wherein Mysteries have ever been made a discipline and stimulus to virtue. (SD 1:xxxv)
Referring to a case in which a hypnotized person was told he had received a severe burn and in 36 hours marks appeared on the body, Blavatsky states, â€˜there is a good deal to be said for the ancient plan of keeping secret knowledge which placed in the hands of unscrupulous persons control over the subtler forces of Natureâ€™ (BCW 13:114). â€˜It is not in our age of â€œsuggestionâ€ and â€œexplosivesâ€,â€™ she says, â€˜that Occultism can open wide the doors of its laboratories except to those who do live the lifeâ€™ (13:218).
Grace Knoche writes:
Much derision has been cast on the ancients for withholding knowledge that even a child can understand in its simpler forms. Certainly the simpler forms were taught openly, but their occult background was kept rigidly secret (as it is even now, though the world at large little dreams of this fact) as fit only for those who would not misuse the knowledge obtained. Can as much wisdom be shown today when, as soon as scientists discover some new device, opportunity is instantly found to turn that invention to destructive uses? One is driven to admire the strength and wisdom of the ancients who knew better than to turn knowledge over indiscriminately to those lacking moral control. With all our boasted superiority, we have not yet caught up on all lines with the scientific knowledge of our ancient forebears. (MS 44-5)
Only trained adepts who know how to direct their mental vision and transfer their consciousness to inner planes can speak with authority on nonphysical realities. The masters gave Blavatsky the following advice:
Do not give out the great Truths that are the inheritance of the future Races, to our present generation. ... Let rather the planetary chains and other super- and sub-cosmic mysteries remain a dreamland for those who can neither see, nor yet believe that others can. (SD 1:167)
As times change, and different souls incarnate, the need for reticence varies, and what was once kept secret or revealed only in veiled form is given out openly. The formation of the Theosophical Society in 1875 marked a turning point in this regard. As The Secret Doctrine and other theosophical works demonstrate, theosophical teachings on karma and reincarnation, the septenary constitution of the man and the universe, evolution and involution, after-death states, planetary chains, and rounds and races, are reflected to varying degrees in many of the worldâ€™s religious and philosophical systems. But the modern theosophical movement has made many more details of these ageless-wisdom teachings publicly available. Theosophy also provides keys to interpreting ancient mythology and symbolism, and shows how the fundamental teachings of different religious and philosophical systems can be reconciled when understood correctly â€“ something that the orthodox of each faith tend to resent.