THE GROWTH OF THE SOUL
CHAPTER 8: THE ELEMENTALS.
Mediaeval terms — Physical forces in their elemental aspect — Elemental forces subject to will — Beginnings of elemental evolution — The three kingdoms of elemental — Cross classifications — Elemental forms — Elementals of good and evil efficiency.
Few subjects connected with occult research present greater embarrassment to the student than those which attend an inquiry into the nature of the Elementals. The term is vaguely understood to apply to beings of a superphysical order, and except for the broad statement that they are non-human, but subject to the control of human will, while varying in their nature over an enormous range of characteristics, the information available until considerable progress had been made with theosophical teaching — until the publication, indeed, of Mr. C. W. Leadbeater's wonderful treatise on "The Astral Plane" — clouded, more perhaps than it elucidated, the mysteries connected with their place and functions in evolution. In the beginning of that teaching out of which our present Theosophical knowledge has been developed, information concerning the elementals was avowedly withheld on the ground that it was all but impossible to be explicit on the subject without revealing secrets that related to the exercise of occult power. It was by the intermediation of the elementals, we were told, that the physical plane phenomena of occultism were brought about; as also those which in a sporadic and unscientific fashion took the shape of marvellous occurrences at some Spiritualistic seances. In various Theosophical books reference was made to elementals of earth, air, fire, and water, to gnomes, sylphs, salamanders, and undines, — following the nomenclature of some mediaeval writers on occult mysteries, — but every statement of this kind darkened the whole subject instead of clearing it up, and left the mind of cultivated students disturbed by a feeling that the statements in question were not merely unintelligible, but designed rather to put a veil over, than to elucidate the subject.
Step by step, however, it has been possible for some of us to make a little progress in the comprehension of the deeply intricate mystery in question. As the number of modern Theosophical students qualified to transfer their consciousness to the astral plane, and to retain in their normal consciousness a recollection of what they learn there, gradually increases, it becomes possible for others to push their inquiries nearer and nearer to the impassable barriers that separate the knowledge of the outer world from that of initiated occultists. And we thus know something more about the elementals now, than at the outset of the Theosophical movement. We can at any rate begin to disentangle scientific truth from poetical imagery, and to formulate conceptions concerning elemental agency which harmonise, as far as they go, with definite physical knowledge, and suggest a line of thought calculated to link on that knowledge with the deeper mysteries of Nature.
Without plunging into the middle of the subject by endeavouring to comprehend the elemental agency to be observed in activity on the astral plane, a better beginning may be made by the ordinary thinker if he starts with the consideration of the natural forces in observed action around us, realising that an inquiry into the nature of occult elemental agency, is actually concerned with tracing back these natural forces on to the other plane where they are presented to view in a more refined, or, in one sense, a more primitive manifestation.
Let us consider a lump of coal subject to heat to an extent that effects its combustion. If we endeavour to trace out the process fully, we shall not find theories of physical science entirely established even within their own domain. It may be argued that as heat increases the activity of the molecules of free oxygen hammering in their vibrations against the molecules of carbon (disregarding for a moment the other elements in the coal), their vibration becomes enhanced until they interlace, and thus engender molecules of carbonic oxide. If this view is held to be insufficient, as not accounting for the development of fresh heat, we may perhaps think of the initial heat as first of all breaking up the chemical union previously existing amongst the atoms of the various elements entering into the composition of the molecules of the coal. We may assume that by intensifying their vibration it causes these atoms to burst the bonds of attraction which held them in the organisation of the molecules, as the sun of the solar system on a larger scale holds together the planets in a definite scheme of organisation. Vibrating then in contact with atoms of free oxygen, the atoms of gas or carbon liberated from the coal find the same energy of movement which dissociated them from the former molecular arrangement, conducive to their adoption of a new one. The adoption of the new one is in turn productive of a shock to the surrounding ether which sets up in that medium the phenomena of heat and light. This interpretation of what takes place is rough, but is probably defective rather in what it omits than in what it asserts.
At all events force has undergone a metamorphosis. The force that held the atoms of the coal molecule together has been converted into the force holding together the molecules of the new compounds, plus the sensible heat vibrations of the ether. For the moment let us pay attention to these last only. They constitute a force plainly called into being by the combustion of the coal. In a certain sense they were latent in the coal before it was burned.
But we know from the concurrent testimony of everyone who can intelligently observe the phenomena of the astral plane that all physical objects have their astral counterparts on that plane — the lump of coal as well as everything else. Then it is intelligible that there should be, as we are assured there is, an astral counterpart of any force inherent or latent in that lump of coal. Here we get to the humblest conception that can be formed of the elementals. The astral counterpart of the force in the coal capable of being., under certain circumstances, converted into sensible heat vibrations of the ether, is what in very loose and inappropriate phraseology might be spoken of as " an elemental," — but somewhat more accurately as elemental essence.
Its individualisation as an elemental would be due to a misconception of the matter. The elemental force in the astral lump of coal is as much part of an ocean of such force as the heat vibrations on this plane are merged in the ocean of ether. But the astral counterpart of the force — as soon as we are in a position to observe that — is found at once to present one characteristic which differentiates it widely from its manifestation on the physical plane. It is amenable — in a way which is not the case with its physical plane manifestation — to the influence of the human will. That is a force of a higher order by which it can be controlled.
On this plane it might be symbolised by an animal, say a horse, entirely without senses or nerves of sensation. You cannot get him to move either by speaking to him or by prodding him. But if you shove him forward forcibly enough he will begin to walk to avoid tumbling down and will even pull a cart if it is fastened to him. To stop him you must build a wall in his way strong enough to arrest his progress. How very different a creature does the same horse become as soon as we endow him with the usual senses! His consciousness, such as it is, is then capable of receiving impulses from the consciousness of a human master. We can set him in motion or stop him by a touch or a word. His strength becomes something we can direct, his volition, guided by an imperfect intelligence, something on which we can impress our will. The change illustrates the difference between the natural force cognised by science on the physical plane and the same force in its antecedent astral manifestation. In that manifestation, indeed, the force must not be thought of as having the complete animal consciousness and volition, but it is in a measure alive and susceptible to the influence of a higher order of consciousness.
The degree to which the living elemental force can be controlled by a human will, will of course vary, within limits not alone as great but enormously greater than those within which the power of different human beings on this plane to control a horse will vary. The analogy must not be pushed too far, but the relations on this plane of men and animals are helpful in suggesting the relation on the other plane of men, or superior spiritual beings, and elementals. Just as adequate courage and self confidence will enable some men to control savage beasts, though a failure of resolution or courage may lead to a reversal of the parts, so with the elemental agencies. These will turn against human interference if the person who meddles with them is not strong enough for the task he attempts, though to a large extent on the astral plane living elemental force is plastic to the influence of even a very moderately powerful human will — even to human desire hardly expressing itself in a conscious act of volition.
It is not to be expected at present that the conditions under which the astral elemental force is made to express on the physical plane the impulses of will imparted to it on the astral, should be rendered fully intelligible, but the experience of occult phenomena as well as the abstract assurances of occult teaching show that the transition is possible. It would be only when occultly trained that a will impulse impressed on the elemental agency associated with the lump of coal in the above illustration, would be able to set its physical manifestation in activity, but, as I say, the transition would be possible. This is the explanation of well authenticated cases in which fires and lamps have been kindled in an abnormal way in the presence of some peculiar kinds of spiritual mediumship, and occult information leads to the belief that similar phenomena are familiar to the experience of advanced occultists.
Another illustration of the connexion between physical plane forces and astral elemental agency may be taken from a department of natural phenomena of which we know even less than of those associated with combustion. Let us consider a heavy block of stone, which we wish to raise. The force which bears it down towards the centre of the earth is one which we can measure with great exactitude and call by a familiar name, but we do not know much about its mode of working. We can only control it on the physical plane by so arranging matters that a preponderating volume of itself or some other force counteracts the tendency we wish to overcome. Occult teaching about all physical force, however, is that it is the physical plane manifestation of some elemental force. There must thus be an astral counterpart of gravity and in its astral manifestation it must be in some measure alive and must come within the influence of a higher-plane volition. Here we get a clue to the comprehension of the principle on which advanced occult power is known — not merely in former ages of the world but in the present day — to manipulate heavy masses of matter by will power. The thing happens also in the experience of spiritualism continually. It is another illustration of the translation of force from one plane to another, which is merely a question of controlling elemental agency to an adequate degree.
But the mystery of such translation is something apart from the aspect of elemental agency on the astral plane. In reference to the process of translation we must be content for the present to know that the achievement is possible, and to realise in that way the continuity of natural forces — the coherence of the whole scheme of force on different planes — and to foresee the direction in which man's control of matter on the physical plane may be expected one day to extend. Let us now pass in imagination on to the astral plane altogether and take note of such information as we can gather concerning elemental agency as manifesting there.
Every branch of occult teaching will always be found to gear in with others. The natural history of elemental agency in its first and broadest outlines recalls attention to the fundamental principles of planetary evolution. In the beginning of a planet's life, before the evolution of its mineral body — not to speak of its vegetation and animal life — the nucleus of cosmic activity which is going to be a planet, is the arena of certain elemental evolutions following one another in due order. Before the formation of the mineral kingdom we have been told, the scheme of things to which we belong provides for the successive evolution of three kingdoms of elementals. The statement at first carried no very definite meaning for uninitiated hearers, but even at first it conveyed, in a grand faint outline, the idea that those kingdoms of nature of which we have cognisance were the outcome of mysterious forces acting on matter of a finer order than that into which it was ultimately kneaded. It now appears that the three kingdoms of elementals which preceded the mineral evolution are in no sense extinct. We are concerned with a later stage of the process but the earlier agencies are still in activity. Cognisable in fact in varying degrees there are three kingdoms of elementals still in touch with the evolution of the planetary chain, — force, that is to say, looking at the matter from another point of view, in three orders of manifestation. They do not all belong to the astral plane, and the two higher must be thought of as belonging properly to more spiritual planes though interpenetrating the astral. Remember that the astral plane is a sphere of activity for higher faculties than those which properly belong to it; also that it is sub-divisible into planes as described in the preceding chapter that differ one from another in a marked degree. Remember also that in speaking now of the two "higher" kingdoms of elementals we are looking back along the course pursued during the descent of spirit into matter. The higher elemental kingdoms were the earlier in the order of manifestation, the first to emerge from nonmanifestation. The lowest of the three is most highly developed or organised, the nearest to the still more elaborately evolved, finished, or materially perfected physical plane.
The higher kingdoms can only be got at, so to speak, by powers on a level spiritually with that to which they belong. In order to deal with them at all a human being must have passed up the cycle of evolution again till his consciousness and will are in activity once more (plus the experiences of physical incarnation) on the higher planes. The thought will present no difficulty to any one who has grasped the first principles of occult teaching in regard to cosmic evolution, and the bearing of it on the subject in hand tends to simplify rather than to embarrass the inquiry before us. For the present we may ignore the two higher or earlier elemental kingdoms. The third or that nearest to physical manifestation is the one with which human consciousness of the ordinary type is most nearly concerned. All varieties of elemental agency visible to explorers of the astral plane who are able to cognise its phenomena without being as yet on the more exalted levels of spiritual evolution, belong to the third kingdom, which, however, is varied to an extent that renders its division into different orders and classes a task of considerable difficulty. Let us attempt to realise some of the principles on which that classification must proceed.
The elemental forces, to begin with, — I will endeavour later on to deal with the subject of elemental beings, — are divisible according to the states or conditions of matter with which they have to do in their manifestations on the physical plane. We all know of the solid, liquid, and gaseous states of matter, and occult students know something of four other states in an ascending series. The corresponding elemental forces are those described in poetical language, as gnomes, undines, sylphs, and salamanders. The gnome does not mean a sub-human dwarf inhabiting mines. This is the caricature of the idea developed by imperfect information grafted on an ill-trained imagination. The gnome or earth elemental is the astral force related to the phenomena of solid matter. So the undine, or water elemental, is not a fairy dancing in a fountain, but a natural force related to liquid matter; the sylph, or air elemental, is the similar force related to gaseous matter; and the salamander, or fire elemental, to the vibrations of the ether.
At this point, however, the classification may seem too crude to be scientific. There are common attributes in all three states of matter. Weight, for instance, is as much an attribute of hydrogen as of lead; molecular vibration is going on in the motionless rock as well as in the waves that dash against it. There is no force we can think of which belongs exclusively to either liquid, solid, or gaseous matter. In the same way, however, the various elemental agencies do not act singly and independently of each other, but in infinitely varied alliances. The important point is that whatever combination of forces may be recognised as operative in any given case on the physical plane, the counterpartal combination is operative on the astral, and assumes the relatively living aspect which renders it more directly than here amenable to the human will.
But the astral plane is divided, as we have seen, into seven sub-divisions, Appropriate to each we find special varieties of elemental agency presenting themselves for examination, and the distinction just noticed between the elementals of earth, water, air, and fire runs up through them all.
Again, there is a mysterious classification of attributes, tendencies, or characteristics running through Nature — through all the planes of Nature, the physical included — which is too subtle to be very readily interpreted, but which may be dimly indicated by saying that every plant, animal, and man, as well as every mineral and every manifestation of elemental agency, is "on" one or other of seven great "rays" proceeding in the first instance from exalted regions of spiritual influence, which imagination penetrates with difficulty. The ray classification has to be taken into account in grouping the elementals.
The habits of mind engendered by thinking of the three dimensions of space will enable us to construct in imagination not a tabular view of this triple classification, but a solid figure embracing the three categories. How shall we expand this, however, so as to make it significant of the fact that the same triple classification must be made to run all through the three kingdoms of elementals? For this we seem in need of a fourth dimension of space. But, at all events, without going beyond the experience of life around us, a living creature may at the same time be a mammal, a quadruped, a pachyderm, and a male, so the elemental varieties, though too complicated to be represented by a diagram or even by a solid figure, need not be altogether unmanageable in thought.
So far we have been considering the elemental agencies in their most general or indeterminate aspects as forces rather than entities, and that is the most important idea concerning them, to establish in the mind as the foundation of all maturer conceptions. It is disastrous to run away with the first idea apt to invade the understanding on the subject, that the elementals are to the astral plane, what its beasts, birds, and reptiles are to the forest. But, none the less, early experience on the astral plane is very likely to support this notion. Forces on the physical plane are always abstract energies associated with matter, but forces on the astral plane, are not only, as has been already said, in some sense alive, they are ready to take shape under the influence of the will, whatever it may be, that directs them, and may be in the same way imbued with a benevolent or malevolent character for the time being, which has no resemblance, as far as any internal consciousness goes, to goodness or badness of disposition, but leads them to be of good or bad efficiency, just as physical plane forces may be of good or bad efficiency. The fire which cooks food directed to a useful end may, directed differently, inflict suffering on a living organism. Gravity which pulls down a clock weight usefully may kill a man standing below if the chain breaks. Electricity may carry good tidings or explode a parcel of dynamite without being in itself good or bad electricity; and the dynamite may usefully clear a rock out of the path of navigation or blow up a building and mutilate the inhabitants. Per se, force is neither good nor evil, and the same idea has to be applied to the consideration of elemental beings, called into existence by will power and invested with attributes by conscious intention. Undoubtedly, the astral plane teems with such beings of both good and evil efficiency, and at the first blush it might well be imagined that they constitute the animal life of that plane. But they are entities only in so far as a bucketful of water drawn up out of the sea is a specific volume of water, taking the shape of the interior of the bucket for the time being. If you break the bucket the water falls back into the ocean, neither the better nor the worse for having been detached for a while therefrom. Or it may have gone through various adventures in the meantime. It may have been converted into steam in a boiler, may have driven a ship on her course, or it may have burst from its confinement injuring living beings in the neighbourhood; it may even have entered into chemical combinations with other matter and have played an elaborate part on the stage of the earth's physical manifestation, but still it is so much water all the while, and will ultimately, by some road, return to the ocean from which it came. So with the detached and temporarily individualised elemental life or force. The will which moulds it, or the thought energy, operative, perhaps, without any conscious will being at work in the transaction at all, may invest it with a very considerable tenacity of separate life and tendency, easily mistaken for inherent purpose. Its very shape may be enduring, unless it comes in contact with some will force that breaks it up, and thus we are presented with all the external characteristics of a living astral creature. The horrible or repulsive shapes encountered on the astral plane by rash intruders are of this nature. They may be the creatures of evil or malevolent thought, and though powerless to harm human beings collected enough to oppose a courageous will to their attack, may seriously torment or even injure invaders of their territory whose inherent forces are paralysed by terror. Just as real and definitely existing as entities for a time, other elemental shapes may be beautiful in appearance and beneficent in action if called into being by thoughts emanating from love and beneficence, but their tenacity of life will depend on the strength and persistence of the will that has called them into being, and when they have fulfilled their mission, or have lost coherence by the relaxation of the will that evoked them, they will resolve themselves again into the ocean of elemental agency to which they belong and be available for any new purpose, good, bad, or indifferent.
This part of the explanation may help to supply an (occultly) scientific interpretation for stories connected with the presiding "gods" of some Indian temples — treated of course as empty superstitions by Western intelligence alive to the incredibility of the local belief as crudely stated, and destitute of the occult knowledge which might discern the natural possibility in the background. Elemental agency clothed with form and inspired with purpose by some adequately powerful human will in the first instance, may persist in that shape for long periods of time and^manifest potencies along the line of the original impulse which would easily be mistaken by an ignorant populace, in contact with them, for the supernatural power of a demi-god.
At the head of each great division of elemental agencies, beings of a permanent, definite, and very exalted character control or inspire all manifestations of elemental energy within that category. It is hopeless to inquire into the nature and constitution of these beings, except that they are cosmic — the agents of the Lipika. Not belonging to our evolution, they do not belong to our scheme of human evolution and could not, we may well imagine, be described in terms of ordinary human thinking. That such beings exist, however, is a fact which falls in with the great principle to which occult teaching introduces us in many ways, and according to which all laws of nature are the volition of conscious beings standing at some more or less exalted level in the general scheme of things, and exercising will in accordance with the Supreme Will in the background. From the occult point of view there is no such thing as blind force. In its lower manifestations natural force may seem blind — may be pressing along definite channels of activity regardless of impediments in the way; but the original existence of the force is due to an intelligent will.
A problem may arise in any mind to which the thoughts here set forth are present, which has to do with the nature of the matter which seems to form the vehicle of elementals having a definite shape and appearance. Is that a vehicle in any true sense of the term as the physical or the astral body under different conditions may be the vehicle of human consciousness, or is the apparent vehicle of the elemental force itself of the very nature of the elemental force? A marble statue or a cloud in still air may have a definite shape, but the outward surface is not of any matter different in its nature from that of the marble or the vapour concerned. In the same way the elemental we see in an animal or human or grotesque shape, may be of homogeneous constitution — so much living elemental force operative in that detached condition and taking external shape from the creative thought that has evoked it. That appears to be the more accurate conception of the two, though not without difficulties for the imagination. We have to remember that the order of evolution in the world around us is through the elemental kingdoms on to the mineral and then on to the higher kingdoms of organised beings. The elementals are not inhabitants of a ready-made world: they are the foundations or substance of the world. They may undergo mysterious transmutations, but until we get into the higher regions of human consciousness in relations with spiritual essence, there is nothing in the world that is not elemental in its nature. The minute cells of which animal and human bodies are built up are evolutions of elemental agency. Matter and force on the physical plane are elementals condensed — materialised. Elementals as seen on the astral plane are matter and force etherealised. They are related to themselves in the lower manifestation as steam to ice — as carbonic acid gas to carbonic acid snow. They do not need a vehicle for their manifestation — as human consciousness needs a vehicle. They are vehicle and life (not consciousness) in one.
Clearly it cannot fall within the scope of this explanation to define the methods by which human will functioning on the astral plane is enabled to specialise and direct the elemental agency around it; but we may approach as near to the confines of that mystery as circumstances will allow by realising how the nonspecialised oceans of elemental agency perceptible on the astral plane pervade Nature from that point of view. They need not be sought for as a herbalist, for instance, might seek in a wood for the particular plant he required. They are all at hand, as the atmosphere is at hand in all parts of the world for the uses of a man who desires to blow a bellows; more so if that be possible, by reason of the fact that they are visible — to the astral sense, though not clouding or obscuring other objects of perception, — because vision with the astral senses differs so widely from vision with the eyes. Within limits one may say that nothing is seen on the astral plane except that to which attention is directed, so that if the astral voyager is not wanting to manipulate the elemental agencies he might hardly be conscious of their presence. Desiring to deal with them he would perceive them on every side.
I have referred to the manner in which elemental agency of more than one kind may play a part in physical phenomena. In the same way "an" elemental evoked or created by a human will may be compounded of more than one variety of elemental agency. One alone might not suffice for the purpose in view. Undoubtedly, however, the creation of a complex elemental is a more advanced achievement than that of one in which only a single variety is concerned.
Over and above elemental entities that may have been formed by human will from the ocean of elemental essence, there are innumerable varieties that owe their existence, as such, to natural evolutions going on side by side with, but quite independently of, that with which humanity is concerned. With these, however, it is hardly my business at present to deal. I am concerned with those teachings of occultism that directly relate to the evolution of man.