Last revised: 12 Jan. 2010
If there is, what might it be?
In 1996, Time Magazine asked its readers a question that probably, at one time or another, has occurred to everyone:
Why does life exist at all? Is it simply that if enough cosmic elements slop together for enough eons, eventually a molecule will form somewhere, or many somewheres, that can replicate itself over and over until it evolves into a creature that can scratch its head? Or did an all-powerful God set in motion an unfathomable process in order to give warmth and meaning to a universe that would otherwise be cold and meaningless? (1)
Spiritual psychologist J.G. Bennett was plagued by a similar question: “All teaching and all religions agree that there is something that man is required to do in this life, but no one has hitherto explained why and for what purpose." (2)
Is there a purpose to life? If there is a God, does He (or She or It) have a Plan? What are we doing here, in this physical universe? Does anyone know?
In fact, as we shall see in this book, many men and women have explained why this physical universe was created. They have told us what to do and how to do it. Collectively, these men and women are the wisest among us, who share one thing in common: they all have experienced what we may call “God meeting God” (3) or enlightenment.
They include familiar names – Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, Lao Tzu – and unfamiliar names – Hermes, Zarathustra, Bayazid of Bistun, Blessed Henry Suso. Collectively I call them “saints and sages” or “enlightened masters” (4) – the latter because they have mastered life; they have achieved what they came to know as life's purpose.
God has a Plan for Life
God's Plan existed before the creation of the world and therefore prior to the invention of words. Our knowledge of it comes down to us from the recorded experiences of saints and sages, who have seen its wordless representation in a vision.
The Plan is implied in the vision that Sri Krishna gave Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita:
The son of Pandu beheld the entire universe, in all its multitudinous diversity, lodged as one being within the body of the God of gods.
Then was Arjuna ... overcome with wonder. His hair stood erect. He bowed low before God in adoration. (5)
Arjuna sees the whole physical universe nestled in the transcendental vastness of God, but Krishna does not go on to say (at least not in this passage) why the world that Arjuna sees was created.
Edward Carpenter goes a step further, describing an inner illumination
... by which we can ultimately see things as they are, beholding all creation – the animals, the angels, the plants, the figures of our friends, and all the ranks and races of human kind - in their true being and order. (6)
In his case, a great procession of species, and different types of humanity, including faces he knew, all appeared before him, in their true being and order. But Carpenter too does not explicitly discuss what process this ordering of beings serves.
The Buddha spent the night after his supreme enlightenment with his mind also fixed on the Plan, which he called the "chain of causation." (7) Others have called it the great chain of being, the eternal wheels, or the mandala of birth and death. (8) The Upanishads say that beholding it proves to us beyond the shadow of a doubt that "the One who is above all ... has established perfect order among objects and beings from beginningless time." (9) What order? And for what purpose?
We have seen that gazing on a vision of the Plan proves awe-inspiring. Those to whom it is revealed are moved to work for it ever after. Upon beholding it, the young J. Krishnamurti was certain that “the really important thing is ... the knowledge of God's plan for men. … When once a man has seen that and really knows it, he cannot help working for it and making himself one with it, because it is so glorious, so beautiful.” (10)
God’s Plan is Spiritual Evolution
Can we put a name to that Plan? Krishnamurti did. He said that “God has a plan, and that plan is evolution.” (11) As Omraam Mikhael Aivanhov described it: "The law of life is evolution, that is, development all the way to perfection." (12)
But the evolution the saints and sages have in mind is not just the physical evolution that Darwin described, but, more importantly, spiritual evolution. It is not the body that we live in from birth to death that evolves to perfection; it falls away and dies. It is the consciousness inside it which is expanded, perfected, and liberated from the need to be reborn.
Now let us attempt to visualize it. In Genesis, Jacob was shown a ladder. On it angels were descending from and ascending to God. Jacob was being shown a particular part of the ladder of evolution.
And he dreamed. And behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.
And, behold, the Lord stood above it. (13)
This same ladder of life, in its entirety, the Persian poet, Hafiz, called “the stairway of existence”:
Through the stairway of existence
have you now come,
have we all now come,
to the Beloved's door. (14)
How does Jacob's ladder or the stairway of existence help us to visualize God’s Plan?
Let us give each being a torch of light and have him or her descend and ascend the whole of the ladder or stairway of life. The trajectory of light would describe an arc, a parabola, with a downward and an upward arm. The Divine Plan for life – for all of us Children of God – is to follow this divine trajectory out and away from God the Father, into this physical universe, the domain (as we shall see) of God the Mother, where we learn our true identity and come back to Him illumined.
I believe it was this divine trajectory that Jesus was referring to when he said: “I came forth from the Father, and am come out into the world: again, I leave the world and go to the Father.” (15)
Rumi names some of the phenomenal realms the journeying soul passes through in the course of spiritual evolution. Observe how he places the realm of the angels above that of humans and cites it as our next destination:
I died as mineral and became a plant.
I died as plant and rose to animal.
I died as animal and I was man. …
Yet once more I shall die as man, to soar
With angels blest; but even from angelhood
I must pass on: all except God doth perish.
When I have sacrificed my angel soul,
I shall become what no mind e’er conceived.
Oh, let me not exist! For Non-existence
Proclaims in organ tones, ‘To Him we shall return.’ (16)
Rumi will die once more as a man – the death at the end of his present incarnation. After that, his human evolution will be finished; that is, he will be liberated from the need to reincarnate. He knows the lesson that humans are required to learn: namely, that God is all there is. His ultimate goal is complete extinction as an individual entity through submergence in God -- upon his return to Him -- a stage of enlightenment, as we shall see in the course of our story, that comes later than the human stage of evolution (after Rumi has "sacrificed his angel soul").
Ibn Arabi also describes our wandering down the ladder of consciousness, through lifetime after lifetime, realm after realm of matter. Note his contention that our birth as a human marks only the halfway point on the journey.
Level after level he traverses the seven spheres and comes down into the Globe of Fire, then Air, then Water, then falls on earth; after that to the Minerals, Plants....
Until he reaches the degree of human being he passes through many tribulations at every level of his descent; he meets with difficulties. Sometimes he rises; sometimes he goes low; and half a circle is completed till he is lodged with ... mankind. (17)
Rumi and Ibn Arabi describe our physical forms evolving, as Darwin said they would. But they also describe our spiritual forms evolving.
As we dive like dolphins into the sea of materiality, entering at birth and leaving at death, we are spirits who evolve, under the tutelage of the Divine Mother, all the way back to Perfection – that is, all the way back to the perfect Holy Father.
The physical and the spiritual have their own rounds of life, but the overarching Plan for both of them remains evolution. In the end, the answer to the argument between “evolutionism” and “creationism” may be that both are true.
Sacred arc and spiritual spiral
Let us return to Ibn Arabi’s statement of the Plan. Note that he describes two movements. One is the overall parabolic descent into matter and ascent into spirit over countless lifetimes. The second is a periodic rising and falling in any one lifetime as the being responds to its "many tribulations" due to karma. Sage Vasistha, millennia ago, referred to this second movement as the "rise and fall in evolution" that is brought about by "the law of cause and effect." (18) Twentieth-century Christian Master Beinsa Douno described it as a "partial rise and descent in an oscillating curve." (19)
This second pattern of movement -- rising, falling, all the time moving forward -- can be thought of as the spiral journey of the soul towards the realization of God. It is us responding to the law of karma, which, in the long run, keeps us moving towards God.
Let us now combine the two movements -- the sacred arc and the spiritual spiral. As we travel through the sacred arc over evolutionary periods of time, we follow a spiritual spiral on a day-to-day basis. While the movement of the arc may be away from and back to God, the movement of the spiral is through the same situations again and again until we learn our lessons. In the course of this parabolic and spiral journey of many lifetimes, says Al Ghazzali, the individual being “rises from the rank of beasts to that of angels." (20)
Perhaps this contention that we rise from the humblest beginnings in the mineral and plant kingdoms to the most exalted status as humans and angels is why Jesus could say with confidence that "God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham." (21) In a mystical sense, God has already raised up children unto Abraham from stones. We are they. We are all of us what Peter called "lively stones" (22) that have evolved through many kingdoms of phenomenal reality.
Design Element: Reincarnation
If we accept that God has a Divine Plan for life, then it logically follows that this Plan will have elements or features. Usually these Design Elements or Design Features are called “natural laws.”
As we work our way through our story, we will have occasion to identify some of these Design Elements. They will be seen to include the law of spiritual evolution, the law of reincarnation, the law of karma, the longing for liberation, universal redemption, and so on. They are the “givens” in our situation, built-in features, laid-on circumstances. We are not presented with a choice. As one teacher used to say in the Seventies, we don’t get to vote on them. We arrive in the midst of them and they shape our lives, always with the function of moving us generally onwards towards the Father.
There are many more of them than I could possibly guess at. What I am trying to do here is merely suggest that they exist and leave it to others to add to the list.
As our first Design Element, which we shall explore in greater depth in Chapter 7, we are told that we move towards God, and finally reach Him, through many lifetimes. This Design Element is the law of reincarnation. Let me simply point at it here so that we can make a note of it as a Design Element of God’s Plan for life.
The best epitome of it that I am aware of occurs when Sri Krishna reveals to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra:
There never was a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor any of these kings. Nor is there any future in which we shall cease to be.
Just as the dweller in this body passes through childhood, youth and old age, so at death he merely passes into another kind of body. The wise are not deceived by that.
Bodies are said to die, but That which possesses the body is eternal. It cannot be limited, or destroyed. (23)
According to the Design Element of the law of reincarnation, we take birth continually in progressively higher planes of reality, as evolving spirits operating in more and more complex physical forms.
When we reach the level of humanity, we arrive at a place where we can make of ourselves and anything else we wish an object of thought. We arrive at culture, the ability to transmit an idea of something through symbols. We use this ability to make an object of ourselves and become self-conscious. We also use it to make an object of God Himself and become God-conscious. No other realm below us has this capacity. We have evolved through the reincarnational cycle, the wheel of birth and death, from unconscious to self-conscious beings. Our next destination is God-consciousness.
Let us summarize then. God has a Plan for life and that Plan is spiritual evolution. That Plan is best depicted by Jacob's Ladder or the staircase of existence. It decrees that we go out from God as points of consciousness and descend into matter. Having descended as far as we must go, we begin our slow ascent back to God, passing through higher and higher kingdoms of phenomenal reality. In our movement away or back, we spiral past the same situations again and again, but seen from an increasingly-higher perspective.
If we accept matters so far, then what are we to do? If spiritual evolution is the Plan for life, then what is its purpose? Does this divine parabola or sacred arc, decreed by God, have a reason for its existence or is it simply a perpetual motion machine, in which we act out our parts like robots?
For full details on these sources, see “Bibliography.”
(1) Time, August 19, 1996, 40.
(2) SP, 38.
(3) I thank my wife for this felicitous definition of enlightenment.
(4) Clearly "avatars" or "descents of God" are not enlightened masters in the same sense as ordinary people, ascending to God. To use the word "enlightened masters" to cover both descenders and ascenders is taking some license, for which I beg indulgence.
(5) BG, 92. Sri Krishna tells us that this vision is to be attained in enlightenment: "When you have reached enlightenment, ignorance will delude you no longer. In the light of that knowledge you will see the entire creation within your own Atman [i.e., Self] and in me." (BG, 54-5.)
(6) CC, 85.
(7) Loc. cit.
(8) Ibid., 85 and 137.
(9) UPAN, 27. See also CC, 137.
(10) AFM, 17.
(11) Loc. cit.
(12) AQU, 19.
(13) Genesis 28:12-3.
(14) Hafiz cited at http://hometown.aol.com/MassoudBeliever/Six.html.
(16) ILWL, 58. Compare with Helena Blavatsky:
The Secret Doctrine teaches … the obligatory pilgrimage for every Soul – a spark of the [Universal Over-Soul] – through the Cycle of Incarnation (or “Necessity”) in accordance with Cyclic and Karmic law, during the whole term. In other words, no purely spiritual Buddhi (Divine Soul) can have an independent (conscious) existence before the spark which issued from the pure Essence of the … OVER-SOUL … has (a) passed through every elemental form of the phenomenal world of that Manvantara [round of life], and (b) acquired individuality, first by natural impulse, and then by self-induced and self-devised efforts (checked by its Karma), thus ascending through all the degrees of intelligence, from the lowest to the highest Manas [thought-form or mind], from mineral and plant, up to the holiest archangel (Dhyani-Buddha). The pivotal doctrine of the Esoteric philosophy admits no privileges or special gifts in man, save those won by his own Ego through personal effort and merit throughout a long series of metempsychoses and reincarnations. (H.P. Blavatsky, SD(A), 13.)
(17) KK, 20.
(18) CYV, 94.
(19) "Brother of the Smallest One," Lectures, 1 January 1917, www.beinsadouno.org., downloaded 7 March 2005.
(20) AH, 32.
(21) Matthew 3:9
(22) I Peter 2:5.
(23) BG, 36.