Theosophy and shifting continents
Alternation of land and water
Theosophy teaches the periodical emergence and submergence of continents.
Elevation and subsidence of continents is always in progress.1
... the periodical sinking and re-appearance of the mighty continents, now called Atlantis and Lemuria by the modern writers, is no fiction ...2
‘Why should not your geologists bear in mind that under the continents explored and fathomed by them . . . . there may be hidden, deep in the fathomless, or rather unfathomed ocean beds, other and far older continents whose strata have never been geologically explored; and that they may some day upset entirely their present theories? Why not admit that our present continents have, like Lemuria and Atlantis, been several times already submerged, and had the time to re-appear again and bear their new groups of mankind and civilisations; and that at the first great geological upheaval at the next cataclysm, in the series of periodical cataclysms that occur from the beginning to the end of every round, our already autopsized continents will go down and the Lemurias and Atlantises come up again?’3
Even what appears to be the, on the face of it, perfectly nonsensical allegory of Brahma assuming the form of a Boar to rescue the Earth from under the waters, finds in the Secret Commentaries a perfectly scientific explanation, relating as it does to the many risings and sinkings, and the constant alternation of water and land from the earliest to the latest geological periods of our globe; for science teaches us now that nine-tenths of the stratified formations of the earth’s crust have been gradually constructed beneath water, at the bottom of the seas.4
That which is generally meant by ‘earths’ and worlds, relates (a) to the ‘rebirths’ of our globe after each manvantara and a long period of ‘obscuration’; and (b) to the periodical and entire changes of the Earth’s surface, when continents disappear, to make room for oceans, and oceans and seas are violently displaced and sent rolling to the poles, to cede their emplacements to new continents.5
[Humanity has lived] on different continents, four of which have disappeared under the waters of the oceans, after having pursued each one its evolutionary course, one after the other, from the dimmest and remotest ages of antiquity: one continent after the other growing in size, reaching its culmination of physical magnitude, bearing its civilizations of its own kind, and then sinking beneath the waters of the ocean, only to re-emerge again to bear its new burden of human civilizations, after the passage of many millions of years.6
H.P. Blavatsky was writing at a time when sunken continents were widely accepted by geologists. Alfred Wegener did not publish his theory of continental drift until 1912. It claimed that continents ploughed their way through the ocean floor, and failed to win widespread support. Continental drift was revived in the 1950s and 60s with the rise of plate tectonics, which proposed that continents are carried along by moving lithospheric plates. Plate tectonics is incompatible with the idea that there were once large landmasses in the present Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans; it therefore dismisses Atlantis and Lemuria as fantasies.
There are references in theosophy to the shifting of oceans and continents, the separation of continents into smaller ones, and to continents changing their geographical place. The ideas of modern plate tectonics have become so dominant that nowadays these statements are sometimes assumed to refer to continental drift. However, none of them requires that interpretation.
Changes of place
H.P. Blavatsky says that in the Kabbala the ‘destruction of worlds’
means not only the destruction of many worlds which have ended their life-career, but also that of the several continents which have disappeared, as also their decline and geographical change of place.7
A ‘geographical change of place’ could be interpreted as a reference to continental drift. But it is also an accurate description of what happens during the life-cycle of a continent, from its initial emergence to its final submergence. A continent grows until it reaches its maximum extent; the Atlantean continent in the Atlantic Ocean, for instance, ‘was formed by the coalescence of many islands and peninsulas which were upheaved in the ordinary course of time’.8 Thereafter, a continent ‘declines’; different parts sink at different times, and parts that were once connected become separated because the intervening land has subsided. As continents emerge and grow, and later decline in size and gradually sink, their geographical location is clearly changing.
Blavatsky mentions that some scientists of her day believed that India and Australia were much closer together in pre-Tertiary times – not because they once lay next to one another (and also alongside Africa and Antarctica) and later drifted apart, as plate tectonics claims, but because they were both connected to large, now sunken lands.9 She also says that Easter Island ‘now lies in latitude 26 S., and longitude 110 W.’ But, again, this is not meant to imply that the island is ‘adrift’; Blavatsky explains that it was formerly part of a gigantic continent, and was itself submerged several times.10
The periodic emergence and submergence of continents means that, over time, land and sea change places. For instance, when there were large landmasses in the Atlantic Ocean, most of Europe was under water.11 By the time Europe had taken on its present form, most of the landmasses in the Atlantic had disappeared. G. de Purucker writes:
It is one of the commonest facts known to all even today, that land is slowly sinking, or rapidly sinking, all over the world; and that other lands not only are with slowness, but with equal regularity, rising. This process of submergence and emergence through long and short geologic periods is just what took place first in Lemuria and ages and ages later in Atlantis. It took hundreds of thousands of years for the main portions of the great Atlantis-system of continents, big islands, small islands, and seas, even notably to change places – the land sinking, the oceans overwhelming the lands which sank, and other new lands rising to take their places. This has continued through all geologic time, is continuing now, and will continue into the future.12
Separation of continents
Blavatsky speaks of the gigantic continent of Lemuria ‘separating into smaller continents’. Some writers have equated Lemuria with the modern concept of Gondwanaland – a supercontinent comprising South America, Africa, India, Australia, and Antarctica, when they were supposedly united in a single landmass, before rifting and drifting apart. Early theosophical teachings, however, are much closer to the views of Eduard Suess, the originator of the concept of Gondwanaland, who argued that Gondwanaland consisted of parts of the present continents in their present positions, but joined to one another by other lands that have since been submerged.
Blavatsky says that the separation of Lemuria into smaller continents was due to a decrease the earth’s rotation velocity, and quotes the following from a Commentary:
When the Wheel runs at the usual rate, its extremities (the poles) agree with its middle circle (equator), when it runs slower and tilts in every direction, there is a great disturbance on the face of the Earth. The waters flow toward the two ends, and new lands arise in the middle belt (equatorial lands), while those at the ends are subject to pralayas by submersion.13
She also says that Lemuria was destroyed by volcanic action and earthquakes, ‘a series of subterranean convulsions’, and ‘the breaking asunder of the ocean floors’.14 It’s hard to see a link between these processes and continental drift/seafloor spreading.
Blavatsky again links the separation of Lemuria to submergence in the following passage:
In the epoch we are treating of, the continent of ‘Lemuria,’ had already broken asunder in many places, and formed new separate continents. ... The immense continent, which had once reigned supreme over the Indian, Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans, now consisted of huge islands which were gradually disappearing one after the other, until the final convulsion engulfed the last remains of it.15
Something similar occurred during the decline of the vast Atlantean continent: it ‘first divided, and [was] then broken later on into seven peninsulas and islands’ before present-day Europe had emerged.16 Its progressive subsidence began in the early Tertiary and lasted millions of years. Most of the islands in the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans are said to be the remaining fragments of once immense continents that broke up and disappeared beneath the waves.17
Shifting of oceans and continents
Blavatsky and the mahatmas make several references to the ‘shifting’ of oceans and continents:
... the shifting and re-shifting of continental masses ...18
... the last cataclysm and shifting of the continents ...19
... geological cataclysms [such as] the upheaval of oceans, deluges, and shifting of continents ...20
... successive floods, upheaval of the valleys and constant shifting of the great waters and seas ...21
... waters as well as land appearing and disappearing and shifting periodically and each in turn ...22
... the shifting of the oceans with a corresponding subsidence and rise of continents and new lands.23
[The last gigantic deluge] altered the whole aspect of the globe in its interchange and shifting of land and sea.24
Viewing these quotations as a whole, the shifting of continents and oceans appears to refer to the periodic alternation of land and sea rather than to continental drift. This is underlined by the following quotation from G. de Purucker:
... while each root-race is destroyed alternately by fire and by water, let us not forget that the other elements likewise are at work at the same time; but it is fire and water more particularly which affect and cause the displacements of continents or rather their submergence, and the emergence or rising of new lands.25
There are only a handful of statements by Blavatsky and the mahatmas that could be interpreted as referring to continental drift. There is one reference to a continent declining and changing its place, and one reference to a large continent separating into smaller ones – but another statement indicates that parts of the continent became separated because the land connecting them had been submerged. In addition, there are seven references to the ‘shifting’ of continents and/or seas, some of which explicitly link this shifting to the submergence of continents and the rise of new lands. In the works of G. de Purucker there appear to be no ambiguous statements at all that could be taken to refer to continental drift.
At the same time, the works of both Blavatsky and De Purucker contain numerous references to the periodical emergence and submergence of continents, and Blavatsky describes in some detail the evolution of ancient continental systems such as Lemuria and Atlantis, in which the rising and sinking of land played a central role.26
In Blavatsky’s day, no one had heard of continental drift, and Blavatsky herself does not explicitly endorse the idea. The few ambiguous statements reviewed here could be seen as subtle hints that continents do in fact drift around, and therefore as a sign that Blavatsky was ahead of her time. It is important to note, however, that continental drift, in its modern guise of plate tectonics, denies the existence of Atlantis and Lemuria; they are ruled out by seafloor spreading and subduction, which are said to constantly recycle oceanic lithosphere. It might be argued that rising and sinking continents are compatible with continental drift on a smaller scale, but no one has yet come up with a concrete, coherent scenario and explained how it works and what the evidence for it is supposed to be.
Plate tectonics has come under heavy fire as it is opposed by a growing body of evidence. A new picture of the earth is emerging that supports ancient traditions: crustal layers can be thrust sideways, but entire continents cannot be moved around like pieces of furniture for their roots extend deep into the mantle; periodic, vertical crustal movements play a key role in the evolution of the earth; and large sections of the ocean floors consist of ancient continental rocks and were once dry land.27
1. H.P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, Pasadena, CA: Theosophical University Press, 1977 (1888), 2:787fn.
2. The Secret Doctrine, 2:326.
3. The Secret Doctrine, 2:332-3; A.T. Barker (comp.), The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett, TUP, 2nd ed., 1975, p. 151.
4. The Secret Doctrine, 2:252.
5. The Secret Doctrine, 2:703.
6. G. de Purucker, Questions We All Ask, TUP, 1929-30, pp. 379-80.
7. The Secret Doctrine, 2:705.
8. The Secret Doctrine, 2:334.
9. The Secret Doctrine, 2:8fn.
10. The Secret Doctrine, 2:323-4, 326-8.
11. The Secret Doctrine, 2:722-3; H.P. Blavatsky Collected Writings, Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1950-91, 4:447.
12. G. de Purucker, Wind of the Spirit, TUP, 2nd ed., 1984, pp. 296-7.
13. The Secret Doctrine, 2:324-5.
14. The Secret Doctrine, 2:141fn, 266, 314, 331.
15. The Secret Doctrine, 2:327.
16. The Secret Doctrine, 2:405.
17. The Secret Doctrine, 2:7, 328, 332, 405, 788, 791; Blavatsky Collected Writings, 2:433-4; Wind of the Spirit, p. 297; G. de Purucker, The Esoteric Tradition, TUP, 2nd ed., 1973, p. 1045fn; G. de Purucker, Studies in Occult Philosophy, TUP, 1973, p. 540.
18. The Secret Doctrine, 2:333.
19. The Secret Doctrine, 1:273.
20. The Secret Doctrine, 2:699.
21. The Secret Doctrine, 2:150.
22. The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett, p. 156.
23. The Secret Doctrine, 2:325.
24. The Secret Doctrine, 2:141.
25. G. de Purucker, Fundamentals of the Esoteric Philosophy, TUP, 2nd ed., 1979, p. 352.
26. See Theosophy and the seven continents, www.davidpratt.info.
27. See Sunken continents versus continental drift, www.davidpratt.info.
by David Pratt. March 2009.
Sunken continents versus continental drift
Theosophy and the seven continents