The Cell

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


Life is a changeless Spirit in an ever-changing body.


 It is often assumed that the fine longitudinal lines of the cartographer's pen describe an arbitrary division, but this is deceptive. The vertical lines actually mark the places where the spindle's filaments run from pole to equator and serve as pathways for the great division that will eventually occur. Few note these filaments, for they are invisible on the surface and only an act of unconscious sensitivity permitted their tracings. One may ponder upon the nature of the staff which runs through the spindle. Its two poles have never yet been seen, but their magnetic forces are felt and even the most apathetic are perforce affected by them. Many may have wondered about the clustered populations gathered near the equatorial belt, but few would have sensed that they presage a momentous development. Who could imagine the complex crossings, mixings and dividings that spirit and matter must make before the final division takes place and the separating bodies travel along the spindles to the poles? Is the globe itself analogous to the minute cell?

 The cell is the structural and functional basis of the uniqueness of every living organism, and contemporary science identifies it as the most elementary unit that can sustain life. Fragments of broken cells can continue their activities for awhile, but they do not constitute what scientists call life - owing to the sharp distinction between organic and inorganic substance - whose continuity they believe to have a cellular basis. W. Q. Judge, however, suggested that "the 'cell' is an illusion". He saw the cell as composed of other cells and called it "the ideal form within which the actual physical atoms - made up of the 'lives' - arrange themselves". Eastern wisdom unveils a richer perspective concerning the nature of life and its units. In exploring the definition of a cell one could meditate upon the mystery of the egg. On a vast cosmological scale, ancient Seers spoke of the non-eternal and periodic mundane Egg which contains the promise and potency of the entire universe. They taught that the mystery of self-generation and evolution in the microcosmic egg is a miniature of cosmic evolution. There is a highly suggestive correspondence between the growing egg or cell and the developing embryo. Both show an ordered pattern of chemical synthesis as well as morphogenesis, and there is the recurring pattern in successive generations involving the regulation and expression of genes. Not only can the structure and function of all organisms be seen to have much in common through the study of cells, but there is abundant evidence for cellular-like activity at many different levels in nature.

 When the living world is considered at the cellular level, one discovers unity. Unity of plan: each cell possesses a nucleus imbedded in protoplasm. Unity of function: the metabolism is essentially the same in each cell. Unity of composition: the main macromolecules of all living beings are composed of the same molecules . . . For in order to build the immense diversity of living systems, nature has made use of a strictly limited number of building blocks.

Andre Lwoff

 Although intuition as well as experimental data seem to reinforce the dictum omnis cellula e cellula ("every cell comes from a cell"), cosmic evolution is viewed in physics and metaphysics as involving extremely subtle forms of primordial matter. It is generally believed that when the physical earth was formed it was surrounded by a cloud of hydrogen gas. Oxygen was present principally in the form of water, together with nitrogen and carbon, which could combine with hydrogen to form the carbon-hydrogen gases. In order to form what modern science calls 'organic' molecules, energy was needed to break up the simple gases of the four primitive elements and produce the amino acids which would become the building blocks of proteins. Great heat from the sun baked and boiled the gases, and electricity in the form of lightning energized them. Solar energy particles and ultraviolet light combined with radioactive elements from within the earth to produce the conditions in which 'living' matter could arise. These compounds collected in the world's oceans and cooled while they mixed and concentrated and finally aggregated into droplets similar to oil in water. It is postulated that such droplets were the forerunners of the first primitive cells.

 Cells coming from cells involve recurring phases of division going back to some sort of original cell, mystical or material. The prophase of division is marked by the appearance of chromosomes as distinct bodies which coil, double and thicken. The nuclear membrane breaks down while this is going on, and the chromosomes congregate at the centre of the cell. There they fasten to a spindle which runs between the cellular poles and is formed of protein fibres. In the latter phases of division, the doubled chromosomes separate into their haploid number and each half moves to the opposite pole. Nuclear membranes are formed to contain the separated groups and the cell wall divides at the equator between the two poles, producing two daughter cells. Each bears the full combination of genetic information originally assembled when the egg of the mother was first fertilized by the seed of the father. If cells do not divide, they eventually will die, just as an organism made up of cells must die if it has no way of producing a new organism. Division brings fresh substance into a cell and gives it a sort of potential 'immortality', but in a multicellular organism the very process which promises this continuity also ensures the multiplication of increasingly differentiated cells and provides the first step toward death.

 The cell is bounded by a plasma membrane that separates it from the environment and through which all that enters the cell must pass. It is made up of fatty substance and long, complex protein molecules which can fold and unfold, allowing the membrane to expand and contract, providing (through molecular spacing) control over the molecules that can enter or leave the cell. The degree of its permeability is related to the nature of the penetrating molecule as well as the state of the membrane at that particular time. This 'selective permeability' recalls the remarkable porosity of the 'skin' of the earth described by W. Q. Judge, though such 'penetrations' are beyond the ken of modern science. The cytoplasm within the cell wall contains various membrane systems, particulate organelles and soluble compounds which, through chemical reactions, control the synthesis and conversion of the energy sources entering the cellular realm. Like the earth, the cell seems to be a small world, an eco-system and complex factory. The chloroplasts within the cytoplasm convert light-energy into carbohydrates. The mitochondria then take these as well as proteins and fats and, after eliminating wastes, produce charged particles released from molecules whose atomic links are successively broken, causing a sort of intracellular fusion. This chemically captured energy is directed to any part of the cell where work is going on, and the entire operation is carried out under the exacting direction of the enzymes forming the 'assembly lines' of the coded master plan within the nucleus. While the essential matter in the nucleus can endlessly replicate itself, even on the physical plane the cell cannot continue to live long without its nucleus. An intuitive scientist at the turn of the century wrote that "Each nucleus is a centre of life, the seat of some intelligent activity which we, being so far removed from it in the scale of intelligence, can only dimly appreciate."

 The central and causal position of the nucleus in a cell provides the exceedingly potent characteristics which suggest its analogous application in so many powerful symbolical images. The growth and the very life of any political, social or mystical tradition can be seen as a body (or cell) which is directly and continuously dependent upon the presence and healthy condition of the nucleus. There is no way in which the true information stored in and fed out by the nucleus can be transmitted by the outer cell or body itself. There are numerous avenues of intuitive investigation into the inner nature of things which can be explored through a careful consideration of the structure and function of the substance in the nucleus of any one of various kinds of cells. Though it contains several protein bodies such as chromatin and nucleoli, the controlling molecule of the nucleus is deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), which provides the basis of form, growth and all change. Within the DNA code of any human being lie combinations of structural and functional instructions which may well hark back thousands of generations. The molecular structure of DNA describes a pair of equidistant and entwined spirals connected by pairs of chemical bases. Its messages are carried by four combinations of the base pairs variously arranged in sets of triplets. Since there are as many as five million base pairs in a complex animal organism, it becomes possible to appreciate the enormous potential variation that exists for the communication of complex messages. When we consider that the substitution of just one chemical base pair for another can produce phenotypic mutation, the staggering exactitude with which information is transmitted throughout the growth and highly differentiated development that takes place in man, from his single fertilized cell state up to his old age and death, we are filled with justifiable awe.

 From the perspective of the biologist, the uniqueness of every organism or species can be seen to be based upon the uniqueness of its proteins (enzymes). DNA determines the specificity of proteins of a cell and this specificity is somehow determined by the sequence of bases in the molecule. A small amount is present in the cytoplasm and has a unique pattern of replication in the mitochondria and chloroplasts, but the major drama of replication takes place within the nucleus where the DNA double spiral separates into two strands at the time of cell division. It does this by initially breaking the hydrogen bond that holds the bases together in pairs and, as each strand unwinds, it forms, by replication in sequences, a new complementary strand. Through this mysterious mechanism the hereditary content of all cells of an organism remains the same. The oak tree and the human being transmit only oak and human cells. One of the important functions of DNA involves a sequence wherein the information coded in the molecule is transcribed into RNA (ribonucleic acid), which carries the coded message from the nucleus to the cytoplasm where it is read by the cell and translated into a particular kind of protein.

 Looking at this marvellous process from an occult standpoint, one may interpret its complexities and extraordinary chemical action as the microscopic but nonetheless material reflection of the mode whereby the immortal life-thread (sutratman) runs through successive generations. This "immortal portion" of our bodies endlessly reproduces itself and knows not the language of ontological scarcity.


 In her essay on the sevenfold constitution of the cell, Dr. Anna Kingsford elaborated upon an occult identification of cell physiology. She correlated the nucleolus - the nucleus of the nucleus and the site of production of the messenger RNA molecule - with the Divine Spirit or Nous, the nucleus with the soul or divine substance, and the cytoplasm with kama manas and the astral body. On the basis of the correspondence between things manifest to the inner and outer senses, she points to an essential unity of substance in terms of the origin of both. The immaterial is but a substance in a more ethereal and essential condition than the material, and the phenomenal world is made up of projections of the Real. The substantial is that which substands phenomena, which is what we experience it to be on the phenomenal plane because it represents the process of eternal being. Dr. Kingsford notes that the nucleolus appears to be spontaneously generated in the nucleus (soul) because all substance is penetrated by it (spirit) from the beginning. When W. Q. Judge described the hosts of elemental creatures as they moved in and out of the globe in "The Skin of the Earth", he indicated that they were "guided by some mysterious Being whose presence was only revealed by beams of light. Nor could the others see him, but his silent directions were carried out." One could interpret the role of this mysterious being as analogous to the DNA molecule or, better yet, the RNA messenger. Considering that the nucleolus (which Dr. Kingsford relates to spirit) is the site of RNA production, the spirit spoken of might be viewed as the divine messenger which penetrates all matter. It is indeed the nature of RNA that it is synthesized continuously throughout the cell cycle, whereas DNA synthesis is periodic. We may liken the latter to the periodic manifestation of divine Manus, the lawgivers who hand down the code for an entire cycle.

 In their youth cells enter into a migratory stage and move about easily, their nucleus surrounded by a mere film of cytoplasm, whose membrane is highly flexible, giving easily as it contours itself to various environments within the organism. As the cell matures, the cytoplasm grows and it becomes attached to a particular organ and participates in a more specialized function. Its course is analogous to the child whose future opens unplanned before him but who is drawn by complex chemical (karmic) action to arrive at a more fixed condition involving long years of specialized work and particularized relationships. In old age, when the fixed cell is about to disintegrate, it loses its cytoplasm and the nucleus is again left in the condition of what Dr. Kingsford called "the Wanderer", reminiscent of the ashrama phases of life observed in ancient India. In youth the brahmacharya wanders through the avenues of philosophical teachings and spiritual guidance until he accepts the karmic bonds that preoccupy him in the grihastha or householder stage. There he puts down roots and concentrates his energies in particular ways having to do with the world, and he may grow in prosperity just as the cell thickens in its functional slot. In the final stage, however, the aged pilgrim takes to the pathway again and sheds, layer after layer, the sheaths of his worldly existence.

 The ancient Hindus asserted that every cell in the human body was conscious, and they gave to each the name of a god or goddess. In her seminal article "Psychic and Noetic Action", H. P. Blavatsky states that "Occultism regards every atom as an 'independent entity' and every cell as a 'conscious unit'." Each cell has a consciousness of its own, with free will to act within the law as well as the memory which affects such action. There are two sources of memory: higher manas, the noetic individuality and part of the universal mind, and kama manas, which is psychic terrestrial wisdom manifesting through the organic system. The higher source acts through the personal self while the lower acts directly upon the body and is made up of the memories of earthly events, having their seat in the organ in which they took place. Moral conditions can be thus correlated with the molecular constitution of various organs, but each individual cell has its own kind of memory and its own psychic and noetic action. "Responding to the touch of both a physical and a metaphysical Force, the impulse given by the psychic (or psycho-molecular) Force will act from without within; while that of the noetic (shall we call it Spiritual-dynamical?) Force works from within without." The cells, like the whole human body, envelop the inner principles with their varied potential and are like an Aeolian harp chorded with two major sets of strings. H. P. Blavatsky describes the cell as having a "keyboard" of its own. Each key is capable of producing harmony or disharmony, depending on whether the impulse comes from within or without.

 Noetic action within the cell corresponds with the breath or will of the Divine brushing the fine inner strings and causing the human host to become godlike. But the lower strings do not feel this breeze and require a strong terrestrial wind impregnated with animal effluvia to set them vibrating, dragging down the consciousness of man so that he literally feels through his gross physical memory. The poet Robert Lowell described this graphically in his sad lament, "I hear my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell, as if my hand were at its throat. . . . I myself am hell." Instead of the Light-Being directing the molecular action, the "cloudy evil shapes" have invaded the cell and caused the elemental workers to fall into discordant action and even become paralyzed. Instead of reading the instructions of the messenger, the cell becomes increasingly affected by external agents. This is closely analogous to Anna Kingsford's description of a degraded cell whose cytoplasm is loaded with gross bodies, which she calls astral spooks, that have the ability to obscure the nucleus and cause the cell to become solidified. Without the nuclear impulsion, the most essential, vital and directive part which is the cell's soul has withdrawn. Thus it is with soulless men who walk the streets of the world, smiling, talking and doing business in the market-place, but who are empty, hardening shells and potential dwelling-places of evil elementaries. There is no light coming from within their eyes, only that reflected from outside. The lingering astral form is the playground of diabolical and tortured bhuts coming from anywhere in the lower astral environment, while their gross physical bodies are mere automata, the tools of alien invaders. They have become like highly permeable cell membranes whose selective processes have lost their ability to discriminate between life-giving and death-dealing molecules.

 Even when the soul is present and communicating at times with the noetic essence of the body's cells, any violation of harmony in thought or deed will eventually result in disease or even genetic damage, deleterious mutations or premature aging. Such lack of harmony causes a polar disequilibrium of the cells which gives rise to cross-cutting magnetic rays causing irregular currents in the cytoplasm. This attracts external disintegrating particles of ruptured cells (shells of soulless beings) which then lodge as astral incubi and succubi. This brings about a disintegration of the focussed will of the entire system, causing it to diffuse, its magnetic rays crossing and negating each other so that a psychic, looking at such an individual's aura, would see a disarray of intersecting lines of enfeebled force radiating out from the body instead of healthy, solar-like rays. Neither disease nor death could reign in a perfectly polarized individual where the Divine Will finds its response in every cell of the body. Only the higher mind can influence the atoms interacting in the cells and which are capable of exciting the brain "to a mental representation of spiritual ideas far beyond any objects on this material plane". Divine consciousness operates on a higher plane and not directly upon the molecules of the cell. When the occultist speaks of it influencing the atoms, it is not the physical atoms that are referred to, but their inner archetype of which they are merely a projection and which has the ability to alter their behaviour profoundly. As with Coleridge's "Eolian Harp",

And what if ail of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversely framed,
That tremble into thought, as o'er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all?

 It is as though the Mahabharatan war of the soul takes place at cellular and even atomic levels of being. Every cell has two poles which become apparent at the time of cell division when the spindle forms and which can be correlated symbolically with the higher and lower ego in man. At the equator there is a unison of this duality at the time of separation, but if all cells are polarized in line with the higher will, their atoms and molecules will participate fully in its regularized currents so that the units of information stored in the DNA (only a portion of which normally express themselves) may optimally express their potential in perfect rhythm and harmony. There is more potential (spirit) in the DNA code than can ever manifest - given the limitations of the environment - but with subtle changes within the personal self affected by higher manas, the atomic chemistry can be affected so as to trigger heretofore unmanifest aspects of the vast and ancient genetic potential carried within the cell's nucleus.

Each cell within my body holds a heart
And all my hearts in unison strike twelve.

Stanley Kunitz

 The Pythagoreans viewed the universe as a living mind. All in it is made up of atoms which are "assembled by pure thought in Number, conceived of by the Contemplator". They called the Contemplator the One, and primordial substance-mind the Two. The Three they identified as the atoms, and Four was the nature of number, altogether comprising the decade of the manifested universe. Thus the spiritual triad of Atma-Buddhi-Manas touches and informs the atoms or jivas which make up the four building blocks of life and pervade the living body of man. By such a divine current would the specificity of proteins determining the sequence in the DNA molecule be ultimately affected. He who reveals the truth of the higher Triad to the world penetrates this lower quaternary and extends through his whole being like an electric line down from its apex. No wonder Pythagoras was venerated by his devoted disciples who took an oath of veracity with the words: "By Him who revealed the Tetractys, Fountain of Eternal Nature, I speak the Truth."

 The archetypal atoms gathered together as Number in an assemblage of units are the nursery of human consciousness and spiritual souls. Called "Imperishable Jivas", they provide the field wherein lies concealed the germ that will fall into generation and which will become the spiritual potency in the DNA molecule that guides the development of the embryo and is the cause of the faithful transmission of the hereditary faculties in man and all other creatures in the world. The language of cosmic evolution in the Stanzas of Dzyan is profoundly suggestive. "DARKNESS RADIATES LIGHT, AND LIGHT DROPS ONE SOLITARY RAY INTO THE MOTHER-DEEP. THE RAY SHOOTS THROUGH THE VIRGIN EGG, THE RAY CAUSES THE ETERNAL EGG TO THRILL, AND DROP THE NON-ETERNAL GERM, WHICH CONDENSES INTO THE WORLD-EGG." The cell is the world-egg on a microcosmic level, and the assemblage of units as material projections of that collective nursery of human consciousness must surely be the assembled DNA codons whose infinite potential combinations are impressed by archetypal patterns of thought-forms. This finds perfect expression in vehicles provided by tireless cellular activity. That man retains the shape of a five-pointed star despite his perversely repeated efforts to mutilate his own manasic principle testifies to the great power of arcane thought-forms which are the gift of the Agnishwattha Pitris. As spirit descends into the life of each human being, Their progeny (the "Fiery Lives") work on the seventh and highest subdivision of matter and are indirectly engaged in building up the cells of the body in the first half of its life.

 The American Indians believed that every form was a unique expression of the Great Spirit, so that the whole world provided endless clues for the understanding of the mysterious ways in which the inner correlated with the outer. The teachings of Pythagoras state that a creature evolves to higher forms in accordance with his interaction with his environment. So it is that in man the mind grows as it perceives the law which is the will of harmony that moves all nature. The forms die as quickly as consciousness moves beyond them, just as cells do when they are no longer in step with the subtle movement of the whole. They will end up vampirizing or even cannibalizing each other and finally destroy the whole system in which they live. Buddha said to his disciples when dying, "Beloved, that which causes Life, causes also Death and Decay." This is true on every level of form. Nevertheless, the death of a holy and enlightened man is very different from that of those who will walk in the valley of ignorance. The mysterious Life - representing countless lives - that follows the law of atavism, copying family resemblances and those impressed on the auras of the progenitors, will have alchemized out of all inherited traits those that are pure and clear. The chaff of earlier generations would have been cleared away in the crucible of their lives so that an appropriate vehicle might be provided for such a soul. At his death the disintegrating cells of his body would be largely free of cytoplasm and the noetically impressed nucleus material would be reflective of inner light, right up to the moment when the soul leaves the body.

 The cell, like the body, dies and, being merely an ephemeral flash across the screen of embodied existence, can be seen to be an illusion. If atoms and molecules and whole worlds are like cells, they would all be part of the Great Illusion. Man, at his present stage in evolution, can affect the assemblage of units of his inherited genetic substance, thereby putting himself in a microcosmic position analogous to that of the Contemplator who thinks in Number "because it is the infinite principle of the forms which the atoms assume when they are gathered together and set into order". Individuals who develop noetic self-consciousness will no longer be successively reborn in fixed lineages but will range freely, taking birth where karmic fitness points and the awakened soul perceives a field capable of being impressed with the spiritual will of the sutratman. Such souls realize that the genetic continuity transmitted by the cell is analogous to the unchanging eternal spirit-substance, and that the thread delicately flashing through every cell of living matter is none other than its own true Self. The whole of nature is a series of spheres within which this sacred and insistent process takes place, and the awakening soul progressively learns to nurture it within its own microcosm. It is thus that human beings evolve to the stature wherein they can freely and fully express their self-conscious godhood.