Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


Thee I invoke
Thou self-created Being,
Who gave birth to Nature,
and whom light and darkness,
and the whole train of globes,
encircle with eternal music.

Invocation to the Milky Way

 Above the wide motionless depths, below the seven storeys, the nine discs of heaven, in the central place, on the navel of the earth, in the quietest place, where the moon does not decline, nor the sun sink, where there is summer without winter and the cuckoo sings eternally, was 'the First Man'. He looked about him to see where he had appeared and perceived a giant tree whose crown rose over the seven storeys of heaven and whose trunk was the tethering-post of the Over-god Yryn-ai-tojon. Its roots went deep down into the underground depths where they formed the dwelling pillars of mythical beings, and by means of its leaves the tree talked with the dwellers of heaven. Near this tree the First Man saw a calm lake of milk which was never rippled by a breath of wind. To its curdled shores the Youth approached and invoked the spirit of the tree and lake, who appeared to him as a grave-eyed woman with flowing locks and naked bosom. Around her head the leaves of the tree dripped a milk-white rain, and from her swelling breasts she gave him drink which increased his powers a hundredfold. Then this White Youth stood before the milk-breasted goddess and said: "Be my mother, as though thou hadst given birth to me; be my creator, as though thou hadst created me"; and she gave forth of her divine nourishment as a mother to its child before lowering him to earth where he became the first of the Yakut tribesmen of Siberia.

 The connection between the world tree and the lake or ocean of milk is often made explicit in many mythologies of the world. To the Japanese the ginkgo tree, a most ancient botanical type, is related to milk because of the pendant overgrowths on its stems and branches which resemble a woman's breasts. When a very old and famous ginkgo was dying in the precinct of Hibiya Park in Tokyo, the concerned gardener was approached by an elderly woman, who reminded him that "the ginkgo tree is the tree of milk, as you know. Now it is a long time since this old tree has tasted milk." Arctic tribes and many of those who carve the elaborate totem poles along the northwest coast of America believe that the Milky Way itself is a great tree that has fallen with its trunk to the north and its crown to the south. They say that the souls of those who die without sickness travel over it. Other people have thought of this milk-white way as a cycle, as did the Greeks who, like Euripides, believed it encircled the cosmos with eternal music. They called it Kyklos Galaxias or Cycle of Milk. This was echoed by the Romans who spoke of Circulus Lacteus. It is, however, in the Sanskrit that one finds a great wealth of terms linking together milk with the cycle of the world tree and the ocean of life. The basic root, kshira, is recapitulated in terms indicating such things as 'one who drinks only milk' (kshirapa), 'that which represents milk' (kshiramaya), the Udumbara or Ashwatha tree which gives off milky juices (kshiravriksha), and varied designations for the great ocean of milk such as kshiravaridhi, kshiramaharnava, kshirasagar or kshirauda. Suggested here is the idea of sap, of life-giving fluids, of a vast reservoir of the stuff out of which life emerges. The swelling breasts of the milk-bearing goddess rise up out of the Galhnh, the calm and gentle sea, and she gives nurture to the first archetypal man while the milky sap of the world tree courses along its trunk and branches to the manifesting cosmos below. The course of its rain of life into the world describes a cycle, a stream of the heavenly ocean like that of the Akash Ganga, which is the 'bed' or mystical prototype of the Ganges. From such streams the divine nectar of the gods is productive in the world of those fabled lands of milk and honey extolled in the sacred traditions of many cultures.

 Given its heavenly position relative to the earth and the age-old notion that it is composed of primordial matter in its finest form, it is not surprising that men have called the Milky Way 'the Pathway of Souls'. Ovid described it as the "High Road paved with stars to the court of Jove", while the Scandinavians similarly saw its destination as that of Valhalla. The Hindus, recognizing its connection with the initiated soul, call it Soma-Dhara or Soma Way, which suggests the possibility of traversing it during a lifetime. The idea central to many explanations concerning the luminous pathway of the galactic circle is that it reveals the way back to a primordial condition, to the universal matrix which was churned up at the beginning of time. Many of the Siberian people conceived of it as a seam in the membrane which otherwise separated the world from the realm of the gods. Along this bright seam flies the heavenly wild duck who, like the sacred Kaiahansa, marks a great karmic cycle in and, finally, out of time.

The cow nourishes the world with its milk -
The fine dust of the Milky Way

 Just as it nurtured the First Man, the milk from the mother goddess is said to be the divine nourishment of the gods. Used ritually in the world, it represents the archetypal life-fluid and symbolizes motherhood and all generation. The abstract infinite ocean of Aditi, mother of all the gods, became the more particularized flow of Devaki, who nursed the infant Krishna through whom the melodious music of the spheres entered the realm of time. Her pure milk sustained Gopal, who tenderly watched over the cows and effortlessly garnered the adoration of their keepers. From the timeless realm into the world of birth and death, milk is a perfect food. It emerges from heaven as the material of the eternal soul and flows into the world where it sustains its physical vehicle. The Vedas teach that the water-dripping clouds are cows through whom the primal principle of humidity flows as the 'stuff of creation. Thus rain is seen as milk and many of the battles of the gods had to do with securing the cloud-cows from the Asuras who desired to capture their milky immortality for themselves.

 Buddhists designate milk as the nourishment of Buddha Dharma, seeing all life as a progressive expression of Buddhic wisdom. This beautiful idea seems to be reflected in the compassionate sacrifice of the gentle rain, the sweet succour of the mother who gives freely so that her offspring may fulfil its dharma to the fullest. The milk of every species of lactating creatures is a complete food for its offspring, and even for the mature it is almost perfect in its nourishment. It is easily digested protein and provides fats, sugars and minerals as well as all known vitamins. The image of the infant suckling at its mother's breast embodies the transmission of essential life-substance through generation in time in such a way as to reveal one of the greatest mysteries of manifested existence. If the substance itself represents the stuff of which worlds are made, then the process of suckling demonstrates a necessary giving and taking basic to life. The Latin root word succ provides rich clues in its various usages as to the essential meaning of this phenomenon. Closely related are succurrere (succour), suctus (to give), sugo (sap or juice), sugere (to bring up, supply and provide). The term is the basis of the notion of success, succeeding, to come after, chime in, gird up, come from below, ascend, help, aid and to call back after - all suggesting that which flows, gives strength, supports and links. To live is to take succour and to give it. Milk of the mother and of the gentle cow is so intimately linked with mankind's almost subconscious notion of a necessary and even moral transmission of basic sustenance that political reputations have been made or broken on the question of providing free milk to children in schools. Henry Wallace contributed a striking perspective on this issue when he proclaimed, in a speech given on May 8, 1942, that "the object of this war is to make sure that everybody in the world has the privilege of drinking a quart of milk a day".

 The same constituents exist in the composition of the milk of all mammals but the proportions differ. All milk contains considerable concentrations of protein, many of which are synthesized in the mammary gland while others come from the blood. Casein is the main protein which is easily digested but is synthesized in a truly wonderful fashion through a precise subcellular organization of the mammary cell. Only a few of the components of milk are directly derived from the blood, and milk sugar as well as other elements are found nowhere in nature except in milk. All milk contains immunoglobulins which protect against influenza, polio and other diseases. But just as the nectar of immortality arose in the ocean of milk, so also did the poison. And worldly milk, while widely lauded as a natural combatant of sickness, is also its carrier and has been identified as the transmitter of tuberculosis and mastitis. That which gives and sustains life is also capable of passing along a distortion of the means of its transference. The nature of the first of these diseases involves a growth of rounded projections or tubers like those of the ginkgo tree which, to the Japanese, represent the breasts of the milk-bearing goddess, while the latter disease results in an inflammation of the breast itself. Pure milk taken from a properly tended animal which has been regularly and completely milked and kept free from nervousness and excitement will produce calming and uplifting results. Gandhi pointed out in his noble treatise on "How to Serve the Cow" that Hindus have always believed cow's milk to be sattvic. It engenders a gentleness and openness to truth which is reminiscent of an original state of oneness with the mother source and with the ocean of life. It is significant that when humans consume milk, it solidifies into curds upon entering the stomach. This is how milk protein is retained in the system, enabling the body to assimilate it properly. The formation of curds reminds one of the fabled curdling of the sea of milk. It is as though the body of man, or his stomach - to be more precise - describes the circumference of the cosmos in which the beginnings of formation out of fluidic homogeneity take place. This takes on additional symbolical meaning when one remembers that natural milk is composed of both milk and water, which represent spirit and matter.

We rob her of her children
That we may rob her of her milk.

 Although sheep, goats, camels and horses produce milk which is consumed by humans and all mammals provide the same for their offspring, it is cow's milk which most people think of when they think of milk. Like other mammals, the cow must bear an infant before it can produce milk, and so in the dairy industry cows are bred in order to yield milk and the calves are often treated as a problematic by-product. So great is the emphasis upon immediate efficiency that they are sometimes allowed to starve and their mothers are cared for with mechanical consideration and an eye for the maximization of milk production. The mechanization of the modern dairy industry represents a slow process of development based upon the earlier ambition of the farmer to have a cow and then a herd. Classes of cows were identified in northern Europe according to milk yield, and as man became proficient in establishing clean and orderly dairies (such as those in Victorian England which had double windows, tile walls and floors and storage tables and shelves of marble), they increasingly focussed upon breeding to maximize yield. The cow became a machine and the management of grasslands became a part of the carefully calculated agribusiness. The conversion of grass into milk no longer held the awesomeness of a major mystery but was increasingly seen as merely a part of a mechanical process. It is refreshing to picture the dairymaid of former times who milked the grazing cows in the pasture. How beautiful the descriptions of the rolling Berkshire Downs, the Cotswolds and the wild moors of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall where the cattle moved freely through natural forage seeking out the choice feed. The ruminating cow, slowly digesting the herbs and grasses, would produce a distinctive milk reflective of the particular balance of nature to be found in its habitat.

 A sense of the mystery surrounding the process whereby ingested food is converted into milk can be regained by one who considers the wonderful nature of the mammary gland. This secretory organ is one which obtains raw material from the blood and synthesizes these in a process involving an active RNA translational system dependent upon hormones. A plan of the mammary gland includes aveoli which spread out like small leaves growing at the ends of twig-like milk ducts. These aveoli are supplied with blood and they swell as milk synthesis takes place. The milk travels down the ducts into larger branch passages which empty into a milk reservoir which is the breast or udder. From there it passes out through the sphincter muscle at the nipple or teat. If one thought of the relationship between the world tree and the sea of milk as an archetypal pattern for this process, one may obtain a glimmering of the myriad levels of reflections which arcane mysteries have in the world, and one may also gain some awareness of the inversions that these involve. The world tree has its roots in heaven and its branches on earth, and the milk of life flows downward to become specific foods. In the living mammal the particularized food is taken, in the form of blood, into the leaves and it becomes milk as it travels down the trunk to the root. It is as though the living mother had become an inverted means by which the original purity and impetus of the heavenly ocean of life were made available to the newborn offspring.

There is a thing inherent and natural
Which existed before heaven and earth,
Motionless and fathomless,
It stands alone and never changes,
It pervades everything and is illimitable.
It may be regarded as the source of the Universe.
I do not know what it is. . .
I call it Tao and name it as Supreme.

Meditations of Lao Tzu

 Arcane metaphysics refers to a radiant essence which is called the milky way. It is said to be non-atomic (molecular) in its precosmic state, for "the world-stuff informs itself through various planes and cannot be said to be resolved into stars or to have become molecular until it reaches the plane of being of the visible or objective universe". When this radiant matter penetrates or informs something, it takes on its form and informs the molecules of that something. Thus, according to Zuni tradition, the Sun Father impregnates a foam-cap with a ray and then incubates the cap with his dazzling heat. From the foam the Beloved Preceder and the Beloved Follower are born. To arm them for heavenly conflict, they are given weapons: a great cloud-bow with thunderbolts to be shot as arrows and fog-making shields. This mythical tale alludes to the emergence of duality and the separation out of the moisture principle of the mother. It also explains the source of the radiance of the essential matter and the distinction between Purusha and Prakriti, the Heavenly Bull and the lunar goddess with horns who will become the Cow of the Earth. It is this goddess who is asked by the First Man to be as a mother to him as he goes forth like the Logos into the world. The sea of the goddess is universal space, Akasa, in which lies inherent the eternal Ideation of the universe and from which radiates the Logos. Its one attribute is pristine speech, and its visible pathway encircles the heavens with the intonation of the only music which is eternal - the synthesized keynote of the whole of nature. From this sound is created Vach, the female counterpart of Brahma. She is 'the Soma purchased cow' whose realm represents a principle in Akasa higher than ether and whose milk is the soma juice of initiation.

 Upon the cosmic ocean, which conceals all phenomena in potential, lies Narayana. His couch is the serpent Ananta ('endless') Sesha ('remainder'), who represents that which witnesses vast cycles of manifestation and dissolution. At the beginning of a new age Brahma is born through the navel of the Brooder upon the Waters and the differentiation in the ocean of milk begins. The umbilical extension between Brahma and the Timeless One is the beginning of a sequence of umbilical connections between worlds, each one stimulating with its birth the production of milk on an ever more physicalized plane. This series is vividly suggested in an old Siberian legend which tells of a shaman passing along the Pathways of Souls who sees an old woman with seven vessels into which she pours milk back and forth, from one to the other, incessantly. This transmission from level to level is also suggested by the churning of the ocean of milk which yielded Surabhi, the cow of plenty called 'the fountain of milk and curds'.

  Upon the cosmic ocean, which conceals all phenomena in potential, lies Narayana. His couch is the serpent Ananta ('endless') Sesha ('remainder'), who represents that which witnesses vast cycles of manifestation and dissolution. At the beginning of a new age Brahma is born through the navel of the Brooder upon the Waters and the differentiation in the ocean of milk begins. The umbilical extension between Brahma and the Timeless One is the beginning of a sequence of umbilical connections between worlds, each one stimulating with its birth the production of milk on an ever more physicalized plane. This series is vividly suggested in an old Siberian legend which tells of a shaman passing along the Pathways of Souls who sees an old woman with seven vessels into which she pours milk back and forth, from one to the other, incessantly. This transmission from level to level is also suggested by the churning of the ocean of milk which yielded Surabhi, the cow of plenty called 'the fountain of milk and curds'. The allegory of the churning of the ocean of milk is a graphic representation of the 'unseen, mysterious primeval intelligences' fashioning and differentiating the shoreless ocean of radiant essence or primordial world-stuff. These primeval intelligences are the atoms of occult science which are comparable to the seventh principle of a body or a molecule. The Vishnu Purana, in mythical terms which awaken the central threads of the knowledge of good and evil that lie at the heart of our spiritual ancestry, describes the beginnings of movement in the primordial ocean of milk. In that primordial sea, before it developed into the Sapta Samudra (the Seven Oceans or gunas), both Amrita and Visha (immortality and the poison of death and evil) lay latent. In the allegory, Vishnu has to employ Nagas and Asuras in the task of churning the Amrita up out of the homogeneous ocean, and this sets the stage for the first Wars in Heaven between the gods and Asuras which presage the formation of the three worlds. The ocean existed before the gods and Narayana rested upon it, but with the beginning of the separation between primordial spirit and matter, the curds of the Radiant Mother began to flow forth through the First Man who became as her offspring and opened the stream of milk to the subsequent worlds below.

 The War in Heaven took place many times and upon seven levels of manifestation; it involved the emergence of self-conscious intelligence and the subsequent struggles between the radiant and darkening forces operating in and through all aspects of existence. Purusha, once separated out, was killed by the gods and dismembered in sacrifice to form the firmament of the world. The Puranas say that his head became the sky, his eye Surya, his mouth the moon, his feet the earth and his navel ether. The umbilicus leading from his navel connects the levels of worlds like the trunk or pillar of the world tree. Through it runs the ethereal milk of the mother and the life-forms within the eggs of all these worlds churn up and suckle the powers which her matrices contain. They imbibe the milk of the mother and separate out the gods and Asuras into curdled armies awaiting combat.


 The radiant essence is one with the Golden Egg of Brahma, the primordial egg of the world that floats upon the ocean of chaos. This luminous 'matter' is of the ultimate tenuity conceivable to the eye of the perfect Bodhisattva. At the first reawakening of cosmic motion, it scatters through space like clusters in thin milk. "These are the seeds of the future worlds", the star-stuff of the Milky Way. Just as milk taken into the stomach of any living creature curdles so as to retain the proteins necessary for growth, so the curds of the mother, within the stomach of the cosmos, spread out and retain the food for future growth. The curds of the Milky Way are composed of matter which is in a different state of differentiation from that we know on earth. They are like storehouses of material from which stars and planets are produced. With our physical eyes, gazing into the heavens from this earth, we see only the condensed portion of the Milky Way which stretches like a seam or pathway in the sky. Most men and women have not the vision that would enable them to see the finer luminous matrix which exists behind the earthly membrane of the sky.

 The Wild Duck's Way or the Path of the Swan arcs in its milky course across the dark sky of time. It is a thread which seems to have a beginning, a middle and an end, but it is really a cycle of passage within greater cycles and so echoes the soul's endless sound. Purusha took the radiant milk of the Mother and his mouth became the moon out of which issued the One Word, which took the form of the luminous soma juice. The Rig Veda teaches that soma was brought down by a great bird (swan, duck or eagle) and that it was called 'the First Milk' of sacrifice. In the ancient Vedic Fire Sacrifice, the body of Purusha is constructed of pieces of brick made into a bird-shaped altar and the Word intoned upon it accompanies the straining of the sacred soma milk imbibed by those who strive to travel back along the great bird's starry path to the threshold of the archetypal Divine Logos. In another ancient Hindu initiation, the candidate (dwija) or twice-born passes through a golden cow (matrix of Nature) to rebecome the original prenatal man. It is said that "Within the disciple the work of Dadhyanc ('milk-curdling') who opens up the cow stalls by the power of Soma proceeds." Soma links wisdom, through initiation, to the physical body much in the same way as the moon goddess of milk gives sustenance to the Son of God who descends into the world in order to experience birth, death and resurrection on behalf of mankind. It is said that "Soma 'found' the light of the Sun and made it shine." He is not its legitimate father but through his moisture the light can strike the earth and bring to it fire.

 In the Christian tradition it is Mary (mare or sea) who is the lunar goddess of the many breasts. It is believed in folk tradition that 'the sweet milk of Mary' can cure all kinds of sickness, much like that nourishment given forth by Ephesian Artemis whom the ancient Greeks described as "having a thousand nipples on her breast". In Central America people thought that the mother goddess was a scorpion-like creature which dwelt at the end of the Milky Way and received the souls of the dead. There she gave them rest and suckled the souls of those ready to be reborn. She is like the Siberian Lake Mother whose breasts overflow and who lets down the souls of men into the world. Her milk flows out and becomes the Pathway of Souls, but it is also the Akashic vesture of their very existence. The Altai Tartars intimate this mystery in terms of carrying forth the Word, They say that "each mortal has a spirit (soul) which, receiving orders from above, brings down the life-force from the wonderful 'Lake of Milk' in the Third Storey of Heaven. This is what brings the embryo alive into the world."

 Milk in the world bears the pure traces of the Mother's bounty, and it is the symbol of rebirth back into the radiant stream which pours forth from Akashic heights, from the luminous ocean of the soul into the plains of physical existence. Following back along that pathway of its starry flow, the Initiate reposes between the wings of the Great Bird. "Aye, sweet is rest between the wings of that which is not born, nor dies, but is the AUM throughout eternal ages." Sweet is that milk of Truth which is ever available in its radiant wisdom to the poor orphan who seeks to become the legitimate son.

O Great and Bounteous Mother
Who dwells in the sky
And is called the Lake of Milk;
Be thou my mother,
As though thou hast given birth to me!