An advertisement for a new family car flashed across the screen of my TV one evening recently. It featured an adaptable seating design for as few as two and as many as seven people, recognising that families these days can be anything from the traditional parents with two children, through multiple combinations of partners and their children, to single parents with children and/or “furs” (domestic animals)! Beyond advertising opportunities, families are always big news. Look in the paper any day of the week and you’ll see aspects of family life featured by news writers, politicians and community opinion leaders of all kinds. Most often, the media feature the distressing aspects of family changes due to the pressure of economic circumstances, or the stresses of modern life leading to the disintegration of cherished notions of what family relationships should be. Are the newspapers right? What is the inner nature of this most fundamental human relationship from a Theosophical perspective?

Australian society is typical of most Western countries. Recent social studies (see bibliography) indicate that contrary to popular belief, most people still live in family units with a couple as parents (84%). The fastest growing family type is sole parent families (14%) as a consequence of increases in divorce in the past thirty years. The other major trend is to ‘de facto’ relationships with people being understandably more cautious about committing to marriage. More women are delaying having families until later in life and better educated women had fewer children and were more likely to remain childless. So much for the raw statistics which give us a very limited idea of the human side of marriage and the family in the early 21st century. The figures and trends don’t tell us much about the day to day realities of family life today. Parents trying to balance the competing demands of jobs and education with their responsibilities. Children often being left on their own or in the care of others for long periods outside the immediate family circle whilst parents work long hours for the increasing complex ‘necessities of life’.

What then of the inner aspects of family, especially the possible practical application of this knowledge to help uplift the quality of family life. Theosophical teachers tell us that families are no mere chance association of individuals. Rather families are ‘learning laboratories’ for individuals who share destiny an a long association over many past lives. When a reincarnating soul returns earthward after its period of rest in the heaven worlds, it is attracted to parents and family who can provide the appropriate lessons for the learning required for that life. The basis of this attraction may be love and similarity of traits and abilities. It can also be hate and the need to reconcile disharmonious relationships of other lives thus explaining the pathetic situation of parent and child who repel each other. Theosophical teacher Dr. G. de Purucker explains the inner attractions that bring souls together in families thus:

“The human egos awaiting incarnation are exceedingly numerous, so that there may be scores of entities which could become children of any one couple, yet there is always one whose attraction is strongest to the mother-to-be at any particular physiological moment, and it is this astral form which becomes the child. Many are the cases where the astral form, thus “rayed” in two directions, so to speak, finds its progress into physical birth stopped because the man or woman are either celibate or prefer no children, or for some other reason. In such cases, the astral form under karmic urge and natural law, tries again. Should the first environment prove a failure, the reincarnating ego may find itself drawn to another couple because of karmic relationships in other lives.

The reincarnating ego has in a sense very little choice in the matter, if by this we mean a deliberate selecting of one’s future family. Such a choice as we understand it is almost non-existent, because the reincarnating ego has but just left devachan and is sunken into the relative unconsciousness of the gestation period preceding rebirth, and thus is in no condition to choose with self-conscious intent. It is karma, which throughout controls these things; and karma in the abstract is infallible in its action.” from The Fountain Source Of Occultism, p. 625.

Karma and families are inextricably linked. This cosmic law of action and results brings people together again and again to work out the results of previous interactions. The experience of parenthood provides an environment for learning basic lessons about life like love and tolerance much more rapidly than other relationships allow. However, like all karmic opportunities, the lessons are there for the taking only if we choose to follow the positive aspects of the challenges family life presents, and alas, many turn away from these golden chances to learn more of life’s higher responsibilities. We all know of the quiet heroism of many people when illness or some other tragedy strikes a member of the family and spouses or relatives rally round to help out. Conversely, many marriages and family break-ups occur because one or both partners fail to show tolerance or understanding towards others in the family, perhaps over seemingly minor matters. Sometimes marriage partners reach a parting of the ways in their evolutionary journeying – painful though this may be to realise at the time. It is up to us to flow with the opportunities towards positive attitudes and unconditional love in marriage and the family, or learn it later in less desirable circumstances.

There are so many aspects to family karma such as the relationship of an individual’s destiny and those of the family, family and national karma, the disciplinary aspects of family life, the convergent karma of marriage partners, the natural ending of long-time relationships over many lives in divorce or family separation when it is necessary for the learning experience of individuals involved. My concern particularly is with the impact of modern family patterns on the developing potentials of children. These days with the increase in single parent families and with both parents working in most families, many children are being raised in an atmosphere where the parents are too tired or have little opportunity to spend “quality time” with their children. Recently, leading authorities on child-rearing such as Penelope Leach in her book, Children First, make an eloquent appeal for parents, especially mothers, to stay at home during their children’s early and crucially important development years. As Penelope Leach says to her huge readership of concerned parents, “If you give even five to 10 years to this child-centred way of life, there is still an awful lot of time for you to be you.”

These words bring to mind the prophesies of the ancient Indian religious text, the Vishnu Purana, which spoke thousands of years ago about the present cycle in Humanity’s evolutionary history known as the Kali Yuga or Black Age. The Vishnu Purana and other sacred histories from other cultures speak of a general decline in moral standards related to an increasing emphasis on the externals of life and the pervasive influence of materialism. The Vishnu Purana advises that we will be able to recognise that we are living in the Kali age when the following trends are widespread:

“…all contemporary kings will be of a churlish spirit; violent temper and always addicted to falsehood and wickedness. They will destroy women, children and cows; they will seize upon the property of their subjects, will be of limited power; they will rapidly rise and fall; the durations of their life will be very short; they will form high expectations and acquire very little piety. The people of the countries they will rule over, will imbibe the same nature. And the barbarians being powerful under royal patronage will destroy the subjects. Wealth and virtue will decrease day by day until the whole world will be depraved. Wealth will be the test of pedigree and virtue; passion will be the only tie of marriage; falsehood will be the only means of success in litigation; and women will be merely the objects of sensual gratification. Earth will be respected for its mineral treasures; the sacrificial thread will be the only test of a Brahman; external marks constitute the only distinction of orders and wickedness will be the only means of livelihood. Weakness will be the cause of dependence; menace will be the cause of learning; gifts only will constitute virtue; simple ablution will be purification; mutual consent will be marriage; a man wearing good clothes will be considered honest and water at a distance will be considered a holy spring…” from the Vishnupuranam section 24.

No doubt, the strengthening currents of Kali Yuga in our time, have a significant impact on the nature of relationships between the sexes and family problems we see about us today. It should also always be said that the ancient sages advised that the Kali age, whilst terrible in its assault on the finer instincts of man, is really a testing ground for our moral mettle so we can progress to higher states of consciousness in the distant future (we are 5,000 years into the Kali age which is of 432,000 years duration according to Theosophy). It is said that the students of the mysteries (the “Chelas”) yearn for Kali Yuga as more progress can be made in its adverse moral atmosphere than at other times when conditions are easier. As a friend once described the challenge and opportunity of this present age from an esoteric viewpoint: “You don’t build your muscles pushing against the air”.

So much for the catalogue of problems. Of course, the majority of families throughout the world provide a warm and stable environment for children, but these trends are alarming. They point to the importance of nurturing love and respect within individuals, toward family members of our immediate family, and outwards to the community – no matter how hard this may be, given today’s social problems. Such positive attitudes should be built upon and proper acknowledgment given, that there are greater dimensions and responsibilities in life than the material values of our popular culture. Our churches used to provide this needed balance between the demands of the inner and the outer life and to provide simple and commonly accepted rules for social behaviour. This is no longer the case for many people as they reach, often blindly, towards new explanations for ancient questions or simply ignore the fact that human beings have one foot in the subconscious realm, and go on living as many do absorbed in the values of the outer world.

Theosophical teachers have always taught the practical value of the Ancient Wisdom in all aspects of human life. An appreciation of the fundamental truths of brotherhood, karma and reincarnation expressed in the mythology and religions the world over, is basic to the structure of the longest lived societies such as the Australian Aboriginal culture. They have helped to build the great civilisations of the past, and must do so again in the future. Today there is a great need for practical help for families in emotional and economic crisis. We all owe a great debt of gratitude to the courageous individuals of many philanthropic organisations who provide such help unrelentingly. Beyond these physical measures, the pervasive power of a loving environment built on mutual respect between parents and children and ultimately upon knowledge of the responsibilities of the different stages and stations of life based upon Universal Law, is needed in our society. Those who have some knowledge of the Ancient Wisdom seem to me to carry a responsibility to cast forth these powerful seed ideas at appropriate times into the consciousness of the nations. Katherine Tingley, a former leader of the Theosophical Society (Pasadena), concentrated much of her work on the practical value of Theosophy to home life and social problems. Her words prophetically echo the challenges of the changing family structures in the 21st century:

“The question naturally arises: What remedies must be applied to bring about a change for the better in the home life? What factors can be introduced to adjust it and bring it nearer to perfection? Theosophy answers that the parents should begin to study the science of life, self-evolution, and the greater responsibilities of fatherhood and motherhood even before marriage. Home should be acclaimed as the centre from which the higher life of nations should spring.” (from an interview with Katherine Tingly by Clair Merton).


Family Characteristics, Australia, 2003: main features Canberra, ACT: Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2004 (ABS catalogue no. 4442.0), Online.

Australian social trends 2004. Canberra ACT: Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2004, 208p, tables, charts (ABS catalogue no. 4102.0) and Online.

Australian families in transition: some socio-demographic trends 1901-2001.

Family Matters No. 60 Spring-Summer 2001: 12-23, graphs, tables and Online (PDF 1.2MB).

Focus on Families: demographics and family formation. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1994.

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