Let's kick off February with a new topic in our Sacred Texts study. After a wonderful shared examination of the idea of "self", we will now move on to explore "The Sage".

To aid in our exploration we've put together a sampler of quotations relating to the idea of the sage, drawn from a handful of Sacred Texts. Please have a look:

Selections on The Sage

By looking through multiple texts, we'll begin to see recurring themes when it comes to what qualifies a Sage.

Our opening question, to get us started is this:

In your view, what does it mean to be a Sage?

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This is a Sage:


Hehe... as good a place as any to start :)

So what makes Yoda a sage?


Well, as I read through the passages that you selected, I found that most if not all of them could be attributed to him. He is wise, compassionate, kind and selfless beyond measure. But what stands out most to me with regards to him is that he maintains all of these qualities despite access to great power. A lightsaber is powerful enough by itself, but Yoda can lift starships out of swamps and heave large boulders with his mind, among other things--and yet he remains humble and restrains himself in the use of that power. He uses it only for the defense of himself and others.

In The Empire Strikes Back he displays a wonderful sense of humor with regards to himself, totally willing to step aside and allow his ego to take some hits for the sake of teaching Luke Skywalker that great power comes in small packages and that "wars not make one great."


and like this he speaks!


In Space Balls it is "Yoguart"!

Can we tell a Sage from outward appearances?

"A man is said to be confirmed in spiritual knowledge when he hast forsaken ever desire that enters into his heart and is happy and content in the Self and through the Self (Atman)."

-Bhagavad Gita  Chapter 2


Outward appearances no, but you can be discerning when it comes to measuring actions (including ideas) against the qualities of wisdom and actions that are in keeping with what your intuition tells you is true.  Does a person's actions contradict your sense of the fundamental realities of spiritual life?  Does a person live the life of the values they profess?  Does this person demonstrate the basic virtues, showing a generosity of spirit, patience, and ethical sense that is consistent with one who understands the unity of all things?

It seems to me that many people we see as spiritually wise as a public persona have also something of a charismatic appeal.  It may or may not be our attraction to goodness, for lack of a better word.


Good point.   And the converse is true too.  You can assume the manner and temper of someone wise but it is acting only.  When tested the real character comes out.

What is the saying, "If you really want to test a man, give him power."

I think the current Dalai Lama has demonstrated many of the qualities of a genuinely wise being.


Or give him adversity.  The Dalai Lama has been tested. 

Remember the Amish girls in a schoolhouse, who were killed several years ago. The community showed a great deal of integrity in its response.  It was not angry or likely to incite anger.  Very impressive. I bet there are sages there, for there certainly was wisdom.

Have you heard that the intention of following the bodhisattva path means you already began to unfold what is within... therefore treating everyone on that path as if they are bodhisattvas makes complete sense?


Di, this reminds me of a wonderful quote from the Tao Te Ching:

She [the Master] is good to people who are good.
She is also good to people who aren’t good.
This is true goodness.

She trusts people who are trustworthy.
She also trusts people who aren’t trustworthy.
This is true trust.


Are there 'sage stereotypes' that don't hold up under scrutiny?


I think so, yes--though I am having a difficult time right now coming up with specific examples. However, there is no shortage of them to be found within what is known as the "New Age" scene (not to get into New-Age bashing here, as there are gems to be found--but do sift carefully!)--self-help gurus that invoke language drawn from deeper and more legitimate sources of wisdom in order to dress up messages that are often filled with encouragement towards self-gratification, catering to the ego. There are many "messiahs" these days who manage to carefully avoid disclosing the fact that each of us is his or her own messiah and that we all carry within us the same principles that, when unfolded, make a Christ or a saint--or a true Sage.


It seems on some level many people commonly apply the same sort of stereotypes to sages as monotheists often do of their God. Old man with a long white beard, a robe (maybe the orange of the swami or the yellow of the Gelugpa...), outwardly 'spiritual' looking, talking slowly, quietly, 'mystically', in riddles or parables, etc..

It's interesting here to consider the theosophical mahatmas (one studying at a western university, another traveling with an Indian convoy to the west, etc.) and yet blending in.

Interesting to consider someone like Gandhi as well (for those who may consider him a sage).

It is said that the "brotherhood" works throughout the world, with many 'agents' spread throughout various cultures. And yet, we see no obvious 'sages' necessarily. Perhaps the ability to go incognito is part and parcel of being a true sage...

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Permalink Reply by Di Kaylor on February 4, 2013 at 7:21am

Re what is a sage and what is not

Has anyone cited Gita 4.18-21, explaining the nature of action and inaction: “…every act is one with complete awareness. The awakened sages call a person wise when .all his undertakings are… consumed in the fire of knowledge. … Free from expectations and all sense of possession, with mind and body fully controlled by the Self,…”

And though others here have nicely described the attributes of sageness, it is also found in Galatians 5.22-25: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, … gentleness and self-control,,,, Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”

And thus, we have Matt 7.20 “Thus by their fruit you will recognize them.”

The bit of gymnastics here by flipping between to the two texts, however, is that one of the key messages of the Gita is to relinquish the fruits of one’s actions.  But it does not mean you can’t discern the trueness of actions by them.  ...such an inexact, intuitional thing though. 

What a sage is not…hmm.  What comes to mind is the third or fourth stage in Shubun’s ten ox-herding pictures (nicely accessible via DT Suzuki’s Manual of Zen Buddhism), where the disciple seeking wisdom has controlled his ox (mind) but isn’t quite confident or shouldn’t be because this is where confidence can allow a misstep.  I’ve heard than monks consider it a common illness for disciples.

Also, I once read a Theosophical article about the dangers of mysticism and where it can go wrong. I’ve long since lost the article but I suspect a discerning heart is necessary, so that you look inward to check and double check your own ego.  It reminds me of the sattvic qualities (from the Gita) that still can be motivated by ego (to do good). 

The gift of humility, I guess, helps true sages "go incognito."


Permalink Reply by Jon Fergus on February 6, 2013 at 9:54pm

one of the key messages of the Gita is to relinquish the fruits of one’s actions.  But it does not mean you can’t discern the trueness of actions by them.

This is such a wonderful point Di. Thank you!

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on February 7, 2013 at 5:39pm

Or, as HPB puts it, they would be worshiped as gods or hunted like devils.


Permalink Reply by Daniel Noga on February 2, 2013 at 4:27am

Also, to be honest and fair, it is arguable that my own example from earlier is one such "sage stereotype" that doesn't hold up under scrutiny. In the vast majority of Yoda's words and deeds, there is definite sagacity, but yet one wonders if a Sage would ever, under any circumstances, use a lightsaber. Even in the defense of others (or the entire galaxy, for that matter, as he did in Revenge of the Sith when he battled Palpatine), would a Sage ever resort to violence? Or would a Sage perhaps remain pacifistic, refusing to harm another even if it is obvious that refusal to act would result in a greater harm? Would a Sage see in such a seemingly unfortunate occurrence the dance of karma, and remain detached?

Permalink Reply by Jimmy on February 2, 2013 at 12:33pm
Aren't there examples of warrior sages in sacred texts? Like Arjuna in the Gita, King David and Sampson from the Bible. Jesus Christ himself used violence to throw the moneychangers out of the temple.
Permalink Reply by Jon Fergus on February 2, 2013 at 3:06pm

This is a good point Jimmy. There is, of course, also the old story of the war between the black magicians of Atlantis and those of the "white isle". One cannot help but wonder: would a true sage "fight"? and if so "how" and to what end?

There is also the fascinating statement made in the Mahatma letters about the opposing forces, which is interesting to consider in this light:

"We do not find it either necessary or profitable to lose our time waging war to the unprogressed Planetaries who delight in personating gods and sometimes well known characters who have lived on earth. There are Dhyan-Chohans and "Chohans of Darkness," ... so the light of the Dhyan Chohans and their pure intelligence is contrasted by the "Ma-Mo Chohans" — and their destructive intelligence. These are the gods the Hindus and Christians and Mahomed and all others of bigoted religions and sects worship; and so long as their influence is upon their devotees we would no more think of associating with or counteracting them in their work than we do the Red-Caps on earth whose evil results we try to palliate but whose work we have no right to meddle with so long as they do not cross our path. ... The Brothers ... can to a degree palliate evil and relieve suffering; they could not destroy evil. No more can the Dhyan Chohans impede the work of the Mamo Chohans, for their Law is darkness, ignorance, destructionetc., as that of the former is Light, knowledge and creation. The Dhyan Chohans answer to Buddh, Divine Wisdom and Life in blissful knowledge, and the Ma-mos are the personification in nature of Shiva, Jehovah and other invented monsters with Ignorance at their tail)."

from Letter 134.

Permalink Reply by Jimmy on February 2, 2013 at 7:32pm
"would a true sage "fight"?

I would expect as much, if it's a righteous fight. I'm sure that a sage, if a parent, would protect his children, and if a soldier, fight for his country. Aren't we all duty-bound to save the innocent and defend the oppressed when circumstance calls for it? Only I see the sage acting with fearlessness, boldness, wisdom, and restraint, while the ordinary man might call upon the brutal power of his animal nature.
Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on February 3, 2013 at 2:12pm

Jimmy, I believe that the concept of the warrior when in the context of the spiritual is %99.9 symbolical.  It is referring to the war between the lower and higher nature that is waged within the breast of each human being once they set out upon the spiritual path.  Gandhi made this point many times.  The man who killed Gandhi misread the Gita and believed it was his holy duty to take Gandhi's life because he felt Gandhi was selling out to the Muslims in the efforts to keep India a unified country. He pointed to Gita passages to justify his heinous deed.

 The sages tell us the great stories, particularly in the Indian tradition (Mahabharata, Ramayana) have the most meaning and are best understood when seen as symbolic of this great internal battle.

Non-violence is the mode of resolution for conflict in the humanity of the future.  We theosophists ought to work strongly in this direction in my opinion.  It does not mean that duty in the armed services is ignoble, not at all.  It just means we need to turn a corner on how we resolve our differences. The Dalai Lama is a wonderful and powerful example of this.  Few peoples in recorded history have been abused as brutally as the Tibetans at the hands of the Chinese yet he still preaches non-violence to end the cycle of violence.

Permalink Reply by Di Kaylor on February 4, 2013 at 7:04am

Agreed, re the appropriateness of carrying a light saber if you are Yoda: It’s symbolic for the sword of spiritual wisdom. 

Gita 4.42: “Arjuna, cut through this doubt in your own heart with the sword of spiritual wisdom.” (Easwaran)

Arjuna also carries an ax, which he uses to hack away at the tree in chapter 15, rather violently I think.  With his arrows he is advised by Krishna to kill off those aspects of his own self in order to live as Self. I don’t think Luke Skywalker wields it as a sage like Yoda does, however, but I guess there are degrees in sageness, with us all being spiritual warriors looking for our swords of spiritual wisdom.

Also I believe someone mentioned this, too: 

Matthew 10.34: “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

To me these sacred texts are only allegorical. Many of my pacifist friends are relunctant to discuss this aspect of teachings, having to wield a spiritual sword is beyond what they've been trying to do, even if they intellectually understand the meaning. 

Star Wars has a broader audience, more obviously, but seems to follow the path of the hero (as defined well by Joseph Campbell's book on heroes). Very relevant, I think, to our discussion and highly inspirational, but scary too, when you see people (oinline) trying to be Jedi masters.

Permalink Reply by Jon Fergus on February 4, 2013 at 10:38pm

but I guess there are degrees in sageness

This, I think, is such a great point! We can get caught up in lumping people and things into simplistic categories, but when we pause and consider the spiritual path of humanity, there must indeed be a whole spectrum of 'sages' from chelas into 'lower' adepts and up to the highest. Perhaps in exploring what a sage is and how they might act (as in the 'to use a light saber or not to use a light saber' discussion here ;), we might consider that what may be rightful at one stage of the path may not be so at further stage. We may also consider the ideal of the sage distinctly from the reality of any individual example of one (in the sense that no manifestation can ever fully live up to the ideal).

In my own view, I would imagine that there is a certain degree of 'sageness' beyond which a near absolute non-violence would be required - as one would, I imagine, identify any act of violence as violence against Self (i.e. the 'us' and 'them' would, I think, merge into a universal 'us', and thus any act of violence would be like cutting off one's own arm). Gandhi is a good example in observing how one's own understanding of an idea evolves alongside one's path - for instance, his idea of non-violence began simply, but evolved to include every aspect of life, right down to every thought. Gandhi would've viewed himself as acting violently even if just the slightest thought of animosity arose in his mind - he would've seen that as being violent towards that other person. As we 'rise', so too must our standards, I think.

Very interesting ideas to consider all-round.

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on February 16, 2013 at 12:41am

Di, I see it this way too.  Allegorically.

Permalink Reply by Jimmy on February 4, 2013 at 9:17pm
Gerry are you trying to pick a fight with me? ;) Now on a more serious note, you really have a wonderful imagination if you see in my comments a gospel of violence. I'm simply challenging the popular "sage stereotype". The ideal of non-violence is, in my mind, a different conversation.

The Warrior Sage archetype that we see in the Gita and other sacred texts and mythologies are, as you point out, spiritual allegories of the battle between spirit and matter that rages within each one of us. However, many of these stories, the Mahabharata included, are based upon real events, people and places. And I have no reason to doubt that the dialog between Arjuna and Krishna is a historical fact. The question is this, would a person of high spiritual development, a sage, born into a warrior caste participate in battle?

Here's another take: Don't Initiates at some point in their careers have to balance and master the planetary forces, Mars included? Would'nt an Initiate working to balance those occult forces be karmically drawn to incarnate in conditions most productive for that kind of work, including war? Isn't war, when we peel back the veil of matter, the outward manifestation of Inner Forces gone wild? I know these are very speculative questions, but sometimes I like to think outside the box. I'd love to hear other's thoughts on this.

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Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on February 4, 2013 at 9:46pm

Well I quess you are right.  It would be highly hypocritical of me to pick a fight with you or anyone else and also try to advocate for non-violence.

I think your answer is in the lives of the Great Teachers we know of, Buddha, Jesus, Plato, Plotinus,  etc.  These are somewhat close to us where we can track their lives in the world.  Rama is a million years ago, Krishna 5,000.  We don't know much of the historical record of their lives.  Think contemporarilly,  the Dalai Lama might be our closest authentic teacher of the ancient doctrines.  Can you see him in uniform? Is there anything he has said or done that would indicate he would be willing to take up arms against the atrocities of the Chinese?  He took Gandhi's route of non-violence even in these extreme cases.

Permalink Reply by Daniel Noga on February 4, 2013 at 10:18pm

Gerry wrote:

I think your answer is in the lives of the Great Teachers we know of, Buddha, Jesus, Plato, Plotinus,  etc.

The example of Jesus throwing the money-changers out of the temple was given above. There was no killing involved there, as there presumably would be in the example of fighting in a war.

However, Jesus is also quoted in the Bible as teaching us to turn the other cheek. Presumably this means that a Sage would not even turn to violence in order to save one's own life. Proving this, he allowed himself to be crucified without fighting back or even fleeing from his would-be assailants.

The example of the Dalai Lama is a good one. No, I could not imagine him in uniform or taking up arms. That is one of the things that is so radical about non-violence. A person refusing to participate in violence under any circumstances is demonstrating virtually every quality we regard as highly spiritual. It would require such faith in the perfect justice of the law of Karma that one would gladly take unto oneself any consequences of death or injury rather than to harm another.

To take such a stance, even in the face of one's own death, would require great detachment from ego and personality paired with an unwavering respect for life. In fact, it could be argued that so long as a person is willing to kill or harm in order to defend oneself, one has not fully detached from ego. This, I think, does not reflect some spiritual weakness present in a person who would do such a thing. I don't think it's either fruitful or compassionate to look at it that way. Rather it is a testament to the awesome responsibility and discipline inherent in being a true Sage. As a benchmark for Sagacity, it is truly inspiring and humbling.

Permalink Reply by Daniel Noga on February 4, 2013 at 10:19pm

Both Gandhi and Pope John Paul II forgave their would-be assassins, also.

Permalink Reply by Daniel Noga on February 4, 2013 at 10:32pm

One last example before I shut up: C. Jinarajadasa (whom I am not saying was a Sage, mind you), past President of the Adyar Branch of the T.S., served in World War II--as a combat medic. Think outside the box!  ;-)

Permalink Reply by Jon Fergus on February 4, 2013 at 10:48pm

There's a very interesting idea here that I'd like to explore further, and that is "benchmark for Sagacity".

We can view the spiritual journey as something wherein our development is done by the tiniest steps, one after another, and rarely (if ever) by any leaps and bounds. So it seems to me that virtues unfold themselves very gradually and in a sense it would seem almost arbitrary to draw lines to say at one moment such and such virtue is not developed and at the next it is.

However, that said, I do notice that in my conceptions there are benchmarks that I internally associate with the Sage. For example: non-violence. Or: Compassion. Or: Patience. In my mind I think: "yes, a sage would have these developed." But when can one be said to be "patient" or "compassionate" or "non-violent"? Is it only when these are developed to a certain degree? And what is that degree?

If spiritual evolution is compared to climbing a mountain, is there a certain elevation above which one is a sage? Or is there a certain ledge called 'sagehood' beyond which one is and will always be sage-like?

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on February 5, 2013 at 9:50am

Jon, it might be possible that external signs can only take us so far.  The consciousness of a Sage is such an internal thing (read the description of the Self-Governed Sage in the Bhagavad-Gita and very few external signs are mentioned).that external signs can always be pretended and "acted" like great thespian might do.   We are told Sages roam the earth undetected and in secret.  There is so much mystery to this.

In the end this might be true: It takes one to know one.

Permalink Reply by Jon Fergus on February 5, 2013 at 11:10am

In the end this might be true: It takes one to know one.

I imagine on some level this is true. And, of course, our shared goal is in the direction of 'sagehood', so hopefully as we go along we become more able to recognize these inner signs due to our having incorporated them into our own experience to some degree.

Permalink Reply by Daniel Noga on February 5, 2013 at 10:17am


You previously mentioned the perpective that Sagehood is an ideal, and that nothing in manifestation can fully live up to the ideal. I agree also that drawing a solid boundary around Sagehood can lead one to miss out on a lot of the nuance that exists in the spectrum of spiritual growth.

I think it's quite possible that the Sage is an ideal or an archetype that we hold within us, ahead of us and/or above us for inspiration or as an ideal to strive towards, knowing full well we may not reach it anytime soon.

One way to look at it is this: Would a Sage identify oneself as such? Of all of the figures to whom we may attribute Sagehood, can we picture any of them saying, either to themselves or to another, "Yes, I am a Sage. I have arrived at that goal. I have attained it. No farther to go." I can't imagine that. Instead, I think of a Sage as someone with wisdom and humility enough to realize that there is always room to grow, and if we were to call them a Sage to their face they might say, "Who, me? I am so very ignorant..." Case in point: Socrates.

I also notice what seems to be a shared reluctance on our part to declare any currently or recently living person a Sage, even the leading lights of our time. The farthest we've gone is to say "maybe." Those to whom we are comfortable using the term are those who lived thousands of years ago, who no longer exist in anybody's living memory. They are the stuff of legend and our regard for them is likely not all that different from the way some regard gods. But they were each human. Even with certain flaws (like a temper tantrum at the temple), our images of them are manicured as if to make them fit that Sage archetype. In reality, I don't think anybody can truly match such images.

Do we usually picture a Sage as a truly human individual? Do we think of them burping, snoring in their sleep, sneezing? Does a Sage ever stutter while uttering words of wisdom, in our minds or conceptions of them?

It is possible that in a sense, nobody is truly a Sage because a Sage is a myth. On the other hand, perhaps some day in the future, the Dalai Lama will be quoted endlessly and imagined as a perfect, non-burping demigod.

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on February 16, 2013 at 12:53am

It is very important to remember that perfectibility is endless and no matter how high a human being rises there are higher levels still to attain.  Think music, athletics, mathematics, no boundaries.  A Real Sage is so far beyond the average human being that the Buddha said it was equivalent to the distance between a normal man and a black beetle.

The key idea is it is a difference of degree not of kind.

One of the great travesties of our time is the short changing of human potential.  We are willing to acknowledge human capacity for selfishness and evil but are reluctant to concede man's potential for good.

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on February 5, 2013 at 9:36am

Is it possible that the throwing out of money changers is also allegorical, at least in part?  Could it be analogous to throwing out selfish, greedy thoughts that enter one's mind?

Permalink Reply by Daniel Noga on February 5, 2013 at 10:02am

It could be both allegorical and literal. We have the freedom to interpret anything on a symbolic in addition to a literal level. This probably enriches much of life with meaning.

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on February 5, 2013 at 11:39am

Yes, we are also aware of the tremendous editorial license Biblical writers and organizers have been guilty of which makes literal interpretations very dicey.  See The Gospel According to Thomas which had the least amount of tampering.  You get a different picture than the traditional literature.

Replies to This Discussion

Permalink Reply by Daniel Noga on February 4, 2013 at 10:26pm

Jimmy wrote:

"Here's another take: Don't Initiates at some point in their careers have to balance and master the planetary forces, Mars included?"

According to this Wikipedia entry on buddhist ethics:

"In the Jataka, which tell stories of the past lives of the Buddha,Bodhisattva (a previous incarnation of the Buddha) actually kills someone to save another person's life, though because of this action, he was no longer able to achieve enlightenment in that particular life."

Note that a citation is needed for this, but I have heard different versions of the same story. This would indicate that if one does indeed need to come to terms with the warrior aspect of the Mars force, and if this does require the act of killing, then it is likely to occur in an incarnation prior to that in which one becomes a Sage. However, I don't think it's necessary to participate in war in order to master the Mars force. The Mars force manifests in different forms, one of which is sexuality, which as we know must also be mastered. It is a raw and volatile energy that I would think only manifest through a person as violence if one is mis-managing it. Naturally, nobody knows immediately how to manage it properly and one must surely stumble before one walks, but I think this would be a step taken prior to Sagehood.

Permalink Reply by Gerry Kiffe on February 7, 2013 at 5:36pm

False Sage Stereotypes:

1. Male.  (Amma, HPB, Hypatia etc.)

2  Old

3. Beard

4. Robes

5. Speaks in riddles

6. Does not speakat all

7. Speaks all the time

8. Indian or Chinese

9. Has a large following

10. Anything external

Permalink Reply by Jon Fergus on February 7, 2013 at 6:06pm

Good ones!

The 'eastern' stereotype is an interesting one. I saw an interview with a zen teacher who's a born and raised Caucasian-American; when he first started teaching, he hardly had anyone interested. Then he changed his name to something that sounded "eastern" and "mystic" and suddenly people were lining up around the corner. Nothing changed in what he was teaching. Funny how that works. ;)

I also think the male/female one is very important in our age... time for us all to get over the many gender-stereotypes of the past, and that certainly applies to our view of sages as well.