By John P. Van Mater
Death is not the opposite of life. Rather, it is a modification of consciousness, another mode of life, a procedure that is the same in principle among the universes as it is among the atoms. In The Four Sacred Seasons, G. de Purucker refers to mankind as "children of the sun, offspring of the stars." This is a splendid concept, not only full of poetry and magic, but deep philosophical meaning as well. As children of the universe, we humans are born, live out our lives, die and, as the old tradition has it, in time are reborn.
For various reasons our modern consciousness has fallen into the trap of tacitly assuming that humanity and the other kingdoms of nature have come forth on earth by some happenstance. Many assume that whereas organic beings are living, everything else is lifeless, including our earth and the other planets; and that our glorious Father Sun, pouring forth its colossal energies, nourishing its system and families of planets, is likewise simply a physical phenomenon, not animated by consciousness, intelligence, or life of any kind. Such ideas as these would have horrified our ancient forebears, who looked upon everything as living: atoms, minerals, plants, animals, and humans, also planets and suns, including the forces that animate them and the laws that govern them. All units and systems are, they asserted, living, each in its own way and on its own level.
It is true that life expresses itself organically among the vegetables, beasts, and mankind -- uniquely so on earth -- but is this any reason to regard as lifeless the electron circling round its nucleus; the crystals forming snowflakes; the lightning, rain, and wind; or the majestic nebulae wheeling their way through cosmic time and space?
Every unit of life -- atom, human being, star -- has at its heart of hearts a divine spark which is one with the divine oversoul or universal consciousness, and all are engaged in an evolutionary process extending over the course of innumerable reimbodiments. In the course of this evolution the potentials within each are unfolded. Thus far we humans have unfolded that which makes us human: we are at the human stage. Plants are plants for the same reason. A sun, the living heart of its system, has unfolded that which makes it a sun. But all beings, great and small, form the tissue of lives which is the expression of the universal being of which all of us are integral parts.
Human beings are miniature universes, sometimes called microcosms of the macrocosm. Looking at a human being, we see that atoms, molecules, compounds, tissues, organs, fluids, muscles, nerves, all form the oneness of the physical aspect of our little cosmos. What about the equally real yet more metaphysical inner activities and substances and forces? Who is Frank Smith: the body, the person, or both? When he is asleep, the body is there, but where is Frank? Who breathes for him when he is sleeping? In all these matters, the total person must be considered, and the real and causal aspects of all beings are the inner aspects. Those parts are invisible until some sort of communication or activity occurs that we can detect with our limited senses. Analogically speaking, it must be the same with the universe.
Star-forming Giant Pillar in Cone Nebula [Hubble Advanced Camera for Surveys, April 2002. Photo: NASA, H. Ford (JHU), G. Illingworth (USCS/LO), M. Clampin (STScI), G. Hartig (STScI), the ACS Science Team, and ESA]
Is the universe or solar system mostly empty space? Science confirms that our solar world is full to overflowing with light, magnetism, gravity, and all manner of physical energies and activities. And if our sun, like all natural systems, is the embodiment of a consciousness, it must be the beating, inspiriting heart of the solar body extending beyond the farthest planet -- an area as intensely full of physical and metaphysical forces and consciousnesses and circulations as is our human space or body. Are there circulations of the solar vital fluids analogous to the regular pulsing of blood through our veins and arteries? Do we droplets of human consciousness cleanse ourselves periodically by passing through the solar heart? So the old traditions teach.
How is a human being structured? The Christian division of body, soul, and spirit is often expanded in Oriental philosophies into five or seven aspects. The body, for example, may be considered as three separate aspects: the physical body, an astral or model body around which the physical is structured and held, and the life forces that animate it.
The soul consists of our mental and emotional elements, the arena of human consciousness. The human soul is dual, one minute giving way to gross instincts and the next minute transcending itself in acts of generosity and unselfishness. This duality results from the soul being linked with spirit on the one hand, and with the bodily phases on the other.
The spirit or intrinsic center of each human being is a divine spark, the true or divine self; and this divine self has surrounded itself with a veil -- the spiritual, intuitive principle which overshadows us in our better moments. In this way we have a human being formed of body, soul, and spirit.
Death is said to be a perfect sleep, and sleep an imperfect death. We do not fear to commit ourselves to sleep at night: we surrender our ordinary consciousness and arise refreshed. So it is with death. A human being lives, grows old, and dies -- that is, its consciousness withdraws and the bodily phases are shed -- and after a period of rest the soul is drawn to birth again. Its evolution as a human soul, then, extends from life to life. The afterdeath period extends from the last heartbeat to the moment when the reincarnating being begins seeking another incarnation -- in other words, the interval between two lives, an interval of assimilation and recuperation.
Normal death is preceded by months or even years of a gradual separation of the various human aspects, which results from the higher human elements beginning to withdraw. This is often, but not always, accompanied by some of the symptoms we associate with old age. Finally, the attraction of the ego for the bliss of the inner worlds brings about the severing of the cord linking it with its astral and physical bodies. In the brain, the last organ to die, a panoramic review of the life begins, sometimes before the heart has stopped. Among the very old, this panorama can start intermittently weeks before actual death. This passing of the life before the mind's eye has been attested to by literally thousands of people who have returned from near death and spoken of their life passing before them.
After the panoramic review, a period of unconsciousness ensues. The higher, more spiritual aspects of our nature begin to separate from the emotional, astral, and physical parts. Death thus is the gradual withdrawal of the human consciousness from its various bodily phases. The physical aspects then return to nature, as do the life forces. During this dissolution process the average human being is unaware, or only partially aware, of what is going on. The duration of this phase depends upon the individual. A spiritual person will pass through it rapidly; the average person may sojourn in this state for a month, a year, or perhaps even longer; whereas the evil or gross individual, who has spent a lifetime focusing attention toward the lower emotions and the physical appetites, might have more difficulty and spend scores of years in the separation process.
Various religions speak of this purgation state as hell or an equivalent term. Unfortunately, some of these institutions have tried to inculcate fear in their followers by saying, "Watch out! You'll go to hell and stay there unless . . ." It is inexcusable to instill fear in order to exact obedience to certain precepts and dogmas -- fear, where there is nothing whatever to fear for the vast majority of people.
The freed human soul, leaving these lower aspects of itself behind, lives in the most spiritual, highly intellectual attributes of itself. This state corresponds to the heavens of various faiths. The dreaming human consciousness withdraws into the spiritual self, the Father within, and weaves the fulfillment of all its lofty unfulfilled aspirations and longings. The individual is entirely unaware of anything other than what it is experiencing, which to it is incomparably real. In the case of the most spiritually advanced, these dreams can verge upon nirvana itself: the consciousness is so highly evolved that its dreams approach ultimate reality. There are as many heavens as there are individuals because it is a dreaming state. The time spent in this state can be very long indeed -- as much as a hundred times the length of the life just lived.
At the same time, the spiritual self -- holding the dreaming human soul under its wing, as it were -- wends its way along the circulations of the cosmos through the higher aspects or spheres of the earth, then outward through the sacred planets, perhaps even to the sun, in each sphere shedding those aspects of itself which pertain to that sphere. It then returns along the same pathways, picking up step by step the aspects it had previously shed.
Towards the end of this peregrination, the sleeping human consciousness begins to stir. Impulses, longings to reincarnate, spring up in its consciousness, and the processes of incarnation commence. The soul is drawn back to join again those with whom it has ties from the past. All the old emotional and mental attributes previously shed are reassembled, and a freshly-minted personality emerges with talents and strengths and weaknesses exactly reflecting the efforts of previous lives. The soul seeks out a couple with which it has karma to work out -- often wonderful karma, as the average human situation in a family is full of the deep ties of love. It selects from the parents' genetic endowment those combinations that will express its karmic need -- we do not inherit our selves from our parents. We are ourselves. Finally an infant is born, coming literally "trailing clouds of glory," spiritually refreshed, psychologically clean in the new personality which it has built for itself.
Plato and others speak of the fact that before incarnation there is a foreview -- a panorama in which one glimpses the coming life -- to reveal the karmic justice of all that is about to take place. Then there is forgetfulness: as the Greeks put it, we drink of the waters of Lethe, of "forgetfulness." This simply means that when the soul reincarnates, it has a new physical brain. As we are still relatively unevolved, the memories we access are recorded largely in the physical brain, and we cannot yet transcend that limitation. Therefore we do not remember except fleetingly our past lives. However, we are ourselves the best memory of our past because we are our past, we are what we have made ourselves. What better memory could we have?
Details about the afterdeath states may be found in the religious literatures of the world, for example in The Egyptian Book of the Dead, which is the story of the afterdeath states and of initiation; in parts of Plato's Republic and Vergil's Aeneid; in Dante's Divine Comedy; and in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. How were these teachings arrived at in the first place, we may ask? The afterdeath processes take place behind the veil of the visible world. How could anyone have determined what happens? These old traditions represent the accumulated wisdom of countless generations of highly evolved human beings -- buddhas, christs, bodhisattvas, adepts -- great human souls who evolved to the point where they could go through the death experience consciously, sending their percipient consciousness into the inner worlds. This is what is meant by initiation, from which these great individuals returned clothed with the sun, radiating golden splendor, their godlike qualities fully alive in them.
We humans are part of the living earth, and likewise are solar beings in our higher aspects. In the heart of our heart there is a divine spark, the root of us, whose circumambient home is the wide universe itself. Thus we are indeed "children of the sun, offspring of the stars." When someone dies, the departed is well looked after by nature's kind and just laws. It is those who remain behind who suffer. Such is not a time for high philosophy. It is a time for loving support -- wordless, perhaps, but deeply felt. For those who believe in reincarnation there is the knowledge that death is a perfect rest, and that we cannot lose those whom we love. In future incarnations we shall renew old ties, and they will grow even more meaningful. Because the heart of nature is compassionate law, we can face life and death with fearless confidence.
(From Sunrise magazine, June/July 2002; copyright © 2002 Theosophical University Press)
And so I think that the last lesson of life, the choral song which rises from all elements and all angels, is a voluntary obedience, a necessitated freedom. Man is made of the same atoms as the world is, he shares the same impressions, predispositions, and destiny. When his mind is illuminated, when his heart is kind, he throws himself joyfully into the sublime order and does, with knowledge, what the stones do by structure.
The laws are his consolers: the good laws themselves are alive, they know if he have kept them, they animate him with the leading of great duty, and an endless horizon. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson