The merits of capital punishment continue to be debated as executions, American court decisions, and worldwide efforts to abolish the practice keep the issue before the public. Some proponents feel that death is a just retribution for certain crimes -- that the criminal has forfeited his right to life by his actions; some view it as a deterrent; others have lost faith in the ability and willingness of the criminal justice system to keep demonstrably dangerous people away from the general population. Permanently ridding humanity of the influence of the worst criminals might seem the most obvious effect of the death penalty, but does it really do this? Our evaluation of the practice depends on what we think happens to us after death. In the early part of this century theosophists were among those most active in seeking to abolish capital punishment. What are some of the grounds for their stand, and what light do they throw on today's debate?
Though we occasionally say that "you can kill the body but not the soul," such sentiments have no real meaning to most people today because we identify a person so completely with his physical body. Modern science, the formative factor behind our contemporary outlook, derives all of man's consciousness from his body. Even for most religious believers, the soul has become an unsubstantial abstraction with few practical effects on the world during life, let alone after death. This, however, is at odds with most religious and philosophical traditions. In the theosophical view, every person is rooted in the spiritual reality behind the cosmos rather than being an outgrowth of physical matter. Each entity at its core is an immortal spiritual atom or monad, expressing itself through various forms as it evolves forth its inner potential. Life, consciousness, and substance are everywhere and, far from being abstractions, our spiritual and psychological aspects are as real as the matter we perceive with our senses.
As the expression of a single spiritual source, the universe is fundamentally a oneness: the earth is an integral portion of the solar system, and we are integral parts of the earth. Just as we draw the elements of our physical body from the physical body of our planet, so do our spirit, mind, and emotions originate in corresponding aspects of our living, ensouled earth. Further, these different ranges of our being are sustained by their interactions with corresponding aspects of the earth, in the same way as we are sustained physically by our contact with the earth's physical environment; and our interactions with the psychological aspects of the earth are as substantial as those with the physical world.
Out-of-body experiences of various kinds attest that our psychological elements can and do continue to function when separated from the physical body. Both traditional texts on death, such as the Tibetan "Book of the Dead," and reports of contemporary near-death experiences confirm that when a person dies, his consciousness, feelings, awareness, and sense of self carry on. Perhaps the most essential point these sources make is that after death we are ourselves. No magical transformation occurs with the dropping off of the physical form to turn us into an "angel" or "devil" or "nothing." We are exactly what we were when we died: that is, what we made ourselves to be during life by our thoughts, feelings, and acts. Whatever energies we have built up in our being are still there and, like a battery that we have charged or a spring wound to a certain tightness, that stored energy will have to be released before the various human vehicles can be dissolved back into the earth's elements.
After death, then, we meet in our own being the consequences of our life on earth. But to experience the "heavens" and "hells" we have made for ourselves in life, we do not travel to some distant or unreal place. We are inseparable portions of the earth and solar system, and so our afterdeath experiences occur within these realms. At death the physical body returns to the earth, and its elements decompose back into the earth's physical body from which they were drawn. In the same way the more gross or substantial portion of our psychological self, our lower psychomental consciousness or vehicle, returns to the corresponding range of the earth's organism and there eventually decays completely.
Immediately after death the entire human being, minus only its most physical aspects, exists as an entity -- a person -- in that portion of the earth's being which is sometimes called the kama-loka or "desire-world." Most people, because their consciousness was not focused strongly in these ranges during earth life, have not built up an affinity for that quality of consciousness and pass almost unconsciously through this state. In time the more spiritual and nobly human portions of the person separate from the lower psychological vehicle in order to undergo their own appropriate afterdeath experiences. This "second death" leaves a corpse of lower psychological substance or energy, which also finally decomposes and returns to the corresponding part of the earth just as the physical body does. These lower aspects of dead human beings, either before or after the separation of the lower from the higher human consciousness, may be drawn to seances and other necromantic practices, and also influence the living: because we all participate in the psychomental atmosphere of the earth, the forces and beings acting in that atmosphere affect everyone on the globe.
On the other hand, one who has built up the lower psychomental side of himself very strongly, retains more of his conscious awareness in these lower regions of the earth's being, for he is at home in the milieu where his energies were focused while he was alive. Thoughts of hate, selfishness, malice, violence, greed, cruelty, anger, egoism, all make the lower psychological self denser and more vital, and it consequently takes longer to dissipate after death. Such entities have a deleterious effect on the living by strengthening similar elements in the thought-atmosphere; they influence any weak or negative individuals who are attuned to that quality of consciousness. When such a person is suddenly thrown out of his physical body by violent death, he remains for a considerable time in the earth's lower psychomental atmosphere as a complete human being deprived only of his physical and lowest astral aspects. A few, however, are so attracted to material life and so at home in the lower psychomental atmosphere that they can actually continue their conscious existence as psychological beings of evil, preying on the living who open themselves, consciously or unconsciously, to malevolent energies.
What is the implication of these ideas for the death penalty? Instead of ridding society of unwanted influences, capital punishment gives them wider scope by deliberately throwing the criminal, sans body, into the psychological atmosphere of the earth, creating a focus of hate, malice, and all the destructive force that he brought to his crimes. These psychological energies, rather than being destroyed, are freed from physical limitations: the executed criminal, if truly an evil person, can have a much more devastating effect on mankind as a fully or partly conscious human being existing in the psychomental ranges of the earth, than he would if confined within his physical body. Such people work in the causal realms of mind and emotion, where we cannot count the crimes they contribute to. All this is to say that the cosmos is a spiritual unity and, while we can destroy his form, we cannot destroy any human being or his link with the earth and his fellowmen.
The practical effect on the living, of course, is far from the only issue surrounding capital punishment. We may ask: Can the deliberate taking of a human life ever be justified? What are the long-range consequences to a society that tolerates or encourages legalized murder? How can society be protected from predatory people? What of the criminal, considered as a spiritual as well as a human and material being? Has society the right to deprive him of all possibility of dealing in this life with the wrong he has done? Such questions have many ramifications. In considering our response, it is easy to forget that, in the words of the Bible, "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord." If the practical results of capital punishment are in fact more injurious to humanity than those of confining the living criminal, perhaps we will be content to leave vengeance to the spiritual realities of the universe, however inhuman the crimes committed. We may then concentrate on means of adequately protecting society from those individuals too dangerous and irresponsible to live among us, rather than attempting the impossible task of annihilating a human being. For, in truth, we can kill only the body, never the soul.
(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 1989; copyright © 1989 Theosophical University Press)