Death is a subject which at once engages the attention of everyone, since one thing which is absolutely certain in human life is that one day one must die. Yet man cannot be reconciled to death as long as he thinks of it as an ending. We regard death with fear and repulsion because it seems to break the continuity in our lives. The meaning of death can be comprehended in the realm of consciousness, for death is a shift of the focus of consciousness, a veritable jump.
Yet if we consider it simply and quietly is it not actually a phenomenon which is as natural as birth? It is taking place all the time around us. So universal, natural and apparently necessary a phenomenon cannot be devoid of a deep significance. Life exists in the midst of death.
A thorough comprehension of this Theosophical truth brings about an entire change in our attitude towards death. We begin to view death with equanimity and a calm serenity for we then know that after death there is life and the gateway of death is but an entrance into other realms of existence wherein we may dwell awhile during an immortal pilgrimage. The vast amount of utterly unnecessary sorrow and terror and misery which mankind has suffered simply from its ignorance and superstition is replaced by a refreshing knowledge which robs death forthwith of its terror and much of its sorrow. It enables us to understand its place in the scheme of our evolution.
Man a Complex Being
The meaning of death can be understood with the help of the basic tenets of Theosophy. Theosophy tells us that man is a far more complex being than to physical sight he appears to be. The real truth is that man is a soul and has a body. By this body we mean the physical body. This body is not the man, it is only the clothing of the man. What one calls death is laying aside of a worn-out garment, like the removal of an overcoat. Within and without this gross physical body there is an etheric counterpart known as the etheric double. It is through this etheric body that we derive our life-force and vitality from the sun.
Interpenetrating the physical and etheric bodies and extending a little beyond their periphery is the astral body or the desire body which is the store-house of our emotions and feelings. Interpenetrating all these bodies and extending a little further is the mental body or the thought body. It is with this body that all our thinking process goes on. Owing to this four-fold structure of his personality man feels that he is more than flesh and blood, more than a mere creature living to eat, sleep and perpetuate his species. He asks deeply and sincerely "Who am I inside this body?" The very nature of such questioning and the depth of consciousness from which it arises together supply the beginning of the answer.
Post-Mortem Life: (a) The Astral World
As we lay aside the physical body we are surrounded by etheric matter. But after a time this etheric matter slowly slips away and we become more and more aware of the emotional world in which we are now conscious inhabitants, or in other words we go to a world of starry light and experience, increasing freedom, as consciousness is progressively released from the heavier vibrations of the gross physical matter. What sort of life one will lead in one's astral body and what will its duration entirely depend upon the type of life one has led in the physical world. If one has had a relatively pure life based on ethical principles and had allowed himself to be surrounded by altruistic and sympathetic thoughts, he will lead a happy period during a comparatively short stay in the astral world. He discovers that life away from the dense body has a vividness and brilliancy to which all earthly enjoyment is as moonlight unto sunlight and that through his clear knowledge and calm confidence he can help all those who need help in the astral plane. He may become a center of peace and joy unspeakable to hundreds of his fellowmen and may do more good in a few years of that astral existence than ever he could have done in the longest physical life.
But if unfortunately the man had led a sensual earthly life with all undesirable feelings like envy, hatred, anger and violence then his astral life will be longer and full of trouble for quite some time. For example, if he had been a drunkard, his thirst for drinks would intensify, but as he no longer possesses a physical tongue and lips he would acutely suffer from the intense thirst for wine. This is the fire of the hell which is described in mythologies. There is no geographical location of hell. Hell is a state of mind conditioned by the desires of the past which cannot be satiated for want of a physical body. But time is a great healer and gradually as the desires get weaker and weaker the refining process takes place and the soul prepares itself for the more radiant world - the mental plane, swarga or heaven, also known as devachan in Theosophical literature. So one thing is obvious. Life after death entirely depends upon oneself. The golden rule is: as here so there. We carry beyond the grave all our virtues and vices, and overnight a saint does not become a sinner nor a sinner a saint after he leaves the physical body and enters the astral plane.
Post Mortem Life (b) The Mental World
After life on the astral plane comes to a close, there lies before man's soul another and still grander stage of the wonderful post-mortem life. The grosser elements of his personal nature cannot enter the heavenly realm. So these exhaust themselves out before heaven life begins. Here also the duration of mental-world existence and the intensity of joy that the soul experiences depend wholly upon the sort of life that the man had spent during his earthly existence. All the noble aspirations that he had made for himself, love, affection and devotion that he had imbibed in his nature, the intellectual and spiritual pursuits that he had undertaken stand him in good stead in his heavenly abode. For heaven is not a dream, but a living and glorious reality. It is not a city far away beyond the stars with streets of gold reserved for the habitation of a favored few, but a state of consciousness into which every man will pass during the interval between his lives on earth. Here the self will review the experiences of existence and will mould them into new capacities and powers. Purified and refined he spends a period of substantial duration in the mental world and pursues the refinement of his life's experiences.
Beyond the Mental World
But even this glorious heaven life is finite and the idea of eternal heaven (akhanda swarga) is not correct. After the man exhausts his period of rest and refreshment his mental-world life comes to a close and the mental body in its turn drops away as others have done and the man's life in his causal body begins. Here the man needs no windows, for this is his true home and all his walls have fallen away. A majority of men have as yet but very little consciousness at such a height as this; they rest dreamily unobservant and are scarcely awake. Only very advanced souls have one continuous consciousness and even in post-mental-world-life they are fully conscious. So at this stage the soul of man awaits its fresh journey to the physical world. It takes a new body in new surroundings. This brings us to the process of reincarnation which will be discussed below.
Scientific Evidence of Post-Mortem Life
It is interesting to note that what Theosophy has told us about the mystery of death and after-death-life is being corroborated by modern scientific investigations. In recent years the testimony of hundreds of people who have experienced "clinical death" have been collected and published by medical researchers the best known being Dr. Raymond Moody (author of Life after Life) and Dr. Kubler-Ross (author of On Death and Dying). The experiences of these people who were revived and lived to tell what happened to them when they were "dead" bear a striking similarity to those described in Theosophical literature. For most, the experience is the passing through a dark enclosure before their consciousness refocuses and they become aware or themselves in a hard-to-define subtler body from which they watch in a detached way their physical body being revived on the operating table or rescued from a wrecked car. Many then found themselves in a world of light and freedom (a degree of freedom they never enjoyed in their earthly life). They met there a "Being of light" which epitomized perfect understanding and perfect love. Often they experienced a kaleidoscopic and an incredibly vivid instant review or replay of their lives' main events (a fact repeatedly mentioned in Theosophical books). Then they came to know from that Being that their earthly life-span had not ended and they must return to their earthly home for completing the unfinished business of this incarnation. Many were reluctant to do so as this brief astral experience was far more pleasant and glorious than their earthly experience. All of them testified that this new experience completely changed their lives. They no longer had any fear of death and understood that from this time on their mission was to cultivate love for others and to go on learning to the very end of life.
The foregoing scientific evidences are adduced as they corroborate some of the statements in Theosophical literature relating to life immediately following clinical death. These evidences have nothing to do with reincarnation which is a different matter altogether.
So far we have discussed death and after death life. But the process of death is closely and indissolubly linked with rebirth or reincarnation. For death is indeed a gateway to new life. Theosophy tells us in no uncertain terms how there is a great Rhythm of life to be seen at macrocosmic as well as microcosmic levels of existence. Our evolving self has alternating periods of rest and action, inbreathing and outbreathing of the pulse of life. The soul of man takes a vesture of flesh and blood many times during its evolution. The physical body houses a pilgrim soul, shaped by its past and it has a future which is "the future of a thing whose growth and splendor have no limit". An infant is not a blank sheet of paper, nor is it a mere cohesion of atomic forces - it comes as poet Wordsworth said "Not in entire forgetfulness/And not in utter nakedness". All the qualities that we possess of body, mind and soul are the result of our use of opportunities in the previous existences, and the use we make of our present opportunities will determine our future character and capacity. Reincarnation is thus a cycle of activity and rest, and death is the necessary connecting link between the two. Death provides the opportunity for each of us to travel the way according to our own uniqueness. Death comes then as only the laying aside of a physical instrument for rest and the assimilation of experiences into capacities and maturer wisdom with which the soul may begin another incarnation. So life proceeds in cyclic pattern, existence on earth for gathering of experience being followed by existence in other realms of living. Our eternal purposes reflect themselves in time and the transitory vehicles we use - mental, emotional and physical - gather the experiences by which we become conscious of our divine nature and purpose. In the journey of life, the great journey of evolution, the distance we travel is the same for all, but each one can choose the rate of progress. One can choose the easy way of hundreds of births and deaths, learning slowly in each incarnation or one can go on the steep, shorter but more difficult route learning fast and reach the summit sooner. In the earlier stages of evolution we commit mistakes and learn through suffering but as we grow in knowledge and wisdom we throw away much baggage of Karma - the accumulation of action and reaction that we had created through our thoughts, desires and actions. Then we make rapid strides and reach the summit. That is the end of the long journey when that which is called in the Christian Bible "the stature of the fullness of Christ" is attained. That is what the Bhagavad Gita also says.
This is the real purpose of the cycle of birth and death.
This material was taken almost in its entirety from the brochure: "Death - A Gateway to New Life," published by the Indian Section of the Theosophical Society in its Centenary Year: 1990-1991.to return to teosofia.com