Theosophisticated Heaven and Hell

Initiation CirueloHeaven and Hell
by Alice Leighton-Cleather, F.T.S.
A paper read before the Blavatsky Lodge of the T.S.
Reprinted from “Theosophical Siftings” Volume 5
The Theosophical Publishing Society, England

In elucidating the subject, I propose to first examine a few of the various meanings attached to these terms in the exoteric books of ancient religions, before coming to more modern times, and finally to Madame Blavatsky’s own teachings on the states called heaven and hell; teachings which show, I think, at least one very vital point of difference from anything definite that can be found in the recorded utterances of other and older teachers who have preceded her, although it often seems hinted at; only the key is needed, and then the reading between the lines shines out clear and unmistakable.

First, then, let us turn back to the ancient Scriptures of India, the “sacred books of the East” (how ancient we can scarcely realize); we therein find Manu enumerating twenty-one hells, or places of torture to which the souls of the wicked were sent, Naraka being the term used for hell; and observe, in passing, that we have in the number twenty-one a multiple of that ever-present and mysterious factor, the number seven.

The Vishnu Purâna, in which the word Pâtâla stands for hell, gives seven hells, with their respective names and inhabitants; but as these names vary in different authorities, to give any detailed catalogue of them would merely result in confusion, the Sanskrit terms being as a rule somewhat stiff and unfamiliar to Western ears. It will, however, prove interesting to notice one or two points, especially in the enumeration of the seven infernal regions and their respective rulers, as given in the Padma Purâna; for instance, the first hell is said to be subject to Mahâ-Mâyâ, which literally translated means “great illusion”, or delusion; from “Mahâ”, great, and “Mâyâ”, illusion. 

Surely this, if it has any meaning, is a term of consciousness; and we find Mâyâ, again, given as the ruler of the fourth hell, thus carrying on the idea that these hells are probably intended to symbolize states of consciousness resulting from illusion.

In the Shiva Purâna eight hells are given, and we are told that “the sage Narada paid a visit to these regions, and on his return to the skies gave a most glowing account of them, declaring them to be far more delightful than Indra’s heaven, and abounding with every kind of luxury and sensual gratification”. [Dowson’s Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology and Religion, etc.] This, I venture to think, scarcely conveys the idea of a place of punishment, torture, or torment.

Another term much used in these classifications is the word Loka, which appears to stand variously for a division of the universe, a world, or a place merely. In general the Tri-loka, or three worlds, are heaven, earth, and hell; and this division seems more nearly to resemble (or prefigure) the modern idea of heaven, purgatory, and hell; a triple division.

Again another classification gives seven Lokas — exclusive of the infernal regions, which are also given as seven in number and classed under Pâtâla — and in a description of the inhabitants of the seven Upper Worlds, or Lokas, we find the fifth to be the abode of Brahmâ’s sons, Sanaka, Sananda, and Sanat-Kumâra. [Students of the Secret Doctrine will be interested in comparing what is there stated to be, the, real meaning and functions of these sons of Brahmâ — and also of the sage Narada — with the exoteric accounts of them to be found in the Purânas] The seventh or highest Loka is described as the abode of Brahma himself, and translation to this world exempts beings from further birth, which in Theosophical phraseology would mean that the Nirvanees inhabit this region, those who when offered the “Great Choice” elect selfish bliss and “entire oblivion of the world of men for ever”, [Voice of the Silence, H.P. Blavatsky] rather than selfless and unceasing toil for struggling Humanity.

The Sânkhya and Vedânta schools of philosophy recognize, I believe, eight Lokas, or regions of material existence; which recall the allusions to the mysterious eighth sphere in Mr. Sinnett’s Esoteric Buddhism.

We will now pass without present further comment to an examination of the conceptions held on this subject by the ancient Egyptians, who also taught a threefold division of the other worlds: — Amenti, or Hades; Karr, or Hell; and Elysium, or Heaven.

Amenti with them signified “the Dark”, “the Secret Place”, “the Land of no return”, “the House with no exit”; to quote the words of a translation made by Lepsius from a papyrus: — “The Amenti is a land of heavy sleep and darkness; a house of grief for those who stay there; they sleep in incorruptible forms, they walk not to see their brethren, they no more recognize father and mother, their hearts have no more feeling towards their wife and children. This is the dwelling of a god named All-Dead; he calls everybody to him, and all have to submit trembling before his anger. Great and little are the same to him. Each trembles to pray to him, for he hears not. Nobody can praise him, for he pays no regard to those who adore him. He notices no offering that any may bring to him”. [Bonwick’s Egyptian Belief and Modern Thought]

What a terribly graphic picture these words of an ancient record bring before our minds of the inevitableness, the silence, the almost despair, of the dwelling-place of the god named All-Dead. This sort of Amenti is, however, more after the character of the Jewish Sheol (to which I shall presently refer), a region of stillness and inactivity. Other accounts give the active side, in which it is recognized as being simply the continuation of this life after death. As Bonwick says: — “The departed were not, as with us moderns, something removed out of sight, to be mourned over awhile, and then almost forgotten, as not being of us. . . . Hades, the Amenti, was only the other side of the river, it was near at hand. . . . Upon removal from this earth the man at once enters upon a fresh series of mental conflicts” (note the term, mental conflicts).’

“He is confronted by dangers, and tortured by demons: the whole story is one of trial. The Ritual [of the Book of the Dead] lays down the procedure most clearly. There must be suffering for expiation of guilt. There must be tests to bring out the character”. And here I would suggest that if the framers of the Ritual had nothing more in their minds than states or places after death, it surely seems strange that these tests to bring out the character should, be kept for a post-mortem condition; and — inferentially, at least — not imposed during earth-life.

Elysium, or heaven, the Egyptians termed “the kingdom of the blessed”; and there was a gate by which souls ascended to it from Hades, called Ammah. This Elysium is described as a condition of the most perfect bliss and happiness, where dwell the souls of the blessed; not apparently, however, in the repose of idleness, for Lenormant makes the following interesting observations on the sixth chapter of the Ritual of the Dead (which bears upon the state of Elysium): — “It is there that we learn that knowledge is as necessary as virtue to obtain the happy destination of the human soul; and the work of the soul, it may be in this life, it may be in the other, it, ought to accomplish, in order to acquire knowledge, has for its symbol the exercise of agriculture. Knowledge is food for the soul, as barley for the nourishment of the body. One obtains barley only by sowing grain in the earth, and in reaping while it is ripe the new harvest produced by the seed. It is by a series of similar operations that the soul must pass to procure knowledge, the condition of happiness”.

The Egyptian hell, or Karr, consisted of ten halls, or fourteen abodes, and was in no want of flames; indeed I must confess that until I came to look this subject up, I really had no idea how much similarity there is between the traditional hell of the middle ages, with all its accompanying crude horrors, horned devils with pitchforks, various instruments of torture, etc., and the Egyptian hell; the resemblance is almost absurdly accurate, even to minor details.

In the Egyptian hell it was that the god Ra was to be seen as “Lord of the Furnace”, and a record of the eighteenth dynasty says of some one, “He shall be miserable in the heat of infernal fires”; while there are perfectly awful pictures drawn of devils thrusting bad Egyptians into hell. Another record describes the place as “the bottomless pit” and “the lake of fire”, terms doubtless sufficiently familiar to many of us who have received the orthodox Christian education!

Devils, too, figure largely in the scene, “they move about with instruments of torture, bastinadoing, cutting, burning, boiling, beating, or tearing hearts and tongues out” — truly infernal employments, which sufficiently and graphically foreshadow similar performances recorded of the infamous Torquemada and his myrmidons.

It is significant to find allusions even to final annihilation, to which Mariette Bey refers when he says: “For these a second death, that is to say a definitive annihilation, is reserved”. Indeed annihilation appears to furnish the subject of many prayers, e.g., ” Let me not be annihilated”; and Lenormant asserts that the wicked “before being annihilated, are condemned to suffer a thousand tortures, and, under the form of an evil spirit, to return here and disturb men, and exert themselves for their injury”, adding that “annihilation of being was held by the Egyptians as being the punishment reserved for the wicked”.

Recent Theosophic teaching on this terrible doctrine of final annihilation will here furnish the needed clue, the state described being of course that in which the Higher Ego breaks off from the hopelessly debased lower personality entirely, and that man becomes a soulless being. Than this I cannot conceive of any more terrible form of annihilation — absolute annihilation from the point of view of the Higher.

I have been unable to collect very much information as to the Babylonian tenets on heaven and hell; the god strong>Hea and his wife were said to preside over their Hades, as Osiris and Isis did over the Egyptian. The Bit-edie, or “House of Eternity”, as it was called, had seven spheres, realized in their seven stages of towers which showed, or rather exemplified, the seven stages of progressive existence in Hades. From this idea of progression we may infer, I think, that post-mortem states were not looked upon as in any sense final.

The Zoroastrian, and its later form the Mazdean religion, next claims notice, which very distinctly teaches that it is only in heaven and hell that the righteous and the wicked will have their recompense and their punishment. The adventures of the soul after death form the favourite subject of the descriptions of the Mazdean — or Mazdayasnian — literature, and may be found in the Avesta. Immediately after death the soul, separated from, though still near, its former tenement the body, lives over again in review all the past actions of its life; this apparently continues for three days, on the fourth it is said to “quit its place”. [The Philosophy of the Mazdayasnian Religion under the Sassanids, translated from the French of L.C. Casartelli.] in the act of doing which it sees advancing towards it an embodiment of its good thoughts, words, and deeds, if the past life has been that of a good man, or of its evil ones, if that of a bad man.

The interview, which is described at some length, between the soul and, so to say, its own creation takes place close to the bridge of Chinvat, called “The Bridge of the Soul”; here the good and evil of the soul’s past life are weighed in the balance for judgment, upon the character of the past life depending the soul’s easy or difficult passage over this bridge. The souls whose sins exceed their good deeds are said to go to hell, while those whose good deeds predominate go to heaven. This heaven is described as surrounding “the whole creation, just as the egg surrounds the bird”; it is of a triple nature, and above it again is the supreme heaven, dwelling of God and of the good spirits. Hell is also said to be triple, and there are three primary hells and a yet deeper place, from whence groans and cries come up from tormented souls; and although the souls are figured as standing as close to each other “as the ear is to the eye, ” yet each soul thinks, “I am quite alone” — a most graphic touch.

These hells are not represented as being eternal, but as to be finally destroyed, for Praise be to Him, “cry out the faithful , “who makes the final retribution . .. . . and who will at the end deliver the wicked from hell, and restore the whole creation to purity.

I think we may fairly gather from much of the foregoing, that scarcely one idea on this subject appearing in the teachings of modern religions can be said to be actually new; the older philosophies are found to contain them all, of course under varying forms, suited to their surroundings, and the state of civilization of the times in which they flourished.

Turning next to the teachings of Confucius, we find in his canonical works — the Yê-King, I believe, is the one — that Tien, or heaven, is spoken of in the same terms as the Supreme Being, as pervading the universe and awarding moral retribution; sometimes, however, the term is applied to the visible sky only. Heaven and earth, it is said, produced man, but the work was incomplete, men were to be taught the principles of reason, which heaven and earth could not do. The work of the sages was equally great, so therefore heaven, earth, and the sages form a triad of powers equal among themselves. In fact, the
Chinese division of human knowledge is into heaven, earth, and man.

This, read in the light of the Secret Doctrine, is most explicit, especially when it is added that Confucius taught virtue to be rewarded and vice punished in the individuals, or in their posterity, on earth; which, by the way, would be a most unjust proceeding if this word posterity be not here taken to mean themselves, reincarnated. Very little definite teaching is given of any post-mortem states, hence the charge of materialism often brought against the teachings of Confucius.

Sir John Davis, writing on China in 1857, says that the hell of the Chinese Buddhists may be very well described from a translation — made by Dr. Morrison — of the explanatory letterpress of ten large woodcuts which are exhibited in the temples on certain occasions. According to this account, ” Prior to their final condemnation the souls are exposed to judgment in the courts of She-ming-wâng (‘the ten kings of darkness’). The proceedings in these courts are represented exactly after the manner of the Chinese judicial trials, with the difference in punishments, which in these pictures of the infernal regions are of course sufficiently appalling.

In one view are seen the judge with his attendants and officers of the court, to whom the merciful goddess Kwân-yin appears, in order to save from punishment a soul that is condemned to be pounded in a mortar. (!) Other punishments consist of sawing asunder, tying to a burning pillar of brass, etc.; liars have their tongues cut out; thieves and robbers are cast upon a hill of knives, and so on. After the trials are over, the more eminently good ascend to Paradise; the middling class return to earth to other bodies, to enjoy riches and honour; while the wicked are tormented in hell, or transformed into various animals whose dispositions and habits they imitated during their past lives”. [China, etc, by Sir John Francis Davis. 2 Vols. 1857] All which inevitably suggests the idea that hell and earth life may have been considered as synonymous.

The Greek conceptions of post-mortem states must be sufficiently familiar to you, as also the fact that it is their Hades, or “place of the departed”, which has been rendered “hell” in many passages in our translation of the New Testament. Indeed, I would refer you to an article in the Nineteenth Century for October last, on “Ancient Beliefs in a Future State”, in which Mr. Gladstone enters very fully into the ideas held by the Greeks on this subject. It is easier, however, to show that the Greeks had definite conceptions of heaven and hell than it is to prove that the Jews possessed any.

Their word translated hell comes, I believe, from a root meaning “to hide”, so that the original sense would be “the hidden or secret place”; it serves as the translation of the two words Sheol and Gehenna; the latter, I am told, being the Greek form of the Hebrew Gehinnom, the valley of Hinnom, the dark gorge on the west side of Jerusalem, where was the furnace (Topheth) through which children were passed “through the fire to Moloch,” and in which persons convicted of aggravated wilful murder were put to death. Hence it was synonymous with “a place of torment” — “hell fire,” in fact. [Matt. v. 22]

Sheol is rendered, in several passages in the Old Testament, [Genesis xlii, 38, and xliv 31. I Kings ii 9, Job xvii, 13 and 19. Psalms xlix, 15 and lxxxix, 46, Isaiah xiv, 9 and 11.] in the sense of the invisible state of the dead, “the place and state of those who are hidden, or sought after”. As a place beyond the tomb it is distinguished from Queber, which is the burial place of the body. That Sheol was not looked upon by the Jews as an exactly desirable place may be inferred from the passage where the Psalmist exultantly sings: “Thou didst not leave my soul in hell”. Any conception that the Jews may have had of a
pleasurable state after death was of a purely material character, a place in which the soul was delighted by gardens and orchards, similar to Eden, but which they called Paradis. [Nehemiah ii, 8 and Eccles, ii. 5] This name has, however, no Hebrew root, so we may conclude that the idea was borrowed from some older religion, probably the Persian or Assyrian.

The only heaven — Shemmin — of which they had formed any idea was that expanse which divided “the waters from the waters” (Genesis i. 6 and 7), and to which the Psalmist refers in the passage, “Praise the Lord, O ye heavens, and ye waters that are above the heavens”. The word firmament — Rakìo — in the Hebrew is evidently intended to refer to a solid expanse capable of supporting waters or seas above it. It had gates, and stars in it, as well as the sun and moon, and its movements were supposed to carry these bodies along; it was further supposed to have three planes, or divisions, by which it may be presumed that they accounted for the different motions of the sun, moon, and stars. But this evidently could not have been a place for departed souls.

The Mohammedan ideas on the states after death are, if possible, still more material. From Sale’s translation of the Korân, I find that Mohammed taught an intermediate state both of soul and body, as also of a heaven and hell; but the descriptions given are really so ludicrous that it is quite impossible to quote at any length from them, suffice it to say that the crassest materialism reigns supreme, all the images used in describing both heaven and hell, with their various denizens, being taken from purely physical material existence — a mere reproduction of earth-life, in fact, and that in the most grossly material sense of the term.

Part 2


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