The early church Fathers seem to have held varied opinions on the intermediate post-mortem state. Chrysostom wrote: “The very apostles and patriarchs are not yet crowned”; and Ambrose: “The judgment is not at once after death”. Several of the Fathers call it Paradise; and Basil refers to “Heaven and Paradise.” The Council of Florence in 1439 even declared that the just were “received presently into heaven”.
It is of course needless to refer in detail to the current orthodox Christian teachings, either of the Roman, Greek, or Protestant churches, on these post-mortem states. Equally familiar must Dante’s Divine Comedy be to most; but, as it is possible that Swedenborg’s book, the title of which is identical with the subject for our discussion this evening, may be unknown to some present, I would just draw your attention to the fact that from Swedenborg’s eminently mystic teachings on the true nature of heaven and hell, we learn that we are not separated from heaven “by distance of place, but only by condition of state”
Heaven, he says, is as near to the heavenly as the soul is to the body; and in a note to paragraph 191 of
the Rev. T. Hartley’s translation of Heaven and Hell (printed in 1778), we find the following concerning
space in heaven: “Places and spaces in the Word, signify states of life. …. Motion and changes of place
in the spiritual world are changes of the state of life”; and again (paragraph 193), he says: “Changes of
place being” only change of state . . . hence . . . those are near to each other who are in a similar state, and distant, who are in a dissimilar state; and that spaces in heaven are merely external states corresponding to internal . . .” and so forth.
You may perhaps remember that our own poet, Milton has, in Paradise Lost, the following suggestive
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, or Hell of Heav’n;
— a view which bears a strong resemblance to Swedenborg’s ideas upon the subject.
Upon the Norse Edda or Scandinavian mythology; and the great epic poem of Finland, the Kalevala; and
many others, we have no time to touch; and indeed it would prove but a wearisome repetition of the
same root ideas, bearing a greater or less resemblance to each other, according to the character of the
people, and the times, which gave birth to the particular form of religion or philosophy best suited to
express their own genius and evolution.
And now let us, at this point, ask ourselves what may be the real meaning of much that at first sight must appear as almost childishly absurd, in these endless repetitions of hells, heavens, and purgatories; with their, divisions and subdivisions, their rulers and various inhabitants, and the more or less appropriate tortures, penances; and employments indulged in and imposed upon the dwellers in these regions of departed souls.
From the Theosophic standpoint I would answer that I cannot for a moment believe it to be possible that the older Eastern philosophies and religions are intended to be accepted, or read, in the dead-letter sense of their sacred books; for it must surely be unmistakably clear to us, as students of the Secret Doctrine that beneath all this apparently unnecessary, often meaningless jumble, there lies concealed a profoundly philosophical conception of the states of the soul after death — and indeed for that matter, during life, incarcerated in the flesh — and that these oft-repeated enumerations of places, etc., are simply intended to symbolize varying states of consciousness, experienced either during life, or upon the dissolution of the body.
In Fitzgerald’s well-known and incomparable translation of the poem known to us as The Rubáiyát of
Omar Khayyám — the work of the astronomer-poet of Persia in the first quarter of our twelfth century —
there occur the following remarkable verses:
I sent my soul through the Invisible,
Some letter of that after-life to spell:
And by and by my Soul return’d to me,
And answer’d, “I myself am Heav’n and Hell”;
Heaven but the vision of fulfill’d Desire,
And Hell the Shadow from a Soul on fire
Cast on the Darkness into which Ourselves,
So late emerg’d from, shall so soon expire.
Upon that darkness the teachings of Madame Blavatsky have indeed, for us, shed a great light;
but Omar’s highly metaphysical conception: — “I myself am Heav’n and Hell”, may very well be taken, I
think, as the key-note of the whole Theosophic teaching on this subject — states of consciousness,
neither more nor less. It has always seemed to me that the words of Jesus of Nazareth, “The kingdom of heaven is within you”, have never had sufficient stress laid upon them in this connection, for precisely the same conclusion may surely logically be drawn therefrom.
The point I now wish specially to bring before you, as showing wherein Theosophical teachings differ
materially from those of contemporary religions, is this: that whereas heaven, although not a final
condition, as will be seen on further examination, can be looked upon as a post-mortem state of
consciousness, there is no hell recognized for man but such states as can be, and are, experienced on
earth here and now.
In the Glossary to The Seven Portals, one of the fragments from The Book of the Golden Precepts, Madame Blavatsky says: “Myalba is our earth, pertinently called ‘hell’, and the greatest of all hells, by the esoteric school. The esoteric doctrine knows of no hell or place of punishment other than a man-bearing planet or earth”, and in the Secret Doctrine we find her using the terse but forcible phrase: “the infernal regions, our earth”.
It seems therefore very evident that if all the hells recognized by the esoteric doctrine are “man-bearing planets or earths”, such a state, or states, of consciousness clearly cannot be post mortem; and indeed this is very plainly laid down in The Key to Theosophy, where the Ego is spoken of as being cast down from Devachan, a state of bliss and enjoyment, into hell again, there, or rather here, to suffer in another body. To quote the words of the Key: “We do not admit of any punishment outside of this earth . . . (for) crimes and sins committed on a plane of objectivity and in a world of matter, cannot receive punishment in a world of pure subjectivity.” Do we not obtain a hint of this in the story told in the Shiva Purâna of the sage Narada, which I have already quoted; and also, again, in the teachings of Confucius?
I fancy no thinking person will dispute the fact, recognized as such by Milton, that we do indeed make our own hell or heaven. Truly so, and we may realize the various gradations of misery, or hells, in our own persons during any one lifetime; and over and over again, through many lives it may be, if we
persist in creating the appropriate conditions, by reckless pursuit of pleasure or gain for self, regardless
of the happiness and well-being of our other selves, our brothers and sisters, whom we cannot injure or
neglect without its sooner or later reacting on ourselves.
Is not remorse, too, a veritable hell? And has not the phrase, “the hell of fruitless longing and of unsatisfied desire”, become quite a commonplace in literature? Yes, indeed, we are in hell whenever we suffer misery or unhappiness; and there surely can be no hell other than a man-bearing planet, for it is difficult to conceive of any place, the present conditions of which are more suited to produce the deepest possible hell than this earth; the lowest of our chain of seven globes.
There, is yet another aspect to this question, and one which touches us very nearly as thinking,
responsible beings. This is the fact that if —as the Esoteric Philosophy teaches — our thoughts are
living, though invisible, things, each endowed with a separate life of its own, a life longer or shorter in proportion to the intensity of the initial mental impulse that gave it birth; then it inexorably follows that we must each one of us perforce aid in creating, a hell (or heaven — but this, alas! more rarely) not only for ourselves, but also for our fellow-men. A hell invisible, it is true, yet none the less real — a hell the character of whose denizens must often be most terrible in its influence on, and consequences to, sensitive and mediumistic natures. Doubtless it is to these unseen dwellers in our mental atmosphere that allusion is made in The Seven Portals (already mentioned) where the candidate for initiation is adjured to “harmless make thy own creations, the children of thy thoughts, unseen, impalpable, that swarm round humankind”, etc. [The Voice of the Silence, p 55]
I venture to submit that a study of our prisons and lunatic asylums, on these lines, would throw
considerable light on many vexed, and hitherto insoluble social problems; such a study would as surely
lead us to some terrible conclusions, but could only serve to deepen; and intensify a hundredfold the
sense of the very grave and responsible position in which we all of us stand — in regard to our thoughts
— towards our fellows.
Before considering briefly the Devachanic state of consciousness it may be as well to mention, for the
sake of those who are unfamiliar with our teachings, that when the separation of the principles takes place at death, it is — roughly speaking — the three higher which go into Devachan, while the four lower remain on earth, passing into other forms, and states of latency or activity; but eventually gathering together to form the materials for the building up of the next vehicle to be inhabited by the returning Devachanic entity, the reincarnating principle.
The state of Devachan I will take to be synonymous with heaven, in the sense ordinarily attached to the
term. In the Key to Theosophy it is called “a state of mental bliss. Philosophically a mental condition
analogous to, but far more vivid and real than the most vivid dream. It is the state after death of most
mortals”. And its bliss is complete: “It is an absolute oblivion of all that gave it pain or sorrow in the past
incarnation, and even oblivion of the fact that such things as pain or sorrow exist at all”.
How indeed could it be otherwise? For if the Devachanic condition implied one of knowledge, or of omniscience even in a limited sense, then — as Mrs. Besant once declared from this platform — “all heaven would soon be moving hellwards”, and any state of bliss would be rendered absolutely impossible, in view of the helpless misery and sufferings of those left behind, and whom the soul had loved, on earth. On the contrary, the Devachanee “lives throughout long centuries an existence of unalloyed happiness”, and this “intermediate cycle between two incarnations is one in which the soul is surrounded by everything it had aspired to in vain, and in the companionship of every one it loved on earth”.
So then, we find after death no hell awaiting the soul, but only heaven; rest and peace in an intensely
vivid though absolutely subjective state of consciousness. As Madame Blavatsky says: “All such undying
and eternal qualities as love and mercy, the love of the good, the true, and the beautiful, that ever spoke
in the heart of the living personality, cling after death to the Ego, and therefore follow it to Devachan”,
where it is, for the time being, “the ideal reflection of the personality that was”.
This condition, or state of consciousness, is, however, as said, but a period of rest between two
incarnations, by no means a final state; and in this again, we find another vital difference between the
Theosophic and all other contemporaneous teaching on the states of the soul after death. Devachan is
often called a world of effects, the result of causes started here on earth, towards which the Ego is once
more drawn when those effects — experienced in the Devachanic condition — are exhausted.
But I do not think that we must, or indeed can, draw too hard and fast a line between the states of
consciousness that it is possible to experience during earth-life, and the Devachanic states. For a
spiritual, pure-minded person — and indeed for most of us in our best and highest moments — I
believe it to be quite possible to enter the Devachanic state of consciousness while in the body. May we
not, relatively, be said to enter heaven — the very highest — when we renounce something, it may be
great, it may be little, that matters not, for the sake of another? give up, that others may benefit by our
self-denial, our self-sacrifice ?
It is noteworthy to find the recurrence of the number seven and its multiples, in the enumeration of the
hells and heavens in the ancient Hindu and other Scriptures; for Theosophy teaches us that the states of
consciousness are seven in number, these being subdivided again almost indefinitely, keeping always to
the sevenfold classification and analogy. Of these seven primary states of consciousness the lowest one
is given as the ordinary normal waking state (Jagrat), and we are bound to infer a wide range of minor
states of consciousness, included under this term; such indeed as we actually find to be the fact. We are
continually shifting our states of consciousness, “moods” we call them, happy, unhappy, depressed,
elated, miserable, wretched, and so forth; and even when we close our eyes in sleep and enter the world of dreams (Svapna, the dreaming state of consciousness), we carry with us the impressions and
experiences of waking life, and live over again in the dream-world familiar and often long-forgotten
Now there yet remains a view of the question which I have purposely left for our consideration to the last, as being in reality the most important of all. This is the fact, given as such in the teachings of Eastern Esotericism, that all the states of consciousness included under the terms heaven and hell are the result of illusion — Mahâ-Mâyâ, the great illusion — for even in Devachan, where every man has his paradise around him, this paradise is said to be erected by his own consciousness. Nor is this any new idea, for allusion to it is to be found in so old a book as the Mahâbhârata. There, Yudhishtíra, after enduring numerous trials and emerging victorious from them all; after the final supreme test — in which he conquers by refusing to abide with his foes in heaven, electing rather to share the fate of his friends in hell — he is shown that the whole of the scenes through which he has passed are but the effect of Mâyâ, or illusion.
And in the Bhagavad Gîtâ, a portion of the same great drama, Krishna teaches Arjuna that above those places to which “the self within” goes when the body is dissolved, is that place “from which” — to quote from Mr. Judge’s edition — “those who there take refuge never more return to rebirth, for it is the primeval spirit, from which floweth the never-ending stream of conditioned existence ….. Neither the sun nor the moon nor the fire enlighteneth that place; from it there is no return; it is my supreme abode”.
It is, in truth, that Nirvanic condition which is so infinitely higher and more sublime a state of consciousness than the Devachanic state; and “to be fitted for which the soul must have lost entirely every desire or possibility of the world’s illusions”. In Nirvâna the purified individual consciousness is fully blended with the universal consciousness, “It is my supreme abode”, says Krishna. We cannot even faintly conceive what such a glorified, beatific state may be, limited and conditioned as are our conscious Egos (“the Watcher and the Silent Thinker” within) by the brain-consciousness of the body, and its five senses or avenues of sensation.
Krishna, teaching Arjuna of the after-states of the soul, describes Devachan as being “the spotless
spheres of those who are acquainted with the highest place”, and says that “the man whose devotion has been broken off by death goeth to the regions of the righteous, where he dwells for an immensity of
years, and is then born again on earth in a pure and fortunate family . . .” for “never to an evil place goeth one who doeth good”. To this place, this “spotless sphere”, goes “the self within”. when the body is dissolved at such time as the Sattva quality prevails; and as this quality, of the nature of light or truth, is said (by reason of its “lucidity and peacefulness”) to “entwine the soul to rebirth through attachment to knowledge and that which is pleasant”, the state of Devachan clearly cannot be identical with Nirvana, from which no return — to earth-life — is possible for those who have fully entered it.
Yet there are those, Nirmanakayas the Esoteric Philosophy calls them, Who although They have won the
right to enter Nirvâna, Who are past all illusion, and for Whom therefore the comparatively selfish bliss of Devachan is not possible; Who having, through unimaginable sufferings and by Their own personal
exertions, won vast knowledge and power which lifts Them high above the world of mortals — do yet
choose, of Their own free will, and out of Their divine compassion for this world of suffering men, to
renounce Their glorious birthright; deeming “it a selfish act to rest in bliss while all mankind groans under the burden of misery produced by ignorance”, and electing to toil till every child of man is emancipated from its yoke. This is “The Great Renunciation”, one which it is absolutely impossible for us to adequately understand or appreciate; to gauge its immensity, to measure the heights and depths of its divine love and pity, we must be able to realize what it is these great ones have renounced, and this we cannot do, it is entirely beyond the possibility of our conception.
Surely, however, the little that we can understand places before us a sufficiently high ideal? A higher than this I do not believe man can conceive of; yet it is one which we, here and now, can begin to try and follow, though it may be but afar off; for in acts of renunciation and deeds of compassion, often repeated, daily and hourly, till the inner attitude of renunciation for the sake of others becomes the keynote of our lives — surely even we may begin to tread that “small old Path which leadeth far away”. It is absolutely and entirely in our own hands. “The kingdom of heaven is within you”, said Jesus; and that now is the appointed time, now is the day of salvation”, is most inexorably true.
There is, there can be no other time; the past has gone for ever, the future — as such — exists but in imagination; for, in the words of a sage — known, says Madame Blavatsky, only to a few Occultists — “The present is the child of the past; the future the begotten of the present. And yet, O present moment! knowest thou not that thou hast no parent, nor canst thou have a child; that thou art ever begetting but thyself! Before thou hast even begun to say, ‘I am the progeny of the departed moment, the child of the past’, thou hast become that past itself. Before thou utterest the last syllable, behold thou art no more the present but verily the future. Thus are the past, the present and the future; the ever-living Trinity in One” [Secret Doctrine, Vol. 2, p 446] — the eternal Now.