This Newsletter is the basis of an ongoing discussion concerning ancient streams of tradition that have flown through the field of mysticism - it is a discussion that continues to this day.
Although I have tried to be accurate with the information, it is little more than suggestive, and my words are never going to be enough to do this subject any justice.
The earliest records concerning posthumous existence are either those contained in the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Babylonian myth describing a venture into the Underworld, believed to date from the Third Millennium BC., or the Pyramid texts of Ancient Egypt, which many Egyptologists believe date from the middle of the second Millennium BC.
The Ancient Babylonians had many names for the Underworld, one of which was called ‘Arallu’ – the land of Darkness. It was said to be: “Infested by monsters and wandering souls of the wicked who had not received the last rites of burial on earth.” Arallu was believed to be a well organised kingdom ruled by its queen Ereshkigal and her consort Nergal who rule from Ganzir (also called Irkallu) the ‘city of the Dead’. Ganzir, was understood to be surrounded by seven walls, each protected by sentinels. Justice was administered by judges known as the Anunnaki.
According to the surviving texts of Ancient Egypt the ‘Tuat’ was the destination for all the deceased. Wallis Budge, in his book Egyptian Heaven & Hell states that the exact meaning of the word ‘Tuat’ is unknown, although it is obvious that it refers at least in part to the “place of departed spirits in general” , possessing characteristics similar to the Greek ‘Hades’ and the Hebrew ‘Sheol’. It is an unseen place which, much like the Babylonian Arallu, contained “abysmal depths of darkness and there were pits of fire wherein the dammed, i.e., the enemies of Osiris and Ra were consumed”. Certain parts of it were the homes of monsters in various shapes and sizes.
The Tuat was understood to be roughly circular in form, a dark gloomy place of fear and horror, through which flowed a river upon which the Boat of Ra passed every night. The only way that the deceased might overcome the powers and forces of the Tuat, was through the knowledge and use of the magical names of the Gods that ruled the different regions therein. For this reason it was considered absolutely necessary to have a guide to the Tuat. Thus, for the worshippers of Amen–Ra the Book of Am-Tuat was indispensable, whilst for the worshippers of Osiris the Book of Gates was equally essential.
The Tuat was divided into twelve regions through which the Sun god Ra passed in his boat each night. It was understood that it was possible for the faithful to join Ra on his boat. Budge states:
“...It became the object of every man to obtain permission to travel in the Boat of Ra through the Tuat, for those who were the followers of Osiris could disembark when it arrived at his kingdom, and those who wished to remain with Ra forever could remain in it with him.” (Egyptian Heaven and Hell p92)
If the Tuat represented a posthumous state which expressed the fears and anxieties of Egyptian civilisation, then the Sekhet–Hetepet gave expression to their hopes and aspirations. Otherwise known as the Elysian Fields, the Sekhet–Hetepet, was believed to be the kingdom of Osiris. Rectangular in shape and, according to Budge, consisting of some fourteen or fifteen regions called Aats, it represented ‘the land of the Blessed’, as opposed to the Tuat – ‘the Land of the Dammed’. Each region was presided over by a god, and the qualification for entering into each Aat was not so much a question of living an ethically sound life but knowledge of the magical formulae, figures and names of the gods who ruled them.
One of the regions of Sekhet–Hetepet known as Sekhet–Aaru, was understood to be the “...True Heaven of every faithful worshipper of Osiris.” Sekhet-Aaru was divided into seven regions, possibly corresponding to the seven known planets, each region having a door or gate that was guarded by a gatekeeper, a watcher and a herald. Here, it was believed, the deceased lived a life of contentment, which was essentially an idealised expression of the agricultural lifestyle of ancient Egyptian civilisation.
Greek mythology tells how Zeus and his brothers Poseidon and Hades, after defeating their father Kronos (Saturn), divided his kingdom among themselves. Zeus took the heavens, Poseidon the seas and Hades took the Earth, including that which lay below it. Thus, Hades and his consort Persophene ruled the underworld, which took his name, and which the Greeks understood to be the destination of the deceased. It was not considered to be a permanent location except for the incorrigibly wicked.
Hades, which may be translated as meaning ‘invisible’ or ‘unseen’, contained many different regions of which the most terrifying was Tartarus, a place of unimaginable torment and suffering wherein erring souls were punished.
Five rivers flowed into Hades, the Cocytus – the river of wailing, Lethe – the river of forgetfulness, from which those about to be reborn drank to forget their former lives, Pyriphlegethon – a river flaming with fire in which a great serpent lived, Acheron – the river of woe, and Styx – a poisonous river, across which Charon ferried the deceased.
Entrance into Hades was gained by crossing the poisonous River Styx in Charon’s boat, then descending into the underworld through a cave which was guarded by the three–headed dog Cerebus. Herein the deceased were judged by the sons of Zeus – Minos, Rhadamanthus & Aeacus. Those who were found to be of an indeterminate nature were sent to the Acheron Lake, which was fed by the river Acheron, wherein they went through a process of purification similar in conception to Purgatory, after which they were reborn on Earth. Those who were found guilty of curable wickedness were sent to Tartarus for a minimum period of a year, where they suffered until purified and were then reborn. The incurably wicked were doomed to an eternity of suffering in Tartarus. Those fortunate souls who were found to be pure and holy were sent to the Elysian Fields, or on rare occasions, to the abode of the Gods.
The Vedic tradition of India teaches that after the body had been consumed by the flames of the funeral pyre, the soul proceeds to the realms of Eternal Light, where it meets with its ancestors who were thought to be living in joyful festivity with Yama.
Yama, is understood to be the first man – the Hindu Adam, who, it is taught, was the first to explore the hidden regions of the Invisible and find the way to heaven, a way known as the ‘Path of the Fathers’. He subsequently became known as the King of the Dead and over the course of time became known as the ‘Judge of Men’ who ruled many hells in which the wicked suffer. In his role as judge Yama determines the future of the deceased by weighing their good and evil deeds on the scales of Justice. The virtuous were conveyed to Swarga – the heaven of Indra, whilst the wicked were driven to the regions of Naraka (hell). Yama was understood to be a king dwelling with his consort Vijaya in the Celestial Light deep within the sanctuary of Heaven. It was believed that he personally, or perhaps one of his stewards, conducted the deceased to his kingdom where they were given a wonderful home and a life of contentment. It is also believed that other heavens exist, belonging to the different deities of the Hindu pantheon, to which it is possible for the deceased to enter.
To the Buddhists, existence is an illusion, and all possible realms of experience, including heavens, hells, and other worlds are unreal and non-existent except in the sangsaric mind perceiving them. The posthumous state is but a continuation under different conditions of human existence resulting from Karma. The nature of human existence in this world or indeed any other world is determined by antecedent actions, and this karmic cycle continues until enlightenment is attained in the realisation of the illusory nature of existence. In Tibetan Buddhism it is taught that ‘existence’ consists of four bardos, the word ‘bardo’ means ‘Transition’– a juncture denoting the potential for experience.
The four bardos are first, the ‘natural’ bardo which spans the time between birth and death; second, the Chikhai bardo consists of the death process and finishes with the last breath. It is thought the deceased then lies in a sleep or trance–like state for three to four days, unaware that it is separated from the body. It is also known as the ‘painful bardo’; third, The Chonyid bardo, (Transitional state of Reality) wherein the deceased awakens to the realisation that death has occurred. In this bardo the deceased experiences the radiance of the mind manifesting in the form of sound, colour and light, it is also known as the ‘Luminous bardo’; fourth and last, the Sidpai bardo (Transitional state of seeking Rebirth), is the intermediate state which lasts until the moment of rebirth, either in the human world or in some other world. It is also known as the ‘Karmic bardo’.
For those who have yet to attain enlightenment, and are therefore still subject to the karmic nature of phenomenal existence, the posthumous state brings the deceased before Dharma–Raja the king of the dead, also known as Yama–Raja. Here the good and evil deeds of the deceased, in the form of black and white pebbles, are weighed in the balance. Those who pass the test receive their reward of heaven, whilst devils wait to take those who are condemned away to the Hell–world. It is understood that a part of the interval spent between incarnations is spent in Hell and a part in Heaven.
Chinese religion is a fusion of influences from three sources, Taoism, the oldest and most indigenous of China’s religions, Confucianism, which is based upon the teachings of Confucius (c.551-479 BC) and lastly Buddhism, which is thought to have been established in China in the 1st century AD.
In the different regions of China any one of these influences might predominate over the others. However, before the Communist Revolution in 1949, it was commonly believed by most Chinese people that upon death the soul enters a world that is a replica of this world, in which the Celestial Emperor, Shang Ti, rules from his celestial palace, surrounded by his ministers and subordinates – these include divine rulers and kings.
Shang Ti, the celestial emperor above is worshipped on behalf of the Chinese people by the ‘Son of Heaven’ – the Terrestrial Emperor below, (or was before China became a communist state). Numerous Judges in the celestial emperor’s employ, accompanied by their secretaries and torturers, examine the deceased concerning the things done during their life. If found guilty the sinful soul is transported to the Hell of Yama, where after undergoing suitable punishment, it comes forth to enter that shape for which its previous existence on this earth had fitted it. This may be in human form, or that of a beast, bird, fish, or parasite. Those who are found worthy attain the reward of heaven and the company of the ancestors, the veneration of which was a fundamental part of their religious life.
Early Semitic culture, out of which emerged Judaism, pictured creation as a three–tiered structure, consisting of an upper realm of the gods, otherwise known as heaven, and a lower realm or nether world consisting of a subterranean cave (Sheol) which held the deceased. Between these two extremes lay the world of Humanity. The nether world was ruled by a god called ‘Mot’, who ruled over a host of infernal deities as well as the deceased of humanity.
The early Semites believed that after death the deceased met with and joined their ancestors, consequently ‘ancestor worship’ was widely practiced. It was believed that those who had lived a blameless life were located in the higher, cleaner and lighter regions of the nether world, whilst those who had lived a life of wickedness found themselves in the lower, filthy darker regions where existence was very unpleasant. It was accepted that the deceased retained consciousness, memory, personality, and even had knowledge of what was happening in the world.
With the emergence of Judaism and its particular form of monotheism, ancestor worship and necromancy were condemned and banned. The teaching that the dead had no existence was enforced by the religious establishment, and many biblical references along with numerous commentaries support this. The O.T. condemns necromancy and any attempt to communicate with the dead. In fact, all contact with the spirit world is expressly forbidden irrespective of the nature of the spirits concerned (Lv 19:26–31; Dt 18:10–11; Job 7:7–10; Is 8:18– 20). Thus, in early Judaism Sheol, which literally means the grave or pit, was believed to be the ultimate destination of the deceased for both good and evil alike and was viewed as an accursed realm of eternal darkness. However, over the course of time this belief evolved from simply being a depository of the dead, to being a more complex place, not unlike the Greek Hades wherein the deceased are received and justice is metered out.
The central teaching of Justice in ancient Judaism is found in the Torah, and is specifically outlined in the Book of Deuteronomy, which consists of rewards and punishments for fulfilling, or as the case may be, not fulfilling the Covenant that Israel made with God. Most orthodox Jews believe that for those who comply with the Law shall be redeemed from Sheol, and for the wicked there will be eternal punishment in Gehenna, which is a place that equates with Tartarus – the hell of the Greeks. It is a place of burning fires, torment and shame. Redemption or damnation is said to come at the end of Time, at the final judgement, when all of the dead shall be raised and assessed by God.
The followers of Islam believe that immediately after death the deceased are confronted by two angels called Munkar and Nakir, who interrogate the deceased about who they worshipped in life, if the answer is Allah and his prophet Mohammed they will then be allowed to rest/sleep until the day of Resurrection and final Judgement. However, it is taught that those who have rejected God and his prophet will immediately be punished by the angels.
On the day of Resurrection all humanity will then be raised from the grave, and each soul will have its vices and virtues weighed in the scales. Those whose virtues outweigh their vices will pass into the Garden of Paradise, where they will remain in comfort and happiness forever. Those whose vices outweigh their virtues will fall into Hell. After a while, any who have any faith at all will be taken out of Hell into Paradise, those who have none will remain in hell forever, burning in a black fire.
It is said that there are four gardens in Paradise, two of which contain all things made of silver and two in which all things are made of gold. It is further taught that there are one hundred stages of Paradise, one over the other, each more beautiful than the preceding one. The topmost is called Firdaus, from which flows four canals, one of milk, one of honey, one of wine and one of water; above this is the Divine Throne – Arsh.
The Christian vision of the posthumous state consists of Heaven, Purgatory, Limbo, and Hell. It was traditionally believed that the deceased were sent to one of these destinations by an act of judgement which takes place immediately after death. Admission into Heaven demands firstly, that the soul has been purified of the sin of Adam (Original Sin) through Baptism, and secondly, that the soul has no debt to pay to the Justice of God.
For those souls who have lived a varied yet basically honest life, a period in Purgatory is inevitable. Therein they suffer temporary punishment sufficient to expiate their sins, after which they are received into Heaven. The traditional Christian understanding of heaven was initially a return to the Garden of Eden and the presence of God, a return to that immortal pristine spiritual condition where suffering and ignorance cease to exist. However, Irenaeus, who was the bishop of Lyon in the latter half of the Second Century, perceived Heaven as being a glorified material world, where the righteous enjoyed life free from suffering in ideal conditions; this included all of the sensual delights enjoyed upon earth.
St. Augustine, who in his mid–thirties converted from Manichaeism to orthodox Christianity, initially explored and developed his perception of Heaven from a Neo–platonic perspective; he conceived Heaven as a purely spiritual domain wherein the soul partook of the Good and the Beautiful and communed with God in what is described as the “Beatific Vision”. However, in his later years he seemed to favour the more common notion of the ‘Isles of the Blessed’ derived from the Greeks. Thus, the loving reunion of families and friends in the presence of God became for St. Augustine, the ideal of happiness. His philosophy was to have a major influence upon the developing theology of the Christian Church during the centuries that followed.
In medieval Europe, the perception of Heaven as the ‘restored’ garden of paradise evolved to include the ‘New Jerusalem’ as depicted in the Book of Revelation. This urbanised concept of Heaven, existing in a fabulous garden landscape, wherein the righteous intermingled with the angels, in many ways reflected the growth of towns and cities throughout medieval Europe.
Hell is the place of eternal damnation set aside for those who by their sins have revolted against God. Such beings include those angels who defied the Will of God, and such human souls that have died in a state of final impenitence. Limbo is a place where the souls of deceased unbaptised infants await the final Resurrection. It also had a special region where the deceased souls of Just pre–Christian men and women awaited the coming of the Christ; it is now thought to be unoccupied.
What happens to us after we die has been the subject of intense speculation throughout the course of human existence. This is hardly surprising because from the moment we are born death is mysterious, inevitable and unavoidable.
Given the diversity of cultural perceptions that exist concerning the afterlife, and we have only looked at a few, it is interesting to note just how many features they all share in common. For instance, most of our ancestors recognised some kind of life after death, where a remnant of the deceased survived. This belief is obvious in the surviving texts of Babylon, Egypt, Judaea and Ancient Greece, which among other things inform us that the posthumous conditions of the deceased were but a poor reflection of life in this world. The Epic of Gilgamesh, and Homer’s account of Odysseus’s venture into Hades illustrate this clearly.
It is also clear that many of our ancestors initially believed the underworld to be the destination for all, regardless of rank or virtue. Thus, primitive perceptions of the Babylonian Arallu, of the Egyptian Tuat, of the Greek Hades, and of the Judaic Sheol all seem to concur in portraying posthumous existence as ethically neutral – the concept of posthumous reward and punishment which ultimately gave rise to the ideas about Heaven and Hell, emerged at a later date.
The teachings concerning reincarnation, which cannot be separated from the doctrine of pre–existence, seems to have first emerged in Egypt. References in the ‘Book of the Dead’, the ‘Hermetic Fragments’, and the ‘Corpus Hermeticum’ clearly indicate an accepted tradition concerning reincarnation amongst the Egyptians. Reincarnation was also widely accepted and taught in varying degrees by the Greeks, the Celts of Western Europe and the people of India. The concept of reincarnation is not obvious in the Vedas, but seems to have first appeared with the Upanishads, and might well have migrated to India from Egypt. It is a matter of fact that many variations concerning the nature of reincarnation have, and indeed still do exist.
As I understand it, traditional Western European thought largely accepted that life was an evolution of the soul, and that the human state is the pinnacle of achievement in the animal kingdom, consequently it was understood that the soul did not generally reincarnate across species. However, legends, especially among the Celts, do speak of souls being transformed into, or are able to change into different creatures. This notion is suggestive. Alternatively, the doctrine of reincarnation, which became a central feature of Buddhism as it emerged out of Hinduism, proposes that nothing survives death other than karma, thus rebirth takes the most suitable form necessary for the expression of Karma, regardless of species.
Another point of interest is that of ancestor worship. In one form or another most of the world’s religions have practiced a form of ritualised acknowledgement and respect for the deceased. From the earliest times, the popular idea of Heaven involved the joyful reunion with family, lovers and friends. This belief was prevalent in Ancient Egypt, Greece, Judaea, India and, Northern Europe etc. It is a view that is still widely accepted today.
In many parts of the world it was traditionally accepted that the ancestors could influence, for better or worse, the affairs of the living. Consequently, it was important to attend to deceased relatives and loved ones, not only from the point of love and respect, but also to make sure that they remained on friendly terms, because if neglected or angered, they could inflict upon the living terrible calamities, such as disease, crop failure and insanity. Such beliefs are still current in many parts of the world today, remnants of which are to be found in the religious practices of Christianity, such as ‘Remembrance Sunday’ or the ‘Commemoration of Dead’, which is a fundamental part of the Eucharist service.
Another interesting feature is the similarity of the observations made by visitors to the Underworld, such as Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Aeneas, and Orpheus, some of whom described the deceased as a shade, a vague replica of that which once lived, a phantom without ability or potential for future development, living on past memories and emotions, incapable of initiating any new action.
It is easy to understand how anyone, encountering such apparitions, might believe such creatures to be the deceased; but they would be mistaken, for these shades and shells are nothing more than astral counterparts of the body, which the soul vacates in due course, just as it vacates the physical body.
Stoop not down unto the Darkly–Splendid World;
Wherein continually lieth a faithless Depth,
and Hades wrapped in clouds, delighting in unintelligible images,
precipitous, winding, a black ever–rolling Abyss;
ever espousing a Body unluminous, formless and void.
In other words, the realm of the shade is not, as many might suppose, the final destination of the deceased. The human form is not just a simple vehicle but a sophisticated system consisting of many subtle parts, some of which can only be described as bodies. In Christian terms this form consists of a body and an immortal soul which inhabits the body. In Kabbalistic terms it consists of the Guph, Nephesh, Ruach and Neshamah. In ancient Egyptian terms the division was even more complex, consisting of many components such as the: Khat, Ka, Ba, Ab, Khaibut, Khu, Sekhem, Ren and Sahu. In early Greek terms, it consisted of the material body, the Eidolon or shade, the Augoeides and the Astroeides. In more recent times it has been defined as consisting of the physical body, the ethereal body, the mental body and the spiritual body.
Whatever the nature of the division, it is evident that different cultures throughout history have been unanimous in their recognition that the immortal element of our being inhabits a form that consists of different, even independent levels of expression; a bit like a Russian doll. What happens posthumously to these different bodies is also evident in the dim perceptions of the human intellect trying to understand and interpret the chemistry of the Invisible – and that regrettably is ‘through a glass darkly’. Such perceptions often take the form of fantastic tales and myths, of which some are real and true, and some are mere delusions.
Discerning the true from the false in such matters will always be an issue. This is because the immediacy and intensity of supernatural experiences can be very misleading, as we are inevitably, and often uniquely, conditioned by our beliefs and preconceptions about the nature of the supernatural world; thus, – we see what we want to see! And even though supernatural experiences may be recorded faithfully, they will frequently be misinterpreted making true discernment difficult to say the least.
Perhaps the most significant element of all is the universal belief that the soul’s posthumous fate is determined by ethics. Without exception, every civilization has at some point in its evolution accepted that the principle of cause & effect applies not only in life but also determines its eventual outcome. Consequently, every religion has in one way or another demanded that its followers behave in an ethically controlled manner as the nature of their posthumous state depends upon it.
That death is a natural extension of life cannot be disputed; yet curiously, many people dread the very thought of dying, perhaps their dread of death is an irrational fear of the unknown, but, is it not also the case that what people truly fear is not so much uncertainty but the consequences of their own actions in relation to values inherited or adopted during their life. That they fear, often unconsciously, phantasmagoric distortions nurtured in superstitions, misconceptions, and the impossible inventions of the multi–media, which, in short, means that the terrors of death constructed by the imagination in the here and now, are carried into the afterlife, where they torment the soul until it realises its own folly.
With the emergence and development of ethical systems based upon divine inspiration, humanity began a slow process of understanding how the control of appetite and related behaviour determines the quality of life, not only here and now but also, and more importantly, posthumously? If this be true, then the culmination of a life based upon values that enhance not only our own lives but the lives of others, brings with it peace of mind, a peace of mind that also extends beyond the grave. In short, conscience becomes the determining factor of posthumous destiny.
Now conscience is said to be the judgement of reason in relation to ethics, and True Conscience is that which acts in conformity with the ultimate ethical system, the Law of God manifest in Natural Law; which must necessarily be the basis of ethics in all spiritually dynamic systems. Viewed in this context human conduct is either rational or irrational. Thus, rational conduct is that which acts in accordance with the rule of duty as determined by the Law of God, and irrational conduct is that which reacts according to the prevailing influences and demands of our desires and passions – our instinctive nature.
The typical function of conscience is perceived as a constant reminder of errors and misdemeanours, a veritable Harpy forever plaguing the unhappy ego as it seeks to indulge its appetites. However, there is another side to conscience, a side which few people are privy to, and that is in its role as a spiritual guide – a holy guardian angel. Unfortunately, this aspect of conscience is rarely perceived by humanity, because humankind has yet to evolve beyond the influences of its very own instinctive nature.
With the help of the conscience, the soul is able to rise above the conditioning of its cell-level consciousness, to reshape its habitus and to enter into a harmonious relationship with Natural Law, then, and only then, does the nature of conscience transform itself, into what may be poetically, yet truthfully, described as a ‘guardian angel of light’. With the assistance of this infallible guide the soul overcomes the dark terrors of a fearful afterlife and attains its fulfilment.
To sum up, over the course of the ages, our awareness of the posthumous state has;
1. Developed from the primitive conception of a ‘gloomy pit’ into a transcendental reflection of life in this world.
2. Grown sufficiently to encompass a perception of that world based upon principles of Justice established in Natural/Divine Law.
3. Evolved the understanding that there are many different levels or worlds in the ‘Invisible’.
4. Recognised these worlds to be a fundamental part of the fabric of our own being – an illusion if you wish – but a reality too.
That humanity has evolved its understanding thus far demonstrates that the afterlife is neither static nor absolute, but evolving, which suggests our hopes for ultimate fulfilment are justified.
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