This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

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10.7. Death and Afterlife

General remarks

Having described the elements and conditions that constitute the human being considered insofar as that being is ‘alive,’ we may proceed into a discussion of what happens after that union between body and soul is dissolved, for here also the Vedanta has much to say.

The identity of birth and death

Birth and death are not opposites, but are in fact the same thing viewed from two different points of view depending on where one is situated. To die is to be born into a new state, and to be born into a new state is to die. We envision this easily when speaking in Christianity of entry into Heaven upon death, where earthly life ceases and ‘eternal life’ commences at precisely the same moment. Thus, from the specific point of view we have been considering, we can say that birth and death mark the beginning and end of the human state, which is to say that they each represent the kind of “evolution” we have in mind here, which should not be understood as a kind of “development” of the individual, but as a transition to another state entirely which lies beyond the individual state and has nothing at all to do with it any longer. For this reason, the being is no longer human once having embarked on this evolution, and this is meant in the precise sense of ‘specification,’ since ‘species’ is not a transcendent principle and attachment to a species implies subjection to the conditions which constitute its nature. These are precisely the conditions that are thrown off at death and transcended through the ‘posthumous evolution’ of the being.

A few comments on this phrase (‘posthumous evolution’) are in order to avoid confusion due to the common usage of the terms themselves. Evolution, as we have already said, should not be understood in the scientific sense as a form of linear progress within the individual state. The being itself only appears to ‘begin’ and ‘end’ at birth and death when viewed from the relative point of view of the human life. In itself, the being does not ‘develop’ between to points in time, since this is not a condition to which it is ultimately subject. Moreover, even from the point of view of the human being, what we mean by ‘evolution’ is something that proceeds in the opposite direction, since the individual state, not being destroyed, in a way collapses back into its principial state. This return to the principle means that a more appropriate terminology would perhaps be ‘devolution,’ and the terms evolution and devolution refer, in the end, to ‘development’ and ‘envelopment’ respectively, and these meaning something quite different than what science means when it uses them. Lastly, the term ‘posthumous’ obviously only has meaning with reference to the human individuality and does not apply to the states external to it. Life and death are ways of speaking that imply the temporal condition to which the human individuality is subject, and when we are dealing with non-individual states we must be careful not to transpose that condition where it does not belong. That is to say, when in scriptures we encounter a manner of speaking that refers to states ‘before birth’ and ‘after death,’ we must always keep in mind that such states should not be envisioned, in themselves, as being situated on a linear timeline, located chronologically in relation to each other. They are ‘before’ and ‘after’ only in relation to the particular human individuality in question. Here we might recall that people who have entered into certain types of trances can also lose all concept of time and even physically seem to escape its limitations. This problem of transposing temporality into supra-temporal will be dealt with more fully when discussing the Eastern concept of Deliverance in comparison with what is meant in the Christian tradition by ‘salvation’ and ‘everlasting life’ in Paradise.

The persistence of the individual in the principial state

It was stated above that the individuality is absorbed back into the unmanifested state, and this is in a sense its transfiguration rather than its destruction, since, having exhausted its possibilities in manifestation it returns to its permanent and more universal condition. And so, while the individuality at this point disappears from manifestation, the possibilities which belonged to it are retained in unmanifested mode. After all, nothing that is can cease to be–but can only change state. Hence, the insistence within the Christian tradition that the damned cannot be annihilated but must persist in hell perpetually. This way of putting it, however, calls for more explanation than is appropriate at this point, and will be addressed further in another section.

Two paths, and the prolongation of the individual

As a preparatory remark for what follows, we will say that not every being will undergo the posthumous evolution in the same manner or along the same path. Several possibilities will be outlined. And although the focus of the Vedanta is on transcendence and ultimate union, the path to the higher will be that which receives most attention. But that is not the path of the majority, which instead experiences what is more commonly imagined as the ‘afterlife,’ which is essentially a prolongation of the human individuality until the end of the cycle to which it belongs. Such beings do not achieve Deliverance but are ‘preserved’ in perpetuity (which is not the same as Eternity) until the end of the cycle, at which point they come to participate in what Christianity calls the Last Judgement. This particular path, called in Hinduism the pitri-yana, receives its greatest development within the Christian tradition. This is appropriate for a variety of reasons, and we will deal with it on Christianity’s terms when discussing that tradition and its doctrine. For now, we will deal with it only insofar as is necessary to complete the understanding of the path which leads to Deliverance, and to make the proper distinctions for Western readers who will naturally try to fit Eastern conceptions into Western molds. Having delineated our path in this way, we can proceed into a discussion of the processes that occur when the being quits itself of its corporeal body, which is to say, when the individual experiences death.

Reabsorption of the individual faculties

When a man is about to die, speech,[1] followed by the remainder of the ten external faculties [the five faculties of action and the five faculties of sensation, manifested outwardly by means of the corresponding organs, but not identical with them since they can and do separate from them at this state] is reabsorbed into the inward sense [manas], the activity of the external organs coming to an end before that of this inward faculty [which is thus the final term of all the other individual faculties in question, just as it is their starting-point and common source]. This latter faculty thereupon withdraws in the same way into the ‘vital breath’ [prana], accompanied in its turn by all the vital functions [the five vayus, which are modalities of prana and thus return into an undifferentiated state], these functions being inseparable from life itself; furthermore this same retreat of the inward sense is also to be observed in deep sleep and in ecstatic trance [accompanied by complete cessation of every external manifestation of consciousness].[2]

When this occurs, it may appear that consciousness is still present in the body. This is only an illusory ‘shadow’ of the consciousness, as we would expect to see if a machine, constructed and directed by a man, might run on its own for a short time even if the man leaves. An example of this might be what Wilder Penfield, who studied consciousness in epileptic patients, called ‘the automaton.’ He described how patients undergoing a seizure could ‘lose consciousness’ in the middle of a very complex activity, from making a sandwich to playing the piano, and although consciousness was no longer truly present, the automaton, a psycho-physical machine driven by the processes in the brain which were set in motion when consciousness was present, could still complete the task successfully. But as Penfield admitted, these actions were not consciousness itself, although they gave the appearance of it. So also at this initial phase of the reabsorption, the real consciousness withdraws into a different state, separating entirely from the corporeal body. We should also note that, although we are speaking of biological processes, the ‘organic consciousness’ that can sometimes continue to act after the true consciousness has departed is a similar phenomenon to those situations where ‘psychic residues’ of the deceased, which also disperse at death, can persist and can even seem to manifest themselves in the corporeal world, giving the appearance that the consciousness of the deceased person is actually present. This is the phenomenon associated with mediums and seances, and as convincing as it may be, it cannot be described as true consciousness. Moreover, exposure to the dissociated psychic elements which these activities imply, is a very dangerous practice, since their true nature is not understood.

The ‘vital breath,’ accompanied similarly by all the other function and faculties [already reabsorbed into it and subsisting there as possibilities only, having now reverted to the state of indifferentiation whence they had to go forth in order to manifest themselves effectively during life] retires in its turn into the ‘living soul’ [jivatma, particular manifestation of the ‘Self’ at the center of the human individuality, distinguishing itself from the ‘Self’ so long as that individuality endures as such, although this distinction is in fact purely illusory from the standpoint of absolute reality, where there is nothing different from the ‘Self’]: and it is this ‘living soul’ which [as the reflection of the ‘Self’ and central principle of the individuality] governs the whole body of individual faculties [regarded in their integrality and not merely in their relationship with the bodily modality]. As a king’s servants gather round him when he is about to go forth upon a journey, even so all the vital functions and faculties [external and internal] of the individual gather round the ‘living soul’ [or rather within it, out of which they all issue and into which they are all reabsorbed] at the final moment [of life in the ordinary sense of the word, that is to say of manifested existence in the gross state], when this ‘living soul’ is about to retire from its bodily form.[3] Accompanied thus by all its faculties [since the faculties are powers which exist independent of their actual exercise, it contains them and preserves them in itself as possibilities], it withdraws, in an individual luminous essence [that is to say in the subtle form, which is compared to a fiery vehicle, as we saw when studying Taijasa, the second condition of Atma] composed of the five tanmatras or supra-sensible elementary essences [just as the bodily form is composed of the five bhutas or corporeal and sensible elements], into a subtle state [in contrast to the gross state which is that of external or corporeal manifestation and of which the cycle is now completed so far as concerns the individual in question].

Consequently [by reason of this passage into the subtle form, looked upon as luminous], the ‘vital breath’ is said to retire into the Light, which does not mean to say the igneous principle exclusively [since we are really concerned with an individualized reflection of the intelligible Light, that is to say a reflection the nature of which is fundamentally the same as that of the mental faculty during corporeal life, and which moreover implies a combination of the essential principles of all five elements as its support or vehicle], nor does this withdrawal necessarily imply an immediate transition, since a traveler is said to go from one city to another even though he may pass successively through one or several intermediate cities.

Furthermore, this withdrawal or this abandonment of the bodily form [as described so far] is common alike to the ignorant person [avidvan] and to the contemplative Sage [vidvan] up to the point at which their respective [and henceforth different] paths branch; and immortality [amrita, but without immediate Union with the Supreme Brahma being thereupon attained] is the fruit of simple meditation [upasana, carried out during life without having been accompanied by any effective realization of the being’s higher states], although the individual barriers resulting from ignorance [avidya] may not yet be completely destroyed.[4]

Although it should go without saying, we may pause to note that ‘immorality’ according to the Sanskrit term amrita does not correspond to the extension of corporeal life. This would be more akin to the Far-Eastern notion of ‘longevity,’ and such cases do in fact occur. But the meaning of amrita here is a state that is beyond all change, and it refers to a kind of ‘virtual immortality’ that not equivalent to ‘Deliverance’ or final union, but instead simply implies that the being will not have to pass through further conditioned states different from the human state. Thus, the immortality in question occurs in the form of an afterlife that is a prolongation of the human individual state. Such beings may persevere in this state of ‘virtual immortality’ throughout the duration of the cycle to which they belong (which is to say, ‘perpetually,’ since perpetuity refers to the duration of cyclical time and not to Eternity, which is outside of time altogether).

Through this preservation the being is allowed to take part in the ‘final transformation’ or Last Judgement, was we have said, at which point all manifestation collapses back into its principial state, or ‘the bosom of Brahma.’ The event in question corresponds to what in the Christian tradition is called the ‘Last Judgement,’ although here it is dealt with in a religious mode and so we find concepts like ‘the glorious body’ and ‘the resurrection of the dead’ referred to this event. These are somewhat connected the ‘prolongations’ under discussion, and although these states appear ‘final’ from the religious point of view, this is only because, as we have explained elsewhere, the religious point of view never goes beyond Being, and due to this limitation it treats the conclusion of a ‘secondary cycle’ as if it were the end of the primary cycle. Thus, the religious view tends to present a ‘preliminary conclusion’ as the end of the story, not taking into account what follows after. This is the difference between Christian ‘Salvation,’ which represents the end of the cycle, with Hindu ‘Deliverance,’ which lies outside of the cycle and beyond it. In other words, theology never really moves beyond a consideration of the individual order. This is why in Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, souls persist in an individual state, in perpetuity. The possibility of transcending this state, or of achieving Final Union, never enters in. However, we should be careful not assume that this omission amounts to denial. At any rate and returning to the Hindu doctrine, the term ‘deferred Deliverance’ or ‘Deliverance by degrees’ (krama-mukti) is used when final Deliverance is realized after death, not immediately upon death, but via the ‘conditioned posthumous states,’ which we will describe next. The alternative path, which includes both those who achieve Deliverance in life (the yogi) and those who achieve it immediately at death and thus escape the individual condition and its posthumous prolongation, will be described later.

[1] Because speech is the last of the faculties in the order of development, its must be the first when considering the process of reabsorption.

[2] Chhandogya Upanishad, VI.8.6.

[3] Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, IV.3.38.

[4] Brahma-Sutras, IV.2.1-7.

Differences in posthumous conditions

So long as it is in this condition [still individual, as has just been explained] the spirit [which, consequently, is still jivatma] of that person who has practiced meditation [during his life, without attaining effective possession of the higher states of his being] remains attached to the subtle form [which may also be regarded as the formal prototype of the individuality, subtle manifestation representing an intermediate stage between the unmanifested and the gross manifestation and playing the part of immediate principle in relation to the latter]; and it is associated, in this subtle form, with the vital faculties [in the state of reabsorption or principial contraction which has already been described].

Two things must be said about this passage. First, what is referred to is not some sort of ‘astral body’ or ‘psychic form’ that persists as if it were nothing more than the individual disembodied. During bodily life, the subtle form is bound up with the corporeal body, and this lends to a sort of ‘localization’ of the subtle form in time and place. But, keeping in mind that St. Thomas Aquinas, in speaking of the ‘separated soul,’ the soul being for the Scholastics the subtle form, said: ‘Now the soul has one mode of being when in the body, and another when apart from it.’[1]

And so the necessary connection with the body, which we described when discussing its role in the dream state, is no longer present. While the being described in the passage above is clothed in form, as is necessary for it to remain in the individual order, this form need not be considered subject to spatial and temporal considerations in the same way as before. It will be subject to conditions all its own. And this is why we emphasize again that the subtle form should not be ‘localized’ or imagined as a kind of ghost or double of the body.

The being may remain thus [in this same individual condition in which it is attached to the subtle form] until the outward dissolution [pralaya, the return into the undifferentiated state] of the manifested worlds [of the actual cycle, comprising both the gross and the subtle states, that is to say the whole domain of human individuality regarded in its integrality], a dissolution in which it is plunged [together with the totality of the beings in those worlds] into the bosom of the Supreme Brahma; but, even then, it may be united with Brahma only in the same way as in deep sleep [that is to say without full and effective realization of the ‘Supreme Identity’].

The situation mentioned above, where union is ‘only in the same way as in deep sleep,’ is called ‘reintegration in passive mode’ as opposed to ‘reintegration in active mode.’ ‘Passive reintegration’ belongs to a being who has not taken full possession of its higher states, either during life or in the posthumous condition. Just as the being in deep sleep always awakens and plunges back into the individual state, the being who undergoes reintegration in passive mode may return back into the individual condition after the conclusion of the present cycle, during the pralaya. This situation is similar to that of the being who likewise does not take possession of its higher states, but instead of being preserved in the prolongation of the human state, passes directly after death into another individual state.[2]

In addition to these cases, there is also the case of one who realizes the higher states, or even ‘Supreme Identity,’ not during life but in the posthumous prolongation of the individuality. In this example, virtual immortality is rendered effective although it may still be ‘deferred Deliverance’ in the sense that it will not become effective until the pralaya at the end of the cycle, at which point the being undergoes ‘reintegration in active mode’ from which there can be no return to the individual state.

In any of the cases above, the being in the posthumous state should be considered jivatma attached to the subtle form, and is therefore incorporated in Hiranyagarbha, or jiva-ghana for the duration of the cycle, as is proper:

This subtle form [in which the being, which thus remains in the human individual state, resides after death] is, [in comparison with the bodily or gross form] imperceptible to the senses both as to its dimensions and to its consistency; consequently, it does not affect the perception [or the external faculties] of those who are present when it separates from the body [after the ‘living soul’ has withdrawn into it]. Neither is it affected by combustion or any other treatment which the body may undergo after death [which is the result of this separation from the very fact of which no action of a sensible order can have any further repercussion on this subtle form, nor upon the individual consciousness which, remaining attached thereto, is no longer connected with the body]. It is only sensible through its animated heat [its specific quality insofar as it is assimilated to the igneous principle] so long as it inhabits the gross form, which becomes cold [and as a result inert as an organic whole] in death, as soon as it [the subtle form] has left it [although the other sensible qualities of the corporeal form still subsist without any apparent change], and which was warmed [and quickened] by it so long as it dwelt there [since it is precisely in the subtle form that the principle of individual life resides, so that it is only through the communication of its properties that the body can also be described as alive, by reason of the tie which exists between these two forms insofar as they are the expression of states of the same being, that is to say precisely up to the moment of death].

The next now proceeds to describe the case of the being who achieves Deliverance before death:

But he who has obtained [before death, always understood as separation from the body] true knowledge of Brahma [implying effective possession of all the states of the being through metaphysical realization, apart from which there can only be an imperfect and purely symbolical knowledge] does not pass [in successive mode] through all the same stages of withdrawal [or of reabsorption of the individuality from the state of gross manifestation to the state of subtle manifestation, with the different modalities which this implies, and then to the unmanifested state, where individual conditions are at length entirely suppressed]. He proceeds directly [into this latter state, and even beyond it, if it is only regarded as the principle of manifestation] into Union [already realized, at least virtually, during life in the body] with Supreme Brahma, with which he is identified [in an immediate manner], just as a river [here representing the current of existence through all states and all manifestations], at its mouth [which is the end or final term of that current] becomes identified [by intimate penetration] with the waves of the sea [samudra, the gather together of the waters, symbolizing the totalization of possibilities in the Supreme Principle]. His vital vaculties and the elements of which his body is composed [all considered in principle and in their suprasensible essence];[3] the sixteen component parts [shodasha-kalah] of the human form [that is to say the five tanmatras, manas, and the ten faculties of sensation and action], pass completely into the unmanifested state [avyakta, where, by transposition, they are all to be found in permanent mode, as changeless possibilities], this passage moreover implying no change for the being itself [of the kind implied in the intermediate stages, which necessarily include a variety of modifications, since they still belong to ‘becoming’]. Name and form [namarupa, namely the determination of the individual manifestation in its essence and its substance, as has been previously explained] also come to an end [as limiting conditions of the being] and, being ‘undivided,’ without the parts or members, therefore, which composed the earthly form [in the manifested state and insofar as that form was subject to quantity in its various modes], he is set free from the conditions of individual existence [as well as from all other conditions applying to a special and determined state of existence of any sort, even a supra-individual state, since the being is henceforth in the absolutely unconditioned principial state].[4]

It should be stressed that this is a ‘transformation’ of the being, and not a destruction. It is likened by commentators on the Brahma-Sutras to water sprinkled on a hot stone, which seems to have been destroyed when it disappears from sight, but is on the contrary amplified to an extreme degree. And just as the drop of water is also not ‘absorbed’ into the rock, which would be another kind of destruction, so also the being is not absorbed into Brahma. Deliverance seems like destruction from the point of view of manifestation, but from the point of view of the absolute, it is a ‘dilation’ which approaches the Infinite. Thus, we can say that Shiva, although commonly interpreted as ‘destroyer,’ is really ‘transformer.’

[1] Summa Theologica, I.q89.a1. To understand how directly these two terms correspond, we need only remark how the Scholastics called the soul ‘the form of the body,’ which is precisely the role of the subtle form in question.

[2] We reiterate here that this new individual state is never a return to the human state, as the false theories of reincarnation would have it. Why this is so we will explain elsewhere, but we feel the need to emphasize the point whenever possible due to the prevalence of this particular error.

[3] This may happen in such a way that the body ‘evaporates’ and gives the appearance that no death occurs, such as with Elijah, Moses, and Enoch.

[4] Prashna Upanishad, VI.5; Mundaka Upanishad, III.2.8; Brahma-Sutras, IV.2.8-16.

Different paths to Deliverance

There is Deliverance in life (yogi), Deliverance immediately upon death, and krama-mukti, or Deliverance by degrees.

Deferred Deliverance is for that being who obtains deliverance after death in the prolongation, at which point he is preserved and allowed to partake in “final judgement” where he survives the “reintegration”.

Others are reintegrated in passive mode and may be expelled for another cycle.

Others may enter directly into another individual state.

Deva yana is the path of the gods and applies to him who achieves the realization after death. Pitri yana is the path of the ancestors and refers to those who go to the sphere of the moon only and must travel another cycle.

Coronal artery and solar ray

We will put off further discussion of Deliverance during life or immediately at death, returning now to the path of ‘Deliverance by degrees,’ which pertains to the vast majority. The nature of this path is conveyed symbolically as a journey through so many states, each of them approaching the final objective. This journey begins at the ‘coronal artery,’ described as follows:

The ‘living soul’ [jivatma], with the vital faculties reabsorbed into it [and remaining there as possibilities], having withdrawn into its own dwelling place [the center of the individuality, symbolically represented as ‘the heart,’ identical with Purusha, from which it is separated only in an illusory way], the apex of this subtle organ [pictured as an eight-petalled lotus] shines and illuminates the passage through which the soul must pass [in order to attain the various states about to be described], namely, the crown of the head, if the individual is a Sage [vidvan], and another region if he is ignorant [avidvan]. A hundred and one arteries [nadis, likewise subtle and luminous] issue from the vital center,[1] and one of these arteries passes through the crown of the head [a region corresponding to the higher states of the being]; it is called sushumna.

Sushumna is the coronal artery that marks the beginning of the divine journey of the being, but there are two other nadis that warrant mention because they play an important role in practices such as Hatha-Yoga by their correspondence, in the subtle order, with the activity of respiration. The first is called pingala and is situated on the right. On the left is ida. The two correspond to the sun and moon, respectively, and are closely related to the two eyes of Vaishvanara. Sushumna, sitting in the center, is the ‘third eye,’ or the frontal eye of Shiva.

The significance of the crown of the head. We should also note that this region places a significant spiritual role in other traditions. In Catholicism, there is the well-known tonsure of the religious orders, with similar attention given to this area in Islam.

By this passage [sushumna and the crown of the head where it terminates], as a result of knowledge acquired and of consciousness of the meditated path [consciousness belonging essentially to an extra-temporal order, as a reflection of higher states], the soul of the Sage, endowed [by virtue of the psychical regeneration which has made of him a man twice born, dvija] with the spiritual Grace [Prasada] of Brahma, which resides in this vital center [relatively to the human individual concerned], escapes [frees itself of every link with the bodily condition] and enters a solar ray [that is to say, symbolically, an emanation from the spiritual Sun, which is Brahma Itself]; it is along this route [the path of the ‘solar ray’ which picks up where the coronal artery ends], that it travels by night or by day, in winter or in summer. The contact of a ray of the Sun with the sushumna is constant, so long as the body lasts: the rays of the Light, emitted from this Sun, reach this artery, and, reciprocally, extend from the artery to the Sun [establishing a connection, either virtual or effective, between this individuality and the Universal].[2]

Although these processes are independent of temporal circumstances, these circumstances may, in certain cases, influence the posthumous condition of the being. Thus:

The preference for summer, as an example of which the case of Bhishma is cited, who waited for the return of this favorable season for his death, does not concern the Sage who, in the contemplation of Brahma, has accomplished the rites [relative to ‘incantation’] as prescribed by the Veda, and who has consequently acquired the perfection of Divine Knowledge [even if only virtually]; but it concerns those who have followed the observances taught by the Sankhya or the Yoga-Shastra in accordance with which the time of day and the season of the year are not matters of indifference, but have [for the liberation of the being leaving the bodily state after a preparation carried out in conformity with the methods referred to] an effective action as elements inherent to the rite [in which they intervene as conditions upon which the effects to be obtained depend.[3]

As suggested in the text, this situation only applies to being who have not attained anything beyond the degrees of realization corresponding to the prolongation of the human individuality, since beyond that the means employed at the starting point could not have any influence whatsoever.

[1] These nerve centers are pictures as ‘wheels’ and called chakras, or as lotuses (padmas or kamalas), and the luminous arteries issue from the center like spokes from the hub of a wheel.

[2] Chhandogya Upanishad, VIII.6.2.

[3] Brahma-Sutras, IV.2.17-21.

The path of liberation

Having understand the processes that occur at the moment of death, and the nature of the conditioned states that follow, we may proceed to outline the ‘divine journey’ of the being that follows these processes. We should call to mind here that although this path does not apply to those who obtain Deliverance in life or immediately upon death, it does apply those who, by ‘deferred Deliverance,’ obtain it through the posthumous state, as well as those who, after the reabsorption of the individuality at the end of the cycle, must pass through other states of individual manifestation. Of these two cases, the former, destined, so to speak, for liberation, are said to follow the ‘Path of the Gods’ or deva-yana; those who will re-enter the individual state, on the other hand, follow the ‘Path of the ancestors’ or pitri-yana. These two itineraries are described in the Bhagavad-Gita:

At what time those who tend toward Union [without having actually realized it] quit manifested existence, either never to return or destined to return to it, I will teach thee, O Bharata. Fire, light, day-time, waxing moon, the half year when the sun ascends toward the north, it is under these luminous signs that those go to Brahma who know Brahma. Smoke, night, waning moon, the half year when the sun descends toward the south, it s under these shadowy signs that there pass to the Sphere of the Moon [‘attain the lunar light’] those who later will return [to fresh states of manifestation]. These are the two permanent Paths of the manifested world [jagat], the one bright, the other dim; by the one they go to return no more [from the unmanifested to the manifested]; by the other they go to return again [into manifestation].[1]

[1] Bhagavad-Gita, VIII.23-26. The symbolism used here is elaborated in various passages of the Veda. For more on the pitri-yana, see Chhandogya Upanishad, V.10.3-7 and Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, VI.2.16.

The path of the ancestors

Although the pitri-yana pertains to the vast majority, it is by nature more limited in its scope and is therefore simpler to understand. Due to this, and the fact that our more direct concern is with transcendence and liberation, our remarks on this path will be less extensive, and we will return to it here and there insofar as it intersects with the deva-yana. For now, suffice it to say that the pitri-yana does not lead beyond the Sphere of the Moon. Because this is the far limit of the formal–which is to say the individual–domain, it follows that the being whose journey concludes here does not escape from individuality. The Sphere of the Moon is also called the ‘cosmic memory’ and is considered the dwelling place of the Pitris, a term used to refer to those beings who belong to the previous cycle and, by virtue of the relationship of cause and effect, are considered the ‘generators’ of the present cycle. Here those forms which have exhausted their developmental possibilities are dissolved, and alongside them are preserved the germs of forms yet undeveloped. This means that the Sphere of the Moon is both the starting- and ending-points of formal manifestation. Due to what we’ve just said, it makes sense why it is sometimes said poetically, regarding the moon, that all that has been lost on this earth will be recovered there. It is at this point that a confusion may arise, since those beings whose path ends in the Sphere of the Moon are the same who must re-enter the individual state after the prayala, but we remind the reader that this re-entry into the individual domain in the new cycle represents a new state, and so it is not a ‘reincarnation’ into a second life, but a progress to a new state altogether different from the human, even if it still includes the presence of form.

The path of the gods

The deva-yana overlaps in its earlier stages with the pitri-yana, the main difference between the two being that the former does not terminate at the Sphere of the Moon, but is instead destined for liberation. The symbolism we encounter here is focused on the identification of the center of the individuality–the ‘living soul’ (jivatma) into which the faculties have withdrawn–with the dwelling place of the Universal Brahma. Obviously for those beings for whom this identification occurs in life or immediately upon death, there is no longer a ‘living soul’ distinct from the ‘Self.’ Turning then to those cases where the being is destined for liberation but has not yet realized it, we will reconstruct their path on the basis of data provided in the Upanishads.[1]

The being who follows the deva-yana departs Earth (Bhu, meaning the sphere of gross manifestation) travels first to the light (archis), which is called the Realm of Fire (Tejas), which is ruled by Agni, also called Vaishvanara. This realm pertains to the subtle state and all of its modalities. Next the being traverses kindgoms ruled by ‘deities’ (devatas) who are said to be ‘distributors of the day,’ responsible for the bright half of the lunation (the waxing half of the lunar month, called purva-paksha). All of this should be understood to refer to the ‘moments’ mentioned in the account taken from the Bhagavad-Gita, analogically transposed into the extra-corporeal prolongations of the human state. Next, the being is conducted to the Realm of the Air (Vayu). The Ruler of this realm is called, in this case, by the same name. The being departs from Vayu through its upper limit, represented as the nave of a chariot wheel. Since Vayu corresponds to the principle of motion and change, this symbolism conveys that passage through the ‘hub’ of this wheel coincides with the escape from change, which is to say, the escape from ‘generation and corruption.’

[1] Chhandogya Upanishad, IV.15.5-6 and V.10.1-2; Kaushitaki Upanishad, I.3.

Generation and corruption

When the Greeks said that the ‘sublunary world’ alone is subject to corruption and generation, we can see how this relates to what was said about about the Sphere of the Moon, since corruption and generation are synonymous with birth and death when applied to the entirety of individual manifestation. It is this world which one escapes by moving beyond the Sphere of the Moon, which is the division between the Upper Waters of formless manifestation and the Lower Waters of formal manifestation.

Here the deva-yana passes into the Sphere of the Moon (Chandra or Soma), which we have already described, although unlike in the previous case of the pitri-yana, the being does not remain but climbs through the region of the lighting (vidyut) to the Realm of the Water (Ap), which is ruled by Varuna, and the symbolic scene here is of the lightning flashing through the clouds of the heavens. Moreover, we can remind the reader that, since we have already said that the Sphere of the Moon marks the border between the formal (individual) and the formless, the ‘Heavens’ in question are the Upper Waters mentioned in Genesis, representing the totalities of formless possibilities. Having transcended the Sphere of the Moon, the being has left behind the Lower Waters, containing the totality of formal possibilities.

What remains of the journey takes place in an intermediate ‘luminous’ (pertaining to knowledge) region called Antariksha, the realm of Indra which is occupied by Ether (Akasha, representing the primordial state of undifferentiated equilibrium), leading eventually to the spiritual Center where is found the ‘Lord of produced beings,’ or Prajapati, who is a direct manifestation of Brahma in relation to the whole cycle or degree of existence to which the human state belongs.

We can pause here to point out that the regions through which the deva-yana passes, called Worlds (Lokas), Spheres, or Realms, should be understood as so many different states. And we call attention to the fact that the Sanskrit word loka corresponds to the Latin locus, or ‘place’–a term used in Catholic doctrine to describe Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell. Obviously these ‘places’ are not to be understood as localized in gross manifestation, and so they can be seen as examples of the Christian understanding of the posthumous states we are speaking of.

The progress of the being through these various states was described earlier as the ‘possession’ of the states themselves through knowledge. In these terms, we can say that this possession is achieved progressively by identification with the Rulers of the state in question, and so the ‘theory’ which we are presenting here is merely a support for a realization, which is to say an identification with a higher state, and this is something else entirely. All of these are of course still conditioned states, as we said at the outset, and represent ‘preliminary identifications’ on the path toward the ‘Supreme Identity,’ each one being more universal than the preceding, until the being arrives at total universalization.

In what has been described so far of the krama-mukti, the being has not sundered completely its connection with the human state, and so although it has transcended the Sphere of the Moon, it has only obtained ‘virtual immortality.’ Even at the spiritual Center, we are still only dealing with the center of a particular degree of existence, the one to which the human being belonged. We will remark that it is here that religious conceptions seem to stop, since they do not allow for anything beyond the prolongation of the human individuality, which is what we have thus far dealt with but not transcended. And that is why, although the being at this point has achieved ‘immortality’ and ‘salvation’ from the religious standpoint, it has by no means achieved deliverance, and the pralaya still lies ahead. This is always why it has been suggested that ‘mystical states’ so prevalent in Western religion are not equivalent to the realization of genuine metaphysical knowledge.

The foregoing distinctions were necessary in order to understand that when the Divine Journey is said to have the World of Brahma (Brahma-Loka) as its final goal, this is still not the Supreme Brahma. Rather, it is Its determination as Brahma (of the Hindu Trimurti), who is Brahma ‘qualified’ (saguna) and is therefore considered contingent insofar as it is the effective of the productive Will (Shakti) of the Supreme Principle (Karya-Brahma). In this sense, Brahma is identical with Hiranyagarbha, the principle of subtle manifestation and therefore the whole domain of human existence. And this is why we said earlier that even those who achieve krama-mukti and ‘deferred Deliverance’ are still ‘incorporated’ into Hiranyagarbha until the ‘Last Judgement.’ Thus, Brahma-Loka, which we have said refers to a state and not place, refers to this state of incorporation achieved through the completion of the deva-yana. This situation, where the being has achieved virtual immortality and awaits the pralaya or ‘Last Judgment,’ is the closest thing in Hindu doctrine to the ‘Heaven’ or ‘Paradise’ of both Christianity and Islam. Moreover, when in these Western religions a number of different heavens are in question, they can safely be considered those states superior to the Sphere of the Moon, leading up to the Brahma-Loka but not beyond it.

We will also mention an additional case in which a being who passes beyond even what has been mentioned and, through the process of identification, is enabled to see Hiranyagarbha’s superior aspect which is Ishvara, which is nothing short of Universal Being and first principle of manifestation, such a being has finally transcended the subtle and entered the unmanifested. This is the state equivalent to Prajna. It follows that the being who does not proceed beyond this point is the one mentioned earlier who is united with Brahma in the manner of deep sleep only, making a return to another cycle of manifestation possible. But due to the fact that the being has achieved identification with Ishvara and has in this way transcended individuality, the state to which it returns can only be a formless or supra-individual one (this is opposed to those who follow the pitri-yana, who must return to an individual state). This is sometimes described as passing from the condition of man to that of a Deva (something like the ‘angelic’ state of Christianity).

Finally, we must mention the case where Deliverance is obtained from the conditioned state. Here the object of identification is not Universal Being, but is the Supreme Brahma Itself (nirguna Brahma, or Brahma unqualified). This is Brahma in Its Infinitude, and this encompassing in its totality the possibilities of manifestation and non-manifestation alike, which is to say both Being and Non-Being, as the principle both lying therefore beyond them both, and even beyond the ‘spiritual Sun’ which emits the Solar Ray, since it is beyond all determination of any kind. We emphasize in saying this that even Being, which determines everything in existence and is determined only by itself, is thereby determined. And since a determination is a limitation, even if it is a ‘self-limitation,’ then Infinity cannot be attributed to Being. If we seem to insist on this point it is only because those more accustomed to Western theology, even that theology which touches on metaphysics, will tend to see Being as the most Universal of all principles, and to attribute Infinity to what is only relatively so. Having clarified this point, we can say that we are now referring to the fourth ‘condition’ of Atma, which is not a condition at all, but is Atma absolutely unconditioned.

In passing we remark that this state cannot be attained if the being has only mediated on Brahma by way of symbol (pratika), since in that case the meditation (upasana) woud only have a limited result.[1]

The ‘Supreme Identity’ then, which is the ultimate goal of this journey through which the being is freed not only from the conditions of individuality but from all limiting conditions (upadhis) of any kind.

At this point the being who was once a man has fully realized the ‘Self’ and has through this knowledge attained Deliverance (Moksha or Mukti), the final Liberation of the being.

[1] Brahma-Sutras, IV.3.7-16.

Final Deliverance

If it be asked how one can achieve Deliverance, the answer must be clearly given: Knowledge and knowledge alone. Any practices or prescribed rituals are only of values as a means to the end of metaphysical realization, and metaphysical realization is the fruit of knowledge. Action cannot bring it about, for the simple reason that action cannot liberate from action, nor cause the being to rise above it. The yogi may reach the final goal with the help of the observances of the Yoga-Shastra of Patanjali, and may even make use of rites and particular styles of meditation (harda-vidya or dahara-vidya),[1] but the purpose of these is in every case a preparation for knowledge. It is an acknowledged truth that the necessary knowledge may be achieved without these ‘accidents,’ since,

Man can acquire true Divine Knowledge even without observing the rites prescribed [for each of the different human categories, in conformity with their respective natures, and especially for the different ashramas or regular stages of life]; and indeed many examples are to be met with in the Veda of persons who have neglected to carry out such rites [the function of which is compared in the Veda to that of a saddle-horse, which helps a man to reach his destination more easilyi and mroe rapidly, but without which he is able to reach it all the same], or who have been prevented from doing so, and yet, by maintaining their attention perpetually concentrated and fixed on the Supreme Brahma [in which consists the one and only really indispensible preparation], have acquired true Knkoweldge concerning It [Knowledge which, for that reason, is, likewise called ‘supreme’].[2]

And this is why it is acknowledged that men who reach a certain degree of realization called ativarnashrami, which means ‘beyond caste’ (varna) and therefore beyond the stages of earthly life (ashramas); for him none of the usual distinctions apply since even though he may not be yogi he has nonetheless risen above the limits of individuality.

What has been said above also carried the implication that Deliverance and absolute Knowledge are one and the same, each implying the other. And this is why it is said that action is for the sake of some result, whereas knowledge carries its result within itself. It is ‘its own reward,’ so to speak. Deliverance is a consequence of knowledge, but in the most immediate sense possible:

There is no other means of obtaining complete and final Deliverance excepting Knowledge; it alone loosens the bonds of passion; without Knowledge, Beatitude [Ananda] cannot be obtained. Action [karma, whether understood in its general sense or as applied specially to the performance of rites], not being opposed to ignorance [avidya], cannot remove it; but Knowledge disperses ignorance as light disperses darkness. As soon as the ignorance born of earthly affectations [and other analogous bonds] is banished, the ‘Self’ [Atma], by its own splendor, shines afar [through every degree of existence] in an undivided state [penetrating all and illuminating the totality of the being], as the sun spreads its brightness abroad when the clouds have scattered.[3]

To reiterate: action cannot liberate from action, but can only bear fruit in its own domain, which is the contingent domain of the human individuality. In other words, one cannot transcend individuality through action. This means that ‘Salvation’ in the sense given to it by religions such as Christianity, insofar as it is the fruit of actions, is not Deliverance. Salvation may refer to higher states within the individual domain, up to and including the Brahma-Loka considered in its inferior aspect, as Hiranyagarbha. The superior aspect, which represents the transcendence of individuality and the entrance into the formless, and which is identified with Ishvara, is accessible only through knowledge. And this knowledge may be either ‘non-supreme,’ pertaining to Ishvara which we just mentioned, or ‘supreme,’ which would amount to the attainment of Deliverance.

The Self [Atma, since there can be no further question of jivatma, all distinction and all ‘separateness’ having disappeared] of him who has attained the perfection of Divine Knowledge [Brahma Vidya] and who has consequently obtained final Deliverance, ascends, on quitting its bodily form [and without passing through any intermediate states], to the Supreme Light which is Brahma, and identifies itself with It, in an undivided and conformable manner, just as pure water, mingling itself with the clear lake [without however losing itself in it in any way] conforms itself in every respect therewith.[4]

[1] Chhandogya Upanishad, I.

[2] Brahma-Sutras III.4.36-38.

[3] Atma-Bodha.

[4] Brahma-Sutras, IV.4.1-4.

Videha-Mukti and Jivan-Mukta

In speaking of the posthumous states we have been dealing primarily with Deliverance achieved after death and by degrees, which is the ‘gradual liberation’ called krama-mukti. The situation described immediately above, however, pertains to the being who achieves liberation ‘out of bodily form’ but immediately at the moment of death without travelling through intermediate states, and this is called videha-mukti. These two possibilities must be further distinguished from a third, which is that of the yogi, a designation referring to persons ‘delivered’ in life, and this is called jivan-mukti. For such a being, knowledge of Brahma was not merely theoretical but effective, and so the ‘Supreme Identity’ was fully realized.

Here it is useful to point out that this further distinguishes Deliverance from religious Salvation. Salvation is usually understood to be a thing that occurs after death and which cannot be definitely obtained during life, or if the necessary conditions for it are met it can at least not be ‘guaranteed’ (obtained virtually).[1] Moreover, it is said that this Salvation can be nullified through action, which is obviously contrary to everything we have said regarding the relationship between knowledge and action. For the Eastern doctrine of Deliverance, therefore, the body does not pose anywhere near the obstacle that it does to the Western notion of Salvation.

Now, of the yogi, it is said that he possesses every state, even though these may not be manifested, since they need only be admitted as immutable possibilities:

Lord of many states by the simple effect of his will, the yogi occupies but one of them, leaving the others empty of life-giving breath [prana], like so many unused instruments; he is able to animate more than one form in the same way that a single lamp is able to feed more than one wick.[2]

Turning also to another commentator:

The yogi is in immediate contact with the primordial principle of the Universe and in consequence with the whole of space, of time, and of everything included therein, that is to say with manifestation, and more particularly with the human state in all its modalities.

Clearly we should not imagine, then, that the liberation of the yogi is somehow a lesser form than that attained after death (videha-mukti).

The yogi, having crossed the sea of passions, is united with Tranquility and possesses the ‘Self’ in its plenitude. Having renounced those pleasures which are born of perishable external objects [and which are themselves but external and accidental modifications of the being], and rejoicing in Bliss [Ananda, which is the sole permanent and imperishable object, not different from the ‘Self’], he is calm and serene like the torch beneath an extinguisher, in the fullness of his own essence. During his [apparent] residence in the body he is not affected by its properties any more than the firmament is affected by that which floats in its bosom; knowing all things [and thereby being all things, not distinctively, but as absolute totality], he remains immutable, unaffected by contingencies.[3]

The yogi is for this reason also called Muni, the ‘Solitary one,’ meaning one who has realized the state of ‘perfect Solitude, since it does not distinguish between inner and outer, having left all extra-principial diversity behind. That is to say, he has realized ‘Non-Duality,’ and separateness no longer exists, which was always a result of ignorance (avidya):

Imagining first that he is the individual ‘living soul’ [jivatma], man becomes afraid [through belief in the existence of some being other than himself], like one who mistakes a piece of rope for a serpent; but his fear is dispelled by the certitude that he is not in reality this ‘living soul,’ but Atma Itself.

[1] Admittedly, some strands of Protestantism teach a certainty regarding one’s salvation, but since this is based more on sentimentality than on any doctrine, it cannot be taken as a legitimate expression of the tradition. We also must admit that certain mystics, such as St. Teresa of Avila, do teach that once the individual has obtained a certain degree of perfection, but the difference between what is meant in the mystical tradition and what is meant here would take us too far afield, and will at any rate be dealt with elsewhere.

[2] From the commentary of Bhavadeva-Mishra on the Brahma-Sutras.

[3] Atma-Bodha.

The yogi and supreme identity

One who has realized the Supreme Identity through Knowledge during life is said to be ‘delivered in this life,’ or jivan-mukta. This is the spiritual state of the yogi, as described by Shankaracharya:[1]

The yogi, whose intellect is perfect, contemplates all things as abiding in himself and thus, by the eye of Knowledge [jnana-chakshus or ‘intellectual intuition’], he perceives [that is to say he ‘conceives’ directly, as opposed to arriving at conclusions rationally or by discursive thought] that everything is Atma.

He knows that all contingent things are not different from Atma, and that apart from Atma there is nothing, ‘things differing simply in attribution, in accident, and in name, just as earthen vessels receive different names, although they are but different forms of earth’;[2] and thus he perceives that he himself is all things [since nothing is understood any long as ‘other’ than himself, in the same way that Aristotle could say in De Anima that ‘the soul is all that it knows.’]

When the accidents [subtle and gross manifestation] are suppressed [that is to say, understood to be relative and in this way illusory], the Muni [synonym of yogi] enters, with all beings [since they are not distinct from himself] into the all-pervading Essence [Atma].

We will interject here with a passage from Chuang Tzu, chap. 25, which runs:

Above all things is the Principle, common to all, containing and penetrating all, of which Infinity is the proper attribute, the only one by which It can be characterized, for It bears no name of Its own.

Continuing with Shankaracharya:

He is without [distinct] qualities and actionless [in the Far Eastern sense of ‘actionlessness’ or ‘actionless action’ in terms of wu-wei]; imperishable [akshara, not subject to dissolution], without volition; abounding in Bliss, immutable, without form; eternally free and pure [unable to be constrained, reached, or affected in any way by anything aside from himself, since external things are in fact not distinct from himself].

He is like Ether [Akasha], which is diffused everywhere and which pervades the exterior and interior of things simultaneously; he is incoruptible, imperishable; he is the same in all things [no modification affecting his identity], pure, impassible, invariable [in his essential immutability].

He is ‘the Supreme Brahma, which is eternal, pure, free, single, continually abounding in Bliss, without duality, Principle of all existence, knowing [although not in the sense of distinguishing between subject and object] and without end.

He is Brahma, after the possession of which there remains nothing to possess; after the enjoyment of whose Bliss there remains no felicity to be desired; and after the attainment of the Knowledge of which there remains no knowledge to be obtained.

He is Brahma, which once beheld [by the eye of Knowledge], no object is contemplated; being identified with which, no modification [birth or death] is experienced; which being perceived [not as an object or by faculty], there is nothing further to perceive [distinctive knowledge having been transcended].

He is Brahma, which is disseminated everywhere and throughout all things [since there is nothing outside It]:[3] in intermediate space, in that which is above and in that which is below [referring to the totality of the three worlds]; the Real, abounding in Bliss, without duality, indivisible and eternal.

He is Brahma, pronounced in the Vedanta to be absolutely distinct from that which It pervades [and which, on the contrary, is not distinct from It or at least only distinguishes itself from It in illusory mode] continually abounding in Bliss and without duality.

He is Brahma, by which are produced life [jiva], the inward sense [manas], the faculties of sensation and action [jnanendriyas and karmedriyas], and the elements [tanmatras and bhutas] which compose the manifested world [both gross and subtle].

He is Brahma, in which all things are united, upon which all actions depend [although Itself actionless]; that is why It is disseminated throughout all things [without being dispersed thereby].

He is Brahma, which is without size or dimension [unconditioned], without extension [being indivisible and without parts], without origin [eternal], incorruptible, without shape, without qualities [while nonetheless containing them all in principle], without assignment or attribute of any kind.

He is Brahma, by which all things are illuminated [participating in Its essence according to the degree of their reality], the Light of which causes the sun and all luminous bodies to shine, but which is not Itself made manifest by their light.[4]

He himself pervades his own eternal essence [which is not different from the Supreme Brahma], and he contemplates the whole World [manifested and unmanifested] as being Brahma, just as fire intimately pervades a white-hot iron ball, and at the same time also reveals itself outwardly.

Brahma resembles not the World, and apart from Brahma there is naught; everything that appears to exist apart from It cannot exist save in illusory mode, like the apparition of water [in the form of a mirage] in the desert [maru, a word precise in meaning, referring to a barren region but especially to a desert, which, due to its uniform appearance, evokes the idea of principial indifferentation].

Of all that is seen, of all that is heard [thus, all that is perceived by any faculty] naught exists apart from Brahma; and by Knowledge, Brahma is contemplated as alone real, abounding in Bliss, without duality.

The eye of Knowledge contemplates Brahma as It is in Itself, abounding in Bliss, pervading all things; but the eye of ignorance discovers It not, discerns It not, even as a blind man perceives not the sensible light.

The ‘Self’ being illumined by meditation [when a theoretical and therefore still indirect knowledge makes it appear as if it were receiving the Light from a source other than itself, which is still an illusory distinction], and then burning with the fire of Knowledge [realizing its essential identity with the Supreme Light], is delivered from all accidents, and shines in its own splendor, like gold which is purified in the fire.

When the Sun of spiritual Knowledge rises in the heavens of the heart [that is, at the center of the being, called Brahma-pura], it dispels the darkness [of ignorance], it pervades all, envelopes all and illumines all.

He who has made the pilgrimage of his own ‘Self’, a pilgrimage not concerned with situation, place, or time, which is everywhere, in which neither heat nor cold are experienced, which procures a lasting felicity and a final deliverance from all disturbance; such a one is actionless, he knoweth all things [in Brahma], and he attaineth Eternal Bliss.

[1] The selections contained in this article are from Atma-Bodha in Guenon’s translation.

[2] Chhandogya Upanishad, VI.1.4-6.

[3] We refer against to the Taoist saying: ‘Do not inquire whether the Principle is in this or in that; it is in all beings.’ (Chuang Tzu, chap. 22).

[4] See Kena Upanishad, I.5-9: ‘That by which all is manifested, but which is Itself manifested by nothing…’