Appendix III: Beyond Death

 

Possession by the Asura

“The death of Stalin (unfortunately not any more than the death of Hitler) has not changed the present state of the world. Something more than that would be necessary. For this is like the assassin who is guillotined: when his head is cut off, his spirit remains behind and is projected outside him. It is a vital formation and it goes and takes shelter in one of the benevolent spectators, who suddenly feels a criminal instinct in himself. There are many men like that, specially very young criminals who when questioned have acknowledged this. They have been asked: ‘When did this desire to kill come to you?’ and the frequent reply is: ‘It got hold of me when I saw so-and-so executed.’

“So, this is of no use, the death of this one or that other. That does not help very much — the thing goes elsewhere. It is only one form. It is as though you did something very wicked with a particular shirt on and then threw away your shirt and said: ‘Now, I shall no longer do harm.’ You continue with another shirt on!

If life has been converted into death, why doesn’t it itself die? Because it protects itself well. What you say is quite true, but it takes good care not to incarnate on earth. And in the vital world there is no death, it does not exist there. It is in the material world that this exists, and it takes very good care not to incarnate.

Was Stalin predestined to be what he was? Stalin? I am not quite sure that he was a human being… in the sense that I don’t think he had a psychic being. Or perhaps he did have one — in all matter, in every atom there is a divine centre — but I mean a conscious psychic being, formed, individualised. I don’t think so. I believe it was a direct incarnation of a being of the vital world. And that was the great difference between him and Hitler. Hitler was simply a man, and as a man he was very weak-minded, very sentimental, he had the conscience of a petty workman (some said of a petty shoe-maker), in any case of a little workman or a little school-master, something like that, a very small conscience, and extremely sentimental, what is called in French ‘fleur bleue’, very weak.

“But he was possessed. He was rather mediocre by nature, very mediocre. He was a medium, a very good medium — the thing took hold of him, besides, during spiritism séances. It was at that moment that he was seized by those fits which were described as epileptic. They were not epileptic: they were attacks of possession. It was thus that he had a kind of power, which however was not very great. But when he wanted to know some thing from that power, he went away to his castle, and there, in ‘meditation’, there truly he invoked very intensely what he called his ‘god’, his supreme god, who was the Lord of the Nations. And everything seemed to him magnificent. It was a being… it was small — it appeared to him all in silver armour, with a silver helmet and golden plume! It was magnificent! And a light so dazzling that hardly could the eyes see and bear that blaze. Naturally it did not appear physically — Hitler was a medium, he saw. He had a sort of clairvoyance. And it was at such times that he had his fits: he rolled on the ground, he drivelled, bit the carpet, it was frightful, the state he was in. The people around him knew it. Well, that being is the ‘Lord of the Nations’. And it is not even the Lord of the Nations in its origin, it is an emanation of the Lord of the Nations, and a very powerful emanation.”[1]

 

A Dream

(A story that deals with the subtlety of the karmic law in a manner that would make it comprehensible even to a child. Karmic law is not so much about outer rewards and outer punishments for outer deeds but more about the state of our consciousness and its effect upon our being. Original by Sri Aurobindo in Bengali. Translation from Bengali by Arindam Basu.)

A poor man sat in his dark room and thought of his miserable plight and of the wrongs and injustices in the kingdom of God. Overcome by abhiman[2] he spoke thus: “People give the excuse of the Law of Karma to save the good name of God. If my present miserable existence is the result of the sins of my last life, if I was really such a great sinner, then the current of evil thoughts would still flow in my mind, the mind of a great sinner cannot become pure in a day. And take the case of Tinkori Shil; if the Law of Karma was true, then, considering his wealth, treasure, gold and silver, retinue of servants, he must have been in his previous incarnation a world-famous holy saint; but one does not see the slightest indication of that now in his present life. There is no one in the world who is more cruel, wicked and evil. No, the Law of Karma is a ruse of God, a doctrine to dupe the minds of men. Shyamsundar is the cleverest of the clever, he is safe because he does not come anywhere near me — otherwise I would have taught him a good lesson and exposed all his tricks.” No sooner had the poor man said these words than he saw his dark room flooded with waves of very bright light. A moment later the waves of light disappeared in the darkness and he saw a very beautiful, dark-hued boy standing in front of him with a lamp in his hand, smiling gently, but not saying anything. As he saw peacock-feathers on his head and bells on his feet, the poor man realised that Shyamsundar himself had come and given himself up to him. Embarrassed, he thought for a moment of falling at his feet, but he did not feel like doing so at all when he saw the boy’s smiling face. At last he blurted out, “Hey, Keshta[3], why have you come?” “Why, didn’t you call me?” said the boy, smiling. “Just now you had such a strong desire to whip me, well, I’ve given myself up. Why don’t you get up and lash me?” The poor man felt more embarrassed, not due to any remorse for wishing to whip the Divine, but to chastise such a handsome boy in return for his love did not seem to be in good taste. “Look, Harimohan,” the boy spoke again, “those who are not afraid of me, regard me as their friend, even call me names but out of affection and wish to play with me, are very dear to me. I have created this world for the sake of play and have been always looking for playmates but don’t find any. Everyone becomes cross with me, makes demands on me, asks me for gifts, position, liberation, devotion, but alas! nobody wants me for my sake. I give what people want. What can I do but satisfy them or they’ll tear me to pieces. I see that you also want something. Being cross you want to whip someone and have summoned me to gratify that desire. I’ve come to take the lashings of your whip, ye yatha mam prapadyante, ‘in whichever way one approaches me.’ But if you wish to hear about it before you beat me up, I will explain to you my method.

“Well, do you agree?” “Can you really?” asked Harimohan, “I see you’ve the gift of the gab, but why should I believe that a young immature boy like you can teach me anything?” “Come, see if I can,” replied the boy smilingly.

Having said that, Sri Krishna touched Harimohan’s head. Immediately electric currents began to spread through the whole body of the poor man; the Kundalini power, normally asleep at the base of the spine, shot up to the crown of his head in the form of a fiery serpent hissing loudly and his brain became filled with waves of vital force. The very next moment the walls of the room around Harimohan seemed to recede into the distance, the world of names and forms abandoning him, became unmanifest as it were in the Infinite. Harimohan lost his normal consciousness. When he came to, he found himself standing with the boy in a strange house and saw in front of him an old man sitting on a mattress, absorbed in deep thought. On seeing that face contorted by worries and grief-stricken, hopeless and sad, Harimohan just could not believe that it really was that of Tinkori Shil, the most powerful and leading man in the village. At last, full of fear, he asked the boy, “Oh Keshta, what have you done, sneaked like a thief into someone else’s house? The police will come and thrash our lives out of us with a severe beating. Don’t you know the might of Tinkori Shil?” “Very well, indeed,” smiled back the boy, “but stealing is an old occupation of mine. I am on intimate terms with the police. There is nothing to fear. Now I am giving you subtle sight, look into the old man’s mind. You know Tinkori’s might, now see my power too.” Then Harimohan could see into Tinkori’s mind. He saw that it was like a rich city destroyed by enemy attack, so many goblins and demons of terrifying shapes entered that keen, powerful intellect and destroyed its peace, broke up its concentration and robbed it of its happiness. The old man had quarrelled with his favourite youngest son and driven him out; losing his beloved son born in his old age, he was overcome with grief, yet anger, pride, hypocrisy were sitting as sentries barring the door of his heart and denying entry to forgiveness there. Stories about the bad moral character of his daughter had been circulated; the old man was weeping after having hounded her out of his home; he knew that she was innocent but the fear of society and public opinion, vanity and his own selfish interests were stifling his love. The memory of a thousand sins made him shudder with fear, yet he lacked the courage and the power to purify those evil tendencies. From time to time the thought of death and of the next life frightened him terribly. Harimohan saw that from behind the thoughts of death, fearsome messengers of Yama[4] were peeping and knocking at his door. Every time there was such a knock the old man’s inner being screamed, mad with fear. Witnessing this terrible scene Harimohan turned towards the boy with trepidation and said, “Goodness, what is this Keshta? I thought the old man was supremely happy.” “That is my power,” replied the boy, “tell me, now, whose power is the greater, Tinkori Shil’s of the next district or Sri Krishna’s who lives in Vaikuntha? Look, Harimohan, I too have police and sentries, government, law and judicial trials. I can also play like a king. Do you like this game?” “Good Lord, no,” said Harimohan. “This is a very bad game, do you enjoy it?”

The boy replied, smiling, “I like all kinds of play. I like to whip, also to be whipped.” “Look Harimohan,” he continued, “people like you see only the surface of things and have not yet developed the subtle sight to see their inner truth. That is why you say that Tinkori is happy and you are miserable. This man has no material want and yet how much more is this millionaire suffering. Can you say why? Happiness is a state of the mind, so is suffering. Happiness and suffering are simply modifications of the mind. He who has got nothing and whose only asset is misfortune can be very happy even in the midst of danger. Notice also that just as you are not getting any satisfaction out of spending your days in acquiring dry merit and are always thinking of suffering, so also is this man doing the same, living out his days in dry demerit. That is why there is momentary happiness resulting from virtue and temporary unhappiness issuing from sin, and vice versa. There is no real joy in this conflict. I’ve got the picture of an abode of bliss; he who comes to me, falls in love with me, seeks me, puts pressure on me, even persecutes me, he gets from me by force as it were the picture of joy.” Harimohan listened eagerly to Sri Krishna’s words. The boy spoke again. “Understand this too, Harimohan, dry merit has become for you devoid of the sap of joy, yet you can’t resist the power of its impressions, nor can you conquer that petty egoism. For the old man dry demerit has similarly become joyful, yet, being unable to renounce it because of the force of its impressions, he is suffering Hell in this life. This is called the bondage of virtue and vice. Unconscious impressions born of Ignorance are the chains of this bondage. But this terrible suffering is really very good for the old man because this will lead to his salvation and true welfare.”

“Keshta, you speak very sweetly,” said Harimohan, who was till now listening very quietly, “but I can’t really believe you. Pleasure and pain may be only states of the mind, but surely external conditions are their causes. Look, when someone’s mind is very distressed by hunger, can he be happy? Or can anyone think of you when he is suffering from disease or pain?” “Come, Harimohan,” said the boy, “I will show you that too.” Saying this, the boy again touched Harimohan’s head. As soon as he felt the touch Harimohan no longer saw Tinkori Shil’s house but a sannyasi[5] seated absorbed in meditation, a large tiger lying at his feet like a guard, on the solitary, beautiful peak of a mountain, with a pleasant breeze blowing there. Harimohan’s legs, when he saw the tiger, refused to budge, but the boy dragged him near the sannyasi. Harimohan, unable to resist the boy’s strength, had willy-nilly to go. The boy said, “Harimohan, see.” Harimohan looked and saw the mind of the sannyasi like an open exercise book with the name ‘Sri Krishna’ written a thousand times on each of its pages. The sannyasi, having crossed the great gate of nirvikalpa-samadhi[6], was sporting with Sri Krishna in the light of the supernal Sun. He also saw that the sannyasi had been starving for quite a few days and his body had suffered a lot during the previous couple of days from hunger and thirst. “What is this, Keshta?” asked Harimohan, “the saint loves you so much and yet he is suffering from lack of food and drink. Haven’t you any sense at all? Who will give him food in this forest infested by tigers?” “I will,” replied the boy, “but see another amusing thing.” Harimohan saw the tiger get up and break open a nearby ant-heap with a single stroke of a paw. Hundreds of small ants came out and climbing up the sannyasi’s body started biting him in anger. He was still absorbed in deep meditation, unperturbed, perfectly still. Then the boy sweetly whispered into his ears just once, “My friend!” The sannyasi opened his eyes. At first he did not feel the stinging bites, for the notes of Krishna’s flute — captivating, and cherished by the whole world — were still sounding in his ears as they had done in Radha’s ears in Vrindavan. After a while as a result of the constant bitings, his consciousness was drawn towards the body. He still did not move but full of surprise, thought, “How is it? this kind of thing never happens to me. No matter, Sri Krishna is sporting with me and biting me as a battalion of small ants.” Harimohan saw that the pain from the ant-bites was no longer affecting the saint’s mind, and that, feeling intense physical ecstasy after each bite, he sang the name of Krishna and danced, clapping his hands in great joy. The ants dropped on the ground and fled. Astonished, Harimohan asked, “What kind of magic is this?” The boy also clapped his hands and turning twice on one leg laughed out loudly, “I am the only Magician in the whole universe. You will not understand this magic, it is my supreme secret. And did you notice? He could remember me even in the midst of such physical pain. And now see again.” The sannyasi sat down again, calm and serene. His body still experienced hunger and thirst but Harimohan saw that his mind only felt those physical reactions but was not disturbed by or involved in them. Just then someone called out from the hill in a voice sweet as a flute, “Friend!” Harimohan was startled; it was indeed the voice, sweet as a flute, of Shyamsundar himself. Then he saw a beautiful, dark-hued boy come from behind the big rocks with a plate of excellent food and fruits. Harimohan, utterly confused, looked at Sri Krishna. The boy still stood beside him, yet the other boy who was approaching was exactly like Sri Krishna. The boy held up the lamp before the saint and shed light on the plate and said, “See what I have brought.” “So you have come,” smiled the saint. “Why did you keep me starving for so long? However, now that you have come, sit down, eat with me.” The saint and the boy started eating from the dish, offered food to each other and also playfully snatched it away from each other. When they finished their meal, the boy disappeared into the darkness with the plate.

Harimohan was about to ask something but he suddenly noticed that neither Sri Krishna nor the sannyasi was there, nor the tiger nor the mountain. He was living in a respectable neighbourhood with his wife and family, was very rich, gave gifts to Brahmins and to the poor daily, and said his sandhya prayers thrice a day following the code of conduct laid down in the scriptures and shown by Raghunandan. In fact, he was leading the life of an ideal husband, father and son. But at the same time, he was shocked to find that there was not the slightest neighbourliness or joy of living among the residents of that respectable district, that they considered the mechanical observance of the external rules of conduct as spiritual merit. He was now as miserable as he had been happy a moment ago. He seemed to feel very thirsty but could not get a drop of water; in fact he was eating dust, only dust, endless dust. Leaving that place hurriedly he went to another part of the town. There he saw in front of a huge mansion a big crowd from whom a paean of blessings arose. Harimohan went forward and found that Tinkori Shil was sitting in the verandah and distributing a large amount of money to the people assembled there, no one was going back disappointed. Harimohan laughed out loudly and thought, “Is this a dream? Tinkori Shil a great philanthropist!” Then he could see Tinkori’s mind, and realised that greed, jealousy, ambition, desire, selfishness and a thousand other frustrations and evil tendencies were clamouring: “Give, give, satisfy us!” Tinkori had suppressed them for the sake of gaining moral merit, fame and pride, left them unfulfilled and had not driven them out of his mind. Just then someone took Harimohan for a hurried tour of the other worlds. He saw the hells and the heavens of the Hindus, Moslems, Greeks, Christians and so many others. Then he found himself again in his own house, sitting in the familiar torn mattress and leaning on a dirty pillow and Shyamsundar standing in front of him. The boy said, “It’s very late at night, if I don’t go home now, everyone will tell me off and chastise me. So let me tell you something in brief. The hells and heavens you saw were all of the dream world, imaginary. When man dies he goes to a heaven or a hell and experiences the consequences of his past life. You had acquired some moral merit in your previous life but love had no place in your heart, you loved neither God nor man. After death you were living in that respectable neighbourhood and enjoying the fruits of the tendencies and impulses of your mind as they were in your previous life. Having done that for sometime you did not like it any more, your vital nature became impatient, so you went to live in a hell full of dust; in the end, when you had enjoyed the fruits of your merit, you were born again. But because in that life you did not really do much to help anyone in need apart from making the obligatory charities and keeping up a code of mere external conduct dry and joyless, there is so much want in this life. And the reason why you are living a life of conventional piety and accumulating merit is that good and evil tendencies are not entirely exhausted by experience in a dream world but only by experience of their results in this world. Tinkori was a great philanthropist in his last life and he is now in this embodiment a millionaire and without any want as a result of the blessings of thousands of people. But because his mind was not purified, he has had to satisfy unfulfilled vicious dispositions by evil acts and thoughts. Have you understood the Law of Karma? Not reward or punishment — but the creation of evil from evil, of good from good. This is a natural Law. Sin is evil, from that is suffering; virtue is good, from that comes happiness. This arrangement is there for the sake of the purification of the mind and heart, for the destruction of evil. You see, Harimohan, this earth is only an insignificant fraction of my varied creation, but you are all born here to exhaust evil by works. When people are free from the clutch of good and evil and of merit and demerit and enter the Kingdom of Love, then they become free from the life of action. You too will have this freedom in your next life. I will send my favourite sister, Shakti, (‘Power’) and her companion Vidya (‘Knowledge’) to you. But look, there is one condition, you will become my playmate and not ask for liberation. Do you agree?” “Keshta,” said Harimohan, “you have bewitched me. I feel a great desire to take you on my lap and show my deep affection, there is no other desire left in my life.”

“Harimohan, did you understand anything?” asked the boy with a smile. “Yes, of course,” replied Harimohan. Then, on second thought he asked, “I say, Keshta, you have cheated me again. You have not given any reason for creating evil.” Saying this he grasped the boy’s hand. He, however, withdrew his hand and said rather gruffly to Harimohan: “Go away! You want to get all my secrets out in one hour!” He suddenly put out the lamp, moved away and said, smiling, “Well, Harimohan, you completely forgot to lash me. I did not sit on your lap being afraid of that — there is no knowing when pressed and angered by external suffering, you may suddenly start teaching me a good lesson. I don’t trust you at all!” Harimohan extended his hand in the darkness but the boy moved further away and said, “No, I am postponing that satisfaction till your next life.” Saying this he disappeared somewhere in the dark night. Harimohan woke up listening to the jingling anklets and thought, “What kind of a dream did I see! I saw hell and heaven, and in it I addressed God in the most intimate manner and told him off as if he were a small boy. What a great sin! However, I feel great peace in my heart.” Harimohan then started remembering the dark hued boy’s captivating form and kept on saying from time to time: “How beautiful, how very beautiful!”[7]

 


 

“To see the composition of the sun or the lines of Mars is doubtless a great achievement; but when thou hast the instrument that can show thee a man’s soul as thou seest a picture, then thou wilt smile at the wonders of physical Science as the playthings of babies.”

 

The Guest

I have discovered my deep deathless being:
Masked by my front of mind, immense, serene
It meets the world with an Immortal’s seeing,
A god-spectator of the human scene.

No pain and sorrow of the heart and flesh
Can tread that pure and voiceless sanctuary.
Danger and fear, Fate’s hounds, slipping their leash
Rend body and nerve, the timeless Spirit is free.

Awake, God’s ray and witness in my breast,
In the undying substance of my soul
Flamelike, inscrutable the almighty Guest.
Death nearer comes and Destiny takes her toll;

He bears the blows that shatter Nature’s house:
Calm sits he, formidable, luminous.

Sri Aurobindo

 


 

The Ancient Debate

 

The Ancient Debate – Does the Soul Exist?

“My soul knows that it is immortal. But you take a dead body to pieces and cry triumphantly, ‘Where is your soul and where is your immortality?’”[8]

The controversy about the existence or non-existence of the soul is as old as the ages. The Katha Upanishad which deals specifically with this issue of death in great detail, starts with this query itself:

देवैरत्रापि  विचिकित्सितं  पुरा  न  हि  सुविज्ञेयमणुरेष  धर्मः।
अन्यं वरं नचिकेतो वृणीष्व मा मोपरोत्सीरति मा सृजैनम्॥२१॥

Even by the gods was this debated of old; for it is not easy of knowledge, since very subtle is the law of it.[9]

There have been schools of thought in ancient India who did not believe in any life other than this material one. Notable among these was the philosophy of Charvaka whose sole injunction to men was to eat, drink and be merry since there is no hereafter. And why not, since if material reality is the only reality and if this matter is nothing more than a chance and accidental combination of chemicals and gases, then there is no sense in any other impulse except to enjoy life regardless of consequences to oneself or others, till dust bites dust. The Charvakas continue to exist even today in another form and name, but so do the Nachiketas[10] and the seekers and seers of greater and deeper truths. And there is also this aspiration in man, an aspiration not just for joy but also for peace and truth and love and beauty and perfection and permanence. The whole story of evolution, the intelligible and intelligent order that drives the atoms and the stars, all point towards a Cosmic Intelligence and Being working within the heart of the Universe. How will the ancient controversy be resolved? By an unhoped for improvement in the instruments that record events? By instruments that are sensitive enough to record subtler truths? By an unprecedented development of the human consciousness? By not just a few exceptional individuals but in the generality of the race? In our present state of collective ability (or inability) for knowing, we can choose to trust and then explore till faith turns into concrete and effective knowledge. Or else we can choose not to trust and thereby justify our blindness ad infinitum. For one thing is certain — if we never seek, we will be unlikely to find the truth even if it were to stand right before our eyes!

In other words, the issue of existence of the soul as with all subtle and profound truths cannot be settled by an armchair discussion or a seminar and debate in the prestigious centers of learning. For even the most esteemed centers of excellence excel only in the mental domain and have little knowledge as yet of what lies beyond the range of our embarrassingly limited senses. This limitation is our common inheritance as a race, just as the limitation of spoken language is the common inheritance of the animal world. However, at least in the case of the human being, we have also inherited a hidden but deep urge to overcome our shortcomings and in this case, it is the possibility of exploring and realising deeper truths within us. But before we turn towards that let us first settle some of the common arguments of the die-hard materialist who does not believe in the presence of the soul. The arguments are as given below:

Argument No.1: The soul does not exist since I do not see it. This can be stated semi-humorously with a limerick —

‘My name is Benjamin Jovit
I am a graduate from Bellial college
All that is knowledge I know it
And all that I do not know is not knowledge.’

Fair enough. But the real question is — have we tried to truly see it. Not all can see the electron. And many have not seen even what lies beyond the boundaries of their native place. This constant belief upon the testimony of our senses is a frightful slavery. For our senses only weave reality and not reveal it as it is. This is now known to science, which has hence graduated from the science of appearances to the science of probing deeper truths. Spiritual science also does the same, only it goes still deeper since it does away even with the limitations of physical instruments on which material science relies so much.

Argument No.2: These ‘deeper truths’ are not verifiable. The truths of the soul are both subjectively as well as objectively verifiable. The soul can be felt as well as seen. That has been the constant truth of all yogic experience. Of course this verification cannot be done in the material way, that is to say you cannot reproduce the soul in a test tube much as you cannot reproduce many other things like feelings and thoughts. The laboratory in which the soul is tested is not the physical but a psychological one; it is the grand laboratory of our own nature which has been created as a testing ground for the soul. The ‘deeper truths’ and existence of the soul can be verified if one fulfils the conditions necessary for discovering it.

Argument No. 3: Even if it is there it is experienced by the few. This is also not true. While the full experience of the soul takes time and patient effort to develop, its results are felt fairly commonly in life. It is only because we are ignorant of the reason and conditioned negatively against it that we choose to ignore it or else call it a chance factor. In fact according to occult experience we get in touch every night with our soul. The common experience is that so often we wake up in the morning to find many of our problems sorted out somehow. We feel better and positive once again (except of course in states of active illness). The reason is that the soul’s contact for a few moments is enough to rejuvenate us. That apart, moments of spontaneous trust in life, the feeling of gratitude, courage that is fearless in the face of death, an attraction towards beauty and truth and good, an impulse towards God and Freedom and Unity and Harmony, all true love for the sake of love, noble generosity and self-giving, the repulsion against hypocrisy and falsehood, inspirational thoughts and poetry with a sublime touch in it, genuine faith and compassion… all owe their origin to the soul. These qualities are not a product of the mind and even a most brilliant mind or a strong vital devoid of the soul’s touch will not possess it. They develop like so many flowers only when the soul within us begins to grow and actively participate in our life.

But even where these things are not present or their opposites abound, it is not that the soul is absent, but merely that it is as yet dormant or underdeveloped. As a tree sleeps inside the hard shell of a seed, as the body of a giant sleeps shut in a tiny little gene, as the universe and a billion stars and galaxies slept in a single concentrated point before the big bang, as a tremendous power sleeps within the smallest atom, so too this little baby-god sleeps in humanity. There it is nurtured by nature through many cycles of birth, fed by the milk of life-experience till it wakes up one day and reclaims its kingdom. The only certain way of knowing the truths of the soul is not through mental debates; one has to find the soul, as a physical scientist takes pains to discover the hidden structure of the unseen and unfelt atom, or as an adventurer undertakes the arduous and hazardous journey for discovering new continents. And all who have undertaken this have found the effort and the labour worthwhile. After all, the soul is not some cheap imitation gem which can be found easily in a nearby Sunday mart. There is a price for it and the price is not easy for the human consciousness which does not know what it is exactly bargaining for. The price of discovering this true and immortal self in us is to give up the insistence of the false ‘I’, the surface soul made up of ego and desire. This is what Yama tests Nachiketas for, tempting him with many a boon to satisfy his earthly longings and desires. But when Nachiketas turns down the offers one by one, he is then found by death to be a fit candidate for inquiring into the nature of the soul.

Which brings us back to the question — what is the soul? Most of us use the term confusedly. Firstly, it is confused with some higher parts of our mind, especially in modern psychology which uses the two terms soul and mind as if interchangeably. It is true that in many human beings the soul is involved (stationed for experience, hidden as it were) in the mind and expresses itself indirectly through mental movements, through the word so to say. Yet the two are as distinct as the sun and the moon in relation to the earth. In our night, the moon reflects and thereby represents the sun. Both hang in the sky, and the moon being closer feels as a more important part of us. Yet all its light is a borrowed one. When the sun shines, the illusion disappears and we know the source that had lit up the moon and helped us journey through the night.

The second confusion is with any non-material reality, like ghosts and disembodied beings, which the Western occultists often use the word soul and spirit for. Indeed the soul is non-material or better still, composed of a substance differently organised than our matter, a fourth dimension vibration-energy. But while it is indestructible, these other non-material entities like ghosts and disembodied beings can be dissolved and have a term of life after which they disintegrate and disappear.

A third confusion is by the present day humanist whose belief in higher things is coloured by the scientifically sceptic temper of our times. Therefore it replaces soul with our moral conscience, that nagging hunchback rider of ‘should I, shouldn’t I’ created by the conditioning of the mind to tone down the vital and its excesses. Now the soul too distinguishes the true from the false and is indeed the true discriminator, but it is not judgmental. It is not like a critic pointing harsh fingers and inducing guilt but a gentle swan separating milk from water, taking one and leaving the rest for whatever purpose.

The halfway explorers of spiritual life create a final confusion. They use the expression soul to denote that plane of consciousness which is the stable, unchanging basis of all phenomenon — the Self or atman, that stands above all manifestation, impartial witness, base and indifferent support of all. However, the atman is not something individual. No doubt it is also indestructible as the soul is. But it is the One and the same for all. Transcending this universal Self or atman above and beyond all, yet holding in itself and becoming all things that in all time can be, is the paratpara Purushottam or the paramatman. But also the One who is all becomes the individual jivatman, for its evolutionary adventure. This individual jivatman, while itself remaining outside manifestation still presides over it by sending its projection in Time and Space. This individual projection is like the deputy who has to participate and work for the great evolutionary labour, help it grow and grow by it. It is this which is called the antaratman when still a sleeping baby inside the womb of nature. It is this that develops and becomes an individualised psychic being, the chaitya purusha. It is this that is born with the body’s birth and this that goes into the cycles through death till it is born again. Yet it remains always the indestructible immortal self.

This inmost soul, the psychic being is the true ‘I’. The false ‘I’ that is destroyed by death is the ever changing ‘I’ of the ego. The ego is a formation of nature due to the shadow of the individual psychic being falling upon it. The Greek myth puts it beautifully in the tale of Narcissus where the youthful Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection. This reflection of the true soul in the waters of universal nature is the ego. It leads to a temporary and false identification with aspects of nature as Me and Myself, separate from others. The psychic being in contrast, though distinct and individual is yet always aware of its universality and knows itself as the center of the One Universal Divine. This is the true individual in us, which death cannot destroy.[11]

Behind each atom of existence there is found the divine spark that has descended into the dark nescience of matter to carry the evolutionary journey forward. For the soul this evolution means the bringing out of all the various possibilities concealed in the dumb abyss of matter — the possibility of will and impulse and desire, of movement and life and feelings, of thought and aesthetics and creativity, of poetry, science and art and philosophy, of spiritual ascension and soul force. As these possibilities emerge out of matter through a joint venture of the soul within calling the intervention of the respective planes above, the soul too grows by the experience. The little spark seemingly lost in the crypts of matter begins to grow in strength and stature till after many births it attains its full stature — angusthamatra purusha or the size of a thumb as described in the Upanishads. It is then and only then that it can exert a sort of free choice and mastery over destiny. Till then it uses all experience as a strengthening wine. It is only with its growth that there comes a turn towards spiritual life, an attraction for the sublime and the beyond, an urge towards the true and the good and the beautiful, a conscious aspiration for divinity. Till that happens the soul hints its presence through indirect signs — nobility and goodness, sincerity and goodwill, kindness and compassion, light and wisdom, forgiveness and gratitude, fortitude and perseverance, generosity and forbearance, strength and courage. It may be noted that the much talked about religiosity is not necessarily a sign of a developed soul. Religiosity is an ambiguous sign. It is not the fact of worshiping that is important, not even the name and form that one may bow down to, but what the conception of Divinity is for the seeker and the nature of his seeking. A God of wrath sought after by fear and for inflicting pain upon our enemies is certainly nowhere near the emergence of the soul. Whereas an atheist who identifies himself with beauty, trees and flowers and beasts and earth and humanity, willing to sacrifice his life for protecting the noble and the good is already beginning to reflect the soul in the mirror of his nature. Likewise, the emergence of the soul does not necessarily mean a brilliant mind or a strong and robust life force. The soul has its own intelligence and knowledge and force and dynamism but they are qualitatively very different from the mind.

But this is not the last step and the soul can grow further. With the flame growing into a fire, there comes a conscious aspiration for the Divine, a faith that not even a mountain of difficulties can shake, a devotion that can suffer a lifetime just for a glimpse of one’s Beloved, a surrender to the Divine which knows no bounds, a light that no clouds of doubt can hide, a love that seeks no return and is sufficient unto itself. And with this comes about the well-known signs of an inner and rather infectious Peace that surpasses all understanding and a causeless unconditional joy, ready to face each and everything in life with a benevolent smile.

In some rare individuals the soul can expand even further, growing from a tiny luminous seed through a soft and sublime deathless flame to a rapturous fire calling all the while the downpour of Light and Love towards the shadowless sun, lighting up the firmaments of the universe.

The whole story of human life and of the earth’s life can be understood and rewritten in soul terms, the soul playing with nature and the two growing mutually.

Yes, it is a unique gift to the earth and our mortal frailty, a more than adequate recompense if one may say so. The gods do not have it and therefore do not know about it as indeed Yama points out to Nachiketas. The demons and other beings of fixed and non-evolutionary worlds obviously do not know it. It is man who is the privileged child to have within him the one and only son of God, the immortal soul. And as to how to find the soul, it is best to let one who has had the experience answer this all-important question:

“This is the first thing necessary — aspiration for the Divine. The next thing you have to do is to tend it, to keep it always alert and awake and living. And for that what is required is concentration — concentration upon the Divine with a view to an integral and absolute consecration to its Will and Purpose. Concentrate in the heart. Enter into it; go within and deep and far, as far as you can. Gather all the strings of your consciousness that are spread abroad, roll them up and take a plunge and sink down.

“A fire is burning there, in the deep quietude of the heart. It is the divinity in you — your true being. Hear its voice, follow its dictates.”[12]

 

The Sheaths of the Soul

The soul is clothed in many sheaths which are like integuments that protect the divine seed till it becomes ready and mature to express itself. For a long time in its journey of growth this miniature divinity experiences the world-Self through these sheaths which are arranged hierarchically as an evolutionary ladder. These sheaths reflect only one or few of the several aspects of the world and are therefore also called as casings of Ignorance. Yet these partial and imperfect and indirect glimpses are necessary before the individual soul can wake up to its true divinity and the experience of the integral truth and undivided reality of Oneness. Towards this end, the soul moves from life to life and from birth to birth through a series of partial identifications with one or the other sheaths. This identification with the various sheaths of lower nature makes it forget its own deeper truth which is held in the background as the support, while the surface identified with outer nature struggles and suffers and strives. Thus identified (a necessity for the experience), it erroneously feels “I am this or that impulse and sensation”, “I am this or that feeling and desire”, “I am this or that thought and opinion”, “I am this or that idea and idealism.” This identification creates a false sense of self called the ego. The result is that the individual regards himself as a separate ego (since he experiences the world differently from others and not yet in its entire truth) and other individuals as not-self with whom he can associate or disassociate, depending upon whether they nurture or hurt the identity of his ego-self.

Death comes therefore as a release to smash this false ego-identity, necessary for the moment no doubt, but nevertheless not a permanent and settled truth. This de-identification through death is seen as a tragic loss since we are attached and cling to this false view of self. But soon the sheaths dissolve one by one during the intervening period after death. As that happens, we begin to forget our ego-identity of who we were in our outer aspects, and wake up to the true soul. After a short or long period of reconstituting rest (depending upon the degree of inner development), the individual soul returns through rebirth. Now it must choose to identify with yet another aspect of the same sheath or climb to the next higher level. For this evolutionary climb it will use those ‘karmas’ (previous energies) that need to be worked out for its upward ascent. The steps of the ladder are woven by the fine fabric of karma spun by the loom of the world-forces. We supply the thread, the cosmic Divine uses the loom, so that by It’s Infinite wisdom the consequences lead only to an inner growth and progress of the individual divinity, — the psychic consciousness within us. And what is this individual progress of the soul but the emergence of the various divine possibilities hidden in it. Karma in this light becomes a means for this emergence rather than a primitive tribunal of reward and punishment. But beyond the individual and the cosmic (Universal Divine) there is the third aspect of the trinity, the Transcendent Divine, who intervenes here and there in the play, through spiritual aspiration, through Grace, and makes the evolutionary journey shorter and easier to bear.

Finally, through these cycles of birth and death and rebirth, the individual soul completes the variety of experiences necessary for its schooling. It is now mature and ready for knowing itself. Hence comes an urge and identification with spiritual life and we enter into a high-speed momentum spacecraft of our journey. A time comes when this inner Self-awareness of the true soul in us is complete and we are free. It is then that the individual soul can make a momentous choice. Since the initial necessity of the cycle of birth and death and rebirth is over, it can choose not to be reborn again and escapes death. This is what is meant in the great Upanishadic saying:

…by the Ignorance crosses beyond death and by the Knowledge enjoys Immortality.[13]

But also, if the individual soul so wills, it can enter into a higher cycle of evolution. Here it apparently renounces its individual freedom and once again consciously enters into the cycle of birth, except this time to work upon and transform the sheaths of universal Ignorance. It starts permeating them with its own light and force as well as by the force and truth and light of the higher worlds till these sheaths themselves become translucent dresses and not the obscure and dark veils that they presently are. This transformation of the sheaths and elements of Nature would mean a momentous change for the world-consciousness. It would mean firstly compressing the evolutionary journey and secondly making it a thing of freedom and joy and not the painful struggle that it has now become. This new phase or chapter of evolution has been opened for the earth and souls by the yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Surely, this was the secret intention of the Supreme Divine Himself but naturally this second evolutionary cycle was not possible until a sufficient number of individual souls had arrived at the needed degree of inner development. That time has come now, the time for the freedom of earthbound souls from cosmic Ignorance, the time for freedom from Death. It means a transformation of Death from a dark and destroying ruthless god to one who is the luminous carrier of a greater life. It also means a transformation of unconsciousness of the sheaths so that when the individual soul wraps them around, it no more confuses itself for the sheaths since the sheaths themselves become conscious mantles of the inner light. So there is no forgetfulness and loss of soul-consciousness in birth, nor any forgetfulness and loss of world-consciousness in death.[14] All would be a single movement, a conscious change from one state to another, with no gaps of consciousness in between. And, naturally, with the transformation of Death and unconsciousness, there would be the inevitable transformation of the darkness of Ignorance into Light, of falsehood into Truth-vision and Truth-revelation, of division into Oneness and Love.

But what are these sheaths and levels that for the moment at least cling to the soul as ill-fitting attire or appear as rungs of a ladder in its journey of self-transcendence? They are arranged in a horizontal and vertical fashion. The horizontal arrangement is fairly easy to understand. It simply means that our nature has a surface activity which is away from the inmost soul in us and an activity which is nearer. That which is farther and therefore a confused mass of some sensations, desires, habitual reactions, nervous impulses, a jumbled and mostly aimless patterns of thoughts and feelings, is our surface self. Many of us live identified with it most of the time and know nothing or little else as to our identity except this outer name, form and superficial responses of nature. But deeper, we have an inner/being that is closer to the soul and therefore less restricted in its activity, freer and truer in terms of our self-expression. This inner being is composed of an inner mental, inner vital and even an inner physical. It is also called the subliminal in us because it is behind the surface. While the surface consciousness is aware of little else but the outer and the gross, this inner being is open to the depths as well as to the heights, to the abysses as well as to the sublime. This still makes for a mixed territory, even though it is a vaster area with deeper possibilities. Therefore deeper still are those parts which are identified with the soul during its long drama of life — the true mental, true vital and the true physical in us, the repository of our seeds of karma, which need to be worked out for our evolution through future lives. Death snatches away or dissolves everything except those parts which are identified with the soul. To put it figuratively much of our personality to which we are often so passionately attached is swallowed up by the great devourer death but the person, the true being and the king within our fragile bodies and minds remains and returns and grows.

“What was the divine element in the magnanimity of the warrior, that which expressed itself in his loyalty, nobility, high courage, what was the divine element behind the harmonious mentality and generous vitality of the poet and expressed itself in them, that remains and in a new harmony of character may find a new expression or, if the life is turned towards the Divine, be taken up as powers for the realisation or for the work that has to be done for the Divine.”[15]

In terms of our progressive individual self-awareness, we have the vertical layers as follows:

 

The Gross Physical

This is naturally linked to the material world and has a certain degree of interdependence with it. Our atoms constantly exchange themselves with the world-matter, either naturally enriching or sometimes depleting each other. The gross physical is itself a creation of a long evolutionary journey of matter out of the inconscient[16] and therefore has its own subconscious past strongly imprinted upon it. It is as if supported on the base of a subconscient[17] energy, insistent and aimless that repeats itself mechanically over and over again, reviving the dead past. The animal and other stages of evolution are there as a concealed memory and an automatic habit or a subconscious mechanical action in the body. It is these ‘subconscious’ habits of responses that are called laws of the body and provide a great resistance to evolution and change. They were no doubt necessary at one point but have become an encumbrance at another stage much like the appendix in man. The stages of our past are reproduced in the womb and often expressed in our psychology, behaviour and life. While on the one hand, its denseness provides stability to the form, on the other it is responsible for the inertia to change. A mechanical fixity, repetitiveness and rigid inertia are the obverse side of stability. That is why it is so difficult to change things in the physical nature, including illnesses which repeat themselves with a tenacity that would surprise even the strong-willed by their persistence. And that is why this last change, the change of physical form itself will be the crown of victory of the Spirit over Matter.

This gross physical sheath appears concrete to us since it is the one most perceptible to our gross senses. Much of our science, especially modern science attempts to study and master this alone.

 

The Subtle Physical

Behind the gross physical there lies a less rigid, more plastic matter or the true physical in us. Being less rigid and limited, it has an innate sense of the body as a whole and has even a sense of closeness with the inner physical dimension of the world.

All rightly pursued physical culture can awaken it and thereby provide a natural holistic healthy cover to the gross body. All diseases must pass first through this sheath (composed of the subtle physical on one side and the vital on the other) before attacking and lodging themselves in the gross physical body. In its density this sheath appears as hot air surrounding a physical object. Apart from consciously pursued physical culture, a right inner psychological condition strengthens and reinforces this sheath. On the other hand, depression, fear and other similar gross and limiting movements damage and cut holes through it.

This sheath is therefore a kind of watershed between the gross physical world and the forces and energies of the other hidden worlds. Its importance in health and diseases is therefore immense. It is indeed the true physical in us of which the gross outer is often a rough caricature.

 

The Vital

This is the life-force in us. This energy of life manifests as movements of fear and rage, reproduction and movement in lower life forms. The same energy expresses itself as the principle of desire and ambition, the force of feelings and passions and sentiments in the average humanity. In the rare individual, it climbs still further to supply the energy and fuel for higher pursuits, dynamisms, deep and true emotions, aesthesis, creativity and urge to grow inwardly. These three levels are called correspondingly the lower, middle and higher vital. When our consciousness is identified with this sheath, we live in our surface desire-soul and mistaking it for our deeper self go about the rounds of life trying to gratify this or that desire. But deeper than this is the true or inner vital in us which knows itself as a projection of the soul, an instrument and warrior and worker for and of the Divine. Converted and surrendered it supplies the fuel for our spiritual askesis and progress as well.

The part of the vital sheath in close contact with the physical and supplying its needs is the physical-vital. Equally so, there is a sub-layer of the vital drawing upon the physical, closely using the body as a means to express reflex instincts and sensations, known as the vital-physical.

Similarly, that part which supplies the vital fuel for the mental activities, is called the vital-mental. This sheath, on the one hand adds force and vigour to the mind and on the other (if the being is downwardly oriented or stationed below) it can, in collusion with the vital mind drag down and draw the thoughts to a lower and petty level.

 

The Mental

This is the domain of thoughts and reason rather than of emotions and passions. It is a filter that cuts reality into small bits and pieces, tries to understand each bit separately and then tries to reassemble each fragment to build up the whole. It is thus a linking consciousness, trying to build a bridge between the world as it sees and experiences it and the world as it intuitively believes, hopes or wants it to be. It is therefore a mediator divinity, essentially a movement of Ignorance but trying to climb towards knowledge and Light and Oneness. This growth out of ignorance to knowledge is in itself a gradual process through several rungs. The lowest of these is the physical mind tied solely to the sense data and has a purely material view of things. It is therefore full of doubts about any higher and suprasensible truths. Sinking below it becomes the material mind of the cells which works incessantly and mechanically as a rewinding spring of a watch to set the cellular machinery in motion.

The vital mind, placed just above the physical in the evolutionary hierarchy is in contrast, full of imaginations and subtle manipulations, ever seeking newness and change, sometimes for its own sake, and can use twists of logic to conceal truth and distort facts, all in order to support our vital ego and its impulses. It is in this sense the devil’s advocate in us, justifying every desire and impulse, often concealing them with nice acceptable and even holy words! Naturally it is very necessary to play detective with this part which is like a subterfuge and a cover for the forces of darkness hiding in a cloak of false light, woven of brilliant argument. It is a mind turned downward and outward to explore and satisfy the needs of body and life.

Above is the birth place of the thinking mind which uses the power of reason to organise life and probe deeper into the reality behind forms and appearances. But it cannot arrive at the total truth since its method is one of comparison and contrast rather than a holistic vision. It strives and strains towards truth but cannot find it leaving us on the dry shores of agnosticism.

To know the integral truth, it must renounce its inferior movement of cutting and rebuilding and leap from analytical reason to an intuitive perception, revelatory sight and inspirational insight. These latter would form the higher ranges of the mind or the spiritual mind as a whole. Awakened, it can create the true thinker, philosopher and poet in us, one in touch with the deeper meaning and purpose of life.

This spiritual mind is essentially a mind growing progressively towards truth-discrimination, truth-vision, truth-perception and truth-intuition. Indeed behind our outer surface mind there lies a much vaster range and power of an inner mind that is not so bound with the surface view.

The spiritual mind itself climbs through several ranges. Sri Aurobindo has classified it as follows:

Higher Mind with clarity of thought as steady sunshine, seeing the world as a symbolic image of a deeper truth.

Illumined Mind with a force of illumination and sight replacing thought.

Intuitive Mind with its arc of lightning revealing what is hidden in the depths or behind the veils of nature through a sudden luminous sight.

Overmind which is the birthplace of original ideas, each creating a vast world-system of its own.[18]

Beyond Mind is beyond the highest ranges of the spiritual mind — there is the infinite field of a Self-luminous Supramental Truth knowledge and Truth-power, the world of Bliss from which our souls fell into this obscure life of small joys and sorrows. Of these things nothing can be or need be spoken since they go beyond the domain of the ‘word’ and have to be accessed, known and realised through the experience of the soul’s identification with them.[19]

Apart from those who consciously pursue a deep and intense yoga, is there some experience of these other layers in normal humanity? Well, there are at least two types of experience that come very close to these hitherto hidden layers, if not the soul itself. These are the Out-of-Body Experience (OBE) and the Near–Death–Experience (NDE).

 

Out of Body Experiences (OBEs)

“Many of us have experienced dreams in which we find ourselves flying. We rush through walls, cross distances with ease and at times we wonder — in the dream state itself — how it is that we can do so. The fact of the matter is that it is in our subtle body, the vital body, that we fly. That body does not have the limitations of the gross physical body and it has a different rhythm and movement.

“Similarly a few of us have the experience, even during the waking state, of finding ourselves emerging out of the physical body and moving around. We see the body lying flat below, we see all the surroundings as they are; if we are adventurous, we go to visit friends and see what they are doing. Mostly they are unaware of our presence. Some of these out of body subjects try to make themselves seen or felt by means of some sound, etc. but they do not always succeed. Very often these out of body experiences (OBE) are involuntary. Some, however, are willed and systematically executed forays. The latter are evidently safer because one has conscious possession or direction. At times the persons who are out of the physical body find it difficult to get back smoothly into it. There may be some sudden movement or a sense of shock necessitating the return; or the subject may want to get back but may not know how to do it. Some try to get in through the feet or the head and they meet with resistance. When they wake up they find themselves in pain, a kind of trauma. The Mother advises re-entry through the heart as the safest way. If one is fortunate enough to enjoy the protection of the Guru or the Divine, the mere remembrance — with or without utterance of the Name — is enough to effect a smooth return.

“In either case, whether the experience is in dream or in a waking consciousness, it is in the subtle body that we go out. As we all know, the gross physical body is only the outermost. It is also the densest or the central body. There are a number of other bodies surrounding it in all directions, above, around, below.[20] It is the smallest of them all. Each of them passes through the physical. Each body is subtler than the previous one. Thus around the physical is the vital body; around the vital is the mental body; around the mental is the causal and the bliss body. The Upanishad terms them, significantly, sheaths, koshas. We may note in passing that between the gross physical and the vital there is a subtle-physical sheath corresponding to what the Theosophists call, the Etheric body. It is the meeting ground of the annamaya, material-physical and the pranamaya, the vital. These sheaths or bodies correspond to planes or worlds organised on the same principles. Each body has affinity to its corresponding plane of consciousness or existence.

“We said that the physical body is the smallest. Each of the other bodies is larger than the previous one as we expand. The vital body is larger than the physical, the mental larger than the vital and so on. We need to become conscious of these various states of being, our subtle bodies, and if we choose, learn to come out of these bodies, one by one. This process is called Exteriorisation. The Mother describes how it is possible by following a discipline, to come out of the physical body in the subtler vital body, thence in the mental body, thence in the causal body. She speaks of as many as twelve possible exteriorisations before one arrives at the border of the world of Forms.

“One can participate in any of these worlds by entering into them in the corresponding body. The Mother remarks that if we know how to do it, we may visit the vital world and replenish our energies in a fraction of time. Only we must go to the right region. For there are unpleasant places where just the opposite may take place leaving us drained. It is also possible we may be attacked by some malevolent beings of the vital world and such occurrences may leave a mark on the body. We must have a Guide and be assured of protection. Otherwise there is always the danger of some accident, injury or even death. For when the being goes out in any of these subtle bodies it is always connected with the physical body by means of a silvery cord. This cord is liable to be cut by some shock or unfriendly interference by some unfriendly beings.”[21]

“… If that link were to be snapped for any reason, it would be impossible for the person to come back into the body. It is for this purpose that in occult practice one is advised never to expose the body to such risks during the OBE (out-of-body experience). Either there must be absolute safety of solitude or there must be someone guarding the body. There are elements in the subtler regions which could harm; the protection of the Divine or the Guru keeps off this danger.

“It is not wise to undertake these journeys out of the body, in a light manner, without taking the necessary precautions. The Mother insists that one must be absolutely free from fear. The person must place himself — his body included — in the protection of the Higher Power. He must ensure that there is no likelihood of any kind of interference or interruption — physical or psychological — during his exit. A psychological movement on the part of anyone with a strong will-power can be as tangible, if not more, as the physical. Above all the person must stay cool and know what is to be done at the crucial moment. Most often remembrance of the Divine or one who represents the Divine, or utterance of that Name is enough to put him back into the body. Occasionally a knowledge of the technique of repairing the damage is needed.”[22]

OBEs are another line of evidence regarding the existence of a self independent of the body. They have been well known and recorded since ancient times. Egyptian occultists spoke of it as ‘the double’. Even modern psychiatry recognises and thereby validates this experience though it tries to explain it away through mind and brain mechanisms. It is however not advisable to dabble into these things without an adept guide since it may be quite dangerous. This is so because the body acts as a big shield. Its grossness is itself a safety against many intruding forces from other worlds. A journey out of body exposes one to the danger from other worlds some of which may be hostile to life. The cord that attaches the sheaths beyond to our physical body may be severed by these mischief makers leading to an untimely departure. Some sleep related deaths and illnesses may be attributed to this occult phenomenon of the body being exposed to a greater danger during our out of body sorties in the vital worlds.

 

Near Death Experiences (NDEs)

The pioneer work in this field was done by Dr. Raymond Moody who is the first medical doctor to have done a systemic study of these experiences in people who seem to have been revived after death. These revivals were not only medical. Many were instances of spontaneous recovery after a close brush with death, often unrecorded by the medical physicians who were understandably busy with the pulse and the breathing. Besides as is well known, the eye does not see what the mind does not know. Dr. Raymond Moody took up the challenge and interviewed many such persons who had escaped from the clutches of death for one reason or the other. The result is a fascinating account of afterlife. Dr. Moody himself does not draw conclusions but leaves it for the readers. But he does make it clear that the personal record and the ensuing experience that he underwent can testify that the statements are authentic. Besides they are similar, cutting across boundaries of time, place, gender, education and belief systems. In his bestseller Life after Life, Dr. Moody says,

“Despite the wide variation in the circumstances surrounding close calls with death and in the types of persons undergoing them, it remains true that there is a striking similarity among the accounts of the experiences themselves. In fact, the similarities among various reports are so great that one can easily pick out about fifteen separate elements which recur again and again in the mass of narratives that I have collected. On the basis of these points of likeness, let me now construct a brief, theoretically ‘ideal’ or ‘complete’ experience which embodies all of the common elements, in the order in which it is typical for them to occur.

“A man is dying and, as he reaches the point of greatest physical distress, he hears himself pronounced dead by his doctor. He begins to hear an uncomfortable noise, a loud ringing or buzzing, and at the same time feels himself moving very rapidly through a long dark tunnel. After this, he suddenly finds himself outside of his own physical body, but still in the immediate physical environment, and he sees his own body from a distance, as though he is a spectator. He watches the resuscitation attempt from this unusual vantage point and is in a state of emotional upheaval.

“After a while, he collects himself and becomes more accustomed to his odd condition. He notices that he still has a ‘body’, but one of a very different nature and with very different powers from the physical body he has left behind. Soon other things begin to happen. Others come to meet and to help him. He glimpses the spirits of relatives and friends who have already died, and a loving warm spirit of a kind he has never encountered before — a being of light — appears before him. This being asks him a question, nonverbally, to make him evaluate his life and helps him along by showing him a panoramic, instantaneous playback of the major events of his life. At some point he finds himself approaching some sort of barrier or border, apparently representing the limit between earthly life and the next life. Yet, he finds that he must go back to the earth, that the time for his death has not yet come. At this point he resists, for by now he is taken up with his experiences in the afterlife and does not want to return. He is overwhelmed by intense feelings of joy, love and peace. Despite his attitude, though, he somehow reunites with his physical body and lives.

“Later he tries to tell others, but he has trouble doing so. In the first place, he can find no human words adequate to describe these unearthly episodes. He also finds that others scoff, so he stops telling other people. Still, the experience affects his life profoundly, especially his views about death and its relationship to life.”[23]

Such experiences have been later documented and researched scientifically and if we remove the dramatic personal effects added by the experiencing individual’s consciousness (the husk) and keep the essence (the kernel) we will still have a large body of an extremely useful data to build an entirely new understanding of life and death. But scientific dogmatism and prejudice stand in the way. The relics of the reductionism model continue to haunt us and prevent us from a fuller enquiry into the deeper mysteries. The mainstream body of scientists continues to laugh at these experiences as imaginations of a stressed mind or the hallucinations of a schizophrenic. Even worse they call it a lie since they are unique to the experiencing individual, subjective and therefore non-verifiable for the most part. But hallucination is just a word that labels without explaining. And if individual subjectivity is unreal then some of the most commonplace things that have changed history like love, hate, anger, fear are all equally unreal.

There is another difficulty with the NDEs and the OBEs. In some instances certain psychedelic drugs and especially the dissociative anaesthetic Ketamine have induced similar experiences. What actually happens is that these anaesthetics stun the outer consciousness thereby releasing or dissociating the inner being which is suddenly free from the clutches of the body-mind and therefore wanders to distant lands as happens in dreams. The only difference is that dreams are spontaneous and the inner consciousness is linked strongly to the body even though there is a withdrawal from the surface due to sleep. Anaesthesia in comparison is an induced state of inner withdrawal and a more complete dissociation of the inner and the outer consciousness, therefore gives a greater possibility of experiencing the worlds and life beyond. Death is an extreme withdrawal beyond the control of outer will and after a point, an irreversible one. This is the link between sleep, anaesthesia and death. Anaesthesia and death are close cousins in one way and their actual association is well known. Thus, it is not Ketamine or any other anaesthetic that explains the NDE but the withdrawal of consciousness facilitated by the drug (as also happens in death) which gives the explanation. The NDEs and OBEs that happen spontaneously occur up to the doorways of the mind-body interface. They return back from the threshold and do not enter beyond. The tunnel experience or the light at the end of the tunnel which people touch is the threshold. Beyond is the domain that becomes independent of material basis.

 

Beings and Guardians of the Other Worlds

The soul while in transit meets the beings and forces of other worlds. Depending upon the inner development and affinities, the soul may linger in these worlds, get in touch with these beings, and receive help or encounter hindrance in its onward journey. Our body while living provides a marvellous protection because of its denseness. But after death we stand as if exposed to all the forces of this complex universe. It is true that modern science is unable to recognise these forces and beings as of now. But that is because modern science is equipped for studying only the material phenomenon and forces. It is still in its infancy with regard to the subtler worlds and their mysteries. That is why though it has to some extent mastered the physical forces very well, it fails in mastering the psychological forces that govern our mind and thought and will. We can predict the trajectory of a star with reasonable accuracy but cannot predict the direction of motion of a worm since for all our advancement we have no way of knowing the intent and will behind life. The psychologist may be in a better position to know, if only he could get rid of the materialist assumption and bias, and see with open eyes what moves humanity. The mystic communes with the worlds, the schizophrenic walks into their trap, the average man has a daily brush with them in his dreams, yet all this data lies unstudied and unused because of our a priori assumption that material reality is the only reality!

Nevertheless, the beings of these hidden worlds (hidden to our limited sight) can be roughly divided into three broad or general categories:

 

The Gods

These are essentially benevolent powers of the Divine and in their true station belong to the levels above the thinking mind. These are forces of Light and their characteristic action is to create in those who are open Wisdom, Strength, Harmony and Perfection. Some of them however send their projections and emanations into the lesser worlds of mind and life and body, to work as forces of Light, in a limited way. Such a projection creates miniature divinities, which though diminished in force and functions are a little closer to the human mind and therefore easier to understand.

 

The Titans

These are essentially malevolent powers that have defected from the Divine Will and in their true station dwell in the subconscient caves and abysses of consciousness. These are forces of Darkness and their aim is to perpetuate doubt and confusion, weakness and depression, division and hatred, impulsiveness and impatience. These too, in an attempt to wrest the higher powers and forces by violence send up their fuming breath into the chambers of mind and life and body, corrupting our thoughts and feelings and acts. In return they have a hold and sway upon the human consciousness by flattering egoism and perpetuating Ignorance.

 

The Intermediate Beings

These are essentially beings of transition with mixed powers. They are stationed in the worlds of mind, life and matter and govern their movements from behind. Some of them are benevolent while others are deceptive and often drape themselves in forms imagined and created by the human mind. These may be used by the forces of darkness to deceive the human being through divine appearances.

The departed in their journey after death may meet some of these beings and unless equipped with an inner knowledge or open to Light through an inner faith in the Divine, they may be tricked to stay for a longer or shorter period in these deceptive worlds. Captive of these forces, they may linger till the illusion and the spell is broken by a benevolent power or Grace or simply because the part of nature responding and open to that plane dissolves, leaving behind only the immortal soul.

 

In Conclusion

In spite of so much of data, there remain many sceptics of such occurrences. Fortunately truth is not decided by a democratic vote but stands in its own right even if there is not a single individual who observes or knows it. There are objective verifications which bring back reliable data of other worlds just as scientists bring from the moon. If we therefore care to truly understand, and not just mock in a false scientific pride without even studying the facts first, we can safely draw the following conclusions:

There is some kind of a self-experience after death. Physical death is not the end of our self. Something is there that continues to experience just as we continue to experience things in another mode during our body’s sleep, and who knows whether we do or do not continue to experience the self in another mode, say in coma for instance. This has ethical implications on taking away the life of those in prolonged coma. Since the self-experience is continuing, it is not advisable to cut it abruptly through death. The absence of memory on return to outer senses or another life is no proof either. We seldom remember our dreams and even more rare is to remember in a dream that we are dreaming! In our waking consciousness we seem to dwell in another sense of self than in our sleeping state. Each of these has a different kind of state-dependent memory. So too the worlds of death and other planes of consciousness are different from the physical world that we are normally aware of. In fact we have these four fundamental states of consciousness:

  • The outer or waking state that we are mostly aware of. It is our most superficial state of existence wherein we interact with a fragment of the outer world as it appears to our gross senses. This world presents to us a distorted appearance of reality, mostly of the physical, fine for our immediate practical purposes but ineffective for any deeper understanding of life.
  • The inner subliminal or dream state consisting of many worlds within and of which we can become aware by a methodical development of the subtle senses as the mystic does or else during certain altered states as in dreams, drugs and mental illnesses. There have been interesting instances of abnormal and detailed learning (or memory) of certain forms of literature in a language totally alien to one’s own and which one had made no attempt to learn by the waking mind.
  • The sleep state or the higher and deeper transcendent regions of which our waking consciousness generally knows nothing about. We do indeed enter these states and regions in our body’s sleep but cannot bring back any memory of it to the outer surface-mind due to absence of bridges. All these states are experienced by us everyday during sleep and indeed just as it happens in death, we touch those regions of imperishable light and bliss for a few moments and return back refreshed and rejuvenated. Death is a prolonged reconstituting sleep wherein the connection with the body is fully snapped.
  • The sheer transcendent state that wraps up the other three within itself and is primarily for the rare yogi who has passed beyond the sphere of death.

Yet we can become aware of these other worlds through a methodical development of the inner or subtle senses, or more accurately by releasing the senses from the grip and conditioning by our waking mind that perceives only the outer life as real. Spirituality in fact liberates us from this material conditioning and therefore equips us to better understand this world and the other worlds hidden behind the material one. Indeed we are relatively free of this conditioning in childhood but as we grow towards adulthood we become conditioned and limited by the existing belief systems and governing principles of our time. Today we see such a transition from the extreme rationalistic age that denied every form of subjectivity towards the emergence and acknowledgement of the subjective side of life. The fact of experiencing the physical body as something that is separate and distinct from the self is an indication that the power of the senses does not come from the organs that conduit them. It comes from another layer of consciousness deeper than the physical. The method of investigating these subtle and deeper truths therefore would be through a methodical development of the subtle senses or by evolving out of the present mind the most refined sixth sense, what is termed as intuition in ancient psychology. A blind and ever doubting denial would be as damaging as an unquestioning acceptance. One is the superstition of the irrational man, the other the superstition of the rationally ignorant. It is difficult to say which is better! No wonder the great Greek visionary Socrates aptly remarked as the closing remark before drinking the hemlock: “But now it is time to depart, for me to die, for you to live, but which of us is going to a better state is unknown to everyone except God.”

Finally, if we admit the testimony of the subtle senses, then after its release from the physical casing, the soul undertakes a rapid or prolonged rest while transiting through the other worlds — the subtle physical, the different levels of the vital (the presumed location of the heavens and hells), mental and other higher worlds, till it reaches its final resting place in the native psychic world. During this transit the soul sheds its investitures one by one in the corresponding worlds and undergoes different experiences, pleasant or unpleasant, depending upon an inner affinity of the various parts of its nature. The nature of the worlds it will pass through, the time of transit, the type of experiences, will depend largely on the quality and nature of its life while in the physical body. Our deeds are like imprints that attract certain experiences whether in this world or another much as a TV antenna attracts vibrations depending on attuning our choices to one channel or another. This is only natural and serves as a learning and growing experience to the soul rather than being a crude system of reward and punishment. One may say that the blind wall of matter is torn apart through the mechanism of death, and it can then see through the façade, behind the choices it made and the people it loved. This happens in life also if we are truly awake but can happen much more concretely and intensely after death. Therefore, we may say, that while positive and active progress is possible only while in the body, a sort of passive progress through negative and positive learning consequences takes place after death as well. To understand the apparent contradiction here, let’s just say that the school of life teaches us to make choices and grow and change as a result. This growth is not possible after death but one can learn many things about hidden realities if one is conscious. The bulk of progress is during life since the presence of the psychic and the holding together of different elements of nature makes this possible. After death, the progress is only on the plane of a certain kind of knowledge and not at other levels.

As always we cannot make general rules. This is only a pattern for the mass of humanity. Rare developed souls can reverse the balance and continue to consciously choose and act and even meditate after death thereby progressing uninterruptedly. These can also help the earthly play while being on the other side since they have arrived at a high degree of consciousness. Subsequently they may return to resume their further growth in and through the earthly play.

Our science is an abstract cold and brief
That cuts in formulas the living whole.
It has a brain and head but not a soul:
It sees all things in outward carved relief.

But how without its depths can the world be known?
The visible has its roots in the unseen
And each invisible hides what it can mean
In a yet deeper invisible, unshown.

The objects that you probe are not their form.
Each is a mass of forces thrown in shape.
The forces caught, their inner lines escape
In a fathomless consciousness beyond mind’s norm.

Probe it and you shall meet a Being still
Infinite, nameless, mute, unknowable. [24]


 

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  1. The Mother: CWM, Vol. 5, pp. 377-79.[]
  2. This Bengali word cannot be translated. It means hurt pride and grief mixed with resentment against somebody from whom one expects love and better treatment. — Translator’s note.[]
  3. A colloquial form of the word Krishna.[]
  4. The God of Death.[]
  5. One who has renounced all for the sake of spiritual liberation.[]
  6. Yoga-trance in which all mental modifications are completely restricted.[]
  7. Sri Aurobindo: The Chariot of Jagannath, 1972 edition.[]
  8. Sri Aurobindo: Thoughts and Aphorisms.[]
  9. Sri Aurobindo: The Upanishads, Katha Upanishad First cycle, Verse 21, p. 218[]
  10. Refer to Ancient Texts for the story of Nachiketas[]
  11. Those desirous of a deeper study on the subject of the soul and the subtle truths of its different aspects can turn directly to the words of Sri Aurobindo, especially Letters on Yoga. The same book can also be referred to for a description of the different planes and orders of the worlds.[]
  12. The Mother: CWM Vol. 3, p. 1[]
  13. Sri Aurobindo: The Upanishads, Isha Upanishad, Verse 11[]
  14. Please note that a deathless body is not a body that the user is compelled to wear forever. There will be a willed change of the outer garment without any loss of consciousness. To the outer eye however it may seem like death.[]
  15. Sri Aurobindo: Letters on Yoga, p. 452 []
  16. A state of entire oblivion (not an absence) of consciousness, a state of total forgetfulness of the Consciousness, the dark womb of things.[]
  17. The first stir of consciousness as it wakes up again from its Inconscient state. Still a drowse and forgetfulness but not entirely. Some vague movement as if of seeking for something.[]
  18. A detailed exposition of these levels would go beyond the scope of this book. The interested reader is advised to refer to the original works of Sri Aurobindo for guidance, especially Letters on Yoga.[]
  19. This of course is a brief statement. For more details on these sheaths and their functions, the reader is advised to refer to the writings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, especially the chapter on ‘Planes and Parts of the Being’ as described in Letters on Yoga.[]
  20. There appears to be a slight contradiction when we say that the physical is the outermost and there are other bodies above, around or below it. In reality it is the other bodies that surround the physical since they are subtle. But as far as human sight is concerned we see the gross physical first and therefore any contact with the other bodies, if at all, is seen and felt as ‘afterwards’ in a deeper dimension and therefore as if within.[]
  21. M.P. Pandit: Commentaries[]
  22. M.P. Pandit: Commentaries []
  23. Refer to Appendix IV: The Ancient Debate for individual cases of NDE[]
  24. Sri Aurobindo: ‘Discoveries of Science III’, Collected Poems, p. 168[]