Theosophy and after Death States

Devachan and spiritualism; Blavatsky and Leadbeater

Notes from a lecture by Barry Thompson, by Katinka Hesselink

In the 1850’s the United States had a lot of bereaved families because of the American Civil War. This fed the new movement of spiritualism in which the spiritual world was seen as very like the physical one. There are, for the purpose of this article, two ways of viewing reality. One is the ‘ordained world’ in which a God outside creation has set things up. This view of reality means that there is a fixed order of things. The other view of reality is what I’d like to call a kaleidescope vision of reality. In a kaleidescope you see beautiful, ever changing patterns. These are caused by different elements ever recombining. What we see is a construction, an illusion (maya). Yet there is the absolute reality behind all this. This is the theosophical point of view and also the view that Tibetan Buddhism (especially Tantric Buddhism) takes.

Yet some theosophical writers come closer to the ordained world view of reality. For instance C.W. Leadbeater didn’t like the Mahatma Letters, which explains why they were published outside the Theosophical Society (in 1923).

For the first generation theosophy of Blavatsky and the Mahatmas a human is a sevenfold being:

Death isn’t a translation into some wonderful spiritual realm, but dissolution of the temporal vehicle. In other words: the physical, the life force and the energetic body fall apart. A disembodied fourfold being: kama-manas-buddhi-atma is left behind. This fourfold being goes through a past life review right after death. In kama loka it’s unconscious. There are different levels of consciousness. The personality is based on the body, so when that falls apart what’s left is unpersonal and therefore (in a way) unconscious. Than kama and manas separate. Manas goes to (or creates for itself) devachan. Devachan is roughly a heavenly world. It’s a Tibetan word meaning ‘land of bliss’. Blavatsky downplays the significance of devachan. She calls it a dream, a compensation for the ego. Later theosophists made devachan a place of development. But in devachan there is no time, no change, no practice. It’s too high up for that. According to the Mahatma Letters devachan is the world of effects. (*)

Summing up

First generation 

Blavatsky, Mahatmas

Second generation 

Leadbeater etc.

Right after death: unconsciousness

Right after death: personality conscious of grieving of family members

Devachan: place of rest, not development. Insights don’t need development. Development only happens in the world down here where there is a body that needs time to learn or adapt to insights.

Devachan: place of development of higher talents

Devachan is result of higher thoughts of the highest in the person.

Devachan is pictured more like a place like this world where people meet, get together and even sense the people in the physical world.

Kaleidoscope view of reality.

Ordained view of reality, like in spiritualism.

Tibetan Book of the Dead

In Tantric Buddhism the basic vision of reality is kaleidoscopic. For instance their way of looking at liberation is that it’s not a matter of growing life after life, till one is ready for the final insight. Instead one just has to realize the illusory nature of reality and can then visualize oneself as a Buddha. At its worst it contains spells to change the world into what you want it to be. The root idea is that mind can rule matter. The main idea of the Tibetan Book of the Dead is that although there is an after death process – this can be short circuited by the consciousness if it just realizes that all that it experiences is illusion – a result of the mind. With that aspect firmly in mind, the details of the after death process hardly matter, because in fact it’s only the mind that creates it that way.

Buddhism: reborn as animals?

The one difference between theosophy and Buddhism on the after death states and rebirth is in the question: what do we get reincarnated as? The older translations of the Pali Canon do suggest that Buddha said that we get reincarnated as animals. Newer translations by Morris Walsh on the other hand suggest that the word that was translated as ‘animal’ could also be translated as ‘brute’. A brute can be a human being who is not very refined, focuses on eating, drinking, getting wealth – instead of on liberation, culture, philosophy and meditation.

From this we can conclude that theosophical writers could simply be right: the Buddha may well have meant to say that people do only come back as people, but not as the best of people if they develop selfish thoughts and actions.

Footnote added by Katinka Hesselink

*) "To make it clear you must keep in mind that there are two fields of causal manifestation, to wit: the objective and subjective. So the grosser energies, those which operate in the heavier or denser conditions of matter manifest objectively in physical life, their outcome being the new personality of each birth included within the grand cycle of the evolving individuality. The moral and spiritual activities find their sphere of effects in “Devachan.” For example: the vices, physical attractions, etc. — say, of a philosopher may result in the birth of a new philosopher, a king, a merchant, a rich Epicurean, or any other personality whose make-up was inevitable from the preponderating proclivities of the being in the next preceding birth. Bacon, for inst: whom a poet called —

“The wisest, greatest, meanest of mankind” —

might reappear in his next incarnation as a greedy money-getter, with extraordinary intellectual capacities. But the moral and spiritual qualities of the previous Bacon would also have to find a field in which their energies could expand themselves. Devachan is such field. Hence — all the great plans of moral reform, of intellectual and spiritual research into abstract principles of nature, all the divine aspirations, would, in Devachan come to fruition, and the abstract entity previously known as the great Chancellor would occupy itself in this inner world of its own preparation, living, if not quite what one would call a conscious existence, at least a dream of such realistic vividness that none of the life-realities could ever match it. And this “dream” lasts until Karma is satisfied in that direction, the ripple of force reaches the edge of its cyclic basin, and the being moves into the next area of causes. This, it may find in the same world as before, or another, according to his or her stage of progression through the necessary rings and rounds of human development." Letter No. 104 (Chronological) (ML-25) Rec. February 2, 1883