first printed in The Theosophist, May 1906, p568-576 and June p649-659
The Reality of the Astral Plane
To speak about the astral plane in India is a somewhat different thing from speaking about it in other lands. In England or in America the great difficulty which the ordinary auditor finds with regard to the matter is to believe that there is any condition beyond the physical. Although the religion of those countries teaches quite as decidedly (although not as accurately) as yours that there is another state of existence, a state after death, yet unfortunately the statements made about it by their churches and in their sacred books are put in such an unscientific manner that the trend of modern thought (which is, as you know, along more or less precise and scientific lines) leads people practically to reject all that is said about the unseen world. Again and again I have lectured on such subjects in many places; again and again newspaper editors, in commenting upon what I have said, have remarked that it was most reasonable, that in every way it seemed exactly what it ought to be - and yet they invariably concluded by saying, "But of course it is absolutely impossible that anybody really can know anything about these matters." In fact, they seem to think that although Theosophical teaching may be what they call in Italy «ben trovatore», well invented, it cannot really mean anything or be anything more than a brilliant hypothesis.
Now I take it that that is not in the least the difficulty which will beset an Indian audience with regard to this matter. You all know from ancient teaching that there is an unseen world - that there is very much existing about us and acting about us all the time, of which our physical senses bring us no report whatever. You are all aware of that, and you do not need any further proof of it; or if there should be any of you who do, they must be the products of half-assimilated western education. There are, however, some difficulties in the minds of many Hindus with regard to the astral plane and the Theosophical teaching concerning it. I have met at different times with two classes of objections in this country, and I should like to say a word about them.
Should the Astral Plane be Studied?
First, it is considered by some Indians that although the astral plane exists, it is yet a thing about which we should think as little as possible. There is such a place, of course, and we must pass through its conditions, but our duty is to fix our thoughts upon the very highest ideal that we can reach, to strain upwards towards that, and not to contemplate any of these lower and intermediate conditions. With part of that I perfectly agree. It is true that every man should set before himself constantly the highest ideal which he is capable of forming. It is unquestionably well that his thoughts should be aimed at that ideal, and that it should influence him in all his actions and through the whole course of his life. But we have this to remember. We are here in the physical world and our duty at the present moment is largely connected with that world. We are in this physical body precisely in order that we may learn lessons through it. If we had no lessons to learn on this material level, we should already have transcended it and we should not need any further incarnation here. So it cannot be argued that in keeping before ourselves the highest ideal we ought to ignore life on the physical plane.
You may say that to some extent the hermit does ignore this lower world, but that is not the usual course. If a man's karma be such that he can legitimately tear himself away from everything physical and go away and live in a cave or in a jungle and devote himself utterly to the contemplation of the highest, that man is already in the fortunate position of being able largely to leave the physical plane out of his calculations. But you all know well that for the enormous majority of you such a way as that is not possible. You may be just as highly developed or as good as the hermit, but you have plain and obvious duties which nothing would justify your discarding. That being so, it is clear that some knowledge of the physical world is of value to you. A teacher who told you to keep your mind fixed only on Nirvânic conditions and to learn nothing about the surroundings of daily life and the temptations which you may meet, would manifestly not be a practical guide.
I should submit, in answer to the objection which I mentioned to you at the beginning, that for the great majority of us a certain amount of life upon the astral plane is a necessity for our evolution. If we have not yet transcended the physical, still less have we transcended this higher realm of Nature, and it is inevitable that many of us should have considerable experiences in connection with the astral plane. Remember that we pass at least one-fourth of our lives, and in many cases one-third, in the sleep of the physical body, and that during that time the consciousness of the man is not asleep, but is active in another vehicle and on another plane of matter. A condition in which we spend at least one quarter of our life is hardly one that is well for us entirely to ignore; and we must also remember that after casting aside our physical bodies we shall most of us pass some considerable time in this astral world, so that it cannot be entirely unimportant to know what we may with regard to it.
There is yet another consideration. Many of us are trying to utilize some powers a little higher than the physical, such as the power of thought, and the power of strong, loving, helpful emotion. If these are to be used efficiently, some knowledge of the material through which they work is required - some knowledge of the conditions under which they are to be employed. I do not say that without such knowledge it would be impossible to produce any result, but I do say that it would be achieved somewhat blindly and that much of the effort would be wasted; whereas with some comprehension of the laws of this higher side of our world it is less likely that strength will be squandered uselessly and valuable time lost. In order that we may help forward the evolution of the world while our physical bodies are in a state of rest, or after they have been cast aside, we must have some knowledge of the subject. It is true that there are certain fascinations connected with the astral world - possibilities of selfishness and sensuality of various kinds; and those who enter upon astral life may quite conceivably be entangled in such snares, and thus delayed in their progress. But each many will necessarily have some contact with astral life whether he knows anything about it or not; and the more he knows about it, the better he understands it, the more likely will he be to avoid mistakes.
Never for one moment have any of our writers suggested to any person that he should set before him astral life as a goal at which to aim. We have consistently said, "Always set the very highest before you as the goal; but since you have to live on the physical plane, recognize the fact and try to understand that, after all, the physical world also is a manifestation of the Supreme, that the astral world is simply nothing but the continuation of the physical world in finer matter, and that you may study the astral conditions of matter precisely as you study etheric conditions of matter, by applying to them scientific methods of research." That is the way in which we have been approaching this matter, both in writing and in lecturing; and I do not think that any Indian who really understands our attitude will take exception to it.
Is Our Description Accurate?
Another objection which I have heard in India is of a different character. There are many Indian teachers who know of the existence of the astral plane, but they say that the accounts of it which they find in Theosophical books do not agree with their own experiences of it. That is a legitimate objection, and it is quite easy for us from our standpoint to understand the position of the man who makes it; but I think that from his standpoint he cannot find it easy to understand our position unless he supposes us the victims of some kind of gigantic hallucination. Now undoubtedly a man may become a victim of illusion, and he may carry on for a long time the same line of illusions, and may live among the thought-forms thus created; and a scheme resting upon the vision of a single person might quite conceivably be accounted for in this way. But while I at least have never asked any human being to believe anything because I have seen it or because I know it, I do think that what has been written in Theosophical literature with regard to the astral plane and to the life and work upon that plane is very fairly well established, by reason of the fact that that is the nearest plane in consciousness to the physical, and that, therefore, we have a considerable number of persons who have had at least occasional experiences in connection with it, and a smaller number for whom it is a prominent part of regular daily life, to whom it is just as familiar as are the streets of your city to you.
If you speak of statements concerning some very high plane which only a few have as yet been able to touch in consciousness, then naturally you have for them so much the less of testimony, for that plane is necessarily much further removed from the physical, and therefore fewer experiments have been made in connection with it. In that case an objector would have more justification in holding that perhaps there might be errors in matters so far beyond ordinary consciousness. But when we are dealing with a band of investigators, people of different races, of varying temperaments and types, and when, in spite of all these differences, they broadly agree as to what they see and how they see it, when they constantly meet in that condition of consciousness, the memory of which is often transferred to the physical plane on opposite sides of the world, it will be readily understood that for those people themselves there grows to be a strong conviction that they are not hallucinated when they believe themselves to be using a consciousness somewhat more extended than that of the average man, and they are consequently quite undisturbed by the criticism of men who have not studied the subject. Those of us who have enquired into the matter have a huge mass of evidence that the astral plane is a reality and that clairvoyance is a fact, and that by means of this faculty we have gained much information which we have put before our brothers in order that they may also have the benefit which such knowledge has brought to us.
I have heard it said here in India that no one ought to give a lecture or write a book on these subjects until he has attained Adeptship, because short of that there must be imperfection. That is quite true; but I would suggest that if our revered founder, Madame Blavatsky, had followed that advice and had waited for the attainment of perfect Adeptship before writing anything, we should not have had "The Secret Doctrine". If Mrs Besant, Mr Sinnett and others had adopted that plan we should have had no Theosophical books for perhaps six or seven thousand years yet, and while the books would undoubtedly have been far more valuable when they came, still the present generation would not have gained the advantage of Theosophical teaching.
We have chosen deliberately to put the imperfect knowledge before our brothers, because we have always felt that such powers come to us not for ourselves only but for them - that we are, so to speak, eyes for our fellows, and we have tried to be faithful eyes. We have tried to report exactly what we have seen, even though we know far better than others what are the difficulties that lie in the way of an accurate report. We know well that you will have very much more to learn as the years roll on, but what we have tried to do, though we may not have wholly succeeded, is to put these things before you in such a manner that as your perceptions widen you will have nothing to unlearn - you will have only to add to your stock of knowledge, and not to alter it. What I think we may hope is that we leave no fundamental principles wrongly stated.
If we consider carefully the astral experiences of many of our Indian friends, and also of some Christian mystics, we shall see that they may readily be harmonized with our own, even though at first sight they seem to differ. It should be remembered that the astral world is as extensive and as varied as the physical world. If visitors from some other planet were to come to this earth and carry back to their own their reports of what they had seen here, it is obvious that twenty of them, or indeed fifty or a hundred of them, might visit different parts of this world, and carry back with them widely differing stories, even though all of them reported accurately the experiences through which they had passed. Exactly in the same way the person who visits the astral plane comes into contact only with a very small part of it, and unless he constantly repeats his visits, and makes systematic efforts to investigate all its varied possibilities, he will naturally return with an exceedingly partial report.
It often happens that by intensity of devotion a man is able to raise his consciousness to the astral level. He forms a strong mental image of the object of his devotional feeling and surrounds himself by a shell that keeps away all other thoughts or vibrations. Thus, even when his consciousness acts through his astral vehicle, it still acts within that shell, and so he sees nothing but the object of his devotion, and is as entirely unaware of the varied life and activity which surrounds him as the ascetic who sits in rapt meditation is unmindful of movements taking place in the physical world around him. We who work on the astral plane constantly see men thus in ecstasy within their own private holy places, created by the intensity of their devotion; and undoubtedly they derive the greatest benefit from such experiences. But they err when they assume that the whole astral world is included in their shell, and that there is nothing to be found there but that which they have seen. This it will be obvious that while their theory of this world of subtle matter leaves them no alternative but to suppose us hallucinated, our theory has the advantage of fully including and explaining their experiences without suggesting any such unpleasant insinuation.
Its Agreement with the Scriptures
You will observe that in speaking of this subtler world I am using the term "astral plane", and not "Kamaloka", which is often employed as a Sanskrit equivalent. I avoid that because I am not sure that it is an equivalent, for I think that when you define it as the place of desire you mean almost exclusively lower desire, and that would make it much more limited than is the astral plane. I believe that your term "bhuvarloka" is much nearer to a correspondence, but without an exhaustive study of references I dare not pledge myself even to that. The way in which the Indians approach the subject, and the way in which their books are written, are somewhat the reverse of ours. They always descend upon it from above, as it were, and their great Rishis, scheming out the whole plan of the universe, say with the calm certainty of knowledge "Thus it must be".
We, on the other hand, approach the subject from below, and patiently catalogue fact after fact over and over again, venturing to draw our deductions only after comparing the results of varied and oft-repeated experiments and observations. But the point which I think should be of interest to you in India is that although these investigations are made from so different a direction, the results agree precisely with the statements of your ancient books, thus offering a corroboration of the religious teaching which ought specially to appeal to the younger generation because it comes along the very line in which their thought has been trained - the line of scientific enquiry. Another point of interest about the observations of the Theosophical students is that they give, I think, somewhat greater detail than the scriptures, and they arrange their facts in tabular form so that the relation between them can be clearly seen.
If I were asked to teach any one what I know about the astral plane, I think the first thing that I should tell him is that he should get into his mind the utter reality of it. That should be less difficult for an Indian than for a Western audience. Try to realize that this other condition of existence is just as real (or just as unreal) as this. There are philosophers who would say that all existence is illusion - that we ourselves are unreal - that I am deluded when I think I am speaking, and that you are hallucinated when you think you are listening; but however that may be, while we live on this physical plane we have to act as though we were real, and the same thing exactly applies to the astral plane. If this physical world be nothing but an utter delusion, then the same may be true of the astral; but if there be any measure of reality connected with this world in which we are now living, just the same measure of reality belongs to the astral plane also. Remember, I do not mean that either of them is permanent. If you ask whether the physical plane is permanent, I should say "No; the matter of which it is composed is permanent, but not necessarily in this form." All physical matter may become astral matter, all astral matter may become mental matter, and perhaps that is the way in which the Supreme withdraws into Himself. When the scientist is able to examine the atom of the physical plane as it has been examined clairvoyantly, he will find that it is nothing but a vortex centre, held in its spiral shape simply by the force flowing through it, just as you may see at the street corner a little whirling column of dust and leaves held in position by the wind circulating through it. The very atom which is at the back of all physical matter is nothing but an ordered aggregation of astral atoms; and if it should please the Logos of our system to withdraw His power, the whole physical world would fall at once into what would be, for us, non-manifestation. That shows you the relation of the astral plane to the physical; it is just as much a material plane - simply another condition of the same matter.
Furthermore, I have constantly to explain in Europe and America that this astral plane is not a place; it is not a heaven far away among the stars, but a condition of matter existing here and now, though unperceived. Astral matter surrounds us at the moment, just as physical matter surrounds us. You are all acquainted with the scientific theory that ether interpenetrates every substance, even the hardest diamond. Just in the same way as ether interpenetrates ordinary physical matter, so does astral matter in its turn interpenetrate ether. Scientists used to think of the ether as a homogeneous substance; now they appear to admit that it is not so, since they say that everything is constructed of electrons. The truth is that ether is itself atomic, and its atoms do not touch one another, but are floating in a sea of still finer matter which we call astral. But astral matter in its turn may be reduced until we come to the astral atom; that in its turn is found to be floating in a sea of finer matter still. Now these are not different kinds of matter, but different conditions of the same matter. Some of your magicians have been able to make a physical object disappear from its place and re-appear somewhere else. That is in reality a very simple feat of dematerialization. We may make a block of ice invisible by melting it and then boiling the resulting water; in the form of steam it may be forced through a grating or any porous substance, and, on the other side, if subjected to a sufficiently low temperature, it may again be condensed into an exactly similar block of ice. If this could be done rapidly enough the transfer of the block of ice from one chamber to another would seem miraculous; and this is a precise analogy to what takes place in the case of dematerialization. The magician by an effort of his trained will simply reduces the object to a state of matter in which it is invisible to our senses, but it is none the less material for that - just as the steam is matter as surely as the ice. If it is to be called real in one condition it must be called real in the other; if it is to be called unreal in one of these conditions it must also be called unreal in the other.