Death and the Dimensions of Creation in the Eyes of India’s Mystic Saints

Bursting through the barriers of sense awareness, you experience a sudden rush of exhilaration. Like a fresh breath of air after a suppressed confinement, an overwhelming feeling of expansiveness, clarity, and unbridled joy dawns upon the mind. With a knowing not born of books, an intuitive understanding of security and comfort naturally arises. You have just died. You are experiencing the familiar and comfortable process of transition from a physical body into the regions of astral consciousness wherein you will prepare for your next incarnation. Before long, the memories of human existence will begin to evaporate, like dreams that disappear shortly after waking. You are not afraid, you are free.   

This portrayal of the dying process takes into account the words of spiritual leaders and mystics who claim to have seen beyond. While death is often viewed as a shocking or negative experience through the lens of today’s society, the spiritual teachings of India offer a much more comforting and integrative viewpoint. The Eastern perspective that life continues beyond death offers a healing balm to the intense grief, overwhelming anxiety, guilt, and other kinds of disruptive emotions that people often associate with death and dying.

For myself, the texts and testimonies of Hindu sages have been an anchor of spiritual peace as I have grappled with the questions of life and death. In high school, I struggled to formulate an identity replete with goals and values that could give me a sense of solidity amidst an unstable home life. I watched as friends turned to addictive behaviors to cope with the pressure of adulthood. Unable to reconcile the pain of earthly suffering, I felt utterly at a loss. I found no reassurance in my community’s churches, as their explanations for the purpose of life appeared to be based on blind belief. Finally, I discovered Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, and it was as if I had been struck by a bolt of lightning. The Hindu scriptures that he synthesized into his book presented the doctrines of karma and reincarnation in a way that felt relatable and logically sound. In addition, he offered a method of meditation practice by which I could experience those truths for myself and not take his words on blind faith. With youthful zeal, I diligently applied myself to the prescribed methods, a path I have continued on to this day. Since then, however, I have broadened my scope of learning and found the clarity of Yogananda’s perspective echoed in the words of other beloved Indian mystics. Through their counsel and through my years of practice, I have had my own share of personal experiences that I believe can testify to the authenticity of Yogananda’s words and the afterlife states that he and other saints of India have described.  

Moreover, I have seen the way a belief in reincarnation can transform feelings of pain and fear as one approaches death. Recently I had the privilege of spending time with an individual in hospice as he made his transition. It was quite a remarkable and humbling experience to be with someone as they emotionally came to grips with the knowledge that their time on Earth would not be long. Whereas normally an individual may be faced with the fear of the unknown as they approach their death, I saw my friend revitalized and encouraged. The experiences he had received in meditation, coupled with the reassurance of centuries of yogic wisdom, provided him with the unshakeable conviction that death would provide him a release from the prison of the body and a return to the expansive consciousness that is natural to every being.

Having seen the transformative effect of this expansive perspective on death, I believe that the ancient wisdom of meditation, and of the yogic masters who propound it, has provided answers for some of the “hows” and “whys” of the human experience. Through this short article, I will share a picture of the afterlife realms based on the words of the saints of the Hindu traditions as an alternate perspective to Western concepts of the death and dying process.

Throughout the scriptures of the Hindu tradition, such as the Vedas, there is frequent mention of the word loka.1 Loka refers to a realm of creation and is often used to describe a domain belonging to a certain God. For example, the Vedic2 God Indra is the ruler of his own celestial abode named Indraloka. In the Vedas,3 various deities frequently descend into the human world by means of incarnating into a physical body.  Since the Vedic era, the idea of incarnation has undergone many stages of evolution in order to reach its current interpretation wherein a soul, or an element of a divine consciousness essential to every being requires a physical body in order to grow and evolve through diverse experiences of struggle. Yogis and mystics of the twentieth century who have claimed to experience the death process in states of deep meditation, thus qualifying them to speak about incarnation after life on Earth, have contributed greatly to this ancient perspective. Some of these yogis and mystics include Paramahansa Yogananda, Anandamayi Ma, Ramana Maharshi, Neem Karoli Baba, Swami Muktananda, Satya Sai Baba, Srila Prabhupada or even the currently living Sadhguru and Mata Amritanandamayi, better known as “Amma, the hugging saint.” Perhaps one of the most vivid examples of a death experience in meditation is Swami Muktananda’s visit to Indraloka. During one of Muktananda’s meditation sessions in his simple hut in rural India, he experienced a chariot appearing to him from the darkness. Muktananda was greeted by a radiant being garbed in light who he realized to be Indra, the king of the Vedic gods. Together, they mounted the chariot and flew to a paradise realm in which Muktananda experienced the afterlife described in the scriptures.4 While the teachings of these contemporary sages may have some small differences, they all generally agree on the existence of heavenly realms and the constant transmigration of souls to and from them.

The ultimate benefit of understanding reincarnation and its mechanics is that by shifting one’s view of death into a framework that carries on the consequences of the present life, one cannot help but adopt a lifestyle that will benefit oneself and the larger community. One naturally begins to have a sense of vigilance in their day-to-day activities, understanding that actions performed now can have effects that last beyond this incarnation. When one truly aligns the mind with the idea that the present life will impact future lifetimes, one takes an essential step towards personal responsibility, which, at the ultimate level, is realized as the divine responsibility of the infinite self in higher stages of consciousness. To comprehend the dimensions of creation also means to comprehend the nature of one’s own inner dimensions of desire, for it is the habit of likes and dislikes that form the thread by which one is drawn to a future life. By beholding the cosmic themes of reincarnating souls over vast panoramas of dimensional reality, the individual is simultaneously humbled and contented. Gone is the pressure of enlightenment within one lifetime or closure that will never come, for one, who sees the scope of the soul’s evolution through many lives, experiences a deep understanding of the immensity of the process. Instead of dismay, tremendous patience and empowerment to act on the boundless task of self-transformation arises. 

A discussion of death necessitates an understanding of the structure of creation from the Hindu perspective. For most Hindus, the foundation of all creation is called Brahman. This is a pure consciousness that exists outside of creation. It is a challenging word to translate into English, but attempts have been made with terms like “the Absolute,”5 “infinite light”6 or “eternal bliss.”7 Brahman is the immaterial void which forms the basis of prakṛti, often translated as “matter.”8 There are various words that are sometimes used interchangeably with prakṛti, but essentially the term refers to the same infinite consciousness that manifests within creation. Prakṛti is often characterized as feminine and poetically addressed as the Divine Mother or the Goddess Kālī, but truthfully it is something far beyond limits of sex and gender. Prakṛti then divides itself into various categories to spontaneously fulfill its creative expression. The first and most subtle category that prakṛti divides into has been called the causal realm. In Sanskṛt this realm is called either prajñā or īśvara depending on the context, but it has been deemed the causal realm because this subtle dimension of creation is the “cause” of all the subsequent dimensions. The causal realm, being composed of pure intention and ideas, forms the blueprint for the astral realm. On the plane of astral creation, worlds begin to take some of the shapes and forms that we are familiar with here on the terrestrial plane.  According to Yogananda, the astral world is composed of dream-like elements that can be molded according to the intentions of the inhabitants. It exists, but not with the same level of “realness” as the physical world. Astral beings can travel between astral worlds telepathically on roads of light. The astral world then condenses itself into the dense physical creation that we understand as conventional reality.9

The astral descriptions bring to mind the story of Narasiṃha found in various accounts of the Purāṇas. This ancient form of Lord Viṣṇu was the ruler of an astral loka when it came under attack from a human king who possessed great power. The king used his abilities to travel into the subtle realms and attempt to usurp the throne of heaven. Ultimately, Narasiṃha ended the king’s life by projecting a physical form into the king’s palace to tear him apart with bare hands. The story sounds far too fantastical for most non-Hindu readers to believe, but indeed it demonstrates the structure of astral creation in the Vedic texts. The unfathomable ability to travel between planes of consciousness with ease is an idea of which many are skeptical, yet sages (both ancient and contemporary) have reportedly used such abilities and testified to their existence.10

Whether true or not, the story of Narasiṃha depicts the organizational structure of the subtle realms. The god Viṣṇu dwells on the causal plane of existence from where he emanates himself onto a denser version of creation as the god Narasiṃha. This form projects itself into a further region of density on the physical plane in order to fulfill a certain task. This process of incarnation shows the descent of consciousness from abstraction into density and form, a process undergone by humans in the same way. 

Another way to demonstrate this structural process is to compare it with a descent of consciousness that we are more familiar with. For example, let us use the process of writing, by which subtle ideas are formulated into sentences and structure.  Before we type any words or organize any concepts, we must first have an intention to write the article. This initial intention parallels the nature of the causal realm. After I have set my writing intention, I can then begin to come up with concrete ideas and concepts by which to structure the article. This is similar to the astral dimension in Yogananda’s cosmology, in which the raw intentions of the causal realm are organized into categories. Finally, once the concepts have been made manifest, the words can finally appear on paper. In this way, the physical dimension proceeds to manifest from the astral dimension.

Now, understanding prakṛti or the three levels of creation, we can turn our attention to puruṣa also known as ātman, or the soul. The ātman is the most refined expression of the soul. It is, in essence, identical to Brahman.11 It is uncreated pure consciousness that has no trace of individuality. In this state of consciousness, the mind is entirely absent and is fully dissolved in “God” or Brahman. According to Yogananda, when the uncreated ātman wishes to inhabit a body, this intention appears through the causal realm. Now existing on the causal plane, the most subtle plane in creation, the ātman inhabits a physical body formed of light. From the divinely expansive causal of entire astral and physical universes.12 It is the thoughts of these great beings that uphold the very foundations of reality.13After the causal realm, the soul or ātman will then acquire another layer of dimensionality as it descends into the astral realm. In the astral realm, a soul manifests a system of energy nodes and pathways in order to facilitate its expression, commonly referred to as cakras and nāḍīs. The astral soul is sexless, choosing to appear in various male, female, or animal forms according to its preferences. Even though astral bodies do eventually die, the rules of the astral plane are not governed by limitations of birth, old age, sickness, and death. Astral children are summoned from the collective intentions of an astral couple or community and when astral souls finally die, their light bodies simply disintegrate back into the ether. Food and drink are also manifested by concentrated thought and can appear however the summoner desires. After passing through the astral realm, the soul finally accomplishes its intention of a human birth and is born into one of the many physical worlds that best suits its desires.14 So, similarly to the way that a person may don an undershirt, a shirt, and then a jacket; a soul dons a causal undershirt, an astral shirt, and finally a physical jacket in order to manifest on Earth in the form of a human body. 

Now, why do souls come to Earth? The great mystics have deemed desire as the responsible force.15 The soul, when first formed in the cosmic mind of Brahman, beholds the entirety of creation spheres where it is then magnetically attracted to the station for which it is destined. For those souls that inherently desire the experience of embodied existence, they must first earn the right to wear the coveted “physical jacket” by evolving through more mundane forms of physical expressions; including but not limited to lifetimes in the mineral, plant, and animal kingdom. Ultimately, the purpose of the reincarnation of the soul is to evolve, life after life, until the soul consciously reclaims its immortal status as the ātman or Brahman, unlimited and timeless, and thus escapes zx or the cycle of birth and death. The soul, once free, is never again subject to compulsory desire-bound birth and can remain permanently merged in Brahman as the underlying bliss that forms the matrix of creation. If the free soul wishes, it can move about as it pleases between the causal and physical dimensions for the sake of helping other beings to evolve. 

During the various stages of evolution, the soul must go through countless births and deaths in order to perfect its consciousness enough to qualify for the upper stages of astral and causal creation.16 From the viewpoint of the transcendental soul, death is nothing more than the removal of a jacket at the end of a workday. However, from the standpoint of the embodied soul, death is often seen as an unknown, terrifying void. This occurs because the consciousness becomes identified with the physical body and erroneously mistakes its life to be dependent on the life of the human “coat” which it wears as it passes through an incarnation. Understanding the senses to be illusive in nature, the wise soul cuts through the incorrect notion of meeting a permanent end at the cessation of a single life. By doing so, one may then experience a tremendous sense of inner peace and freedom in the recognition of the vastness of the inner evolutionary process.  

Now even after considering some of the concepts introduced by Hindu saints, many more questions may arise for the uninitiated. Such as, how do I determine which astral realm I or a loved one has gone to at death? Who will I meet in the astral realm—will it be former friends or family as is often portrayed in the media? Is there any form of punishment in the astral realms for wrongs that have been committed on Earth? Thankfully, we can look to other sages of the past for some of these answers concerning the realms we may encounter after death.  

Swami Sri Yukteswar Giri was a Master scholar and astrologer born in the mid-1800s. Though relatively unknown during his lifetime, Sri Yukteswar was a profound thinker and his unique perspectives on the Hindu scriptures and the Christian Gospels made a large impact on the life of his disciples, influencing one of them, Paramahansa Yogananda to later teach those perspectives to large American audiences. Sri Yukteswar says that the astral universe mentioned in the ancient texts is hundreds of times larger than material creation. To illustrate, he used the example of a hot air balloon or a blimp, comparing the small basket below the balloon to being similar in scope to the small physical creation below the astral universe. He describes the astral universe as varied in form, containing countless astral solar systems in astral galaxies and stellar systems that are populated with astral beings in transition from physical creation. Along with human souls, inhabitants include a vast number of creatures of legend like demigods, spirits, goblins, fairies, and more.17 All beings dwell on the astral planets that best suit their unique karmic qualification, and there are certain regions and boundaries specifically designated for those with either good or evil tendencies.18

Sri Yukteswar Giri explains that the law of karma determines one’s astral destination.19 Essentially, karma is the accumulated desires of the subconscious mind that form the vehicle by which one travels from realm to realm. Thoughts form imprints based upon positive and negative reactions to life. The energy from those imprints settle in the subtle mind and, over time, collectively become a tangible force which manifests as the impulse toward a certain experience. These repeated experiences create even deeper impressions which form a personality trait. These personality traits incline one toward places and people with similar traits and thereby grouping the individual among those with similar inclinations. Since this natural process occurs in the subtle mind and not the physical body, it continues after death and draws the consciousness repeatedly towards the objects of its desire.20

In the course of identification with human existence, it is easy to become misled by the idea that we are physical bodies with a consciousness. The scriptures of old, like the Mahābhārata or the Upaniṣads, reverse this concept and instead show that we are consciousness with a physical body. If a mind forms a preference for the physical realm, there will be a tendency toward experiences and beliefs that place the sensory world as the primary stage of existence. It is likely that such a person might ignore any sense of spirituality, claiming that such pursuits are impractical or have no relevance in a modern era of science and technology. This individual will also likely experience extreme suffering when difficulties arise in their life. Believing only this world to be real, they suffer pain when the world presents them with a negative experience. The spiritualist, however, understands that consciousness is their source and is therefore said to be freed from the challenging pains of life. Whether the world appears good or evil, the spiritually minded know that it is only a temporary appearance formed of light on an immaterial astral foundation. Their minds are at peace with understanding, for there is a goal of higher evolution that impels them to hope for change in their life and in the greater whole. 

Whatever consciousness that one cultivates carries on with them through the vehicle of the mind from life to life, place to place, and astral realm to astral realm. After a life of terrible deeds and malicious thoughts, such a darkened mind may lead itself to astral hells where it can continue its evil fascinations.21 Conversely, an individual who has lived with kindness and service to all may be led by their mind to a gorgeous astral heaven accompanied by experiences of overwhelming peace and joy. Since the mind is conditioned to certain people as well as modes of action, there is a natural predilection to enjoin to astral realms in which familiar faces reside. Over the course of astral travels, one encounters the relatives, friends, and lovers whom they knew in various former modes of life. As souls meet again in the astral spheres, they experience the instant recognition of the former companionship and freedom from the pain of previous separation.22

As incarnations of earthly existence go by, the mind is gradually refined to more subtle tastes. At the beginning of one’s incarnations, the latent seeds of wisdom have not yet sprouted and the soul will pursue all manner of experiences with little to no foresight or reflection. When these souls die, they enter a bleak astral realm in which their mind is barely awake, as they have not sufficiently developed their consciousness to become aware of the finer perceptions in the after-death state.23 As the soul matures and gains greater understanding, it naturally becomes drawn to more expansive and enjoyable astral realms according to the inclinations it has cultivated over time. When one’s mind has become extremely refined, the soul is allowed entry into glorious astral paradises and given a high standing and freedom to explore the astral cosmos. Finally, over the course of countless births, when the soul finishes all the lessons that can be learned on Earth, it is allowed entry into astral realms reserved for those who have completed “Earth-school.” In these refined realms, the soul undergoes further purification and trains for the even more subtle causal realms.24 

If someone wishes to know what kind of realm they will go to at death, there is no need to look any further than one’s own tendencies. Whatever consciousness has been cultivated in life will lead them to the corresponding astral world and then onward to their next birth.25 The scriptures call the moment before death critical—the thoughts that occur in those final moments before one leaves the body have an enormous impact on the next phase of development. If the lessons of the former life have been learned, then the soul can be free to move on to new lessons in new situations of embodiment. However, if the lessons are not completed and the soul experiences a death with regret or attachment to the past, then it is likely that those experiences will be repeated in another birth.26

When the soul has completed a period of time in the astral world that is uniquely determined by its past actions and level of consciousness, it will take a new birth on Earth or a similarly suited physical world. A family will be selected in accordance with the laws of karma, one with whom the consciousness has perhaps had some prior association. Memories of the soul’s transition through the astral realm quickly disappear, and the soul is embodied once again.  It is only the rare case of a child who can remember his or her former life or time in the subtle spheres. If a new birth is taken while the former family continues to grieve, there will still be benefit by their prayers, they will just be unable to receive them consciously.27

For those anxious about existence after death, it is unfortunately extremely difficult to predict due to the highly variable nature of the individual mind. Each person has a vast unconscious body full of unexpressed desires and tendencies that may never even have had the opportunity to be expressed during one short lifetime. These desires wait patiently for future lives when conditions are more appropriate for their ripening.28 Sometimes, a desire or karmic action may linger in the background of the mind for many lifetimes before blossoming into a necessary action or experience. For this reason, it is advisable to take caution with the thoughts and desires that are given energy within a particular life, for if those energies are not brought to completion in some way they will assuredly continue into a future birth.

I hope through this paper that I have fostered some curiosity in the reader to explore concepts of the death process from outside their home religious traditions or worldviews. Even if there is no interest in changing one’s personal belief system, contemplating the framework of other possible outlooks toward death has immense value. For if these ideas have served as sources of peace and inspiration to great mystics and their followers, then perhaps these ideas can also benefit a wider audience. Yogananda, for example, was able to enter into the astral realm by means of yogic trance and communion with his departed friends and teachers. By this means, he could assure grieving disciples of the heavenly status of their former companions. When one can have that final sign or assurance of their loved one’s existence in the beyond, it can be a great consolation and perhaps even an empowerment to live a more joyful life. Even if the mystics erred in some of their revelations, the foundational concepts of reincarnation can bring peace and mental relief when applied to one’s daily lifestyle, especially in regard to death and the dying process. 


Footnotes

  1. Deborah A. Soiver. The Myths of Narasimha and Vamana: Two Avatars in Cosmological Perspective Albany: State University of New York Press (1991: 51).
  2. Referring to the Vedas, the oldest scriptures of Indian mythology. Jan Gonda. The Indra Hymns of the Ṛgveda. Leiden: Brill Archive (1989: 3).
  3. For example, the Bhāgavata Purāṇadetails the God Viṣṇu and his descent from the realm Vaikuṇṭha. Edwin Bryant. Krishna: The Beautiful Legend of God: Śrīmad Bhāgavata Purāṇa, Book X: with Chapters 1, 6 and 29-31 from Book Xi. London: Penguin (2003: 2.9.9).
  4. Swami Muktananda. Play of Consciousness. South Falls, NY: Siddha Yoga Publications (2000).
  5. Paramahansa Yogananda. God Talks With Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita. Los Angeles, CA: Self-Realization Fellowship (1995: 704).
  6. James Lochtefeld. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group (2002: 122).
  7. Ibid.
  8. Yogananda (1995).
  9. For further reading, see: Paramahansa Yogananda. Autobiography of a Yogi. Los Angeles, CA: Self-Realization Fellowship (1977). Baba, Sathya Sai. The Three Forms Of God–Viraat, Hiranyagarbha and Avyaakruta. Public Lecture, Brindavan (May 1991). Vensus George. Self-Realization [Brahmaanubhava]: The Advaitic Perspective of Shankara. Washington, D.C.: Cultural Heritage and Contemporary Change, Series IIIB, South Asia, Volume 4 (2001:104). Sri Aurobindo. Isha Upanishad. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press (2003).
  10. Mata Amritanandamayi. Awaken Children! Dialogues with Sri Mata Amritanan- damayi Volume 2. Kerala: Mata Amritanandamayi Mission Trust (1990: 269). See also the story of Baba Sevananda Ji Maharaj, Divine Bliss International (2020, August 24). Retrieved January 22, 2021, from https://divineblissinternational.org/about-us/
  11. Yogananda (1995: 297).
  12. Ibid.
  13. Yogananda (1977).
  14. Ibid.
  15. For further reading on the way that desires tie the mind to the body see: Amritanandamayi (1995: 119); Yogananda (1995); Ram Dass. Miracle of Love: Stories About Neem Karoli Baba. Button, NY: Plume (1979).
  16. Yogananda (1995).
  17. Yogananda (1977).
  18. Ibid. See also: Paramahansa Yogananda. The Second Coming of Christ. Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship (2008).
  19. A concept explored in Robert Svaboda. Aghora: At the Left Hand of God. India: Rupa Publications (1993), that is based in the Yoga Sutras and its discussion of karma, see Edwin Bryant. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. New York: North Point Press (2009: 2.12- 2.25).
  20. Bryant (2009).
  21. Yogananda (1995); see also Dawa Drolma. Delog: Journey to Realms Beyond Death. Junction City: Padma Publishing (1995).
  22. Yogananda (1977); see also Svaboda (1993).
  23. Yogananda (1995); see also Yogananda (2008).
  24. Yogananda (2008).
  25. Yogananda (1995).
  26. Svaboda (1993); see also Michael Newton. Journey of Souls. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications (1994); see also Yogananda (2008).
  27. Muktananda (2000); see also Newton (1994).
  28. Amarananda Bhairavan. Kālī’s Odiyya. Maine: Nicolas-Hays, Inc. (2000).