Antti Savinainen – Finland
The Theosophical Masters K. H. (Koot Hoomi) and M. (Morya) wrote the so-called Mahatma Letters (denoted in this article as ML) to the British journalist A. P. Sinnett between 1880 and 1884. These letters addressed central teachings in Theosophy, many of which dealt with the stages through which a deceased individual passes during the afterlife. The Theosophical author Geoffrey Farthing (1909–2004) compiled the afterlife teachings of these letters into a small booklet called When We Die, which also includes some quotes from the writings of H. P. Blavatsky (1831–1891) on the subject.
In this article, I will compare the afterlife stages described in the Mahatma Letters with those of Pekka Ervast (1875–1934), who was a pioneer in the Finnish Theosophical movement. Ervast gave many lectures on death, a compilation of which is published in From Death and Rebirth (Marjanen et al.).
He regarded the Mahatma Letters as authentic and thought highly of the Masters and Blavatsky. Nevertheless, as we will see, his account of the stages of the afterlife differs from them in some respects, more closely resembling the writings of later Theosophical authors.
There are also discrepancies in terminology between the Mahatma Letters and later Theosophical authors such as Annie Besant. The most important is that what the Mahatma Letters call the astral body is called the etheric body in later Theosophy. Given this difference, these sources characterize the principles of the human being as follows (in ascending order):
- Physical body
- Etheric body (astral body in the Mahatma Letters)
- Life force (prana)
- Astral body (kama-rupa)
- Manas (mind)
- Lower manas
- Higher manas (causal body)
- Buddhi (vehicle of Spirit)
- Atman (Spirit)
The atman, buddhi, and higher manas form the individuality or Ego (which in later Theosophy is called the higher Self). The lower manas, astral body, life force, and etheric and physical bodies form the personality of a human being. Reincarnation concerns the individuality; the personality does not reincarnate (a possible exception being someone who dies as a child, who may in certain cases reincarnate quickly, retaining the personality).
The life review takes place at the beginning of the death process. The Mahatma Letters describe it thus:
At the last moment, the whole life is reflected in our memory and emerges from all the forgotten nooks and corners picture after picture, one event after the other. The dying brain dislodges memory with a strong supreme impulse, and memory restores faithfully every impression entrusted to it during the period of the brain’s activity. . . . Yet from the last pulsation, from and between the last throbbing of his heart and the moment when the last spark of animal heat leaves the body—the brain thinks and the Ego lives over in those few brief seconds his whole life over. (ML, 170–171)
Ervast has a corresponding description, but with more details. Furthermore, there is a difference between the time frames of the two sources: the Mahatma letter talks about few brief seconds, whereas Ervast allows a somewhat longer time for the life review:
Therefore a person reviews the past life in all its details, although this happens very fast. What has happened in life through the decades is seen within half an hour as films in memory, yet everything happens in detail, while the person is outside the whole play. . . . He just watches the great play and judges it objectively, calling each thing—depending on its own quality—as good or bad, crime or merit, and so on. He remains in a great light, so to speak. (Marjanen et al., 39–40)
Apparitions and the Etheric Body
Immediately after death the mayavi-rupa (a projection of one’s thought but clothed in the matter of the second principle, that is, etheric body) can manifest itself to a loved one or a close friend, but it cannot speak or communicate unless the dead person is an initiate (Farthing, 59). The Mahatma letter describes this phenomenon as follows:
His mayavi rupa may be often thrown into objectivity, as in the cases of apparitions after death; but, unless it is projected with the knowledge of [sic] (whether latent or potential), or, owing to the intensity of the desire to see or appear to someone, shooting through the dying brain, the apparition will be simply—automatical. (ML, 128–129)
On the other hand, according to Ervast, the person spends a few days conscious in the etheric body before transition to the astral world (kama-loka in the Mahatma Letters). Sometimes it is able to communicate with a loved one:
A person remains in this etheric body about three days after death, sometimes taking less time and sometimes a longer time. . . .It has happened for many that their dear father or some other relative has appeared, smiled, and assured them that all is well with him. And if a person has a calm mind and is a bit sensitive, he may have a conversation with the deceased. (Marjanen et al., 46‒47)
Interestingly, some scientific research suggests that apparitions could communicate with the living:
Crisis apparitions tend to inform the perceiver predominantly about the crisis or of death itself, whereas apparitions of the longer-deceased convey more often messages of their own well-being, or of hope and encouragement for the bereaved. (Nahm, 2011, 457)
Losing Consciousness and Transition to the Kama-Loka
After the life review, the personality dies irreversibly (Farthing, 28). This is immediately followed by a loss of consciousness and transition to kama-loka, the world of emotions and desires:
Thus, when man dies, his “Soul” [fifth prin.) becomes unconscious and loses all remembrance of things internal as well as external. . . .Every just disembodied four-fold entity . . . loses all recollection, it is mentally—annihilated; it sleeps its akasic sleep in the Kama-loka. This state lasts from a few hours (rarely less), days, weeks, months—sometimes to several years. (ML, 128, 186–87)
As we have seen, according to Ervast, the severing of the silver etheric cord (cf. Ecclesiastes 12:9) does not bring about unconsciousness but a short life in the etheric realm. This phase comes to an end within a few days when the person loses their consciousness for a day or two before the transition to what Ervast calls “Hades,” that is, the astral world (Marjanen et. al., 47).
The Mahatma Letters do not discuss life in the etheric realm. They also differ from Ervast in their discussion of the stay in kama-loka. For the Mahatmas, this consists of “akasic sleep,” with no consciousness, whereas according to Ervast (and many other Theosophical authors), it is conscious life spent in purification of the personality from moral impurities. This is sometimes called purgatory:
In the first phase of [this life in purgatory] he makes judgments about all the evil within himself. He sees his mistakes and grows away from that evil. When he settles in Hades, he starts to meditate on purifying himself. He relives his life; he sees his life backwards and lives it again. He concentrates his attention on his weaknesses. This is not meditation. No, it is real life, but he experiences a lot at the same time. (Marjanen et al., 61)
According to Ervast (and Rudolf Steiner [1861–1925]: see for instance his 1906 lecture “Life of the Soul in Kamaloka”), the life in the astral world lasts about a third of the life spent on earth, not “just several years,” as stated in the Mahatma Letters.
The Death Struggle and Gestation
According to the Mahatma Letters, near the end of the unconscious period in kama-loka, the death struggle occurs: all the good in personality is sifted out. This is followed by a so-called gestation state during which the good qualities of the personality are assimilated into the sixth principle, that is, buddhi:
When man dies his second and third principles [etheric body and prana] die with him: the lower triad disappears, and the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh principles form the surviving Quaternary. . . . Thenceforth it is a “death” struggle between the Upper and Lower dualities. If the upper wins, the sixth [buddhi], having attracted to itself the quintessence of Good from the fifth [manas]—its nobler affections, its saintly (though they be earthly) aspirations, and the most spiritualized portions of its mind—follows its divine elder (the 7th [atman]) into the “Gestation” State; and the fifth and fourth remain in association as an empty shell. (ML, 103)
According to the Mahatma Letters, the ordinary person is unconscious up to the gestation state, which will bring forth consciousness and memory, as well as a second life review:
That remembrance will return slowly and gradually toward the end of the gestation (to the entity or Ego), still more slowly but far more imperfectly and incompletely to the shell, and fully to the Ego at the moment of its entrance into the Devachan. Now the latter being a state determined and brought by its past life, the Ego does not fall headlong but sinks into it gradually and by easy stages. With the first dawn of that state appears that life (or rather is once more lived over by the Ego) from its first day of consciousness to its last. (ML, 187)
This passage is compatible with Ervast’s description of sifting the good from the bad. However, Ervast does not talk about this phase as regaining consciousness or memory:
He will face a new death, the second death, and it can be called, as one Master in the Theosophical movement called it, a final judgment. When the person has lived out his time in Hades, he is drawn into a great current of force, a vortex, a fire . . . in which all that is gold and good in him will be sifted from him. And who would not have something good in him! (Marjanen et al., 84–85)\
Life in Devachan
According to both Ervast and the Mahatma Letters, the next stage—life in a heavenly realm known as devachan—is blissful, although it is a subjective, dreamlike state:
He is completely engrossed in the bliss of all his personal earthly affections, preferences and thoughts, and gathers in the fruit of his meritorious actions. No pain, no grief nor even the shadow of a sorrow comes to darken the bright horizon of his unalloyed happiness; for, it is a state of perpetual “Maya”. . . . Since the conscious perception of one’s personality on earth is but an evanescent dream that sense will be equally that of a dream in the Deva-Chan—only a hundred fold intensified. (ML, 101)
In heaven, a human being relives his earthly life, but with no sorrows, disappointments, contradictions or dissonance. He relives that earthly life again in such a form that all the good that he has wished for, longed for, thought about, felt, and strived for comes true thousandfold. The best personal self of a human being takes part in heaven. He is what he was at his best moments on earth, when he loved, willed good, and did good. (Marjanen et al., 88)
The bliss of this heavenly state is not eternal: it will come to an end, and the process of a new incarnation will commence. Karma will determine the conditions for the new incarnation and the characteristics (skandhas) of the new personality.
As in actual earth-life, so there is for the Ego in devachan—the first flutter of psychic life, the attainment of prime, the gradual exhaustion of force passing into semi-unconsciousness, gradual oblivion and lethargy, total oblivion and—not death but birth: birth into another personality. (ML, 195)
Before the new incarnation, the reincarnating Ego sees a preview of its forthcoming life (Farthing, 49). Ervast has a similar teaching:
The new earthly life presents itself to us. We see what is waiting for us. We see that we must step down to earth and clothe ourselves in a new personality. We see the lesson we have to learn in this new life, and we kneel down in our spirit and are immensely grateful to life for the opportunity to go to the school [of life]. (Marjanen et al., 105)
As we have already noted, the Mahatma Letters are silent about the period of life spent in the etheric vehicle (assuming that there is such a state). This is only a minor part of the afterlife anyway, and the Masters must have had their reasons not to disclose this piece of information. A much more important discrepancy between the Mahatma Letters and later Theosophy is that according to the former, the ordinary deceased individual is supposed to be unconscious in kama-loka. According to the latter, on the other hand, the person is definitely conscious in the astral world. Life in that plane can be painful in the purgatory phase, but relatively happy in the higher parts of the astral plane.
The Mahatma Letters contain an exception to unconsciousness in kama-loka: those who have died prematurely (in deaths due to accidents or suicide) can retain their consciousness and memory. They stay in kama-loka for the time they would have had left on earth. Ervast has a similar teaching, but he states that this “waiting period” is spent in the etheric world, in the state of kalma (Marjanen et al., 48–54). On the other hand, the Mahatma Letters describe some aspects of this life in somewhat similar terms as Ervast.
In the Mahatma Letters, the division between the lower and higher selves take place after the death struggle in kama-loka. In Ervast’s description, it usually takes place after the life review:
When the moment of death comes, a division takes place between the two who have been companions during the physical life. Then they had to be together, and they could have taken this opportunity to move forward together, for they had the light. When death arrived, the light receded; the real self-remained in its own world. This true self, which is a spiritual reality, always lives the eternal life in its own heavenly state. It lives in immortality, but after physical death it is confined within itself. (Marjanen et. al., 43)
No other Theosophical or Anthroposophical author appears to have the same view of this matter as Ervast.
As I have shown, there are significant differences between the descriptions of the afterlife stages in the Mahatma Letters and Ervast (although most of the perspectives provided by Ervast can be found in later Theosophical and Anthroposophical literature).
Farthing and many other Theosophists regard only the Mahatma Letters and Blavatsky’s works as reliable teachings about afterlife stages (as well as about Theosophy in general). I am sympathetic to this stance since, from the Theosophical perspective, the Masters are masters precisely because they know the secrets of life and death. Nevertheless, it may be that they did not—for one reason or another—reveal all their knowledge of the afterlife to Sinnett in their letters from the early 1880s.
Emphasis in quoted materials that is in italics is from the original. Emphasis in bold has been added by the author. Page references in citations are to the online sources.
Barker, A. Trevor, ed. The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett. 2d ed. Pasadena, Calif.: Theosophical University Press. The book is available online at https://www.theosociety.org/pasadena/mahatma/MahatmaLetters-eBook.pdf.
Farthing, Geoffrey (2004). When We Die. Varanasi, India: Pilgrims Publishing. The book is available online at https://www.theosophy.world/sites/default/files/ebooks/WhenWeDie_GFarthing.pdf.
Marjanen, Jouni, Antti Savinainen, and Jouko Sorvali (2017). From Death to Rebirth: Teachings of the Finnish Sage Pekka Ervast. Literary Society of the Finnish Rosy Cross. Available online https://teosofia.net/e-kirjat/Pekka_Ervast-From_Death_to_Rebirth.pdf. The book is also available in a print version (2022) published by the Literary Society of the Finnish Rosy Cross and manufactured by Books on Demand (BoD), Norderstedt, Germany.
Nahm, Michael (2011). “Reflections on the Context of Near-Death Experiences.” Journal of Scientific Exploration, 25, no. 3: 453–78.
Steiner, Rudolf. “Life of the Soul in Kamaloka.” Lecture, Stuttgart, Aug. 24, 1906, in At the Gates of Spiritual Science (GA 95); https://rsarchive.org/Lectures/19060824p01.html.
Note from the editor:
Antti Savinainen is a Finnish physics instructor with a PhD in physics. He has been a member of the Finnish Rosy Cross, (i.e. not Rosicrucian) a part of the Finnish Theosophical movement, for over three decades. He writes regularly on Theosophical and Anthroposophical themes, both in Finnish and English. He was on the editorial team that compiled From Death to Rebirth: Teachings of the Finnish Sage Pekka Ervast.