The Theosophical Forum – April 1941

THE MYSTERIES OF DEATH (1) — A. Trevor Barker

I would like to begin by reading to you a short passage on one of the great mysteries of man's inner nature: the mystery that all of us are confronted with at the final stage of our lives; the mystery that at certain times during the course of our earthly pilgrimage we are brought face to face with when someone with whom we have been closely connected — dear to us possibly — passes over the Great Divide and we are brought into living consciousness with eternal realities.

Now these mysteries that surround the whole great subject of Death absorb modern thought to a quite surprising degree. One of the biggest Movements of our times is that which is called the Movement of Spiritualism — miscalled as we think because it has little to do with Spirit, with the Divine; and it is my purpose tonight, after reading this short passage, to try to elucidate some of the thoughts that are contained therein. These lines are from The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett. In the pages of that book you will find an at present unexplored treasury of knowledge, a collection of information and facts about all the problems of Death — the problems with which the Spiritualists concern themselves — if you will examine them. Now listen to this:

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 brief seconds his whole life over again. Speak in whispers ye who assist at a death-bed, and find yourselves in the solemn presence of Death. Especially have you to keep quiet just after Death has laid her clammy hand upon the body. Speak in whispers, I say, lest you disturb the quiet ripple of thought, and hinder the busy work of the Past casting on its reflection upon the Veil of the Future.

Is there any one of us who could hope to reach to such language as that? If you have a literary sense you will realize that words like that can only come out of the very heart of being itself, from one of those High Beings — a Mahatman, a Great Soul, one who has learned to attune his mind and heart to great Universal Mind itself, and is one with it. Being master of the forces of his own being he can penetrate into the mysteries of Nature as a conscious, fully intelligent, and potentially omniscient being.


The doctrines that we are going to discuss tonight are not the vain speculations and theories of ancient or modern materialistic scientists who use instruments of matter, instruments of scientific precision; who reason from a collection of facts, observable by the external senses, and endeavor to deduce therefrom some working hypothesis which for the time being they will label "the laws of nature." It is not about such so-called scientific facts that we wish to speak, because it is our experience that, in a matter of two or three centuries, such so-called scientific laws change. The scientist discovers that what he thought was truth, was not, and a new theory, a new hypothesis, has to be evolved. From such sources as this we could get no inspiration or light for our mind, and no food for our hearts; no relief for the perplexities under which humanity suffers. Therefore we have to find some other avenue of information and of knowledge; otherwise those great problems that perplex the human heart will not be solved.

So the nature of these doctrines then must come from men who know; and it is the statement of Theosophy — and one of the most helpful and illuminating statements that is to be found in the whole of our philosophy — that not only does Truth exist, being the workings of Nature herself in all departments visible and invisible, within and without and below — but that there are Beings who know — for something which exists merely in the abstract is of no possible use for us; we cannot utilize it unless there are Beings who know. Therefore our approach to knowledge must be directly or indirectly by an approach to those who already have this knowledge: and those, in a word, are the Ancient Teachers of the race who exist as a living Brotherhood among men, sending their Messengers from time to time out into the world — always at work, mostly secretly but nevertheless having witnesses on the scene to testify that Truth, and knowledge of it, exist, and that there is a way by which man may illumine this material brain of his, and learn the Truth if he will.

Now the truths that we are going to study tonight, then, you can expect will literally strip the veils from this vast Unknown mystery, the mystery that the teachings enshrined — and truly enshrined — in the Christian scriptures simply do not approach at all. Go anywhere you like in any Christian church, and unless by — I was going to say by accident — you happen to come across a learned Kabbalist (and it is most unlikely because you would not find him there) you will not get any knowledge whatsoever of the mysteries of Death. You will be informed that the Almighty, if he had meant you to understand these mysteries, would have given you this information if it had been good for you, and the fact that it is not given in the Christian Bible means that we are to know nothing about it.

Theosophy begins with the statement that an Adept — one who is trained and skilled in Nature's mysteries — can by the power of his own Spirit know all that has been known, all that is known, and all that ever will be known. Now that is a large statement, but it is a necessary one if we are to have the right approach to this problem of the mysteries of Death.


Take the Spiritualist position. Some scientists have joined the ranks of the Spiritualist Movement hoping to gain illumination, scientific facts, and data that will bring knowledge of a mystery of which they are entitled to have information and experience if it be possible, and those who began to investigate along these lines in the beginning of the last quarter of the last century found that in the majority of cases man has simply not got the equipment to enable him to go behind the curtain of matter and examine the process of what happens when a living intelligence passes out of this world — never to return, as far as he knows.

And so we have the first fact that accounts for the existence of a certain class of human beings who call themselves mediums, i. e., persons who have a peculiar constitution — a constitution which is psychically sensitive, in exactly the same way as a cat has. I don't wish to be offensive; don't think that for a moment. A cat is part of the cat-family of nature, and its mechanism is extremely psychically sensitive. Those of you who have ridden on a horse on a dark night will know that horses also are clairvoyant: they see. Cats see, dogs, most animals do; so that these senses that the spiritualistic community imagine are so highly spiritual, are shared, dear friends, by the animal kingdom — nothing more exalted than that; and the nervous mechanism from which this vision functions is that of the sympathetic nervous system, having its seat and controlling factor in what in the human being we call the solar plexus.

Anybody who is physiologically instructed will know that this mechanism is not under the control of our will at all. It is an unconscious function; and therefore, as you would expect, the capacities and so-called powers of a medium will not be under his or her conscious control. On the contrary, a definition of medium is one who is a passive instrument of forces that control and guide him — exterior forces. The medium imagines that because some exterior force comes and as it were hypnotizes him, and he surrenders the control of the divine temple of his body to this extraneous force, therefore it must give wisdom, when he has lost control of it and it begins, like the oracle in ancient times, to give messages that are supposed to come from entities beyond the veil of death.

When somebody loses one who is dear to him, and, not being instructed perhaps in philosophical teachings, feels all the more keenly the loss, it is this human feeling of loss that leads him to be attracted to anyone within reason who declares that he is able to communicate with the one he has lost — a very natural human feeling. So when such people hear that Theosophy challenges the position of Spiritualism, they begin to feel perhaps we are going to take something from them, and they perhaps for the time being give us a wide berth. Then perhaps they examine into Spiritualism; they attend seances — and what do they find? This is the crux of the situation. If they are patient enough and spend enough money: note this, spend enough money: they will see a variety of phenomena. In fact the number of diverse phenomena that they will see and perceive and learn about, and hear theories about, to try to explain them, are simply legion. I could not begin to tell you in an hour's talk more than the outer fringe of the numbers that they deal with; but nevertheless the most common, in whatever particular form of medium you are dealing with, is of course a message of some kind from one who has passed over.

Now then, practically the whole of the Spiritualistic Movement is built up on one idea; and it is simply that they can communicate with the dead through mediums. Mediums gain their living this way: and there is roughly the whole thing in a nutshell. Theosophy comes along and says: "But you don't have the philosophy to explain your beliefs. We know you get messages; we know that you get materializations of some entity who is made to look like and assume the features and appearance of someone you knew. That is possible." Then the Spiritualists answer: "But this is evidence. Nobody ever looked like that but so-and-so," — and for the time being you are convinced. They call it evidential value; yet it is in reality one of the things that go to prove how our senses deceive us.


What are the facts underlying this matter? When the last particle of animal soul, as we read from The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, leaves the body, what happens? What is the nature of the being who is leaving its tenement of flesh? Whence did it come? Whither has it gone? Can our Christianity explain it? It cannot; it is only the knowledge of the ancient mystery teachings of antiquity that gives you the answer for which men and women are looking today. Who are you? What am I? Am I this body which is endeavoring to utter words and phrases to convey certain ideas to you tonight? Is it the body that is I? No. Therefore when the tenement is cold, that inner flame of intelligence that energizes all manifested lives, and especially human beings, vanishes in a flash. The human consciousness, the inner Ego, the true individuality of the man who is passing, in the last moments before the body is completely cold, lives over again every incident from death to birth: every incident: nothing is left out. So that he understands the long chain of causes that he has set going, the meaning, in all their aggregate sequences, of every incident of life, and these he gathers together in his memory in a period of complete unconscious supervision. This is the first step.

Then what happens? Check what I tell you tonight with what you may have heard stated in the fields of Spiritualism. This inner entity, if he has led a decent and spiritual kind of life, will pass through those disturbing ghostlike regions of the purgatorial and astral world; pass through them very much as a child will pass through a den of vice and be unaffected by it; and then that indwelling consciousness, the Real Man that has shaken off his body, begins to divest itself of that clothing of subtler matter through which he expresses the emotions, feelings, desires, and lower thoughts. This clothing of subtler matter you can think of as corresponding to the physical body on earth; but though the body may be burnt, this form of desire in the shape of the man that we know on earth persists, and if you had the clairvoyant vision you could see the exact likeness of the man or woman that was. The form is the same that in the East they call the Kama-rupa, "the body of desire."

Now it is around the desire-body that the whole field of psychic phenomena centers, for this cast-off spook, this mere simulacrum of the man that was, has certain peculiar faculties. We cannot call them powers but they are faculties, if you can use the term thus, because these spooks of the dead are made up of matter that is living, and this matter contains the impress and memory of everything that happens to the entity or around the entity during life. The curious thing about the mediumistic function is that directly such an entity is attracted to it, this dynamic force, this mediumistic power, acts very much like the energy that revolves the disc of the gramophone. The "gramophone" is set, and the medium then repeats whatever incident is wanted out of the memory of the individual that is gone. Whoever goes to a Spiritualistic seance carries with him his own memory of all the long history of his relationship with the one that is lost. It is all there: the appearance of the one he loved, and every incident, happy or unhappy, in the whole long existence. We carry around with us from birth to death the whole record of everything that we have done, thought, said, felt, desired or willed, all that we have seen or heard even; and the medium can read that record, for it can all be seen by one who has the inner vision.

Now you will be asking: "Well, if all that is left of us after death is a spook, what about our boasted immortality?" Aye, you may well ask, for immortality is something that, according to the Ancient Wisdom Teachings, we have to earn. I asked just now what is the nature of the being that has gone into the Great Unknown. Is it something essentially transitory and material; or is it something divine and immortal, winging its way into the spaces of space with the power and faculties of a god? And the answer to the question is, at least in part, that the transitory or "devilish" part of it cannot proceed; and yet that upon which the Spiritualist bases his so-called evidence of survival, is the most transitory part — except the body. Strange, isn't it, but it is a fact. That which does wing its way into the inner spaces, cannot be reached by the ordinary medium. Assuming that the entity who has passed on was a spiritual person while on earth, one who had led a clean, religious, and ethical life, he won't be held in the lower purgatorial regions at all. He will have a slight discomfort, perhaps, in shaking himself free of the lower vessels; but it will be in a kind of dream state, and he will experience, later on, either after the longer or shorter dream, something that is equivalent to the passing from earth life: a struggle, a brief struggle, as he frees himself finally from the last clinging bonds of matter. Then that inner entity enters into what in our technical language we call a kind of gestation state — that which precedes birth; for Nature follows the same law everywhere, whether it is the birth of a mosquito, a human being, a planet, a sun or a solar system — the same law operates. It enters into a gestation period, and then very soon it enters into unspeakable peace and bliss where it commences to live over and over again from birth to death the spiritualized memory of the life it was living while on earth, with a memory as vivid as the imagination of a child. If you have watched a child you know what that means.

To the entities in the heaven-world there is no death: they have lost nothing. In their spiritualized dream they are surrounded by those they loved on earth, and they believe themselves to be on earth, for the life there is lived in terms of the real personality. I do not wish to dwell longer on this phase except to say this: that it is possible for us to rise in spirit and contact that entity in that state of unalloyed bliss, absorbed in its dream as it is; but I beg leave to doubt whether any paid medium is capable of doing it. And because the medium cannot rise so high, what happens? You get those puerile messages of mere repetition, containing perhaps what you call evidential value because it quotes some peculiar characteristic that you knew belonged to the entity that is gone. But does it give you anything of real explanation? Does it give you any more knowledge than the individual had in life? None whatever, and generally less.


Now if these theories are true — and you will find it very difficult, and I dare suggest impossible, to explode or knock a hole in them, because they are consistent with Nature: they hold water and are true to the facts as we know them — if these theories are true, there must be a practical application to our lives; for a great Master once said that he who possesses the keys to the mysteries of death is possessed of the keys to life. Why is that so? It means simply this: that if we know what is going to happen to our inner soul nature when it passes into the Great Beyond, we shall be extremely unwise if we do not order our lives in accordance with that knowledge. If you know that to the extent that you live a sensual, devilish kind of life, if you know that a dwelling upon evil during physical life, in act and thought, will so intensify and materialise that which you have to meet face to face after death, if you know that you risk to have no rebirth into the spiritual world at all; that your experience after death will be one of intense suffering, and a suffering that you can do nothing at all about: will you not consider that it is time to do something about it now before it is too late? For, once we have passed over, our lives become dictated by the causes that we have set going in life: our hatreds and passions and desires are the things that will take possession in the after-life and make existence a perfect hell, an evil nightmare of unrequited desire for beings we loved, and which we cannot get rid of. These are the things that will surround us in the after-life with all the intensity of a horrible nightmare, and if this is multiplied and intensified as in the most evil cases it is, it means the death of all that is spiritual in us.

On the contrary and in the other pole of consciousness, if we have lived in the ethical and spiritual side of our being, then indeed we have a tremendous incentive and encouragement and hope, for as we live life here, so it will be there; and if you want to know what you are going to discover when you pass the portals of death, study your own life now, and you will have a very good clue to the nature of the experiences that you will then undergo.


1. A lecture given at the London Lodge of the Theosophical Society. (return to text)

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