The Theosophical Forum – July 1944

DEATH AND IMMORTALITY IN LITERATURE — Stanley Zurek

It is said that we fear that which we do not understand. The man in the street, for instance, fears death for the simple reason that he does not understand it, much like a child on the threshold of a dark room. The child fears to enter the room because it does not know what therein lies ready to spring upon it. But flood the room with light, and the child's fears disappear instantly, and he enters with calm assurance and perhaps even wondering at his earlier unwarranted fears.

So it is with death — men fear it because they do not understand it. In fact, some think it is utter annihilation, utter extinction of the man or woman they had been, and are thus afraid of destruction. But show them, explain to them, flood with the light of knowledge, the mysteries of death, prove to them that they are immortal, and their fear is gone.

One way, I feel, to prove to men, or, if not prove, at least to set them thinking that man is immortal, is to quote from ancient and modern literature on this subject. People like references to works they are familiar with, and their belief and confidence in a thing is greatly strengthened if they discover that the great writers, philosophers and religious teachers of ancient and modern times believed in the particular doctrine we are expounding.

It might not be amiss to relate here a personal experience to prove this point. Some years ago I had occasion to speak to a divinity student from Harvard, who was sitting beside me on a trip from Boston to New York, reading Plato. During the course of our conversation on Theosophy I mentioned Oliver Wendell Holmes' The Chambered Nautilus, as a reference to Reincarnation. The student's eyes lighted up, for it was one of his favorite poems and he knew it by heart, and he immediately recited it for me. It is certain that I made more of an impression right there to further my point — by referring him to something he was familiar with and loved — than I did by mentioning works he was not familiar with, all important and absolutely necessary though these latter are for further study.

From this it occurs to me to suggest that it might be well, when dealing with inquirers, to pepper well our "sales talk," as it were, with quotations from the ancient and modern classics to bolster up our arguments. Much the same principle, I believe, as explaining to people the inner significance of the familiar fairy tales of our childhood. People are more fascinated with the thought that there is something deeper behind these familiar tales of their childhood, than they are in an explanation of the inner meaning of stories entirely unfamiliar to them.

What, then, are some of these references to death and immortality which we can mention? We will take a few in chronological order.

INDIA

First of all, let us take the great epic poem of India, the Mahabhdrata, and especially that portion of it so readily available in Europe and America, the Bhagavad-Gita. Therein, as all Theosophists and students of the Eastern literatures know, the Spirit in man, Krishna, the Inner God, states unequivocally, that man is immortal: "Those who are wise in spiritual things grieve neither for the dead nor for the living. I myself never was not, nor thou, nor all the princes of the earth; nor shall we ever hereafter cease to be." — Chap. II

The Bhagavad-Gita is today a standard literary classic, and, as such, will not be unknown to well-read people. Emerson had it on his desk at all times, we are told, and mentions it in his essays on Literature and on Books. Henry Thoreau, who was, incidentally, Emerson's best friend, also was a student of it, and it is to be found in volume 45 of the famous Harvard Classics, in the Sir Edwin Arnold translation. It is likewise included in two of the recent best-selling anthologies — in its entirety in Lin Yutang's The Wisdom of China and India, and extracts from all of the eighteen chapters in Robert O. Ballou's The Bible of the World. Likewise, together with H. P. Blavatsky's The Voice of the Silence, Sir Edwin Arnold's The Light of Asia, and Mabel Collins' Light on the Path, it is included among standard classics in the series entitled Pocket Classics published by David McKay of Philadelphia. This house, incidentally, also publishes beautiful illustrated gift editions of Song Celestial (The Bhagavad-Gita) and The Light of Asia.

EGYPT

Egypt has bequeathed to us the Book of the Dead, wherein are depicted the adventures of the soul after death, thereby attesting belief in the immortality of the soul. H. P. Blavatsky, in her Isis Unveiled, Vol. I, pages 517-18, quotes Professor Carpenter to the effect that the passages from the Book of the Dead engraved on the old monuments, relating to the ancient belief in the immortality of the soul, are not only identical in thought, but in language, to that to be found in the Christian New Testament. On page 548 of volume II she quotes a few parallel passages from the Book of the Dead and Matthew.

GREECE

In Greece we have the Odyssey, in the 11th book of which Homer describes the visit of Odysseus to the Underworld, and the converse he held there with the souls of men and women recently dead, and those who had passed away in earlier times; thus, here again, showing the existence of souls after death. An interesting example of the symbology used, and of the veils hiding yet revealing the truth to intuitive minds, is the fact that only those souls which Odysseus allowed to drink of the dark blood of the sheep he had sacrificed and bled into the pit he had dug, knew him and volunteered to tell him the truth of what he wished to know, his own departed mother included. This is an interesting point for Theosophical students to speculate upon and endeavor to fathom its real significance. Shall we say that perhaps only those of the souls of the departed deigned to speak to Odysseus whom he, through his own efforts, had given the vitality or ability, as symbolized by the sacrifice, to do so? In other words, we are enabled to communicate with the departed by rising to their planes, as in sleep, by our own efforts, whereas the departed are not able to come down to our plane, as is pointed out in The Key to Theosophy, page 30.

Then there is the great Plato, who in his Dialogues also speaks of the immortality of the soul. In his Phaedrus, for instance, he speaks of the soul in relation to material life and the necessity of reincarnation before souls can reach the stature of gods. And in his 10th book of the Republic, he gives his famous Vision of Er, the Pamphylian, who, after ten days on the battlefield, was taken for dead, and removed to the funeral pile, where, however, he came to life again and described what he had seen in the Underworld, and of the souls he had seen of those who had but recently died, and those that were coming back into incarnation on earth.

ROME

In the 6th book of the Aeneid of Vergil, the Roman poet and Initiate, we have Aeneas descending into the Underworld, where he converses with his departed father, and where he likewise sees not only the souls of the recently departed, but also those on their way to earth for incarnation anew. Among the latter is his son-to-be, Silvius. One cannot help but note the similarity of the respective narratives of Plato and Vergil, both Initiates, regarding the incoming and outgoing souls.

The Latin philosopher Apuleius, in the 4th, Sth, and 6th books of his Metamorphoses, or, as it is more commonly known, The Golden Ass, relates the famous fable of Cupid and Psyche, wherein Psyche, in one of the tasks imposed upon her by Venus, descends into the Underworld, the abode of the souls of the dead. Thus, here again, is shown the existence of the soul after death of the physical body on earth.

And in his 11th book of the same work, Apuleius speaks of his own initiation into the Mysteries of Isis, and says that he "approached the confines of death" and "trod the threshold of Proserpine," meaning his descent into the Underworld — again, the abode of the souls of the dead.

These are just a few specific instances of classical writers who speak of the immortality of the soul. And here I should like to add, that, as the immortality of the soul is so closely tied up with the doctrine of Reincarnation in our philosophy, the volume Reincarnation, A Study of Forgotten Truth, by E. D. Walker, is a storehouse of references to standard works, ancient and modern, wherein Reincarnation, which, of course, implies immortality, is referred to. Numerous references to immortality, of course, may be found in the Bible, but from a Theosophical speaker's and writer's standpoint, it would be well to connect these with the Biblical passages referring to Reincarnation, thus making the picture complete.

ENGLAND AND AMERICA

In coming to more modern times, we might mention, Dante's The Divine Comedy, Shakespeare, and Milton's Comus and On the the Death of a Fair Infant, where he speaks of Reincarnation. Other references, as mentioned, are to be found in Walker's Reincarnation.

Finally, we now come to two great names in American literature: Longfellow and Emerson, who were contemporaries. Longfellow, for instance, says in Psalm of Life:

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
"Dust thou art, to dust returnest,"
Was not spoken of the soul.

And, in conclusion, let us take Emerson, who has been called the Plato of the 19th century. Besides other references in his writings, he has written a complete essay entitled Immortality, and I believe that I can do no better than quote a few outstanding passages from this intuitive essay, with the observation that the beauty of quoting from Emerson is that akin to quoting from Plutarch — we not only quote Plutarch and Emerson, but likewise the words of the numerous great minds whom they quote, thus broadening and opening up new approaches to and giving us further references to our subject.

Emerson says, in his essay on Immortality:

There never was a time when the doctrine of a future life was not held.

Plutarch, in Greece, has a deep faith that the doctrine of the Divine Providence and that of the immortality of the soul rest on one and the same basis.

Nature does not, like the Empress Anne of Russia, call together all the architectural genius of the Empire to build and finish and furnish a palace of snow, to melt again to water in the first thaw.

Franklin said, "Life is rather a state of embryo, a preparation for life. A man is not completely born until he has passed through death."

"To me," said Goethe, "the eternal existence of my soul is proved from my idea of activity. If I work incessantly till my death, Nature is bound to give me another form of existence, when the present can no longer sustain my spirit."

I am a better believer, and all serious souls are better believers in the immortality, than we can give grounds for. The real evidence is too subtle, or is higher than we can write down in propositions, and therefore Wordsworth's Ode is the best modern essay on the subject.

And in his narration of the legend of Yama, the Lord of Death, and Nachiketas, taken from the Katha Upanishad, with which Emerson ends this essay, he quotes Yama as saying:

"The soul is not born; it does not die; it was not produced from any one. Nor was any produced from it. Unborn, eternal, it is not slain, though the body is slain, subtler than what is subtle, greater than what is great, sitting it goes far, sleeping it goes everywhere. Thinking the soul as unbodily among bodies, firm among fleeting things, the wise man casts off all grief."


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