The idea that man has an immortal spiritual nature, or at least an ethereal body which survives death, has been expressed over the centuries in many ways. An important corollary to this idea is the existence of a series of planes or worlds originating in spiritual heights and increasing in materiality until our earth, the lowest and most concrete, is reached. Furthermore, man has a series of subtle bodies corresponding to those planes: a physical body on the physical plane, a mental body on the mental plane, and so on.
Consciousness survives death and undergoes experiences in appropriate after-death states which are the effects of karma made during life. In order to prepare for these after-death experiences without dying, a process of training was developed known as initiation. In the ancient world it apparently took the form of a "drama" wherein the candidate for initiation into the Mysteries was led through a series of encounters of psychic and spiritual dimension. Stories and drawings of people being led through the underworld were also scripts for initiation ceremonies. G. de Purucker explains:
Initiation is a kind of temporary 'death' of all the lower man, 'a sleep' of the lower psychological nature, and a magical awakening to an intense awareness of the higher psychological part upon which is then radiating the inner light of the man's monadic consciousness. — Fountain-Source of Occultism, pp. 608-9
Initiation is thus a means whereby one may become aware of the inner planes or worlds into which we enter nightly in sleep and periodically in death. In brief, the process of initiation, while otherwise similar to death and sleep, is undergone in full consciousness and with memory intact.
Perhaps one of the best known portrayals of the after-death states is that of the ancient Egyptians. They believed that everyone was judged in a place called Amentet. In the Papyrus of Ani, for example, the scribe Ani in his ethereal body (ka) is shown entering Amentet. Here the jackal-headed god, Anubis, son of Osiris and Nephthys, operates a large balance in which Ani's heart, symbolizing his past thoughts and deeds, is being weighed against a feather. This evaluation must occur before he can receive a "divine heart" in the higher planes. The feather is symbolic of justice and truth personified by the goddess Maat, who corresponds to karma in its universal (macrocosmic) and individual (microcosmic) aspects, both of which are implicit in the term maati. The heart (ab) stands for the personality which links the emotions of the ka with the thoughts of the ba (soul or higher mind). (The ka corresponds to kama-rupa, the desire-body of theosophy; the ab to kama-manas, the desire-mind; and the ba to buddhi-manas, the illumined mind.)
Above Ani and the balance is the Company of the Gods, presiding over this evaluation, while on the other side of the balance the ibis-headed Thoth records the result. Thoth is the god of wisdom, consort of the goddess Maat. Behind Thoth waits an unusual creature called Amemit, which seeks to gain "forceful mastery" over the deceased. Amemit has the forepart of a crocodile, the midsection of a lion, and the hindquarters of a hippopotamus. His name can mean "the hunger of the dead," imbodiment of insatiable desire. This monster of his own fears and passions the deceased must face and conquer or it will surely conquer him.
This scene depicts not only the experiences encountered in Amentet by the deceased scribe Ani, but also symbolizes initiation. In this ritual a candidate must temporarily leave his physical body (khat) and travel in his ethereal body (ka) to Amentet, where he undergoes the evaluation process. If he prevails, he becomes one with Osiris, presiding god of the cycle of rebirth. (This function is implicit in the meaning of the term asar from which the name Osiris is derived.) Like Osiris, Ani thus becomes consciously reborn.
The legend near Ani reads:
To be spoken by the Osirified Ani: / My heart (ab), my mother, my heart, my mother, / My outer-heart (hati-ab) that I have transformed; / Rise up for me in the form of potentiality. / Return to me before the divine Chiefs (Tchatchau).* / Cause no burden for me in the presence of the Guardian of the Balance (Anubis). / You are my ka which dwells in my body and joins in strength my body-components. / May you come forth to the place of beauty and harmony without impediment, in my name of Shenit,** / That I may maintain speech with the god of beauty and harmony. / May you hear this. — Pert em Hru, ch. XXXB (literally "Coming Forth into the Day;" the title Book of the Dead was given to this collection of papyri by modern Egyptologists).
*E. A. Wallis Budge translation: "May there not be resistance to me in the judgment. / May there not be repulse to me by the Divine Chiefs." The Egyptian Book of the Dead, p. 11.
**The Shenit were special ministers to the king. According to Budge they were the "officials of the Court of Osiris" (Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection, vol. 1, p. 333). However, a deeper meaning can be obtained from the glyphs, because shenit contains shen (cycle) and ser (prince or great man). The hieroglyph therefore can mean "cycles of the prince," where prince, like mother, is a glyph for the reincarnating ego.
The judgment in Amentet is a prerequisite to going further. Only one whose heart is as pure as truth (maat) can go beyond this stage into higher planes or worlds.
Thoth, the Recorder, stands opposite Ani, writing down the outcome. The caption near him says:
To be spoken by Thoth, Opener of Truth, / to the Great Company of the Gods who are in the presence of Osiris: / May you hear these words that exist in truth / concerning the Evaluation according to the heart of the Osirified. / His soul (ba) rose up in the form of potentiality (testimony) for / him at the time of Truth on the Great Balance. / He was found not to have done any evil. / No unfulfilled desires nourished him. / His Source of Light has not been split up. / He has not been affected by the transition. / He will be subject to you until he can exist as a Master of the Earth.
The heart (ab) of the candidate is found to be pure and the karmic residue of his life can rise beyond his ka to his ba. Had impurities been present, the karmic residue (potentialities for further experience) would have been too heavy to rise and would have tipped the scales in the wrong direction.
Upon the balance sits the dog-headed Ape of Thoth. Because Thoth is divine intelligence, his "ape," the distorted image of divine intelligence, is human intelligence, the logic and reason of the human mind.
The Company of the Gods then make the following declaration in unison to Thoth:
That which has come forth from your mouth is true concerning the potentiality of the Osirified Scribe Ani, who is truth-speaking. / He has done no evil. / He has made no infringement against us. / He has not allowed Amemit forcefully to master him here. / May he be nourished and allowed to come forth into the presence of Osiris in the realm established in Sekhet-Hetepet ("Fields of Peace and Nourishment") appropriate for the followers of Horus.
This pronouncement by the Company of the Gods allows the candidate to advance to the next stage, the confrontation with Osiris, Lord of Amentet. The god Horus, son of Osiris and Isis, now leads Ani to the throne of Osiris. Horus addresses his father and says that the weighing was done in accordance with divine law and the candidate found to be without evil. At this point the Osirified Ani must speak in his own defense. He says to Osiris:
May you allow me into your presence, O Divine Lord of Amentet. No defects are in my body nor in my speech [to prevent me from] maintaining full consciousness. / None! None! / May there be given to me an existence like that of the Favored Ones who dwell with you, O Osiris. / May I be greatly favored by the beautiful god, and loved by the Lord of the Two Lands.
To summarize, the ancient Egyptians believed in reincarnation (Osiris) and karma (Maat), and in an after-death judgment (Anubis) of one's life record (Thoth), followed by the assimilation of the personality (ab). They held that when consciousness left the body (khat) at death in a subtle body (ka), came face to face with its own unfulfilled desires (Amemit). It was their contention that the after-death state (Neter-khert) was characterized by powerful forces of dissociation (Set) and incoherence (Apep), counterbalanced by complementary forces of cohesion and creativity (Isis). If left alone, most people would succumb to these forces and lose consciousness. The entire after-death state, completely karmic in nature, would thereby be passed in a dreamlike swoon and rebirth would take place with the past life totally forgotten. But they also believed that the deceased need not undergo these processes alone. If worthy, he could be aided by telepathic communion with a Kher-heb priest still on earth, who reminds him of his true spiritual essence (Horus), of that higher counterpart of himself that does not die (Osiris) and is not subject to the awesome forces that now surround him (Nephthys). The objective, which is fully attainable only by the most advanced, is to maintain continuity of consciousness throughout the process and to be reborn with clear memory of the past life. One who successfully achieved this was called a "Master of the Earth."
Although few of us today worry about meeting deities or monsters, perhaps the teachings of the Egyptians are not as outdated as they may first appear. Ancient tradition holds that sleep and death are brothers. If so, then the meeting with Amemit has its counterpart in the phenomenon of the nightmare, and the weighing process of Anubis has its counterpart in the nightly workings of the human conscience, where Thoth assumes the form of our memory and the Ape of Thoth appears as our rationalizations.
According to the Egyptians, the only way to pass safely through these awesome processes is to prepare oneself for them during life. Initiations such as that described for Ani were an essential part of Egyptian culture and the insights gained contributed to the longevity of that nation. These insights were not mere accumulations of external data, but rather the bringing forth into conscious expression of the aspirant's divine potential. Initiation is not to be undertaken lightly, for it requires long years, usually lifetimes, of preparation before one can successfully undergo even the preliminary trials. Only he who is totally without soul-defect can be Osirified. It is the sublime goal of the candidate one day to become a Master of the Earth so that he in turn may help others join the Company of the Gods.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1982. Copyright © by Theosophical University Press)