From ignorance of the truth about man's real nature and faculties and their action and condition after bodily death, a number of evils flow. The effect of such want of knowledge is much wider than the concerns of one or several persons. Government and the administration of human justice under man-made laws will improve in proportion as there exists a greater amount of information on this all-important subject. When a wide and deep knowledge and belief in respect to the occult side of nature and of man shall have become the property of the people then may we expect a great change in the matter of capital punishment.
The killing of a human being by the authority of the state is morally wrong and also an injury to all the people; no criminal should be executed no matter what the offense. If the administration of the law is so faulty as to permit the release of the hardened criminal before the term of his sentence has expired, that has nothing to do with the question of killing him.
Under Christianity this killing is contrary to the law supposed to have emanated from the Supreme Lawgiver. The commandment is: "Thou shalt not kill!" No exception is made for states or governments; it does not even except the animal kingdom. Under this law therefore it is not right to kill a dog, to say nothing of human beings. But the commandment has always been and still is ignored. The Theology of man is always able to argue away any regulation whatever; and the Christian nations once rioted in executions. At one time for stealing a loaf of bread or a few nails a man might be hanged. This, however, has been so altered that death at the hands of the law is imposed for murder only — omitting some unimportant exceptions.
We can safely divide the criminals who have been or will be killed under our laws into two classes: ie., those persons who are hardened, vicious, murderous in nature; and those who are not so, but who, in a moment of passion, fear, or anger, have slain another. The last may be again divided into those who are sorry for what they did, and those who are not. But even those of the second class are not by intention enemies of Society, as are the others, they too before their execution may have their anger, resentment, desire for revenge and other feelings besides remorse, all aroused against Society which persecutes them and against those who directly take part in their trial and execution. The nature, passions, state of mind and bitterness of the criminal have, hence, to be taken into account in considering the question. For the condition which he is in when cut off from mundane life has much to do with the whole subject.
All the modes of execution are violent, whether by the knife, the sword, the bullet, by poison, rope, or electricity. And for the Theosophist the term violent as applied to death must mean more than it does to those who do not hold Theosophical views. For the latter, a violent death is distinguished from an easy natural one solely by the violence used against the victim. But for us such a death is the violent separation of the man from his body, and is a serious matter, of interest to the whole state. It creates in fact a paradox, for such persons are not dead; they remain with us as unseen criminals, able to do harm to the living and to cause damage to the whole of Society.
What happens? All the onlooker sees is that the sudden cutting off is accomplished; but what of the reality? A natural death is like the falling of a leaf near the winter time. The time is fully ripe, all the powers of the leaf having separated; those acting no longer, its stem has but a slight hold on the branch and the slightest wind takes it away. So with us; we begin to separate our different inner powers and parts one from the other because their full term has ended, and when the final tremor comes the various inner component parts of the man fall away from each other and let the soul go free. But the poor criminal has not come to the natural end of his life. His astral body is not ready to separate from his physical body, nor is the vital, nervous energy ready to leave. The entire inner man is closely knit together, and he is the reality. I have said these parts are not ready to separate — they are in fact not able to separate because they are bound together by law and a force over which only great Nature has control.
When then the mere physical body is so treated that a sudden, premature separation from the real man is effected, he is merely dazed for a time, after which he wakes up in the atmosphere of the earth, fully a sentient living being save for the body. He sees the people, he sees and feels again the pursuit of him by the law. His passions are alive. He has become a raging fire, a mass of hate; the victim of his fellows and of his own crime. Few of us are able, even under favorable circumstances, to admit ourselves as wholly wrong and to say that punishment inflicted on us by man is right and just, and the criminal has only hate and desire for revenge.
If now we remember that his state of mind was made worse by his trial and execution, we can see that he has become a menace to the living. Even if he be not so bad and full of revenge as said, he is himself the repository of his own deeds; he carries with him into the astral realm surrounding us the pictures of his crimes, and these are ever living creatures, as it were. In any case he is dangerous. Floating as he does in the very realm in which our mind and senses operate, he is forever coming in contact with the mind and senses of the living. More people than we suspect are nervous and sensitive. If these sensitives are touched by this invisible criminal they have injected into them at once the pictures of his crime and punishment, the vibrations from his hate, malice and revenge. Like creates like, and thus these vibrations create their like. Many a person has been impelled by some unknown force to commit crime; and that force came from such an inhabitant of our sphere.
And even with those not called "sensitive" these floating criminals have an effect, arousing evil thoughts where any basis for such exist in those individuals. We cannot argue away the immense force of hate, revenge, fear, vanity, all combined. Take the case of Guiteau, who shot President Garfield. He went through many days of trial. His hate, anger and vanity were aroused to the highest pitch every day and until the last, and he died full of curses for every one who had anything to do with his troubles. Can we be so foolish as to say that all the force he thus generated was at once dissipated? Of course it was not. In time it will be transformed into other forces, but during the long time before that takes place, the living Guiteau will float through our mind and senses carrying with him and dragging over us the awful pictures drawn and frightful passions engendered.
The Theosophist who believes in the multiple nature of man and in the complexity of his inner nature, and knows that that is governed by law and not by mere chance or by the fancy of those who prate of the need for protecting society when they do not know the right way to do it, relying only on the punitive and retaliatory Mosaic law — will oppose capital punishment. He sees it is unjust to the living, a danger to the state, and that it allows no chance whatever for any reformation of the criminal.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1996. Copyright © 1996 by Theosophical University Press. From Echoes of the Orient 1:465-8; originally published in The Path (10:6), September 1895, pp. 1890.)