by Peter Holleran
There is a lot to be afraid of in spiritual teachings. Even the saints, it appears, sometimes repeat traditional teachings that employ ‘scare tactics’ to motivate their disciples towards sadhana or spiritual practice. One such teaching is that “the man-body or human form is a great blessing, because it is the only form in which one can know God - but if one does not increase his consciousness he will go down in the scale of creation and who knows when he will get the rare chance again.” In our view, while the first part of this statement is likely correct (which nevertheless assumes a lot about the non-human kingdoms of nature), the second half does not necessarily follow, at least in the general case. An example is as follows:
“If we do not connect our consciousness with God, if we just come in contact with the things of the world, then naturally our consciousness will be lessened. If our consciousness is lessened, we will go to the level of bodies in which consciousness is comparatively less than man’s.”
This form of emphasis seems, to our way of thinking, more a reflection of the point of view of the saints that merely to exist in samsara or ignorance as an ordinary human being is in itself like a ‘hell’ and an ‘inhuman’ form of life in the highest sense of the word human, rather than a completely accurate depiction of reality. That one will ‘fall’ all the way back to the primitive beginnings of planetary evolutionary, or even so far as into a lesser animal form, if he ‘sins’ or comes up short of the mark as a man in any one life, does not appear realistic! Simple logic leads one to question (a) how an animal, without free will, reasoning and discriminative powers (manas
) - and most importantly self-consciousness (without which some have argued that there can be no individual karma (1) - could ever accrue the noble karma to permit him to advance to the human form, or (b), how a human, imagined as recently incarnated as a man from the animal kingdom, and not yet living up to the perfection of the archtypal Human Idea or “Idea of Man”, could ever evolve if he was punished by eternal hell, hell until the next cosmic dissolution, or hell for thousands of years until his next incarnation, as even some contemporary teachings continue to pronounce. Based on simple logic there would be no way out of hell! Such fear-inducing teachings can not explain this glaring inconsistency and impossiblity and in our opinion smack of cultism (or old-fashioned teaching methods) par excellance. This is not to say there is no answer to such queries, however, as we shall see.
Hell has often been defined as a place where no growth or evolution can take place, but only punishment. This is in contrast to the subtle realms to which the soul is said to pass after death, where it is maintained that some growth processes may occur, although most teachings do agree that the majority takes place in life on earth (i.e., Jesus’ saying, ”work while it is day, and not at night, when no man can work”
). Usually, however, 'hell' is considered to be a region, or various regions, in the lower psychic or astral realms, with also personal ‘annexes’ or temporary subjective psychological forms of ‘hell’ contained within them. For the Buddhists, evolution as such is not given much credence, or emphasis, and hell is spoken of more in psychological terms, as one of six samsaric realms in which one wanders endlessly until he achieves nirvana or acosmic liberation. [These doctrines, including the curious one of hell below
the earth, as well as what is said to happen after death have been discussed in some detail in In the Bosom of the Lord - Death for the Unliberated
on this website, to which the inquiring reader is directed as a supplement to this article].
Just think, however: if a man is in his first human incarnation, not yet free of his ‘animal’ inheritance, is it reasonable to see him as at the same level of responsibility as a man in his five-hundredth such incarnation? Man is in the make, and evolution is only possible through many learning experiences. Once having passed through the human archtype (assuming something like that happens), one is considered to be on the human evolutionary track, and will not go backwards (except, perhaps, in the most extreme cases, and as a temporary punishment). That would be giving much too much credit to the limited jiva
within the greater cosmic plan. Hindu as well as Muslim cosmology, however, would have it be so, and go to great lengths to describe the tortures awaiting our human frailty and weakness. In both ancient cosmologies, there are said to be fourteen regions in creation: seven ‘positive’ ones (seven hierarchical planes, variously named in many schools, from earth to Sat Lok), and seven regions of the nether world ‘below’ the earth. Thus, in one form of this conception fifty percent of creation essentially is hell! Despite all that has been disclosed or dispensed by the masters of wisdom in our modern age, there are groups that still promote a very judgemental and extreme view of things. One such depiction is found in this link
by the Spiritual Research Foundation, wherein this fourteen plane schema is described, along with the hubris to propose what percentage of human beings, guilty of what ‘crimes’ or sins, will be assigned to which hell, and for how long. For instance, suicide in all cases is given “66,000 years in the seventh hell”. Says who?! One is free to believe this if he chooses, but just know that there are much more subtle teachings available to chose from.
It is interesting to note that, while the Hindu Puranas do give a description of seven nether regions, these are not
merely considered as ‘hell realms’. Indeed, the sage Narada is said to have journeyed there and came back ‘very favorably impressed’. Some of them are spoken of as beautiful, with pious beings - and not just as places of blood, pus, filth, sulfer, fire and brimstone, etc.! The suggestion in some modern cosmologies is that these regions are not human hells, for the most part, but worlds for other kingdoms of nature - such as the ‘nagas
’ (from whom the great Nagarjuna was said to have recovered the essential emptiness teachings of Buddhism), gnomes, sylphs, undines, and various other creatures. The following is an excerpt from a Wikepedia entry on Patala
, or the seven nether regions in Hindu cosmology:
“In Hindu cosmology, Patala or Patal denotes the seven lower regions of the universe - which are located under the earth. Patala is often translated as underworld or netherworld. Patala is composed of seven regions or lokas, the seventh and lowest of them is also called Patala or Naga-loka, the region of the Nagas. The Danavas (demon sons of Danu), Daityas (demon sons of Diti), Yakshas and the snake-people Nagas live in the realms of Patala. According to Hindu cosmology, the universe is divided into the three worlds: Svarga (Heaven: seven upper regions), Prithvi (earth) and Patala - the underworld and netherworld.
Vishnu Purana tells of a visit by the divine wandering sage Narada to Patala. Narada describes Patala as more beautiful than Svarga (heaven). Patala is described as filled with splendid jewels, beautiful groves and lakes and lovely demon maidens. Sweet fragrance is in the air and is fused with sweet music. The soil here is white, black, purple, sandy, yellow, stony and also of gold.
The Bhagavata Purana calls the seven lower regions bila-svargas ("subterranean heavens") and they are regarded as planets or planetary systems below the earth. These regions are described as being more opulent than the upper regions of the universe, which include heaven. The life here is of pleasure, wealth and luxury, with no distress. The demon architect Maya has constructed palaces, temples, houses, yards and hotels for foreigners, with jewels. The natural beauty of Patala is said to surpass that of the upper realms. There is no sunlight in the lower realms, but the darkness is dissipated by the shining of the jewels that the residents of Patala wear. There is no old age, no sweat, no disease in Patala.
According to the Vishnu Purana, seventy thousand Yojanas (a unit of measurement) below the Earth's surface lie the seven realms of Patala, which are located one above the other. Each of them extends ten thousand Yojanas. In Vishnu Purana, they are named as from the highest to the lowest as: Atala, Vitala, Nitala, Garbhastimat, Mahatala, Sutala and Patala. In Bhagavata Purana and Padma Purana, they are called Atala, Vitala, Sutala, Talatala, Mahatala, Rasatala and Patala. The Shiva Purana, replaces Mahatala with Tala. The Vayu Purana calls them Rasatala, Sutala, Vitala, Gabhastala, Mahatala, Sritala and Patala. The seven Patalas as well as the earth above them is supported on the head of the tamasic (dark) form of god Vishnu, the thousand-headed serpent (Naga) Shesha. Sometimes, Sesha is described to reside in the lowest region of Patala, instead of below it. Below the regions of Patala, lies Naraka, the Hindu Hell - the realm of death where sinners are punished.”
The ‘Spiritual Research Society’ calls the seven upper regions worlds of ‘positive existence’, and the seven hells as of ‘negative existence’. However, they say one goes to these ‘negative existences’ accompanied with parts of the being that only manifest in positive existence (such as one’s mental or astral bodies). This must be considered erroneous. Subjective experience is not characteristic of ‘negative existence’
, if that phrase means anything. ‘Negative existence’ in science means what is prior to existence, or only potential existence (such as in a Bose-Einstein Condensate, or homogenous and fluid field of non-matter where everything, so to speak, is reversed), and thus it is contradictory to talk of it in positive terms. So-called negative or potential existence is not 'denser' than the earth - as one might assume hell as a plane or set of planes below
the earth to be, in the same manner as the earth is more dense in vibration than the heaven realms - but rather of a different order entirely, one which we have no frame of reference or means of experience.
If one supposes, however, that these seven hells which are also the home of other kingdoms of nature such as listed above are
, in fact, denser than the earth, the question arises, "how could we see these creatures, as people through the ages - and children of all ages - have attested?" We surmise that while denizens of these realms may be 'beneath' the earth in terms of evolution (an assumption which may in fact be incorrect, as some say they are on entirely different
, not lesser
, tracks of evolution), they are not 'below' or denser than the earth in terms of vibration in the same way that the earth is considered denser than the astral, which is denser than the mental, and so forth. Further, a realm denser in vibration than the earth plane, or even more so of 'negative existence', would hardly be describable in the manner which the Puranas elaborately portray Patala, nor would it appear to be possible for an adept to visit there in his mental body, which, as stated, is part of positive existence.
A further lacuna of this Society is that they, somewhat idiosyncratically, redefine the ‘nether world’ (often considered synonymous with hell or a region below
the earth) as a place 'just above
the earth’, where some people go after death, as opposed to either the hells below or the lower astral regions above (the latter which are more universally spoken of as places of temporary purgation, learning, and assimilation of experience, even if it be through what appears as punishment).
[It should be mentioned that hyperbole in this area is not limited to Hindu and Muslim sources; Tibetan Buddhists, especially, love to imaginatively elaborate on many excruciating forms of Hell
What, then, of noted exceptions?
Paramhansa Yogananda taught that one could go back to an animal form, but only for one incarnation as a punishment. Paul Brunton (who had met Yogananda while at Ramana’s ashram), concurred:
“The transmigration of souls from human to animal bodies is a fiction. The individual consciousness which has one or more specifically human attributes, cannot be brought naturally into the brain and nervous system of any creature which has only animal attributes...It is something rare, abnormal, and exceptional, but not impossible, for a human being to be put back in an animal body. Then it becomes an imprisonment for one lifetime, and as such a punishment.”
(The Notebooks of Paul Brunton
, Vol. 6, Part Two, 2.187,190)
Sant Chander Prabhaji Maharaj, of the ”Adhyatmic Satsang Society
, includes in her official biography the following story:
[one of her students] would do tuitions apart from her household work and Bhajan. One of her student’s family had kept a pet dog. But to her surprise and disgust they would give it water to drink only once in a day. The rest of the day he would lick his own urine to quench his thirst. The lady of the house remarked that since she could not wipe his
urine all the time, at least this way some of her work was saved. One day after giving
an assignment to this student, she sat in Dhyan. She was then told by Hazur in
meditation that this particular dog was a Satsangi in its previous life but would drink
alcohol against the orders of his Guru. It was now paying for his past deeds and thus
had to drink its own urine.”
Stories like these, by even the best of saints, strike one as more scare tactics - if not an insult to a poor dog ! - and not in tune with either the higher traditional as well as emerging forms of spirituality. Sri Aurobindo, Paul Brunton, theosophy, and other modern teachings stand firmly on the side of evolution, with the fundamentalist ‘anything goes’ appearing rather outdated if not outright silly.
And, of course, this is the answer for how an animal without a developed self-consciousness could earn the good karma to advance it to the human kingdom: it doesn’t. Rather, an intricate Law of Evolution - an aspect of what Brunton termed the World-Idea, i.e., the World-Mind, or God expressing as Nature - does so. The entity advances from kingdom to kingdom under divine guidance. The development of human characteristics and faculties may be “incipiently present even in the animal reincarnation of the entity” (Ibid, 2.158), there is no karma until conscious volition comes into play in the human being. And thus there would be no sense of justice for a human in his first human incarnation to be sentenced to an eternal hell.
Lee Bladon writes in his book, Science of Spirituality
, that theosophical teachings say that one’s guardan angel gives or lends the evolving monad its ‘greater or complete causal body’ at the start of its human evolution (and which greater causal body distinguishes the human being from lesser creatures and is responsible for its higher individuality; in theosophical terminology this is sometimes called the soul), which then oversees the incarnations; the guardian angel could, in serious cases, refuse to reunite the approximately 5% or so of this causal body (that incarnates and at the time of death represents the distilled experience of a lifetime) with the total causal body, thus preventing the negative lifetime of contaminating and delaying the evolution. He reports that even one such as a Hitler may fall into this category.
He also mentions the extreme case of ‘black magicians’ who in the past were advanced adepts but through misuse of the power of their mental bodies had their greater causal bodies detached from the monad by their guardian angel and were thus sentenced to spend an entire cosmic cycle outside of the human kingdom without hope of further evolution until the next such grand cycle.
Confusing? No kidding.
On the other hand, esoteric Christian mystic Daskalos says that there are places, such as the etheric plane of the Moon, as well as various inner regions, that are reserved for the wayward soul, where they are sent until such time (which could be hundreds of years or more) that their negative karmic momentum has exhausted itself. See the above-mentioned article for more on this. He also said that advanced adepts can actually ‘create’ such regions (and mentions himself doing so as an example) to place such souls for the greater good of the whole.
In some Tibetan Buddhist traditions, ‘five unforgivable deeds’ (such as killing or injuring a saint, killing one's mother or father, and spreading dissension among the sangha) would merit an immediate rebirth for karmic retribution, without first spending time in the bardos or after-death planes. In some schools these acts, on the other hand, merit immediate entry into the darkest of hells for countless number of kalpas. [Buddhists seem to like big numbers - and never mind that hell like any other place or thing is inherently 'empty'!]
Buddhism in general seems to be divided into those sects who see man as helplessly passing through the six samsaric realms, up or down, until he transcends into nirvana, and others who teach a variant of evolution in that there is
an apparent accumulation of wisdom and merit that continues from life to life.
Needless to say, the extreme cases mentioned above are not likely the fate of 99.99% of humanity.
For those still afraid, we have testimony of the Living Masters that those under their care will not suffer the pangs of hell. Kirpal Singh writes:
“Even if a soul under the protection of a Master-Saint may, for a while, go astray, it is sure to be rescued.”
“Though Saints are living models of humility and do not speak of the great authority that is Theirs, yet at times They do indirectly refer to the saving power of the Saints gone before them. The scriptures reveal that Sant Satguru Nanak rescued one of His disciples who somehow wandered astray hellward. The Holy One had to visit hell for a lost sheep, and dip His thumb in the molten fires of hell, thereby cooling down the entire hell-furnace, giving relief not only to one but to many sinner souls howling piteously in great distress. Similar instances occurred in the time of Raja Janak and others as well. Once Hazur, my Master, too, had to pull out one of His disciples who was straying downwards...So long as one is true to his Master Saint (Sant Satguru), no power on earth can injure a single hair on his head. A true disciple of a Sant Satguru verily says: “I have my dealings with the Saints and my only concern is with them, The angel-of-death cannot touch a single hair of my head, When the entire record of my deeds has been consigned to the flames.”
“The Saint is present everywhere and His sway extends to realms undreamed of. He never leaves nor forsakes His disciples to the end of the world.”
There are numerous accounts in Buddhist writings as well of high lamas or gurus escorting legions of souls out of various hell realms. (See the book Delog
by Delog Dawa Drolma)
In any case - worst case - for the majority - it is said that eventually all unawakened, unliberated souls, good or not-so-good, having their three lower bodies (physical, astral, mental) finally dissolved or dispersed, reach their native place of rest between incarnations, wherein they have a refreshing sleep before a next lifetime and another chance at liberation. For those with a true Master, most definitely, this is carefully arranged. No one is forever lost, or alone, with many beings, it is also said, involved in furthering this divine evolutionary adventure.
To conclude, one might then say that there is only Reality, and not a 'positive' and 'negative' reality. This is of course true when it is realized to be so. Further, the inquiry eventually arises as to where is there any place for spatial reference such as 'up', 'down', 'in', 'out', 'above', or 'below' in the infinite, non-localizable Mind, Consciousness or Divine Self? i.e., as the song goes, "How far is Heaven?" Of course, until realized, such things do exist, and hence the reason for this article.(2)
In conclusion, the late great Curtis Mayfield sang, “If There’ a Hell Below, We’re All Gonna Go” (which we conclude is the logical end result of teachings such as portrayed by the spiritual perpetrators of fear), but also, People Get Ready
and There’s a Meetin’ Over Yonder
, both anthems of hope for all beings struggling to find their way.
1. Swartz, James, How To Attain Enlightenment
(Boulder, CO: Sentient Publications, 2009), p. 119:
"All life forms, excluding humans, do not have karmas, because there is no sense of doership in their actions. They are simply awareness expressing itself in conjunction with the macroscopic vasanas."
2. Whether true or not I found the following interesting, to say the least:
Excerpts from the book: "The Collected Works of Chögyam Trungpa" by Shambhala Publications
From the Glossary of the book:
“Rudra (Skt.): Originally a Hindu deity, an emanation of Shiva. In the vajrayana, Rudra is the personification of the destructive principle of ultimate ego. According to tradition, Rudra was originally a tantric student who perverted the teachings and killed his guru. He was thus transformed into Rudra, the embodiment of egohood, the complete opposite of buddhahood.”
The story of the Rudra through a dialogue between Chögyam Trungpa and one of his students:
Chögyam Trungpa: There is the story of Rudra, one of the first persons to go to vajra Hell. He and a fellow student, a dharma brother, were studying with the same master. They had a disagreement about how to interpret the master’s instructions. They were taking opposite extremes in carrying out their practice, and each of them was sure that he was right. They decided to go to the teacher and ask for his comment. When the teacher told Rudra that he was wrong, Rudra became so angry that he drew his sword and killed his teacher on the spot. Then he ended up in vajra hell. It is a kind of alienation.
Student: Is going to vajra hell the equivalent of attaining egohood, or are two different things?
Chögyam Trungpa: Vajra hell is not quite complete egohood. It’s still part of the journey. But when you come out of vajra hell without any realization, then you attain the real egohood, which is the state of Rudra. You turn yourself into a demon.
Student: So, you are not in vajra hell when you attain egohood?
Chögyam Trungpa: No, egohood seems to be quite difficult to attain. As difficult as enlightenment. Doing a really good job on it is very difficult.”