|The word "astral" comes from the Greek word meaning "related to a star" and it originally described the heavens of the Greeks and the abode of their gods. The concept of the astral world expanded in time to refer to what the ancients called "ghostland," a realm inhabited by etheric entities, disembodied spirits and highly developed angelic beings.
Under normal circumstances the limitations of our five physical senses keep us from seeing into the astral world. That is because that world is made up of an energy that is invisible to us, owing to the fact that it is vibrating at a higher rate than the energy that comprises the material world.
But there are ways to perceive it other than through direct entry into it via astral projection. Clairvoyants and well-trained occultists have done so all through the ages. The former is the passive recipient of mental impressions, but these are usually fleeting and only moderately revealing.
If he is developed enough, though, the occultist can shift from material to astral perception through a conscious act of will, "just as the operator on the typewriter shifts from the small letter type to the capitals," in the words of one writer.
The perceiver will look into a world that is just as real as ours. It has geography, scenery, inhabitants. There are even countries and kingdoms. The astral world has its own natural laws. It is subject to constant change just as the physical world is.
Some theorists writing on the subject of astral projection have speculated that the astral world is in fact a "rationalized dream world," a universe of elemental energies which we shape into beings, people and places through our own thought processes. In other words, the astral world is a real place but we create its manifestations in our imaginations.
There probably is some truth to this idea. Certainly some of the sights and experiences reported by astral explorers sound like thought projections. But at the same time so many people have reported the same kinds of things in the astral realm??"witness, for instance, the testimonies of many thousands of NDE percipients??"that we can reasonably conclude that it has its own independent, objective existence. Once you enter it, you can be confident you will see certain things there.
A Theosophical View
The esoteric thought system known as Theosophy provides a detailed description of the astral world, which it depicts as the realm into which we pass at physical death and in which we spend a period of time before moving on to a higher sphere.
Theosophists believe that it is not just disembodied spirits who live in the astral but also, writer Lewis Spence says, "inhabitants. . . of an altogether nonhuman nature??"lower orders of the devas or angels, and nature-spirits or elementals, both good and bad, such including fairies which are just beyond the powers of human vision, and the demons present to the vision of delirium tremens."
The astral world has seven divisions.
The lowest and most material of these is called Avichi, a hellish environment in which souls are tortured with desires that cannot be fulfilled without the physical body. The souls of criminals and other depraved persons witness the activities of their counterparts on the physical realm and are driven to despair because they can no longer take part. On their side of the astral border, as one writer puts it, is a dreary "astral atmosphere of pool rooms, gambling halls, race tracks, brothels and red-light districts" in which these miserable souls congregate; these structures exist, alas, only as a symbolic back-drop; the functions such places fulfill on the physical plane are denied the inhabitants of Avichi.
The souls in Avichi do not suffer eternally. For most, the desires that have gone so long unsatisfied die away, suffering ceases and the soul moves up to the next astral level. Those few incapable of change and moral improvement eventually are exhausted by the strain and descend into merciful oblivion.
Avichi is sometimes compared to the Christian hell, but it is really more like purgatory, because through suffering sins can be forgiven and put behind one.
It should be clear that relatively few persons who enter the astral world will experience Avichi. The great majority will end up in one or the other of the next three divisions. (Avichi, the lowest of them, is considered the seventh division.) The division you will end up in is dependent upon the degree of your moral development.
Deeper into the Astral
The sixth division of the astral world is so much like the physical world that those first entering it may not even remember that, biologically and materially speaking, they are ill and in bed. Today you feel happier and healthier than you have ever felt. You get out of bed, get dressed and go out into the world.
Out there you see familiar surroundings and familiar faces??"but soon you begin to sense that something is different. Slowly it dawns on you that this, for all its superficial resemblances to the world you know, is in reality another world.
"As the astral life becomes more and more familiar," L. W. Rogers writes, "he [the arrival] gets well settled into it and gradually readjusts his viewpoint to a truer perspective. As time passes he is less and less in touch with the affairs of the physical life."
Yet before they move on, many people use their time in the astral to expand their knowledge of life, the universe and the many realms of being. Undistracted by the cares and concerns of the mundane world, they devote their energies to their own moral betterment; they may also act as guides to the many thousands of persons who daily arrive unprepared in the astral world. Many are frightened and confused, fearing that they have not been "saved" and are about to spend an eternity of torment for not holding the proper religious views.
With the passage of time the astral body loses more and more of its material substance and it ascends gradually to the higher divisions. These divisions are correspondingly removed from the physical world and in them the landscapes take on more a spiritual than an earthly aura. In fact here the geography is the geography of heaven: beautiful buildings, gently flowing rivers, green hills and magnificent mountains. These things are quite real but they are in no way physical; they are the mental creations of the spiritual beings who dwell in this land of pure thought.
At the first and highest level of the astral world, the souls work for noble purposes and they are free to travel to lower realms if necessary for their work.
Beyond the Astral
When you leave the astral world, you enter the mental world, also known as the manasic plane or the devachan. It is the home of what are known in Sanskrit as the devas, angelic beings (in the near-death literature they are called "beings of light," as we already have seen.)
By the time you have arrived here, you will have left behind all that remained of the lower emotions that so dominated your existence on earth. Now you are concerned solely with your highest aspirations and you need no longer fear the distracting effects of sorrow, anxiety, struggle or fear. You are now experiencing nothing less than total bliss. In her The Basic Ideas of Occult Wisdom, Anna Kennedy Winner describes life on this plane as follows:
" . . . . people whose highest thoughts have connected themselves with their families will see around them "living" images of their loved ones, which will seem real and responsive to them. People who have been interested in philanthropic schemes may construct apparently real Utopias. Scientists will have the opportunity to study some of the real inner laws of nature. Musicians or artists will be aided and taught by the devas who work in those lines, and thus be reborn later with a great enhancement of their capacity. In general, any experience which a man has had of a pure and lofty, or purely intellectual, nature will be worked over and mentally digested, as it were, until he has gained from it the last possible drop of wisdom and enhanced ability. He can have no experience for which there is not some seed already planted??"this is not a time for new beginnings, but for gathering together the essence of the past and building it into his permanent self as a permanent part of his character."
In due course, when all the concrete thoughts and experiences of the past have been reflected on and resolved, they in turn are discarded and the soul enters the highest subplanes of the manasic plane; in Sanskrit these are referred to as the arupa, or "formless" worlds. By this time the soul body bears no resemblance whatever to the physical form that once contained it. It is now a globe of living light, pulsating and radiating, sensitive to all impressions from all worlds. It is now prepared to begin anew: to reincarnate in a physical body.