This article is excerpts from the book “Life After Death” by Deepak Chopra and in a general way reflects the views of Hinduism and Buddhism on the afterlife.
The hereafter isn’t a place at all but a state of awareness. The cosmos that you and I are experiencing right now with trees, people, houses, cars, stars and galaxies is consciousness expressing itself at one particular frequency. Elsewhere in spacetime different planes exist simultaneously. Different planes of existence represent different frequencies of consciousness. The world of physical matter is just one expression of a particular frequency. To put it another way, solid things have dense vibrations or vibrations on a lower plane.
In our cosmos it only makes sense that the Earth is a dense spiritual world and there must be higher spiritual planes known to us as Lokas, which in Western mystical circles became known as “astral planes.” There are an almost infinite number of astral planes, divided into a higher and lower astral world. Even the lowest ones vibrate at a higher frequency than the material world.
In the lower astral planes we find clairvoyance, telepathy and other refinements of the five senses as well as ghosts, disembodied souls and spirits that for one reason or another are “stuck.”
All these planes ultimately were imagined by Spirit just as it imagined the material world. The Indian word for Spirit is Brahman, which is Everything, the one consciousness that fills every plane of existence. The important thing isn’t the name but the concept of a single consciousness that creates everything and continues to do so in infinite dimensions at infinite speed.
The cosmos is nonlocal; that is, it can’t be mapped as a location. After death we gradually stop being local. We see ourselves as we really are from the soul’s perspective: everywhere at once. This adjustment is probably the biggest obstacle any of us will encounter in the astral planes. As the gross senses become duller, the subtle senses sharpen. We will see and hear after we die, but now the objects are not physical. They consist of everything we want to see on the astral plane: celestial sights and sounds, heavenly beings and brilliant lights.
New ideas percolate in the mind before they lead to action and something similar happens with the soul. Normally the soul sleeps peacefully but if a person dies suddenly or prematurely, or has many unfulfilled desires this sleep may be restless and disturbed. The horrors of a violent death would continue to reverberate and so would more mundane torments like unrequited love or grief. Suicides experience the same inner pain that led them to take their lives. A longing for pleasure also represents an inability to let go. When people die suddenly or unnaturally they have not had time to work out their personal karma. Until they fully process their attachments and obligations they will remain drawn to this denser plane.
Saints and sages have the advantage of being able to travel freely through astral planes unrestrained by desires. Disturbed souls remain caught between two worlds. If loved ones left behind keep calling to the soul through prayers, grief, unfulfilled love, or attempts to contact the dead, the soul will continue to be perturbed. The soul is meant to sleep in the astral body as it did in the womb, and peaceful death makes this possible.
At the moment of dying, entering into the astral plane is accompanied by a quick karmic review with images unwinding like a film unspooling off its reel. Seeing your life flash before you in a split second, they say, is a demonstration that every second contains the whole of eternity. During the deep sleep of the soul between births all the memories of past events in the physical body get impressed into the soul forming the cosmic software that gives rise to its future life. The period of the soul’s slumber varies according to how evolved the soul is at the time of death. The main reason for the sleep of the soul is to shed its attachments. The strength of its attachments will determine how long it takes to shed them. When the soul awakens it can only enter a plane of existence that is familiar. If you were to enter a plane higher than your level of evolution you would become confused and uncomfortable. Likewise, you cannot go backward in your evolution: you can only progress. In the astral world the soul can visit planes of vibration lower than itself at will but can only visit higher planes through evolution.
Spirit permeates every level of existence. Depending on your level of awareness you project your own heavens, hells and purgatories to work through on the physical plane as well as astral planes. In the astral world you fulfill and refine desires left over from your last physical life. You also refine your knowledge and experiences from the material world. The astral is like a graduate school for your previous physical incarnation. Here the soul also stores up energy for its higher, more evolved desires so that so that they may be fulfilled on its next visit to the physical plane when it inhabits a new body. Being born means arriving at a new level of insight and creativity. The process repeats itself over and over, each time progressing to a slightly higher plane. When your karma has been sufficiently worked out, you reach the maximum limit for that plane, your soul slips back into slumber and the cycle continues. The soul’s trajectory is always upward. Any suffering on the astral plane, even the most tormenting hell, is only a temporary detour. By working itself out, your karma sees to it that your actions will always be better next time.
The degree of choice you have depends on how clearly you can view yourself in the astral plane. This faculty is called witnessing. Those who have the least freedom of choice are driven by obsessions, compulsions, addictions and unconscious impulses. To the extent that you become free of these you have more choice. The same is true of a soul contemplating its next physical incarnation. By developing your ability to witness, to be aware of your situation, you will be able to influence the lives you incarnate into. You will also be able to speed up the process of working through your karma. In the same way, you can also develop skills and talents on the astral plane. When you are born, you bring along the talents you developed from all your previous existences.
Soul bonds occur on the astral plane just as they occur in the physical world. Relationships in the astral plane mean that you are vibrating in concert with someone else’s soul and therefore feel a heightened sense of unity, love and bliss. It is not a relationship in spatial or physical terms because the astral world is only populated y thought forms. Two souls can commune even though one is vibrating in the material plane and the other in the astral plane. The soul’s motivation to keep coming back to the material plane is twofold: to fulfill desires and to rejoin with familiar souls.
Once the soul is free of karma there is no need to be reborn on either the astral or physical planes. Such a soul continues to spiral upward in its evolution on planes we cannot imagine. In Eastern philosophy these are known as causal planes; here, consciousness takes on such a subtle form that it offers no visual image for us to cling to. We will dwell there only when the soul’s vibration is high enough to sustain it. When you achieve self-realization you no longer identify with your body, mind, ego or desires. You become a pure witness, and in that state you can choose to transcend karma. The end of karma is not the end of life. It’s like getting out of debt and being left with the freedom to spend money without constraint.
In the Indian mind there is no end to the celestial realms that belong to higher frequencies of existence, and as we have seen, at a certain level of evolution some souls may choose to complete their path. Once a soul has reached these levels it would not normally want to take another human birth except to provide a particular service. Buddhism calls these souls bodhisattvas, those who don’t return to Earth driven by the force of evolution, but choose to come instead to serve the cause of enlightenment.
Let us be reminded that the afterlife is a place of newfound clarity and is not static. We continue to evolve and grow after we die. Choice does not end with death; it expands. Earthly images carry us into the afterlife (we see what our culture has conditioned us to see), but then the soul makes creative leaps that open new worlds.