Ancient sages considered the teaching of invisible worlds too sacred and abstruse for general propagation, and so over the centuries this subject has only been hinted at by symbol and allusion. Aspects of this teaching, however, have been intuitively sensed by popular and scientific imagination. Moreover, during the last hundred years theosophical writers have re-presented archaic doctrines dealing with those regions of space and the circulations of lives that are invisible to us, and which explain the otherwise puzzling factors of life here and after death.
For those unfamiliar with these metaphysical conceptions, it may be interesting to examine some of the views held by cultures older than ours. The peoples of China, Persia, the Mediterranean area, and elsewhere approached this idea by comparing earth with man. They believed that our earth, the planets, and sun, were living beings -- gods -- and that the visible orbs were the containers and means of expression for graded levels of consciousness whose ethereal "bodies" correspond, in a general way, to man's invisible psychological, mental, and spiritual bodies or natures. Other peoples described them as being like a cluster or constellation of bodies which "turn around together" (the word universe, from the Latin unus + versus, means literally, "that which turns around as one") and through which circulate various rivers of lives that compare to the vital, nutritional, emotional, mental, and spiritual circulations within man.
European thinkers of the Renaissance, awakening to the newfound knowledge of Greek culture, chose a ladder to portray the progressive levels or worlds, visible and invisible, that compose the complete earth-being, and they wrote of the soul's journey up the rungs or stages or kingdoms to the City of God. The Bible refers to these inner worlds as "many mansions," "wheels within wheels," and the Jewish Qabbalah speaks of four worlds on which the Tree of Life manifests.
Greek, Irish, and Hindu traditions call these interior realms islands, and trace the passage of their heroes from islands of sensual attraction to those of spiritual quality and experience. India refers to them as seven lokas and talas. Loka means world of spirit, and tala, world of matter. And today, while modern science-fiction speaks of shadowlands, of extraterrestrial worlds, of other dimensions, and of past or future time, serious investigation seems to be on the verge of admitting influences from unseen worlds.
The idea of earth being the body of a god is suggestive, especially when man, the microcosm, is compared with earth, the macrocosm. Man is composite and, according to ancient and modern theosophical teachings, his physical body is not only the container of various organs and interacting systems, each made up of vast numbers of infinitesimal intelligences, but it is, in addition, the visible result and representation of a number of invisible and superior selves or bodies through which the human consciousness functions more or less fully when awake, asleep, and after death. Although these inner selves or bodies may seem separate and independent, they are united by the constant circulations of the vital, emotional, mental, and spiritual forces of our dominant human consciousness. So it is with earth, whose dominant consciousness is also that of a divine being.
The philosophic Zoroastrians understood this; their scriptures depict earth as being composed of seven disconnected regions, zones, or worlds, each karshvar (keshvar) separated from the others by oceans so that "it is not possible to go from region to region, save by the guidance and radiance of the Yazats [celestial spirits]." By way of explanation they conceived these karshvars as concentric circles or zones with the largest one, Hvaniratha -- the only karshvar inhabited by man -- at the center. This closely corresponds to the Hindu conception of the seven dvipas (islands). In her Secret Doctrine H. P. Blavatsky diagrams the seven karshvars as seven distinct globes in the "Waters of Space," with Hvamratha below instead of in the center. She places the other six earths on planes of matter higher than ours. According to theosophy, to the beings on each globe their earth is as solid to them as ours is to us, and it has its own continents and oceans, mountains and rivers, and races of evolving lives. And through the downward and upward arcs of spiritual growth, seven great rivers of lives continuously flow in a wondrous spiraling sweep. This is suggestive of the life-giving waters of Vourukasha that ascend to the peak of the sacred mountain, then descend, and ascend again, "rising up and going down, up the aerial way and down the earth, down the earth and up the aerial way: . . . along the path made by the gods, the watery way they opened." (1)
Man's "rising up" through these worlds is not only possible but an actuality according to the mystical Vision of Ardai Viraf.) (2) In this story the humble Ardai entered the dark regions to attain secret knowledge and there he watched the souls of the deceased rising from station to station and learning at each plane and sphere the laws and conditions thereon until, having peregrinated "from body to body in a state of progressive improvement," they reached the realm of the sun.
These ideas are presented more fully today in the theosophical philosophy where the earth is regarded as a chain of seven globes, which are enumerated for convenience by letters: A, B, C, D (our earth), E, F, and G, each one being complete and self-contained. All but the lowest globe -- D -- are invisible to us because they exist on subplanes of the cosmos where the vibrational frequencies are so different that we are unable to perceive them by ordinary senses and instrumentation.
Through the seven globes great life-waves or kingdoms of evolving beings circulate, making their home on each in turn for extended periods of time during seven "rounds" or journeys of the earth-chain. Beginning on globe A the life-waves unfold ever more material potentials as they travel through globes A, B, and C. After reaching the nadir of the long evolutionary cycle on globe D, their spiritual qualities gradually begin to manifest, enabling them to ascend through the increasingly ethereal and luminous globes E, F, and G. This last world-globe is the one referred to in various religious writings as the Source, the prodigal's Home, the City of God, the Seventh Heaven, and Satya-loka (the world of truth and reality).
Seven such rounds are required for souls to rise one rung or level in the order of beings. Souls of the plant kingdom, for example, will during this period develop their full vegetative qualities and be ready to enter, in the ensuing cycle, the animal kingdom. Those of the beasts will progress toward the human kingdom; and human beings may so expand their consciousness and become so perfect in virtue and wisdom that they will be born into the lowest grade of angels. The kingdoms were variously enumerated by renaissance scholars as: the world of the elements, consisting of beings that make up fire, air, water, and earth; also worlds of minerals, plants, and animals; and above the humans, the "celestial world," that includes the seven planets; the "intellectual world," comprising nine orders of angels, with the Divine presiding over all. (3)
In past ages the globes were sometimes named after the planets. This was to indicate the characteristic planetary influence that predominated on that particular globe. Such was the case in the Vision of Hermes, a teaching-story recited to disciples within the pylons of the ancient temples of Thebes. It recounts how once when Hermes was contemplating the nature of the universe, his thoughts soared into space, and while enveloped in a joyous light, he saw, as in a vision, how worlds had been formed in the beginning, amid darkness and light, and of fire, air, water, and earth, and of motion and sound. He saw also the seven spheres of the planets whose circling orbits encompass the world perceived by man's senses and, above, the pure body of the heavens stretching upwards in a glory of light.
Although dazed by this beauty, a question arose in his mind about the nature of man. Poimandres, the teacher, explained that man is a marvel most marvelous, the commingling of nature (matter) and God (spirit), he is the sum total of the universe, having "got from the structure of the heavens the character of the seven Administrators (planetary spheres) . . ." and thus combines in one, seven men, and it will "remain so until the end of a period." That part of him which is of matter is mortal and dies, but that which is of spirit dies not for it is of Life and Light.
Hermes asked his teacher what happens at death when the body dissolves. Poimandres explained that at that time the material body, and that of the senses and desires, "go back to their own sources, becoming parts of the universe, . . . And thereupon the man mounts upward through the structure of the heavens," leaving at each of the planetary zones those energic characteristics that had been part of the sevenfold earthly man. And thus he ascends from sphere to sphere, from the zones of the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, until "having been stripped of all that was wrought upon him by the structure of the heavens," he ascends to "the highest or outermost of the spheres of heaven." Being now possessed of his true nature, he is, for a time, at one with the Divine.
When Hermes awakened from this marvelous vision he rejoiced, knowing that he had attained the "abode of Truth," and he vowed that henceforth he would endeavor with all his soul, and with all his strength, to enlighten his brothers so that they also might come into Light and Life. (4)
A similar description was given by the Roman statesman Cicero in his Dream of Scipio (De re publica, bk. VI.). Macrobius (c. 400 A.D.) commenting on this Dream, which he believed is based on Pythagorean and Platonic tradition, reported that human souls returning to earth descend through a sevenfold series of planetary spheres, developing at each its characteristic "motion and powers." In one region, for instance, they develop the faculty of sensing and imagining, in another, reasoning and reflection. As this river of souls continues it grows increasingly more material. Matter, flowing into them, precipitates their descent and causes forgetfulness in all but the few who know that in time the soul shall rise, restored and whole, to the divine realm.(5)
Students of the Qabbalah will find reference to a series of world-spheres in the Zohar, the Book of Splendor. Therein it tells how the "Holy, Blessed be He!" created seven heavens Above, one above the other like the layers of an onion, each with stars, planets, and suns. He created seven earths Below which "are like the firmament Above, that upon that and this upon this," and upon them are "creatures who look different one from the other like the Above." The text then asks: "And the Lower earths where do they come from? They are from the chain of the earth and from the Heaven Above."
The Zohar enumerates four mankinds and four worlds: the first is the Heavenly Adam who dwells in the highest, the World of Emanations; the second Adam occupies the World of Creation; the third Adam, the innocent and childlike Adam of the Garden of Eden, resides in the World of Formations; and the fourth Adam is the third Adam as he was after the Fall, having tasted the fruit of good and evil, his mind awakened and subject to temptation and conflict. He is clothed in a body of skin, flesh, and nerves, the light of the upper worlds concealed within and hidden from his sight as long as he abides in the fourth world, the World of Shells. However, through the performance of good deeds he may again become aware of this light. (6)
The most popular way of dealing with the teaching of invisible worlds has always been as heavens and hells, the heavens referring to the more spiritual, the hells to the more material globes or worlds of experience. It is interesting that Brahmanical and Buddhist scriptures describe the hells as "full of sensuous delights" for the beings living there, but obviously such pleasures would seem like hell to those who had advanced spiritually. Dante's Divine Comedy gives a vivid picture of the various circles of hell, purgatory, and heavenly worlds that surround the divine Empyrean. Egyptian and Tibetan Books of the Dead are instructions to the soul to assure its safe passage through invisible realms.
In the light of the foregoing, Jacob's dream is significant. In Genesis (28:11-15) Jacob "lighted upon a certain place" and in a dream beheld a ladder set up on the earth, its top reaching heaven, and "angels of God ascending and descending on it." We have in this dream yet another allusion to the soul's other-world journey, the ladder to heaven suggesting progress through the ethereal planes of the cosmos.
We take no license in interpreting Jacob's dream in this manner, for the teaching concerning other worlds was familiar to both Jews and Christians of the Near East, as is evidenced in the writings of the Church Father Origen (c. 185-254 A.D.) who held the view that the soul is "Immortal and eternal. . . . [and] that, in the many and endless periods of duration in the immeasurable and different worlds, it may descend from the highest good to the lowest evil, or be restored from the lowest evil to the highest good." (Origen, De Principiis, III, i, 21.)
The ladder, of course, was a favorite way of illustrating the path that leads upward through seven or ten levels or kingdoms or states of consciousness. One of its most interesting forms is the stepped pyramid of Egypt, ancient America, Babylon, Java, and elsewhere. Particularly suggestive is the name of the Babylonian ziggurat, Etemenanki, which means "the house of the seven directions of heaven and earth." (7)
Commenting on the stairway to perfection designed by the Catalan mystic and alchemist, Ramon Lull, S. K. Heninger writes that "the human understanding bestrides the extended continuum from imperfect to perfect, from object to subject, from the sense-perceptible to that which can be known by mind alone. In that way, it ranges the full extent of God's creation from lowest to highest, and knows by direct apprehension each link in the cosmic chain." (The Cosmographical Glass, pp. 160-62)
More simply put, the stairway to wisdom consists of following the path of virtue laid out by every great teacher. When we do that, higher faculties of mind and heart develop naturally and we become sensitive to the influence of "heavenly" worlds.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1984. Copyright © 1984 by Theosophical University Press.)
1. F. Max Muller, The Sacred Books of the East, The Vendidad, trans. J. Darmesteter, Oxford University Press, 1880; IV, Part 1, Fargard XXI, iiic, 12(32). (return to text)
2. Moshan Fani, The Dabistan, trans. David Shea & Anthony Troyer, Tudor Publishing Co., 1937; pp. 144-54. See also The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East, Parke, Austin & Lipscomb, 1917; VII 185-207. (return to text)
3. S. K. Heninger, Jr., The Cosmographical Glass, The Huntington Library, 1977; pp. 160-62. (return to text)
4. Walter Scott, ed. & trans., Hermetica, Oxford University Press, 1924; I, i, 115-33. (return to text)
5. G. R. S. Mead, Thrice-Greatest Hermes, Theosophical Publishing House, 1906; I, 413-18; reprint, John M. Watkins, London, 1964. (return to text)
6. Isaac Myer, Qabbalah, 1888; facsimile reprint, Samuel Weiser, 1974; pp. 415-16, 426. (return to text)
7 . J. E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, tr. J. Sage, Philosophical Library, 1962; p. 316. (return to text)