Descents into Hades -- Ascents into Heaven

By Eloise Hart
From the unreal lead me to the real!
From darkness lead me to light!
From death lead me to immortality!
-- Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad, I. 3.28

The process by which mortals become immortal was once universally respected. Past cultures believed that our consciousness, when freed from the body, enters multidimensional regions of experience, and also that it is possible to retain an awareness during our soul's nightly and after-death journeys. They described these adventures in various Descent into Hades and Ascent into Heaven stories. Jesus, we are told, descended into hell to free men from chains, the third day he rose from the dead, and later ascended to his Father. Job, in his way, also went through hell and triumphed, humbled yet wiser. Arjuna, prince of the Pandavas and disciple of Krishna, was, according to India's Mahabharata, (1) drawn under the waters of Patala by Ulupi, daughter of the Serpent King. This suggests some type of consciousness transformation, serpents being a worldwide symbol of those advanced human beings who travel and participate in the three worlds and who, as custodians of hidden truth, give portions of it to trustworthy individuals and groups to assist mankind's advancement.

An interesting version of the descent into the Underworld is related in the Katha Upanishad. (2) The episode begins when Naciketas, after watching his father give practically everything he owned in sacrifice to the gods, cried out in alarm: "Papa, to whom will you give me?" The father, annoyed at the interruption, exclaimed: "I give you to Yama (God of Death)."

Stunned, but remembering that "like corn the mortal ripens and falls, and like corn, is born again," Naciketas departed for the House of Death. On arrival, and finding that Yama was away, he waited. Three days later Yama returned. Chagrined that the lad had waited so long without food or hospitality, he offered him three boons. For the first, Naciketas asked for a propitious return to his father. For the second, to be given the understanding of that fire (sacrifice) whereby the heaven-dwellers attain immortality, and that frees one from sorrow and the fear of old age. Yama, acknowledging that such knowledge was already "set down in the secret place [of the heart]," unfolded to the boy a panoramic picture of the world being born and sustained. He then explained how by sacrifice, study, and service a man may transcend birth and death and enter higher realms.

The third wish was not so willingly granted. When Naciketas asked to know about life after "the great passing-on," Yama explained that so subtle and sacred a knowledge could not be revealed to mortals. He offered him wealth, sons and grandsons, horses, elephants, long life, fame -- anything his heart desired. "All these I give to thee, O Naciketas, but ask not about death." But the youth having glimpsed beyond, would have nothing less than "the boon which penetrates the mystery." Finally Yama relented, and revealed strange and wonderful truths, adding, to become immortal one must renounce worldly thoughts and desires and open his heart to Atman, the Self Supreme.

What is Atman, the Self Supreme? It is the spiritual essence within each individual; that which survives the death of bodily forms and transformations. Higher than mind (manas), superior to spiritual understanding (buddhi), it is that which, when one finds it by his heart and his thoughts, enables him to understand that which can and that which cannot be seen. He who knows the Self, Yama declared, becomes immortal.

Upon receiving this most sacred knowledge, Naciketas "attained Brahman" (enlightenment). Never again would he be the captive of passions or of death. And thus, the writer of the Upanishad assures us, "may any other who knows this in regard to the Self (Atman)."

The assurance that we can "by sacrifice, study, and service" transcend our mortality and participate consciously in dimensions beyond the physical is reinforced by comparable stories in other traditions. The Persians tell of a young priest, Ardai Viraf (3) who entered the invisible realms to recover "intelligence from the spirits" that would restore their religion. Leaving his body asleep, his spirit ascended and beheld wonders most remarkable. Relating these later he described the fate of departing souls: those who in life had benefited others, after death enjoy the most delightful of pleasures; but those who had been selfish and cruel suffer agonies terrible to imagine. He spoke too of the secrets he had learned from the regents of various planetary "stations," each of whom had explained the laws and conditions of the systems and spheres over which he ruled.

The Graeco-Egyptian "Vision of Hermes"(4) presents similar teachings and tells how the youthful Hermes attained knowledge "most marvelous." Entering an abyss of "terrifying encircling darkness" and then "ascending into the vast regions beyond," he witnessed the luminous birth and unfolding of worlds; beheld, among other things, the descendings and ascendings of souls as they pass through experiences within the seven spheres of the planets.

These accounts confirm our intuitive feelings that life continues after death, and give credence to present-day reports of near-death experiences; and they seem especially possible to those who believe that we are surrounded by forces, substances, intelligences, and regions which, as Yama told Naciketas, "cannot be seen" with mortal eyes.

Poets and preachers have populated these regions with angels and demons, while philosophical writings supply details of their hierarchical structure. Early Christian teachings, immortalized by Dante, describe the many "circles" of Hell or "Infernos," stages of Purgatory, and regions of "Heaven." Hindus call these multilevel regions lokas and talas, the bipolar, interpenetrating spheres and states of consciousness we even now participate in.

The seven lokas (a Sanskrit term meaning world, a vast space), being the higher ranges or heavenly aspects of these various regions, are inhabited by spiritually creative beings; while the talas (Sanskrit, lower part, or base) being the more material and therefore "hellish" aspects, are populated by less conscious creatures who function as builders, sustainers, and destroyers of bodies and forms.(5)

These writings, and those of the Greeks, mention the fact that all living beings periodically "descend" into material realms in order to unfold and develop the full gamut of their qualities and talents. Interestingly, it is on Earth, in this lowest loka-tala -- which has been referred to as the antipodes (or hell) because of the suffering experienced -- that souls awaken and begin to express mental and spiritual qualities that enable them to progress self-consciously upwards. Ultimately, after ages of trial and effort, they become fully aware and at one with the Supreme Self and attain immortality -- the boon Naciketas sought in Yama's domain.

These ideas were familiar to Assyrians and Babylonians whose great Mother goddess, Ishtar, entered the Netherworld leaving at each stage of the descent a piece of her jewelry or garments. They were symbolized by the Egyptians in their story of Isis, who descended into the Underworld to recover and reunite the dismembered body of her husband, Osiris, the Sun-god. Greeks and Romans immortalized this theme in tales of Odysseus' encounter with shades from the House of Hades; of Cupid and Psyche; of Demeter, who rescued her daughter, Persephone, from the kingdom of Death; and of Orpheus, whose efforts to recover his beloved Eurydice failed because, as he led her upwards toward daylight, he looked back and, in forgetting the god's caution, lost what he treasured most.(6)

Hercules also made the hazardous descent. As part of his twelfth and final labor he overcame Cerberus, the three-headed hound guarding the gates of Hades, and freed mankind's benefactor, Prometheus. This won him a place among the Immortals of Olympus -- immortality here implying not never dying, but sustaining an awareness during transformations.(7)

The significance of these metaphorical accounts of descents/ascents may be explored in connection with 1) in-depth psychological examination; 2) scientific/philosophical interpretations of mankind's evolutionary "fall" and "resurrection"; 3) initiatory ordeals during which candidates gain through actual experience knowledge of nature's invisible realms; and 4) the periodic incarnations of Avataras, Christs, and Buddhas.

Psychological descents/ascents are familiar: who of us has not felt a kind of spiritual ascension when we have triumphed over adversity; who of us has not been "drawn down" beneath waves of pain and depression, or imprisoned by conscious and subconscious passions and fears? These are the dread underworld monsters that hierophants of old and psychologists today help pupils and patients to understand, and then confront and subdue. For it is by transforming into good the forces that repeatedly wreak havoc in our lives that we become freer, wiser, and strong enough psychologically to function in the higher levels of awareness.

Scientific/philosophical interpretations deal with the astronomical-agricultural and initiatory cycle. This cycle, patterned on the Sun's annual passage through the twelve months or signs of the zodiac, climaxes at the winter solstice. The Sun (or human initiant), having "descended" from its summertime sidereal height, now enters the subterranean antipodes (Hades, Patala), and on the 21st-22nd of December remains captive three (or fourteen) days and nights in the House of Death. Then, it arises newborn, Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, bearing gifts that rejuvenate the world. The gifts of the Christmas-New Year season represent both the seeds which, fructified within nature's womb, assure an abundant harvest, and also, the spiritual teachings which enrich and regenerate our souls.

The sowing of good seeds, of good thoughts and deeds, assures refinement of character and development of spiritual potentials. To achieve this, years, (perhaps lifetimes) of intensive instruction, self-discipline, and purification are essential. Otherwise, like Orpheus, we become entangled in illusions of the past. Success comes through impersonality and detachment. Possessing these, the aspirant makes the perilous descent safely and rises into heavenly regions, from which he brings back, according to Cicero, "a brighter view of life and a livelier hope as regards death." (8)

The most inspiring interpretation of the ascent/descent deals with the coming of great Teachers. Responding to the cries of the suffering world, compassionate souls "descend" into what to them is a hell. They labor in every way possible to bring light and freedom from the chains of ignorance and fear. Jesus' love and light have inspired believers for two thousand years, while in the East Buddha, Avalokitesvara and the beloved Kwan Yin are corresponding embodiments of mercy and love. In response to the vow made ages ago to bring to enlightenment all sentient creatures, they benefit the world in "a thousand, thousand ways."

Philosophically, Avalokitesvara (which means literally "the Lord that is seen from below") is the Atman or Supreme Self in man and cosmos. It is the all-embracing compassion that continually "descends" into our world, nourishing, sustaining, inspiring, and encouraging all who yearn for light.

Reflection on these various descent/ascent stories brings conviction that a part of our natures lives even now in unseen worlds, below and above. Thus we can become a part of and at one with our Supreme Self to the degree that we transfer our attention from the personal and material to the impersonal and spiritual. As we do, higher faculties gradually unfold until one day we "see" the marvels most wonderful which were revealed to Naciketas, Ardai Viraf, Hermes, Hercules, and others. When this occurs we, like them, will be free of the fear of dying and able to bring back from those unseen realms knowledge that will bless life on Earth, and make the hereafter "bright with hope and beautiful."

(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1989; copyright © 1989 Theosophical University Press)

World Spiritual Traditions Menu


1. Mahahharata, I (16), J. A. B. van Buitenen, trans. & ed. , 206; p. 400. (return to text)
2. Katha Upanishad, passim, Robert Ernest Hume, trans. & ed. (return to text)
3. "The Vision of Ardai Viraf," Sunrise (26:9), June/July 1977. (return to text)
4. Wisdom of the Egyptians, Brian Brown, 263-7; also Sunrise (22:2), November 1972. (return to text)
5. The Esoteric Tradition, G. de Purucker, I73-9, 541-60. (return to text)
6. Cf. Dialogues of G. de Purucker, 1: 271-2. (return to text)
7. "The Descent into Hades," The Blavatsky Lecture, London, 1982, Ted G. Davy. (return to text)
8. Cicero, On the Laws II. I4.36; cf. G. de Purucker, Fundamentals of the Esoteric Philosophy, p. 290. (return to text)