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By Annie Besant
Who does not remember the story of the Christian missionary in Britain, sitting one evening in the vast hall of a Saxon king, surrounded by his thanes, having come thither to preach the gospel of his Master; and as he spoke of life and death and immortality, a bird flew in through an unglazed window, circled the hall in its flight, and flew out once more into the darkness of the night. The Christian priest bade the king see in the flight of the bird within the hall the transitory life of man, and claimed for his faith that it showed the soul, in passing from the hall of life, winging its way not into the darkness of night, but into the sunlit radiance of a more glorious world. Out of the darkness, through the open window of Birth, the life of a man comes to the earth; it dwells for a while before our eyes; into the darkness, through the open window of Death, it vanishes out of our sight. And man has questioned ever of Religion, Whence comes it? Whither goes it? and the answers have varied with the faiths. To-day, many a hundred year since Paulinus talked with Edwin, there are more people in Christendom who question whether man has a spirit to come anywhence or to go anywhither than, perhaps, in the world's history could ever before have been found at one time. And the very Christians who claim that Death's terrors have been abolished, have surrounded the bier and the tomb with more gloom and more dismal funeral pomp than have the votaries of any other creed. What can be more depressing than the darkness in which a house is kept shrouded, while the dead body is awaiting sepulture? What more repellent than the sweeping robes of lustreless crape, and the purposed hideousness of the heavy cap in which the widow laments the "deliverance" of her husband "from the burden of the flesh"? What more revolting than the artificially long faces of the undertaker's men, the drooping "weepers", the carefully-arranged white handkerchiefs, and, until lately, the pall-like funeral cloaks? During the last few years, a great and marked improvement has been made. The plumes, cloaks, and weepers have well-nigh disappeared. The grotesquely ghastly hearse is almost a thing of the past, and the coffin goes forth heaped over with flowers instead of shrouded in the heavy black velvet pall. Men and women, though still wearing black, do not roll themselves up in shapeless garments like sable winding-sheets, as if trying to see how miserable they could make themselves by the imposition of artificial discomforts. Welcome common-sense has driven custom from its throne, and has refused any longer to add these gratuitous annoyances to natural human grief.
In literature and in art, alike, this gloomy fashion of regarding Death has been characteristic of Christianity. Death has been painted as a skeleton grasping a scythe, a grinning skull, a threatening figure with terrible face and uplifted dart, a bony scarecrow shaking an hour-glass all that could alarm and repel has been gathered round this rightly-named King of Terrors. Milton, who has done so much with his stately rhythm to mould the popular conceptions of modern Christianity, has used all the sinewy strength of his magnificent diction to surround with horror the figure of Death.
The other shape, If shape it might be called, that shape had none Distinguishable in member, joint, or limb, Or substance might be called that shadow seemed, For each seemed either; black it stood as night, Fierce as ten furies, terrible as hell, And shook a dreadful dart; what seemed his head The likeness of a kingly crown had on. Satan was now at hand, and from his seat The monster moving onward came as fast, With horrid strides; hell trembled as he strode.... ... So spoke the grisly terror: and in shape So speaking, and so threatening, grew tenfold More dreadful and deform.... ... but he, my inbred enemy, Forth issued, brandishing his fatal dart, Made to destroy: I fled, and cried out Death! Hell trembled at the hideous name, and sighed From all her caves, and back resounded Death.
That such a view of Death should be taken by the professed followers of a Teacher said to have "brought life and immortality to light" is passing strange. The claim, that as late in the history of the world as a mere eighteen centuries ago the immortality of the Spirit in man was brought to light, is of course transparently absurd, in the face of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary available on all hands. The stately Egyptian Ritual with its Book of the Dead, in which are traced the post-mortem journeys of the Soul, should be enough, if it stood alone, to put out of court for ever so preposterous a claim. Hear the cry of the Soul of the righteous:
O ye, who make the escort of the God, stretch out to me your arms, for I become one of you. (xvii. 22.)
Hail to thee, Osiris, Lord of Light, dwelling in the mighty abode, in the bosom of the absolute darkness. I come to thee, a purified Soul; my two hands are around thee. (xxi. 1.)
I open heaven; I do what was commanded in Memphis. I have knowledge of my heart; I am in possession of my heart, I am in possession of my arms, I am in possession of my legs, at the will of myself. My Soul is not imprisoned in my body at the gates of Amenti. (xxvi. 5, 6.)
Not to multiply to weariness quotations from a book that is wholly composed of the doings and sayings of the disembodied man, let it suffice to give the final judgment on the victorious Soul:
The defunct shall be deified among the Gods in the lower divine region, he shall never be rejected.... He shall drink from the current of the celestial river.... His Soul shall not be imprisoned, since it is a Soul that brings salvation to those near it. The worms shall not devour it. (clxiv. 14-16.)
The general belief in Re-incarnation is enough to prove that the religions of which it formed a central doctrine believed in the survival of the Soul after Death; but one may quote as an example a passage from the Ordinances of Manu, following on a disquisition on metempsychosis, and answering the question of deliverance from rebirths.
Amid all these holy acts, the knowledge of self [should be translated, knowledge of the Self, Atmâ] is said (to be) the highest; this indeed is the foremost of all sciences, since from it immortality is obtained.
The testimony of the great Zarathustrean Religion is clear, as is shown by the following, translated from the Avesta, in which, the journey of the Soul after death having been described, the ancient Scripture proceeds:
The soul of the pure man goes the first step and arrives at (the Paradise) Humata; the soul of the pure man takes the second step and arrives at (the Paradise) Hukhta; it goes the third step and arrives at (the Paradise) Hvarst; the soul of the pure man takes the fourth step and arrives at the Eternal Lights.
To it speaks a pure one deceased before, asking it: How art thou, O pure deceased, come away from the fleshy dwellings, from the earthly possessions, from the corporeal world hither to the invisible, from the perishable world hither to the imperishable, as it happened to thee to whom hail!
Then speaks Ahura-Mazda: Ask not him whom thou asketh, (for) he is come on the fearful, terrible, trembling way, the separation of body and soul.
The Persian Desatir speaks with equal definiteness. This work consists of fifteen books, written by Persian prophets, and was written originally in the Avestaic language; "God" is Ahura-Mazda, or Yazdan:
God selected man from animals to confer on him the soul, which is a substance free, simple, immaterial, non-compounded and non-appetitive. And that becomes an angel by improvement.
By his profound wisdom and most sublime intelligence, he connected the soul with the material body.
If he (man) does good in the material body, and has a good knowledge and religion he is Hartasp....
As soon as he leaves this material body, I (God) take him up to the world of angels, that he may have an interview with the angels, and behold me.
And if he is not Hartasp, but has wisdom and abstains from vice, I will promote him to the rank of angels.
Every person in proportion to his wisdom and piety will find a place in the rank of wise men, among the heavens and stars. And in that region of happiness he will remain for ever.
In China, the immemorial custom of worshipping the Souls of ancestors shows how completely the life of man was regarded as extending beyond the tomb. The Shû King placed by Mr. James Legge as the most ancient of Chinese classics, containing historical documents ranging from B.C. 2357-627 is full of allusions to these Souls, who with other spiritual beings, watch over the affairs of their descendants and the welfare of the kingdom. Thus Pan-kang, ruling from B.C. 1401-1374, exhorts his subjects:
My object is to support and nourish you all. I think of my ancestors (who are now) the spiritual sovereigns.... Were I to err in my government, and remain long here, my high sovereign (the founder of our dynasty) would send down on me great punishment for my crime, and say, "Why do you oppress my people?" If you, the myriads of the people, do not attend to the perpetuation of your lives, and cherish one mind with me, the One man, in my plans, the former kings will send down on you great punishment for your crime, and say, "Why do you not agree with our young grandson, but go on to forfeit your virtue?" When they punish you from above, you will have no way of escape.... Your ancestors and fathers will (now) cut you off and abandon you, and not save you from death.
Indeed, so practical is this Chinese belief, held to-day as in those long-past ages, that "the change that men call Death" seems to play a very small part in the thoughts and lives of the people of the Flowery Land.
These quotations, which might be multiplied a hundred-fold, may suffice to prove the folly of the idea that immortality came to "light through the gospel". The whole ancient world basked in the full sunshine of belief in the immortality of man, lived in it daily, voiced it in its literature, went with it in calm serenity through the gate of Death.
It remains a problem why Christianity, which vigorously and joyously re-affirmed it, should have growing in its midst the unique terror of Death that has played so large a part in its social life, its literature, and its art. It is not simply the belief in hell that has surrounded the grave with horror, for other Religions have had their hells, and yet their followers have not been harassed by this shadowy Fear. The Chinese, for instance, who take Death as such a light and trivial thing, have a collection of hells quite unique in their varied unpleasantness. Maybe the difference is a question of race rather than of creed; that the vigorous life of the West shrinks from its antithesis, and that its unimaginative common-sense finds a bodiless condition too lacking in solidity of comfort; whereas the more dreamy, mystical East, prone to meditation, and ever seeking to escape from the thraldom of the senses during earthly life, looks on the disembodied state as eminently desirable, and as most conducive to unfettered thought.
Ere passing to the consideration of the history of man in the post-mortem state, it is necessary, however briefly, to state the constitution of man, as viewed by the Esoteric Philosophy, for we must have in mind the constituents of his being ere we can understand their disintegration. Man then consists of
The Immortal Triad:
Atmâ. Buddhi. Manas.
The Perishable Quaternary:
Kâma. Prâna. Etheric Double. Dense Body.