At whatever period of history we look, we find that man has never been without a friend. Even at the darkest moments of the world's history, or of our own individual lives, help and comfort can always be derived if we know where to look for them.
Of real help and comfort to us is the understanding of the meaning of a circumstance and the way it should be faced. There are few philosophers as helpful in this respect for the ordinary person as Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor of the second century, and Epictetus, the slave philosopher. They are far better teachers on how to live than many of the present writers and psychiatrists.
If indeed we are a superior genus of animal, and to die is to cease to be, then let us "eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die." If we are immortal, divine beings in animal-human forms, having a goal of perfection which must be reached by our own efforts, then we can joyfully shoulder the burdens of life. Life invests itself with a purpose, not a purpose limited to "three-score years and ten," but a purpose which lasts from life to life. There is no death, i.e., cessation, but immortal living.
What is death? Materialistic science says that when we die we are no more; the substance of our bodies goes back to Nature. Religions speak of Heaven and Hell and offer Eternal Bliss or Eternal Hell. Occult Philosophy and the Great Teachers of all ages have given a different teaching, infinitely more reasonable and constructive.
Scientifically, that which exists can never cease to exist; that which does not exist can never exist. Unfoldment takes place and forms change, but Life itself goes on. If our consciousness leaves the body at death, does it cease to be? It leaves the body during sleep, but re-enters when we wake. What happens to it at death when it does not re-enter the body? Are the Spiritualists right when they say that the consciousness lives on in a finer body? The ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead describes the after-death states very graphically, though allegorically. Shall we believe in it? Do we accept what Jesus said to the thief on the cross: "Today shalt thou be with me in paradise"?
Let us go a little deeper and study more fully the ancient teaching on the after-death states.
When a man dies, the immortal part of him leaves the body. As that body has a magnetic counterpart called the astral body, it dwells in that. Immediately he is pronounced dead, he sees in a review his whole past life, down to the smallest detail, and he sees it in a way he had not seen it during life, for the Divine Parent itself descends at the moment of death and floods the personal consciousness with light so that the whole field of the life just lived is illuminated and the meaning of the experiences gone through shown.
When this is done, consciousness withdraws entirely and falls into a sleep that may last for a few hours, a few days, weeks, months or years, depending on the grossness of the last life or its "goodness." During this sleep, either dreamless or nightmarish, another death or separation takes place. All the memories that pertain to the higher side of life stay with the consciousness, while all the gross, selfish desires, feelings and thoughts form an entity which remains in that astral form. The consciousness of this entity is not what we would call consciousness, but unconsciousness, and it drifts like a leaf in the wind while it undergoes the process of disintegration. This second corpse may last for a short while or for a very long while, and if it is left alone the normal process of decomposition will take place. But, if it be contacted by a medium or attracted to a séance, the memories can be reawakened, as the record on a gramophone can be brought to life by the gramophone needle, the medium representing, in this analogy, the needle. This reawakening of the memories of the past life is good neither for the medium nor for the corpse, for its decomposition is hindered. Therefore necromancy has been strongly denounced by all sages.
The consciousness, however, has left the second corpse and, clothed in its highest and purest memories, has risen to what is called the heaven world or Devachan, the place of the Gods. Here it re-lives the past life, but surrounded only by the memories of the aspirations cherished, the good and loving deeds performed during life, and hence it is in a state of complete bliss. The consciousness, the real man, does not know he is alone, but is surrounded by the images of all his loved ones and is in a state of beatitude, out of touch with the earth and therefore not knowing at all what is happening here. As love and thoughts are not mere ephemera but forces, they affect the living, and at night, when the living sleep, their consciousness may touch the consciousness of the departed.
But the ancient teaching is adamant on the point that the living cannot communicate with the dead, as the latter are in a state of subjective consciousness and cannot be awakened to any objective awareness till the next rebirth. Does this sound heartless? Why should it? We leave one another in sleep every night; death is only a longer sleep. The living get the benefit of the love poured out by the departed friends, and can be refreshed by ascent to their high plane during sleep. What does it matter whether we can or cannot carry on conversations with those who have passed on to the higher spheres? Is it not our selfishness that seems to demand it? There is much more comfort in the thought that no one can wake them till they themselves awake after they have assimilated the experiences of the past life. The period required for this process is given on an average of 1000 to 1500 years, though it may be much shorter or much longer, depending on that which has to be assimilated.
The question is sometimes asked: Do consciousnesses on that high plane communicate with one another? The ancient teaching again is adamant: they do not. Magnetically separated from all other entities on that plane, they are left undisturbed until their dream condition is over.
As this dream condition is of each one's own making, those who have believed in the Christian heaven will find themselves in their thought in the typical heaven of pearly gates and harps of gold; the Mohammedan will find himself in the kind of heaven his religion has taught him to expect; the consciousness of those who have been materialists, who have not aspired towards the spiritual world, will be a blank. Man is truly thought-formed. He builds his own environment, both on earth and in the after-death conditions.
Suicides and those cut off from life prematurely by accident or execution do not go through this full process until the time comes when they would have died a natural death. All that a suicide or the executioner can do is to cut off the physical body; the process of second death, above described, has not taken place, so that the man is alive minus the physical body. If he has led a good and pure life, he sleeps; if his character during life was evil or coarse, he thinks and feels accordingly, but has no physical form to act through. This is a very dreadful state to be in, for without a body, cravings cannot be satisfied, and such entities deprived of bodies haunt the sites of crime, drinking dens and so on, and gain some degree of satisfaction. Or they "obsess" living men, often causing them to perform actions of which they are not fully aware. This is one reason why crimes are often in greater evidence after wars. Motive is the important factor and the state of one who sacrifices his life for others will differ greatly from that of one who kills himself to avoid punishment for wrong-doing.
The last words of the Buddha should be borne in mind: "Impermanent are all conditioned beings." Quiet acquiescence in what happens at its proper time affords no occasion for grief.
We have had many bodies and have died many times, so why should we fear death now? Indeed natural death is a gateway to a life of bliss, unalloyed bliss, without worry or care of any kiind. We live entirely in our thoughts and surrounded by the memories of loved ones and of the happy times we have known, as lost in that happy dream as we have been on earth when lost in a daydream.
But all things come to an end, and so does this dream. Life again wakes us, and once more the ray of the Spirit goes out to inhabit a body and to gain further experience. We meet again those we have loved (or hated) and work with them. We have our hard corners rubbed off and our good points of character strengthened, and even though "sorrow is," yet life is good. Rebirth takes place compulsorily until all has been learnt, and then rebirth becomes voluntary.