The page describes the process a human soul goes through after physical death until it returns back to earth in a new human body. This page does not go into how a human soul came into existence in the first place. I am told that there about 60 billion human souls in existence who can incarnate on earth and no more new human souls are being 'created' at the moment by the Creator. Out of these 60 billion currently about six and a half billion are in incarnation.
The Bodies of Man
As mentioned in the page on the Path on this site, a human being is a soul in incarnation and while in incarnation, it takes on several vehicles or sheaths which enable it to function on the lower planes.
The five vehicles of the soul are:
Sanskrit Kosha (Sheath)
Sanskrit Sharira (Body)
Lower Sukshma Sharira
Higher Sukshma Sharira
After death when the physical body dies, his other bodies are still 'alive'. Each one of them (with the exception of the causal body) will go through their own process of passing away (or 'dying') before the soul returns back home and then is later reborn again with a new mental/astral/etheric and of course physical body in a new incarnation. The only exception is the causal body, this specific vehicle of the soul does not die and the same one is used through out the many (could be thousands) of lifetimes of the soul on earth. The causal body does 'die' at the fourth Initiation and is no longer needed after that (usually only one more life is required after the fourth initiation).
The Physical Body
The physical body is quite well understood by modern science. Science is however unaware of the other bodies even though many scientists may believe in a soul based upon their religious faith. However, all the other bodies play a part in our life on earth and their condition has a considerable affect on our life and actions which are not all determined by our physical body and our brain. All the other bodies stay with the physical body through out the person's lifetime and separate from it only at death. However, during deep sleep, the human usually separates from the physical body, i.e. the astral body (together with mental and causal body) steps out of the physical body. Less spiritually developed humans usually hang around their physical bodies during this time. More developed humans often travel widely during this time in the astral world. The memory of these travels remains with the astral body and is not easily transferred to the physical brain. However, sometimes a person who wakes from a good night's sleep may be aware of things like solutions to problems or other new information that he may have received in the astral world and may have successfully transferred to the brain. Some people have reported separating their astral body consciously while awake and travelling in the astral world. They may even claim to be able to train you to do this. During life there is always a 'silver chord' that connects the astral body to the physical. This chord can stretch pretty far, so the astral travels can be quite extensive. At physical death this chord is broken and the astral body can consciously separate from the physical and then from the etheric body.
The Etheric/Pranic Body
This is our pranic or energy body which is an exact duplicate of our physical bodies. If we had etheric vision and could see this body, it would look exactly like the gross physical one. Of particular interest to scientists maybe the fact that most diseases and illnesses start in our etheric bodies. Etheric bodies are also the ones which contain our chakras and nadis. Each physical object (animate or inanimate) also has its etheric counter part, so the etheric world is a duplicate counter part of the gross physical world. When the physical body dies, the etheric body also does not survive and dies soon afterwards (at most after a couple of days) - the sooner it does, the better for the person. However, the elementals that make up the etheric body sometimes may instinctively struggle to prolong its life and make it more difficult for the soul and its other bodies to separate from it. In this case, it is best for the human to use his will (sankalpa) to separate from the etheric body which will die soon anyway. The practice of cremation of the physical body (which also cremates the etheric one) is helpful in this respect.
The Astral Body and Its Life
A human being after death does not really change at all. As a person, he is intrinsically exactly the same - emotionally, mentally, spiritually - he just does not have a physical body any more. On his first arrival here, he is often met by friends and relatives who have passed on before him and are still in the astral world. There are also 'helpers' whose mission is to ease the transition for humans who have recently died.
The Astral World
The astral world can be divided into seven planes, from the lowest to the highest. It is convenient to think of them as 'layers' rising one above the other - the lowest astral plane is said to be 'below the earth'. However, the seven planes are not above one another, they actually occupy the same space, what differentiates them is the finer nature of the astral material of the higher planes. So you could move from the lowest astral plane to the highest, without moving in 'space' at all. The lowest astral plane is spiritually at a lower level than the average spiritual level on earth (so it is not physically below the earth's surface).
After death most of us will find ourselves either on the 6th or 5th astral plane. Only the most evil, depraved, cruel people find themselves on the seventh (lowest) plane. At a time of intense anger, hate, malice or other strong, unhealthy emotions, or while planning/commiting evil deeds, this plane is where you reside even while alive. Highly spiritual people may actually go directly to a higher plane than the 5th (a few who are near the end of their cycle on earth, may skip the astral life altogether). The seventh plane is the 'hell' that most religions warn you about. Besides the evil people who find themselves there after death, there are other discarnate unpleasant beings (like vampires) present there also. Luckily almost all of us will not be visiting this place.
The next two planes are where most of us arrive after death - this is probably what the Christians call purgatory. We spend time here being purged of many of our human emotions, desires, cravings until we are ready to move to a higher plane. At the lower regions of the 6th plane, you are at the same level as on earth. Some of us who arrive there after death, may not even realize immediately that they have died. They will be confused, because they can see all their friends or relatives who are still alive, but the friends don't seem to be aware of their presence or hear anything they say.
The nature of the astral world is very subjective. All objects, beings, scenery etc are very fluid and appear to each according to his own state of being. So anything can be pleasant or unpleasant, depending on how you 'feel' about it.
The Astral Body
The astral body does not have a fixed form. It usually takes the appearance it is most familiar with - that of the physical body when alive. Most people prefer to appear younger after death, so they usually take the shape they were in when they were in their thirties on earth (people who die younger would of course look the same age as when they died). The astral self still retains the gender of the physical person, although there is no basic difference between the male and female astral bodies. The astral body is also quite indestructible, so it can not be injured or hurt, can not fall sick, does not need to be fed. It does not get fatigued or need any sleep. However, at the lowest plane, it is quite possible to undergo deep pain and suffering. You can feel 'tired' or in 'pain', but you can get rid of this feeling, merely by an act of will. Though the form may appear to have eyes and ears, it does not have specific organs, so it can see/hear/experience thru all its parts. The astral body can also see in all directions simultaneously. (When you 'feel' somebody staring at the back of your head, it is the astral body which is alerting your brain to someone's stare. Of course, the mental body and soul are even more aware of their the surroundings, but they can not communicate with the physical brain that easily). The astral body also can not hide anything, everything that you feel is laid bare for everyone to see. The astral body literally flies and can move very rapidly from place to place by merely thinking about the destination.
As mentioned before, life in the lowest astral plane can literally be 'hell', but most of us will not be visiting there. So after the initial purging of human emotions/cravings, astral life can be quite pleasant. For instance, an alcoholic will still have the craving for drink, but absolutely no way to satisfy this craving, so he may be quite miserable at first. Once the craving has been purged (with time), he will automatically 'gravitate' to a higher level and feel better. Similarly, those who valued money, possessions or power on earth, may also be miserable because there is nothing to be owned and no one to be controlled, everyone is the same and pretty much equal. Eventually they will get over this also.
While you are on the 6th or 5th plane, you will also be able to meet your friends and relatives who are still alive (while they are sleeping). As mentioned before, during deep sleep, the astral body separates from the physical body. You can then meet and communicate with these 'sleeping' friends (so separation from departed ones, far from being permanent, is often quite short. However, once the departed ones move on to higher planes, it is no longer easy for the living to meet them during sleep). The sleeping humans will not remember having met you the next day, but some impression of what was said will remain in their subconsious. (Of course, if you have 'evil' or 'mean' friends, who are living, you will have to meet them on the 7th plane.) A minor problem, some non-human entities on the lower planes may resent your presence and try to frighten you (they have learnt that recent human arrivals are easily scared). As long as you remember that they can not harm you (teh astral bosy after all can not be hurt), you will survive this initial problem - if you ignore them, these entities will leave you alone.
The higher astral planes are probably a bit like the Islamic idea of heaven. There are many objects and creatures of beauty. If you like music or art - you can spend time creating as well as experiencing these things at a much higher level than is possible on earth. You can create vast buildings ('castles in the air') or exquisite works of art, merely by imagining their form. If you like learning, there is much knowledge/material available - all of the world's literature, science, mathematics is open to you (there is no limitation imposed by a physical brain, so by physical earth's standards, everyone can be a genius). If you have no interests, of course, you may even be bored.
On the average, we spend about 25 years in the astral world, some will spend longer, others hardly any time. Though life on the astral planes is not necessarily bad, when we pray for the soul of the departed we are really asking that his time here, especially on the lower planes, be minimized and he be sped along on the journey 'upwards'. The Hindu practice of performing regular 'sraddha' for the dead is helpful in this regard. Eventually the astral body 'dies' (unlike physical death, this a smooth, painless process) and the person moves onwards to the mental world (or 'heaven'). Those who are spiritually undeveloped, will at this stage be ready to be reborn on earth, without any time spent at all in the mental world. Children who die young spend a very short time in the astral world as well as in the mental world and are ready to be reborn much sooner than the average person. Some really evil people may not rise at all above the 7th plane and reincarnate back on earth directly from there. For instance, many of the Nazis from the Hitler era are still languishing on the 7th plane. In fact, if level of consiousness on earth is raised higher in the next few decades, these Nazis may never be able to reincarnate on earth - they may be forced to incarnate on some other less developed planet.
The Mental Body and Devachan
The mental world is probably what many religions have described as 'heaven'. It is a place of peace and bliss which is a little beyond human understanding. This is also the plane from which the Masters operate. A person is said to reside there in 'Devachan'. The mental body has no gender or any specific form. The mental plane is also a place of rest where the human can get ready for his next life. The time spent here can be considerable for most people - usually several hundred years, even more than a thousand years is possible. Less developed, primitive people may not be here at all or may spend very little time here. Another exception, are the very highly developed people - those near the end of their cycle of life-rebirth on earth - in this case their Master may intervene to shorten their time in Devachan so they may be reborn sooner - in order to perform a specific mission on earth or just to finish their earthly cycle and move on (for instance Helena Blavatsky has been reborn in our time and so has Abraham Lincoln, both probably for their last life on earth).
The mental world is actually 'lower heaven'. After the passing of the mental body, a few of us move on to the 'higher heaven' for a short while before being reborn. This 'higher heaven' is the plane where all the souls reside. Most average humans do not get to enter this 'higher heaven' and are directly reborn after Devachan.
As the three bodies - physical/etheric, astral, mental - 'die', the characteristics of the previous incarnation are saved in three what are called 'permanent atoms' (Sanskrit - Skandas) - the physical permanent atom, the astral permanent atom and the mental permanent atom. These three permanent atoms are preserved (along with the causal body) through out the soul's numerous incarnations on earth.
After the passing of the mental body, the soul with the help of the Masters prepares for and plans the next life and what it should be like - together choosing the best way for further development along the path as well as fulfilling its past karma. Accordingly, a choice of parents and a time of birth is made (for karmic reasons many relatives and friends will be those already encountered in previous lives), a suitable gender is chosen (each human is born as a male slight more than 50% of the time, as a female slightly less often), a guardian angel for the new life journey is assigned, a new physical, a new astral and a new mental body are seeded at exactly the same level of development as in the previous cycle (using the three permanent atoms that are preserved) and the great adventure of life begins all over again. The same causal body is used through out the time on earth, until the fourth initiation, at which point the causal body is destroyed - the soul and personality are fused together as one, the Soul then directly resides and operates in the person. Usually only one more life is required after this, before the person is liberated from the cycle of birth and death.
Death and Reincarnation of Animals
Unlike humans, animals do not have individual souls (they have group souls). Animals do have an astral body (as well as an etheric body) just like humans, but their stay in the astral world after death is relatively short (probably not more than a few months). They do not have a well developed mental body and so do not have a separate stay in Devachan like humans - i.e. all dogs do not go to heaven individually but lose their individuality as they become one with the group soul. The dogs that are then reborn from this group soul, do not retain any of the separate characteristics of the previous birth, but have characteristics that are collectively present in the group. In primitive animals, the whole species may have one group soul. In the case of domesticated animals or advanced wild animals, a specific breed will have single group soul - in some cases this soul may split further to accommodate only a portion of that breed. In some exceptional cases, pets (usually cats or dogs) because of the bond that they have developed with their human master, become mentally and emotionally advanced enough to individualize and enter the human family as a new human soul, but these cases are very, very rare.
Aliens Amongst Us
Souls from other systems and planets may also sometimes choose to be born as human - their purpose would be to help humanity in some way (George Adamski or the Hindu Avatars like Ramakrishna, Ramanna Maharishi are examples). Some souls from other planets are sometimes required to be born on earth (in this case they are fallen or are being sent as part of their karmic atonement or sort of punishment - Shakespeare and Mozart are examples). All these are very few in number and in most cases are advanced individuals compared to average humans.
Various Names for the Planes of Existence
Plane of the Father - Shiva
Plane of the Son - Vishnu
Higher Heaven - Soul plane
Planes of the Holy Spirit - Brahma
Lower Heaven (between lives)
Note that these planes are not separated or 'above' each other in space. They are superimposed on each other, so you can move from one to the other without moving in space. In other words you could reside in heaven while walking on earth. Also there are various cosmic level planes above the Divine plane, but these seven planes are as far as those of us within our solar system can hope to enter.
Among Christians, especially the Catholic Church, there exists the belief that there is no concept of 'time' outside the physical plane (Catholics only believe in heaven, hell and purgatory in any case). This belief is quite untrue. Time exists in all planes, but it is experienced differently in each. Time passes faster and faster as one moves up the planes, until we get to the Divine planes where speed of Time is infinite - Past, Present and Future are fused into One and everything on Earth appears to be happening simultaneously.
The Astral Body and other astral phenomena. By A.E.Powell