Theosophical University Press Online Edition
High in the esteem of the Hindu stands the serpent, both as a symbol and a creature. Moving in a wavy line, he figures the vast revolution of the Sun through eternal space carrying the rapidly whirling Earth in her lesser orbit; periodically casting his skin, he presents a visible illustration of renewal of life or reincarnation; coiling to strike, he shows the working of the law of Karma-Nemesis which, with a basis in our actions, deals an unerring blow. As a symbol with tail in mouth, forming a circle, he represents eternity, the circle of necessity, all-devouring Time. For the older Initiates he spoke to them also of the astral light which is at once devilish and divine.
Probably in the whole field of Theosophic study there is nothing so interesting as the astral light. Among the Hindus it is known as Akasa, which can also be translated as æther. Through a knowledge of its properties they say that all the wonderful phenomena of the Oriental Yogis are accomplished. It is also claimed that clairvoyance, clairaudience, mediumship, and seership as known to the Western world are possible only through its means. It is the register of our deeds and thoughts, the great picture gallery of the earth, where the seer can always gaze upon any event that has ever happened, as well as those to come. Swimming in it as in a sea are beings of various orders and also the astral remains of deceased men and women. The Rosicrucians and other European mystics called these beings Sylphs, Salamanders, Gnomes, Undines, Elementals; the Hindu calls them Gandharvas or celestial musicians, Yakshas, Rakshasas and many more. The "spooks" of the dead — mistaken by Spiritualists for the individuals who are no more — float in this Akasic substance, and for centuries have been known to the mystical Hindu as Bhuta, another name for devil, or Pisacha, a most horrible devil — neither of them any more than the cast-off soul-body nearest earth, devoid of conscience and only powerful for evil.
But the term "astral light," while not new, is purely of Occidental origin. Porphyry spoke of it when referring to the celestial or soul-body, which he says is immortal, luminous, and "star-like"; Paracelsus called it the "sidereal light"; later it grew to be known as astral. It was said to be the same as the anima mundi or soul of the world. Modern scientific investigators approach it when they speak of "luminiferous ether" and "radiant matter." The great astronomer, Camille Flammarion, who was a member of the Theosophical Society during his life, speaks of the astral light in his novel Uranie and says: "The light emanating from all these suns that people immensity, the light reflected through space by all these worlds lighted by these suns, photographs throughout the boundless heaven the centuries, the days, the moments as they pass.... From this it results that the histories of all the worlds are travelling through space without dispersing altogether, and that all the events of the past are present and live evermore in the bosom of the infinite."
Like all unfamiliar or occult things the astral light is difficult to define, and especially so from the very fact that it is called "light." It is not the light as we know it, and neither is it darkness. Perhaps it was said to be a light because when clairvoyants saw by means of it, the distant objects seemed to be illuminated. But as equally well distant sounds can be heard in it, heavy bodies levitated by it, odors carried thousands of miles through it, thoughts read in it, and all the various phenomena by mediums brought about under its action, there has been a use of the term "light" which while unavoidable is none the less erroneous.
A definition to be accurate must include all the functions and powers of this light, but as those are not fully known even to the mystic, and wholly terra incognita for the scientist, we must be content with a partial analysis. It is a substance easily imagined as imponderable ether which, emanating from the stars, envelopes the earth and permeates every atom of the globe and each molecule upon it. Obeying the laws of attraction and repulsion, it vibrates to and fro, making itself now positive and now negative. This gives it a circular motion which is symbolized by the serpent. It is the great final agent, or prime mover, cosmically speaking, which not only makes the plant grow but also keeps up the diastole and systole of the human heart.
Very like the action of the sensitive photographic plate is this light. It takes, as Flammarion says, the pictures of every moment and holds them in its grasp. For this reason the Egyptians knew it as the Recorder; it is the Recording Angel of the Christian, and in one aspect it is Yama, the judge of the dead in the Hindu pantheon, for it is by the pictures we impress therein that we are judged by Karma.
As an enormous screen or reflector the astral light hangs over the earth and becomes a powerful universal hypnotizer of human beings. The pictures of all acts good and bad done by our ancestors as by ourselves, being ever present to our inner selves, we constantly are impressed by them by way of suggestion and go then and do likewise. Upon this the great French priest-mystic, Eliphas Levi, says: "we are often astonished when in society at being assailed by evil thoughts and suggestions that we would not have imagined possible, and we are not aware that we owe them solely to the presence of some morbid neighbor; this fact is of great importance, since it relates to the manifestation of conscience — one of the most terrible and incontestable secrets of the magic art.... So diseased souls have a bad breath, and vitiate the moral atmosphere; that is to say, they mingle impure reflections with the astral light which penetrates them, and thus establish deleterious currents." (1)
There is also a useful function of this light. As it preserves the pictures of all past events and things, and as there is nothing new under the sun, the appliances, the ideas, the philosophy, the arts and sciences of long buried civilizations are continually being projected in pictures out of the astral into the brains of living men. This gives a meaning not only to the oft-recurring "coincidence" of two or more inventors or scientists hitting upon the same ideas or inventions at about the same time and independently of each other, but also to other events and curious happenings.
Some self-styled scientists have spoken learnedly of telepathy, and other phenomena, but give no sufficient reason in nature for thought-transference or apparitions or clairvoyance or the hundred and one varieties of occurrences of an occult character noticed from day to day among all conditions of men. It is well to admit that thought may be transferred without speech directly from one brain to another, but how can the transference be effected without a medium? That medium is the astral light. The moment the thought takes shape in the brain it is pictured in this light, and from there is taken out again by any other brain sensitive enough to receive it intact.
Knowing the strange properties of the astral plane and the actual fate of the sheaths of the soul spoken of in another article, the Theosophical Adepts of all times gave no credit to pretended returning of the dead. Eliphas Levi learned this well and said: "The astral light combining with ethereal fluids forms the astral phantom of which Paracelsus speaks. This astral body being freed at death, attracts to itself and preserves for a long time, by the sympathy of likeness, the reflection of the past life; if a powerfully sympathetic will draws it into the proper current it manifests itself in the form of an apparition." But with a sensitive, abnormally constituted person present — a medium, in other words, and all of that class are nervously unbalanced — the strong will is not needed, for the astral light and the living medium's astral body recall these soulless phantoms, and out of the same reservoir take their speech, their tones, their idiosyncrasies of character, which the deluded devotees of this debasing practice are cheated into imagining as the returned self of dead friend or relative.
Yet all I have referred to here are only instances of a few of the various properties of the astral light. So far as concerns our world it may be said that astral light is everywhere, interpenetrating all things; to have a photographic power by which it grasps pictures of thoughts, deeds, events, tones, sounds, colors, and all things; reflective in the sense that it reflects itself into the minds of men; repellent from its positive side and attractive from the negative; capable of assuming extreme density when drawn in around the body by powerful will or by abnormal bodily states, so that no physical force can penetrate it. This phase of its action explains some facts officially recorded during the witchcraft excitement in Salem. It was there found that although stones and other flying objects came toward the possessed one they always fell as it were from the force of gravity just at the person's feet. The Hindu Yogi gives evidence of a use of this condensation of the astral light when he allows arrows and other projectiles to be thrown at him, all of them falling at his feet no matter how great their momentum, and the records of genuine Spiritualistic phenomena in the United States furnish similar experiences.
The astral light is a powerful factor, unrecognized by science, in the phenomenon of hypnotism. Its action will explain many of the problems raised by Binet, Charcot and others, and especially that class in which two or more distinct personalities seem to be assumed by the subject, who can remember in each only those things and peculiarities of expression which belong to that particular stratum of their experience. These strange things are due to the currents in the astral light. In each current will be found a definite series of reflections, and they are taken up by the inner man, who reports them through speech and action on this plane as if they were his own. By the use of these currents too, but unconsciously, the clairvoyants and clairaudients seem to read in the hidden pages of life.
This light can therefore be impressed with evil or good pictures, and these are reflected into the subconscious mind of every human being. If you fill the astral light with bad pictures, just such as the present century is adept at creating, it will be our devil and destroyer, but if by the example of even a few good men and women a new and purer sort of events are limned upon this eternal canvas, it will become our Divine Uplifter.
1. Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie. (return to text)