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The Subtle Bodies or Vehicles of Consciousness

The elaborate cosmologies of Blavatsky, Leadbeater, and Steiner provide a detailed account of previous ages or eras (Atlantean, Lemurian, etc) that makes wonderful mythology but is contradicted by the insights of modern science.  At best, these fascinating "mytho-histories" are symbolic accounts of the emanation and formation of previous cycles, universes and worlds before our own, or alternatively (and perhaps more likely) describe the involution or early ontology of the psyche (psychogenesis). In any case they should not be taken literally.  Of rather greater utility as a valid metaphysical system is the doctrine of distinct planes of consciousness, each with its own corresponding "vehicle".  Thus, the idea that we exist simultaneously on many levels or planes, not just the physical.  This is a very important concept, and one that appears time and again in various esoteric and emanationsit cosmologies throughout history.

Theosophy says that instead of a single physical body housing the soul (Dualism), there is a series of "bodies" or "vehicles of consciousness", with the Divine spiritual-soul principle within and beyond all of them.  In this regard the theosophical position is a continuation and restatement of Hellenistic Neoplatonic-Hermetic and Indian Upanishadic, Samkhyan, and Vedantic conceptions.   The Theosophical system is derived  especially from the Advaita Vedantic theory of the five koshas ("sheaths"), with Egyptian, and Platonic ideas thrown in for good measure.  This ontology is further modified in Post-Blavastkyian Adyar School or Neotheosophy and also adopted by occultistst of the Golden Dawn, post-Golden Dawn, and OTO Hermetic traditions.  Rudolph Steiner's formulation of physical body,  etheric body, astral body, and Ego, or body, soul, and spirit, was also in large measure based on Theosophy (with Rosicrucian elemnts thrown in).

So each new clairvoyant or occult philosopher gives a new interpretation, a new vision.  But the reality they experience is the same.  Essentially what they are doing is re-discovering the same reality, although also putting in their own preconceptions.  This is a typically esoteric approach, at total varance to the totalitarian once-and-for-all only one revelation attitude of exoteric religion (which reaches it's extremes in Fundamentalism and allows no reinterpretation or questioning at all)

Basically then the Theosophical-Anthroposophical-Occult-Hermetic model is as follows:


The physical body

The physical body needs no introduction.  It is of course the body known through the senses; the "gross" body as opposed to  the "subtle" bodies; the body of flesh and blood; the only part  of our being one whose existence is accepted by materialism.  Al-though made of physical matter, it nevertheless has its own  "instinctive" consciousness (instincts, reflexes, etc).


The etheric (or formative) body

The first of the levels of being beyond the physical body is  the formative-field body or "Etheric" body.  This "Etheric Body" is the subtle life-force  body, which sustains the life of the physical body, and serves as  the mould or matrix for physical metabolic functions.  When all  the vital force is exhausted, the physical body ceases to func-tion (which is what we call death).  Blavatsky is unique among contemporary occultists in postulating two formative or vitality principles; the higher being prana or vital-force, the lower the subtle physical double (equivalent perhaps to the Egyptian Ka) although sometimes the order of these two is reversed.


The astral body

The "Astral Body" is a sort of mental or psychic body, which is the body one exists in  during the "Out of Body Experience" (OBE) or "Astral travelling". This body can thus separate from the lower bodies and jour-ney to other worlds and realms, taking the consciousness with it.  After death and separation from the physical body, the per-sonality exists in the astral body.

Actualy, the term "astral body" is very misleadingly, because there is nothing  particularily "starry" ("Astral") about the subtle body or the occult plane of this name.  The term itself came about due to Adyar Theosophical use of Renaissance and other old occult and esoteric material, the cosmology of which identifies astrological influences with the psychic worlds.

Neo-Theosophical and popular esotericism lacks this astrological cosmology, but justifies the term "astral (star) body" on the very dubious claim  that this subtle body appears to clairvoyant vision to be scintillating and full of sparks.  From there the word unfortunately entered the English language with this meaning (hence "astral travelling", etc).  Alternative terms have been used, such as "desire body" (from Blavatsky's Sanskrit neologism kama-rupa ("desire form"), which is quite valid, as occultly speaking one could say that this body is made up of that psychic stratum which we experience subjectively as physical and emotional desires and selfish needs.


The mental body

This is the body of thoughts or intellect proper.  During life it appears to subtle or clairvoyant vision as a halo around the head; hence the halos of Christian saints and Australian Aboriginal cave art.  After death, when still united with the Emotional body, it constitutes the "soul", the surviving Ego, the central individuality.


The higher mental or causal body

This is the body of higher spiritual inspiration (or gnosis), corresponding to the Sahasrara or Crown chakra, which according to Tantra is located above the head.  Thus, in traditional religious symbolism, "God" and "heaven" are located "above".  The Gnostic-Mental level of consciousness is embryonic in most people, but awakened in the spiritually and higher oc-cultly aware.

As mentioned previously, each of these subtle bodies corresponds to a particular plane or world of existence.  So as well as the "astral body" there is the "Astral plane", as well as the "mental body" the "Mental plane", and so on.

"Body" or self-level
world or plane of existence 
Causal body
Spiritual or Causal world or plane
Mental body
Mental or "Spiritual" world or plane
Astral body
Desire or "Emotional" or "Soul" or "Astral" 
world  or plane
Etheric body
Formative or "Etheric" World or plane
Physical body
Physical world 

Note the distinction between "Mental" and "Astral".  Where earlier esoteric cosmologies like Vedanta and Neoplatonism have one psychic level (termed "Manas" or "Psyche" respectively), the Theosophists have two.  Steiner however combined the Causal and the Mental, he only has four (or sometimes three) planes.  The Theosophists meanwhile consider the Physical and the Etheric as subplanes, and the Mental and the Causal as likewise subplanes.

The Adyar-Theosophical cosmology is very descriptive when it comes to the intermediate planes (the astral and lower mental planes), but much less insightful concerning the higher states of existence.  One can only suppose that people like Leadbeater and that other even more outstanding and talented clairvoyant Geoffrey Hodson had very good psychic clairvoyance, but little spiritual/angelic vision.  Hence this cosmology was rather one- sided: although claiming to describe all the levels of existence, it only really described the lower occult levels, the "astral plane".  When the higher planes are referred to, as they frequently are by Leadbeater, they are clearly being described from the Astral perspective, rather than experienced in their own essence.

In the case of later writers the situation is even worse,  for, no matter how clear their writing style, they seem to have no direct psychic experience or gnostic intuition at all, but simply quote and re-quote what the original clairvoyants said, reducing psychic experience to arid scholasticism, and propounding an indisciminate mix of Blavatsky, Adyar-Theosophy, and miscellaneous material.

Yet the Adyar-Theosophical cosmology is certainly not to be denigrated in its emphasis on the psychic (astral and mental) planes, for such knowledge is just as necessary, if one is to arrive at a comprehensive understanding, as the more elevated knowledge of the higher angelic and Divine intelligences.  For what is the good of knowing all about these totally transcendent levels if you do not know anything of the realities that stand immediately behind, and so influence, the human psyche?



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content by M.Alan Kazlev
page uploaded 1 March 1999; last modified 7 August, 2004.