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Overview of the Planes of Existence


The following represents a suggested overview of the primary universes or self-manifest modes of the Supreme that constitute the "vertical" or prakritic planes axis of the Cosmos. This is however only one dimension, and these gradations or hypostases should also be considered in terms of the "concentric" levels of being. To collapse the spectrum of being to a single ontocline or paraneter is misleading.

In defining these levels or gradations I have borrowed from Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, Tantra, Sufism, Kabbalah, the Theons, and especially from Sri Aurobindoan concepts. If I rely upon the latter a lot, it is only because in his Life Divine and Letters on Yoga he presents such a clear and comprehensive overview of the spectrum of realities. Even so it is important to remeber that Sri Aurobindo was concerned to lay out a practical path and technique to divinization, and for this reason the states of consciousness in his yoga of ascent refer to states actualised in the physical body and physical mind, and the metaphysical planes and hypostases (which are actual states or dimensions of existence in themselves, as distinct universes) were often more described less thoroughly. Certainly he does not shy away from referring to these, and in fact is one of the very few Indian teachers who does (perhaps due to his incorporating Theosophical and Theonist ideas), but he does not distinguish between these states when actualised in the physical consciousness, and the states as they exist as autonomous supra-physical hypostases. However there is a distinction, if only in terms of "octaves" or "resonances", and Sri Aurobindo's descriptions (as phenomenological exemplars or "type specimens" of consciousness so to speak) is primarily concerning the physical embodiment, integration, and union, of these higher states.

From proximity to the Godhead to the physical cosmos, a number of successive universes or cosmic planes can be described in more detail as follows:

Divine plane Divine or Cosmic Consciousness: The first stage of this metaphysically vertical parameter, the Divine Universe, the upper World of Atzilut, the plane of Active or Free Intelligence or Logos or Overmind Intuition, includes the Divine Worlds, Cosmic Gods and Godheads; intermediate between the Infinite Noetic Godhead (Logos) and the Manifest Temporal Cosmos. Neither totally eternal, infinite and transcendent, or finite and dualistic, this important Plane stands between the two. Here is where the One Light of the Logos or Transcendent Nous becomes a prism of many radiances, archetypes, gods, sefirot, lights... These in turn supervise the creation below. In Kabbalah this is best described as the World of Atzilut (Divine Emanation), although Sri Aurobindo uses the term Overmind, and Theon Free Intelligence. Moving up from lower finite existence, this plane or universe is experienced as a place of profound and subtle cosmic and esoteric mysteries and gnosis hinting at the Unfolding of the Logos [c.f. Gnosticism, Lurianic Kabbalah, etc], in which there is no distinction between oneself and the cosmos [Sri Aurobindo].

Noetic Universe Enlightened Spiritual Mind and Gnosis: The next Universe down from the Divine Pole of existence is the noetic universe, region of pure Enlightened mind, a series of Spiritual Worlds of emanated hierarchies. These are the spiritual hierarchies that emanate from and are the expression and aspects of the Divine world, the ideational Gods and archetypal or divine-Angelic hierarchies. This includes the archetypal or Higher Angelic hierarchies from which originate the gnostic idea-forms that filter down into the angelic ideational planes.  The hierarchies of this Universe still have a greater demiurgic or Creative power than the Affective hierarchies below them. In Kabbalah this is the Archangelic Universe, or the World of Beriah (Creation). According to Sant Mat and to Theon there are several universes here, pure spiritual ontocosms beyond the abstract mental plane. This is equivalent to Sri Aurobindo's Higher Mind level. Moving up from lower finite existence, this ontocosm, to which corresponds in part the Sahasrara or Crown chakra above the head, confers the option of Liberation from rebirth, should one choose that. Sri Aurobindo refers to three levels or gradations of spiritual mind - from lower to higher this is the Higher Mind, Illumined Mind, and Intuitive Mind (the latter intermediate between Mind and Overmind (Divine or Cosmic Consciousness). Moving up from lower finite existence, these universes are experienced as a great Enlightenment, and humans who have attained this state are seen as great saints, avatars and buddhas.

Spiritual Mental plane Spiritual Mind or Pure Intellect: The next Universe down, the Plane of Pure Mind or pure intellect, is the region of pure Creative Ideas. In Kabbalah this is the Angelic Universe, or the World of Beriah (Creation) of Kabbalah, as well as perhaps the upper part of the world of Yetzirah (Formation). It includes the highest faculties normally active in even the developed individual, and the higher unconscious in part, as well as many regions beyond normal human consciousness. Included here are the spiritual hierarchies that emanate from and are the expression and aspects of the Enlightened Mind worlds, including spiritual archetypes which filter down and eventually manifest in the Physical universe. The Ajna chakra (and one might also assume the Nirvana or "lower" crown chakra) is associated here (i.e. due to the fractal nature of reality, this universe corresponds to the ajna etc (just as other universe correspond to their chakras - the spiritual-gnostic to the crown, the "Physical" or Form universe to the muladhara), but the chakras still (in my understanding pertain to the subtle or inner Form universe). Sri Aurobindo refers to this as the lowest of the four levels or gradations of mind - the pure Thinking Mind, or simply Mind or Mental plane. This is in its own realm pure and unsullied by ignorance; it is only the Mind mixed with the lower levels that leads to delusion and doubt, and the limitations of the outer or "gross" surface consciousness. An alternative classification would be to include the Mental as the lowest sublevel of the Noetic.

Pure Affective Plane Universe of Desire or Intention: (Pure Psychic Universe(s)). The psychic or desire or intentional reality, is, like all the planes or universes, a vast region, with many subdivisions. Most often it is divided into two. The higher levels are heaven regions of pure spiritual emotion and love, can be called the Angelic Universe, being in part equivalent to the Kabbalistic Yetzirah and spiritualist celestial realms, and a region of pure Love and Compassion. It includes the Spiritual and Spiritual-Psychic World; the highest faculties normally active in a person; the higher unconscious in part. This is the lowest of the spiritual heaven realms or "pure universes", and is represented by the Anahata or Heart chakra, wherein dwells the Higher Self (hence Max Theon identifies this region with the Soul degree). The lower subdivisions correspond to various psychic and occult planes of existence. Many of the higher psychic experiences, revelations, religious experiences, and so on, come from here. This is a region of great desires and passions, and a snare for the gullible and unwary, who mistake the half-luminous denizens of this Plane for an ascended master or superme deity. In western esotericism such as Theosophy and Hermeticism, this is or includes the Astral plane. Theon uses the term Nervo or Nervous.

Physical Plane Universe of Material Form: (Gross and Subtle Physical) The most manifest universe, the plane of Form or Matter, can also be divided into one or more upper or more subtle spiritual and a lower or dense subdivision. These are referred to in Adya Theosophical, Anthroposophical, and some New Age thought as the Etheric and the Physical. The Etheric region represents the interface between the Psychic (and more subtle realities) and the Physical proper. It also includes many refined, subtle and Imaginal states of existence that have little relation to our world, or only irrupt into the known universe occasionally, as UFOs and other anomalous (Fortean) phenomena. In even more subtle dimensions of the physical one finds the physical Astral region, and beyond that Steiner's Spiritual Heirarchies. In the subtle physical also there is what in esoteric Islam is widely called the Imaginal Realm, the Barzakh or the Intermediate World, in which "bodies are spiritualitised and spirits corporalised". In western esotericism such as Theosophy and Hermeticism, this is or includes the Astral plane. Theon uses the term Nervo or Nervous Degree. (perhaps equivalent to "etheric" - nadis etc?). The Etheric and Imaginal also provide the blueprints for the Physical universe. Below this of course is the dense physical plane is the material universe, the lower part of the World of Asiyah, which includes physical consciousness, the mundane mind, higher states of consciousness, and also the very restricted state of consciousness in inanimate matter going all the way down to the inconscience of "formless" matter (only formless when expreinced subjectively) or hyle; source of physical laws, and theatre for the soul's evolution, crucible of self-transformation, and the working out of the Divine Plan.

These five (or four or seven or eight or nine or however many) Universes or Planes can also be classified into a group of lower ones, corresponding to the Eastern (Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist) idea of samsara or embodied transmigratory existence, and a group of higher planes of divine consciousness, which can be referred to as the Higher Spiritual worlds. Note that these higher worlds are not the same as Nirvana or Moksha, although if you attain this state you are certainly in the condition described as self-realised or enlightened. But Nirvana is release from all existence - higher and lower, enlightened and ignorant. Nirvana, Moksha, or Mukti (Liberation) is a state of non-being, a return to the Supreme (or rather, a realisation that you always were the Supreme). But in realising that you lose your embodied existence. You are no longer a part of the evolution of the cosmos to the state of Divinization (or Supramentalisation, in Sri Aurobindo's term). Ultimately it is a matter of choice whether one seeks Nirvana or Supramentalisation (by choice I mean the choice of one's Higher Self, not of the ego or finite personality)

So there are the three Samsaric Worlds or Planes - Gross and Subtle Matter (Form), Orectic, and pure Mind or Spiritual-Ideational (or five or six according to Buddhism (see wheel of rebirth), but they do not use an equivalent classification to the one used here), and a number of higher Spiritual worlds. It might be that in some traditions of Sant Mat / Radhasoami cosmology there are referred to as saguna (with form - the lower three) and nirguna (formless, the higher two).

The dividing line between Samsaric and Spiritual-Divine might correspond to what Sri Aurobindo calls the "void region" above the head; this in other words is the Shunya or Clear Light of Tibetan Buddhism. Below it, you are caught in samasara and karma, above it you have fully integrated gnosis, although there is still the karma from past actions, and the evolutionary impetus of the Higher Self.

Each of these worlds can also be divided into further subworlds.  There are in addition other parameters as well as the ontological series of worlds. All of which contributes to a foundation or framework for a unified Esoteric Science

And just as the Universes of Physical, Astral, Affective, Ideational, etc exist as Universal objective realities, the cosmic or objective reality as a whole, so there is the individual "soul" or support (adhar) of consciousness that corresponds to each.  So we have a psychology of three primary grades of consciousness, which constitute the individualisation of the entity in that particular Universe; an Occult Psychology in other words.  Here the terms Physical, Emotional, and Mental are used. In Kabbalistic terminology these can be referred to as the nefesh (in Kabbalah the psychological faculties of the World of Asiyah (the Physical and Imaginal), and one of several terms for the "soul"), the ruah (the psychospiritual faculties corresponding to Yetzirah, the Mental World), and the neshamah (the soul-principle of Beriah, the Noetic World).




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