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Planes of Existence - methodological considerations

Planes of Copnsciousness according to Alice Bailey
"Kosmic Physical" Planes of Existence according to Alice Bailey

Varying methodologies

In tabulating different esoteric cosmic teachings, there is always a danger of putting things in a simplistic and procrustean straightjacket (this in fact is one of the shortcomings of indeed any grand synthesis - e.g. Hegel and his triads, Blavatsky and her seven planes, rounds, etc, or Wilber with his linear levels and 4 quadrants). The correspondences given here should therefore not be taken in any way as dogmatic or conclusive. I am not trying to build a fixed and rigid system; indeed any such attempt is doomed to failure.

That said, it seems that there are several distinct but overlapping methodologies that esoteric cosmologists tend to use. These might be called the psychological, the mystical, and the occult methodologies. It is important not to make too sharp a distinction between them; sometimes they are just teh same reality described from different perspoectives.

The first maps the inner levels of consciousness in terms of realities that can be understood in psychological states. Above is the rational or mental self. Above that are levels of higher intuition and superconsciousness, while below one finds the layers representing the irrational (orectic/emotional) psyche and the phsyical body. This distinction between irartional and rational soul seems to be ubiquitious in esotericism since at least the time of Plato and Aristotle. Plotinus added a third gradation, the noetic soul, which is above the rational.

A detailed psychological approach is taken by Buddhism, which distinguishes between the higher (corersponding to the mental) form and formless realms, and the lower (representing the orectic and physical) desire realms. All in all, there are 31 lokas are each associated with specific psychological and meditative states. Here it seems that the psychological element is primarary, and that the mythological and cosmological was used as a sort of elaboration upon or interpretation of that.

More metaphysical in approach is the idea of series or gradation of distinct levels of self. The earleist example of this is the Taittiriya Upanishad, with the series "food" (body), prana (vitality), manas (mind), vijnana (gnosis), and ananda (bliss, representing Brahman, the Absolute). This had a big influence on Advaita Vedanta and later Yoga Psychology , although the interpretations of, say, Shankara and Sri Aurobindo, are light years apart regarding this.

A parallel series is found in the classical West in Middle Platonism, the Corpus Hermetica (matter - vital spirit (pneuma) - psyche - divine mind (nous)), and Neoplatonism (matter (hyle) - irrational, rational, and noetic psyche - nous - Absolute). One might say that the psyche is the same as the manas, and the nous as the vijnana (or the noetic psyche as the Shankaran vijnana kosha). All of this leads also of course to the idea of subtle bodies.

More theosophical, cosmological or cosmotheological mysticism uses original gnostic revelation or at least comparitive esoteric study to intuite the universe or macrocosm as a whole, and relates individual levels of consciousness to that. It maps the levels or planes or hypostases in terms of realities in terms of a universal, objective unfolding. Generally there is a common esoteric and gnostic theme of the perennial philosophy, there is a series of subtle planes or universes which emanate from the Supreme Absolute and progress through increasing degrees of density and materialisation, culminating in the physical universe. While reference is also made to subtle bodies and soul-levels, these are elaborated with much less attention to detail than the overall cosmology or cosmotheology. In Later Neoplatonism (Iamblichus, Proclus, etc), Gnosticism, Kabbalah, and the Theosophy of Blavatsky, we find elaborate detailed consideration of planes of existence, gods, angelological powers, and so on.

Finally, there is the occult methodology of leaving the physical body for a while (soul travel, astral travel, out of body experience) and exploring the various realms and planes of existence that one encounters. Examples here are original Shamanism, soul ascension in Gnosticism, Kabbalah, etc, the occult researches of Max and Alma Theon, Radhasoami and Eckanker soul travel, and modern day astral travellers and OOBE research (Robert Monroe etc). Esoteric cosmologists of this sort may describe the various worlds, universes, or pleromas can be recognised by the particular colours (Theon) or light and sounds (Sabda Surat Yoga / Sant Mat), or magical beings (Hermetic Kabbalah - e.g. Golden Dawn) native to each. Perhaps such an experiential phenomenological approach can lay the foundation for a truely universal and empircal esoteric science.

Fortunately it is possible to combine all of these approaches, and to see the levels or bands of the former as referring to the microcosmic equivalent of the pleromas or universes of the latter (indeed such equivalence plays an important part in Lurianic Kabbalah (e.g. Jacob's Ladder and the ascent of the Soul) and is specifically mentioned by Mirra Alfassa/The Mother (ref xxxx) and in post-Blavatsky theosophical diagrams of C.W. Leadbeater and Alice Bailey (example of the latter at the top of this page), as well as the psychological terminology Theon (who was Mirra's teacher in occultism) used for the lower four cosmic levels.

This gives (Theon, Leadbeater, Mirra, New Age) the equivalence of the emotional or desire nature (called the Nervous by Theon and the Vital by Mirra) with the "Astral Plane", and therefore the rational psyche or mind with the next universe up, and the life force principle or prana with an "Etheric plane" that is lies between the physical and the Astral (re this latter see Steiner - Occult Science and elsewhere - and the Leadbeater and Bailey cosmic diagrams). In this was one can equate the visionary universe with specific psychological strata (in addition to phenomena native to that universe)

Gradations of Planes versus Levels of Self

The series of Planes of Existence and Planes of Consciousness should not be confused with the "Concentric" "inner-outer" (or depth-surface, figure-ground, subliminal-conscious) sequence. Both refer to gradations of prakriti, but they are distinct axiis of being, although they are invariably confused by those traditions that recognise only a single parameter. Self and Non-self is another parameter that is confused - in fact there are a gradation of Selves, just as there is a gradation of Planes, just as there is a gradation of "layers" of subconsciousness ("inner") and of planes or worlds ("vertical"). One reason esotericisma nd occultism has trouble arriving at a consistent Map of Reality of any complexity beyond the basic "perennial philosophy" is because these different parameters keep getting confused (the Theosphical diagram at the upper left of this page is a typical example of this reduction to a single parameter). And this is to say nothing of spiritual states like nirvana and liberation which are usually placed at the top of the hierarchy or holarchy (e.g. Da Free John, Ken Wilber), but as Sri Aurobindo explains is actually a sort of side-movement.

Practical Considerations

The Kabbalists, and following them Theon and Blavatsky (and from her the whole Theosophical and ex-Theosophical (Steiner, Bailey) tradition), understand reality as in a sense "fractal", in that each plane or universe or division of reality itself contains a full complement of planes, and so on. (Gurdjieff also said the same thing, according to Ouspensky (In Search of the Miraculous), he probably also got it from Blavatsky ). So, the implication is (and this is especially evident in Theon's diagram and Blavatsky's concept of "kosmic planes"), much more so than in the later theosophical and post-theosophical diagrams) that the psychological attributes may correspond to lower recursions rather than the original larger universes in themselves.

Thus, it is easier to understand those sub-planes or bands that are "closer to" the objective physical, and make up our ordinary surface being (what Sri Aurobindo calls the Outer Being), then it is to understand the larger and more visionary, pure supraphysical realities. This should be taken into consideration when drawing up any tabulation or map of universes or pleromas or levels or worlds of occult consciousness and super-consciousness.

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