“To Die, To Sleep”
Irish Theosophist, November, 1896
To sleep; perchance to dream, ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil
Must give us pause.
It is the fashion nowadays to attribute all good things to the great ancients, and to say that whatever is done excellently by the men of today is only reminiscence, or mere borrowing. Well, there is truth in this; very much, perhaps, more than most people imagine.
Yet we need not say that Shakespeare had a certain passage of the Upanishads in mind when he wrote Hamlet’s famous and oft misquoted soliloquy; nor again that the Sage Yajnavalkya was guilty of plagiarism by anticipation—the phrase is an excellent one—from the prince of Denmark, when we see exactly the same thought and inspiration in the way they deal with life in the abodes of Death. Before touching on the teaching of the Upanishads as to the life after death, one is tempted to admit to the fact we have hinted at, that this passage in Hamlet is as often quoted wrongly as rightly. And as too much resistance to temptation is apt to breed spiritual pride, we shall succumb in the present instance, and slightly digress.
To begin with, that phrase “the mortal coil” is constantly misunderstood. The misconception is that the mortal coil is the earthly body, which is to be shuffled off, as a snake shuffles off its slough. But “coil” in Shakespeare means something quite different; it means almost exactly the same as turmoil or tumult; as, for instance, in The Tempest:
“Who was so firm, so constant, that this coil
Would not infect his reason?”
So that the “mortal coil” is the “deadly tumult” of earthly 1ife, and not the physical body at all.
Then again, how many people who are ready to quote, “To be, or not to be,” could paraphrase correctly the line immediately after what we quoted at the outset:
“There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.”
Long life may be a calamity, most people will say, though without conviction, but why should it be respected? But the real meaning is, of course, that “this is the consideration that makes people submit to calamity so long”; the consideration being, of course, the dreams that may come in the sleep of death.
And this brings us at last to the thought of the Upanishads about the paradise between death and rebirth. The idea is, that there are three kinds of people: those who die with tendencies upward only, and, having thus nothing to bring them back to the earth, are not reborn again. “They pass on,” says the fine imagery of the Upanishad, “by the sun-door and enter into the Eternal.”
Then there are those who, on the contrary, have only earthly tendencies; nothing to lift them upwards at all, nothing to take them away for a while from this mortal coil and tumult. They are immediately born again into the world.
But to either of these classes only few belong; the just men made perfect, to the one; the professors of the physical sciences—a mystic friend of mine says—to the other. So that the whole of mankind, almost, have tendencies partly upward, partly downward. Their tendencies downward—their dreams of the dinners they have eaten and hope to eat, and other dreams, the contrary propositions to which are to be found in the Decalogue—are the tendencies that must ultimately bring them back to earth, because nowhere that one knows of, except in this comfortable world of ours, could these desires be satisfied.
There may be fires in “the other place,” but we have never heard that they are used to cook dinners for the inhabitants.
But all mankind, to do humanity justice, have souls above dinners, at least in lucid intervals. Caliban was not very exalted—would indeed have worked damage to the Decalogue with relish—yet even Caliban says:
“Sometimes a thousand twanging instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that, when I waked
I cried to dream again.”
Thus Caliban; and Caliban, as Browning has taught us, is a theological type. And if Caliban, then why not any man? For indeed we all have divine dreams now and then, and would have more of them were it not for those professors of the physical sciences—at least so says my friend the mystic.
Well, all these divine dreams are forces, no more to be cheated of their fullest expansion than the forces dear to our friends the physical professors; and in the sleep of death they get their opportunity to work unimpeded. The finest passage in the Upanishads that deals with this thought is this:
“This Self is the inner light in the heart, consciousness, spirit. remaining ever the same, this Self enters both worlds, and is as if thinking, as if moving, when the man falls asleep, the Self transcends this world, transcends the things of death. For when the man is born and enters the body, he is enwrapped and involved in evil things. But ascending again when he dies, he puts off evil things”
—puts off, in fact, the tendencies we have spoken of as the contraries of the Decalogue.
“For of the man, of the spirit, there are two abodes—this world and the other world; and the world that unites the two is the dream-world.
And when he is in the world that unites the other two, he beholds them both, this world and the other world; and according to what he has attained in the other world, coming to that attainment he beholds things evil or things blissful.
And when he falls asleep, taking his materials from this all-containing world, cutting the wood himself, and building himself, as it were, by his own shining, by his own light—when he thus falls asleep, he is his own light.
There are no chariots nor horses nor roads there, so he himself puts forth chariots and horses and roads; there are no joys, rejoicings or enjoyments there, so he himself puts forth joys, rejoicings, enjoyments; there are no springs or streams or ponds there, so he puts forth of himself springs and streams and ponds, for he is the maker, the creator.”
Here, as in many other passages of the Upanishads, we are given an analogy which is the golden key to the paradise of those who have gone forth from life; the only key that we can have while we are shut in by our present limitations of knowledge.
The key is this: life after death, for those who are to be born again, is a bright and radiant dream; a fairy palace, of which each one is the builder, as in dreams; he takes the material from this all-containing world, and having cut the wood himself, is himself the builder, working by the light, by the shining of the immortal Self.
And just as in dream,
“the seen, as seen he behold, again; what was heard he hears again; and what was enjoyed by the other powers, he enjoys again by the other powers; the seen and the unseen, heard and unheard, enjoyed and unenjoyed, real and unreal, he sees it all; as all he sees it.”
The magician, in paradise as in dreams, is the creative or formative imagination; the magician’s materials are drawn from the experiences of this all-containing world. According to the measure of a man’s aspirations is the scenery of his paradise; according to his spiritual unfolding will he be surrounded by sensuous delights, or, rising above them, will he enter into unveiled vision of the Eternal. In the words of the Upanishad: According to his spiritual culture, according to his gain, to what he has attained in the spiritual world, he beholds things blissful or evil, that is, sensuous and earthly.
All his spiritual aspirations, all the divine moments of life where he has risen above the material longings of the material world to something higher, holier, more real; every act of gentle charity, of high heroism, of self-forgetfulness—this is his “attainment in the other world,” his spiritual earnings, his “treasure in heaven.” These fair aspirations and intuitions are forces—potent forces in life; they are quite strictly ruled by the law that conserves all forces, and quite strictly work themselves out in fullest fruition in paradise.
We see precisely the same law ruling the world of dream: as a man’s imaginings, so are his dreams; for the sensual, sensual; for the pure, pure. And those whose aspirations are fixed, in waking, on the shining Eternal, do really, through dream, enter into the lite of the Eternal, and come back to waking life radiant with a light that never was on land or sea.
After sleep comes awaking. The shining intuitions and aspirations have reached their fullest fruition.
“Therefore he whose radiance has become quiescent, is reborn through the impulses indwelling in mind.”
Or, to convey the same truth in the richer, fuller, and more poetical language of another Upanishad, the passage from death to rebirth is this; when the man’s soul goes forth from life,
“what he has known and what he has done, and the insight he has already gained, take him by the hand;
Then, just as a caterpillar, going to the end of a blade of grass, lays hold on another and lifts himself over to it; so this Self, after laying aside the body and putting off the things of this world of unwisdom, lays hold of his other attainment and lifts himself over to it.
And just as a goldsmith, taking the gold of one fair work, makes of it another new and fairer form; so this Self, after laying aside the body and putting off the things of this world of unwisdom, makes for himself another new and fairer form, like the form of the Fathers or the celestial nymphs or the gods or the Lord of beings or the great Evolver, or the form of other beings.
For this Self is the Eternal; it has as its forms consciousness, emotion, vital breath, the powers of seeing and hearing, the potencies of earth, the waters, breath, the shining ether, light; of desire and freedom from desire, of wrath and freedom from wrath, of the law and freedom from the law; it takes on every form. And as its form is here below, so is its form in the other world.
According as a man has worked and walked, so he becomes; he who has worked highly becomes high, he who has worked evil becomes evil; through holy works he becomes holy; through evil, evil.
For they say indeed ‘the Spirit is formed of desire; and according to his desire, so is his will; and according to his will, so are his works; and whatever works he works, to that he goes.’ As the verse says; ‘He, tied through his work, goes to whatever form his mind is set on.’
And after gaining the reward of his work, whatever he does here, he returns again from the other world to this world of work.”
Here, then, in the words of the Upanishads themselves, and, for the most part, from the same Upanishad that contains the story of the kingly Rajput sage, Pravâhana son of Jibala, we have the answer to all his questions, at least so far as they refer to the way of rebirth and the paradise after death that man enters to dream awhile, before he is born again.
Born again—to reality? Say, rather, from one dream to another. “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting”; or, to quote again the greatest poet of them all:
“We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”