The afterlife has always been the central topic of religion for many thousands of years, since the ancient times of the Shamanic cultures. In these very old cultures, probably dating back more than 80,000 years, the Shamans would send the spirits of the dead back to the stars. While modern man has cut himself off from nature, these ancient cultures were very deeply connected to both the natural and supernatural world, and this connection was used to guide their tribes.
The assumption that these cultures were childishly primitive is challenged today by new archaeological findings. Recently, shells from a pearl-like necklace were found in a cave in South Africa. Archaeologists believe that these remains date back 75,000 years, and they are thereby considered proof that our ancestors were thinking like us far earlier than what is widely accepted.[i]
Another good example of this is found in the interpretation of cave paintings. Until recently, it was believed that these “primitive” paintings were merely depictions of hunting animals, but new research show that the cave paintings are evidence of travels to the spirit world. These travels could be of a similar nature as near-death experiences, and therefore, it is possible that experiences of life after death are as old as humanity.
In Egyptian religion, we can find evidence of the ancient belief that when we die our spirit returns to our celestial home. Today we can still see the Great Pyramids the Egyptians built to help them ascend into the stars. In The Egyptian Book of the Dead, which is one of the oldest written sources we have today (about 1500 to 1400 B.C.), we find The Doctrine of Eternal Life and here we can get a sense of how the Egyptians saw their ascent into the heaven above:
When Teta hath purified himself on the borders of this earth where Ra hath purified himself, he prayeth and setteth up the ladder, and those who dwell in the great places press Teta forward with their hands. In the pyramid of Pepi the king is identified with this ladder: Isis saith, Happy are they who see the father, and Nephthys saith, They who see the father have rest, the father of this Osiris Pepi when he cometh forth unto heaven among the stars and among the luminaries which never set.[ii]
From this we only get a sense of where we go when we climb the ladder into the luminaries, but there is no direction of what happens there. This we find in another part of the text, which tell us that, “When the Osiris of a man has entered into heaven as a living soul…he walks among the living ones, he becomes God, the son of God.”[iii]
Here “the son of God,” and before “the father” begins to sound like what we know from our Christian background. Even though there is talk about “a living soul,” it seems that with embalmment and the need for “something” to climb a ladder, it would also hint that we could have grounds for the belief in resurrection of the physical body.
The Egyptians seem to have needed both a corporeal and incorporeal substance in order to reach the afterlife. In The Egyptian Book of the Dead, E. A. Wallis Budge points out that the Egyptian ba, translated “soul,” is not only incorporeal because it dwells in ka, which is like the heart and possesses both substance and form.[iv] With this Budge also tells us that, “it seems as if the Egyptians never succeeded in breaking away from their very ancient habit of confusing the things of the body with the things of the soul.”[v]
In the East we find a much clearer distinction between the body and the soul. The Bhagavadagita in Indian religion tells us how to attain immortality in a way that fits with the near-death experience. The Bhagavadagita refers to “knowledge of the truth” as “knowledge of the relation of the individual self to the supreme.”[vi] It also tells us that it is with “the object of knowledge” that “one reaches immortality.” [vii]
This “object of knowledge” is referred to as the self, and the Bhagavadagita teaches that, “I am the self…seated in the hearts of all beings. I am the beginning and the middle and the end also of all beings…I am mind among the senses. I am consciousness in (living) beings.”[viii]
Now, the Bhagavadagita clearly makes the distinction between the body and the spirit, by explaining that the spirit is in the body: “The supreme spirit in this body is called supervisor…and the supreme self also. He who thus knows nature and spirit, together with the qualities, is not born again.”[ix]
The text then describes how we are to transcend above the elements (the qualities) that embody the self:
When a right-seeing person sees none but the qualities to be the doer of all action, and knows what is above the qualities, he enters into my essence. The embodied self, who transcends these qualities, from which bodies are produced, attains immortality.[x]
Another text related to the Bhagavadagita, The Anugita, explains how the elements, or qualities, are the doer of all action: “From egoism, verily, were the five great elements born…In these five great elements, in the operation of perceiving sound, touch, color, taste, and smell, creatures are deluded.”[xi] The elements create a delusion through our senses, but when we die, “Every entity is dissolved into that from which it is produced.”[xii]
This transcendence of the elements is described in this way: “When, at the termination of the destruction of the great elements, the final dissolution [occurs]…the talented men who possess a good memory are not dissolved at all.”[xiii] Here “good memory” is translated as knowledge of truth, and it connects us to the knowledge of self in the Bhagavadagita.
In the East, this intrinsic knowledge of self, or truth, is referred to as enlightenment. Relating this to my own personal experience, I have found that this Eastern interpretation of how to attain eternal life is, in fact, the most similar. The knowledge of self is what I experienced as my true nature, and the very idea that there is some kind of truth ‘out there’ seems to definitively be a very common feature of the near-death experience.
The similarity with the near-death experience is even more striking in Buddhism. Here we find The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or The Great Book of Liberation (.. ), which is an in-depth instruction on how to attain eternal life through spiritual liberation. In The Tibetan Book of the Dead, liberation is attained by recognizing the “clear light” at the time of death: “Once they recognize the objective clear light, they will attain the birthless Body of Truth by the straight upward path without going through any between.”[xiv]
The objective clear light is described as “an indescribable transparency, a light that is omni directionally illuminating yet beyond the brightness of sun or moon and also beyond dimness or darkness.”[xv] This is very close to the descriptions of the light in the near-death experience—clear, infinite, and stripped of all structure—and it empowers my conviction that the two are similar.
Enlightenment happens through one’s identification with this clear light of infinite transparency, which recognizes the essential “selfless self.”[xvi] The clear light and the selfless self constitute the true nature of reality, and Buddhism teaches that this absolute truth is the real essence of things. It is the ultimate nature and the main object of our realization.
The ultimate reality is characterized as being “indescribable, inconceivable, and unable to be signified by any word, gesture, or concept.”[xvii] This is exactly the same characterization of the light that we find in the near-death experience, and the similarity between the two experiences is very striking.
[i] Wong, Scientific American, Vol. 16, 2, 2006, 76.
[ii] Budge, The Egyptian Book of the Dead; The Doctrine of Eternal Life, lxx – lxxi
[iii] Budge, The Egyptian Book of the Dead; The Doctrine of Eternal Life, lxxi-lxxii.
[iv] Ibid, lxiv.
[v] Ibid, lxx.
[vi] Telang, The Bhagavadagita, Chapter XIII, 103.
[vii] Telang, The Bhagavadagita, Chapter XIII, 103.
[viii] Ibid, Chapter X, 89.
[ix] Ibid, Chapter XIII, 105.
[x] Ibid, Chapter XIV, 109.
[xi] Telang, The Bhagavadagita; Anugita, Chapter XXVII, 335.
[xiv] Thurman, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, 121.
[xv] Ibid, 119-120.
[xvi] Ibid, 122.
[xvii] Ponlop, The Two Truths, Shambhala Sun, May 2006, 45.