The Planes of Existence

1 06 2012

“Kosmic Physical” Planes of Existence according to Alice Bailey
Planes of Consciousness according to Alice Bailey
Many esoteric teachings propound the idea of a series of worlds or hypostases as cosmic ontological gradations in the Great Chain of Being, arranged metaphorically in an “upper and lower” manner.

The idea of a vertical world-axis, a cosmic mountain or tree or pole, is in fact a common archetype, and the theosophical planes are just one particular version or interpretation of that. Another is the Tantric theme of chakras, which are asosciated with an ascending series of states of consciousness, culminating in the Absolute Reality located either at or above the Crown. From this perspective then, the Cosmos can be divided “vertically” into a number of worlds or states or gradations of being.

From the 19th onwards, the term “Planes” has been used by Theosophy, and from there off-shoot esoteric systems (such as Alice Bailey) and the New Age movement, as well as Eastern teachings that have some Western influence (e.g. , Sri Aurobindo and Sant Mat) to describe these gradations. The originator of this popular occult term is H.P. Blavatsky, who in The Secret Doctrine and elsewhere taught a complex cosmology consisting of Planes and subplanes. However the original source of the term is the late Neoplatonist Proclus, who refers to to platos, “breadth”, which was the a term direct equivalent of the Theosophical use. e.g. en to psuchiko platei [Dodds, cited in Poortman, Hylic Pluralism, vol II, p.54].

Whilst Blavatsky, Aurobindo, and other teachers sometimes use the term “Plane” to refer even to transcendent divine-absolute realities (e.g. Blavatsky’s “Kosmic Planes”, the upper three of which represent the ineffable Absolute, and Sri Aurobindo’s Upper Hemisphere (parardha) with the three planes of Sachchidananda and a fourth representing the Supermind or Absolute in Manifestation) I would prefer to restrict its use to the “vertical” series of prakritis, and “vertical” subdivisions thereof. The gradations of Absolute and Godhead are instead designated as hypostases

The “Vertical” Cosmological Spirit-Matter Gradation

We thus find established in contemporary esoteric teachings the concept of reality as made up of a number of Planes of Existence, arranged in a vertical sequence. This has even enetered everyday langauge – e.g. “the astral plane”.

Sri Aurobindo, whose metaphysical and spiritual insights and roadmaps of conscioousness have inspired a lot of my own understanding, refers to this as a vertical or ascending scale of consciousness. However, despite the widespread use of this metaphor, I am reluctant to give too much emphasis to the word “vertical” here. The reason is that the experience of a vertically arranged hierarchy of planes may very well simply be a side-effect of the organisation of the human physical and etheric body. A quadrapedal animal for example has chakras arranged horizontally, and so would experience these planes as horizontally organised. Hence my use of inverted commas when referring to this.

Provisionally, I have retained the term “planes” to describe these gradations, for no other reason than that it is familar to people coming from a western-esoteric or New Age background. An alternative term might be “prakritis”, which refers to the fact that this scale of realities is actually a scale of gradations of prakriti, from the most “sattvic” and spiritual to the most “tamasic” and material. Gurdjieff‘s scale of “hydrogens” in the “ray of creation” is another version of the same thing. Other terms used are “worlds”, lokas, etc. The term Octaves – another Gurdjieffian term, adapted from Gurdjieff’s incorporation of the musical scale in his ray of creation – is also useful, as it refers to the fact that at each hypostasis, each plane of existence, there is a full complement of subplanes (Theosophy) or resonances, which fractally repeat the whole.

As to be expected, the number of gradations differs according to which esoteric system one consults. In Kabbalah there are four (or in the Lurianic school five) major worlds, whilst Theosophical and, following them, New Age, cosmologies speak of seven “planes of existence”; each of these in turn often subdivided into further planes and hypostases. I originally referred to these ontological divisions or worlds as “Ontocosms” (Being-Universes), but there’s enough new jargon as it is. So i decided to stick with the well known Theosophical and New Age term “plane”, supplementing it with “world” or “uinverse”. Various schemas give four, seven, or ten worlds. I have used here an seven-fold division, which integrates Theon‘s Tradition, Theosophy and Western Esotericism, Sri Aurobindo‘s cosmology, and the I Ching trigrams which provide a mathematical arrangement whereby each plane can be associated with a hexagram. But really, there is no reason why this should be preferred to any other option.

And all of this says nothing of the subdivisions, of which there are a great many. In Kabbalah each of the four (or five) worlds is divided into ten sefirot, making 40 or 50 altogether. Madame Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy, went one better with seven “kosmic” planes, each divided into 7 further planes (the lowest kosmic plane being made up of seven “prakritic” planes), each of which is divided into seven conventional planes, each of which in turn is made up of seven subplanes. That gives 74 subplanes, or 2,401 altogether, although only the last few series of planes (and occasionally subplanes) are really described at all.

Very similar is the Tradition of Max and Alma Theon, with four worlds (this seems to be based on Kabbalah) of which the lowest or Material World is made up of eight “states”., although only the lower four are really described and considered (the higher four presumably pertaining to transcendent states). Each of these lower four (the higher four not being considered here) is made of four degrees, and each of these in turn consists of four subdegrees, which presumably were in turn sub-divided. According to Mirra this was an excellent descriptive tool, and one could, by working on an undeveloped sub-sub-part of the being eventually break through and access occult or spiritual experiences [I forget the refernce, it may have been one of the early volumes of the Agenda]

The “vertical” series of prakriti as 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.

Understanding and Comparing the Planes of Existence

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 two main types of “maps” that esoteric cosmologists tend to use. Both have the Absolute at one pole, and matter at the other, it is the way the intermediate levels are described that differs.

The first approach maps the levels or hypostases in terms of realities that can be understood in psychological terms. In the middle (more or less) is (the rational or verbal) mind; above that are levels of higher intuition and superconsciousness, while below one finds the layers representing the irrational psyche and the life-force or vitality. Perhaps the earliest example of this arrangement is are the five self levels of 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 later Vedanta, although the interpretations of, say, Shankara and Sri Aurobindo, are light years apart regarding this.

A very similar 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).

These two streams met in the Theosophy of Blavatsky and the integral philosophy of Sri Aurobindo

The second approach understands the hypostases in terms of abstract (to us in the physical consciousness) visionary realities that have no easy everyday correspondences, and hence are hard to equate with each other, since we don’t really know (unless we have had the same visionary experiences) what the authors are talking about. Also, it often happens (because of this) that successive writers in the same tradition (e.g. Gnostic, Sufi, Kabbalistic) use the same jargon to designate what certainly seem to be quite different realities.

Here then we have a series of visionary angelological or divine worlds or universes, each higher of which emanates the one below it, until we are left with the objective physical as the most “dense” reality, the congealing of consciousness (the Tantrics use the example of milk that forms curd (ref Arthur Avalon/John Woodroffe ref xxxx)), Light becoming form (Suhrawardi, Luria, etc)

Esoteric cosmologists of the visionary sort may assert that these worlds, universes, or pleromas (nice term suggested by Corbin (ref xxxx), adopted from Gnosticism) 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 these two 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)

However, things are not that simple. 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 provbably 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 opr worlds of occult consciosunses and super-cosnciosunses.

Tabulation of 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 phsyical embodiment, integration, and union, of these higher states.

Click to view the table below:


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 eternal, infinite or 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]. This iuniverse constitutes the union (in the conentric parameter) of the Causal and Supracausal (the more “outer” hypostases have alreday been subsumed),

Enlightened Spiritual Mind and Gnosis
The next Universe down from the Divine Pole of existence is the 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. There is no Outer or “Gross” Being equivalent to this hypostasis, only Inner-Subtle, causal, and beyond (in the sense of even more “innermost”). 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 (which he locates above the “void region” above the head). 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 Mind or Pure Intellect
The next Universe down, the Plane of Pure Mind or pure intellect, is the region of pure Creative Ideas. 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. These 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. 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) (although these worlds can equally be identified with the Inner-Subtle being). 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. 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). It includes the highest faculties normally active in even the developed individual, and the higher unconscious in part. 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.

Universe of Affectivity
(Pure Psychic Universe(s)). The psychic or affective 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 regiosn of pure spiritual emotion or Affectivity, 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. The Psychic and Imaginal also provide the blueprints for the Physical universe.

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 and subtle 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 (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 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), Affective, 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 four Higher Spiritual worlds, which are noetic. 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), although I tend now to think that Sant Mat, like Gnosticism, pertains primarily to the “concentric” dimension of consciousness.

The dividing line between Samsaric and Noetic 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.

Further, these planes and subplanes can in turn be grouped into further categories, as follows:

  • Divine Manifestation and Revelation:
    • The Divine
    • Enlightenment-Intuition
  • Higher Spiritual Awakening:
    • Illumination
    • Higher Mind Intuition
  • Creative and Spiritual Awareness and Spiritual-Psychic existence
    • Spiritual Mind or Pure Intellect
    • Higher Affective/Psychic/Heaven (Spiritual Emotion or Pure Affectivity)
  • Material and Lower Psychic Expression:
    • Lower Affective/”Lower Astral”
    • Higher Physical (Etheric, Imaginal, Astral-Physical, etc)
    • Lower or Dense Physical
    • Hylic / Inconscient

So far we have discussed grouping the planes into larger categories. But 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 the Macrocosm, the cosmic or objective reality as a whole, so they also have their correlates in the Microcosm,
the individual evolving entity (whether human, animal, plant, or whatever).  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.  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 Psychic World), and the neshamah (the soul-principle of Beriah, the Ideational World), although – because of the confusion between the various parameters of being in many esoteric traditions – these terms can equally (or even more persuiasively) also be applied to the “concentric” axis of consciousness.



2 responses

3 10 2012

Excellent discussion! Thank you!

16 11 2013
Möbius strips, the bindu, and moving amongst the planes | PlaneTalk

[…] in passing is the cosmology implied here.  This relates to “rate of vibration” and is the cosmology of the planes according to occult teachings such as Theosophy.  Each plane represents a discreet range of […]

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