The Astral Light plays so important a part in the internal economy and functioning of nature and in the production of so many kinds of phenomena that it is worth dwelling on it at some length. However, information about it is relatively scarce considering its importance. In a sense it is itself the "great beyond." A definition in the Theosophical Glossary is very informative:
The invisible region that surrounds our globe, as it does every other, and corresponding as the second Principle of Kosmos (the third being Life, of which it is the vehicle) to the Linga Sarira. or Astral Double in man. A subtle Essence visible only to a clairvoyant eye, and the lowest but one (viz. the earth) of the Seven Akashic or Kosmic Principles. Eliphas Levi calls it the great Serpent and the Dragon from which radiates on Humanity every evil influence. This is so; but why not add that the Astral Light gives out nothing but what it has received; that it is the great terrestrial crucible, in which the vile emanations of the earth (moral and physical) upon which the Astral Light is fed, are all converted into their subtlest essence, and radiated back intensified, thus becoming epidemics - moral, psychic and physical. Finally, the Astral Light is the same as the Sidereal Light of Paracelsus and other Hermetic philosophers. Physically, it is the ether of modern [Note, 19th century] science. Metaphysically, and in its spiritual, or occult sense, ether is a great deal more than is often imagined. In occult physics and alchemy it is well demonstrated to enclose within its shoreless waves not only Mr. Tyndall's "promise and potency of every quality of life" but also the realisation of the potency of every quality of spirit.
Alchemists and Hermeticists believe that their astral, or sidereal ether, besides the above properties of sulphur, and white and red magnesia, or magnes. is the anima mundi. the workshop of Nature and of all the Kosmos, spiritually, as well as physically. The "grand magisterium" asserts itself in the phenomenon of mesmerism, in the "levitation" of human and inert objects; and may be called the ether from its spiritual aspect. The designation astral is ancient and was used by some of the Neo-platonists, although it is claimed by some that the word was coined by the Martinists. Porphyry describes the celestial body which is always joined with the soul as "immortal, luminous, and star-like." The root of the word may be found perhaps in the Scythic Aist-aer - which means star, or the Assyrian lstar. which according to Burnouf has the same sense. (Theosophical Glossary).
There are many references to the Astral Light, as ether, aether, subtile spirit, etc., in lsis Unveiled (see. for example, Vol. I, pp. 177-189). In those pages appear such statements as (quoting from Van Helmont):
Here the question is of a very subtile spirit which penetrates through all, even the hardest bodies, and which is concealed in their substance. Through the strength and activity of this spirit, bodies attract each other, and adhere together when brought into contact. Through it, electrical bodies operate at the remotest distance, as well as near at hand, attracting and repelling. All senses are excited by the spirit, and through it animals move their limbs …(lsis. Vol. I, pp. 177-8)
It is on the indestructible tablets of the astral light that is stamped the impression of every thought we think, and every act we perform; and that future events - effects of long forgotten causes - are already delineated as a vivid picture for the eye of the seer and prophet to follow. Memory - the despair of the materialist, the enigma of the psychologist, the sphinx of science - is to the student of old philosophies merely a name to express the power which man unconsciously exerts, and shares with many of the inferior animals - to look with the inner sight into the astral light, and there behold the images of past sensations and incidents.
Instead of searching the cerebral ganglia for "micrographs of the living and the dead, of scenes that we have visited, of incidents in which we have borne a part," they went to the vast repository where the records of every man's life as well as every pulsation of the visible cosmos are stored up for all Eternity! (Isis, Vol. I, pp. 178-9)
This becoming aware of the contents of the Astral Light can be used to explain, among many other things, the common feeling that we have seen or have been in places before whereas in fact we have not. Sometimes this feeling is used to justify reincarnation, but an ability, even if unconscious, to see into the Astral Light seems the more common and the more feasible explanation.
It is also said that the scenes of his past life that come to a dying man are, so to say, living pictures in this Astral Light.
It is important to notice from the above quotation that pictures of events to be, the future arising from past causes, are also there to be seen.
Other ramifications of the presence of the Astral Light present themselves as we think about it. For example, there is the following further quotation:
No man however gross and material he may be, can avoid leading a double existence, one in the visible universe, the other in the invisible. The life-principle which animates his physical frame is chiefly in the astral body; and while the more animal portions of him rest, the more spiritual ones know neither limits nor obstacles ... (Isis, Vol. I, p. 180)
This is the case with the somnambulist whose sleeping body is motivated, albeit unconsciously, from within, his inner principles remaining active while his body sleeps. It may also be the case when an entranced medium manifests greater wisdom, knowledge, or capability than he normally possesses. A classic case of this is the wonderful diagnostic work done by the American Edgar Cayce when in a self-induced hypnotic state.
But we are here considering the Astral Light, rather than the astral vehicle, the vital principle (number two) in man. Writers have waxed lyrical in describing the Astral Light:
Not a leaf waves, not an insect crawls, not a ripple moves, but each motion is recorded by a thousand faithful scribes in infallible and indelible scripture.
This is just as true of all past time. From the dawn of light upon this infant globe, when round its cradle the steamy curtains hung, to this moment, nature has been busy photographing everything. What a picture gallery is hers!" (The Soul of Things. Denton, quoted in Isis. Vol. 1, p. 183)
This was written to describe the underlying rationale of psychometry.
Another informative quotation:
Now, the Astral Light is not a universally diffused stuff, but pertains only to our earth and all other bodies of the system on the same plane of matter with it. Our Astral Light is, so to speak, the Linga Sharira of our earth; only instead of being its primordial prototype, as in the case of our Chhaya, our Double, it is the reverse. Human and animal bodies grow and develop on the model of their antetypal Doubles: whereas the Astral Light is born from the terrene emanations, grows and develops after its prototypal parent, and in its treacherous waves everything from the upper planes and from the lower solid plane, the earth, both ways, is reflected reversed. Hence the confusion of its colours and sounds in the clairvoyance and clairaudience of the sensitive who trusts to its records, be that sensitive a Hatha yogi or a medium. ...[S.D.. Voi.lll, p. 500]
Sometimes the Astral Light is related to Akasa, the ultimate state of universal substance, suffusing all creation as the living substance principle. In Occultism, Akasa is sometimes equated with Space. In this relationship the Astral Light is referred to as the dregs of Akasa. Akasa stands behind creation at all levels, from the highest to the lowest, but the lower levels connected with the quaternary of manifest existence, the physical and psychic elements of man, for example, are the domain of the Astral Light. The higher levels of Akasa concern the spiritual triad of man, his Ego. It is in this way that the Ego can be regarded as omniscient. It has access, in the Akasa, to the noumena of all phenomena. This is properly the seeing into the Akashic records we hear about. Often, however, this expression is used to describe what is really psychic vision, personal clairvoyance, in the Astral Light.
This is far from Egoic omniscience, an important difference that should be noted. Only a high initiate can see into the spiritual levels of Akasa.
Often this distinction is not sufficiently clearly made. Every explanation and illustration by H.P.B. however enlarges our understanding and, apart from what follows immediately, we quote her again on Akasa and the Astral Light in the next chapter. We should note that the term "astral body," taken here to refer to Linga Sarira, is used sometimes in connection with the Kama-rupa, the Kama (fourth) principle which, together with a part of Manas, becomes a "body" in the astral world (Kama-Ioka) after death.
Another aspect of both Akasa and the Astral Light, important because of its connection with memory and the archetypes of things, which we said were the content of Divine Ideation, is their relationship to mind and mind's relationship to consciousness. students have perhaps not associated either Akasa or the Astral Light with consciousness, but we should note the following descriptions:
Astral Light is used as a convenient phrase for a term very little understood, viz., "the realm of Akasa, or primordial Light manifested through the divine Ideation." The latter must be accepted in this particular case as a generic term for the universal and divine mind reflected in the waters of Space or Chaos, which is the Astral Light proper, and a mirror reflecting and reversing a higher plane. In the Absolute or Divine Thought everything exists and there has been no time when it did not so exist. But Divine Ideation is limited by the Universal Manvantaras. [Manvantara is a period of activity usually applied to universes, solar systems, or globes (planets).] The realm of Akasa is the undifferentiated noumenal and abstract Space which will be occupied by Chidakasam. the field of primordial consciousness ... The Astral Light is that which mirrors the three higher planes of consciousness, and is above the lower, or terrestrial plane; therefore it does not extend beyond the fourth plane, where one may say, the Akasa begins.
There is one great difference between the Astral Light and the Akasa which must be remembered. The latter is eternal, the former is periodic. The Astral Light changes not only with the Mahamanvantaras (Maha = great) but also with every sub-period and planetary cycle or Round.
[A Round, as mentioned in Chapter 5, is the time taken for the life wave to pass round a globe, like our man bearing Earth, through seven major developmental stages viz. the seven root races of man.]
Question: Then do the prototypes exist on a plane higher than that of the Astral Light?
Answer: The prototypes or ideas of things exist first on the plane of Divine eternal Consciousness and thence become reflected and reversed in the Astral Light, which also reflects on its lower individual plane the life of our Earth, recording it on its "tablets." Therefore, is the Astral Light called illusion. It is from this that we, in our turn, get our prototypes. Consequently unless the Clairvoyant or Seer can get beyond this plane of illusion, he can never see Truth, but will be drowned in an ocean of self-deception and hallucinations.
Question: And what is the Akasa proper?
Answer: The Akasa is the eternal divine consciousness which cannot differentiate, have qualities, or act; action belongs to that which is reflected or mirrored from it. The unconditioned and infinite can have no relation with the finite and conditioned. The Astral Light is the Middle Heaven of the Gnostics ... We may compare the Akasa and the Astral Light, with regard to these prototypes, to the germ of the acorn. The latter, besides containing in itself the astral form of the future oak, conceals the germ from which grows a tree containing millions of forms. These forms are contained in the acorn potentially, yet the development of each particular acorn depends upon extraneous circumstances, physical force, etc.
A part, relevant to our present theme, of the answer to a question as to the origin of the endless varieties of the vegetable kingdom was:
The different variations of plants, etc., are the broken rays of one Ray. As the ray passes through the seven planes, it is broken on every plane into thousands and millions of rays down to the world of forms, every ray breaking into an intelligence on its own plane. So that we see every plant has an intelligence, or its own purpose of life, so to speak, and its own free will, to a degree.
[And then a passage which anticipates our next chapter] ... every plant without an exception feels and has a consciousness of its own. But besides the latter, every plant - from the gigantic tree down to the minutest fern or blade of grass - has, Occultism teaches us, an Elemental entity of which it is the outward clothing on this plane. ... According to them (i.e., Kabalists and medieval Rosicrucians) everything possessed an Elemental sprite.
Question: Is there an evolution of types through the various planes of the Astral Light?
Answer: You must follow out the simile of the evolution of the acorn. From the acorn will grow an oak and this oak, as a tree, may have a thousand forms, all of which vary the one from the other. All these forms are contained within the acorn, and though the form which the tree will take depends on extraneous circumstances, yet that, which Aristotle called the "privation of matter" exists beforehand, in the Astral waves. But the noumenal germ of the oak exists beyond the plane of the Astral Light; it is only the subjective picture of it that already exists in the Astral Light, and the development of the oak tree is the result of the developed prototype in the Astral Light, which development proceeds from higher to lower planes, until on the lowest plane it has its last consolidation and development of form. (T. of BL. pp. 74-77)
These extracts are significant, relevant to our overall theme of the great beyond and to the Astral Light in particular, for a number of reasons. First, they prevent us from becoming mechanistic in our thinking about the living inner processes of nature. The Astral Light is not just a realm of nature, normally invisible, in which certain things happen. It has to do with ideation, with mind, and with consciousness. All this is not easy to apprehend. The key to understanding is in the idea of the unity of life and the interrelatedness " and interdependence not only of things and creatures, but even of the very planes of existence. As we said earlier nothing within the grand scheme of things can properly be considered in isolation. Secondly, the description of the potentialities within an acorn gives us an idea of the creative processes of nature.
Things exist first in Ideation, then as ideas, then as pictures in the Astral Light; thence they are projected into objectivity, in our material world, through the agency of an ensouling elemental. This is the same process, with appropriate variations, of the production of those psychic phenomena involving materialization. We must also remember that the Astral Light is a many layered plane of nature wherein are elementals and other entities. It is that which in some theosophical and other occult literature is referred to as the astral plane. It is however much more inclusive, with more powers and qualities than are normally ascribed to it.
To summarize, the Astral Light is the second Cosmic principle corresponding to the Linga Sarira in man. It is the "invisible region that surrounds our globe. ..as every other." It is conditioned by our thoughts and feelings. It interpenetrates everything. It is the agent through which psychic forces operate. In it is the indelible record of everything that has happened on earth. It reflects the future. It comprises the lower levels of Akasa, the Universal Spirit-Substance, the seat of Ideation, Eternal Consciousness. The Astral Light reflects, but reverses, everything in the planes above and below it. It is the realm of illusion and hallucination of the psychic clairvoyant. In the Astral Light are contained the astral forms of things. It is the home of the elementals. The so-called astral plane is one of its realms.