A Comparative Study of Ascension Motifs in World Religions

Edward T. Jones

Edward T. Jones, “A Comparative Study of Ascension Motifs in World Religions,” in Deity & Death, ed. Spencer J. Palmer (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1978), 79–106.

Diogenes of Sinope once listened to a philosopher speaking about celestial matters. Diogenes approached and asked him: “When did you come back from heaven?” [1] Those who sit and listen to speakers discourse about the heavens have a right, perhaps an obligation, to determine the authority by which the speaker so discourses. Is he speaking from personal experience or merely the hearsay of another? Joseph Smith declared that men speak of heaven and hell and have seen neither; he further taught that if a man could gaze into heaven for the space of five minutes, he would learn more than had ever been written on the subject. [2]

The records of the religious world and even the non-religious world are filled with accounts of individuals who did in fact visit heaven and return, or at least claimed to have visited the other worlds. These accounts are found throughout the world, in ancient written documents and in modern verbal traditions handed down within the different cultures. The purpose of this paper will be to investigate and discuss several such experiences, comparing them with each other and seeking to draw out of these accounts the common elements. Some effort will also be made to interpret the data as well as is possible on the basis of the common features.

The technical term for the experience of visiting heaven is ascension. As Mircea Eliade has indicated, it is “one of the oldest religious means of personally communicating with the Gods.” [3] The most obvious and well-known example is that of Jesus ascending to heaven following his death and resurrection. This is a special case, however, and lies outside the realm of this paper. A better example would be his descent into hell to visit and release those souls who resided there. Technically this is known as a descensus rather than an ascension, but basically the only distinction is the direction traveled and the condition of those visited or seen (heaven contains God and other divine beings and perhaps the righteous dead, whereas hell contains devils and other evil beings, as well as the souls of the wicked). Because many of those who visited heaven also visited hell, both experiences will come under the domain of this paper.

Another example well known in the Western world is that of Paul, who intimated that he had visited the third heaven and paradise and seen there things which were not possible to be communicated to men (2 Corinthians 12:1–4). This experience was further developed by later Christian writers who used his name and will be discussed below. Other better-known examples would be those of Enoch and Elijah, who were translated into heaven without experiencing death. Again, however, these two are types somewhat different from those to be the main study of this paper. The experiences of all these men are duplicated throughout the world, sometimes with great similarities, other times with lesser areas of agreement.

Jean Danielou defines ascension as:

the raising up of a person above the heavens . . . and is susceptible of various interpretations, the most ancient being that which was used to describe the elevation of a visionary . . . so that he is able to contemplate the heavenly world normally hidden from his eyes. [4]

An old Hebrew midrash states that God gives man a preliminary disclosure of the secrets of the other world in order to allow the righteous to die in peace. [5]

The ascension motif can be divided into three rather distinct groupings. The first is that of the initial calling of the individual to a new consecrated level of behavior, i.e., the prophet or shaman. The second is that of the “out of the body experience” which is so much written about today. This latter has occurred often and is of the type of Paul’s experience. The third type is the ritual ascension which kings often underwent at New Year rituals, but which also often involved other individuals. The ritual ascension is obviously not a real ascension into heaven, but may be based upon some such real experience by an ancestor or other cultural hero. [6] The two types of ascension, the “real” or “spiritual” (“Whether in the body or out of the body I cannot tell” were the words Paul used), and the ritual would appear to be intimately related. There are many areas in which they overlap and deal with the same points. The ritual ascension will figure only slightly in this paper, mainly in the interpretation of the data. The ascension motifs (for now we can speak of several types) will be studied in the context of five major religious traditions: the Hebrew, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist.

The King James Version of Amos 3:7 reads: “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” The word translated “secret” is Hebrew: sodh, which also means, and in many places of the Hebrew Bible is so translated, council. It refers to a council which works with God in the heavens. Consequently, another translation of this passage would be that God “revealeth his counsel unto the Prophets.” In the book of Jeremiah (23:18, 21–22) there is a specific example of this:

For who hath stood in the counsel of the Lord, and hath perceived and heard his word? who hath marked his word, and heard it? . . . I have not sent these [false] prophets, yet they ran: I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in my counsel, and had caused my people to hear my words, then they should have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their doings.

The true prophet is here identified as the one who has stood in that heavenly council (sodh) and heard the words of God, which the prophet was then sent to declare to the people. The false prophets had not stood in that council. Micah, however, had stood in that council and was a true prophet. He stated:

I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing by him on his right hand and on his left. And the Lord said, Who shall persuade Ahab? . . . one said on this manner, and another said on that manner. And there came forth a spirit, and stood before the Lord, and said, I will persuade him. (1 Kings 22:19–21)

H. Wheeler Robinson, in his study on “The Council of Yahweh,” wrote that “the council of Yahweh was felt to be just as much a reality as Yahweh himself,” and that the experience related about Micah in 1 Kings 22 “is offered quite seriously as a description of something which has actually taken place in heaven.” [7]

More recently Patrick Miller has written that the “conception of a divine assembly around the throne of Yahweh formed a basic element in the Israelite understanding of prophecy. The prophet was one who stood in the council of Yahweh. His task was the proclamation of the will and message of Yahweh as declared in the heavenly assembly.” Miller continued to say that “Jeremiah is very explicit about the fact that the true prophet has stood in the council of Yahweh.” [8] Ezekiel and Isaiah also received their callings by ascending into heaven and standing in the presence of that assembly. [9]

In the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, there is an account of Levi being set apart as the head of the priestly clan. It is there recorded that Michael the archangel came and took Levi into heaven and presented him before the Lord. The Lord stretched forth his hand and blessed Levi that he and his sons after him would be holy to the Lord and would serve Him in the priestly office. [10]

Another example is that of the calling of Lehi in the Book of Mormon. As recorded by his son Nephi, Lehi had a vision in which he saw the heavens opened and the throne of God, with God sitting upon it. A man was seen descending, who came to Lehi with a book which he bade him read. Lehi was then sent out as a prophet to cry repentance to the people of Jerusalem. [11]

As mentioned above, God often gave the righteous a foretaste of heaven by bringing them up for a look before they died. Virtually all the major personalities of the Hebrew Bible had such experiences, whether they were prophets or not: Adam, Seth, Enoch, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Levi, Moses, Elijah, Micah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Baruch, his scribe. [12] The experiences of Abraham and Moses will be given here as representative of this group.

Following his battle with the kings and his meeting with Melchizedek, king of Salem, Abraham had a vision which is recorded in Genesis 15: “The word of the Lord came unto Abram in a vision. . . . And he brought [Abraham] forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them” (verses 1–5).

The rabbis interpreted this as an ascension, that God “showed him the streets of heaven,” and that God “lifted him up above the vault of heaven.” [13] The Qur’an (6.76) stated that God showed Abraham the kingdom of the heavens and the earth, that he might be of those “possessing certainty.”

In the Apocalypse of Abraham (ca. A.D. 100), a Jewish work, Abraham is commanded to fast, which he does for a period of forty days (chapters ix, xii). He is then carried aloft by the angel (xv); in heaven he is given a vision of the premortal life wherein certain ones were foreordained to be of Abraham’s lineage (xxii). He is also given a vision of that which will occur at the end of days, when ten plagues will affect mankind (xxx). Among those plagues are hunger, conflagration, earthquakes, and much snow. [14]

There is another text entitled the Testament of Abraham (ca. A.D. 30), which is quite distinct from the one above. This text, also Jewish in origin, tells of the angel Michael being sent by God to Abraham to bring him home at the end of his life. Abraham at first refuses to die, but then agrees when given the promise of any blessing he would ask. He asks that he might be allowed to see paradise while in the body, “so I can depart without sorrow.” He is carried aloft once more, where he views the first gate of paradise at which Adam sits. There are in fact two gates shown him, one of them wide and the other narrow, through which the righteous, who are few in number, pass. Abraham is then given a vision of the world and sees the wickedness of those who are engaged in sin. He immediately requests that the earth open and swallow the guilty. He is then shown the punishment the guilty receive in hell. He is greatly sorrowed and ceases condemning those who sin. He then notices that there is one soul who is halted between the two doors. He is told that this man’s merits and demerits are exactly equal to each other, but that he could be allowed into the narrow door for the righteous if Abraham would only offer a prayer for him. Abraham does and the man is saved in paradise. He then returns to earth, and upon his death angels take his body in “divinely woven linen” and anoint it with oil. [15]

Several patriarchs between Abraham and Moses viewed heaven, but those accounts will not be examined here. Moses had three ascension experiences. [16] The first occurred at the burning bush when he was called to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt. Enoch was sent to carry him to heaven and guide him through the seven levels of heaven. His body was changed gradually as he progressed through each of them, more and more approximating that of those who reside in the highest. In the fourth heaven is the heavenly Temple, where angels enter and sing praises of God. In the seventh is God Himself. Moses also noticed an angel who was busy teaching souls in this “college on high.” [17] He also read the Torah in the seventh heaven. Gabriel then showed Moses hell with its tortures, explaining each of the causes of the various tortures. He was then shown paradise, which contains the tree of life, beneath which flows a river. An angel sitting near the tree asked him why he was there, in response to which Moses stated: “To see the reward of the pious.” He saw Abraham sitting on the biggest throne (other than the Lord’s), with Isaac, Jacob, the prophets, saints, and the righteous souls sitting on others. He was told that the efforts of a pious son could gain a throne for an unrighteous father (Abraham’s efforts in behalf of his idolatrous father Terah being the great example throughout Jewish history). [18] He was then given a vision of the future.

His second ascension experience took place on Mount Sinai. He then spent forty days in heaven, learning and receiving the Torah. Again he saw the seven heavens and the heavenly Temple, as well as the future. [19]

His final ascension came just prior to his death. As with Abraham, an angel was sent, but Moses refused to die until he was allowed to view heaven. He saw the Temple, the Messiah, his brother Aaron, his own throne prepared for him, as well as another vision of the future. [20] He stated at the end of his life:

I ascended heaven and trod out a path there, and engaged in battle with the angels, and received the law of fire and sojourned under [God’s] throne of fire, and took shelter under the pillar of fire, and spoke with God face to face; and I prevailed over the heavenly familia, and revealed unto the sons of man their secrets, and received the Law from the right hand of God, and taught it to Israel. [21]

The early Christian church accepted the legends which they received from the Jews regarding the earlier ascensions. Although many others received ascensions, only the experiences of Paul and Jesus will be discussed here. [22]

Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:1–4 describes an experience he had had some fourteen years previous to writing the letter (i.e., about A.D. 42). He states that he had seen the third heaven and paradise and had seen there things which he could not pass on to others. The Apocalypse of Paul (ca. A.D. 350–400) was written to give details of this visit to the other world. An angel carried Paul up to the third heaven where he saw the prophets and patriarchs of the Old Testament, along with thrones prepared for the righteous of the heathen nations. He saw the paradise of the Garden of Eden, and also hell, and the tortures meted out to the wicked. He saw a vision of those who wasted their time here on earth and were now paying for it in hell. He then saw Michael visit them and tell them to repent, that he was personally praying for them, and that he would seek Paul’s prayers on their behalf (ch. 43). He then saw Christ visiting the dead as they waited in their prison. Christ told him that because of Michael and Paul, and their own sons who had kept the commandments, He would give them rest (ch. 44).

The descent of Christ into the world of the spirits is mentioned in the New Testament in 1 Peter 3:18–22 and 1 Peter 4:6. By the end of the first century it was a well-accepted notion and became widespread thereafter. Irenaeus (130–200) quoted an elder of the Church as follows: “The Lord descended into the regions beneath the earth, preaching His advent there also and the remission of sins received by those who believe in Him.” [23]

Both Irenaeus and Justin Martyr (100–165) quote from the Apocryphon of Jeremiah a text as follows: “The Lord God remembered His dead, the saints of Israel that have fallen asleep in the dust of the tomb, and He went down unto them to proclaim the good news of the salvation which he was bringing to them.” [24]

The Shepherd of Hermas speaks of a baptism for these departed souls and Clement of Alexandria (150–215), after referring to Hermas, extended that salvation to the gentiles as well as the ancient Israelite prophets. [25]

The theme of Christ’s descent into hell to preach to and save the spirits there is found also in the Epistle of the Apostles 26–27; the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (Levi iv: 1; Dan v. 10–11; Benjamin ix:5), the Ascension of Isaiah (ix:16–17); the Sybilline Oracles (viii:310–312); the Odes of Solomon (xvii:8–11). Origen (225) taught that the prophets and John the Baptist continued their earthly ministries into the spirit world with the dead. He also taught that Moses and Elijah, following their visitation to Jesus and the three apostles on the Mount of Transfiguration, returned to the world of the dead and proclaimed to them what they had just experienced. [26] By the third century of Christianity, it was common for authors to discuss John the Baptist entering hell before Jesus to prepare the way for him there, just as he had in his earthly life. [27]

The Muslim tradition is quite familiar with the ascension motif. As already stated, the Qur’an (6:76) refers to God bringing Abraham up to the vault of heaven. Muhammed (as well as several others before him) is said to have ascended up to the seventh heaven. The Qur’an, however, barely mentions it. In 17:1 it refers to a night journey that the prophet took to Jerusalem, but says nothing of an ascension. A number of other verses imply that Muhammed’s enemies (and certainly, therefore, his friends) knew of such an experience, however, for Allah tells Muhammed to challenge them to ascend to heaven if they can (52.38). His enemies are represented as saying to him: “We will not put faith in thee till thou . . . ascend up into heaven and even then we will put no faith in thine ascension till thou bring down for us a book that we can read” (17:90–93).

About one hundred years after the death of Muhammed, Ibn-Ishaq (702–68) wrote a biography of the Prophet (the Sirat Rasul Allah). Within this biography is a detailed account of the ascension. One night as the Prophet lay asleep in Mecca, the angel Gabriel visited him, and together they traveled to Jerusalem to the temple. There the Prophet found several of the ancient prophets (Abraham, Moses, Jesus) whom he led in prayer. After this, Gabriel took Muhammed to heaven. Ascending upon a ladder (Arabic: miraj, the word used for ascension), Muhammed visited each of the seven heavens, which were presided over by former prophets: Adam in the first, reviewing the spirits as they entered; Jesus and John the Baptist in the second; Joseph in the third; Enoch in the fourth; Aaron in the fifth; Moses in the sixth; and Abraham in the seventh. From there Muhammed was led to the gates of Paradise wherein Allah Himself resided. Muhammed held an interview with God, who commanded him to recite prayers regularly and to teach his followers to do likewise. [28]

A later writer, Ibn S’ad (800–862), wrote a narrative of the world’s history from Adam to Muhammed, a sort of Biblical commentary, entitled Kitab al-tibaqat al kabir. He related the experience of the ascension as outlined above. He added that Gabriel was accompanied by Michael, and that during the night this ascension took place, Muhammed’s relatives found his body missing from its bed and looked for him. This suggests that for Muhammed, at least, the experience was “in the body” and not out of it. [29]

Recently J. R. Porter has discussed this night journey and has found in the various accounts of it elements similar to shamanism. Certain elements of the shaman’s call to practice his profession are common to the accounts of Muhammed’s experience and suggest that this ascent may have been undertaken at the very beginning of his calling. For instance, Muhammed spoke with former prophets, as a shaman will speak with former shamans and ancestors, who were also often shamans. The use of the ladder also has shamanistic functions and is to be found in several other ascension examples, e.g., Jacob and Buddha. The ladder is referred to by Muhammed as that which the dead look for upon dying. This relates the experience to shamanism, because one of the major functions of the shaman is to seek out the soul of the dead or sick person, which is believed to have been taken away by spirits. Further evidence that this ascension constitutes the calling of Muhammed to be a prophet is that each of the prophets which met in the heavens asked Gabriel if Muhammed had received a calling yet. These and other considerations lead Porter to conclude that “Muhammed’s journey to the other world is not just a late invention of pious fancy but is rather an essential part of his prophetic call.” [30]

Indian thought is often portrayed as being monistic, with man eventually merging or fusing himself into the One and losing all identity. Such a belief leaves little room for theism, yet from the very earliest times there has been a strong theistic current running through Hinduism. From the Svetasvatara Upanishad to the present day, the Indian has sought for and found fulfillment in worshipping his individual god. Even Sankara (A.D. 788–820), the greatest monistic philosopher of India, practiced theism to a certain degree, with many theistic texts credited to him.

While mysticism and ecstatic experiences are well known in India, texts dealing primarily with ascension motifs are not. Stories of saints and seers who possess the ability to pass from this world to the next without any problem are current from the earliest periods of Indian literature. Determining the historicity of some of these seers is virtually impossible in many cases. The ascension experiences themselves are used little by later writers. For instance, in Judeo-Christian-Muslim thought much is made of the experiences of the early patriarchs and prophets—entire volumes being written about the apocalypse or ascension of such an individual. In India this did not occur. Consequently detailing such experiences is much more difficult.

The experience referred to in the western world as translation—such as experienced by Enoch and Elijah—is known in India. For instance, just two hundred years ago Tukaram was caught up by a flaming chariot and carried into heaven rather than undergoing the change known as death. [31] Long before Tukaram, however, Yudhisthira, the oldest of the five Pandava brothers, had a similar experience. At the end of his life, as recorded in the Mahabharata, he and his brothers were ascending to heaven. One by one the younger four fell away and died because of some minor sin each had committed. Even Yudhisthira underwent changes as he progressed closer to heaven. After arriving there, he was given a vision of hell and its tortures. [32]

The oldest literature of India are the Vedas. These are the hymns sung during the rituals of Hinduism and as such, they are little disposed to relate personal occurrences of humans. There are two hymns, however, that seem to refer to ascension experiences of human beings. The first is in Rig Veda 7.88.3ff. This is an account of the ancient sage Vasistha, who enters the underworld governed by Lord Varuna. He enters that other world on a boat, which is a common theme for ascensions. As a result of this experience he became a seer, rsi. The other account is equally nebulous. This is the famous Kesin hymn (“Long haired one”) found in Rig Veda 10.136. Iff. Kesin describes himself as being lifted to the wind and sailing through the air. While no account is given of actually being carried into heaven or the underworld, it would appear to be similar to many other accounts wherein the individual merely views the earth from above.

There is one ascension experience, however, which fits very well the pattern found in the other accounts. That experience belongs to Arjuna, one of the younger brothers of Yudhisthira and the hero of the Mahabharata. Arjuna was seeking to secure the divine weapons of the gods in order to protect himself and his brothers from their enemies. He walked northward to the Himalayas, where he practiced the ascetic life. The different deities did come and present their own weapons to him. Then Matali, the divine charioteer, descended. Arjuna purified himself in the Ganges, repeated his prayers, gratified the ancestral fathers (pitrs), and then invoked Mandara, the mountain which figured as an axis mundi during the Churning of the Ocean (during the war between the devas and asuras). He then mounted the chariot and ascended with Matali to heaven. On their way they passed many heroes who had died in battle (doing their duty as warriors), ascetics, and other minor deities, all of whom Matali described as “virtuous persons.”

“Having thus passed through successive regions of heaven [Arjuna] at last” arrived at the palace of Indra, the supreme deity in heaven. “The region was such that none could behold it who had not gone through ascetic austerities, or who had not poured libations on fire. It was a region for the virtuous alone, [a region for those] who had . . . bathed in sacred waters, . . . [who possessed] a knowledge of the Vedas.” Arjuna then saw Indra himself, who immediately embraced Arjuna and invited him to share half of his own throne. Arjuna thereupon began to blaze forth like a second Indra. The other deities of heaven washed his feet. He then received Indra’s vajra or thunderbolt. With this vajra he was sent out to defeat in battle the asuras (nivata kavachas or danavas), just as Indra himself had defeated all his enemies in the mythical past. Having spent five years in Indraloka, Arjuna descended. [33]

Early Buddhism is the area of Indian thought where much more is said about ascension. There is a tradition in the literature of early Buddhism relating that four bhikkhus had ascended bodily into heaven and remained there for some time. These four were: Sadhina and Mandhata, each of whom ruled for some length of time in heaven; Nimi, who spent seven days viewing heaven and hell; and Guttila, a musician who spent seven days visiting the inhabitants of heaven. All four are described as being earlier incarnations of the Bodhisatta (the Buddha before his last life when he gained his enlightenment and became known as the Buddha). [34]

In the Uposatha sutta of the Anguttara nikaya (2.183), the Buddha stated that some monks are capable of gaining access to the world of the devas and the Brahmas. One of those monks who gained such access was Anuruddha (who along with Moggallana, Mahakassapa, and Mahakappina, ascended into the Brahma loka to correct the false pride of one of the inhabitants thereof). In a discourse of his own, Anuruddha explains to the monks that one may gain the ability to ascend into another world by cultivating the four satipatthanas. He explains this in the Iddhi sutta of the samyutta nikaya (5.303). The four satipatthanas, or “mindfulnesses,” are explained in a discourse of the Buddha, found in the Majjhima nikaya (sutta 10; Digha nikaya, discourse 22). The Buddha taught that there is one way (ekayano maggo) for the purification of beings, for the extinction of unhappiness and depression, for the acquisition of right method, and for the realization of nirvana. That one way is the cultivation of the four satipatthanas. One must eliminate both desire and aversion for the world with reference to the body, the sensations of the body, one’s mental thoughts, and the phenomena of the world (dharma). One does this by removing the five obstacles (nivarana), which are stated to be one’s internal will to pleasure, malevolence, stupidity, vanity (or the desire to do things which will bring praise from others), and uncertainty or doubt. The fruit of such activity will be either anna here or the gaining of the status of anagamin. Anna is a technical term which is perhaps best translated by the Greek word gnosis. It is that knowledge which is more sure, more real, more true, which is based on experience and not syllogistic reasoning. It is a witness which one gains, and which the monks and nuns shared in their poems contained in the Theragatha and Therigatha texts. [35] The anagamin is that individual who has been assured that, while he has not gained full liberation in this life, he will gain it during his life as a deva in the next world.

Moggallana was one of the favorite disciples (along with his one personal friend Sariputta). Moggallana was known for his many visits to the heavenly kingdoms, the vast majority of which are contained in one volume, the Vimanavatthu. In most of these stories Moggallana is merely interested in determining what it was by virtue of which the individual was raised to the status of a deva or god following his demise in this world. The Vimanavatthu is a rather late addition to the Pali canon. That the stories may have significant basis for inclusion is evident, however, from some stories related about Moggallana in what are definitely earlier texts.

In the Anguttara Nikaya of the Suttapitaka, there is an account of a visit which Moggallana paid to Tissa, a former monk who had died and been reborn in Brahmaloka. Upon recognizing him Tissa said, “It is long since you made this round, I mean, come here.” This early text indicates that Moggallana already had a reputation for being able to ascend to the other worlds. There are four accounts in the Nikayas of Moggallana ascending in order to determine how it was that the individual had been born where he was. [36] A fifth account details another visit he paid to Tissa in the Brahmaloka. Tissa indicates to him that anyone who is satisfied with the life he is living in the Brahmaloka will remain there. If one desires to progress beyond that heavenly kingdom, however, he must not be satisfied, but must gain the knowledge that will project him beyond the Brahmaloka, which is the highest of the seven Buddhist heavens. [37]

The Buddha himself visited the heavens on several occasions. In the Ayogula sutta [38] the Buddha tells Ananda, his beloved disciple, that he, Buddha, can ascend with his physical body into the Brahmaloka. He can do this by applying certain meditative powers to his mind, by means of which his body becomes radiant and plastic. In such a condition his body lifts off the ground and ascends. [39] The first person to whom Buddha explained his enlightenment was Upaka, who also became the first to reject the Buddha’s testimony. [40] After dying, Upaka was reborn in one of the Brahmalokas where the Buddha visited him and taught him. Upaka soon became an arahant, “perfected one,” and achieved nirvana. [41]

Another text recounts a visit the Buddha paid to the devas residing in a particular Brahmaloka (there are several kingdoms within the Brahma world). [42] On another occasion the Buddha visited Bakabrahma in the Brahmaloka, where they discussed the eternality of individuals. [43]

The most famous ascension of the Buddha, however, came during the seventh year following his enlightenment. With three strides he ascended to the Tavatimsa heaven, there to spend three months teaching the devas assembled, including his mother who had died when he was just an infant. He taught while seated upon Sakka’s throne, just as Arjuna had sat on it. It was during this time that Sariputta visited him daily, in order to receive instructions of what to teach the disciples on earth. When it came time to return to earth, a ladder was placed from heaven to earth at Sankassa. The god Sakka descended on his left side, Brahma on his right. A shrine was built at the site, which was still there several hundred years later when the Chinese pilgrims Hiouen Thsang and Fa Hien visited it. [44]

When one interprets the religious experiences of a religious tradition other than one’s own, one must be extremely careful not to let his own attitudes interfere or corrupt. Cultures and cultural symbols differ, and therefore the interpretations of those symbols may be different. To interpret a given symbol from another culture in terms of the interpretation given for that symbol in one’s own tradition may be to interpret incorrectly. Worse yet, it may perhaps lead to confusion and ignorance, which in turn may lead to prejudice. Sympathy and understanding are needed. Professor Kees Bolle, in making some remarks on Bhakti, a form of Hindu religious worship, has stated:

A sympathetic attitude on the part of the investigator is of course indispensable, but the investigation into a religion other than the investigator’s must show not only sympathy, but also understanding. Otherwise a study reveals more of the student than of the subject studied. The nature of the student’s speculation on the universality of religious experience may be interesting, but it should tally with an empirical research. In other words, he should not force his own ideas or the structures of his own culture on the culture that he studies in order to make his speculation acceptable. [45]

But more than sympathy and understanding are necessary. When dealing with religious experience, one must be willing to admit that such experience is actually a possibility; otherwise one’s personal bias regarding that experience will cloud the interpretation of it. One will be required to seek other reasons for the explanation of that experience.

Fazlur Rahman, in his volume on Islam in the History of Religions series, has written that Muhammed’s ascension experience “developed by the orthodox (chiefly on the pattern of the Ascension of Jesus) and backed by Hadith [tradition] is no more than a historical fiction whose materials come from various sources.” [46] Rahman has here shown perhaps more of his own attitude toward the possibility of an ascension experience than he has of the experience itself.

Another attitude toward the ascension experience is that given by G. H. Box, the translator of several early apocryphal texts. In the introduction to his translation of the Apocalypse of Abraham he wrote:

The mystic who is allowed to enter the celestial sphere usually receives divine disclosures about the future of the spiritual world. In order to enjoy this experience the mystic has to prepare himself to enter the ecstatic state which is brought about especially by ablution and fasting, but also sometimes by fervent invocations. [47]

Here Professor Box does not give his own beliefs as to the possibility of an ascension experience, but neither does he assign it to the realm of historical fiction or try to relate it to some ritual activity. He is content to speak of it in terms which the author of the text himself has put it.

There are several functions for the ascension experience. On the one hand, it is obviously for the benefit of the individual who is taken into heaven or hell. It is meant to be a guide for the individual in his newly consecrated life, as a prophet or a shaman, or, as in the case of the North American Indian, simply for guiding him throughout his life, giving him an understanding of his own place in the cosmos. As the Koran stated in regard to Abraham, it is for the purpose of allowing him to “possess certainty.” The same was true for the Buddhist theory of ascension, wherein uncertainty or doubt was the last of the obstacles to be removed—the removal of which gave one that anna or gnosis.

On the other hand, it is for the purpose of the individual before he dies. It is to allow him to depart without sorrow (Abraham); to see the reward of the pious or the sufferings of the wicked (Moses); to see his own throne prepared for him (Moses); or for the individual simply to die in peace (Box and Kohler, quoting Midrashim).

There are several similarities that find their way into some of the experiences found throughout the world. Among these is the idea that there are several heavens (and hells), not just one. These heavens are actual places in which living people dwell; they are not just various levels of the firmament. As one progresses upward, one is confronted with brighter and brighter lights. To compensate for this light, which at times becomes blinding so as to prevent one from seeing properly, the individual must change form, or be given special garments which protect him, or have his vision changed into a “heavenly vision” that permits him to see without being blinded.

Another element common to many of the texts is that there is life after death, and that life is a conscious, active life. One’s soul or spirit does not rest asleep during that next life. Further, there is progress to be made during that life. In short, death is not the end of life but rather a new beginning; it is merely a change of scenery.

There is a third function for the ascension, besides those of personal benefit in one’s life and for aiding the individual in preparing for death and the life to come. That third function will perhaps be best understood by reference to the ritual ascension motif. After a lengthy study of the motif as found in the ancient Near East, primarily pre-Muslim Arabic sources, George Widen-gren gives the following statement regarding an ideal ritual ascension:

We may arrive at the ‘ideal’ ritual of the heavenly ascent . . . after the following pattern:

1. The ascent to heaven

2. The presentation before God

3. The clothing in a garment and the adorning

4. The crowning with a crown

5. The calling by name, i.e. the proclamation as the Elect and the Beloved

6. The enthronement on God’s own seat

7. The gift of knowledge of God’s own doing

8. The communion by drinking from God’s own cup

9. The union with God, i.e. the elevation to the divine state

10. The return with a special commission. [48]

In ancient Indian sources there is a ritual performed by the king that has several of the elements mentioned by Widen-gren, but which at any rate is a ritual ascension. This is the rajasuya ceremony, which was recently studied by J. C. Heesterman. He writes: “It is explicitly stated that it is to be performed by a king who wants to obtain access to heaven (svargakama). The rajasuya seems to have been originally a yearly repeated rite of cosmic regeneration and rebirth.” [49]

The rajasuya is without doubt an ascension ritually accomplished. The very first element of it is the prayaniya, a term which translates into ascension. (Heesterman, 12–3) The king is clothed in sacred garments (“The garment is connected with all the gods,” says an ancient text); the garments are said to be marked in special ways, representative of the ceremony undertaken by the king. [50] The garment consists of several parts, one of which is worn on the head (Widengren’s crown), the ends of which are tied into the upper garment. [51] Throughout the ritual the king is called by the name of the various gods whom he is impersonating. He is taken back into primordial time and performs the same functions symbolically which the gods and the first king did at that time, by virtue of which they obtained heaven. [52] The king is then enthroned on a throne which is addressed as being the navel of kingship and the cosmos. “The throne represents the center, the navel of the earth. . . . It combines the notions of the navel and birthplace of the world and the king with those of the central mountain.” [53]

The king is given God’s special knowledge in the form of learning those things which occurred in illo tempore, which lead to the gods becoming that which they have become.

An interesting tale is related to the king about an ancient Vedic seer named Sunahsepa. Sunahsepa was tied to a sacrificial pillar, about to be sacrified. He cried out for help, seeking for new parents (his only earthly parents were responsible for his being sold as a sacrificial victim). God Varuna heard his pleas and released him from the fetters which bound him. The message of the story is a genealogical one: to whom does Sunahsepa belong? Who are his real father and mother? The rajasuya is also concerned with ancestry, as well as the future offspring of the king. [54] The king, continuing with the ritual, drinks the same draft of soma which Indra had when he was called to defeat the assuras in the primordial war in heaven. According to an ancient text, the rajasuya, in Gonda’s words, is a process of “deification.” [55] This fulfills Widengren’s contention regarding the elevation to the divine state. The king then descends, the king and the world regenerated and reborn.

It is evident that the ritual ascension as exemplified in the rajasuya is for the benefit of the king following this life. It may be of regenerative value for the here and now, both for the king and for his subjects, which actually include the entire earth, but its major function, as indicated, is for the king to attain heaven following death.

In the Mahabharata, an ancient Indian epic, it also has another function. Narada, an ancient Vedic rishi or seer, was coursing through the heavenly worlds, visiting the various levels of heaven and discoursing with the inhabitants therein. He describes the various heavens and the people who inhabit them. He then visits the lowest heaven, that of thepitrs, or fathers, the ancestors of those then living on earth. One of those pitrs was a former king named Pandu. He had a special request to make of Narada. If Narada were to meet with his five sons when he returned to the earth, would he please ask those sons to perform the rajasuya in behalf of their father? If they would, said Pandu, then he would be enabled to advance to the highest heaven wherein Indra dwells. Upon encountering the five sons of Pandu, Narada stated: “If thou performest that sacrifice thou shall then be able to go, along with thy deceased ancestors, into the same region that is inhabited by the chief of the immortals [Indra].” [56]

The Pandavas, the five sons of Pandu of whom the Mahabharata is the personal story, then perform that sacrifice in behalf of their dead ancestor.

It is evident from this account that the rajasuya, while being primarily a ritual for the benefit of the living, can be, if performed accordingly, a ritual in behalf of one’s ancestors. In other words, it has vicarious value, as well as value for the living. It is this aspect which becomes the third function of the ascension motif. In almost all of the ascension experiences studied in this paper, the vicarious element has entered, however slight. In the case of Jesus, it obviously had greater place. The sole purpose of Jesus descending into hell was to teach the inhabitants and release them from their bondage so that they might gain access to heaven. Origen, writing during the first half of the third century A.D., implied that the prophets before Jesus (i.e., the Old Testament prophets) up to and including John the Baptist, after finishing their earthly ministries, resumed those ministries when entering the world of the dead. He also indicated that Moses and Elijah, following their visit with Jesus and the three apostles on the Mount of Transfiguration, returned to the spirit world and told the inhabitants there that the Advent was soon to take place. [57] Enoch, following his translation into heaven, had spent his days teaching the children who died in infancy; [58] Abraham prayed that the dead might receive a better judgment, and his prayer was effective; Moses saw the angel teaching in the “college on high” and was told that the pious son would save the unrighteous father; Paul was told that if he and his angel guide, Michael, would pray, it would benefit the dead; Muhammed ascended into heaven on a ladder, just as the dead do; the Buddha ascended into the tavatimsa heaven for the sole purpose of teaching his mother who had died when he was just seven days old and therefore had not heard the gospel her son was proclaiming on earth; the shaman receives his ascension calling so that he might learn the secrets of regaining the souls of those who are sick and/or dead. All of these experiences reveal, in greater or lesser detail, that the living can indeed be of benefit to their dead ancestors. This would seem to be one of the prime reasons for the ascension of the individual and his writing down the account.

Whatever the reason for God calling an individual into heaven, and the purpose of this paper is not to imply that vicarious salvation is the only reason, that reason must relate to the personal integrity of the individual. It is also an experience which has singular benefit for the individual, an experience not to be lightly treated or spoken of. [59] As indicated of Abraham, it is an experience to give one “certainty,” or as in the case of the Buddha, to remove all uncertainty or doubt. The individual is given a knowledge to sustain him throughout his earthly life. It must be one of the most exquisite and soul-inspiring messages written deep on the heart and mind of the righteous who is entitled to such an experience. Perhaps the best means of expressing the value of the experience is by quoting the words of Joseph Smith in the Doctrine and Covenants. Section 76 relates his own vision in which he was shown the condition of those in hell, as well as the various levels or kingdoms making up heaven:

But great and marvelous are the works of the Lord, and the mysteries of his kingdom which he showed unto us, which surpass all understanding in glory, and in might, and in dominion; Which he commanded us we should not write while we were yet in the Spirit, and are not lawful for man to utter; Neither is man capable to make them known, for they are only to be seen and understood by the power of the Holy Spirit, which God bestows on those who love him, and purify themselves before him; To whom he grants this privilege of seeing and knowing for themselves; That through the power and manifestation of the Spirit, while in the flesh, they may be able to bear his presence in the world of glory. (D&C 76:114–18)


[1] Quoted in Frits Staal, Exploring Mysticism (Penguin Books, 1975), 65. Diogenes is perhaps best known as the individual who walked about Athens in broad daylight with a lantern, looking for an honest man. He lived during the fourth century B.C.

[2] Joseph Fielding Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1964), 160 (hereafter cited as TPJS); Joseph Smith, Documentary History of the Church, 6:50; cf. John Taylor, Messenger and Advocate (June 1837): 513–14.

[3] Mircea Eliade, Rites and Symbols of Initiation (New York: Harper Torch Books, 1958), 78.

[4] Jean Danielou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity (Chicago: Henry Rennerylo, 1964), 253.

[5] G. H. Box, introduction to the Testament of Abraham, trans. G. H. Box (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1927), p. xviii, referring to K. Kohler, “The Apocalypse of Abraham and Its Kindred,” in Jewish Quarterly Review (July 1895), 593.

[6] Cf. Mircea Eliade, Shamanism (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1974), 252–53, 259–60.

[7] H. Wheeler Robinson, “The Council of Yahweh,” in Journal of Theological Studies 14 (1944): 152.

[8] Patrick Miller, The Divine Warrior in Early Israel (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard, 1973), 68–69. In the first and second chapters of the Book of Job there is a description of such a divine assembly, wherein “the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord.” A discussion follows, and Job is picked as a subject of divine activity. H. Wheeler Robinson, in the article cited above, states that this picture of the assembly “is to be taken seriously” (“The Council of Yahweh,” 153). In later Hebrew mythology the same scene is repeated, with the same participants, except that the discussion is about Abraham rather than Job. The discussion resulted in the offering of Isaac by his father, Abraham. Cf. Sanhedrin, 89b, in Angelo Rappoport, Myth and Legend of Ancient Israel (Ktav Pub, 1966), 1:286–7. Cf. R. N. Whybray, The Heavenly Counselor in Isaiah xl 13–14 (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1971), 49–53.

[9] George Widengren, in his exhaustive study of the Prophet Muhammed, draws attention to the first three chapters of Ezekiel wherein the calling of Ezekiel to be a prophet is described. “It is important to note,” writes Widengren, “that the event is enacted in heaven before the throne of God.” (The Ascension of the Apostle and the Heavenly Book [Uppsala Universitets Arsskrift, 1950], 7:31.) Ezekiel describes the sights and sounds which he sensed on that occasion: the hosts of heaven, the voice of the Almighty, the throne above the heads of the hosts, the color of that throne; and then the words of God to him as he is “sent out” to Israel to call her to repentance. Again, in the calling of Isaiah to be a prophet we read the same things: he sees the Lord sitting upon his throne, with his assembly members about him (the seraphim). One of these seraphim comes to Isaiah and purifies his mouth with a hot coal so that he will be worthy to stand in the presence of that assembly. He hears God asking whom shall he send. Isaiah volunteers and is sent out as a prophet.

[10] Testament of Levi 5.1, in R. H. Charles, Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (1913), 307; Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer, trans. Gerald Friedlander (New York: Hermion Press, 1964 [1916]), 184; cf. Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 1:387; 2:194–98.

[11] Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 1:4–20. The Book of Mormon is among those books which S. G. F. Brandon designates as Holy Books, in the “The Holy Book, the Holy Tradition and the Holy Ikon, A Phenomenological Survey,” in F. F. Bruce and E. G. Rupp, eds. Holy Book and Holy Tradition (Manchester University Press, 1968), 2. In his discussion of those books which have at one time or another been seriously or otherwise considered as claiming a position in the Christian canon, M. R. James includes the Book of Mormon. M. R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), xviii.

[12] On Adam, see Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 1:84: Seth, see Rappoport, Myth and Legend of Ancient Israel, 1:201; on Enoch, see the various Books of Enoch, also Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, l:130ff; 5:96, 163, 165; Ginzberg states that “the older rabbinic literature is not particularly favorably inclined toward Enoch.” 5:96, note 67. On Isaac, see Ginzberg, 1:286, 306; 5:254, 263. On Jacob, see Ginzberg, l:350ff; Rappoport 1:347–8; Altman, Jewish Quarterly Review 35 (1945): 390; Hugh Nibley, “Christian Envy of the Temple,” in Jewish Quarterly Review, 50, note 129; Joseph Smith, in TPJS, 304–5. On Jeremiah, see Ginzberg 6:400; 5:95–6. On Baruch, see Ginzberg, 4:323.

[13] Midrash Rabbah xliv 12 (on Genesis 15:5); Apocalypse of Abraham G. H. Box, trans. (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1918), xii, xv; Testament of Abraham, trans, by C. H. Box, 1927, and by Michael E. Stone, chapter ixf. Cf. IV Ezra iii.14; Philo, Biblical Antiquities, xviii; Apocalypse of Baruch 4.4.

[14] Apocalypse of Abraham.

[15] Testament of Abraham. Cf. Kohler, Jewish Quarterly Review (1893), and Ginzberg; and Rappoport, 1:327–35.

[16] Ginzberg, 5:416–17.

[17] M. Gaster, “Hebrew Visions of Hell and Paradise,” in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (JRAS) (1893), 579.

[18] Gaster, “Hebrew Visions of Hell and Paradise,” 587; Ginzberg, 2:314–15.

[19] Ginzberg, 3:109–17.

[20] Midrash Rabbah on Deuteronomy xi.7–10.

[21] Midrash Rabbah, 4:185.

[22] Book of the Resurrection of Christ by Bartholomew the Apostle, in M. R. James, Apocryphal New Testament, 184, says that all the apostles went up to the seventh heaven. Hippolytus, commenting on Daniel 4:60, states that Jesus took all the apostles to Paradise (37); Siophanes, the son of the apostle Thomas, stated that he had an “out-of-the-body experience” in which Michael took his soul up to heaven, where he saw the twelve thrones for the apostles (185).

[23] Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. iv. 27:2, quoted from Danielou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity, 235.

[24] Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. iii.20.4; iv.22.1; 33.1; 33.12; v.31.1; Dem. 78; Justin Martyr, Dial, lxxii.4; in Danielou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity, 235.

[25] Shepherd of Hermas, Similitudes 9.15.5–7; Clement, Stromateis ii.43.5; vi.45.4.

[26] “Moses and Elijah, having appeared in glory and talked with Jesus, went away to the place from which they had come, perhaps to communicate the words which Jesus spake with them, to those who were to be benefitted by Him, almost immediately namely at the time of the passion, when many of the bodies of the saints that had fallen asleep, their tombs being opened, were to go to the city which is truly holy . . . and there appear to many.” Origen, “Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, trans. John Patrick, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 9:473. Cf. Daniel Sheerin, “St. John the Baptist in the Lower World,” in Vigiliae Christianae 30 (March 1976): 4.

[27] See Sheerin, “St. John the Baptist in the Lower World”; Danielou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity; also Jean Danielou, The Work of John the Baptist (Baltimore: Helison, 1966), 147; Sirarpie der Nersessian, “A Homily on the Raising of Lazarus and the Harrowing of Hell,” in Biblical and Patristic Studies in Memory of R. P. Casey, 224–25.

[28] The Life of Muhammed, trans. A. Guillaume (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1955), 181–87; J. R. Porter, “Muhammed’s Journey to Heaven,” in Numen 21 (1974): 64–66.

[29] Trans, by S. Moinul Haq (Karachi: Pakistan Historical Society, 1967), 246–49.

[30] Porter, “Muhammed’s Journey to Heaven”; cf. K. Wagten-donk, Fasting in the Koran (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1968), 110–11.

[31] Mahipati, Bhaktalilamrta, trans. Justin Abbott (1930), 312–13.

[32] The Mahabharata, trans. Pratap Chandra Roy (Calcutta: n.d.). Mahaprasthanka parva, section II, vol. XI: 271–75; Svar-garohanika parva, vol. XI: 278–82.

[33] Mahabharata, Vanaparva (Indralokagamana parva), trans. Roy, vol. II: 99–108; 354–70.

[34] See Jatakas numbers 494, 258, 541, 243. There are several other stories in early Buddhist literature regarding individuals who ascended into heaven for short periods of time: Dhatarattha, a mythical king (Jataka vi. 251); Narada, an ancient seer, who is prominent in the Mahabharata (Sudhabhojana jataka, no. 535); Ajita, a seer who heard a commotion in heaven, and upon investigating, discovered that the Buddha had just been born and the inhabitants of heaven were rejoicing (Nidana katha, introduction to the Jataka text); Silavati, an ancient queen, who visited Tavatimsa, where Sakka or Indra rules (George Malalasekera, Dictionary of Pali Proper Names [London: John Murray, 1937], 1:1003); a monk who wishes to know where all the elements pass away and goes to the various heavens in order to find the answer (Kevaddha suttanta, in Digha nikaya, discourse xi); Nanda, who was carried aloft by the Buddha himself (Sangamavacarat Jataka; Udana iii.2); Sariputta, one of the favorite disciples, who visited Buddha daily while the latter was visiting there for three months (in Malalasekera, Dictionary of Pali Proper Names 1: 795); Labhibhu, who went to Brahmaloka with Sikkhi Buddha, an earlier Buddha (arunavati sitta, in Samyutta Nikaya 5.282–84).

[35] N. T. W. Rhys Davids and William Stede, The Pali Text Society’s Pali-English Dictionary (Luzac, 1959), 14, uses the word gnosis as a possible translation. The Sanskrit form is ajna, from the verb Jna, which Monier-Williams’ Sanskrit English Dictionary, Oxford, also translates as gnosis under two of the related words, 425–26.

[36] Anguttara nikaya iii. 331–32; Samyutta nikaya v.366–69.

[37] Anguttara nikaya iv.75–8.

[38] Samyutta nikaya v.282–84.

[39] The Pali Buddhist term for ascension is devacarika, “coursing in the deva worlds.”

[40] Vinaya pitaka i. 8; Majjhima nikaya i.170–71; Jataka i.81.

[41] Samyutta nikaya i.35, 60.

[42] Digha nikaya ii.50–52, the Mahapadana sutta.

[43] Bakabrahma sutta, Samyutta nikaya i. 142. Cf. Baka Brahma jataka, no. 405; aparaditthi sutta, samyutta nikaya i. 144.

[44] Malalasekera, Dictionary of Pali Proper Names, subj.: San-kassa, Gotama; tavatimsa. Fa Hien, Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, trans. James Legge, 47–51, 68. Sakka is generally identified with Indra.

[45] Kees W.Bolle, “Remarks on Bhakti,” Adyar Library Bulletin 25 (December 1960): 116.

[46] Fazlur Rahman, Islam (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966), 14. Compare Porter’s statement above.

[47] G. H. Box, introduction to Apocalypse of Abraham, xxix.

[48] George Widengren, Muhammed, the Apostle of God and His Ascension (Uppsala: Universitets Arsskrift, 1955), 92.

[49] J. C. Heesterman, The Ancient Indian Royal Consecration; the rajasuya described according to the Yajus texts and annotated (The Hague: Mouton, 1957), 7.

[50] Ibid., 97–98, 105 note 7, 170.

[51] Ibid., 92.

[52] Ibid., 13, 67, 127–39.

[53] Ibid., 149.

[54] Ibid., 159–60, 184; on offspring, 190, 201–202; on the Sunahsepa legend, see H. L. Hariyappa, “The Legend of Sunahsepa,” Bulletin of Deccan College Research Institute (Poona) 11 (1951): 123–330.

[55] Taittiriya Brahmana, in Jans Gonda, Ancient Indian Kingship, 86.

[56] Mahabharata II (Sabha parvan), trans. Roy, i.481.

[57] Origen, “Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew,” trans. John Patrick, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 9:473.

[58] Jerusalem Talmud, Abodah Zorah 3b.

[59] Rabbi Aher “cut the plants,” i.e. made bad use of his learning when, having been admitted within paradise, Jie “went forth into evil courses.” Elijah told Rabbi Bar Shila that God did not utter doctrine by the mouth of Rabbi Meir because he had learned it from the mouth of Rabbi A’her. Babylonian Talmud, Hagiga, trans. M. L. Rodkinson (1918), 5: 33.