Coherent excitation of an atomic excited state occurs during the propagation of near-resonant light pulses and is responsible for the induced polarization. Simultaneously, incoherent excitation occurs due to the relaxation processes described by the absorption coefficient. Here, the theory for the coherent and incoherent excitation is initially presented in terms of the traditional vector model. While a complete understanding of the two-level system is provided by the vector model, it is shown to be incomplete when the problem of directly monitoring the coherent and incoherent excitation is considered. This is because this latter problem involves more than two levels. For this more complicated multilevel problem, adiabatic states are introduced to gain further understanding. The adiabatic states are the stationary states of the atom in the presence of the near-resonant laser field; they help to explain the intimate connection between the coherent excitation and the two-photon resonance. Experimental measurements of the coherent and incoherent excitation associated with near-resonant pulse propagation in Rb vapor are presented. The double-resonance technique used a relatively strong pulsed dye laser tuned near the 5S125P12 transition (7948 A) of Rb to produce the coherent and incoherent excitation, and a weak, tunable cw dye laser tuned in the region of the 5P126D32 transition (6206 A) to monitor this excitation. In agreement with theory, the experimental results demonstrate that coherent excitation is responsible for two-photon absorption, while the incoherent excitation corresponds to one-photon absorption to the 5P12 state. © 1976 The American Physical Society.