What Happens After Death?

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by Jayaram V

This is one of the major conundrums of life. No one knows the answer with certainty. You may find some answers, but you will not be sure whether they are right. I heard at least two famous spiritual gurus trying to answer it. Each spoke for about half an hour or so. They went round and round the subject, but were not forthright. Either they did not know or they were trying to avoid a definitive answer.

Please do not be under the impression that in the following discussion I will give you a simple answer, although I believe that at the end of the discussion, you may understand why I might have provided a unique perspective on the subject in contemporary terms, which is a close approximation to the traditional schools of Advaita and Vishistadvaita.

If you closely follow my thought process in the following discussion until the end, and with some imagination, you shall understand how all those ideas about Maya, the Self, and the world as a projection of the Self make sense, and why they are universal truths rather than speculative theories.

Custom made heavens and hells

Death is a mystery, and the afterlife is still a greater mystery. No one really knows what happens to a being or a soul after death. Each religion answers this question in its own ways. They disagree rather than agree on the particulars, processes, and possibilities. There are as many theories and descriptions as there are religions, schools of philosophy and spiritual traditions.

Christians believe that if you accept Jesus Christ as your savior, upon death you will enter the heaven of God and live in his company. Otherwise, you will be condemned to an eternal hell. Muslims also believe in God’s heaven, but it is a different heaven where only believers of Allah can enter, and the rest will go to hell.

The Buddhists believe in the existence of multiple heavens and hells. According to them, upon death a person enters one or more of the heavenly or hellish worlds, depending upon the state of his mind at the time of death. For them, afterlife in any of those worlds is a distraction for the mortal beings, which delays their liberation and prolongs their suffering.

Hinduism also believes in multiple worlds of light and darkness. However, the predominant belief is that upon death the souls go to either the eternal world of Brahman, if they achieve liberation or the ancestral world if they have not resolved their karma. The ancestral world is a temporary world. The transmigrating souls stay there until their karmas are exhausted and return to the earth to take another birth.

Astral world and extra terrestrial life

Apart from them you have numerous new age movements, each with its own version of what happens to a soul upon death. Some even believe in the existence of alien planets and extraterrestrial worlds, to which souls would go upon death and continue their existence.

Some teacher traditions in India and elsewhere suggest that souls will enter astral worlds upon death, which are in many ways said to be similar to our world but are subtle, where the departed souls enjoy greater freedom and flexibility in manifesting their desires and wishes. Finally, we have atheists who think that heaven and hell are figments of imagination, and death is true liberation. Thus, you can see that there are numerous beliefs, opinions, and theories about life after death, and what happens to the souls after they depart from here.

Fate of animals

There is also no unanimity among the faiths about the fate of animals, and other creatures after they die. Some believe that all living beings possess souls and are in different stages of spiritual evolution. Hence, they too enter heaven or hell according to their deeds. Some believe that animals too have their animal heaven where they stay after death and return to the earth in a higher form. Others hold that birds, animals, and other creatures have no souls, and do not have any afterlife. For them it is as if this world is some big Disneyland where the Big One has provided humans with numerous living and breathing toys for food, entertainment, and target practice.

Near death experiences

The near death experiences which are recorded by many also do not provide a clear picture. Numerous studies show that people differ widely in the particulars of their near death experiences. In other words, on the deathbed they all do not experience the same world or go through the same circumstances. Their experiences closely match their state of consciousness, or their faith, values, and beliefs.

For example, in a near death experience, a Hindu is more likely to see a spiritual teacher or a heaven or hell as described in the epics and Puranas, whereas a Christian might see a Jesus like figure or an angel walking towards him in a bright light. Similarly, Buddhists and Muslims might see different worlds and go through different experiences according to their beliefs. In all such cases it is their minds that seem to be drawing them into the worlds that match their beliefs, knowledge, and awareness.

Everything is a projection, Maya

Logically speaking, it appears that what people might experience in the last stages of their lives or in their afterlives is shaped largely by the quality and nature of their consciousness. It is a projection of their consciousness, which creates the reality and provides them with the experience. Since consciousness is unique to each person and to each case, the experience of reality will also be different to each person. It is more likely that if the same person undergoes two near death experiences at two stages in his life, one in the young age and the second in the old age, his two experiences may not entirely be the same.

The diversity of experience in the phenomenal world is the common theme of life in all forms and stages. It holds true for every living being upon earth. You can see that nothing in creation is fixed. Everything moves and changes. The impermanence and flexibility of the world are why we experience our lives uniquely and differently. It is also reason enough for us to respect life, to be tolerant, and let each soul live its life. We may all go through identical situations, but they leave different impressions in our minds and consciousness because we all do not perceive, think or know alike.

The reality which is experienced by each soul upon earth is its own projection. It is colored by its consciousness. Hence, although we all live in the same world and on the same planet, we experience different realities and live in different worlds. They are colored by our knowledge, awareness, desires, intentions, relationships, expectations, fears, hopes, and so on.

It gets even more bizarre as we enter our deeper consciousness. Whatever little similarities and common grounds that exist in the external world greatly disappear in the subtle worlds, where your consciousness is the sole architect of all that it creates and enjoys. You are literally the God of those worlds, or Isvara, the lord. You are the subject and object of what happens there. You are the knower and the known. You are the Brahman of that universe, who cannot be perceived but who makes that perception possible.

For example, take your own dream world. Each time you dream, you enter a different world. Your two dreams will never be the same. No two people will ever dream the same dream. Each dream is a world in itself, which is shaped by your consciousness and its essential nature. Your thoughts, hopes, fears, desires, attachments, expectations, memories, previous actions, knowledge, and imagination provide the bricks and mortar for those creations you manifest in your dreams. The same happens when you meditate and visualize. Even if you practice a guided meditation, what you create in your mind will be unique.

Afterlife is also a projection of the Self only

The same process is repeated when a person dies. When the soul or the consciousness is released from the body and enters the dimensions of higher realms, it begins to project its own reality and creates its own world according to its state of mind and purity of consciousness. If the soul is completely pure, as in case of liberated beings, it projects an infinite reality, in which nothing exists except itself. It becomes the sum of all, the totality of all, the absolute perfection, the singular constant that is indestructible, unchanging, eternal, and indivisible, without a second.

If it has impurities, as in case of transmigrating souls, the world that it creates will be limited by its own impurities, the state of mind, predominant desires, habitual thoughts, latent impressions, suppressed fears, and uncontrollable longings. It will still be the lord of that limited, grayish world, in which it will manifest its reality according to its likes and dislikes but its creation will not be as majestic or expansive as that of the pure Self. It lives in it, and experiences pleasure and pain and other dualities of life according to its accumulated karma. In this regard the following points are worth considering.

  1. Souls are eternal, indestructible, indivisible, and infinite. However, in Samsara they are subject to Maya, the power of Nature.
  2. Pure souls that are liberated exist in a state of infinity after departing from here. They project infinite universes within themselves and possess no other awareness, nor do they project any reality that leads to the experience of duality and division.
  3. Impure souls, which are bound to Nature and clouded by delusion and ignorance due to Maya, project a mixed reality of light and darkness according to their predominant modes and desires. Because of delusion, they take those worlds for real and remain deluded. Their delusion continues even in afterlife, where they accept the worlds which they project as real and become involved with them.

Thus, the experience of afterlife is unique to each soul and largely shaped by its purity and state of consciousness. Upon departing from here each embodied soul projects its own reality, creates its own world or worlds in the subtle realms, according to its predominant gunas, beliefs, desires, and attachments. It projects subtle copies of the beings and objects to which it is attached, and creates a world which will be a close approximation to the nature of its surviving consciousness. Having projected the world or worlds, it enjoys them as the lord and witness. If the consciousness is purer, it projects purer and brighter worlds and inhabits them as their lord. If the consciousness is dark and clouded, it projects similar worlds and remains deluded by them.

What you do now determines how you live there

Neither this world nor the next world is real. Both are projections of the Self which has a universal dimension in its purest state and a limited potency in bound state. In both situations, due to Maya the Self takes its creations or projections for real and identifies itself with them. The nature of its projections and involvement depend very much upon what it experiences here and what it accumulates, just as your dream world and deep sleep experiences are closely related to what you experience in your wakeful state.

For example, if you spend most of the time in the company of bad people, you will have trouble sleeping peacefully. The same happens in life too. If you do not regulate your life upon earth or if you indulge in indiscriminate actions, you will have a troublesome afterlife. If you do not purify your mind and body, or allow negative qualities to prevail, in your afterlife you will involve yourself with darker and fearsome worlds and subject yourself to painful agony.

You are the court, the judge, the witness, and the defendent

Here are a few points that are worth remembering.

  • Whether it is here or hereafter, you are the one who manifest your life and create your world.
  • There is no one to punish you or reward you in the next life. You do it to yourself with the projection of your consciousness.
  • You are that lord and the master of the universe that you create, and the worlds which you inhabit.
  • You pervade those worlds, which you create in different realms or planes of existence, and enter them too as its sole inhabitant.
  • Everything that manifests in those worlds is your projection and you only. You appear in numerous forms and with numerous identities to create the illusion of diversity.
  • Therefore, when you think of death know that your existence in the next world will be similar to what your mind projects now. Whether you want to keep it pure or clouded, it is up to you.

You are the source of both life and death. Even in delusion, you do not cease to create and manifest, just as the sun does not cease to radiate light even when it is covered by clouds. Whether it is here or in the next world, you are always the same eternal Self. What changes or keeps changing is the reality that you project.

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