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Hinduism, Life After Death and Planes Of Existence



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by Jayaram V

At the most basic and fundamental level, where a common man is concerned, Hindu scriptures describe heaven as "svargam" and hell as "narakam". The heaven is inhabited by devas, sages, and many great and noble souls who performed good deeds upon earth. It is a pleasure oriented world in which the beings experience unlimited pleasure, but no pain and no death. Without the discomforts of earthly existence, such as aging, worry, hunger, disease and death, they lead pleasant lives, surrounded by heavenly music, auspicious objects and sceneries, celestial dancers, chanting of divine words and incredible joy. Indra is the ruler of the heaven with Rati as his wife, lightening as his weapon and Aairavat, the white elephant as his vehicle. Interestingly the seat of Indra is not permanent. So like the politicians of today, he is always concerned about protecting his throne from possible contenders and the demons of the nether worlds.

The hell is a dark world, filled with evil doers and their relentless cries of pain and agony, undergoing different kinds of torture and punishment as a consequence of their bad deeds in their previous lives. Unlike in other religions, the hell of Hindu religion is not ruled by an evil persona, but by Yama, a god of highest virtue, endowed with self-discipline and unmatched judging power. Aided by his court minister Chitragupta, who keeps an account of all the deeds done all the people upon earth, he administers justices and accords punishments to the beings who arrive at the doors of hell after completing their lives upon earth.

For many Hindus these two worlds are as real as their own. The possibility of going to heaven or hell through performing good or bad deeds in this world, coupled with a strong belief in the theory of karma, is what regulates the behavior of an average Hindu and influences his or her code of conduct upon earth.

At a much deeper level of understanding, Hindu scriptures do not conclude with the description of just one heaven and one hell. Frankly, Hindus well versed in scriptures, do not believe in just one heaven or one hell. They believe in multiple heavens or worlds of light and multiple hells or world of darkness stretching across the vast spaces of the manifest universe. According to Hindu cosmology, creation is an endless phenomenon and as mysterious as the mystery of the Divinity itself. Creation is God's play (leela) and measuring its dimensions is not possible even for the gods. The universe consists of multiple worlds, layers and planes of existence, some known and some unknown, some within the field of awareness and sensory knowledge and some much beyond. These worlds are inhabited and controlled by different powers, beings, objects, energies, deities and mysterious events. It is difficult to specify how many such worlds are identified by the scriptures. They are indeed many. Just as the mind can envision many worlds and objects in its infinite inner space, the Hindu cosmology comes up with a universe of infinite dimensions and innumerable possibilities. In the Paingala Upanishad we come across a description of the many worlds created by Brahman:

"Out of the elements thus quadruplicated, He created many millions of Brahmandas (macrocosms), fourteen worlds appropriate to each (of these macrocosms) and globular gross bodies appropriate (to each of these worlds)."

It is interesting that today's scientists are also talking about the same concepts in a more scientific and organized way trying to explain the possibilities of parallel universes and coexistence of multiple realities in the same space and time dimensions. This is akin to the vision of a spectacular scale which the ancient seer saw, that does not preclude the possibility of either evolution or theories of quantum physics, mathematical or particle basis of the origin of the universe or relativity. Thousands of years ago Hindu seers spoke about atoms and finer particles forming the basic building blocks of the object matter of the universe.

In some of the Upanishads we come across mainly three planes of existence, Bhur (the earth), Bhuva (heavenly worlds), Suvah (Solar worlds) and Maha (The highest worlds). The famous Gayatri mantra refers to these three worlds.

The Bhagavad-Gita mentions two paths which a soul may follow after leaving the body depending upon the time of death and the nature of deeds performed. They are the path of light, aslo called the path of devas and the path of the night, also called the path of the pitra devas or ancestors. The first one leads to the world of the sun and the second one to the world of the moon. The scripture also mentions that those who indulge in heinous deeds and accumulate very bad karma, do not qualify to follow either of these two paths, but go down and descend into fiendish hells where they suffer for a long time till they are cleansed and purified.

According to the Bhagavad-Gita going to either hell or heaven has its own limitations. Beings who go to these worlds are bound to return to earth once the merits or demerits of their previous karma are exhausted. Life in these worlds is also not permanent and secure as they are also subject to change and flux and attacks from beings of darker worlds. So the scripture suggests that human beings should look for a permanent solution by aiming for union with the Divine through control of the senses, devotion to God and by performing deeds as an offering to God. Complete liberation is possible only when men transcend their lower and higher desires and withdraw into themselves to attain the highest world of Supreme Brahman. However, there is no unanimity among the diferent sects of Hinduism, as to what constitutes the Supreme Abode of God. For the Vaishanavites it is Vaikunth, for the Shivites it is Kailash and for the jnana margis it is Brahmalok.

In Hinduism we also encounter another argument concerning the possibilities of life after death. According to this the body is made up of five elements, known as mahabhutas. These are earth, fire, water, air and ether. After the death of a person, elements of the gross body merges into the gross elements of the earth, which are basically the earth, fire, water and air, while the subtle bodies (Jiva constituting prana, manas and vignana ) go to the subtle or ethereal worlds along with the soul. After exhausting karma in each of these planes and shedding the respective bodies there, the soul returns again to earth with a few memories and samskaras of the Jiva to undergo further evolution.

On the individual plane, Hindu scriptures identify the heaven and hell in the human body also. The heaven is the pleasure principle in our consciousness and it is created by the movements of the senses whose ruler is Indra, the sixth sense, the mind itself. The hell is the pain principle, which is created by evil thoughts and desires and the suffering we undergo because of our wrong deeds. Beyond these two are the world of dreams (corresponding to Bhuva) , the world of deep sleep (Suvah) and the transcendental world of bliss (corresponding to Maha).

Thus we can see Hindu cosmology offers a very complex structure of the universe, in which heaven and hell are just two worlds, which are not necessarily the only places to which human beings go after death. Heavenly existence is not permanent. So also the existence in hell. It is the karma which is the ultimate deciding factor. And it is through karma a person moves in the labyrinth of worlds, till he or she is permanent released into the highest abode of God.

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