Hinduism, Life After Death and Planes Of Existence
In Hinduism, the ultimate goal is not heaven, but liberation. Heavenly life is considered a distraction and part of the illusion which will delay the ascent of the soul to the world of Brahman. Jayaram V
Those who are intent upon knowledge and wisdom go to the highest goal (parandhama), but those who are sinfully inclined go miserably to the torments of Yama. Garuda Puranas
The early Vedic people believed in afterlife. However, in the early Upanishads you do not find any systematic or coherent concept of the universe, or the number of worlds probably because they were compiled from different sources and ascetic traditions. Their universe was simple, which consisted of a few worlds or planes of existence. For example, the Taittiriya Upanishad envisages a simple universe consisting of the earth (prithvi), the mid-region (antariksham), the heaven (dyauh), four quarters (disah), four intermediate quarters (antardisah), the sun (aditya), the moon (chandrama), and the constellation of stars (nakshatrani). The same Upanishad also mentions a four tier universe consisting of the earth (bhuh), the mid-region (bhuva), Indra’s heaven (svah) and the immortal heaven (maha). It also mentions a sage named Trisanku, which name was later identified in the Puranas with an alternative heaven created by sage Viswamitra for him.
Apart from them, the Upanishads also identify the moon as the home of the ancestral heaven, the sun as the home of the immortal world of Brahman and an underworld to which sinners went and returned from there to take birth as worms and insects. Subsequently, it appears that the mahar loka became part of the six upper worlds and the underworld part of the six lower worlds. The Isa Upanishad, which is an invocation to the departing soul, mentions worlds, which are filled with light (surya lokas) and those filled with darkness (asurya lokas).
The popular belief in heaven and hell
At the most basic and fundamental level, where a common man is concerned, Hindu scriptures describe the heaven as "svargam" and the hell as "narakam." The heaven is inhabited by devas, sages, and many great and noble souls who performed good deeds upon earth and earned merit to qualify for their stay there. 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 beautiful vistas, celestial dancers, chanting of divine words and incredible joy. Indra is the ruler of the heaven with Rati as his wife, lightning 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 because of their bad deeds in their previous lives. Unlike in other religions, the hell of Hinduism is not ruled by an evil persona, but by Yama, a virtuous god of justice who is endowed with knowledge, wisdom, austerity, self-discipline and unmatched judging power. Assisted by his minister and scribe Chitragupta, who keeps an account of all the beings upon earth and their deeds, he administers justice and accords punishments to the beings, when they arrive at the doors of the hell upon their death.
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.
A multiverse with multiple worlds
At a much deeper level of understanding, Hindu scriptures do not conclude with the description of just one heaven and one hell. Frankly, Hindus who are 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 worlds of darkness, stretching across the vast spaces of the manifest universe like beads upon the thread of Brahman. According to Hindu cosmology, creation is an endless phenomenon, 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. Just as there are gross and subtle bodies, there are gross and subtle worlds. 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, Hindu cosmology envisages a universe of infinite dimensions and innumerable possibilities. In the Paingala Upanishad we come across a description of the many worlds created by Brahman, which in modern terminology is a reference to the multiverse:
"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, which does not preclude the possibility of either evolution or the theories of quantum physics, mathematical or the particle basis of the origin of the universe or relativity. Thousands of years ago Hindu seers spoke of atoms and fine particles of matter which acted as the basic building blocks of matter (rayi), objects and the materiality of the universe.
As stated before, in some Upanishads we come across references to mainly four planes of existence namely Bhur (the earth or the mortal world), Bhuva (the mid world or celestial-world), Suvah (the gods' world or Indra’s heaven) and Maha (The great world or the world of Brahman). The famous Gayatri mantra, which is an invocation to Brahman as Savitur, the solar deity, refers to them as the worlds which he illuminates. However, we do not clearly know what the mahar loka stands for, except that it is a water laden region and the source of water, life and renewal for the earth. It was probably an archaic reference to Brahma loka, the world of Brahma, when Brahma was the chief deity of the Vedic religion. Interestingly, in the later Upanishads we find that the world of Brahman (not Brahma) is the highest world, to which the immortal souls travel by the path of gods (devayana) after their departure from the earth. Vaishnavites identify it with Vaikunta and the Shaivites with Kalasa.
The two paths
The Bhagavad-Gita mentions two paths, which the embodied souls (jivas) may follow upon leaving their bodies, depending upon the time of their death and the nature of their deeds. They are the path of light, also 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 immortal world of the sun where the stay is permanent and the second one to the ancestral world of the moon where the stay is temporary. The scripture also mentions that those who indulge in heinous deeds and accumulate very sinful 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 until they are cleansed and purified. These descriptions affirm the ideas which are found in the Upanishads.
According to the Bhagavad-Gita going to either hell or ancestral heaven has its own limitations. Beings who go to them are bound to return to the 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, besides unprovoked attacks from the evil beings of the darker worlds who are always looknig to conquer the light filled worlds and spread chaos.
Hence, the scripture suggests that human beings should look for a permanent solution by aiming for union with Brahman, the Supreme Self, through control of their minds and bodies, detachment, renunciation, devotion to God and performing actions as an offering to him. Mukti or the final liberation is possible only when humans transcend their lower nature, desires and attachments, and withdraw into themselves to attain the highest world of Supreme Brahman. However, there is no unanimity among the different sects of Hinduism, about the Supreme Abode of God. For the Vaishanavites, it is Vaikunth, for the Shaivites it is Kailash and for the jnana margis it is Brahmalok. The Puranas also give the impression that they are indeed not the same but different worlds, each inhabited by different classes of beings.
The fate of the casual body upon death
In Hinduism we also encounter another concept about the fate of the casual or the subtle body and the ossibilities of life after death. According to it the body of an embodied soul is made up of five elements, known as mahabhutas namely the earth, fire, water, air and space. Further, it is also made up of five sheaths (kosas) namely the food body, the breath body, the mental body, the intelligence body and the bliss body. Of them, the first one is gross and the rest are subtle.
It is said that after the death of a being, the gross body dissolves 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 Vijnana) 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 retentive memories, desires,and latent impressions (samskaras) to undergo further spiritual evolution and transformation.
Symbolism of heaven and hell in the body
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 or 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).
The Vedas identify the organs in the body as the spheres of the gods. Breath is their lord. Beyond them is the Self, who is the lord of the body, the witness and the enjoyer. When the organs in the body are put to selfless actions, the body becomes an abode of gods, but when they are put to selfish actions it becomes a virtual hell, filled with evil and demonic influence. Therefore, the scriptures suggest that to keep evil away and ensure the purity of the mind and body, one should cultivate divine qualities, perform selfless actions and take refuge in God or the Self.
Thus, we can see that 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 is the existence in hell. It is karma which is the ultimate deciding factor of a person's fate. Again, it is through karma only that a person moves in the labyrinth of worlds, until he or she is permanently released into the highest abode of God.
Suggestions for Further Reading
- Death And Afterlife In Hinduism
- The Samkhya Philosophy and 24 Principles of Creation
- The Bhagavadgita On The Problem Of Sorrow
- The Concept of Atman or Eternal Soul in Hinduism
- The Practice of Atma Yoga Or The Yoga Of Self
- The Problem of Maya Or Illusion and How To Deal With It
- Belief In Atman, The Eternal Soul Or The Inner Self
- Brahman, The Highest God Of Hinduism
- The Bhagavad Gita Original Translations
- The Bhagavadgita, Philosophy and Concepts
- Bhakti yoga or the Yoga of Devotion
- Hinduism And The Evolution of Life And Consciousness
- Why to Study the Bhagavadgita Parts 1 to 4
- The Triple Gunas, Sattva, Rajas and Tamas
- The Practice of Tantra and Tantric Ritual in Hinduism and Buddhism
- The Tradition Of Gurus and Gurukulas in Hinduism
- Origin, Definition and Introduction to Hinduism
- Hinduism, Way of Life, Beliefs and Practices
- A Summary of the Bhagavadgita
- Avatar, the Reincarnation of God Upon Earth
- The Bhagavadgita on Karma, the Law of Actions
- The Mandukya Upanishad
- The Bhagavadgita On The Mind And Its Control
- Symbolic Significance of Numbers in Hinduism
- The Belief of Reincarnation of Soul in Hinduism
- The True Meaning Of Renunciation According To Hinduism
- The Symbolic Significance of Puja Or Worship In Hinduism
- Introduction to the Upanishads of Hinduism
- Origin, Principles, Practice and Types of Yoga
- Hinduism and the Belief in one God