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Zoroastrianism - Life After Death - And The Nature of Heaven and Hell

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By Jayaram V

Zoroastrians believe that the material world is afflicted with the evils of death, decay and disintegration due to the presence of Ahirman and his fiendish forces. Their presence in the world is as per a covenant agreed upon by God, who wanted them to remain confined to a particular region in the universe so that they all could eventually be destroyed. So the world is marked by dichotomy between good and evil. God represents life and light, where as Ahirman represents, malice, death and darkness. Death is the domain of Ahirman into which God or his forces would not enter. So Ahirman's will reigns unopposed in the domain of death. He cannot touch the spirit, because it is made of the same material as of God and he does not have the strength to deal with it. However when the spirit leaves the body, he and his forces rush into the body and contaminate it with their foul presence.  Zoroastrian scriptures insist that when a person dies, people should dispose it of immediately in a prescribed manner and save themselves and others from the contamination caused by the foul presence of Nashu, an evil matter. Touching a corpse or causing others to touch it intentionally or unintentionally is viewed as a mortal sin, which used to warrant death penalty in ancient times. 

The method suggested by the Zoroastrian texts to dispose of a dead body is by placing it in a rounded structure called dakhma, specially built for the purpose and leave it there in the open until it is consumed by vultures, dogs and other flesh-eating birds and animals. When the flesh is completely gone and the bones are dry, close relatives of the deceased should collect the remains and place them inside an underground vault, where they should be allowed to disintegrate slowly over a long period of time. Zoroastrian religion does not permit the disposal of the dead through burial or cremation or by dropping them into the waters of a river or lake or ocean. There is only one way to dispose it of and it is through the dakhma, in the manner described above. However, as in other religions, prayers and rituals are offered by Zoroastrians as a part of the funeral proceedings for the safety of the spirit and the purity of those involved in the disposal of the body.

The journey of the soul

According to Zoroastrian beliefs, when a person dies, his or her spirit leaves the body, but remains in its vicinity for three days and nights, suffering from temporary anxiety and distress caused by the sudden separation. During this period, the archangel Vohuman and Mithra prepare an account of the good works and the sins of the soul, to be used later to decide its fate in the spiritual world. On the third night the soul leaves the material world and enters into the spiritual world,  led by an angel called Daena (who symbolically represents conscience). There it stands before the Chinawad or Chinavat Bridge or the Bridge of Judgment, where the deeds of the soul are reviewed. Good souls are led to the Paradise and evil souls are led to the world of punishment. The journey of the souls who are destined to go to the heaven is made pleasant by the angels, where as the sinners go through an agonizing experience as they are forcibly pushed towards the hell. The souls will remain in their respective abodes until the end of the current cycle of time. At the end of it there will be a Judgment Day, when God will revive all the dead souls and review their actions once again. Those who were on the side of the good and God will be rewarded with an eternal heavenly life, while the rest will be consigned to a world of torment permanently.

Descriptions of Heaven and Hell

As in other religions, descriptions of the heaven and hell in Zoroastrianism present contrasting pictures. The heaven described in the scriptures is a pleasant place, filled with the radiance of God and great comforts. The hell is a dark world, where souls are subjected to intense agony by the creatures of Ahirman, who take great delight in the suffering of the souls. We find descriptions of heaven and hell in some Zoroastrian scriptures, like the Dadestan-i-Denig, a later day Zoroastrian text, which describes the heaven as, "lofty, exalted, supreme, most brilliant, most fragrant, most pure, filled with beautiful existences, most desirable, and most good, which is the place and abode of the sacred beings (yazdano), where is found all comfort, pleasure, joy, happiness (vashidagih), and welfare, better even than the greatest and most supreme welfare and pleasure in the world. There is no want, pain, distress, or discomfort in it; and it is pleasantness. It is the constantly beneficial place (gas), full and unending space, a good and boundless world."

In contrast the hell is a place of chaos. It lies beneath the earth, with its gates located in the earth. By all accounts, it is a terrible dark place,  "deep, and descending, most dark, most stinking, and most terrible, filled with wretched existences (anazidantum), with the most bad cave (grestako) of the demons and fiends. In it there is no comfort, pleasantness, or joy whatever; but stench, filth, pain, punishment, distress, profound evil, and discomfort. There is no resemblance of it whatever to the worldly stench, filthiness, pain, and evil. So much more grievous is the evil in hell than even the most grievous evil on earth and more grievous is the terror of the punishment on the soul than that of the vileness of the demons on the body. There the sinful soul is punished by the wicked demons and darkness, the head (kamarako) of whom is Ahriman the deadly."

The Chinawad Bridge

Description of the Chinawad or Chinavat bridge is also provided in the Dadestan (Chp 21). The souls have to cross this bridge invariably before going to either the heaven or the hell according to their deeds. The scripture describes the bridge like a beam of many sides. Some of its edges (posto) are broad, and some are thin and razon sharp. "When the souls of the righteous and wicked arrive at the bridge, it turns to that side which is suitable to their necessities. For the righteous souls it becomes a broad bridge, as much as the height of nine spears (nizhako); and for the sinful souls it turns into a narrow bridge, like the  edge of a razor." When the righteous pass over the bridge, his path becomes pleasant like gold colored spring, strewn with sweet scented blossoms. But when the wicked walks upon it becomes thorny, foul smelling and agonizing to cross.

Conclusion

The Zoroastrian mode of disposal of the dead makes it one of the most difficult religions to follow in the modern world. The descriptions of the suffering of the sinful souls in the hell, as described in by Arda Viraf in his composition that goes by the same name, is a grim reminder to the followers of Mazda as to the importance of righteousness in their lives. More than the actions, it is the choices people make in their lives which determines their fate in the afterworld. The simplest and the best way to practice righteousness is to follow the three commandments preached by Zoroaster, good thoughts, good words and good actions and avoid all possible contamination with evil. Finally, the scriptures offer a hope to every one since the stay in heaven or hell is deemed temporary because the souls will be resurrected once again and subjected to judgment by God at the end of the current time cycle.

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