Death and Afterlife in Hinduism

by Jayaram V

May this breath merge into the immortal breath. Then may the body end in ashes. AUM, remember what has been done, O intelligence remember what has been done, remember, remember. O Agni, O God, the knower of all our deeds, lead us along the right path to prosperity. Please take away from us our deceitful sins. Many prayers we offer you. - A funderal prayer from the Isa Upanishad

Hinduism believes in the rebirth and reincarnation of souls. The souls are immortal and imperishable. A soul is part of a jiva, the limited being, who is subject to the impurities of attachment, delusion and laws of karma. Death is therefore not a great calamity, not an end of all, but a natural process in the existence of a jiva (being) as a separate entity, a resting period during which it recuperates, reassembles its resources, adjusts its course and returns again to the earth to continue its journey. In Hinduism, unless a soul is liberated, neither life nor after life are permanent. They are both part of a grand illusion.

Death is a temporary cessation of physical activity, a necessary means of recycling the resources and energy and an opportunity for the jiva (that part which incarnates) to reenergize itself, review its programs and policies and plan for the next phase of life. Each life experience on earth and each incarnation of soul offers the jiva an opportunity to learn and overcome its inconsistencies and blemishes so that it can become the whole. We cannot have likes and dislikes, preferences, prejudices and attachment and yet expect ourselves be liberated. Even a preference for purity becomes an impediment at some stage in our lives. The soul therefore needs to be born again and again till it overcomes its state of delusion, achieves the state of equanimity and realizes its completeness. When a person dies, his soul along with some residual consciousness leaves the body through an opening in the head and goes to another world and returns again after spending some time there. What happens after the soul leaves the body and before it reincarnates again is a great mystery about which we can form an idea after studying the scriptures.

The Paths of the Sun and the Moon

The Bhagavad-Gita describes two paths along which souls travel after death. One is the path of the sun, also known as the bright path or the path of gods and the other is the path of the moon, also known as the dark path and the path of ancestors. When a soul travels along the path of the sun, it never return again, while those which travel along the path of the moon return again. (8.24). How is the path of the sun attained? Lord Krishna provides the clue in the following verses:

"Controlling all the openings of the body, with the mind established in the heart, fixing the prana in the self at the top of the head establishing oneself in the Yoga, uttering the monosyllable AUM, which is Brahman, who leaves the body remembering Me, he achieves the highest goal. (8.12-13)

In the same chapter we are also informed that all worlds including that of Brahma are subject to rebirth, but on reaching Him there is no birth.

Suicide in Hinduism

There was a time when suicide was a common theme of several ascetic traditions of ancient India. Through self-immolation, ascetics would discard their frail bodies in search of liberation. The body was considered a karmic fruit and burning it away at the end of a prolonged self-purification process was considered a good option to resolve past karmas. Some wasted away their bodies through severe austerities and diet restrictions, while some literally offered themselves to the elements such as water and fire and ended their lives. The first historic emperor of India, Chandragupta Maurya, who converted to Jainism in the last phase of his life travelled to south and fasted for forty days in a cave near Sravanabelagola to end his life. It is possible that the emperor was following the Hindu tradition of taking up renunciation (Sanyasa ashrama) in the last phase of his life, which was a common practice among the ancient warrior families, and wasting away his body to attain liberation. The Indian warriors were in fact unafraid of death. For them going to the battlefield meant death. And they fought valiantly with the sole objective of dying while fighting and going to the heaven of warriors (vira-svargam), a concept similar to that of the Vikings and their heaven of Valhalla. It was also not uncommon for the wives of warriors committing ritual suicide when their husbands died in the wars. This tradition eventually grew into the practice of Sati and Johar among Rajput women. The story of Uma, the consort of Siva, immolating herself, unable to bear the insults heaped upon her husbands by her own father, gives credence to suicide under extraordinary circumstances.

However, while ritual suicide was permitted under extraordinary circumstances, Hindu traditions and customs as a rule do not permit killing of any kind and suicide was no exception. They clearly warn the consequences of ending one's life since it is la mortal sin and really bad karma with serious complications for one's liberation and rebirth. The souls of those who commit suicide end up in a nether region called Punnama from where redemption is almost impossible for a very long time. Committing suicide in response to suffering and economic hardships has become a common practice in various parts of India. Many from the farming communities in various parts of the country commit suicide unable to face social and economic pressures. Some time people commit suicide even for frivolous reasons such as the failure in an academic test, or death of a film star or a politician. This is an unfortunate development, which needs to be addressed by the elders in the community.

The Fate of an Individual Upon Death

What happens to a soul after the death of a mortal being on earth depends upon many factors, some of which are listed below:

1. His previous deeds. If a person has committed many bad deeds in his life, he will go to the lower worlds and suffer from the consequences of his evil actions. On the contrary if he performed good deeds, he will go to the higher sun filled worlds and enjoy the life there. One's choices and way of life are also important. A householder should lead a balanced life and pursue all the four aims of life as a part of his service to God. The Isa Upanishad clearly emphasizes it.

Into blinding darkness enter those who worship ignorance (materialism) and into greater darkness those who worship knowledge (spirituality) alone. Distinct they say is the result of knowledge and distinct they also say is the result of ignorance. This is what we heard from the wise who explained these matters to us. He who knows both knowledge and ignorance together, crosses death through ignorance and attains immortality through knowledge. - Isa Upanishad

2. His state of mind at the time of death, that is what thoughts and what desires were predominant in his consciousness at the time of his death, decides in which direction the jiva will travel and in what form it will appear again. For example if a person is thinking of his family and children at the time of his death, very likely he will go the world of ancestors and will be born again in that family. If a person is thinking of money matters at the time of his death, very likely he will travel to the world of Vishnu and will be born as a merchant or a trader in his next birth. If a person is thinking of evil and negative thoughts he will go to the lower worlds and suffer in the hands of evil. His suffering may either reform him or push him deeper into evil depending upon his previous samskaras( tendencies). If he is thinking of God at the time of his death, he will go to the highest world.

3. The time of his death. The time and circumstances related to death are also important. For example it is believed that if a person dies on a battle field he will attain the heaven of the warriors. If a some one dies on a festival day or an auspicious day, while performing some puja or bhajan in the house, he will go to heaven irrespective of his previous deeds.

4. The activities of his children, that is whether they performed the funeral rites in the prescribed manner and satisfied the scriptural injunctions. There is a belief that if funeral rites are not performed according to the tradition, it will delay the journey of the souls to their respective worlds.

5. The grace of God. God in the form of a personal deity may often interfere with the fate of an individual and change the course of his or her after life. We have instances where God rescued his devotees from the hands of the messengers of death and placed them in the highest heaven in recognition of their meritorious deeds.

Belief in many heavens and hells

The early Vedic people believed in the existence of two worlds apart from ours, the world of ancestors and that of gods. They called these worlds bhur (earth), bhuva (moon) and svar (the sun) which occupied the lower, the middle and the higher regions of the universe. They believed that gods attained the highest world of svar because of the sacrifices they performed in the past and that men too could reach their world through similar sacrifices. It was also through sacrifice that the gods managed to resurrect Brahma (Prajapati) when he exploded and lost his vital energy due to the intense heat that emanated from his act of creation. The gods represented the life forces and renewal of life while the demons who opposed them represented the forces of death and destruction. In the struggle between gods and demons the gods won and became immortal, providing an opportunity and a possibility to mortal men to attain their status through good deeds upon earth. However the notion of rebirth of human beings was alien to the early Vedic people. In the Rigveda there is no mention of rebirth or reincarnation1. Once the souls departed from here, they lived either in the world of ancestors or that of the gods for good. Their bodies (tanus) were recreated in the higher worlds according to the merit they gained through the sacrifices they performed whilst they were alive. The Vedic tradition of offering sacrifices to one's ancestors support the Vedic belief that the ancestors would either stay in the ancestral world or ascend to the heavenly world through the sacrifices of their descendants but would not return to earth again. If their stay was temporary, the question of making annual offerings to several generations of departed souls would not make much sense. A rudimentary concept of rebirth can be traced in some early Upanishads which repeatedly suggest that a father lives through his son. While the body may perish, the Self does not because the knowledge and energies of the father are transmitted to the eldest son.

However with the integration of new traditions into Vedic religion, the Hindu cosmology grew in complexity and so were the theological explanations about afterlife and rebirth. The Puranas and later Vedic literature speak of the existence of not one hell and one heaven but of many sun filled worlds and many dark and demonic worlds. Apart from these, each of the Trinity of gods has his own world, which is attained by their followers after death. Vaikunth is the world of Vishnu, Kailash of Siva and Brahmalok of Brahman. Indralok, the standard heaven (svar) of the Vedic religion remained as a temporary resting place for the pure souls. Pitralok is the world of ancestors while Yamalok is the hell ruled by a god called Lord Yama, who is also the ruler of the southern quarter, where impure souls are held temporarily and subject to pain and punishment till their bad karmas are exhausted. He is assisted by an attendant, known as Chitragupt, a chronicler, who keeps a catalog of the deeds of all human beings on earth and reads them out as the jivas stand in front of Yama in his court and await his verdict. According to Hindu scriptures, both heaven and hell are temporary resting places for the souls from which they have to return to earth to continue their mortal existence once their karmas are exhausted. But the same is not the case in case of liberated souls. Liberated souls are liberated in the real sense. They are not bound to any place or condition or dimension. Different schools of Hinduism offer different explanations about the status of a liberated soul. According to the school of advaita (monism), when a soul is liberated it reaches the highest world and becomes one with Brahman. Simply, it exists no more as an individual self. According to other schools of thought, when a soul attains the highest world of Brahman or of Vishnu or of Siva, it remains there permanently as a liberated soul savoring the company of the Supreme Being and forever freed from the delusion of Prakriti or nature. It does not reunite with Brahman completely. Some of them may at times incarnate again on their own accord to serve humanity. But event then they would not be subject to the impurities of illusion, attachment and karma. A liberated soul remains forever free and untainted even during the dissolution of the worlds and the beginning of a new cycle of creation.

The purpose of heavens and hell

In the ultimate sense, the purpose of after life is neither to punish nor reward the souls, but to remind them of the true purpose of their existence. In the final analysis, the difference between heaven and hell is immaterial because both are part of the great illusion that characterizes the whole creation. The difference is very much like the difference between a good dream and a bad dream. It should not matter to soul whether it has gone to a heaven or to some hell, because the soul is eternally pure and not subject to pain and suffering. It is the residual jiva, that part which leaves the body and goes to the higher planes after death, which is subject to the process of learning through pain and pleasure in the temporary worlds of heaven and hell. Once its learning is accomplished and the effects of its previous karma is exhausted it returns to the earth to continue its existence.

A jiva which goes to heaven, will enjoy the pleasures of heaven and in the end realizes that seeking heavenly pleasures is not the ultimate goal since however intense these pleasures may be, they would not last long. A soul which falls into the darker world gets a taste of the horror of the evil it tried to promote on earth, with a multiplier effect and with an intensity and severity that would make it realize the horrors of evil. Thus in either case, the purpose of heavens and hells is to impart an attitude of wisdom and detachment to the souls. However, how far these lessons will leave their imprint upon the souls and mold their future lives, we do not know because once they return to the earth consciousness, because of the power of maya, they may forget much of what they have learned or unlearned and revert to their old ways. Hence the need for many lives and learning and relearning the same lessons, till they become an integral part of a jiva's samskara (education).

During the Afterlife A soul can exist in many planes.

It is not necessary that after death a jiva should go to only one world. Depending upon its activities on earth, it may stay in many worlds, one after another, before returning to the earth. It may stay in some hellish worlds before moving to the heavenly worlds or vice versa. Whatever may be the pattern, at the end of it, the soul should have learned some important lessons for its further journey on earth. Hindu scriptures are not unanimous as to what happens to a soul after it leaves this world. Vaishnavism, Saivism and Shaktism offer their own versions of soul's journey into the higher world after death based upon their respective beliefs. In general they suggest that after death devoted souls would go and live in the company of their chosen deities and other pure souls. The Bhagavadgita declares that those who worship demigods would go to them while those who worship the highest Brahman would go to Him only. The Puranas suggest that Vishnu and Siva would rescue their devotees from the clutches of Yamaraj (Lord of hell) out of unbound love even if they committed terrible sins. This is a reward for devotion and a reminder to all that they should surrender to God and remain devoted to Him. However the scriptures are not clear as to how long the souls have to remain in the other worlds before they reincarnate again. They also do not explain why we do not remember our past lives and what causes this loss of memory. One explanation may be that memory is essentially a function of the mind and that mind is recreated afresh each time a being incarnates. Whatever residual memory and sense of identity the jiva carried after death is either exhausted in the other planes along with its previous karma or further compressed beyond recognition before the jiva incarnates again. So a jiva starts afresh with no burden of the past memories, except some predominant memories and habits of thought and action that constitutes the main purpose of its present incarnation.

Ritual killing

Ritual killing was a permitted practice in Vedic tradition. Just as horses were sacrificed during rituals, human beings were sacrificed by kings on important occasions in the sacrifice of humans (naramedha yajna). The Vedas contain formulas to kill enemies and even lovers of one's wife. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad contains a ritual practice to kill the secret lover of a wife by her husband with magic arrows and gradually drain away his vitality. Kings and warriors believed that with the help of gods and magic they would remain invincible. A person who sacrificed himself in the sacrifice of life was called a bhakta. Such acts of valor were considered highly meritorious for the individual and his family. Vedic people also believed that while gods were beneficent beings, they had the ability to destroy humans if they were displeased. They were especially afraid of certain deities such as Rudra and Agni. Prayers for longevity and protection against natural calamities, snake bites, diseases, and premature death of children and fetuses is a common theme of many Vedic hymns. They suggest that the prospect of death was a major concern for a majority of people and they tried to resolve it through rituals, magic and spiritual practices.

Belief in Ghosts and Spirits

Hindus believe in the existence of ghosts and spirits. The Upanishads refer to stories about ghosts, spirits and celestial beings possessing human bodies and speaking through them. They are considered to be unfortunate souls who because of a curse or the terrible sins committed by them such as suicide remain suspended in the region between the higher worlds and the earth. Some of the spirits are good, awaiting the completion of their punishment and release from their current state, while other may continue their evil ways. They are believed to hang around desolate places, deserted buildings, ancient ruins, on the branches of old trees and in grave yards. They usually seek and trouble people of impure minds and unclean habits. Good spirits on the other hand loiter near the places where religious ceremonies are performed or discourses are given. They do not harm any one and instead may even help the needy. Some of the tantric practices allude to the possibility of transferring a jiva's vital energy into a dead body in order to revive it temporarily for certain rituals, or taking control of a suspended soul to perform magic or cause harm to others, or driving away possessed souls using magic and rituals. The Yajurveda contains hymns to exorcise and ward off evil spirits and seek protection against evil spells. Certain ancient ascetic traditions of Saivism excelled in magical rituals allegedly enabling the embodied souls to exchange their bodies or forcing wandering spirits to enter into dead bodies and speak to others.

Funeral Rites, the Last Sacrament

In Hinduism funeral is a sacrament just as the birth of an individual. It is rightly compared to a sacrifice and termed as the last rite (antyesti). Upon death, Hindus are not buried, but cremated according to an established procedure as detailed in the scriptures. This is based on the belief that a jiva is made up of five elements of Prakriti (nature) which need to be returned to their source upon its death. Of them fire, earth, water and air belong to the body and come from this world, whereas the fifth element the ether (fine matter) belongs to the domain of the subtle body and comes from the higher worlds. By cremating the body, the elements are rightfully returned to their respective spheres, while the subtle body along with soul returns to the worlds beyond for the continuation of its afterlife.

Cremation however is not the only prescribed method of disposal of the body. Children below a certain age are buried upon death. In case of an enlightened master, his body is buried inside a tomb called samadhi while he himself is seated in a state of samadhi in lotus position. The body of a renouncer (sanyasi) is usually placed in a river, since it is customary for a sanyasi to undergo the symbolic act of cremation before taking up the life of renunciation. So a second cremation is not prescribed. While cremation is the standard procedure, Hindus prefer a watery grave for the departed in the Ganges, which is a sacred river that is believed to purify souls of their sins, or a cremation on its banks.

Hindu funeral rites have a twin purpose. They are meant to ensure a soul's happy migration and habitation in the other world and also save its family members from the after effects of pollution consequent upon the death of a kin. According to Hindu beliefs, when a person dies, irrespective of whether he is far or near, his family members are polluted by the very process of his death and remain so for some time till the soul completes its journey to the other world and till they are purified through rituals. So is the case with others who come to see the corpse or enter the house where it is placed. The family members of the deceased have to remain isolated and stay away from social engagements for some time before the situation returns to normalcy. The Hindu law books proscribe the recitation of Vedic hymns near a corpse.

When a person dies, his body is given a final bath, usually in the house where he lived. It is then placed on a wooden stretcher and carried by his kith and kin accompanied by the chanting of the name of God to the community cremation grounds. Unless there are compelling circumstances, the body is cremated usually on the same day of the death or after a day or two. The body is placed on the funeral pyre in such a way that its feet point towards the south (the direction of Yama the lord of death) and its head towards north (the direction of Kubera the lord of wealth). The funeral pyre is lit, usually by the eldest son, with a sacred fire created for the purpose or in case of twice born with the domestic fire. Wood, dried cow dung, ghee and other materials are used in the cremation of the body.

Three to ten days after cremation the ashes are collected into urns and scattered at various places. They are mingled with earth, water and air to signify the return of the body to its elements. After the funeral, the family of the deceased perform a ceremonial offering called sraddham, in which rice balls (pindas) are offered by the sons of the deceased to the departed soul. It is believed that the rice balls would help the departed soul to construct a body (annamaya-kosa) for its existence in the world of the ancestors. The offerings continue for ten days each day representing a month in the normal gestation period of a human embryo in the womb, by the end of which the ghost body would be ready. It is followed by another rite known as sapindakarana which facilitates the entry of the soul into the world of ancestors (pitrloka) and its continuation from there on.

In south India there is a practice of offering rice balls to the crows near the cremation grounds to test whether the soul is happy or not with the rites performed. If the crows eat the rice balls, it is a confirmation that the soul is happy with the offerings and the rituals and settled in the other word. A function is organized on the fifteenth day after cremation and guests are invited for a meal. Members of the deceased usually do not celebrate functions and festivals for a specific period of time as a mark of respect and also to avoid causing pollution to others.

The Best way to reach God

According to Hindu scriptures the solution to the problem of death is not heaven but liberation and the best way to attain salvation is through austerities, discipline, devotion, self-surrender and the grace of a guru and God. What a person remembers or thinks at the time of his departure from this world is also important because very likely he would attain it. So a person need to train his mind in such a way that like Mahatma Gandhi he would pass away remembering God or chanting his name. It is physically impossible to defy death. However through mastery of their senses and minds, many saints and seers gain control over the process of death and develop an intuitive awareness of when and in what manner they would depart from this world. When the time comes, leaving necessary instructions to their disciples, they leave their bodies, immersed in a state of samadhi or deep trance. In the Bhagavad-Gita Srikrishna declares that at the time death he who concentrates his prana between the two eye brows with the strength of his yoga and is engaged in devotion with an unwavering mind would attain the divine and transcendental Brahman (8.10).

Suggestions for Further Reading

1. Various attempts have been made to identify possible references to the concept of rebirth in the Rigveda but with limited success. See Keith, Religion and Philosophy for a discussion on this subject. And also Origins of Indian Psychology by N.Ross Reat

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