For centuries, an enigmatic and metaphysical question if there is life after death, has baffled philosophers, scientists and common people. All of us experience at one time or other in our surrounding how the death brings a radical change in the body. In a moment, the person loses consciousness, memory, experiences and above all the very personality that one represented all along during life. As philosophers and rationalists say that with the last breath one ceases to exist or one came from the dust and returned to the dust. Is this the end or anything else remains beyond it? And if there is indeed something beyond the death, what is that? The question has kept on foxing the mankind beyond the space, time and age but the accurate answer is yet to be found.
Surprisingly, different human civilizations grew in isolation across a vast geographic and demographic stretch since the immemorial times yet the death remains an enigma and they share certain common doctrines like the existence of spirit or immortal soul, reincarnation, resurrection, heaven and hell in almost all societies and religions in some or the other form. Even more mystifying is as to why such ideas and beliefs have a universal acceptance, when the evidence is so inconclusive. These ideas, beliefs, postulations and explanations are discussed in the following paragraphs in an endeavour to explore the mystery of the unknown.
Theology and Life after Death
Hinduism is perhaps the only major religion which traces its origin in monotheism but due to its diversified culture, philosophy and doctrines, it assumed the characteristics of a polytheistic religion. Other Asian religions like Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism are actually offshoots of Hinduism (together form about 20% of world population) and they share several before and afterlife beliefs with the latter. Buddhists believe in a cycle of death and rebirth called samsara. Through karma and eventual enlightenment, they hope to escape samsara and achieve nirvana, an end to suffering. Like Hinduism, Buddhism too considers death as not the end of life; it is merely the end of the body and the spirit remains and seeks attachment to a new body and new life. Where and what life one gets, is a result of the past life based on accumulated positive and negative action and the resultant karma (cause and effect). Similarly, Sikhism also has a strong belief in reincarnation. According to the teachings of Sikh Gurus, all animals and human beings have soul which goes through different life forms until it is purified to attain unity with God.
All other major religions like Christianity, Islam and Judaism are essentially monotheistic in nature and have belief in spirit, resurrection, heaven and hell, reward and punishment based on righteous and sinful deeds in some form or the other. Even the Chinese and African traditional religions and other world ethnic religions too have some commonalities so far as their customs, rituals and belief in respect of life after death is concerned. Many of them believe in spirit (soul), heaven and hell, liberation and ghosts according to their deeds. Here we shall discuss only two major religions namely Christianity and Islam which together constitute about 54% population of the world.
Christianity and Resurrection
Amongst the different Christian denominations (Catholics & Protestants being largest), organizations and individuals, the majority people believe in the life after death in the form of resurrection, reward and punishment, heaven and hell, purgatory, and so on so forth. Bible synonymise death to some kind of eternal sleep where the person is asleep, unconscious, not aware of the passing time or what is going around. The Bible quotes, “…for the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing… their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished”.
One of Jesus Christ’s most significant miracles recorded in the Bible (Chapter 11 - Gospel of John 1-44) is the resurrection of Lazarus. He lived in the town of Bethany near Jerusalem and was the brother of the sisters Mary and Martha, the followers of Jesus. On getting a call about his illness, Jesus travelled to Bethany only to find that Lazarus was dead and already been in his tomb for four days. Before the Jewish crowd, Jesus rolled the stone away from the entrance of the tomb, prayed and called Lazarus to come out who indeed walked out alive.
The common Christian belief is that there will be a final judgment day on which the bodies of the all dead shall be resurrected. The right ones shall enter into full possession of eternal bliss in the new realm (earth) in presence of God, and the wicked shall be condemned to eternal death. On resurrection, the wicked dead will be judged according to their deeds. Whosoever does not find a place in the Book of Life, together with the devil and his angels, the beast and the fake prophets, will be consigned to the eternal punishment in the lake of fire and brimstone, which is the second death.
Among the various denominations, organizations and individuals, the vast majority of Christians believe in heaven in which the deceased enjoy the eternal bliss of God and loved ones. Similarly Christians also believe in hell where sinners and nonbelievers are punished. Among the major Christian organizations in USA and elsewhere such as Assemblies of God, Evangelical Free Church of America, Friends United Meeting (Quaker), Mennonite Church in the USA, Presbyterian Church in the USA and United Methodist Church (on purgatory), and so on so forth, there are varied accounts and theories of heaven and hell as also who all are subjected to it after death. The catholic Christians (largest denomination) also believe in purgatory which is a temporary place of punishment for the believers who sinned and died without confessing sins. Such sinners on purification will eventually go to heaven.
Islam and Resurrection
In Islam too death is not seen as the termination of life. The Islamic belief and theology takes death as a natural threshold for the next stage of existence. Islamic doctrine does have a faith in spirit, resurrection, final judgement, rewards and punishments, paradise and hell as natural consequences of the death of the human body. Islam does not talk about the Karma but it holds that there is direct relation between the conduct of a person on earth and the life beyond with the rewards and punishments commensurate with the earthily conduct. This faith in life after death is the chief motivational factor for the believers to do right things as per wish of Allah and stay away from sins.
As per Muslim belief, the dead in the grave have a continued and conscious existence, a sort of an intermediate phase of life between the death and resurrection. The grave serves as a garden of the paradise or the pit of hell where the angels of mercy and punishment visit for the spirits of believers and unbelievers, respectively. A day of final judgement (Qayamat) will come when Allah (God) will resurrect and gather all His creations (spirits) to judge and sent them to their final abode i.e. the Paradise or Hell. Before this resurrection, the world will come to an end, the great angel will blow the Horn and all creations will fall unconscious, except those who are spared by Allah. Resurrection will be preceded by the end of the world as the earth would be flattened, mountains turned to dust, sky cracked and the graves overturned.
On another Horn blow, all dead will rise up from the graves in their original body forms, the gathering shall include all humans, jinns (demons) and even animals. Now Allah will judge all His creations of their good and bad deeds, and the Paradise and Hell will be the final abode for the believers or faithful and unbelievers or sinners, respectively. The paradise is supposed to be an eternal garden of all physical pleasures and spiritual delights while the Hell an infernal place of torture and punishment in burning by fire, boiling water to drink, and searing food to eat besides chains and choking columns of fire. While the sinful believers will eventually find Paradise after completing punishment, unbelievers will suffer in Hell for eternity.
Hinduism: Doctrine of Reincarnation
As the oldest civilization and religion, the Hinduism is also metaphysically the most debated and complex religion that has origin in monotheistic belief yet spanned through panentheism, pantheism, monism, polytheism and atheism during the vast expanse of time because it professed tolerance and allowed debate, reasoning and dissent. Unlike other monotheistic religions like Christianity, Islam and Judaism, it has a rich literature too in the form of Vedas (4), Upanishads (over 200), and many Shashtras and Puranas. As Hinduism allowed different school of thoughts to prosper, it has multiple doctrines on life after death, and that propounded in Hindu scripture Bhagvad Gita as the most authenticated and widely accepted one.
What Gita says
In Bhagvad Gita Chapter 2, Verse 17 to 22, the nature and action of the imperishable soul has been delineated and emphasised in a beautiful and mesmerising way. According to Gita, a dying person's next life is determined by his (or her) last thought in the present life because it reflects the inmost desire of the dying person. The Chapter 2 Verse 22 reads as under:
Vasamsi jirnani yatha vihaya
Navani grhnati naro 'parani
Tatha sarirani vihaya jirnany
Anyani samyati navani dehi
(As a person puts on new garments,
giving up old ones,
similarly, the soul accepts new material bodies,
giving up the old and useless ones)
Persons who do not attend karma based moksha remain part of the cycle of the life-death-life. The interruption in the cycle may come as their temporary abode in heaven or hell for some time depending upon their deeds in the previous life i.e. good or bad things done. After the merit of their good karma or the demerit of their bad karma is exhausted, they have to leave heaven or hell, as the case may be, to be born again into the Earth plane. This cycle of the birth and death shall be repeated till the attainment of moksha or liberation of the soul and the length of the cycle will depend on the deeds that enable the person to attain moksha or liberation.
Then the obvious question arises as to what happens on attainment of moksha, different Vedanta school of thoughts in Hinduism offer different philosophical explanation to moksha or liberation.
Advaita Vedanta: Advaita Vedanta is the most popular school of thoughts among Hindus and a category of Hinduism propounded by Adi Shankara who was an 8th century Indian philosopher and theologian. Followers of the Advaita believe in non-dualism (monism) that is their soul is not different from Brahman (God). Shankara is believed to had learnt sacred scriptures like Vedas and ancient Upanishads under the supervision of his Guru (teacher) Govinda Bhagavadpada and later wrote many extensive commentaries of Hindu sacred texts called Upanishads. As per the Advaita philosophy, the Atman (soul) is the same as the highest spiritual reality Brahman. The followers of this philosophy are called Advaita Vedantins or Advaitins who seek moksha through vidya or gyan (knowledge) while still conscious about own true identity as Atman, and the identity of Brahman. According to this doctrine, the moksha is possible while still living i.e. Jivan-mukti, and after death i.e. Krama-mukti. Bhishma on the death bed during Mahabharata is often quoted as the one who attained Jivan-mukti.
Dvaita Vedanta: Dvaita Vedanta is another school of thought in the Vedanta tradition of Hindu philosophy which was founded by a 13th Century philosopher and scholar Madhvacharya. According to this theory, the Jivatman (i.e. Atman) or individual souls and Vishnu as supreme soul (God) exist as independent and distinct realities. The term Dvaita refers to dualism on the premise that Jivatman and Supreme Soul are two realities that exist simultaneously and independently. Followers of Dvaita Vedanta believe that moksha can be attained only after death.
According to this doctrine, there are four levels of Moksha based on good Karma in the ascending order of 1) Salokya, 2) Samipya, 3) Sarupya and 4) Sayujya. In the first order (Salokya), the departed soul after the death goes to the abode of Vishnu and stays blissfully there. In the second order (Samipya), the soul enjoys the bliss of the extreme proximity of Vishnu. In the third order (Sarupya), the departed soul acquired the form of Vishnu to experience intense bliss while in the highest fourth order (Sayujya) the soul is absorbed in Vishnu blissfully.
Vishistadvaita Vedanta: Vishishtadvaita Vedanta is another Hindu philosophy propounded by Ramanuja, a theologian, philosopher and exponent of the Sri Vaishnavism tradition within Hinduism in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. VishishtAdvaita literally means ‘Unique Advaita’ is a non-dualistic school of Vedanta philosophy. According to this doctrine, Brahman alone exists but He is characterized by multiplicity i.e. individual souls explained as the qualified monism or attributive monism or qualified non-dualism. There is unity of all souls and that the individual soul has the potential to realize identity with the Brahman. This realization (Moksha) is possible only after the person’s death whereby soul would live blissfully in Vaikuntha (the abode of Vishnu) in spiritual bodies. Such soul may acquire divine powers such as omniscience yet remain subservient to God and, unlike God (Vishnu), they cannot create, sustain or dissolve the world.
Karma: Cause and Effects
In Hinduism, despite several narratives of the Soul and Divine (Brahman), the afterlife is a product of the person’s cumulative karma. Accordingly, Hinduism has a belief in the rebirth and reincarnation of soul that is immortal and imperishable. A soul is part of a jiva, the physical being that is subject to the impurities of attachment, delusion and laws of karma. Consequently, the death is not an end but a natural process of continuance of the in the jiva as a separate entity.
The Bhagavad-Gita outlines two distinct paths that a soul could travel after the death and the Karma determines which path it shall go. The path of the sun which is also considered the path of divine because if the soul finds the bright path of sun, it will never return to mrityulok (cycle of life-death-life) and attain moksha. The other one is the path of moon or the dark ancestors’ path and souls taking this path would return to the same cycle again. Essence of attaining the path of sun is given in Bhagvad Gita Chapter 8.12-13 which Lord Krishna himself summarised as under:
Sarva-dvarani sanyamya mano hridi nirudhya cha
Murdhnyadhayatmanah pranam asthito yoga-dharanam
( Restraining all the gates of the body and fixing the mind in the heart region,
and then drawing the life-breath to the head,
one should get established in steadfast yogic concentration)
Om ityekaksharam brahma vyaharan mmm anusmaran
Yah prayati tyajan deham sa yati paramam gatim
(One who departs from the body while remembering me, the Supreme Personality,
and chanting the syllable Om, will attain the supreme goal)
In other words “Exercising control over all the openings of the body, concentrating mind in the heart and focusing the prana (breath) towards head in yogic posture, one that leaves the body remembering me chanting AUM, achieves the highest goal i.e. moksha.”
Those who had karma of the highest order in material life shall be able to do as above skipping the cycle of life-death-life to attain moksha and ones who have bad karma and a life full of sins will enter into the cycle to take rebirth again and again. Some others who die unnatural death (Akal-mrityu) through the suicide, murder or accident, shall roam around for unlimited period as ghosts.
Hindu Afterlife Belief
In the foregoing paragraphs, the concept of Atman and Brahman in the Hindu theology and its chief doctrines have been touched upon. The sum of all this is that the Atman unchanged with time and circumstances remains entrapped in the world of samsara (i.e. the cycle of life, death and rebirth) by the Law of Karma unlike the concept of resurrection in Christianity or Islam. The good and bad deeds ultimately return in the form of reward or punishment and it is the overlying necessity of the reaping of karma that compels person to repeat in the cycle of rebirth in successive lifetimes.
While the doctrine of heaven and hell does exit, the overwhelming belief, with some exceptions, is that a person (jiva) experiences it in the same samsaric life. For instance, if a person was very generous in one lifetime, one may reborn as a wealthy person in the next incarnation or if he (or she) had done evil deeds in previous life, one may reborn to live a poor and miserable life. Moksha is the eventual happening or supreme goal that liberates one from the endless cycle of death and rebirth, whereby the individual soul is believed to merge or get absorbed in Brahman (God). Like the concept of Heaven and Hell in Christianity and Islam, Hinduism too have similar concept for the temporary reward and punishment before entering in the cycle of reincarnation yet again.
Some Near-Death Experiences
In India and several Western countries, studies have been conducted and instances have been reported in the past where a person assumed to have died out of some disease or accident, shortly regained consciousness (life) to narrate supranatural experiences with certain verified evidences difficult to outrightly refute or ignore. In such cases, the Indian subjects would typically talk about being lifted or drawn by two to four mostly people with ghastly appearances (Yamdoots – Messengers of the God of dead) through some dark or rough path to an unknown destination before another heavy and dark personality (Yamaraj – the God of dead) carrying a club. In most cases reported, the person talked about a mistaken identity, hence promptly sent back, and, reportedly, in 1-2 cases another person with the same name/identity in the vicinity indeed died thereafter.
This is in sharp contrast to the Western experiences, where persons reportedly experienced things like a tunnel, a rushing sound, a brilliant light, a feeling of ecstasy and being told that time is not yet ripe to die. People have also talked about the out-of-the-body experience in which a person would observe own body from above – at times seeing medics trying frantically to revive his still body and other experiences like seeing other dead relatives or friends.
Though some researchers have attempted to consolidate near-death-experiences (NDEs) and derive conclusions but the area largely remains unexplored and mystifying. The other point is paradoxical experiences of culturally different people i.e. the Westerners so often experiencing tunnel and bright light sensation while Indian experience of darkness and ugly people go against a rational approach. Humans in their consciousness may visualize things in their psyche according to their cultural and religious beliefs but the God or nature shall make no distinction with the subjects. Notwithstanding the contrast, the one element of commonality is that the death is only transient from the physical to spiritual and NDEs are like waking from a dream while deep asleep.
The term ‘near-death’ could be a misnomer because the evidence suggests that people actually journey beyond death during the near-death experiences. Another characteristic of the near-death experience is that people narrate their experience which is largely commensurate with their pre-existing belief system. Such varied descriptions of NDEs are possibly due to different background, beliefs, perspectives, perceptions and biases, and afterlife realms to fit them. However, the common and unanimous point among people experiencing NDEs is their conviction of a life after death. Whatever be the experience and description, if so people across the planet come with similar narrative, even the most sceptical rationalist cannot outrightly reject it.
Science and Life after Death
While religion and theology have firm belief that the death in not an end and there is much more beyond that to follow but these doctrines are mostly a matter of faith and conviction which scientists often dispute and deny. They hold that the life is a biological process of existence that acts, reacts, evaluates and undergoes growth and multiplication through reproduction and metabolism. The death is an obvious natural process of the ending of a living being. According to Dr Sean Carroll, a noted cosmologist and Physicist at the California Institute of Technology, strongly feels that the mankind should abandon its fanciful beliefs on ‘life after death’ to follow the laws of the universe.
According to Dr Carroll if there is an ‘afterlife’ then the consciousness would need to be independent of our physical body which is not the case. Instead, actually the consciousness is a series of atoms and electron at the basic level that essentially give us our mind. The laws of universe do not allow these particles to function after the person’s physical death. The laws of physical science are quite clear and there is no way that the information stored in brain will still persist after the death, hence the usual claim that some form of consciousness remains after the demise of the body does not hold good. Citing the Quantum Field Theory (QFT), Dr Carroll further points out that if life continued in some capacity after death, tests on the quantum field would have revealed ‘spirit particles’ and ‘spirit forces’. So believing in life after death would require physics beyond the accepted standard model.
The Enigma Continues!
Contrary to Dr Carroll’s belief which he held true on the basis of the universal laws of science that the physical body and consciousness are inseparable, a study by the British experts on more than 2000 people some time back (available in public domain) concluded that awareness and thoughts are carried on even after the heart stops functioning. The study also reported one concrete case of an out of body experience in a patient declared dead. It is medically believed that the brain stops all activities in 30 seconds after the heart stops the function of pumping blood in the body but, according to lead researcher Dr Sam Parnia, this study reported people experiencing awareness upto three minutes after being pronounced dead. Besides, of the 2,060 patients from the UK, the US and Austria that survived cardiac arrest, almost fourty percent of them narrated some form of awareness after pronounced clinically dead. Of those who had experienced some awareness, about two percent narrated their experience consistent with the feeling of an outer body experience where one could feel, hear and see what was going around after death. One man was able to recall with eerie accuracy what went around him after his temporary death.
The above findings are important in view that the scientists and rationalists could otherwise easily relate such occurrences with hallucinations or illusions either prior to heart stops or after the heart successfully revived but for the fact that the reported findings relate to a period when the heart was not beating. Perhaps it is this awareness that is synonymized with the Atman (soul or spirit) which the philosophy of the Bhagvad Gita refers to in the context of the ‘Body’ and ‘Soul’, the latter as the subtle nature of the Jiva which remains invisible and mystifying as also the one that can survive without the body. According to Lord Krishna, the soul is indestructible and immortal that moves from one perishable body to another in its Karmic cycle (Bhagvad Gita Chapter 2 Verse 23).
Nainam chhindanti shastrani nainam dahati pavakah
Na chainam kledayantyapo na shoshayati marutah
(Weapons cannot shred the soul, nor can fire burn it.
Water cannot wet it, nor can the wind dry it)
Even scientifically, the medical definition of the death has been debated for ages depending on the culture, social conditions and advancement of the technology. The latest accepted definition i.e. brain death may not yet be an absolute and all encompassing meanings. While there is no unanimity among the scientific community as to when conscious life begins, there is no consensus either when the physical life ends. It is true that the Biology and its various branches including the genetics and evolution have been able to unravel the anatomy, physiology and other functions of the human body, similarly physical sciences have explored and established many universal laws to accurately tap energies hidden in nature; the mankind is yet to go a long way to unravel and unfold many more mysteries of universe which inter alia includes the question of the ‘life after death’ which so far has largely remained and held good in the domain of the metaphysics and theology.