Hindu, Hinduism and Hindustan: Part XXXI

Death and Afterlife in Hinduism

Continued from Part XXX

An enigmatic and metaphysical puzzle if there is any life after death has continued to baffle philosophers, scientists and common people for centuries. Most of us get scared of the very thought of death during the life particularly after experiencing how the death brings a radical change in the body following the demise of their near and dear ones. In a moment, the person loses memory, consciousness and the very personality that one represented all along during the life. The rationalists and many philosophers hold that with the last breath a living being ceases to exist or that one came from the dust and returned to the dust. The enigmatic question is if this is the end or something remains beyond it? And if there is indeed something beyond the death, what is that?

Hindu Theology and Life after Death

Among the major religions in the world, Hinduism is the only religion that traces its origin in monotheism, or rather monism, but following its diversified culture, philosophy and doctrines, it assumes the characteristics of a polytheistic religion. Other Indian religions like Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism too are offshoots of Hinduism that share similar before and afterlife beliefs. Hinduism considers death as not the end of life; instead, it is merely the end of the body and the spirit remains and seeks attachment to a new body and 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). Buddhists also believe in death and rebirth called samsara. Through karma and eventual enlightenment, they hope to escape samsara and achieve nirvana - an end to suffering. Similarly, Sikhism too has a strong belief in reincarnation. According to religious belief, all living beings have soul which goes through different life forms until it is purified to attain oneness with God.

Hinduism believes in the rebirth and reincarnation of soul after the death of the mortal body. The soul, being immortal and imperishable, is part of a jiva who is prone to the impurities of attachment, delusion and laws of karma. For it, death is not an end but a natural process following which it recuperates, reassembles its resources and adjusts its course according to Karma only to return again to the earth. This process continues till the soul is liberated; thus both the life and the afterlife are transitory in nature as part of a grand illusion. Therefore the death is only a temporary interruption of the physical activity, following which the soul recycles and reenergizes itself for reincarnation and enter the next phase of life.

According to Hindu Theology, every incarnation of soul offers an opportunity to learn the truth of universe and pursue the ultimate goal of life i.e. liberation (Moksha) by experiencing own inconsistencies and infirmities, and ways to overcome it. One needs to get rid of likes and dislikes, worldly cravings, preferences and prejudices and attachment to get liberated. It’s not easy to completely get rid of delusion in a life; hence the soul is born time and again till it overcomes it, achieves the state of tranquility and realization of its completeness. When a living being dies, his (or her) soul along with the residual consciousness leaves the body and goes to yet another world only to return again after some time. Notwithstanding all this, what happens after the soul leaves the mortal body and till it reincarnates again remains shrouded in great mystery.

The Paths of the Sun and the Moon

According to the Bhagavad-Gita, the soul travels along two paths after the death of body. 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 or the path of ancestors. When the soul travels along the path of the sun, it never returns again, while the path of moon is taken by the soul only to return to the world again. Following verses of the Bhagavad Gita amply explain the concept.

Yatra kale tvanavrittim avrittim chaiva yoginah
Prayata yanti tam kalam vakshyami bharatarshabha.

Agnir jyotir ahah shuklah shan-masa uttarayanam
Tatra prayata gachchhanti brahma brahma-vido janah.

Dhumo ratris tatha krishnah shan-masa dakshinayanam
Tatra chandramasam jyotir yogi prapya nivartate.

Shukla-krisne gati hyete jagatah shashvate mate
Ekaya yatyanavrittim anyayavartate punah.

(Bhagavad Gita: Chapter 8, Verses 23-26)

(I shall now describe to you the different paths of passing away from this world, O best of the Bharatas, one of which leads to liberation and the other leads to rebirth. Those who know the Supreme Brahman, and who depart from this world, during the six months of the sun’s northern course, the bright fortnight of the moon, and the bright part of the day, attain the supreme destination. The practitioners of Vedic rituals, who pass away during the six months of the sun’s southern course, the dark fortnight of the moon, the time of smoke, the night, attain the celestial abodes. After enjoying celestial pleasures, they again return to the earth. These two, bright and dark paths, always exist in this world. The way of light leads to liberation and the way of darkness leads to rebirth.)

How is the path of the sun attained? Lord Krishna provides a clear hint in the following verses:

Sarva-dvarani sanyamya mano hridi nirudhya cha
Murdhnyadhayatmanah pranam asthito yoga-dharanam.

Om ityekaksharam brahma vyaharan mam anusmaran
Yah prayati tyajan deham sa yati paramam gatim.

(Bhagavad Gita: Chapter 8, Verses 12-13)

(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. One who departs from the body while remembering Me, the Supreme Personality, and chanting the syllable Om, will attain the supreme goal.)

In the above verses, Lord Krishna enlightens Prince Arjuna about the fate of the soul after leaving the mortal body in response to the latter’s query (Verse 8.2) as to how one could unite with Lord at the time of death. Krishna explains the two paths of light (sun) and darkness (moon), respectively as also how the path of light could be achieved. Through these mystic verses, one could discern wonderful allegory for expressing spiritual concepts around the themes of light and darkness.

Those who had karma of the highest order in the 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, may roam around for unlimited period as ghosts/spirit.

The Doctrine of Reincarnation

In Hinduism, the concept of reincarnation has roots in the Vedic period as some early references are found about the cycle of samsara (birth and death). Also in early Upanishads, the idea is far more explicitly mentioned or evolved. These early scriptures supported the theory of Reincarnation on the premise that "Nothing is destroyed in the universe." Accordingly, after the death of the physical body, some element of each being is left which is independent of the person's physical being, and after death this element seeks another physical body for the living experience. This idea was, however, best evolved and explained in Bhagavad Gita by Lord Krishna Himself. The concept of reincarnation is explained by Lord Krishna to Prince Arjuna as under:

Shariram yad avapnoti yach chapy utkramatishvarah,
Grihitvaitani sanyati vayur gandhan ivashayat.

(Bhagavad Gita: Chapter 15, Verse 8)

(As the air carries fragrance from place to place, so does the embodied soul carry the mind and senses with it, when it leaves an old body and enters a new one.)

Despite several concepts and theories about the Soul and Divine (Brahman), the afterlife is considered as the product of person’s cumulative Karma. This has strengthened the belief in rebirth and reincarnation of soul which is immortal and imperishable. The soul is part of 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 soul as a separate and distinct entity.

The Reincarnation is a significant concept in Hinduism; as per this concept even if the soul finds a place in hell or heaven after death of the physical body, this will only be a temporary abode and the soul will ultimately return to mrityulok (earth) through reincarnation. It is always in interplay with Karma which may lead to another birth or salvation depending upon the balance sheet of good and bad accumulated from the previous life. The following verses from the Bhagavad Gita illustrate facets and attributes of the soul:

Na jayate mriyate va kadacin nayam bhutva bhavita va na bhuyah,
Ajo nityah sasvato yam purano na hanyate hanyamane.

{Bhagavad Gita: Chapter 2, Verse 20}

(The soul never takes birth and never dies at any time nor does it come into being again when the body is created. The soul is birth-less, eternal, imperishable and timeless and is never terminated when the body is terminated.)

Vasamsi jirnani yatha vihaya navani grhnati naro 'parani
Tatha sarirani vihaya jirnany anyani samyati navani dehi.

(Bhagavad Gita: Chapter 2, Verse 21)

(As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, similarly, the soul accepts new physical bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.)

Jatasya hi dhruvo mrtyur dhruvam janma mrtasya ca,
Tasmad apariharye'rthe na tvam socitum arhasi.

{Bhagavad Gita: Chapter 2, Verse 27}

(For a being who has taken birth, death is certain and for one who has died, birth is certain. Therefore in an inevitable situation understanding should prevail.)

In these verses of Bhagavad Gita, the nature, fate and cycle of the soul is clearly defined. The eternal, imperishable and timeless soul doesn’t terminate with the body. Like a person discards the old and worn out clothes and adopts new clothes, in the same manner the soul adopts new body on termination of the old body. Then from the birth comes death and from the death comes birth. It is like in the spring new buds grow which blossom into full grown leaves and flowers in the summer, change colours in the autumn due to maturity and aging, and fall and worn out in winter; the same cycle is onset and repeated in the next spring. In the same way, a soul enters new body and passes through infancy, youth, mature and old age that terminates in death, starting the process again. All beings that exist in the material manifestation have to necessarily follow this cycle.

As Hinduism allowed different school of thoughts and philosophies to prosper, it has multiple doctrines on life after death too, and the one propounded in the Bhagavad Gita is often considered as the most authenticated and widely accepted concept. In Bhagavad Gita Chapter 2, Verse 17 to 22, the nature and action of the imperishable soul has been explained and emphasized in a beautiful and mesmerizing 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.

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 to the soul on attainment of moksha. Different Vedanta school in Hinduism offer different philosophical explanation to moksha or liberation and important ones have been briefly explained here:

Advaita Vedanta is the most popular philosophy propounded by Adi Shankara, 8th century Indian philosopher and theologian, based on non-dualism (monism). According to this philosophy, the soul is not different from Brahman (God) and in essence it is same as the highest spiritual reality i.e. Brahman. The Advaita Vedantins or Advaitins 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 also after death i.e. Krama-mukti.

Dvaita Vedanta is another important philosophy in the Vedanta tradition which was founded by 13th Century philosopher and scholar Madhvacharya. According to this theory, the Jivatman or individual soul 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 liberation 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.

Vishishtadvaita Vedanta is yet another philosophy literally means ‘Unique Advaita’ which is a non-dualistic 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.

Though the differences occur in various sub-traditions of Vedanta philosophy on account of dualism and non-dualism, all of them have the unique and common concept of Moksha as the ultimate goal of soul to get riddance from the arduous cycle of the birth-death-rebirth. Also the Individual soul is prone to corruption under the influence of samsara or the empirical world, and it experiences and bears the fruits of Karma and its nemesis.

The Fate of an Individual

Following the Death According to popular concepts and beliefs in Hinduism, the individual soul may have the following nemesis following the death of the mortal body:

(1) If a person has bad Karma i.e. committed bad deeds in his life, the soul will go to the lower worlds and face the consequences of evil actions. On the other hand against the good deeds, it will attain the higher sun filled worlds and enjoy bliss of life there.

(2) The state of mind, thoughts and desires at the time of death also determine the path of jiva and the form it will appear again. For illustration if the mind of person remains engaged with his family and children even at the time of his death, he is likely to follow the world of ancestors and may born again in the family/household. If a person is engrossed in evil and negative thoughts he will go to the lower worlds and suffer in the hands of evil. If he is only contemplating God at the time of his death, he may achieve the highest world.

(3) The circumstances and time of death are also considered significant. For illustration, a person having a warrior’s death in the battlefield is likely to attain higher world. Similarly, the person dying on a festive day or while performing pious puja or bhajan may attain heaven.

(4) If the funeral rites of the person are performed in the prescribed manner as per scriptural injunctions, he (or she) will have normal passage of the soul to the respective world, else the journey may be delayed and soul may wonder aimlessly. The majority Hindus believe in ghosts and spirits. Those who die of unnatural death like murder, suicide and untimely death for other reasons may remain suspended between higher worlds and earth as ghosts and spirits for a considerable time.

Belief in Heaven and Hell

The early Vedic people had belief in the existence of two worlds in addition to the earth, namely the world of ancestors and world of gods. They spelled it as Bhur (earth), Bhuva (moon) and Svar (the sun) occupying the lower, middle and higher regions of the universe, respectively. However, the concept of rebirth of human beings finds no mention in the Vedic literature and the souls departed from the earth either found place in the world of ancestors or the world of gods. The Vedic tradition of offering sacrifice to ancestors also support the notion that the departed souls would either stay in the ancestral world or ascend to the heavenly world (world of gods). However, a rudimentary concept of rebirth is arguably traced in some early Upanishads.

The Puranas and other later Vedic literature refer to the existence of the hell and heaven, rather several sun filled worlds and dark and demonic worlds. For instance, the Trinity of gods i.e. Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva have their own worlds namely Brahmalok, Vaikunth and Kailash, respectively. We also find a reference of Indralok, the standard heaven (Svar), Pitralok as the world of ancestors and Yamalok symbolizing hell under the god of death called Lord Yama. The latter is assisted by Chitragupt, a chronicler, who is supposed to maintain a detailed and accurate account of the deeds of all human beings. According to many Hindu scriptures, both heaven and hell are temporary abode for the souls from which they compulsorily return to the earth to continue their mortal journey once their karmas are exhausted.

However, the liberated souls are free from the foregoing conditionalities because they are not bound to any condition, place or dimension. Different schools of Hindu philosophies postulate different endings for the liberated soul. For illustration, according to Advaita the liberated soul attains the highest world and becomes one with Brahman while as per Dvaita the liberated soul enjoys the blissful company of Lord Vishnu in Vaikunth where they are not subjected to the impurities of illusion or attachment. In ultimate analysis, the concept of afterlife in hell or heaven is neither punishment nor reward but a deterrent and reminder of the real purpose of the existence. Both the heaven and hell are supposedly components of the great illusionary world like good and bad dreams while the soul is eternally pure in its journey to attain supreme bliss.


In Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna describes the indestructible and immortal nature of soul that moves from one perishable body to another in its Karmic cycle.

Nainam chhindanti shastrani nainam dahati pavakah
Na chainam kledayantyapo na shoshayati marutah.

(Bhagvad Gita Chapter 2 Verse 23)

(Weapons cannot shred the soul, nor can fire burn it. Water cannot wet it, nor can the wind dry it)

Consequently, the death has its impact on the mortal body while the soul remains uneffected. Good and bad Karma has its impact on the afterlife which remains shrouded in an unresolved mystery though the Bhagavad Gita and Vedanta offer reasonably credible explanation about it.

The sum of this philosophy is that the soul 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. The good and bad deeds ultimately return in the form of reward or punishment to jiva and it is the overlying necessity of the reaping of Karma that compels person to repeat in the cycle of rebirth in successive lifetimes. Liberation is the eventual occurrence or supreme goal to get riddance of the endless cycle of death and rebirth, whereby the soul achieves oneness with Brahman (God). Hinduism has a concept of hell and heaven too for the temporary punishment and reward before resuming the cycle of death and rebirth again.

Continued to Part XXXII 


More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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