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I have heard, Krishna, that those who destroy their family ways dwell in hell for boundless years. BG 1.44
A samurai once came to Zen Master Hakuin and asked him, “I want to know about heaven and hell. Do they really exist?”
Hakuin looked at the soldier and asked, “Who are you?” “I am a samurai,” announced the proud warrior.
“Ha!” exclaimed Hakuin. “What makes you think you can understand such insightful things? You are just a brute soldier! Go away! Don’t waste my time with stupid questions,” Hakuin said waving the samurai away with his hand.
The enraged samurai couldn’t take Hakuin’s insults. He drew his sword, ready to kill the master and Hakuin responded calmly, “This is hell.”
The soldier was taken aback. His face softened. Humbled by the wisdom of Hakuin, he put away his sword and bowed before the Zen Master. “And this is heaven,” Hakuin stated, just as calmly.
The heaven and hell we are told we go to after death are states of mind, not geographical places.
Greek mythology talks about the Furies, also called the Erinyes, who punish those who commit grave sins or crimes. According to some traditions they were born from the drops of blood that fell on Gaia, Earth, when the Titan Cronus castrated his father Uranus and threw his genitalia into the sea and it is this horrifying nature of their birth that gives them their vengeful nature. Their descriptions and functions vary in different stories told about them but they are generally described as ferocious foul-smelling winged females with burning breath, snakes for hair, blood dripping from their eyes, bat wings and black skin, who could also appear as storm clouds or swarms of insects. They are vengeful and pitiless in their pursuit of justice, particularly justice for the dead.
In the Greek playwright Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, for instance, King Agamemnon before sailing to Troy for the Trojan War sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to Goddess Artemis for getting good weather. While the king is away his wife Clytemnestra takes Aegisthus as her lover. Later when Agamemnon returns after the war, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus together murder him and Aegisthus seizes the throne. Agamemnon’s daughter Electra fearing for the life of her young brother Orestes takes him away and gives him to her father’s friend King Strophius who raises him as his son.
As a grown up man, Orestes goes to the oracle of Delphi and asks him what he should do to avenge his father’s murder and is advised by the oracle that he should murder his mother and her lover. He now goes to his country Mycenae and there kills his mother and her lover in spite of the mother’s pleas that a son should not kill his own mother, after which the Furies pursue him relentlessly for his matricide.
Greek mythology also speaks of Oedipus being pursued by the Furies for killing his father and marrying his mother, though both actions were done unknowingly.
Greek mythology tells us numerous tales of the Furies pursuing those who commit heinous crimes or sins. India does not have the concept of Furies but India says the same thing in a different way: what India says is that our evil karmas pursue us relentlessly. Avashyam anubhoktavyam kritam karma shubhaashubham: We must all experience the results of our karmas, both good and bad. There is no escaping them.
From a psychological point of view, the Furies could be seen as our sense of guilt. And guilt will be there whether the action was done consciously or unconsciously and in that sense the Furies pursue you even for wrong actions done unknowingly, which explains why Furies pursued Oedipus though his patricide and matricide were both actions done unknowingly. That is true about karmas too.
But what exactly are karmas then? Let us try to understand this with the help of Transactional Analysis, since to many of us today the rational language of western psychology is easier to understand than the language of ancient wisdom.
Transactional Analysis [TA] is a branch of psychology/psychiatry born in the 1960s and shot instantly to fame, particularly because of what it told us about our interpersonal behaviour and the intrapersonal processes that go on in our hidden depths on which our outer behaviour is based. Among other things, TA speaks of what are called scripts, speaking of which transactional analysts say that “in the life of every individual the dramatic life events, the roles that are learned, rehearsed, and acted out, are originally determined by a script.”
According to psychologists Muriel James and Drorothy Jongward, these psychological scripts are very much like theatre or film scripts. As they say in their best-selling book Born to Win, “Each has a prescribed cast of characters, dialogue, acts and scenes, themes and plots, which move toward a climax and end with a final curtain. A psychological script is a person’s ongoing program for a life drama, which dictates where the person is going with his or her life and the path that will lead there. It is a drama an individual compulsively acts out, though one’s awareness of it may be vague.”
Transactional Analysis tells us that these scripts begin to be written, or programmed, in early childhood, based on the transactions between parent figures and children. Depending on the nature of these scripts, children become “heroes, heroines, villains, victims and rescuers and – unknowingly – seek others to play complementary roles.”
Eric Berne, one of the founders of the Transactional Analysis movement says: “Nearly all human activity is programmed by an ongoing script dating from early childhood, so that the feeling of autonomy is nearly always an illusion – an illusion which is the greatest affliction of the human race because it makes awareness, honesty, creativity, and intimacy possible for only a few fortunate individuals. For the rest of humanity, other people are seen, mainly as objects to be manipulated. They must be invited, persuaded, seduced, bribed, or forced into playing the proper roles to reinforce the protagonist’s position and fulfill his script, and his preoccupation with these efforts keeps him from torquing in with the real world and his own possibilities in it.”
Transactional Analysts explain how these scripts are originally formed. Pointing out that children are amazingly sensitive and pick up messages about their self-worth right from the beginning, they explain that the first experiences of the infant are extremely important in this. From whether they are touched and hugged or ignored, from whether they are given warmth or left coldly alone, and later from other forms of behaviour of the significant people around him, like whether they are crooned to or spoken to without affection, from the messages in the eyes of these people, from their smiles and frowns and other facial expressions and so on, the child makes conclusions about himself and his self worth. These initial conclusions he forms become powerful scripts in his unconscious and they influence his future behaviour powerfully. In later stages, when they are grown enough to understand, children write scripts based on the verbal messages they get from their parents and other significant people. For instance, a mother’s comment watching her child explaining something to her doll that she would make an excellent teacher one day can become an unconscious script in her that eventually leads her to choose teaching as her profession. Or it could be a visiting relative’s unthinking comment that that the little boy is going to be a terror when he grows up that takes the shape of a script.
These scripts are then based on our unconscious reactions to our life events.
In whatever way they are formed, these imprints on our psyches are non-verbal and are hidden deep in our unconscious. That is, they are in the form of images, feelings and so on, and not in words, and are hidden from the light of our consciousness. And they exert powerful influences on us and shape us and our lives. These scripts decide what we become, what our strengths and weaknesses will be, how we act and react, whether we will be winners or losers, whether we will derive success and happiness or defeat and unhappiness from life, whether we will be persecutors, victims or rescuers, whether we will be heroes and heroines or villains, whether we will be healthy, balanced and effective or suffer from anger-proneness, assertiveness problems, communication problems, relationship problems, sexual problems, violence, manias, phobias, neurotic behaviour and so on.
Ancient India refers to what transactional analysts call scripts, the unconscious imprints on the psyche, by several names. One of them is Chitra-Gupta, the accountant of Yama, the god of death. According to Indian mythology, Chitra-Gupta keeps an account, much as Gabriel does in Semitic mythology, of every deed we do on this earth and of every thought we think. And when we die and go to the other world, Chitra-Gupta opens the pages containing our account in his book and depending on whether we have done good or bad, depending on whether we have acquired punya [merit resulting from virtuous thoughts and deeds] or papa [sin], or it is a more or less equal balance of the two, he sends us on our onward journey, to heaven to enjoy or to hell to suffer or to the earth to be reborn.
Chitra-Gupta literally means pictures [chitra] that are hidden [gupta] – what Transactional Analysis calls our life scripts hidden deep in our unconscious. It is these that make us what we are at all times, do what we do. Chitra Gupta decides our future not merely after our death, but does so at all times. It is Chitra Gupta that has decided what we are now. For, our present is a result of these hidden pictures generated in our dark depths by our past thoughts, actions and reactions. And what we will become in the future is being written now – in the same dark depths of our psyche, by our present thoughts, actions and reactions, in form of images.
Indian philosophy uses other words to describe what TA calls scripts. Karmas, vasanas [psychological dispositions] and samskaras [inner culture] are nothing but TA’s scripts. Karmas are the deep imprints that we write on our psyches through our thoughts, actions and reactions. It is these karmas that give shape to our vasanas and samskaras.
Both Transactional Analysis and India believe that while scripts are powerful, they are alterable. Millennia ago India developed ways of altering our karmas, one of which was meditation, and TA talks about re-scripting, which is essentially a method of altering our life scripts. One of the aspects that I covered in Management Development Programmes for corporate officers included sessions in which I helped the participants to deep relax consciously and in that deep relaxed state to replace old scripts with new ones using such western methods as the swish technique and so on.
However, there is a major difference between the approach of TA, essentially a product of western thinking, and Indian philosophy. While transactional analysts say that scripts are decisive in shaping our self perceptions, behaviour patterns and life events, they say that the earliest scripts are formed in our early infancy, or, according to some, in our pre-natal state. Indian philosophy, however, tells us that we carry these scripts [karmas / vasanas / samskaras] with us from life to life.
Just as our life when we are alive and our rebirth after our death are decided by our karmas or life scripts, the life we live in our post death state too is decided by these life scripts or karmas that we carry with us when we leave the body behind and travel into what the yogis of Tibet call the bardo state – except that in that state the experiences are entirely mental since we do not have a physical body.
In our death and the journey into the bardo, we leave behind just the physical body, everything else travels with us. That is why it is said that death is no more than a change of clothes.
Since the experiences of the bardo are bodiless, mental, they are very much like our dreams. Just as in our dreams our experiences become intense, frequently far more intense than in waking life, and absolutely real so long as they last, so are the experiences of the bardo. In dreams beautiful things are far more beautiful than in real life, ugly and repulsive things are far more ugly and repulsive, and so are our pleasures and pains far more intense than they are in real life. And just as our dreams are illogical, so are our post death experiences. And bardo time is exactly like dream time – a dream that lasts just a few minutes of waking time can appear to last years in the dream, sometimes beginning with us as children and ending when we are old. That is why some cultures speak of hell and heaven, both of which are no more than what we dream in the bodiless state, as eternal.
Indian culture speaks of hells as endless in number – for instance, the Garuda Purana speaks of andhatamisram, rauravam, maharauravam, kumbhipakam, kalasutram, sukaramukham, andhakupam, taptamurti, and so on and on. This is because exactly as the life experiences of each of us are unique, exactly as our dreams are unique, so are our bardo experiences. Each one of us experiences our own unique pains and pleasures in what we call hell and heaven, but they are experiences generated by our mind based on our thoughts, emotions, feelings, memories, the life scripts we call karmas and so on, and all experienced within our mind. Apart from this, we do not go to any heaven or hell in any geographical place or separate dimension.
Arjuna’s fear that those who destroy family traditions will have to spend endless time in hell when he tells Krishna “I have heard, Krishna, that those whose family traditions have been destroyed will have to live in hell for an indefinite period” is unfounded. In his desperate search for justifying his decision to abandon war and run away from his duties, he is giving this as yet another reason. Even if we go by the traditions of the day, the belief in the Mahabharata world was that the kshatriyas who die courageously in war go to the heaven of the heroes – the veeraswarga. Going by the story of the epic, we find men like Duryodhana in heaven after their death because he fought the war fearlessly as a true warrior should, even though he is an atatayi, a felon who committed terrible crimes throughout his life and was more responsible than anyone else for the millions of deaths in the Kurukshetra war.
Since our post death experiences depend on our present life and thoughts, what religions and ancient spiritual traditions tell us is that just as lust, anger, greed, pride, and other asuri sampada make us suffer while we are alive, these will continue to torture us after our death too. So unless we want to suffer in the bardo, we must live a life of love, kindness, compassion, forgiveness and so on.
Desire for vengeance is one of the most powerful negative feelings we can experience and so is guilt. These two can haunt us not only throughout our life, but also across lifetimes, as the story of the Roman brothers in Tales of Reincarnation tell us. Because the elder brother felt the need for vengeance at the moment of his death and the younger one felt intense guilt about causing his elder brother’s death though accidentally, the two of them are born again and again innumerable times for two thousand years, in each life living out their vengeance and guilt.
Forgiveness is the way out of vengeance and acceptance of the past, of what happened, is the way out of guilt. That and never repeating our mistakes, never causing harm to anyone consciously.
Atonement is another way, as thousands of cases tell us. One such case is discussed by the English novel Atonement [and the movie of the same name based on it]. Atonement tells the story of a thirteen year girl who lives in pre-World War II England. She witnesses a scene of intimacy between her elder sister and her lover, misunderstands it and commits a terrible crime against the two. Her guilt when she realizes the truth of what she witnessed and what she did eats away at her for years and she seeks atonement for her sin by dedicating her life for reducing the pain of those who suffer.
Knowledge of the self, knowledge of what we are, not theoretical but experiential knowledge, is the ultimate way to come out of the sins, says the Gita. It is the mind that commits sins and we are not the mind. We are not touched by the sins of the mind just as the waking man is not tainted by the sins he commits in his dreams. We are something far beyond the reaches of the mind, something that cannot be touched by sin or virtue, something that weapons cannot cleave, water cannot wet, fire cannot burn, something that has neither birth nor death, something that is forever beyond what is in the technical language of Vedanta called doership and enjoyership, kartritva and bhoktritva. Sins are there only so long as the ego is there, only so long as the mind is there. That is why Krishna says in the Gita that even if you are the worst sinner of all sinners, you shall cross the sea of your sins by the raft of knowledge: api ched asi paapebhyah sarvebhyah paapakrit-tamah; sarvam jnaana-plavenaiva vrijinam santarishyasi. [BG 4.36]
To Hinduism, sin too is an illusion like everything else; there is no everlasting sin and there is no eternal punishment, there is no eternal heaven and there is no eternal hell. Once you go beyond the mind, you are freed from all illusions, including the illusions of sin and virtue. There are no bad karmas then, just as there are no good karmas. Continuing his earlier statement about crossing the sea of sin with the raft of knowledge, Krishna says yathaidhaamsi samiddho'gnir bhasmasaat kurute'rjuna; jnaanaagnih sarvakarmaani bhasmasaat kurute tathaa [BG 4.37]. Just as the blazing fire reduces everything it consumes to ashes, Arjuna, the fire of knowledge reduces all karmas to ashes.
Vivekachudamani, the masterly poem of Shanakara Bhagavadapada has this to say about the nature of the entire world:
na hyastyavidyaa manaso’tiriktaa
mano hyavidyaa bhava-bandha-hetuah
tasmin vinashte sakalam vinashtam
vijrimbhite’smin sakalam vijrimbhate
There is no Primal Ignorance other than the mind. The mind itself is Primal Ignorance that causes the bondage to the world of constant becoming. When that is destroyed, everything is destroyed. And when that manifests everything becomes manifested.
All joys and sorrows are part of the illusory world born of Primal Ignorance and for that reason, when Primal Ignorance is destroyed, everything that causes the sufferings of the world as well as its joys is destroyed. What remains then is our true nature: ananda, boundless bliss.
As has been very wisely said,
we are not punished for our sins but by our sins. Our sins are their own punishments. Anger is its own punishment, lust is its own punishment, jealousy is its own punishment, hostility is its own punishment, desire for vengeance is its own punishment, and so are all the negative qualities Krishna calls in the Gita asuri sampada – qualities such as pride, haughtiness, arrogance, crookedness and cruelty.
Asuri qualities are like the dementors of the Harry Potter series of books. They drain peace, hope, happiness, joy, serenity, from the very air around them, drain people of all that makes life beautiful. They destroy what Tibet calls drala, the beauty of ordinary things, they make it impossible for you to relax – and without relaxation there is no joy in life, there is no beauty, no peace. You don’t climb mountains anymore, you don’t sing and dance, you don’t laugh from your heart, you don’t let go and enjoy yourself.
This is as true of the other side of death as it is of this side of death.
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