Hindu View on Death and Afterlife
Death and afterlife take significant place in Hindu theologies. Hindu philosophy is based on the concept of reincarnation and moving through successive births. However, the early Hindu scriptures do not mention reincarnation. According to the Riga Veda, when a person dies, he/she either travels to the realm of dead ancestors called pitraloka, netherworld, the world of water God Varun, or Swarga, the Kingdom of Gods. Vedas emphasize on performing rituals to make the existence of dead person comfortable in another realm. The post-Vedic literature mentions many afterlife planes of existence. The followers of Lord Vishnu are said to be living in Vaikuntha, the followers of Shiva are said to travel to Kailasha, and wrongdoers said to reside in the netherworld, which is ruled by Yama, the lord of death.
Hindu Death Rites
- Submerging in the sea or river
- Feeding to the scavengers
Cremation is very common death rite in Hinduism. Some Hindu communities also bury the dead; however, submerging in the sea or river and feeding to the scavengers are not practiced today.
Death and Afterlife
Death is a state of being lifeless. Afterlife – also called life after death, after death, or hereafter – is the interpretation of what happens to a person when he/she dies. Death and afterlife takes the center stage in most of the religions, faiths and mythologies around the world. In religious discourse, body and soul are thought to be different entities. Body is the physical aspect and soul is metaphysical aspect of human beings. Concept of afterlife is based on the assumption that when human beings die, only body dies, because the soul is eternal. After death, the soul travels to a different plane of existence. This new realm can be physical as well as transcendental.
There are two basic beliefs regarding afterlife.
- When a person dies, his/her soul will continue to exist in a different plane of existence, which is commonly termed as heaven and hell. Pious souls go to heaven and sinners will go to hell. Christians, Muslims, Jewish people, and some portion of Buddhists and Hindus hold this view.
- When a person dies, his/her soul will take another birth and continue to exist on the earth. The person’s soul will continue to cycle the process of birth and rebirth until the soul is liberated. It is said death ends all memories and the person born again cannot remember the previous life. This concept of reincarnation is widely held in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.
According to Hindu belief, only Yama, the Lord of Death and Shiva, one of the Gods in Hindu Trinity, can interfere with death. Yama and Shiva can bring the dead back to life or bestow immortality. Other Gods in Hindu pantheon can bless a person with good life and afterlife if they worship God and perform good deeds.
Death and Afterlife in the Garuda Purana
Puranas are the collection of myths, legends, history, and genealogy. There are 18 major Puranas and 18 minor Puranas. Some of the Puranas were composed between 350 CE to 750 CE, some between 750 and 1000, and some between 1000 and 1500. Puranas are dedicated to specific Gods and Goddesses, and the Garuda Purana is a comprehensive account of what happens to human beings after they die. When a Hindu dies, a priest reads Garuda Purana for initial 11 days in the house of the mourners. The Garuda Purana descries different types of hells, naraka in Hindu terminology, to punish the sinners.
Garuda, a mythical bird similar to eagle, is thought to be Lord Vishnu’s carrier. According to the Garuda Purana, when a person dies, Yama, the Hindu God of Death, sends his aides to fetch the human soul. Once in the realm of Yama, the soul undergoes trial. Chitragupta, the principle aide of Yama, reads the deeds of the person from a ledger. Yama analyses the deeds on the balance of sin and piety. If the piousness is heavier than the sin, the soul is sent to heaven, and if the person’s soul is heavy with sins, he/he is sent to hell. Depending on the righteousness of a person, the soul enjoys the heavenly bliss. In the hell, the soul goes through extreme torture, which includes incineration, boiling on hot oil, etc.
In another version of the story, Yama himself travels to the earth, on a water buffalo, to fetch the soul. He pulls soul from human body by a hook. Once the soul is out of the body, the person dies. After the soul leaves the body, it travels southward through dark tunnel. In Hinduism, south is the realm of dead souls. When the punishment for the sins or reward for righteousness ends, the soul is sent back to the earth to take a new life.
Death and Afterlife in the Yama Samhita
Samhita are the part of Vedic literature, which present wisdom of a certain sage or deity. Yama Samhita is attributed to Yama. In Yama Samhita, Yama is addressed as a teacher, who knows about death and afterlife. Ideas regarding death and afterlife expressed in Yama Samhita are identical to the philosophy in the Katho Upanishad.
Death and Afterlife in the Katho Upanishad
The Vedas are the most authentic scriptures in Hinduism. Most of the Hindu deities, rites and rituals are based on the Vedas. The Upanishads are post-Vedic theologies in Hinduism that deal with metaphysical ideas. The Upanishads were developed from analysis and interpretation of the Vedas. The Upanishads are believed to be written between 2nd century BCE to 5th century CE. According to the Upanishads, the universe is composed of five elements Earth, Fire, Air, Water and Sky (also called ether or consciousness). These five elements are also present in the human body. Five elements in human body are functional as long as the soul resides inside the body. The body becomes a corpse when soul leaves the body.
The Katho Upanishad is one of the thirteen known Upanishads. A chapter in the Katho Upanishad deals with death and afterlife. In this chapter, Yama explains what happens to human beings after he/she dies.
According to the story in the Katho Upanishad, wise sage Uddalack donated his all belongings to the needy people. His child-son Nachiketa argued that a son is also a father’s possession, so Uddalack must donate him to someone. In the bout of anger, Uddalack said, “I donate my son Nachiketa to Yama.” After the words were uttered, the father felt remorse, however, Nichekata readily travels to the realm of Yama. Yama-Nachiketa dialogue is recorded in the Katho Upanishad.
Yama says to Nachiketa: After death, earth element in human body (bones and flesh) is mixed with the earth, fire element in human body (heat/warmth) is mixed with universal fire, air element (breath) is mixed into the air, water element (bodily fluids) into water, and the consciousness into the ether/sky. The five elements in human body are mixed with five universal elements. This is rebirth.
Death and Afterlife in the Bhagavad-Gita
The Bhagavat-Gita is a chapter in Hindu Epic Mahabharata, where Lord Krishna preaches about death and afterlife. It is believed to be composed in c. 200 BCE. The contemporary Hindu belief of karma, reincarnation and salvation come from the Bhagavad-Gita. The Bhagavad-Gita is a dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna, one of the heroes of the Mahabharata, in verse. There are 18 chapters in the Bhagavad-Gita.
According to the Bhagavad-Gita, soul is the basis of life. As long as the soul is inside the body, an individual is living, when soul abandons the body, the individual is dead. Soul wears the body like the human beings wear clothes. Purpose of soul, called atma in Sanskrit, is to reach to the supreme soul, called parmatma in Sanskrit. Soul is indestructible; however, it can be liberated when it reaches the supreme soul. Until soul finds salvation, called Mokshya in Sanskrit, it continues to take birth.
The Bhagavad-Gita does not illustrate the concept of hell or heaven, rather emphasizes on reincarnation and karma. According to the Bhagavad-Gita, after death, human soul is bound to reincarnate. The new life is solely determined by the person’s karma. Literal meaning of karma is deed (all the actions a person performs in one lifetime). If a person has done good karma, he/she will have a comfortable life in successive birth, if he/she had done bad karma in previous life, he/she will suffer in his/her new life.
The Bhagavad-Gita says there are three dispositions of life, animal, human and divine. Karma determines whether the soul will take animal form, human form, or the divine form. If the person has done unpardonable sins in his/her previous life, he/she will be born as animal. If the soul takes the life of human being, the quality of life is determined by his/her previous life. If the person has been very good in his/her life, he/she will be born in spiritual realm. The soul is always moving in cyclic existence of different dispositions. It can be liberated only through the devotion to God and good karma.
Soul, as defined by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita, is eternal. Soul accumulates karma through good or bad actions performed by a human being. Good deed is referred as satkarma and bad deed as vikarma.
Hindu theologies also mention the realm of spirits. Those who are evil and vicious, or too much attached with their life on the earth are said to become spirits. Hinduism makes difference between good spirit and bad spirits. Bad spirits roam in cemetery and cremation grounds, whereas good spirits live in temples and religious sites.
Death and Afterlife in the Bhagavad Purana
The Bhagavad Purana is one of the 18 major Puranas. The main thesis of the Bhagavad Purana, which is dedicated to Lord Krishna, is the reincarnation of soul. When a person dies, his/her successive rebirths are determined by his/her karma. When a person performs good karma, he/she will have comfortable life in the next reincarnation, and people doing bad karma will have a life of suffering.
The state of a human mind, at the time of death, also determines the kind of life in the rebirth. According to the Bhagavad Purana, if a person was thinking about money when he was dying, he will be born in a businessman’s house; if the person was thinking about bad things about someone, at the time of death, she will have a miserable life; and if the person was thinking about animals at the time of death, she will be born as animal. Memories of past life do not carry over in successive births, however, tendency, called samskara, will pass on new life form.
The Bhagavad Purana says that the circumstances of death also determines afterlife. A soldier who dies in a battle will go to the realm of heroes. If a person dies of head injury, she will have mental problems in new life. If the person died while worshiping God, he will go the realm of pious souls.
The Bhagavad Purana also emphasizes on the rituals to be performed by the children of the dead person. If the children perform rituals for the dead parents, grandparents, their ancestors’ souls will experience pleasure in the another plane of existence.
© 2013 Vinaya Ghimire
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