Hinduism is one of the earliest of the ancient religions of the world and like most ancient religions, had its own ideas of what happens after the demise of a person- more specifically the idea of the afterlife.
Hinduism is guided by ‘the Vedas’, the only set of texts that have been given the status of shruti, i.e. the hymns that the Vedas contain have only been written after being prescribed by a great rishi after a period of divine revelation. But they in fact are eternal, unauthored words, devoid of any human or divine interference. Thus primarily, this paper will focus more on the ideas of the afterlife provided by the Vedas than the descriptions of the afterlife in the Puranas and the epics, which are smriti- human accounts recounted from memory.
Unlike other ancient religions, Hindu accounts of the afterlife in the Vedas is unconsolidated, i.e. the information is scattered in verses of various hymns praising various deities and in different texts. Additionally, Vedic text is deliberately ambiguous, offering multiple explanations, viewpoints, and interpretations. While these texts are ambiguous and they show a change in certain principles over time (from the Rig Veda to the Upanishads), the ideas about Vedic afterlife are more or less consistent and can be used to stitch together what was believed to be the larger picture of the afterlife in Vedic India.
The Rig Veda is the first book of the Vedas and is also called the Veda of verses, it is a collection of 10 books (mandalas) with 1028 hymns and 10,600 verses. It mainly consists of verses to honor the gods, a majority of which are dedicated to Indra, Agni, and Soma. The Rig Veda hymns are more related to earthly life than the afterlife, concerned more with praising the gods for increasing the longevity and quality of life. Thus the references to the afterlife are even more obscure than the other books, however, there are still several references and descriptions of the journey and destination that the deceased undertake and reach.
In the fourteenth verse of the tenth mandala, there is a positive description of the realm of the dead. It is described to be a place of ‘inextinguishable light, joy, freedom, and fulfilled desires’. Here the dead are ‘fed and satisfied’ by Yama, and thus this realm is called the Yamaoka. The description is that of an idealized Earth, complete with horses, pastures, trees, and grass. Yamaoka is ‘adorned with days, waters and nights’, which suggests it even follows the same cycles that are observed on Earth. This realm is said to be located in the ‘spheres above which firmly support the heavens’ and the ‘third heaven of heavens’. According to this hymn, the journey to Yamaloka is a long and dangerous one, fraught with many perils. The dead ascend on the cremation smoke. The journey takes 3 days and the deceased encounter ‘the two dark messengers of Yama with flaring nostrils’, which are ‘the four-eyed keepers of the path’- 4 eyed dogs that Yama entrusts them to ‘watch over (the) men’ as they make their journey to Yamaoka. These two four-eyed dogs are the descendants of Sarama or Deva-Shuni and act as guides for the dead but also guard the doorway to the other realm, like Cerberus in Greek mythology. Once the dead reach Yamaloka, they are greeted by Yama, Varuna (protector of RTA, moral order), Soma (an intoxicating drink and also a deity associated with the drink), and Peter (the ancestors of the deceased). The dead then feast and drink Soma. Soma is thought to have granted its drinkers powers as mentioned in the eight mandalas, forty-eighth hymn- ‘We have drunk Soma; we have become immortal; we have gone to the light; we have found the gods’.
The fourteenth verse of the tenth mandala also mentions that the dead are instructed to ‘unite with the fathers, with Yama, with the rewards of your sacrifices and good deeds, in the highest heaven. Leaving behind all imperfections, go back home again, merge with a glorious body’. It is however unclear if ‘a glorious body’ is a reference to a new body on Earth and is thus referring to reincarnation or some sort of a spiritual body or home in Yamaoka. However, the fact that the spirit is asked to go ‘back again’ seems to point towards a cycle of rebirth and reincarnation. If so, the dead are asked to ‘leave behind all imperfections’ before going ‘back again’ which makes it feasible to imagine Yamaloka as a sort of a realm for purification prior to earthly rebirth. This is also supported by the sixteenth hymn in the 10 mandalas, ‘Let him go to those whose king is Yama, carrying away all impurities’. This Hymn also mentions ‘May your eye go to the sun, your life’s breath to the wind. Go to the sky or to the earth, as is your nature; or go to the waters, if that is your fate. Take roots in the plants with your limbs’. This hymn explores an idea that is later expanded upon in the Upanishads, of the Atman and the Brahman. The Atman is the inner unchanging self and can be understood as the ‘soul’, while the Brahman can be understood as the soul of the entire universe and reality itself. This hymn seems to explore the idea that eventually, just like the human world is a subset of the universe, the Atman is a subset of the Brahman and ultimately returns to it. The idea of the Atman belonging to the Brahman is later seen in the Upanishads again.
The Vedas bring up the concept of purnamrtyu or ‘redeath’ is also explored in the Vedas. Although it is unclear what it refers to, it is not a desirable outcome as there are hymns for the dead to avoid becoming a Preta – a sort of spirit entrapped in the mortal realm who is at the risk of purnamrtyu but instead become a Pitr, one with the ancestors in Yamaloka. Like a lot of other religions, the Vedas mention that a person’s actions on earth while alive play a role in determining their fate in the afterlife. It is stated that generosity in life results in immortality ‘on the high ridge of heaven’ where ‘the waters flow for him with ghee’. It is also stated that everything that is sacrificed in the mortal world is given back in the Swargaloka(heaven). Vishnu’s realm is also described in a positive way and is reserved for ‘men who love the gods’ and has ‘fountains of honey’. Like most other religions, there are also hellish realms described in the Veda. According to the fifth hymn in the fourth mandala, ‘a deep place’ exists due to ‘those who are evil, without order or truth’. In the tenth mandala, this abyss is located ‘below the three Earths’. In smriti, i.e. the Puranas and the epics describe Naraka (hell) to exist in the same location. There are various hymns that protect the deceased from ‘falling into the pit’ and protections from other horrors like ‘the devouring wolf’.
Though these descriptions seem quite similar to other religions in the sense that there is the existence of a heaven and a hell, Vedic afterlife is much more complex because the possibilities for the afterlife are not dualistic. A hymn in the tenth mandala describes the deceased to be able to travel the past and the future, ‘distances beyond the beyond’ and the ‘whole moving universe’. In the tenth mandala, hymns 18 and 15 describe that the dead share Indra’s chariot and like gods can receive ritual offerings from Earth made by the living. On the other hand, there are punishments that result in simply non-existence. Thus the deceased has multiple possible fates in the afterlife according to the Rig Veda.
The Krishna Yajur Veda also provides information on how afterlife fates are determined. As the Yajur Veda is focused more on Yajnas and sacrifices and serves as a set of ritual instructions, according to its fate in the realm of the dead is dependent on the performing rituals correctly. This not only includes the accurate procedure while performing rituals but also knowledge of the rituals. The third hymn of the third mandala mentions that the sacrifices made on Earth will be returned in the afterlife if the deceased has knowledge about the identity of the gods.
New information is also seen in the Atharva Veda. This information is sometimes divergent from the information about the afterlife seen in the Rig Veda but mostly builds upon it. Though the Rig Veda provides some information on the realms in the afterlife- Swargaloka, Naraka, and Yamaloka- it is unclear if they all exist in Yamaloka or are distinct from one another. In the Atharva Veda, their distinction is made clear. The ‘four-eyed keepers’ described in the Rig Veda are now named Shyama and Shabala. Rather than ascending to the journey to Yamaloka on ceremonial smoke as seen in the Rig Veda, the first hymn of the eleventh mandala and the fifth hymn of the ninth mandala of the Atharva Veda mentions the dead ascending on rays of light. The Atharva Veda also describes Swargaloka in greater detail. In the thirty-fourth hymn of the fourth mandala, Swargaloka is described to be filled with lotuses, ‘lakes of ghee’, and ‘banks of honey’. The deceased unite with family members are experience ‘goodness’ as mentioned in the one hundred twentieth hymn of the fifth mandala. They are accompanied by Apsaras (nymphs and divine dancers) and Gandharvas (heavenly musicians). Furthermore, the Atharva Veda describes a hellish realm called the Paravatas were morally corrupted deceased are sent by Yama as described in the seventh mandala, fifth hymn. There is mention of a ‘house infernal’ which greets the deceased with horrors including, ‘a fiend with snapping jaws’, ‘wild-haired women,’ witches, ‘evil ghosts’, and various other atrocities as described in hymns one and two of the seventh mandala.
The Brahmanas are shruti, in the form of compositions which explain the meaning of rituals and give a deeper insight into the ideas presented in the Vedas. In the Shatapatha Brahmana (II.3.3.15–16), a ship is described which carries the dead to Swargaloka, It is made out of the components of a ritual- Agnihotra- the walls are composed of flames and the steersman the milk-offeror. The pitraloka, which was described earlier in the Rig Veda is now described to be a part of Yamaloka (XII.8.1.19). The goddess of infinity- Aditi rules it (XIII.4.3.9). The Vedas give an idea that the fate of a dead person in the afterlife is dependent on some sort of judgment that evaluates a person’s good deeds and knowledge. The Shatapatha Brahmana gives an insight into this process. The dead must pass through 2 fires. The good accomplish this easily and continue their journey onto pitraloka while the wicked burn in these fires (I.9.3.2).
The Shatapatha Brahmana equates the dead and the divine. The rays of sunlight are the souls of righteous men (I.9.3.11) while later calling the rays of the sun gods. The sun is associated with the cycle of birth and death due to repetitive rising and falling every day. The sun is regarded as the ‘final goal’ and the reason that causes people ‘to die again and again in yonder world’ (IX.4.2.5). Another idea that is stated explicitly in the Shatapatha Brahmana is that afterlife realms are not eternal but just phases between life and death as death is said to take place in all the realms (XIII.3.5.1.d). The evil is punished by having to ‘come to life when they die again, and they become food time after time’- a very clear reference to reincarnation (X.1.4.12).
The Jaiminiya Brahmana gives information about the afterlife in a more narrative and folkloristic method. It gives a description of the ‘life breath’ of a person ascending to Yamaloka to give a report of the good deeds of the person. The doorkeepers who are personifications of the seasons are asked to lead him to immortality, they take him to the sun who asks him ‘who are you?’ If the deceased answer demonstrates that he understands that the Atman is actually one with the sun, which is the Brahman, it will be allowed to merge with the sun form a ‘second self’. This idea is then expanded upon further in the Upanishads. If the answer of the deceased does not demonstrate this knowledge however, the doorkeepers will drag him away and he is to continue ‘repeated dying’ (I.18)- yet another reference to reincarnation.
The ancestors in the pitrloka can benefit from the deceased’s good deeds and simultaneously cause harm to the deceased’s enemies if he answers the question ‘what have you brought us?’ correctly after reaching the pitraloka, having displayed the knowledge of the equivalency of Brahman and Atman. The only correct answer is ‘Whatever good I have done, it is yours’. After this, the deceased stays in the sun (I.46).
Lastly, the Upanishads, represent the end of the shruti texts and the Vedic texts. They are concerned more with the philosophical parts of Vedic thought and answer existential questions about the origin of existence and our ultimate fate. Thus it is unsurprising that they give information about the afterlife. As the Upanishads are less concerned with the ritual, one’s fate in the afterlife is more dependent upon spiritual enlightenment than moral behavior. This concept is touched upon briefly before in the Krishna Yajur Veda, where there is a need to know the meaning of rituals and in the Jaiminiya Brahmana which requires the knowledge of the equivalency of Brahman and Atman. In the Upanishads, the idea of moksha – release from the cycle of birth and death – is explicit.
To summarise the conclusions derived from the study of references of the afterlife in the shruti texts, the ideas include – the existence of an afterlife; the existence of realms above and below the current plane of existence; nonphysical states of existence; dispersion of components into different places/ times; an afterlife fate determined by knowledge and moral, spiritual competence, the afterlife is sought with many perils, barriers, and obstacles which can be made easier by ritual sacrifice, the transcendence of the deceased into a godlike state, idea of rebirth and the idea that afterlife is only a temporary stop between births.
Some ideas remained more or less consistent throughout. These ideas include the description of the heavenly realms and the idea of rebirth. Though there are references to immortality in the Rig Veda in particular, there are indications from the start that the afterlife is a temporary stay between rebirths after the deceased has to ‘come back home’ and just the length of the stay can be adjusted by rituals on Earth.
However, some ideas and beliefs changed from the Rig Veda to the Upanishads. The Yamaloka for example, viewed in more or less a positive light in the Rig Veda becomes an undesirable intermediate for those who are unworthy before a low birth. There is also a clear trend towards an increasing amount of stress on knowledge, enlightenment than morality, and correct ritual behavior as we move towards the Upanishads. Rather than morality or good deeds that were performed during life being the deciding factor for the fate in the afterlife, the factor shifts to the knowledge of the equivalency of Brahman and Atman and the knowledge of the gods. This however does not mean that morals were not important anymore but rather can be understood that someone who achieves enlightenment to the aforementioned ideas, would have to be morally and ethically sound.
However, it is safe to say that there still exists a continuity in the ideas of the afterlife presented in the Vedic texts. The equivalency of Brahman and Atman is hinted in the Rig Veda which later blossoms into a bigger theme in the Brahmanas and the Upanishads. We can also say that the idea of moksha that is explored in the Upanishads may be an answer to the Rig Vedic fear of nonexistence.
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