Life is a journey that continues even after death. Death is like changing a vehicle to travel to another destination. Human life is like a bridge from where there are four routes. If you do not follow any moral discipline, lead a life of gross sense pleasures, are attached to the material body and possessions, then you are destined to go to hell. If you follow moral and religious principles, harbor material desires and follow religious duties with the intention of getting happiness after death, then you are promoted to heavenly sphere.
If you follow moral principles and religious duties only for the sake of duty, you will be promoted to spheres beyond heaven within the material universe. The fourth possibility is to take the spiritual path of devotion to Supreme God. Then, you will go to the Lord’s abode after giving up the present body. This is a place of no return and therefore, you come out of the cycle of birth and death, called sansara (Universe). Whether you go to the heaven or hell, you have to come back to earthly sphere and be born as a human being in due course.
In the third book of Bhagavata Purana, Bhagavan Kapila has described these four paths in greater detail. He says that a person who has not learned to control his senses and is absorbed only in maintaining his body and family members dies in the midst of his kinsmen. At the time of death, trembling at heart he sees two messengers of Yama (the Lord of death), called Yamadutas. They are ferocious to look at and instill fear in the heart of the dying person. The Yamadutas pull out the soul along with the subtle body and dress them with another body called yatana sharira or body meant for meting out suffering for the sinful acts in hell. They tie the person with aerial cords and drag the person like a slave to the land of Yama. On the way, he is bitten by hungry dogs while feeling hungry and thirsty himself. Sometimes, he faints in pain and is beaten by the Yamadutas to stand up and move. He has to travel a distance of 7,92,000 miles in 2-3 hours. After reaching hell, he is tortured in various ways depending upon the sins committed by him on earth.
There is a very gory description of hells furnished by Bhagavan Kapila. One should not believe these hells to be imaginary. They are not gross but subtle places. The types of suffering described can also be seen on earth. Having gone through the various tortures in hell, the person takes birth in a lower species and purges his sins until he can be reborn as a human. Usually, such human beings are cruel and tamasika by nature.
Those who follow religious duties, are pious by nature but attached to family life are promoted to heavenly sphere. Like hell, there are various grades of heavens. One of the popular ones is called pitriloka. One lives there happily with one’s departed forefathers. People in heaven have bodies made of prana or life. They can travel in space by will. One can recognize friends and relatives in heaven. Sometimes, one may come in subtle body to assist one’s descendents. In a recent study in the US, it was discovered that those candidates or students who prayed to their forefathers before an interview or an examination fared better than others and also better than themselves when they took a similar test without praying. This may be a confirmation of the description given in Bhagavata Purana. The stay in heaven is also temporary. One is thrown down to earth helplessly when one’s stock of piety is over. There is no birth, death or old age in heaven. Yet, when it is time to leave heaven, one feels very morose.
Bhagavan Kapila says that such people usually take birth in their own previous family. They may be born as son or grandson of their own son. The relatives and friends have a rinanubandha or bondage of debt. Because someone owes something to another, one becomes a son, daughter, mother, father or some other relative of a debtor. The relations in this world do not happen randomly. There is always some history behind them. This has also been confirmed through past life regressions.
Those who follow religious duties and moral principles for the sake of duty and lead a restrained life are promoted to spheres beyond heaven. These are the places usually attained by yogis and sanyasis. One remains in these planets for a very long period of time, depending upon the type of spiritual practice one has engaged in on earth. One can also advance in these spheres from lower to higher and can ultimately go to Satyalok, the place of Lord Brahma. Such people usually get liberated along with Brahma. But, if they are not devoted to Supreme God, they will again be born in the next cycle of creation. Nobody can get out of the material world without surrendering to God. This is mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita explicitly (7.14).
The fourth category of human beings is of those who take exclusive shelter of Bhagavan, as recommended by Sri Krishna in Bhagavad Gita (18.66). Such people attain the land of Bhagavan or spiritual sphere, beyond the bound of mayaand material world. The spiritual world is a permanent place and unlike the material world, it can never be destroyed. The supreme lord resides there along with his intimate associates and devotees. One gets a spiritual body which is eternal, conscious and blissful. This abode is not touched by any material suffering caused by one’s own body, by others or through natural calamities. The spiritual body does not age or undergo any undesirable modifications. The residents are free from the base qualities such as lust, anger, greed, envy, cruelty, exploitation. Bhagavan Kapila recommends that every human being should yearn and strive to achieve this abode. In fact, he has described the other three paths only to know them and reject them. Human life is very precious and wonderful. It is a rare opportunity to become perfect and live in bliss thereafter. That is the essence of all Vedic literature.
~ Satya Narayana Dasa, PhD, Director, Jiva Institute, Visiting Professor, Rutgers Univerisity