by Swami Krishnananda
The Eighth Chapter of the Bhagavadgita deals with the subject of life after death. The Puranas, the Upanishads, the Yoga Vasishtha and the Gita contain many varieties of descriptions of the condition of the soul after it leaves this body. The Puranas, especially, go into a detailed, lurid description of the condition in which the soul finds itself – especially if it has not done any merit, or if the merit it has done is so negligible that the wrongs it has committed outweigh the good, or are on an equal footing.
The stories in the Garuda Purana and such other scriptures, even in the Bhagavata, are really frightening. When the soul departs from the body in the case of these lower, unpurified and negligibly religious souls, it is taken away by the messengers of Yama and placed before the Lord of Death for judgment. It is said that Yama asks the soul, “What have you done?” Ordinarily, it cannot remember anything. It will say, “I don’t know.” The shock of separation from the body removes all memory, and it cannot remember what it has done in the previous life. It is said that then a hot rod, called yamadanda, is kept on its head, and immediately it remembers its entire past. It knows every detail of the actions that it did – both good and bad. It says, “I have done a little good, but have also made many mistakes and performed so many erroneous actions.” Yama asks, “What do you have to say about it now?” “I have got relatives. They will expiate them for me. They will conduct yajnas, charities, worship, sankirtans, bhajans and meditations in my name, and free me from the consequence of the sins that I have committed or the mistakes that I have made.” “Go then!” said Yama, “And see what they do.”
Apparently, it takes ten days for the soul to be brought back, so some ceremony is usually done on the tenth, eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth days. The soul hovers around, observing what the relatives are doing, and Yama’s messengers stand behind like policemen to see what is done. If an expiatory ceremony is done in the name of the soul, such as Bhagavat Saptaha, Rudra Yaga, Narayana Bali and Vishnu Yajna, and varieties of charities are done, and all those things that were dear to the soul are also given in gift, the effect of these good deeds is credited to the account of the soul and it is exonerated to that extent. But suppose this is not done and, like modern boys, the relatives do not believe in after-death: “If our father died, let it go, that’s all. We won’t bother about it,” Or there is no charity, no goodwill, and they behave as if nothing has happened; or they don’t even believe that something happens after death, they think that there is no life after death. If that is the case, the soul is dragged back. When the policemen know that someone is a culprit, and it is confirmed, they deal with him very severely. If they know that he is going to be released and nothing is going to happen to him, they don’t bother much about it. But if his relatives have done nothing, it is certain that he is going to be punished, so for one year they drag the soul to the kingdom of the Lord of Death. At first they brought it within ten days, because they wanted to know what was happening. When it is certain that it is going to be punished, they drag it, pull it, scratch and beat it, and it will be hungry and thirsty and bleeding. That is why another ceremony is done after one year; it takes one year for the soul to return to the abode of Yama. The varshika (annual) ceremony is very important. If nothing has been done on the tenth to thirteenth days after the passing of the soul, at least something should be done on the anniversary so that some mercy may be granted by Lord Yama before the sentence is passed.
If the soul has no merit at all, it will be sent to the land of punishment, whatever the punishment be. In the Srimad Bhagavata, Garuda Purana, etc., the type of punishment and difficulties that the soul has to undergo are described in such gory language that we would not like to be born into this world again. When the soul is expunged of all its sins by suffering in the prison of Yama’s hell, it is released. It is said that then it is sent to Rudra-loka and will not be allowed to leave. To release the soul from Rudra’s clutches, Rudra Yaga is done. Then it is sent to Vaikuntha, so Vishnu Yaga is done; and after many, many years, the soul attains moksha. This is how a bad person gets purified in a very, very painful way, and then finally attains blessedness.
Or, if the soul has a tremendous attachment to relations and wealth, it can be reborn into this world. A Muslim gentleman lived near a house in which a Hindu family had a little baby. The baby was very beautiful. The Muslim wanted to fondle it, sit it on his lap, but the Hindus would not allow the Muslim to touch the baby. The child grew up, and then the Muslim died. This child, which had grown up, started talking in Persian. They asked, “What is this matter? Who are you?” “I am that Muslim gentleman who wanted to caress this child, and you didn’t allow it; and now I am possessing it!” This is the effect of attachments. And very intense attachments, which do not even give the soul time to take birth in this world, convert it into a ghost. Preta yoni is the outcome and, as described in the Bhagavata Purana, it hovers around in space, hungry and thirsty.
Here the Bhagavadgita describes the more glorious paths to the higher realms. Those who are not spiritually awakened but have done immensely good deeds reach a lower kingdom called Chandraloka, the realm of the moon, where they stay invisibly and enjoy the fruit of their good deeds. When the momentum of the good deeds, charitable deeds, etc., is exhausted, they come back into this world. But if a person is spiritually awakened and is not merely a good man – not merely a charitable or a philanthropic person – then the path is different. These two paths are called the Northern Path and the Southern Path.
Yatra kale tv anavrittim avrittim chaiva yoginah, prayata yanti tam kalam vakshyami bharatarshabha (8.23): “I shall now tell you,” says Bhagavan Sri Krishna, “about that path treading which one returns, and that path treading which one does not return. These two paths I shall describe to you now – uttaramarga or jyotirmarga, and dakshinamarga or dhumamarga, as they are called.”
Agnir jyotir ahah suklah shan-masa uttarayanam, tatra prayata gacchanti brahma brahma-vido janah (8.24): Everything is filled with light, everything is filled with divinity, and everything is superintended over by a divinity. The fire of cremation – that is the Agni, the physical fire, which has a divinity of its own -assumes a divine form in the case of a person who is to rise up to the celestial realms. Then there is a divinity superintending over the daytime, in contrast with the night. If a person passes away during daytime and during the bright half of the lunar month and during the northern movement of the sun, he shall reach the solar orb – Suryaloka. From there, he will be taken up.
The Upanishads describe many more stages than the ones mentioned here. And at a particular stage beyond the sun, a superhuman entity is supposed to come and take the soul by its hand. Up to the solar orb or even a little beyond is called the realm of lightning. That is, beyond the sun, the lightning of Brahmaloka flashes forth. The individuality consciousness of the soul slowly gets diminished at that time, and it is not aware of any self-effort. It does not know that it is moving at all, inasmuch as the ego is almost gone. It is said that at that time an amanava purusha deputed by Brahma himself comes down in a luminous form, and leads the soul to the abode of the creator, Brahma. This is the path of krama mukti, or gradual liberation, in which the soul is supposed to be in the glory of Brahmaloka until such time as Brahma himself is dissolved at the end of time – the end of a hundred years of his life – and then the Absolute Brahman is reached.
But there is a possibility of immediate salvation without passing through all these stages – a hundredfold promotion, as it were. It is the dissolution of the soul in the supreme Brahman at this very spot. It need not have to travel in space and time because it is jivanmukta purusha, one who has attained to a consciousness where there is no distance to be traveled. For him, there is no solar orb or anything else. He has spread his consciousness everywhere in all beings: sarvabhuta hite ratah (12.4). He is the soul of all beings, like Suka Maharishi, Vyasa, Vasishtha, etc. When his soul spreads itself everywhere in the cosmos, where is the question of moving? Na tasya prana utkramanti: His pranas do not depart, as is the case of other people. Atraiva samavaliyante: They dissolve here, just now. That is, the moment the soul departs the body, it enters the supreme Brahman, the Absolute, then and there, without having to pass through all these stages. But in the case of krama mukti, the graduated steps mentioned in the Bhagavadgita, the case is different.
The divinity of fire, the divinity of daytime, the divinity of the lunar month’s bright half, and the divinity ruling over the northern movement of the sun will take care of the soul and bring it up. In the Moksha Parva of the Mahabharata there is the story of a great ascetic who rose up from his body, and a little flame rising up through the sky could be seen. It rose higher and higher until it reached the orb of the sun, and a divine being emerged from the solar orb and received it. According to our tradition, the sun is not a material substance. It is a divinity – Hiranmaya Purusha – in which a golden-colored Narayana is seated. Just as a human being is not a body, the sun is also not a body; and just as we see only the body of a person and do not see what the person is on the inside, we do not see divinity of the sun. We see only its outer appearance, which we call helium, atomic energy, etc., in just the same way as we call a person bone and flesh, nerves, blood, etc. – which is not a correct description. Hence, there is something beyond the human concept here. Divinities are everywhere in the cosmos – in every atom – which is also controlled and enveloped by the universal God. If God is everywhere, why should He not be in every atom and in everything? In the case of such a realisation, there is immediate dissolution.