Heaven and Hell – Fact or Fiction?
Myths and legends in every religion describe the presence of these happy or gory worlds, at times in elaborate detail. The description is sometimes so precise as to what kind of hell or heaven one would go to for a particular good or bad deed. Philosophically the position of these hells and heavens is not very tenable except that they fortify our belief in a fair and just world where ultimately the offender will be punished and the virtuous rewarded. But strangely the punishment and the reward seem to be disconnected to our earthly life. For the wicked is punished much later in a hell that gives no moral satisfaction to the sufferer and anyway does not prevent or undo damage that is already done to life and living beings here on earth. There is also another paradox in the traditional popular belief (which is not necessarily a correct belief), a fallacious and almost mischievous logic or caprice of universal justice — the wicked is punished almost twice, first in a hell hereafter and next upon earth in a future life in the form of poverty or disease or some such earthly affliction. Such a justice may be the creation of a revengeful mind but certainly not that of one who is the heart and soul of Love. So too with the heavens for which one waits patiently to recompense in some other world for our earthly trials and long-suffering goodness.
We wonder if in a world made by God would we not prefer justice a little earlier and in a more visible manner?
It is here that we misread everything or at least read our own intentions into God’s. This world was not created to manifest justice, though some sort of justice exists but certainly not as we understand it. This world is essentially a field for growth and progress of the soul and it grows as much through the bitterness of struggle, suffering and fall, as it does through the sweetness of pleasure and the lure of transient perishable things. The lesson in the end is the same. Secondly, justice is there for each one and almost instantaneous, but unseen except by our soul. Truth is profounder than our highest ideals and subtler than our strongest sentiments. Its wisdom is incalculable and its steps certain. In short, the reward of a good deed is independent of the persons towards whom it is directed, independent of the deed itself but solely dependent on the consciousness. Thus a genuinely selfless act, even if unrecognized by others or even despised by men who invariably misread in others their own petty motives, brings a happy inner condition, a sense of lightness and gladness, even a growth in wisdom and compassion, which takes us a step towards our liberation from the case of our humanity. Similarly a selfish deed, even if it is an act of philanthropy or seemingly great and good in the world’s eyes, clouds our consciousness, binds it to the outposts of cheap pleasures and pain, gives brief and petty satisfaction and is inevitably followed after by a recoil of bitterness, restlessness and inner unhappiness. And what worse punishment than this that it clouds our soul which is the source of all true happiness and peace and wisdom and joy? This goes on through lives till we learn the lesson that our true repose lies in discovering that immortal thing within us and not outside.
And this would be a fair justice indeed than this crude notion that the downfall of my opponent in front of my mortal eyes will make me feel happy over his pain as if he were someone else other than me, in another disguise. Or this that I become rich by my honesty and therefore become an even greater slave to the petty pleasures of life and the weakness that follows them. It could be that the sufferer will grow in high endurance, preparing in him a stronger base for the manifestation of greater powers as and when he is ready for them. The soul in us, the only element that is truly wise, may even choose difficulty and defeat, things from which the desire-self and surface mind shrink in horror, as a means of its ascension. That is the logic of universal justice, a push towards growth and not a blind and ignorant human notion of retribution. And what kind of growth would it be if I refrain from evil, not because of any inner change in me, not because I am no more attracted to it but because of fear of hell? And what kind of growth would it be if I do good deeds not because they come naturally to me but because I am selfishly allured to an exact and calculated reward in heaven? Thankfully God is much less of a judge and more of a lover who has all the love of the mother and the wisdom of the master even when he seems to smite us. Even if hell there be, He would not make it in wrath as a prison for justice but out of love as a home for reformation.
Nevertheless occult experience does confirm that there do exist in some vital or other planes of consciousness, states of heightened joy and suffering. These may be largely creations of our mind existing as an annex in the mental world, not things that are true in themselves but are rather created by the human mind, by its beliefs and impressions. These are not the highest or lowest states of consciousness either but intermediary worlds of cosmic ignorance. In all likelihood they have little to do with universal justice but exist as typal worlds in their own right and for a deeper purpose in God’s play. Nevertheless, the soul may for a while after death pass through these worlds by an affinity of its member and consequently experience what they stand for. This passage especially through the dark and painful vital worlds is not mandatory and even a sinful man who has faith in the Divine would generally bypass it. Yet some with a very gross and dense consciousness may linger there for a little longer, periods that may seem like eternity. Fortunately one can say ‘seem like’, for an eternal hell would be an anathema to God and take away all hope from mankind.
“Hell and heaven are often imaginary states of the soul or rather of the vital which it constructs about it after its passing. What is meant by hell is a painful passage through the vital or lingering there, as for instance, in many cases of suicide where one remains surrounded by the forces of suffering and turmoil created by this unnatural and violent exit. There are, of course, also worlds of mind and vital worlds which are penetrated with joyful or dark experiences. One may pass through these as the result of things formed in the nature which create the necessary affinities, but the idea of reward or retribution is a crude and vulgar conception which is a mere popular error.”
The Return to Earth – Rebirth
Not soon is God’s delight in us completed,
Nor with one life we end;
Termlessly in us are our spirits seated
And termless joy intend.
Our souls and heaven are of an equal stature
And have a dateless birth;
The unending seed, the infinite mould of Nature,
They were not made on earth,
Nor to the earth do they bequeath their ashes,
But in themselves they last.
An endless future brims beneath thy lashes,
Child of an endless past.
If life after death is a mystery and a controversy, then rebirth after death is a still greater mystery. Opinions are divided even though a large body of experience and logic both suggest the validity of rebirth. Mystic experience cutting beyond the confines of religion, and individual experiences of recorded cases point towards the truth of rebirth. There even exists a type of psychotherapy that probes into the past lives through hypnotic regression. It is based upon the belief that many of our unhealthy tendencies, especially fears are due to a carry-over from some real event in a past life. There may be a good deal of truth in it. An instance (one among many) is documented wherein the roots of fear in a young child were traced to his unnatural death during war in a previous life. Dr Brian L. Weiss has reported a number of cases where he could trace the roots of his patient’s illness in some past life experience. Dr Weiss was caught unaware when one of his patients began recalling past life traumas that seemed to hold the key to her recurring nightmares and panic attacks. His scepticism diminished and ended altogether when she began to channel messages from ‘the space between lives’ which contained remarkable revelations about Dr Weiss’s family including his dead son. Using past life therapy, he was able to cure the patient and embark on a new discovery. Some of his important works include Many Lives, Many Masters, Messages from the Masters, Mirrors of Time.
Whatever the individual claims to the effects of recovery, it is interesting to note that the roots of our present problem lie buried in our bygone past. The body goes to ashes but not the karma. For karma is not just a physical action but even more an energy and a consciousness-state that continues to exist for better or for worse beyond our present formation of personality. Even death cannot destroy karma though it does exhaust (scavenge) many tendencies of a particular life.
Indeed if we admit the possibility of an after-life then the possibility of another life and yet another life becomes the natural logical consequence. For if there is a soul that is divine in essence then it will be preposterous to presume that this divine element descends into matter and upon earth accidentally, and, realising its mistake and the earthly drama as a bad joke, decides to quit. Or to take the religious viewpoint, it would be absurd to give the soul only a single chance for its final allocation in heaven and hell, without any previous experience to guide or a later chance to make amends! Such a doctrine would not only be a reductio ad absurdum but also take away all significance from the soul’s embodied earthly existence, as if it was a mere testing ground where one takes the exams first and learns later. And even that later learning is of not much use since the soul will presumably never get another chance to apply it!
Such misinterpretation of scriptures and twisting of the words of the great Masters and Incarnations is done largely to instill fear among unripe minds and weak hearts. Through this fear one hopes to win adherents for the faith by saying that since one will never get another chance to prove or correct oneself, the only hope of salvation therefore is the grace of the founder god who will judge in our favour and plead on our behalf if we accept him as our master. Such playing upon the fear of mankind is not unique to any particular religion but has crept in one form or another in all faiths. Maybe it was deliberately introduced at some point to prevent too much indulgence in what religions call as sins. It is however doubtful if fear has any power to change people. At best it modifies only the surface, at worst it introduces a falsehood, deceit and cunning to the sin making it even worse. What was obviously coarse until now, comes nicely packaged, even for the unsuspecting.
Few things have done more harm in damaging, distorting and perverting the human consciousness than fear has, whether it be religious or otherwise. And if rebirth has a purpose then the purpose cannot be just a waking up from a bad dream since in that case, it had no business to go into the sleep of self-forgetfulness at all. Rebirth like birth and death itself is justified only if the adventure of life leads to something that the soul would miss by itself in its native (and so-called unfallen) divine state.
Reward and punishment are a mistranslation in the human mind of a much deeper truth. A better way to look at it is as a learning process. But that too is incomplete since what is it that the soul is here to learn and know which it does not know already in its secret self? The distinction of wrong and right, good and bad, have their relative and practical value in our present state and stage of evolution. Yet they are not absolute or even the original truths. The Divine Consciousness is not a judge weighing scales now in one’s favour, now in another’s. In that Absolute Consciousness there is none other than the One and all are nothing else but the same eternal One and His forms and symbols. The soul is here to engage in the self-manifestation of the One. And it is in this process that it brings out now this form, now another, dissolves one imperfect creation to work out another more perfect one, abolishes one structure so as to erect another that is more plastic and robust, closer to the divine Truth and Light and Love and Harmony and Ananda. Life, death and rebirth are incidents in this half-told tale that is moving from a lesser to a greater degree of perfection. The soul is here essentially to grow towards this intended divine perfection, a feat impossible in one life given the material offered to it by nature. Reward and punishment is how the ignorant vital in us looks at it. Learning through experience is how our mind iridescent with a spiritual light obscurely understands. But to the soul it is always an opportunity for growth towards Perfection. All joy is for it an imperfect hint of some hidden Ananda that has become distorted in surface phenomenon and appearance. So also, all pain is for it a pointer of the imperfection of our delight and a preparation for a higher and more intense and fiercer Ananda yet to be born within us.
To fully understand the mystery of death and rebirth we need therefore to understand the mystery of life. And is not the mystery of life engraved in bold terms in its seeking and aspiration itself? In his awakened consciousness man innately aspires for terrestrial perfection, erects figures and symbol-realities of a higher and purer truth, searches after true love and unmixed bliss. He hopes to bring infinity down in finite terms. Is it vain chimera or a deeper possibility for which the whole adventure of space and time stands justified? And if the pursuit of terrestrial perfection is valid as is indicated by the concealed aspiration in man, then rebirth becomes the sole possible means to arrive at it. Nevertheless the issue of rebirth raises the following questions:
- Is there a rebirth at all? And who or what is reborn?
- What is the mechanism of rebirth?
- What is the purpose and significance of rebirth?
Mystic experience the world over affirms the existence of rebirth. Even some major religions, that apparently deny rebirth, still admit some sort of an afterlife. It is also possible that the truths these founders revealed were not fully understood by the followers during their lifetime. This has happened to all religions without exception and only those religions could partially escape it where fresh experiences and influences from within were allowed to once again reproduce the realisation and rediscover its true form. Here again we find that the Sufis and the Christian mystics did affirm the presence of rebirth even though the main body of followers denied it. Whatever may be the case, as stated earlier the balance of experience tilts in favour of rebirth.
Scientific studies especially by the now well-known Dr. Raymond Moody and others who followed him all suggest the possibility of rebirth. Hundreds of case reports exist in scientific literature where there has been a genuine recall of a past life. But as with NDEs and other paranormal experiences, there are those who believe it and therefore accept and readily quote the scientific studies. There are also those who do not believe and therefore with equal vehemence refute them. As mentioned earlier, it is indeed doubtful that this debate can be resolved by the methods of a material science whose instruments are limited by the material paradigm. The only certain way is to develop the consciousness and experience the hidden worlds and all that lies there waiting to be discovered by oneself. That is the only certain way. After all we do not conduct studies to prove that we are living or walking on the road or sleeping and eating and talking and breathing and all the rest that appears so very natural and normal to us. The scientist would take my word if I said I am experiencing hunger because he too knows by experience that something like hunger exists but he would not listen if I were to say that I am experiencing love for God or Peace, since he may not have experienced either. Similarly when the experience of other worlds becomes normal to man and nothing is sealed from his awakened eye then there will be no doubt left since knowledge of other worlds will be as natural as living here. Till then man has to necessarily lean upon the staff of faith and rely on the data brought down to us by the scientists of the soul who have glimpsed the Beyond. The story given below is one of such authentic case reports. It is by Alexandra David Neel, the famous explorer of Tibet:
“Countless tales are told throughout Tibet about extraordinary proofs of memory from previous lives and wonders worked by young tulkus to testify their identity. We find in them the habitual Tibetan mixture of superstition, cunning, comedy, and disconcerting events. I could relate dozens of them, but I prefer to confine myself to the relation of facts connected with people whom I have personally known.
“Next to the mansion of the Pegyai Lama, in which I lived at Kum-Bum, was the dwelling of a minor tulkus called Agnai Tsang. Seven years had elapsed since the death of the last master of the place and none had been able to discover the child in whom he had reincarnated. I do not think that the steward of the lama’s household felt greatly afflicted by that circumstance. He managed the estate and seemed rather prosperous.
“Now it happened that in the course of a trading tour, he felt tired and thirsty and entered a farm to rest and drink. While the housewife made tea, the nierpa (steward) drew a jade snuffbox from his pocket and was about to take a pinch to snuff when a little boy who had been playing in a corner of the room stopped him and putting his small hand on the box asked reproachfully: ‘Why do you use my snuff-box?’
“The steward was thunderstruck. Truly, the precious snuffbox was not his, but belonged to the departed Agnai Tsang, and though he had not perhaps exactly intended to steal it, yet he had taken possession of it.
“He remained there trembling while the boy looked at him as his face suddenly became grave and stern, with no longer anything childish about it.
“Give it back to me at once, it is mine,” he said again. Stung with remorse, and at the same time terrified and bewildered, the monk could only fall on his knees and prostrate himself before his reincarnated master.
“A few days later, I saw the boy coming in state to his mansion. He wore a yellow brocade robe and rode a beautiful black pony, the nierpa holding the bridle.
“When the procession entered the house the boy remarked: ‘Why do we turn to the left to reach the second courtyard? The gate is on our right side.’
“Now, for some reason, the gate on the right side had been walled up after the death of the lama and another one opened instead. The monks marvelled at this new proof of the authenticity of their lama and all proceeded to his private apartment where tea was to be served.
“The boy, seated on a pile of large hard cushions, looked at the cup with silver-gilt saucer and jewelled cover placed on the table before him. ‘Give me the larger china cup,’ he commanded. And he described one, mentioning the very pattern that decorated it.
“Nobody knew about such a cup, not even the steward, and the monks respectfully endeavoured to convince their young master that there was no cup of that kind in the house.
“It was at that moment that, taking advantage of an already long acquaintance with the nierpa, I entered the room. I had heard the snuffbox story and wished to see for myself my remarkable little new neighbour. I offered him the customary complimentary scarf and a few presents. These he received with a gracious smile but, apparently following the trend of his thoughts regarding the cup, he said: ‘Look better, you will find it.’
“And suddenly, as if a flash of memory had dashed through his mind, he added explanations about a box painted in such a colour, which was in such a place in the storeroom. The monks had briefly informed me of what was going on and I waited with interest to see how things would turn out.
“Less than half an hour later, the set, cup, saucer and cover, was discovered in a casket that was at the bottom of the very box described by the boy. ‘I did not know of the existence of that cup,’ the steward told me later on. ‘The lama himself, or my predecessor, must have put it in that box which did not contain anything else precious and had not been opened for years.’”
 Sri Aurobindo: Letters on Yoga, p. 437
 Sri Aurobindo: ‘Rebirth’, Collected Poems, p. 51
 Original Latin: Disproof of a proposition by showing the absurdity of its inevitable conclusion.
 Alexandra David Neel: Reincarnation of Lamas