Death – What is it?

Death is the most mysterious thing in human experience. There is no way we can know what happens after death or for that matter if anything happens at all. In the history of human race, every civilization and religion has tried to understand this mystery with imagination and logic. An attempt is made here to understand different perspectives of death in Hinduism.

Conceptual Frameworks in Hinduism

Hinduism believes in a gradual spiritual progression of the individual and it provides a conceptual framework or foundation for every stage of the journey. This helps people to focus on the current stage of their journey. It also ensures that people do not overreach and misunderstand higher concepts.

At the initial stage of the journey a strong conceptual foundation comes from the Smritis which are the Puranas and the Itihasas. For the advanced stages it comes from the Shrutis which are the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. Each of these literature explains the concepts according to the stage of the journey. The Puranas and the Itihasas explain more in terms of rituals, vratas and stories, while the explanation given by the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita is more intellectual. These explanations may apparently seem different and contradictory, but there is always continuity in terms of evolution.

People engage in rituals and vratas for the fulfillment of some physical or mental needs. This involvement helps them to remember god at each step. In fact the stories, rituals, and vratas from the Puranas and Itihasas are more like pointers to the ultimate goal described in Shrutis. Thus people gradually evolve to higher stages and are introduced to the advanced concepts of life.

The Satyanarayana puja is a very common vrata observed all over India. Most people perform it for material gain and well-being. But when done regularly with deep faith and over a long period of time, the vrata uplifts the mind beyond the mundane desires. The Katha which is read at the end of the puja and the act of offering the fruits of the puja to the Lord uttering Krishnarpanamastu, enables the worshipper to understand the importance of offering karmaphala or fruits of our actions to the Lord and feeling the constant presence of Lord Satyanarayana in every activity. This journey can be difficult and slow. As the Bhagavad Gita says it can take multiple life- death cycles and in every new life, the person starts from where s/he left in earlier life.

Death in Hinduism

In this journey of life the conceptual frameworks, at various stages, includes an understanding of death from the perspective of the layman to that of the enlightened yogi.

Death: As viewed by a layman

The most basic belief about death in Hinduism is more or less similar to other religions. After death, a person either goes to Heaven or Hell. In Garuda Purana, there is a detailed description of how a departed soul progresses from this mortal Mrityuloka to the other world. The Puranas also talk about how a soul goes to hell or heaven, depending upon the karma or fruits of his or her actions. There is a gory description of what hell is, and everybody wants to go to heaven. Following a prescribed guideline of do’s and don’ts can take one to heaven. These injunctions of Smritis motivate people to do good things in life, which eventually leads to good thinking and further progress on the spiritual path.

Death: As viewed by the spiritually evolved

A person, who has spent some time on the spiritual path contemplating life evolves to understand the impermanence of worldly life. At this stage he knows that after death, the next birth is decided by agamikarma earned in the just ended life and sanchitakarma carried from lives previous to that. There is a clear understanding that there is no death to the soul, but only transmigration. As the Bhagavad Gita declares, nobody can kill the soul; it is eternal and there was never a time when it didn’t exist and there would never be a time when it would not exist.

The Chandogya Upanishad describes four paths that the deceased take depending upon how they have lived the life. The first called Devayana is a path taken by the spiritually advanced people, who though having led a pious life, serving others and meditating on God are unable to attain complete Self-realization before death. These people reach Brahmaloka, the highest heaven and from there in due course, attain final liberation.

The second path is called Pitriyana or way of the fathers. It is taken by people who have done a lot of charity or rituals with the desire of enjoying its results. These people reach Chandraloka, the lunar world and enjoy a very happy time in heaven before coming back to Mrityuloka to continue the cycle of life and death.

The third path is for people who have lead an impure life and do things forbidden by the scriptures. These people are born in sub-human species and after experiencing the fruits of their actions return back to human life, where they again have an opportunity to progress on the spiritual path.

The fourth path is for those who lead an extremely wicked life. These people again and again take birth as insects and other lower animal species. After suffering thus they too get an opportunity to be born again as a human being and tread the path of spiritual progress.

A very apt explanation of heaven is given by Sant Jnaneswar in his ‘Jnaneswari’. He compares heaven to a brothel where one is treated royally until one has money. Once money is over, the person is thrown out. In the same way when the sanchitapunya or accumulated merit is over, one is thrown out of heaven back to the cycle of birth and death in Mrityuloka.

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad explains in detail how the soul moves to the next life and assumes a new body. According to it at the time of death the soul moves like a caterpillar. The caterpillar supported on a straw goes
to the end of it, takes hold of another support and contracts itself out of the old position. Similarly, the soul first connects with the new body before leaving the old one. While leaving the old body, it only takes the impressions of the life lived. These karmic impressions decide its further progress in the next life. All the associations, physical and social, are left behind as if they do not belong to it.

Srimad Bhagavatam explains this concept through the story of King Chitraketu. King Chitraketu had four wives but no offspring. With the blessings of Rishi Angiras, the eldest queen gave birth to a son. King Chitraketu became very attached to the eldest queen and her son and neglected his other childless queens. Filled with jealousy, and hatred for the king, these queens killed the young prince by poisoning him. To assuage the grief of the terribly grieving king and his family, Rishi Angiras and Narada appear on the scene. Narada Maharishi brings before them the soul of the dead child and asks it to reassume the body of the prince and live with its parents. But the soul does not identify Chitraketu and his queen as his parents. It instructs the royal family gathered there of the endless transmigration of the soul and its non-identification with any person or thing. This helps Chitraketu to understand the real meaning of life and death, and to make spiritual progress.

With this understanding, people at this level strive to attain moksha or final liberation from the repeated cycle of birth and death. This liberation has different meanings; to some it means reaching the abode of God called variously as Vaikuntha, Kailasa, and Goloka. To some it simply means becoming one with the Supreme Self or God.

Death: As viewed by enlightened yogis

Enlightened yogis do not see the birth- death cycle or the journeys to heaven or hell. For them, this whole world is one unitary existence where space and time are mere illusions. This one consciousness is called by many names. Vedantins call it Brahman, Vaishnavites call it Vishnu, Shaivites call it Shiva, and many others by so many other names.

These yogis do not take any of the paths for the deceased because there is no death for them. When a yogi at this level, drops his or her body, people see it as an act of dying; but for these yogis nothing really happens. The best way to understand this is through the Nirvana Shatakam of Adi Shankaracharya. Sri Shankaracharya declares that he is not the mind, the intellect, the ego, sadness, happiness, virtue, sin, earthly possessions or any other things which can be perceived by the mind or eyes. He does not have a mother or a father or death or birth, as he was never born or would never die. He is pure bliss and occupies every corner of this universe, covering everything in the world.

Established in the consciousness of the Atman, the yogis resolve the mystery surrounding death. This is the highest stage of the spiritual journey and the ideal presented by the Shrutis for all mankind.

Original Article and “Vedanta Kesari” Issue of August’2016 is available at: (page#36)