What is death and is there an afterlife?
If we stop to wonder what an afterlife might look like, it starts to look a lot like this one.
Any discussion of an afterlife, or whether one even exists or not, is a topic we can only speculate on. For some, the idea of having perpetual lives helps explain why some people are particularly apt at certain skills starting at a very early age (e.g., Mozart, Picasso, Pascal), and conveniently helps justify why some are born into misery while others are born into relative comfort. Life remains mysterious even for the enlightened. Vedanta doesn’t claim to explain it all. However, with certainty we can say that if an afterlife does exist, even a celestial one, it would be just more mithya (apparent reality, versus actual reality) and therefore, something we should still want to seek freedom from (logically speaking, even heaven would have to have limitations because you can’t have a “heaven game” without any rules). Nevertheless, Vedanta does offer up a theory for what happens when an individual dies. (Note: For a full description of death and the hereafter according to Vedic scripture, see Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, part 4, chapter 4 or Chandogya Upanishad, part
First, according to karma theory, a person’s future birth is determined by the intense (binding) desires they still hold at death. Desire (kama) leads to action (karma), which creates a tendency (vasana) for wanting more of the same. This wanting then, perpetuates into a future life where it makes the individual assume a body in an environment where he or she will have an opportunity to fulfill their desires. This cycle of rebirth is most commonly described as samsara. However, once Self-knowledge has been realized, any remaining vasanas will eventually dissolve because there is no longer a doer to sustain and identify them with. Hence, the cycle is broken. In regard to karma, a Self-realized individual will still need to exhaust any remaining karma that was accumulated before Self-realization. This residual karma (prarabdha karma) is sometimes compared to the blades of a moving fan which continue turning even after the fan has been powered off.
Regarding the moment of death, Vedanta describes it in much the same way it describes deep sleep—with the subtle body being subsumed into the macrocosmic causal body.
Regarding the moment of death, Vedanta describes it in much the same way it describes deep sleep—with the subtle body being subsumed into the macrocosmic causal body. The theory goes that if the karma and vasana load of the jiva (its psychology) are not resolved at the time of death, the vasana load will “travel” with the subtle body. This begins to sound a lot like the Christian idea of a transmigrating “soul.” However, with the Vedic vision, the jiva’s personality disappears with the death of the body. The subtle body is said to be eternal and may or may not transmigrate into another incarnation; but if there is an incarnation, it will not have the same personality. Memory of any previous incarnation is also erased (which is just as well, because who would want to inherit someone else’s baggage and as a result, be born with a sense of regret or guilt). It is said that once a subtle body travels, it stays in seed form until the forces and laws that run the dharma field create the conditions for it to “sprout.” Therefore, what is “reborn” is actually just the vasanas. The cause of perpetual rebirth (samsara chakra), according to the Vedas, is karma (action).
Just as the body is nourished by the food and drink poured into it, by means of desires, contact, attachment, and delusion, the embodied one takes on, in succession, different bodies in various places according to its deeds. (Shvetashvatara Upanishad, 5.11)
It’s the momentum of past deeds plus the identification with the body-mind that keeps the jiva firmly tied to the wheel of samsara (the relative world characterized by ignorance, desire and action). It’s not until the jiva finds union with God (the Self) that the cycle of samsara is broken. Similar to the concept of heaven and hell, reincarnation is a moot point for the Self-realized who already know they are not the doer. If I’m not the doer, why should I be concerned with what happens to the three bodies (gross, subtle and causal) after death? I am that which comes before birth and death and the three bodies. Ultimately, this is Vedanta’s conclusion and what Krishna implies at the beginning of the Gita when he tells Arjuna:
Although you speak words of wisdom, you grieve for those who needn’t be grieved for. The wise grieve neither for the living nor for the dead. (2.11)
And from the Kena Upanishad:
If a man knows Atman here, he then attains the true goal of life. If he does not know It here, a great destruction awaits him. Having realized the Self in every being, the wise relinquish the world and become immortal. (2.5)
According to Vedic tradition, “a great destruction” would be defined as endless cycles of birth and death, and worse, delusion (samsara). Once having recognized that the Self is present in every being, the wise then, dismiss the world with its time-bound pleasure and suffering, and identify instead with that which is limitless and eternal.
What about a heaven or hell?
Chapter 8 of the Gita explains in detail the afterlife trajectory of the four different kinds of devotees. It is also touched on in Chapter 15 while discussing the Tree of Samsara with its lower and higher branches. The concept of heaven and hell is mostly wrapped in karma theory and Hindu mythology. And while the topic is sometimes mentioned in Vedanta, it isn’t emphasized.
We all like to imagine a special place where only pleasure is experienced and never any pain. But if we actually stop to examine our thinking on this, it doesn’t make sense that such a place could ever exist.
The reason is because for the Self-realized the topic is moot. If in the end I discover that I’m not the doer, then I am that which is beyond any heaven or hell. Even if heaven and hell do exist, it’s still samsara. Does that mean that the Self-realized are free to contravene dharma and do whatever they want? Maybe, but they have nothing to gain from doing so because they already know themselves to be whole and complete. Similarly, neither does Vedanta suggest that God sends individuals to a heaven or hell. For the most part, such religious beliefs are reserved for those who still don’t qualify for Self-inquiry.
We all like to imagine a special place where only pleasure is experienced and never any pain. But if we actually stop to examine our thinking on this, it doesn’t make sense that such a place could ever exist. For one thing, to “travel” to heaven (assuming it’s a physical location) you would need both a gross and subtle body. Even if your body were celestial you would still be susceptible to pain, because only in deep sleep do we not feel any pain due to the absence of any experience of the body-mind. So pain is part of the package if you have any sentiency.
Also, to assume heaven is only pleasure without pain isn’t logical not only due to the law of opposites that says you can’t have hot without cold or sweet without sour, etc., but because what is pleasurable can lead to attachment and ultimately, suffering. In other words, if heaven means becoming attached to it and never wanting to leave it, then heaven would no longer represent freedom—it would be binding, like any other coveted object.
We may have also entertained the thought that once we arrive in heaven we will be closer to God. But if we were to arrive to such a place next to God, we would soon find many others like ourselves also interested in being close to God! Eventually, we would begin to compare our closeness to God with that of others, and that’s all it would take to be subject to various degrees of suffering as we attempt to elbow our way toward God. Lastly, in Hindu mythology it’s believed that even heaven has a limit—that being, time. The time limit is defined by how much good karma (punya) you have in your account. Once the good karma is spent, it’s back to whence you came (sort of like having to return to the office after a wonderful and restful vacation).
And even though scripture talks about the heavenly abodes as being desirous, it doesn’t say that entering any of them equates to spiritual freedom (moksha). The point is that wherever you go, you will eventually need to come back, because even heaven is still just more samsara. Therefore, any serious seeker shouldn’t wish for heaven but instead, for a better future life in order to set themselves up for spiritual success—that is, to be given the necessary circumstances in order to gain and actualize the knowledge that sets one free.