In the last post we saw what survives death and what doesn’t.
Where does the surviving part of me go?
Most of us believe that we will go somewhere after death. No one knows where that “somewhere” is, although everyone will know exactly where it is after they die. If we are curious to know the answer now, when we are still living, we have to turn to a source we trust or have faith in. Religious texts of most traditions provide interesting narratives, call them “stories” if you like, regarding the passage after death—of who goes where and why. Here we’ll focus on the general consensus in Vedanta about the afterlife.
Good to begin with some basic principles and observations. Is going somewhere inevitable? Theoretically, yes. If we have come into this world, then we do have to go out when the time is up. Every entry presupposes a certain future exit. If I have entered the world when I was born, I’ll exit it when I die. That’s kind of obvious.
Where I will go is determined by my karma and the desires that prompted them. If I do good karma with the desire for enjoyment, then enjoyment is what I’ll be rewarded with. If I do good karma with the desire for spiritual progress (that is what karma yoga is), my progress will manifest as purity of heart (citta-suddhi). If I do bad karma, then no matter what prompted it, I’ll attract some kind of pain and suffering wherever I go next. But to whichever new place or realm my karma will take me, (in other words, wherever I am reborn), I have to eventually vacate that place too (when I die), and go to yet another place, again determined by my karma. Unless something drastically changes, it looks like I am doomed to being repeatedly dragged through the predictable cycle of birth and death.
That said, the books generally speak of two paths on which the journey beyond death can occur. One is called the southern path (daksinayana) and the other is the northern path (uttarayana). The southern path is taken by those who are good—meaning, they followed dharma as best they could—but have a somewhat mixed record due to the compromises they made and the moral failures they couldn’t avoid. This path takes them to the “world of the ancestors” (pitr-loka). The northern path is taken by earnest spiritual seekers who have made some headway in their quest but haven’t yet become illumined. The path takes them to the “world of the celestials” (deva-loka).
How exactly this journey occurs is described in books (see, for instance, Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, 6.2.15-16, Chandogya Upanisad 5.10.1-10, Gita 8. 24-25) but the description is terse and enigmatic. “I do not understand much of it myself,” Swami Vivekananda said and offered the following paraphrase. When an earnest spiritual seeker dies without having attained enlightenment,
he first goes to light, then from light to day, from day to the light-half of the moon, from that to the six months when the sun goes to the north, from that to the year, from the year to the sun, from the sun to the moon, from the moon to the lightning, and when he comes to the sphere of lightning, he meets a person who is not human, and that person leads him to (the conditioned) Brahman [meaning, God with attributes (saguna)].CW 2. 314
Swamiji made it clear that
what is meant by month and year, and all these things, no one understands clearly. Each one gives his own meaning, and some say it is all nonsense. What is meant by going to the world of the moon and of the sun, and this person who comes to help the soul after it has reached the sphere of lightning, no one knows.CW 2. 314-15
What happens to those who are led on the southern path? When they die,
they go through smoke, then to night, then to the dark fifteen days, then to the six months when the sun goes to the south, and from that they go to the region of their forefathers, then to ether, then to the region of the moon, and there become the food of the gods, and later, are born as gods and live there so long as their good karma will permit. And when the effect of the good karma is finished, they come back to earth by the same route. They first become ether, and then air, and then smoke, and then mist, then cloud, and then fall upon the earth as raindrops; then they get into food, which is eaten up by human beings, and finally become their children.CW 2. 315
If any of this makes sense to you, you are lucky. But it at least provides some framework to imagine the kind of things that can happen after death. The basic principle is that our path beyond is determined by karma—if we have done good things, we’ll reap good results. If we haven’t, we won’t. Wherever we go, we’ll acquire a new body-layer. The books describe different regions (loka) where we may find ourselves. Just as we dress differently in different parts of the world, the body-layers in these different regions may also be different. For instance, in the region of the divine minstrels (gandharva-loka), I will get the body of a gandharva. Similarly, in other celestial regions, I will get a body of the appropriate celestial (deva).
What about those who are exceptionally bad, people who do evil and who don’t hesitate to hurt others for their own self-interest? Such people, we are told, go neither to the world of the celestials nor to the world of the ancestors, but to a “third place” (trtiya-sthana). They are dispatched directly into one of the “lower” species. The idea is that their beastly tendencies, clearly a bad fit for a human body, will be more appropriately expressed through the body of a beast. When their bad karma is thus worked out, they may hopefully become fit to dwell inside the body of a “higher” species.
There is a view that no matter where we go after death, those are places of experience (bhoga-bhumi), where we only experience the results of past karma but don’t do any fresh karma. All new karma is possible only in our present world—the world of humans (manusya-loka)—which is the place of work (karma-bhumi). Others disagree and hold that, if we have a body and a mind—the instruments needed for any work—karma is not only possible but inevitable. It isn’t as if the places people go to after death are outside the realm of the world. It all depends on how expansive or narrow our understanding of “the world” is.
Another important consideration is the fragility of the body-layer. No matter where we go after death and no matter what kind of body we acquire, it will wear away sooner or later. Compared to our stay in this world, a celestial body may last longer, but it too must end some day, and then will be the time to acquire yet another body, again determined by our accumulated karma. No region in God’s creation can guarantee us a permanent spot—there is a time to be born and a time to die, a time to arrive and a time to depart. If we step back, zoom out, and take a really long-range view of our existence, we’ll be horrified to see how we are constantly on the move, without rest or respite, rushing from one birth to another, ceaselessly doing karma and helplessly reaping its results, constantly bothered by what we leave behind and never sure of what lies ahead.
Is this what we call life? Is this something to celebrate and to gloat over? To a discerning person, it feels more like never-ending torture that numbs and dumbs us enough to crave for even more of it. The situation is so ridiculous it’s not even funny. It is in fact sickening. On February 1, 1895, Swami Vivekananda wrote in a letter from New York:
I hate this world, this dream, this horrible nightmare, with its churches and chicaneries, its books and blackguardism, its fair faces and false hearts, its howling righteousness on the surface and utter hollowness beneath and, above all, its sanctified shopkeeping.CW 5. 73
One may think that wanting to get out of this “horrible nightmare” will be the natural and normal human response. Sigh. It is not. It is more an exception than the rule. Oh the power of maya ….
Faced with this seemingly intractable situation, what should I do if I am an earnest spiritual seeker? I need to make a conscious effort to make the best use of whatever time and energy and resources are available to me, not simply toward getting recognition and success (in a few years, if not sooner, whatever and whoever I see around me will vanish when I die) but toward getting out of the terrible dream of flitting from place to place, going in and out of all sorts of bodies, all the while being controlled by an incorrigible mind. I need to do my spiritual practice with faith, regularity and sincerity without giving up and without getting distracted. If distractions in this world affect me, what hope do I have when I go to the “world of the celestials” where distractions are a thousand times more powerful and more alluring than these petty earthly amusements?
Some spiritual seekers do lose their way amidst the so-called pleasures of the celestial regions. The Gita (6. 41-43) refers to them as those fallen from the path of yoga (yoga-bhrasta). They have to “return” to the world of humans to resume their journey (it’s like failing an exam and having to repeat the class), hopefully in an environment that will bring them back to their spiritual quest. Life can be quite a roller coaster if we are not mindful.
But there are always a few brave and courageous souls who never give up, no matter where karma takes them. Even in the celestial regions they ignore the distractions and remain focused on their practices with dogged determination. With hearts purified in the fire of wisdom, they eventually destroy the deluding power of ignorance. With maya gone, their body and mind may seem to remain for a while by the force of prarabdha, but when death comes, there is no more rebirth for them. In fact, at that point, they wonder whether they were ever born in the first place! The Atman alone remains.
Out of the body-mind trap, the real me is finally free. There is no longer any need to go anywhere because I am already everywhere. I no longer fear anyone or anything because everyone and everything are now seen as shadows, not real. I am no longer afraid of death because death itself has been put to death. I am now one with life. Life doesn’t die, people do. I don’t seek freedom because I am freedom.
I am the Atman, always was, always will be. But it does take a lot of effort and God-knows-how-many lifetimes, or at least it feels that way, to know the simple truth of who I really am.
Vedanta Swami Tyagananda