Heaven and Hell in Early Hindu Belief

Although many traditional faiths teach existence after life on earth involves some kind of destination--either a heaven that rewards us or a hell that punishes us--it is more and more common in modern times for people to no longer hold these literal beliefs. Surprisingly, early Hindus were among the first to espouse this "modern" position. 

Back to Nature

The early Hindus never believed in heaven and never prayed to attain a permanent place there.

The earliest conception of an "afterlife," say Vedic scholars, was the belief that the dead reunite with Mother Nature and live in some other form on this earth-- just as Wordsworth wrote, "with rocks and stones and trees." Going back to the early Vedic hymns, we find an eloquent invocation to the fire god, where the prayer is to assimilate the dead with the natural world:

"Burn him not, scorch him not, O Agni,
Consume him not entirely; afflict him not…
May your eye go to the Sun,
To the wind your soul…
Or go to the waters if it suits thee there,
Or abide with thy members in the plants..."
~ The Rig Veda

The concept of heaven and hell evolved at a later stage in Hinduism, when we find amendments in the Vedas such as "Go thou to the heaven or to the earth, according to thy merit…"

Idea of Immortality

Vedic folks were satisfied with living their life to the fullest; they never aspired to attain immortality.

It was a common belief that human beings are allocated a span of a hundred years for earthly existence, and people just prayed for a healthy life: "…Interpose not, O gods, in the midst of our passing existence, by inflicting infirmity in our bodies." (Rig Veda) However, as time passed, the idea of eternity for mortals evolved.

Thus, later in the same Veda, we come to read: ". . . Grant us food, and may I obtain immortality through my posterity." This might be interpreted, though, as a form of "immortality" through the lives of one's descendants. 

If we take the Vedas as our reference point to study the evolution of the Hindu concept of heaven and hell, we find that although the first book of the Rig Veda  refers to 'heaven', it is only in the last book that the term becomes meaningful. While a hymn in Book I of the Rig Veda  mentions: "...pious  sacrificers enjoy residence in the heaven of Indra…", Book VI, in a special invocation to the fire God, appeals to "lead men to heaven". Even the last book does not refer to 'heaven' as an auspicious afterlife destination. The idea of reincarnation and the concept of attaining heaven only became popular in the Hindu canon with the passage of time.

Where is Heaven?

Vedic people were not quite sure about the site or setting of this heaven or about who ruled the region. But by common consensus, it was situated somewhere "up there," and it was Indra who reigned in heaven and Yama who ruled the hell.

What Is Heaven Like?

In the mythical tale of Mudgala and Rishi Durvasa, we have a detailed description of the heavens (Sanskrit "swarga"), the nature of its inhabitants, and its advantages and disadvantages.

While the two were in a conversation about virtues and heaven, a celestial messenger appears in his heavenly vehicle to take Mudgala to his heavenly abode. In reply to his inquiry, the messenger gives an explicit account of heaven. Here's an excerpt from this scriptural description as paraphrased by Swami Shivananada of Rishikesh:

"…The heaven is well provided with excellent paths…The Siddhas, the Vaiswas, the Gandharvas, the Apsaras, the Yamas and the Dhamas dwell there. There are many celestial gardens. Here sport persons of meritorious acts. Neither hunger nor thirst, nor heat, nor cold, neither grief nor fatigue, neither labor nor repentance, nor fear, nor anything that is disgusting and inauspicious; none of these is to be found in heaven. There is no old age either…Delightful fragrance is found everywhere. The breeze is gentle and pleasant. The inhabitants have resplendent bodies. Delightful sounds captivate both the ear and the mind. These worlds are obtained by meritorious acts and not by birth nor by the merits of fathers and mothers…There is neither sweat nor stench, nor excretion nor urine. The dust does not soil one's clothes. There is no uncleanliness of any kind. Garlands (made from flowers) do not fade. Excellent garments full of celestial fragrance never fade. There are countless celestial cars that move in the air. The dwellers are free from envy, grief, ignorance and malice. They live very happily…"

Disadvantages of Heaven

After the bliss of heaven, the celestial messenger tells us about its disadvantages:

"In the celestial region, a person, while enjoying the fruits of acts he had already performed, cannot perform any other new act. He must enjoy the fruits of the former life till they are completely exhausted. Further, he is liable to fail after he has completely exhausted his merit. These are the disadvantages of heaven. The consciousness of those about to fall is stupefied. It is also agitated by emotions. As the garlands of those about to fall fade away, fear possesses their hearts…"

Description of Hell

In The Mahabharata, Vrihaspati's account of "the frightful regions of Yama" has a good description of hell. He tells king Yudhishthira: "In those regions, O king, there are places that are fraught with every merit and that are worthy on that account of being the abodes of the very deities. There are, again, places in those regions that are worse than those which are inhabited by animals and birds…"

"By no one among men is his own life understood;
Carry us beyond all sins" (Vedic Prayer)

There are clear stipulations in the Bhagavad Gita about the kind of acts that can lead one to heaven or hell: ". . . those who worship the gods go to the gods;  . . . those who worship the Bhutas go to the Bhutas; and those who worship me come to me."

Two Roads To Heaven

Ever since Vedic times, there are believed to be two known roads to heaven: Piety and righteousness, and prayers and rituals. People who chose the first path had to lead a sin-free life full of good deeds, and those who took the easier lane devised ceremonies and wrote hymns and prayers to please the gods.

Righteousness: Thy Only Friend!

When, in the Mahabharata, Yudhishthira asks Vrihaspati about the true friend of mortal creatures, the one who follows him to the afterworld, Vrihaspati says:

"One is born alone, O king, and one dies alone; one crosses alone the difficulties one meets with, and one alone encounters whatever misery falls to one's lot. One has really no companion in these acts. . . Only righteousness follows the body that is thus abandoned by them all . . . One endued with righteousness would attain that high end which is constituted by heaven. If endued with unrighteousness, he goes to hell."

Sins & Offenses: Highway to Hell

Vedic men was ever careful against committing any sin, because sins could be inherited from forefathers, and passed on from generation to generation. Thus we have such prayers in the Rig Veda: ". . . May the purpose of my mind be sincere; may I not fall into any kind of sin. . . " However, it was believed, women's sins were cleansed "by their menstrual course like a metallic plate that is scoured with ashes." For men, there was always a conscious effort to pass off sinful deeds as accidental deviations. The seventh book of the Rig Veda makes this clear:

"It is not our own choice, Varuna, but our condition that is the cause of our sinning; it is that which causes intoxication, wrath, gambling, ignorance; there is a senior in the proximity to the junior; even a dream is provocative of sin".

How We Die

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad tells us about what happens to us immediately after death:

"The upper end of the heart now lights up. By the help of that light, this self departs, either through the eye, or through the head, or through other parts of the body. When it goes out, the vital force accompanies it; when the vital force goes out, all the organs accompany it. Then the self is endowed with particular consciousness, and afterwards it passes on to the body that is brought to light by that consciousness. Meditation, work and previous impressions follow it. … As it does and as it acts, so it becomes: The doer of good becomes good, and the doer of evil becomes evil…"