What happens when you die according to Hinduism

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By: Manmeet Kaur Tura

As per Hinduism it is believed that either of the two things happen to an individual after death. One is that a person is born again (punar-janma) and experiences life once again, or is liberated (moksha) from the cycle of rebirth (samsara). But when we begin to dig deep into these concepts both geographically and historically it gets complicated.

There are various religions with various concepts about the after world but broadly speaking and specifically focusing on what Hinduism believes in, death can be divided into two aspects. There are those who believe you live only once and then there are those who believe you live multiple lives.

Those who are of the notion that you live only once may believe it so in three different ways— those who believe that death is the ultimate truth and there is nothing else after that; those who believe that after leaving this world you go to the land of the dead and stay in this afterlife forever; and those who believe that after death you based on your karma either find your way to heaven or to hell.

There are some that believe in rebirth and think you keep returning from the land of the dead (pitr-loka) to the land of the living (bhu-loka). This continues until you discover the ultimate lesson after which you no longer feel the need for a body. Some also believe that in your journey you are punished for various crimes in hell (naraka-loka) prior to being reborn, or you enjoy heaven (swarga-loka), until it is time for you return to earth once again.

Ancient Egyptians constructed pyramids because they believed in an eternal afterlife. Ancient Chinese even before Buddhism introduced the thought of rebirth. They have always believed in the land of ancestors where people have to go to after death. Even today, certain religions have the tradition of offering paper money to ancestors to spend in the land of the dead, from where it is nonreturnable.

Historically, in the Vedas, we do not find the concept of rebirth mentioned clearly. There is an entire reference to how our body, after death, returns to nature, just like the prehistoric purusha: so the eye becomes the sun, the breath becomes the wind. There is also a mention of something that outlives death: atman, jiva, manas, prana. The Vedas also mention a peaceful land of ancestors and gods (swarga) and another agonizing land below the three heavens (naraka). There is a strong notion or rather tradition of feeding the ancestors (pitr) but the idea of rebirth as far as we know is not yet formed.

The idea of rebirth evolves from the Upanishads and is clearly explained in the Puranas. As per Hindu Vedas some believe in the performance of yajna and worldly duties (dharma) are the key to heaven on the other hand the Vedic hermits have strong belief in the karma theory, of immortality, and uniting the individual self (atma, jiva-atma) with the cosmic self (brahman, param-atma) through meditation (dhyana), austerities (tapasya) and yoga.

As a conclusion there are two paths after death: one is the return to this world in a transformed way, or escape to another world. Therefore, Hindu rituals are an amalgamation of fire (for escape) and water (for rebirth). There are rituals like shradh that imply on feeding the ancestors and a promise to help their rebirth. In this ritual the Hindus focus on the relationship of food (anna) and flesh (anna-kosha) for the liberation of our ancestors.

Then there is the concept of voluntary renouncing the body (samadhi), which actually means having a complete control over your own self-termination of life after fulfilling your worldly duties. For example, in the Ramayana Ram submerges himself into the river Sarayu and does not come back after he passes on his kingdom to his children and similarly in the Mahabharata Pandavas walk away into mountains after passing on their kingdom to the next generation. This in Hinduism is  the merging of jiva-atma with param-atma voluntarily by yogis. However the skeptics may disagree.