Paths to the Afterlife in the Hindu Faith
By Jason D. Gray
The Hindu religion is the syncretism of various religions that arose in and around the Indus River in the second millennium BCE. Hindus seem to universally accept that reincarnation is the result of karma (a state that reflects the qualitative value of the totality of our actions/deeds whether they are good or bad, meritorious or vicious) and the body in which one is reincarnated reflects the quality of karma one has accrued in life. Like Buddhism the goal for the Hindu is to escape from the cycle of reincarnation. However, the ways to escape reincarnation (i.e. religious practices) and places of escape (i.e. afterlife destinations) are different between Buddhism and Hinduism. For instance Buddhist nirvana is not the goal of many Hindus (especially devotees). In what follows I will discuss the Hindu view of the self as well as three distinct paths (i.e. Karma-ritual action, Jnana-ritual knowledge, and devotion to a single deity) that provide permanent (or temporary) escape from the cycle of reincarnation.
It is important to keep in mind, when considering the Hindu approaches to the afterlife, that the Hindu religion is polytheistic, lacks a single central text (although the Vedas are universally accepted by Hindus as being divine revelations), and has no specific founder. Within the Hindu religion there are a diversity of afterlife destinations, and diverse means to reach those destinations. One thing that distinguishes Hinduism from traditional western religions (e.g. Christianity) is that this diversity is widely accepted and embraced across the Hindu faith. For instance, someone seeking afterlife X, through method Y, could freely and uncritically accept that another Hindu might be seeking another afterlife destination through other means.
The texts most central to the Hindu faith are the Vedas, of which there are four (Rig, Sama, Yajur, and Atharva). The Vedas, written in archaic Sanskrit, are collections of hymns and invocations that are thought to be divinely inspired. The important dialogues (and philosophical texts) known as the Upanishads are also part of the Vedic collection. The Rig Veda, dating from about 1200 B.C.E, forms, “…the starting point for Hindu speculation about salvation.” (Obayashi, p.146) At this early time in the development of Hinduism the destiny of the deceased was thought to be, “…a new home among the Fathers in Heaven…” where it was believed the deceased would be given a new body after his mortal remains were ritually immolated (Obayashi, p.146). This home was considered to be a gift from the devas, and was the kingdom of Yama, god of the dead. The Rig Veda reads, “Meet Yama [god of the dead], meet the Fathers, meet the merit of free or ordered acts, in highest heaven. Leave sin and evil, seek anew thy dwelling, and bright with glory wear another body.” (Rig Veda 10.14.8) There is no mention of earthy reincarnation in the earliest Vedas. It is unclear what alternatives there are to this afterlife with the Fathers, although the Rig Veda does imply that there are distinctions in worth and reward between those who have passed to the World of the Fathers. The Rig Veda reads, “May they ascend, the lowest, highest, midmost, the Fathers who deserve a share of Soma- may they who have attained the life of spirits, gentle and righteous aid us when we call them.” (Rig Veda 10.15.1) This talk of desert of the libation soma seems to imply a difference at least in status or reward in the World of the Fathers, but the details are not readily apparent.
At the beginning of the first millennium BCE descriptions of the afterlife beliefs of the Hindu faith began to become more detailed. There arose more structure surrounding the rules for ritual knowledge (Veda) and ritual action (Karma) and their role in salvation (i.e. joining the Fathers in Heaven). The Brahmins –the priestly caste in Hindu society- began to take control of these rituals. The path to the World of the Fathers was thought to require not only ritual knowledge and action at the time of death, but in order to be maintained in this realm one’s descendants must continue with ritual action. Without the proper action and knowledge one would be reborn again on earth.
The metaphysical picture of the self and the afterlife also became more complex with the addition of the Upanishads (philosophical texts) to the Vedic tradition. The Upanishads, “…created a new metaphysical system that questioned the permanence not only of this world, but of the World of the Fathers also…”(Obayashi p.149). This new tradition held that the essential self (the atman) was, “…in its essential nature, eternal, uncreated, and free from all change.” (Coward, p.70) Ignorance of the true nature of the self (the essential self) was thought to be the fundamental cause of suffering. In this tradition the essential self is encompassed by three different bodies: the physical body, the subtle body, and the causal body. The physical body: “Like any finite object… originates in time, grows, changes, declines, and perishes.” (Coward p.72) The subtle body, although not permanently associated with the essential self, survives the death of the physical body, records the karma (i.e. all of our deeds) accumulated in past lives, and accounts for reincarnation in the Hindu faith. The subtle body is described as being composed of, “…the five vital forces, the five sense organs, the five organs of action, the mind, and the intellect.” (Coward p.73) The third body clothing the essential self is the causal body. The causal body manifests itself in deep sleep. “In this state all individual personality traits and propensities enter into a causal or seed-like condition…[and they] manifest again in the dream and waking state.” (Coward, p.73)
The separation of the subtle body (which includes the causal body) from the physical body is the definition of death in the Hindu faith. The Upanishadic scholars believed that the desires, thoughts, and actions of a person could (and typically would) result in the rebirth of the subtle body in a new physical body. For the writers of the Upanishads karma was something to be “worked off” (in the case of bad karma) or “rewarded” (in the case of good karma). For instance one with bad karma may be reincarnated as an animal or as someone in a lower social caste, and they will continue to be reborn in such forms until their bad karma is dissipated. Those with good karma may be reincarnated in the World of the Fathers, but this is only a temporary dwelling, and eventually even one with good karma will re-enter the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth -when their good karma has been sufficiently rewarded. According to the Upansadic thinkers,“ Freedom from rebirth was possible only by giving up all desire and desirous action, and this in turn was only possible if one realized that one’s own true self, the atman, was not part of the transient physical world.” (Obayashi, p.150)
In this more metaphysically complex view of the afterlife the self was pure consciousness, and its nature was identical with Brahman –the unchanging reality of the universe. Thus,“…the goal of the Upanishadic teachers was…not attainment of…the transient World of the Fathers, but escape from rebirth entirely by means of knowledge, specifically, knowledge of the fundamental identity of the true self, or atman, with the Universal Self, or Brahman.” (Obayashi, p.150) The Upanishads therefore not only emphasize a path of good karma, but a path of proper knowledge, called jnana. In order to attain this proper knowledge one must enter an advanced stage of life in which one abandons all possessions, personal relationships, and family ties.
Another approach to permanent salvation (i.e. escape from the cycle of reincarnation) arose in Hinduism toward the end of the third century BCE. The Vedic rituals and the Upanishads’ path of knowledge as means of salvation from endless rebirth were based on the Vedic tradition, and so required Vedic priests (Brahmins) to teach them. But this teaching was primarily limited to the elite social classes. Because of the caste system -which follows from the belief that those of low birth are the product of bad karma- the need for Vedic teaching to achieve salvation works to, “…deny access to the majority of Hindus who are not qualified by birth for Vedic study.” (Obayashi, p.151) Thus, a new path to salvation was beginning to be pursued that would allow lower castes the possibility of salvation.
This path was first expressed in a non-Vedic text known as the Bhagavad Gita. In it Vishnu -the protector god- (also incarnated as Rama and Krishna) makes clear that devotion to him and him alone is also a means to escape the cycle of reincarnation. In the Bhagavad Gita Vishnu (incarnated as Krishna) says:
…yourself liberated, you will join me… Keep me in your
mind and devotion, sacrifice to me, bow to me, discipline
yourself to me, and you will reach me! (Bhagavad-Gita, 9.28, 34)
This path to escaping reincarnation, called devotional theism, extends to other gods in the Hindu pantheon. Shiva the destroyer (also the divine Yogi –especially of sexual practice- and lord of dance) and the divine mother goddess Devi are additional examples of gods to whom one may devote him or herself in hopes of salvation.
There are two distinct differences with this path of release from reincarnation and the one of the Upanishads. First, it is open to Hindus of lower castes (i.e. those unable to study the Vedas) and offers hope for them of release from the cycle of death and rebirth. Second, it offers a devotee the ability to retain experience and some measure of personal identity in the afterlife. The earlier Upanishadic tradition bears some similarity to the Buddhist goal of nirvana since it implies a loss of individuality upon union with Brahman –the unchanging essence of the universe. For the devotee,“ Release from rebirth is important, but not if it means merging with the impersonal Brahman in the manner of the Upanishadic way of knowledge.” (Obayashi, p.152) What is important for the devotee is to achieve a union with their personal deity, but one that preserves them as a devotee, in a more personal way. Rama-Krishna, a nineteenth century devotee and saint, said of the distinction, “I want to taste sugar, not become sugar.” (Obayashi, p.152) However, devotees must be careful to free themselves from worldly attachments and desires, not by renouncing the fruits of action, but by sacrificing the fruits of those actions to the god or goddess to which they are devoted. If one is more attached to selfish desire than to one’s chosen god or goddess, then the cycle of rebirth will continue.
Although I have presented distinct paths to salvation in the chronological order of development it would be wrong to infer that an earlier approach to the afterlife has been supplanted by a later one. Thomas Hopkins writes, “The important point is that the [Hindu] tradition as a whole has not chosen one of them over the others as the exclusive or even preferred path to salvation or goal of afterlife, but has maintained them all as alternatives.” (Obayashi, p.154)
The universally accepted elements of the Hindu afterlife tradition seem to be that reincarnation results from selfish and desirous action and that the World of the Fathers is only a temporary state of reward. However, Hinduism is quite different from western religious traditions (cf. the early development of Christianity, which resulted in increased standardization of practices and ideology) in that as it developed it began to accommodate a wider range of approaches to salvation and the afterlife.
Coward, Harold (ed.). Life after Death in World Religions. Maryknoll; NY: Orbis Books, 1997.
Hopkins, Thomas J. “Hindu Views of Death and Afterlife” In Obayashi, Hiroshi (ed.). Death and Afterlife: Perspectives of World Religions. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992.
Miller, Barbara S. (trans.). The Bhagavad-Gita. New York: Bantam Books, 1986.
Obayashi, Hiroshi (ed.). Death and Afterlife: Perspectives of World Religions. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992.
Rambachan, Anantanand. “Hinduism” In Coward, Harold (ed.), Life after Death in World Religions. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997.
The Rig Veda. Ralph Griffith (trans.), 1896. http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/index.htm
Thuruthiyil, Scaria. “Reincarnation in Hinduism.” http://www.spiritual-wholeness.org/faqs/reincgen/hindrein.htm
 The word “Hindu” is an Iranian variation of the English word for the Indus River, and “Hindus” was the name for the people who lived east of the Indus River.↩
 For the Buddhist nirvana involves dissolution of all personal desire and attachments. It is effectively a dissolution of the self and the joining of what remains with the eternal aspects of the universe.↩
 Soma was a (possibly hallucinogenic) drink offered as a libation to the gods. Soma was also personified as the deity of plants, and the healer of disease. The passage seems to imply that there are different levels of reward for the ancient fathers in the World of the Fathers with Yama. However, the Rig Veda does not mention a distinct alternative destination. The emphasis in the quotation is my own.↩
 Hindus believe that the senses of the physical body, and the ability of the physical body to act is derived from the subtle body. The five vital forces are the forces of nature recognized in traditional Hinduism: space, air, fire, water, and earth. These are the same components of the physical body, however, in the subtle body they occur in uncompounded form. This “uncompounded form” is meant to explain why the elements of the subtle are not perceived (as they are with the physical body) and are not destroyed upon the death of the physical body.↩
 This is a so called “fourth stage” of life. The first stage is as a celibate student of the Vedas, The second is fulfilled by sacrifices to the gods, the third stage is completed when one has offspring which will ensure the family line and sacrifices to the ancestors.↩