For most of us, at least certainly up to people of my generation, the concept of heaven and hell is an amplification of good and evil, the aggregate of our actions in either of these fields ultimately deciding our fate on the other side of the veil. Heaven is associated with all things good, and hell with all things bad. My memory goes back to early school days in the mid 1960s, when one of the mandatory subjects of study was either catechism, for Christians, or moral science, for students belonging to other religions forming the vast majority. The text on moral science was a compilation of stories illustrating moral principles of good and bad, virtue and vice, kindness and cruelty, greed and generosity, mercy and ruthlessness, uprightness and depravity. Catechism and Moral Science constituted subjects for exams up to class six, and I fondly recall having secured the top marks for Moral Science and winning the prize awarded for it on the annual school day.
Yet another cherished memory is the daily regimen of evening prayers at home, sitting on the floor in a semi lotus position in front of lighted oil lamp and incense sticks, chanting the prescribed number of hymns glorifying in manifold names select gods and goddesses from Hindu pantheon of over 330 million forms of Almighty. Precepts of morality imparted at a formative age in school reinforced, in my case, the basic norms of good conduct initially inculcated through countless bed time stories narrated to me, mostly during school vacations, by elderly uncles, aunts and grandparents. These mythological tales, highlighting acts of valour, justice, adherence to truth and general principles of ethical conduct, were drawn from India’s great epics and vedic texts. The concept of conscience, defined as the still small voice of God within, exhorting us to follow the right path in all situations, stayed firmly embedded in my psyche through moral science lessons learnt in school. Did all such disciplining perfect my bearing? Not quite so as I must admit to my share of peccadilloes in adolescent and later years adding a measure of grossness that probably maintained the balance, by way of precluding any undue tilt to the extreme of too much perfection or becoming ‘rotten with perfection’ as Kenneth Burke chose to pithily comment while qualifying humans as a species. Be that as it may, the bedrock of morality, constituted deep within by aforementioned refining, always guided me in right direction and stabilized my course amidst all of life’s turbulence.
What is, inter alia, called God, Atman, Cosmic or Divine Mind, is eventually energy flowing in a positive direction or otherwise; from visible manifestations of life down to micro-nano particulates, energy flows with the natural state of all the universes and their universes, as probably a perpetual blossoming— conceptually encompassing all that is within matter. This will become clearer if we look closely in to any forms of matter. The ‘god-particles’ are electro-magnetic energy flowing in either a positive or negative direction. It shows up as harmony, when the subjective human being ‘feels’ harmonious, or cacophony, in the case of a spiralling negative spin making the subject ‘feel’ painful or awkward. What is the source of these sub-quarks or god-particles? The answer is inconsequential, for whatever the source, it is that which it is, dwelling in the realm of grand infinity. Is there final cause in infinity? The quest is on…
The most basic belief in monotheistic religions and the theories of heaven and hell is that our lives extend beyond the grave. It is hardly surprising, then, that a belief in an afterlife should be an important part of the Christian tradition. According to a relatively common view in the wider Christian culture, heaven and hell are essentially deserved compensations for the kind of earthly lives we live. Good people go to heaven as a deserved reward for a virtuous life, and bad people go to hell as a just punishment for an immoral life; in that way, the scales of justice are sometimes thought to balance. But virtually all Christian theologians regard such a view, however common it may be in the popular culture, as overly simplistic and unsophisticated; the biblical perspective, as they see it, is far more subtly nuanced than that.
When we turn to the theological and philosophical literature in the Christian tradition, we encounter, as we would in any of the other great religious traditions as well, a bewildering variety of different (and often inconsistent) theological views. The views about hell in particular include very different conceptions of divine love, divine justice, and divine grace, widely different ideas about free will and its role in determining a person’s ultimate destiny, markedly different understandings of moral evil and the purpose of punishment, and significantly varying views about the nature of moral responsibility and possibility of inherited guilt. There is also this further complication: In the Abrahamic family of monotheistic religions to which Christianity belongs (along with Judaism and Islam), theological reflection often includes an interpretation of various texts thought to be both sacred and authoritative.
Without doubt, a great many who believe in life after death do so because of reasons that are specific to their religions. Each of these reasons has its own varying interpretations. Still, despite this confounding diversity, Hindus and Buddhists have their accounts of persons who remember in detail events of their previous lives. Jews will rely on the visions of Ezekiel and the traditions of the rabbis; Muslims on the prophecies of the Quran. Christians will think of the resurrection of Jesus and promise of the second coming. Apart from the question of reward and punishment, Christianity also holds out the ultimate reconciliation, the belief that in due time all people will eventually be saved and reconciled to God, since in the end after great duress and, if necessary, chastisement, even the most devious and hardened will of their own accord, accept the Almighty and “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord”. Such acceptance and repentance can happen even after one dies vide the chastisement that follows in hell or Hades but the how of it is not knowable. All we have is the biblical affirmation that the lord is all powerful, all loving and, therefore, will bring everyone to salvation.
Heaven is described as a higher place or a paradise, in contrast to hell or the low place or the nether world, accessible by earthly beings according to standards of goodness and piety. Judaism offers no clear indication about afterlife, as the only certainty is death and what is beyond is considered inscrutable. Unlike other religions, the focus of Judaism is on living life in this world in accordance with moral principles and not really on post death expiation, after having led a sinful life, to attain heaven . In Hindu belief, heaven consists of multiple planes, the foremost of which is known as ‘swarga loka’ and the soul is subjected to transits through these heavenly planes consistent with its goodness, and rebirths through various life forms according to its ‘karma’. This cycle of rebirths can be broken as an when the soul achieves ‘moksha’ or salvation. In contrast, hell is termed ‘naraka’ or place of torment. The Quran contains many references of afterlife in Eden for those who do good deeds. Heaven is called Jannah and is described as a garden of perpetual fruits near to a flowing river, where every wish is fulfilled and where inhabitants live in palaces built by angels and rejoice in the company of their loved ones. Jannah is denominated in several levels of comfort and the highest level is the seventh heaven. The Bahai faith views conventional descriptions of heaven and hell symbolically to mean closeness to and remoteness from God. The person’s worldly existence is analogous to an embryo in the mother’s womb providing for the development and perfection of the soul for a life after death. Buddhism also talks about several heavens all of which are part of samsara or illusionary reality. Those accumulating good karma may be reborn in one of them. The dwell time in heaven, however, is temporary, lasting only up to the time allowed by the scale of each individual’s karma and thereafter to be reborn into one of the life forms in another realm, since, according to Buddhist cosmology, the universe is impermanent and living beings transmigrate through numerous existential ‘planes’, of which this world, which we all live in, is only one realm or path. The finality of permanent abode in the pure land, that is outside the continuum of heaven and hell and birth and death, is only for those attaining enlightenment, meaning those becoming Buddhas themselves.
In Chinese mythology. Heaven is considered as a sentient entity capable of hearing and watching the doings of humans, blessing those who please it and perpetrating calamities on those who offend it. Confucius asserts that “he who offends against heaven has none to whom he can pray”. Other contemporary philosophers such as Mozi maintained an even more theistic view of heaven, believing heaven as the divine ruler and the then monarch as the earthly ruler. Mozi further believed in the existence of spirits and minor gods whose function was to carry out the will of heaven, identifying evil-doers and punishing them while benignly conveying blessings to good Samaritans. Mohism championed the cause of universal love, positing that heaven loves all people equally and exhorting people to follow suit.
Narrations of heaven and hell abound in world literature. The two most widely read depictions of heaven and hell may be in Dante’s Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Communism and radical left-wing ideologies such as Anarchism deride religion in general and the concept of heaven and hell in particular as tools to scare people into a certain way of life calculated to serve vested interests and exercise control and authority. In ‘Animal Farm’, George Orwell’s take on sugar-candy mountain as a place of complete happiness, where animals will go to at the end of their lives, is widely considered to be a satiric swipe at beliefs in heaven and hell.
Regardless of dissenting views of atheists and radical ideologues, the concept of hell and multi-layered heaven, theory of karma and reincarnation hold sway in many cultures and mythologies, including Polynesian and Maori, and esoteric belief systems like Theosophical movement.
Moving from heaven and hell, into life’s poly-chromatic phantasmagoria and its end, most of the dominant religions talk about the apocalypse, the final destruction reducing everything to naught or to such irretrievable levels as to defy any possibility of restoration. The eschatology in Abrahamic faiths maintain a linear cosmology with end of time scenarios indicating prospects of transformation and redemption. Judaism refers to the dawn of Messianic Age or a time of universal peace and brotherhood, sans crime, poverty and war, a kind of golden age reminiscent of the mythological Mahabali’s earthly reign. Christianity depicts a period of total degeneration, deterioration in values, trials and tribulations with the emergence of Antichrist and culminating in the second coming of Christ, a spectre that found eloquent expression in the lines of W B Yeats:”Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/ Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/ The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity”. Islam states that the redemption is preceded by the appearance of Mahdi atop a white stallion assisted by Isa (Jesus). Zoroastrian eschatology is the oldest in recorded history, with beliefs paralleling and predating the framework of the major Abrahamic faiths. The Bahman Yasht describes: “At the end of thy tenth hundredth winter, the sun is more unseen and more spotted; the year, month, and day are shorter; and the earth is more barren; and the crop will not yield the seed. And men become more deceitful and more given to vile practices. They will have no gratitude. Honorable wealth will proceed to those of perverted faith. And a dark cloud makes the whole sky night, and it will rain more noxious creatures than water”. The eschatologies of non-Abrahamic faiths are cyclical, highlighting the decay of end times followed by redemption and rebirth. In Hinduism, the end period features the arrival of Kalki, the final incarnation of Vishnu, descending on a white horse to bring the ongoing Kali Yuga to its end. The cyclic time-scale consists of kalpas, each kalpa lasting 4.1 – 8.2 billion years, which correspond to one full day and night for Brahma. Within each kalpa there are periods of creation, preservation and decline, after which the universe will contract to a singularity wherefrom it will formatively expand again in fractal pattern as part of the next cycle. Within the current kalpa, there are four epochs that encompass the cycle. They progress from a beginning of complete purity to a descent into total corruption and anarchy. The last of the four ages is Kali Yuga, the epoch in which we are now living, which is characterized by impiety, violence and decay. As the lord covenanted in the Gita, “Yadaa Yadaa hi Dharmasya Glaanir bhavati Bhaarata / Abhyuthaanam Adharmasya Tadaatmaanam Srjaamy Aham” (Whenever there is decay of righteousness O! Bharatha / And a rise of unrighteousness then I manifest Myself). In Buddhism, the Buddha mentions that his teachings would not be in the minds of people after 5000 years (from the time of his teaching, thus approximately pointing to a period between years 2300-4300) and predicts a period of turmoil resulting in the formation of seven suns causing ultimate destruction of the world, setting the scene for advent of the redeemer by name Maittreya, tasked with restoration of dharma.
Is the world as we see it today hurtling to an end? In addition to the injunctions in religious scriptures, we have all heard of prophesies at periodic intervals from several clairvoyant quarters that the world is going to end at so and so time only to wake up on the projected day with nothing happening except people moving about on business as usual. Nevertheless, the unsettling signpost from science is that the visible universe with all the sun, moon and stars are diminishing resources set to exhaust at certain timelines in bogglingly distant futurity. In other words, the doomsday predictions of religions have since been corroborated in scientific researches and discourses. If the age of earth has been calibrated as 4.54 billion years in deep time, the total destruction of the universe and ensuing potential for renewal in approximate timescales is defined in theories of Big Rip, Big Crunch, Big Bounce and Big Freeze. An objective reading of the world’s wonderful scriptures would indicate that divinity revealed its infinite dimensions in intuitive flashes to sages and prophets at different historical periods around the world while manifesting in various avatars. The findings of science, in a larger perspective, are not contradictory but complementing with clearer directions to the seeker’s spiritual journey towards the ultimate truth.