Death is inevitable. All beings that have been born must die. What happens after death, according to the Hindu religion? This post checks out the Hindu scriptures, such as the Garuda Purana, and presents the views of Swami Vivekananda on death.
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What Happens After Death: Why Do People Die?
“Punarapi Janaman, punarapi maranam, punarapi Janani jathare shayanam”
The above line says, ‘It is again a birth, again a death, and again sleeping in the womb of a mother.’ The line talks about the cycle of rebirth, as explained in the Bhagavad Gita. The Bhagavad Gita talks of the soul going through innumerable births and deaths before obtaining MOKSHA, liberation from rebirths.
The entire Hindu religion is based on the concept that the soul must go through a cycle of rebirth. It is said that a soul gets a human life after going through 84 lakh other types of life like birds, animals, etc.
Verse 22 of Chapter 2 of the Bhagavad Gita says that just like people change their clothes once the clothes are no longer usable, the soul too discards old and useless bodies to take up a new body so that it can continue its path to Moksha (redemption from rebirths).
People die because the body can no longer function, and the soul needs a new body. The Bhagavad Gita says the soul takes up a new body after death. Certain other Hindu scriptures, like the Garuda Purana, talk about rewards and punishments. These rewards and punishments refer to the concepts of Heaven and Hell. Let’s take a deeper look at what happens after death according to the Garuda Purana before checking out Swami Vivekananda’s views and the Bhagavad Gita.
Garuda Purana: What Happens After Death?
The Garuda Purana is related to death and the afterlife. It is a Hindu scripture related to the Vaishnav branch of Sanatana Dharma. The Vaishnav branch covers people who pray to God in the form of Lord Vishnu. This scripture is not important to the Shaivya (Followers of Lord Shiva) and the Shakta (Followers of Mother Adi Shakti) branches of the Hindu religion.
The Garuda Purana is about what happens after death. It is in the form of a conversation between Raj Garuda (the vahana of Lord Vishnu) and Lord Vishnu. Sri Garuda comes to Lord Vishnu and says he has traveled all the lokas (worlds) and is disturbed because he sees suffering everywhere. Lord Vishnu tells Garuda that suffering is actually a punishment for bad deeds by people.
According to the Garuda Purana, people suffer in this world due to their actions in current or previous births. According to the scripture, there are forty-two lakh types of hells where souls are sent to serve the punishment associated with the sins they have committed during their past lives. The Garuda Purana lists the different hells and tells us what kind of punishment or reward a soul would receive according to their past karma.
After the death of a person, their soul is free from the body and keeps hovering over it. It understands that it is dead and tries to re-enter the dead body. Sometimes twitches happen on the face or the limbs of a dead body. These are indications that the soul of the deceased is trying to re-enter the body. In most cases, they fail to do so because a portal opens to take the soul into another realm. In rare cases, the soul re-enters the body, and the person presumed dead wakes up. You might have read about such incidents in the news tabloids, etc. These are often called the near-death experiences (NDE).
According to the Garuda Purana, the soul of a dead person stays in the same place for around 12–13 days. It clings to the things to which it was attached during its lifetime. The relatives of the dead perform several prayers for the redemption of the soul. Some people also recite the Garuda Purana so that the soul understands the whole purpose of its existence and is finally ready to leave this earthly plane and go on to heaven or hell, depending on its actions during its lifetime.
Some souls need a longer time to understand that they are no longer required in the lives of the people they cherished when alive. Such souls are stuck and need prayers to leave the samsara (material world). They stay in the preta-yoni until their relatives perform proper prayers for their redemption. The importance of shraddha (a prayer performed for the dead and ancestors) is stressed in this Purana.
This is what happens after death, according to the Garuda Purana. This does not make much sense, however, when you read the Bhagavad Gita, as the latter focuses on rebirth and moksha.
The Bhagavad Gita: What Happens After Death?
The Bhagavad Gita doesn’t talk about heaven and hell except at the beginning of chapter two. Lord Krishna says to Arjuna that if the latter fights the war and dies, he will be called a hero and will go to heaven. This is the only reference to heaven in the entire Bhagavad Gita.
So, what happens after death, according to the Bhagavad Gita? Lord Krishna tells Arjuna that souls take birth again as humans or as lower beings, depending on their karma. If the actions of a soul were bad, they’d take birth as an animal instead of being born as a human.
Lord Krishna says that souls are permanent, without birth or death. They were always here and will always be here until Shristi (the creation) is dissolved. Even after the dissolution of the Shristi, when re-creation happens, these souls will re-manifest and repeat taking births until they realize God and attain moksha (redemption from the sea of births and deaths).
Swami Vivekananda on Death
Swami Vivekananda, too, did not talk much about the concept of heaven and hell in his works. He did mention different lokas where the soul goes depending on what happens during its lifetime. He also spoke of Uttarayan, the movement of the sun towards the north, and Dakshinayan, the movement of the sun towards the south. The latter is considered inauspicious for reaching the upper planes of the world.
People who die during uttarayana have an edge over people who die when the sun is moving towards the South. If a person dies during the dakshinayana, the heirs of that person must perform more prayers for the redemption of their soul.
Swami Vivekananda, in his works, spoke of two bodies and a soul. He said there is a physical body that we can see and a subtle body that we cannot see. When the physical body dies, the subtle body continues to live for a few days more. The subtle body facilitates the transfer of consciousness and life impressions from the body to the soul. Then the subtle body also dies, and the soul is free to be born again. He said that this cycle of birth and death continues until the soul recognizes God and becomes one with Him.
What Happens After Death: Conclusion
While the Garuda Purana talks of people going to heaven or the 42 lakh types of hell, it seems like a manufactured theory. There are a total of 18 Puranas, each glorifying their own subjects and ignoring others. For example, the Devi Purana focuses on the Adi Shakti Mother, the Vishnu Purana focuses on Lord Vishnu only, and the Shiva Purana says Lord Shiva is everything.
The Garuda Purana talks of punishments and rewards for actions. The Bhagavad Gita too focuses on Karma Yoga but says the rewards and punishments are awarded according to how Karma works—in the same or future lives. The Gita says Karma is independent of God. Here is how to get rid of bad karma. Besides, if the soul is never born and never dead, when fire can’t burn it and water can’t wet it, what will really affect the souls in the event that hell exists?
The conclusion after reading all the sacred texts about what happens after death is that there is a soul inhabiting the bodies of humans. The soul leaves the body at death and, after a waiting period of thirteen days, reincarnates as a baby and goes on to live till death. Then the birth process happens again. It is necessary to seek refuge in God and attain moksha, as that should be the only purpose of humankind.
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