“Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, that state he will attain without fail.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.6)Download this episode (right click and save)
To the atheists the afterlife is a fairytale, a concoction of the human mind used as a coping mechanism for the unknown. To the believers, heaven is everything. It is the promise of happiness never to be found on earth. This is the general dividing line, what separates the believers and the non-believers.
The Vedas provide the most clarity on the issue. There is the time factor to consider. There is the identity of the individual. There are many aspects to heavenly life about which to inquire, questions that go beyond behaving piously and being rewarded at the time of death.
1. When do I go there?
Since it is the afterlife, the obvious answer is after death. You can’t go to heaven right now. But the question is of exactly when after dying does a person ascend to the higher region. Does everyone go at the same time? For instance, if there is a cemetery full of caskets, do those individuals all go to heaven at the exact same time, way into the future? Or is it after every individual’s death?
The Vedas make the key distinction between body and spirit. This is the first instruction taught to serious students of the discipline. For the more intelligent audience, the promise of heaven through following pious behavior is not the first thing taught. Rather, the most important truth to know and assimilate into everyday life is the difference between matter and spirit.
The afterlife is simply the future relative to the present. Indeed, the present is the afterlife to the past. The future will one day be the present. This debunks the mental speculation that the afterlife is a fairytale. The future will come. No one can deny that.
“The living entity in the material world carries his different conceptions of life from one body to another as the air carries aromas.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 15.8)
The individual is spirit soul. The body does not identify them. Death is the relinquishing of the body in favor of a new one. The subtle elements of mind, intelligence and ego travel to the next destination. The comparison is made to how the air carries aromas. The next body is determined by the state of being at the time of death. In other words, the consciousness gets measured when quitting the body.
That consciousness is at the individual level and gets assessed locally. The assessment isn’t made for all dead people in a certain area, since through the ticking of time there is always birth and death going on. The individual travels to the next destination after quitting the body, whether that destination be earth, heaven or hell.
2. How long do I stay?
The changing of bodies is one way to explain reincarnation. There is change going on all the time. I have essentially reincarnated since my youth. I no longer have that tiny body. Yet I am still me. This means that the body has completely changed through the course of time. The same reincarnation takes place when there is ascension to heaven.
The length of the stay in heaven is determined by the number of pious credits accumulated. It is something like racking up points on a rewards card, allowing you to spend a certain amount. This applies to the material heaven. Heaven, hell, earth - these are all part of the perishable world, where birth and death take place.
“From the highest planet in the material world down to the lowest, all are places of misery wherein repeated birth and death take place. But one who attains to My abode, O son of Kunti, never takes birth again.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.16)
There is the spiritual version of heaven as well. A person never has to leave when they go there. Yet there is always independence. That is the meaning to an existence. A person always has the option to leave a place, even after they ascend to the topmost one. In the spiritual version of heaven, the exit is uncommon, while in material heaven it is guaranteed to happen once the pious credits get used up.
3. Who Else Is There?
As the material heaven is the destination for the pious, obviously other living entities are there. Many heavenly planets there are, with the variety accounting for the different kinds of pious behavior. You could be expert at doing good deeds while on earth. You could be someone who does a lot of religious rituals in the home. You could be an expert mystic, who meditates and is not attached to material things.
When you reach a particular heavenly planet, the people living there are essentially in the same category as you. The same applies for the spiritual version as well. One who loves God in a mood of awe and reverence ascends to one of the Vaikuntha planets where there is worship of God in His four-handed form of Narayana. When there is a desire to interact in sweetness, the next destination is Goloka Vrindavana, where there is endless transcendental play with the Supreme Lord in His two-handed form of Krishna.
4. Do I Keep The Same Body?
Material heaven is ruled by demigods, or devas in Sanskrit. They have amazing bodies that allow them to live a very long time. The elements are of sattva-guna, or goodness. In our present world, the many species have various combinations of the three elements of goodness, passion and ignorance. The same body does not come with us to heaven since by definition we leave it behind at the time of death.
There is a new body granted upon entry into heaven, and that body matches the nature of the realm. In the spiritual heaven, there is the notable distinction of the equality of body and spirit. In essence, there is no longer a difference. The body received in the spiritual world is known as the svarupa, or self-form. It is the original nature of the soul, the way he interacts with God the person.
Going to the spiritual world is defined as liberation, which is the end to the cycle of rebirth. No more reincarnation. No more taking birth and then having to die afterwards. There are five kinds of liberation, and one of them is getting a body similar to Narayana’s. This means that one of the bodies I can get in heaven is four-armed, beautiful, and bluish in complexion. In Goloka Vrindavana, the type of body is determined by the nature of the desire to serve Krishna. I can be a cow, a tree, a peacock, a boy, a girl, or even a parent.
5. What Do I Do There?
Material heaven is simply increased enjoyment of the variety experienced on earth. We already have glimpses of heaven and hell. Heaven the destination is just more of the good stuff. In the Bhagavad-gita Shri Krishna describes that the residents live for a very long time and enjoy heavenly delights. Heaven has desire trees, kalpa-tarus, where a person can go up to one and ask for anything and receive it immediately.
“Those who study the Vedas and drink the soma juice, seeking the heavenly planets, worship Me indirectly. They take birth on the planet of Indra, where they enjoy godly delights.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.21)
As mentioned before, in the spiritual version of heaven there is worship of God the person in the preferred mood of choice. Vaikuntha is completely different from the material world. In any case, the afterlife is always a continuation. It is never the final end. A person who has perfect God consciousness never has to take birth again, but there is always independence. The best use of it is to stay in the company of the Supreme Lord, who provides the best shelter.
Reward for pious credits to reap,
But in heaven same form do I keep?
Are all dead ascending at that time,
Or is it local to when quitting body of mine?
Answers the Vedic tradition providing,
In material heaven in advanced life residing.
But from all planets eventually have to leave,
Only in spiritual world timelessness not to believe.