"Heaven and Hell" (SB 3.31.33)
Is there a reality to heaven and hell, or are they imagined constructs described within religious traditions? Thompson begins by examining an apparent enlightenment consensus that tends toward denying existence beyond three-dimensional gross matter. Enhancing the discussion with anecdotes from his recent presentation at the “Parliament of the World's Religions” in Chicago, Thompson encourages his audience to consider possibilities beyond the constraints of an exclusively materialistic paradigm.
TRANSCRIPT: Srimad-Bhagavatam, Canto 3, Chapter 31, Text 33. “Heaven and Hell.” San Diego – September 16, 1993 / (527)
He becomes devoid of truthfulness, cleanliness, mercy, gravity, spiritual intelligence, shyness, austerity, fame, forgiveness, control of the mind, control of the senses, fortune and all such opportunities.
Purport by Srila Prabhupada:
Those who are too addicted to sex life cannot understand the purpose of the absolute truth, nor can they be clean in their habits, not to mention showing mercy to others. They cannot remain grave, and they have no interest in the ultimate goal of life. The ultimate goal of life is Krsna, or Visnu, but those who are addicted to sex life cannot understand that their ultimate interest is Krsna consciousness. Such people have no sense of decency, and even in public streets or public parks, they embrace each other just like cats and dogs and pass it off in the name of lovemaking. Such unfortunate creatures can never become materially prosperous. Behavior like that of cats and dogs keeps them in the position of cats and dogs. They cannot improve any material condition, not to speak of becoming famous. Such foolish persons may even make a show of so-called yoga, but they are unable to control the senses and the mind, which is the real purpose of yoga practice. Such people can have no opulence in their lives. In a word, they are very unfortunate.
cakṣur unmīlitaṁ yena
tasmai śrī-gurave namaḥ
śrī-caitanya-mano-'bhīṣṭaṁ sthāpitaṁ yena bhū-tale
svayaṁ rūpaḥ kadā mahyaṁ dadāti sva-padāntikam
So the translation again:
He becomes devoid of truthfulness, cleanliness, mercy, gravity, spiritual intelligence, shyness, austerity, fame, forgiveness, control of the mind, control of the senses, fortune, and all such opportunities.
So, this refers to the previous verse, especially in the word for word it says yat-saṅgād, from association with whom. As a result of association with certain types of persons these results described in this verse take place. So the previous verse again is as follows:
If therefore the living entity again associates with the path of unrighteousness, influenced by sensually minded people, engaged in the pursuit of sexual enjoyment and the gratification of the palette, he again goes to hell as before.
So, this verse is simply following up on that one describing how through association with such sensually minded persons, one becomes devoid of all these different good qualities. And Srila Prabhupada concludes that such persons are addicted to sex life is in fact taken in modern society as being basically just life. People are thinking this is the real goal of life to engage in these activities. So there's some interesting history to that. One feature relates back to this previous verse where it says that the person who engages in these activities again goes to hell as before. So, this assumes the existence of hell.
Now that brings up an interesting point. Does hell exist? Well, I was just attending the “Parliament of the World's Religions” in Chicago, which is the Centennial Celebration of the 1893 “Parliament of the World’s Religions.” So, people representing all different religions from around the world were gathered there. It was a very colorful scene. There were all possible combinations of different types of religious robes and so forth. We saw every possible variant on the basic sannyasi garb with colors ranging from light yellow to dark purple, and everything in between. Also once saw many different varieties of tilak.
Anyway, it was interesting. I picked up on some conversation though. I heard a number of people specifically say that such things as hell and heaven do not exist. And in fact, it seems to be a general conclusion that old religious scriptures are mythological. Certainly, all the Hindus there seem to be believing that. So they simply took the accounts in these books such as the Bhagavatam to simply be mythology. And the same thing is true of the Bible. In the case of the Bible this idea that all the different stories of hell and so forth are mythological, became prominent in about the middle of the 19th century in England at least. There was something called the higher biblical criticism. And basically, the idea was to demythologize the Bible. So part of this was the teaching that hell doesn't really exist. Heaven also doesn't exist. So this had a certain impact on the general mass of people because the idea that one might be punished in hell did exert some restraint on people's activities. But of course, once you convince people that hell doesn't exist then all hell breaks loose. Right, yes, one could put it that way. Yes, once people are not thinking that hell is down there, they will manifest it up here.
Actually, I was reflecting on the question of, why one should not regard the basic cosmology presented in the Vedic sastras as being something frightening? That is considered the basic description of reality given in Krsna consciousness. According to that description, it is possible to go to heaven or to go to hell - these places literally exist - but it seems that it's a lot easier to go to hell than it is to go to heaven. So, if you actually believe that this is true then it would seem that a person would be rather, let's say in a state of anxiety.
Consider for example the whole idea of Yamadutas, these messengers of Yamaraja. So the story is that if a person is sinful and has engaged in the kinds of activities described here, then at the time of death, he will see these horrifying figures approaching him. And they carry him away, that is they yank his subtle body and soul out of the gross body and they carry him to the place of Yamaraja. This is the story.
In fact, it's described that their transportation system is interesting. They have a road that apparently has a free end that is maneuverable. So it can be made to end at any given location. I guess it's sort of like those devices you see in airports, the movable ramp that comes down to the door of the airplane. One end is attached to the building, but the other end can be moved so that it fits the door of the airplane. So, in any case, this road is maneuvered so that the end of the road is right next to the place where the person is dying. And so when he's carried out of his body, he is then dragged down this road and it's described that fierce dogs are there and they mercilessly bite him. And also he undergoes all kinds of different sufferings of these totally merciless and horrifying entities drag him down this road into the presence of Yamaraja who then judges him for his sins. And you can be sure there's going to be severe judgment there because were that not the case he wouldn't have been dragged down that particular road.
So, if people thought this was actually real this might have a somewhat tempering effect on their activities. However, people don't tend to think that it's real. Earlier on in the Bhagavatam there was one verse in which I think Lord Kapila pointed out that one can see hellish conditions even in this world, therefore it shouldn't be so hard to believe that they exist in a subtle level of existence. And of course you can see that, if you look at the things that happen in this world. Look at the things that people do to one another in concentration camps and so forth. So, imagine what would happen if the type of thought processes that are involved in, let us say the administrators of concentration camps, were to be, let us say, allowed to function without restraint from a subtle situation. It seems that the situation in the hellish planets is that the persons who are taken there have already died. That is they've already lost their gross bodies and they're there in the subtle body. So in one sense everything that is happening to them is simply on the mental platform. However, that doesn't mean that it doesn't involve suffering.
In fact, it can involve a greater degree of suffering than experiences on the gross physical platform because gross physical experiences require that the gross physical senses are functional. If the experience becomes too severe then the gross physical senses cease to function and you simply become unconscious. And finally you can die and that's the end of the experience. But the situation in the hellish planets is that you can't escape the experience by dying because you're already dead. So anyway, interesting concepts.
So, in modern thinking of course, the idea that these things could be real has been rejected. Partially, this is the contribution of modern science, because in the worldview of modern science, there is no place for anything resembling hell. First of all, as far as science is concerned, there is nothing within the body that could survive physical death. So that means the only hellish suffering is that which we actually see here in this world. Once you're dead then your consciousness ceases to exist. So, this naturally is conducive to a philosophy of hedonism in which one enjoys the senses without restriction. So let's see, so those observations are there, hmm. Any questions or comments on this? Yeah.
Answer: Well, yes. What do those think is real who don't believe in the actual reality of heaven and hell and so forth? Well, there are various ways of approaching the matter. Most of the Hindus who don't believe in the literal reality of heaven and hell accept a concept according to which all the different descriptions in the sastras are merely symbolic and ultimately the symbols point to something that is totally indescribable. They call it Brahman, the impersonal absolute. And this Brahman cannot be comprehended or conceived of within the mind. It is indescribable, but the various symbols in different systems of religion somehow say something about it, even though in the ultimate analysis they don't say anything about it. Because it is completely beyond words. So, there's some idea like that.
This is supposed to be a very attractive idea. The concept is that somehow if you realize that this is true, then you realize that you are that absolute. It seems to me this is a little bit risky also because generally there's the impression that it's very nice to realize that you are that absolute. That's the general concept. There is talk about bliss and things like that. But if you realize that you are the One, then you experience bliss. But there's a problem and that is that bliss is also a word. And this One is very explicitly said to be beyond words. So, how do you know that that word applies to it? In fact, it can't, if it's beyond words. So, the idea is that you find that you are something of which we have no conception. Pardon me.
A: Yes, it's beyond words, beyond conceptions and you realize that you are that. So, that's one conception. In general, what you find is a conception according to which God becomes something extremely abstract. And there are varying ideas about whether consciousness exists after physical death. In fact, many people don't even discuss that topic. They consider that also to be sort of a useless topic of discussion. So basically you have voidism and impersonalism. Yeah?
A: Well, it was an interesting conference. There were... I didn't attend too many lectures, I sat in on a couple of them just to see what was being said. In one lecture, the person was a very prominent holy man, as he is called. I won't say who he was but he was going on and on about how even in this life you can realize whatever the ultimate thing is. And he was saying the universe is a hologram. This seemed to be an idea that he thought was quite interesting. It wasn't clear to me exactly what the relevance of that was. Basically, it indicates that things are unreal I suppose. Because a hologram after all, it's not really there but it looks like it's there. But he went on saying quite a number of things like this for some period of time and then when he stepped down from the podium the entire audience in this rather large hall stood up and gave him a standing ovation. Which I thought was interesting.
Then after that, an engineer stood up dressed in a business suit and introduced a yogi whose main claim to fame was that he had performed a lot of miracles. And I thought this was interesting, because on the one hand you have this very scientific approach according to which, after all, we know that these sastras are just mythological and we interpret everything in a very abstract and impersonal way. And ultimately our conclusion is totally one of something having to do with this indescribable absolute, whatever that may be. But in his introduction, this engineer in the business suit, who in fact was one of the organizers of the whole program, in introducing this yogi was mentioning all these miracles that the yogi had supposedly performed. And the idea was that he could produce ash from the palm of his hand and also rudraksa beads and other little items. And he had once been locked up in an airtight box for 40 days and emerged none the worse for wear. And he had stopped the rain at one point, on one occasion. And he healed people also from diseases. And that was the sort of… one was given a list of these different miracles that had been performed, and then was presented with this person as a great authority on spiritual life. So I thought; "hmmm." It seems that what we have here is that old-time religion, namely miracles, therefore, he is a holy man. At least he wasn't introduced as an incarnation. Sometimes that is done - incarnation of Visnu. That has been done from time to time. So, these things were going on. Yeah?
A: Pardon me. Go ahead.
A: Oh, at the Parliament of Religions? Well, yes, in fact the Greek Orthodox contingent walked out of the Parliament of Religions because they didn't want to share the same Parliament with the witches and neo-pagans who were there with very colorful robes. They had rune symbols on them, embroidered, and all kinds of things like that.
So yes, there were some.... Of course, the whole theme of the convention was sort of mutual harmony. That was the idea, based on the principle that it's all one ultimately. But there was a considerable amount of disharmony. I believe the Jewish contingent left because some Islamic fanatic was there who made a lot of anti-Semitic remarks. And, let's see, the Hindus and the Sikhs got into a verbal battle that had to be broken up by the police. That made the newspapers one day. Interesting point to make concerning this idea that through impersonal philosophy you can harmonize all religions. That concept was introduced by Vivekananda actually, in the first Parliament of the World's Religions. So a lot of people accept this. The basic idea behind it is that different religious systems seem to be superficially different because people have different names for God and different rituals and so forth and the different groups are saying my way is the only way and everyone else is of the devil and so on and so forth.
So the idea of how to resolve this is to say that, “Well, all these are systems of symbols that simply refer to the One.” And in this way everything becomes harmonious. It's all one. But the problem is that this denies 99 percent of the old systems of religion because they're not saying that. They're not saying that their systems of symbols are just, you know, abstract symbols that refer to the One. So therefore, instead of harmonizing all religions, what this does is, in a very sneaky way, replaces all the religions with one religion, namely the one that says that it's all one and that the One is indescribable and so on and so forth. And that's the one called Advaita Vedanta. So, it's sort of a sneaky maneuver. Yeah?
A: Well there are various motives for doing that. One reason for studying old books and publishing translations and so forth is that this is something that scholars do. And they don't have to believe a single word that is stated in those books. In fact, generally, they don't. It's considered very bad form for a scholar to actually believe any of those things, at least literally.
Rather they just, well, it's a sort of industry in which, you know, you turn out publications and give lectures and gain prestige amongst your scholarly colleagues, and you publish books. And ultimately you attain the goal of being enshrined in footnotes. This is the way of attaining immortality. Once your name is there in various footnotes it tends to remain for quite some period of time. Yeah?
A: Yeah... [unclear].
A: Well, basically what you have in the modern day and age is something that could be called the Enlightenment consensus. Basically, this dates back to the French Enlightenment in the 18th century and the essence of the Enlightenment consensus is that nothing exists except gross matter in three-dimensional space. And that's the sum total of reality. So, that means that anything that cannot be accommodated within that framework cannot exist. If hell exists, then that must also be a phenomenon of gross matter within three-dimensional space. And then the question is, well, where do you put it? Today scientists won't want to put it within the center of the earth because they'll say there's nothing down there but rock under very high pressure and temperature. Of course, the temperature is appropriate for hell, but there's no room to have, you know, Yamadutas and all that sort of thing, because they'd have to have gross physical bodies made of matter in three-dimensional space. So therefore all these things are dismissed as mythology.
So, practically speaking for people who follow the Enlightenment consensus, the content of these old books is simply not believable. They don't have to be told by some scientists to, you know, systematically debunk Vedic literature or something like that. They simply can't believe a word of it. It's simply not possible for them. So therefore they just take it for granted - this is all mythology. And if they're going to have any kind of spiritual idea at all that has to be so abstract that it in no way conflicts with the picture of matter within space. So, therefore, they have to adopt a view that makes God an extremely remote abstraction. And of course, that's exactly what happens with this process of neti neti. God becomes something indescribable, inconceivable, and definitely out of this world.
You see, there are different forms of atheism. One form of atheism is to say that God is totally transcendental. One might think, oh, so that God is transcendental is very good. God is transcendental. If you make God totally transcendental, then he has no contact with this world at all. And that's a form of atheism.
I recently read, by the way, an interesting observation made by Bhaktivinoda Thakur. This was in a book review that he was doing back in 1883, I believe. And he said there that the old monistic philosophy of Shankaracharya, when combined with modern science, has produced an extremely powerful combination. And the result of this was that in his day in India, if you tried to argue that God actually has form then that would simply be hooted down as a stupid idea. That's how he put it. But what he was referring to is that in the West, there's the idea that God is formless. Basically, the western idea of God is not quite the same as the Mayavadi idea, but it's very similar. Basically it's an impersonal conception: Something without form – it's sort of like willpower without any form whatsoever – this disembodied will, or something like that.
So, Bhaktivinoda Thakur said that this formless concept of God combined with modern science, which of course would insist on a formless conception of God when that was brought into India and that in turn was combined with the Mayavadi philosophy that was already there, that became a very powerful combination. And in fact that is dominating the world today. Practically nobody but except for a few fundamentalists can literally believe in spiritual form or for that matter, subtle form. And so therefore they reject all these different things in the sastras. Yeah?
A: Well, there's lots of symbolism in the stories, but they're referring to something that's actually real. That's the point. In other words, hell is not just a symbol for something else, but that exists. That's the point.
A: Oh, well there's so many things you could take as being symbolic. An example where you take something that is real is being symbolic would be to say that Kuruksetra, the battlefield of Kuruksetra really refers to the heart of the individual and the five Pandavas refer to the five senses and so on. So you assign a symbolic meaning to everything, which... that's a particular example that Srila Prabhupada explicitly condemned, for example. Now an example of something symbolic that is also real would be the demons who attacked Krsna in his childhood pastimes, because on the one hand, they are symbolic of different anarthas involved in the path of Krsna consciousness, but at the same time they were actual personalities who were actually attacking Krsna. So they're symbolic and they're real. There's nothing to say that something real cannot also be symbolic. That's perfectly possible. So, yeah?
A: This is all right, but it's actually a real story too.
A: That's what the Bhagavatam is saying. You see any of those things can be symbolic in various ways, but at the same time it can be real. It's perfectly possible - just because it's symbolic doesn't mean it isn't real. So that is a real history. Gajendra is an actual personality. He was a king named Indradyumna, who was cursed by Agastya Muni. He was cursed to become an elephant because he offended Agastya Muni, so he took birth as the elephant Gajendra on the Trikuta mountain in the ocean of milk. So the idea is the Trikuta mountain is actually a real place. There's actually an ocean of milk. Somewhat interesting form of milk, it's described that when this milk laps against the shores of the Trikuta mountain it produces jewels. So one could experiment with a large vat of milk.
A: This may be true. It may require the Trikuta mountain, not just some ordinary stone shoreline. But in any case, this is all quite real. So generally, that's the case in the Bhagavatam. Yeah?
A: Well, the answer to the first point is... the problem is not if you say that God is all pervading and so forth or is formless in some aspect. But the problem is if you deny the form of God - that's where the problem comes in. Now in the Bhagavatam it is said that there are three features of God: Brahman, Paramatma and Bhagavan. Well Brahman in particular is formless, that we know, and that's an aspect of God mentioned in the Bhagavatam. So to say that God in one aspect is formless, that's okay. But at the same time there's Paramatma and Bhagavan, and there you have form. So the problem is with those who will deny that God has form, and many will do so, that's the problem. If someone just says God has a formless aspect, we don't disagree with that. We also say that. But if someone says God has no form or any apparent form of God is material, then that's where the problem comes in. And in fact many will say this, they will say that Krsna's form is actually material. They will say it's a manifestation of sattva guna, but it's material. This is what they'll say. So from our point of view, that would be blasphemy because Krsna's form is actually transcendental. So that's the point.
So, as far as incomprehensibility is concerned, you see we're not saying that God is totally incomprehensible. In his wholeness, in his fullness, God is incomprehensible to us because our capacity to understand is finite and God is infinite so you can't put something infinite within a finite container. But at the same time we can understand something about God and the things that we can understand are very important. We can understand our eternal loving relation with Krsna. So that's something very definite and very real that we can understand. So it's where you say that you can't understand anything about God with words or concepts and so forth that a problem is created, because that actually cuts people off from God.
So, this philosophy of neti neti in which it is said that any expression of words that you come up with doesn't really apply to God because it is simply limited to material dualism. Then that would completely cut out all descriptions, for example of Krsna's pastimes, all descriptions of the relation between the soul and Krsna and so forth. But these are actually real descriptions relating to God and the relationship between the soul and God. So, these things are understandable. Of course, even there the understanding has to be approached in the appropriate way. To actually understand these things you have to approach through the process of devotional service. Only then will you really be able to understand. Otherwise, you will merely be confronted with some words.
Now, for example, the mundane scholars are in that predicament. They can write books about Krsna's pastimes and so forth and they do that but they don't understand what's being said. Because they don't enter into the description in the right spirit, which is through devotional service. So the point then is through devotional service, you can understand some very important things about God and these things can be conveyed through words. Yeah?
A: Yes one has to understand, though, how to unite the religions, you see. Yes the goal of uniting different religions and you know eliminating quarrels between different factions and so forth, this is very laudable. But what I was referring to was the idea of uniting the religions by saying that they are all referring to this basically formless conception of God. Better to unite all the religions by seeing how they all refer to God as God really is. That would be the better thing.
And in fact, there are many different religions that do maintain that God has form. Now to bring people together, even though they have different rituals, different names, and so forth for God and get them to understand how they are all worshipping God who actually does have form and to get them to all understand how they all have different descriptions of the spiritual world and also of the subtle heavenly realms and hellish realms and so forth. This requires greater effort. It's not an easy task, especially because of the difficulties in people's emotional nature which produces an impediment in this regard.
But that's what you really have to do to bring together religions. You can't just erase everything and say, well, it's all one, because that actually denies the explicit content of the different religions and doesn't really bring them together at all. It just superficially seems to bring them together. That was the point.
Well, it is now quarter of, which I think is our time limit. So jaya… all glories to Srila Prabhupada.