Vinaya is the author of "Amazing Alphabet" and "People's War in Nepal: Songs and Narratives From the Frontline."
Death and afterlife take significant place in Hindu theologies. Hindu philosophy is based on the concept of reincarnation and moving through successive births. However, the early Hindu scriptures do not mention reincarnation. According to the Riga Veda, when a person dies, he/she either travels to the realm of dead ancestors called pitraloka, netherworld, the world of water God Varun, or Swarga, the Kingdom of Gods. Vedas emphasize on performing rituals to make the existence of dead person comfortable in another realm. The post-Vedic literature mentions many afterlife planes of existence. The followers of Lord Vishnu are said to be living in Vaikuntha, the followers of Shiva are said to travel to Kailasha, and wrongdoers said to reside in the netherworld, which is ruled by Yama, the lord of death.
Hindu Death Rites
- Submerging in the sea or river
- Feeding to the scavengers
Cremation is very common death rite in Hinduism. Some Hindu communities also bury the dead; however, submerging in the sea or river and feeding to the scavengers are not practiced today.
Death and Afterlife
Death is a state of being lifeless. Afterlife – also called life after death, after death, or hereafter – is the interpretation of what happens to a person when he/she dies. Death and afterlife takes the center stage in most of the religions, faiths and mythologies around the world. In religious discourse, body and soul are thought to be different entities. Body is the physical aspect and soul is metaphysical aspect of human beings. Concept of afterlife is based on the assumption that when human beings die, only body dies, because the soul is eternal. After death, the soul travels to a different plane of existence. This new realm can be physical as well as transcendental.
There are two basic beliefs regarding afterlife.
- When a person dies, his/her soul will continue to exist in a different plane of existence, which is commonly termed as heaven and hell. Pious souls go to heaven and sinners will go to hell. Christians, Muslims, Jewish people, and some portion of Buddhists and Hindus hold this view.
- When a person dies, his/her soul will take another birth and continue to exist on the earth. The person’s soul will continue to cycle the process of birth and rebirth until the soul is liberated. It is said death ends all memories and the person born again cannot remember the previous life. This concept of reincarnation is widely held in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.
According to Hindu belief, only Yama, the Lord of Death and Shiva, one of the Gods in Hindu Trinity, can interfere with death. Yama and Shiva can bring the dead back to life or bestow immortality. Other Gods in Hindu pantheon can bless a person with good life and afterlife if they worship God and perform good deeds.
Death and Afterlife in the Garuda Purana
Puranas are the collection of myths, legends, history, and genealogy. There are 18 major Puranas and 18 minor Puranas. Some of the Puranas were composed between 350 CE to 750 CE, some between 750 and 1000, and some between 1000 and 1500. Puranas are dedicated to specific Gods and Goddesses, and the Garuda Purana is a comprehensive account of what happens to human beings after they die. When a Hindu dies, a priest reads Garuda Purana for initial 11 days in the house of the mourners. The Garuda Purana descries different types of hells, naraka in Hindu terminology, to punish the sinners.
Garuda, a mythical bird similar to eagle, is thought to be Lord Vishnu’s carrier. According to the Garuda Purana, when a person dies, Yama, the Hindu God of Death, sends his aides to fetch the human soul. Once in the realm of Yama, the soul undergoes trial. Chitragupta, the principle aide of Yama, reads the deeds of the person from a ledger. Yama analyses the deeds on the balance of sin and piety. If the piousness is heavier than the sin, the soul is sent to heaven, and if the person’s soul is heavy with sins, he/he is sent to hell. Depending on the righteousness of a person, the soul enjoys the heavenly bliss. In the hell, the soul goes through extreme torture, which includes incineration, boiling on hot oil, etc.
In another version of the story, Yama himself travels to the earth, on a water buffalo, to fetch the soul. He pulls soul from human body by a hook. Once the soul is out of the body, the person dies. After the soul leaves the body, it travels southward through dark tunnel. In Hinduism, south is the realm of dead souls. When the punishment for the sins or reward for righteousness ends, the soul is sent back to the earth to take a new life.
Death and Afterlife in the Yama Samhita
Samhita are the part of Vedic literature, which present wisdom of a certain sage or deity. Yama Samhita is attributed to Yama. In Yama Samhita, Yama is addressed as a teacher, who knows about death and afterlife. Ideas regarding death and afterlife expressed in Yama Samhita are identical to the philosophy in the Katho Upanishad.
Death and Afterlife in the Katho Upanishad
The Vedas are the most authentic scriptures in Hinduism. Most of the Hindu deities, rites and rituals are based on the Vedas. The Upanishads are post-Vedic theologies in Hinduism that deal with metaphysical ideas. The Upanishads were developed from analysis and interpretation of the Vedas. The Upanishads are believed to be written between 2nd century BCE to 5th century CE. According to the Upanishads, the universe is composed of five elements Earth, Fire, Air, Water and Sky (also called ether or consciousness). These five elements are also present in the human body. Five elements in human body are functional as long as the soul resides inside the body. The body becomes a corpse when soul leaves the body.
The Katho Upanishad is one of the thirteen known Upanishads. A chapter in the Katho Upanishad deals with death and afterlife. In this chapter, Yama explains what happens to human beings after he/she dies.
According to the story in the Katho Upanishad, wise sage Uddalack donated his all belongings to the needy people. His child-son Nachiketa argued that a son is also a father’s possession, so Uddalack must donate him to someone. In the bout of anger, Uddalack said, “I donate my son Nachiketa to Yama.” After the words were uttered, the father felt remorse, however, Nichekata readily travels to the realm of Yama. Yama-Nachiketa dialogue is recorded in the Katho Upanishad.
Yama says to Nachiketa: After death, earth element in human body (bones and flesh) is mixed with the earth, fire element in human body (heat/warmth) is mixed with universal fire, air element (breath) is mixed into the air, water element (bodily fluids) into water, and the consciousness into the ether/sky. The five elements in human body are mixed with five universal elements. This is rebirth.
Death and Afterlife in the Bhagavad-Gita
The Bhagavat-Gita is a chapter in Hindu Epic Mahabharata, where Lord Krishna preaches about death and afterlife. It is believed to be composed in c. 200 BCE. The contemporary Hindu belief of karma, reincarnation and salvation come from the Bhagavad-Gita. The Bhagavad-Gita is a dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna, one of the heroes of the Mahabharata, in verse. There are 18 chapters in the Bhagavad-Gita.
According to the Bhagavad-Gita, soul is the basis of life. As long as the soul is inside the body, an individual is living, when soul abandons the body, the individual is dead. Soul wears the body like the human beings wear clothes. Purpose of soul, called atma in Sanskrit, is to reach to the supreme soul, called parmatma in Sanskrit. Soul is indestructible; however, it can be liberated when it reaches the supreme soul. Until soul finds salvation, called Mokshya in Sanskrit, it continues to take birth.
The Bhagavad-Gita does not illustrate the concept of hell or heaven, rather emphasizes on reincarnation and karma. According to the Bhagavad-Gita, after death, human soul is bound to reincarnate. The new life is solely determined by the person’s karma. Literal meaning of karma is deed (all the actions a person performs in one lifetime). If a person has done good karma, he/she will have a comfortable life in successive birth, if he/she had done bad karma in previous life, he/she will suffer in his/her new life.
The Bhagavad-Gita says there are three dispositions of life, animal, human and divine. Karma determines whether the soul will take animal form, human form, or the divine form. If the person has done unpardonable sins in his/her previous life, he/she will be born as animal. If the soul takes the life of human being, the quality of life is determined by his/her previous life. If the person has been very good in his/her life, he/she will be born in spiritual realm. The soul is always moving in cyclic existence of different dispositions. It can be liberated only through the devotion to God and good karma.
Soul, as defined by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita, is eternal. Soul accumulates karma through good or bad actions performed by a human being. Good deed is referred as satkarma and bad deed as vikarma.
Hindu theologies also mention the realm of spirits. Those who are evil and vicious, or too much attached with their life on the earth are said to become spirits. Hinduism makes difference between good spirit and bad spirits. Bad spirits roam in cemetery and cremation grounds, whereas good spirits live in temples and religious sites.
Death and Afterlife in the Bhagavad Purana
The Bhagavad Purana is one of the 18 major Puranas. The main thesis of the Bhagavad Purana, which is dedicated to Lord Krishna, is the reincarnation of soul. When a person dies, his/her successive rebirths are determined by his/her karma. When a person performs good karma, he/she will have comfortable life in the next reincarnation, and people doing bad karma will have a life of suffering.
The state of a human mind, at the time of death, also determines the kind of life in the rebirth. According to the Bhagavad Purana, if a person was thinking about money when he was dying, he will be born in a businessman’s house; if the person was thinking about bad things about someone, at the time of death, she will have a miserable life; and if the person was thinking about animals at the time of death, she will be born as animal. Memories of past life do not carry over in successive births, however, tendency, called samskara, will pass on new life form.
The Bhagavad Purana says that the circumstances of death also determines afterlife. A soldier who dies in a battle will go to the realm of heroes. If a person dies of head injury, she will have mental problems in new life. If the person died while worshiping God, he will go the realm of pious souls.
The Bhagavad Purana also emphasizes on the rituals to be performed by the children of the dead person. If the children perform rituals for the dead parents, grandparents, their ancestors’ souls will experience pleasure in the another plane of existence.
© 2013 Vinaya Ghimire
prayash basnet on June 21, 2019:
Its a very good article about hindus views on deaths and life. thanks it provide a great deal of information.
manatita44 from london on January 05, 2015:
Very broad and nicely presented approach. Much peace.
honnaswamy on August 02, 2014:
where does the soul go and what are the functions of new birth
Thelma Alberts from Germany and Philippines on October 14, 2013:
Very interesting and engaging article of Hindus view about death and afterlife. I´m catholic and I believe in life after death. Thanks for sharing. Have a great week!
Vinaya Ghimire (author) from Nepal on October 11, 2013:
Writer Fox, it is believed Hinduism began in Asia Minor and was developed in Indian subcontinent. Early Hindus traveled to Indian subcontinent around 1000 BC. Hindu belief system incorporates the ancient religious practice indigenous to Indian subcontinent and the the belief that evolved in Asia Minor. The name Hindu derives from Indus river that was originally in modern day Pakistan.
Writer Fox from the wadi near the little river on October 09, 2013:
It's interesting to me that most cultures have a belief in life after death. I've never heard this Hindu definition before, so I'm glad I found your article. The Indians who have immigrated to my country are part of the lost Tribes of Israel and their religion, practiced in India at least since 724 BCE, has been Judaism. They don't speak much about the other religions practiced in India. I am now wondering what religions existed in India before Hinduism and Buddhism. Maybe you will write an article about that someday.
Vinaya Ghimire (author) from Nepal on October 08, 2013:
@Frank, thanks for reading and commenting.
I'm glad to hear that we have similar passion on religious studies. Thanks for appreciating my work.
LKMore01 on October 08, 2013:
We share a love of learning. Philosophy, religion, belief systems of the world have always fascinated me as well. To be a good student you must be curious and question. To be a great a writer you must do the same and you have intelligently accomplished expounding on the rich traditions of Hinduism. Comprehensive and beautifully written.
Frank Atanacio from Shelton on October 05, 2013:
wow what an interesting look on how Hindu views death.. great share my friend
Vinaya Ghimire (author) from Nepal on October 03, 2013:
@Flourish Anyway religion is not my expertise but this subject has fascinated me since I was a child. Thanks for giving me a new idea.
@Tillsontital, according to Hinduism, soul is liberated by doing good karma, being devoted to God and performing rituals. Thanks for appreciating my work.
@thumbi,thanks for reading.
@Suzettenaples, reincarnation is the central idea in Hinduism. As long as soul is not liberated, a man and woman will continue to take rebirths.
@saisarannaga, I take interest in religious studies.Thanks for appreciating my work.
@epbooks, most of the religions talk about afterlife. There are something science has not explained.
@mary, Hinduism says your thoughts at the time of death also affect the kind of rebirth. Thanks for reading.
@Robie, the basic concept of all religions and faith is one, to do good things so that God will reward you. Thanks for sharing your inputs.
@Elias,thanks for reading.
@amandajoy, I believe there are different roads, but the destination is one. Thanks for your in depth comment.
@Marcoujor, a very large portion of Hindu theologies are devoted toexplain death. Thanks for reading.
@always exploring, religions are just the paths, but not the destination. Thanks for your sincere comment.
@Nellieanna, Hinduism is not just a religion, it is a lifestyle. There are many theologies in Hinduism and sometime they seem to contradict. However, Hinduism also emphasize on applying the belief that suits you best.
@Happyboomernurse, I'm glad to know that you enjoy reading about cultures and religions. Thanks for your feedback.
I learn from you and you learn from me. Learning process never ends. Thanks for always being around.
@DDE, thanks for commenting.
@B.Leekley I'm sure Hindu scriptures will help you understand Hindu belief system.
views rearding afterlife is somewhat similar in all religions and faiths. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts on the topic.
@Sueswan, Hinduism does not say the same disease will grip when a person takes another birth, what it says is the person will go through similar kind of problem.
@Tobusiness, I understand the problem with commenting,therefore I deleted your other two comments. Thanks for taking time to read and comment.
@agusfanani, thanks for your comment.
agusfanani from Indonesia on October 03, 2013:
This is a very interesting topic and I've got more perspective about death and afterlife after reading it. I believe death is the beginning of real life in afterlife.
Jo Alexis-Hagues from Lincolnshire, U.K on October 02, 2013:
Vinaya, this is an incredible hub! A lot of what you've written here is new to me, although I can remember reading a little about it years ago. Many of my patients are Hindus so this hub will prove to be very useful and enlightening. Voting up and sharing.
Sueswan on October 01, 2013:
I found this a most interesting read.
"If a person dies of head injury, she will have mental problems in new life." Does that means if a person dies of cancer that they will have cancer in their new life?
Voted up, awesome and sharing
I hope you are having a great week my friend.
Rosemary Sadler from Hawkes Bay - NewZealand on October 01, 2013:
Very comprehensive and interesting article Vinaya. The Hindu view on death and afterlife is really not so different from many other beliefs. It might be thought of in a different way but all seem to agree that there is a life after death, whether it is moving on to a different plane or reincarnation. What I did find interesting was the way a person thinks as they die can affect there next life.
Religion is such a controversial topic but you manage to pull it all together without giving offence to anyone, not an easy thing to do but you did it very well which goes to show what a brilliant writer you are.
Thank you for sharing this article, I was totally involved from start to finish.
Brian Leekley from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on October 01, 2013:
Up, Useful, and Interesting. I hope I'll get around to reading the Hindu sacred texts you mentioned.
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on October 01, 2013:
An interesting view on Hindu View on Death and Afterlife a very useful and an informative hub. A great meaning to a unique culture.
Faith Reaper from southern USA on September 30, 2013:
Thanks for the comprehensive article here on Hindu beliefs. Very fascinating indeed. You are always educating us on different cultures and beliefs, which is why it is so great to be a part of the HP community, as we are always learning from each other.
Have a great week,
Gail Sobotkin from South Carolina on September 30, 2013:
Very comprehensive and interesting article about the Hindu view on death and afterlife.
I personally believe in life after death and always enjoy reading about how different cultures/ religions view these important topics.
Thanks for sharing this info.
Voted up across the board except for funny.
Nellieanna Hay from TEXAS on September 30, 2013:
An outstanding presentation of what seems to be an intricate and interwoven belief system - or is it systems? They seem to share common elements, yet the vary dramatically in many ways. Perhaps that is one of the main characteristics of any one religion or of many! It's almost like there is something at the table for every taste. One cannot help but respect the heritage, tradition, and beautiful art that enhance it all! Thank you for sharing this insight!
Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on September 30, 2013:
What can i say? There are so many different beliefs. We as a people have our own belief systems, due to teaching. I do think there is a new beginning after death. The trouble i have is the multi beliefs, they can not all be right, or can they? God looks within the heart. It matters not whether we are Christian or Hindu if we love and give of ourselves, we are God minded. You always make me think outside the box Vinaya. Thank you for a very informative hub...
Maria Jordan from Jeffersonville PA on September 30, 2013:
A fascinating and educational read, Vinaya.
It is interesting to think that the state of the human mind at the time of death can determine the kind of life in rebirth.
Excellent and enlightening. Voted UP and UABI. Hugs, Maria
amandajoyshapiro on September 30, 2013:
Hinduism is full of rich stories. Your hub on the Hindu afterlife is an excellent resource. As you explain the soul's journey and the figures involved in the process, there are similarities with other world religions. Especially beautiful were the corresponding art works you posted.
Elias Zanetti from Athens, Greece on September 30, 2013:
Great hub on Hindu beliefs about death and afterlife. Although I wasn't that familiar with the subject I did enjoyed reading your article!
Roberta Kyle from Central New Jersey on September 30, 2013:
I find it fascinating that virtually all religions recognize, in one way or another that death is not the end and that there is a piece of each of us that is eternal. I don't know much about the Hindu view of these things, but find nothing that I disagree with in your hub, and much fascinating information that I did not know.
For myself, I know that in some way the end of life is not the end of existence, but as to the particulars, I guess I'll just have to find out when I get there. Until then, I choose to live as fully and deeply as I can and not too worry too much about what happens after I die. Thanks for a very enjoyable and informative read, as always. Voted up and up again :-)
Mary Hyatt from Florida on September 30, 2013:
Thanks for another in depth Hub. One of the points you made that I found interesting (among others), that what a person was thinking at the time of dealth can influence the life of that person in their afterlife. Voted UP and shared.
Elizabeth Parker from Las Vegas, NV on September 30, 2013:
Great hub! I'm sometimes undecided on what I believe, however, I do hope there is an afterlife for sure!
saisarannaga from Chennai in Tamilnadu, India. on September 30, 2013:
You have dealt so deeply about the mysteries contained in the Veda, Upanishad and Puranas. Your hub is research oriented and dealt exhaustively the after death experiences of the soul according to various scriptures. I really appreciate about your deep interest in the metaphysical disciplines! Thank you for the fine treat!
Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on September 30, 2013:
Wonderful article on Hindu beliefs. I enjoyed reading this so much because I know on the surface what reincarnation is, but I didn't know all the specifics and the different levels or relms of death in the Hindu beliefs. This is comprehensive and complete and I feel for the first time I understand Hindu beliefs. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us. The images and photos are beautiful and wonderful also. Great article!
JR Krishna from India on September 30, 2013:
I am familiar with the belief system you have explained here.
Still it was engaging to read from the top to the bottom of the hub.
Mary Craig from New York on September 30, 2013:
What a great learning experience this hub is Vinaya! You have covered much and given us much to think about. As Flourish said, I like your comparisons as they make it somewhat easier to understand.
You said "The person’s soul will continue to cycle the process of birth and rebirth until the soul is liberated." How is the soul liberated? By priest reading Purana or by deeds of their children? So many interesting facts Vinaya, I will have to read again for sure!
Voted up, useful, awesome, interesting and shared.
FlourishAnyway from USA on September 30, 2013:
Very interesting discussion of Hindu beliefs, as I have no exposure to this belief system and appreciate the learning opportunity. Thanks for sharing. I'd love to see a hub with major religions and comparisons and contrasts. Just an idea in case that is your expertise.