What is your vision of heaven? What images from scripture, tradition or your own personal experience describe it best?
Heaven or hell, a chimeric crutch to the atheist or agnostic, is the very meaning of life to so many of the faithful. For many others, heaven is a club with the most exclusive of membership–only if you worship their God, say their prayers and read their book. But as with any facet of faith, no one has returned from the heavenly abode with a video to post on Youtube–so any version must go.
A Hindu view to heaven, as with much else with this pluralistic tradition, has a plurality of interpretations. Where there is unity is that reaching heaven is predicated in all Dharma traditions on karma. The balance of positive actions–those performed in devotion to God, without expectations of results and with the well-being of others as the cause–lead the seeker on the path to their heaven.
Then the diversity of views begin. There are those who invoke the existence of Vaikuntha, where souls freed from the cycle of birth and death live in perpetual bliss serving their God. And then there are those that believe that when one is free of all desires for the world and free of karmic obligations, moksha or nirvana is attained. This is the state of absolute bliss where individual existence ends, and the individual soul merges with the supersoul from whence it came.
But there is also swarga, a wondrous locus of floating nymphs singing melodious divine songs, harmony and joy prevailing and a cornucopia of divine food and drink. Not very different than the heaven of Abrahamic traditions, perhaps, but again, access is open to all creatures based on karma, and not membership in any particular faith. And naraka, a hell is also described–every bit the abomination it is in other traditions. But the difference for Hindus is that these heavenly and hellish abodes exist, but they are temporary way stations on the way to moksha.
Those are the views, but I subscribe to another school of Vedanta scholars that propound what I call heavenly immediacy. Heaven and hell exist right here and right now. Why contemplate the existence of an unknown and unvisited destination, when both states exist within our minds? Mental peace, contentment and joy transform one to a heavenly existence even as they live in the here and now, and a restless, tortured and depressed mind cannot but place one in a very personal hell.
No greater heaven could be conceived than the bliss of a content, healthy and secure family and no worse hell imaginable than mourning the loss of a child or bankruptcy and ruin.
We try to explain too often the otherwise unexplainable–why does an innocent child suffer and why do the most undeserving tyrants enjoy untold riches and seeming happiness? The answer to me is simply that karmas of this life and those of the past bring us to those moments. And just as all grief must pass, worldly happiness lives on only as reminiscences as well. We must endeavor to stop focusing on promises of an afterlife–a fixation that justifies insanity for terrorists in our midst–knowing that this life alone carries promises of the heaven we incessantly pursue.
So it is with heaven and hell–they are way stations where we dwell on the path to our ultimate destination–eternal bliss. And all hells and heavens are temporary. Eternal bliss exists, but it cannot exist in this earthly abode.
No murals needed to spur my imagination, and singing sirens and harps won’t welcome me into heaven. Live this life to the fullest, live my dharma and renounce worldly wants and desires, and I can live in heaven here and now. Not immediate, this is the recipe for eternal gratification.
Views expressed here are the personal views of Dr. Aseem Shukla, and do not necessarily represent those of the University of Minnesota or Hindu American Foundation.