Krishna explains the 3 gateways to hell in Bhagavad-gita 16.21.
What will happen when you die? Is there life after death? If so, what destinations are there for those who die in a human body? In the sacred texts of the Vedic tradition, we find detailed information on this which I will summarize here.
There are four possible destinations after a human death. Souls enter material bodies, inhabit them, and then leave. When a soul enters a body, we call it conception. When a soul leaves a material body, we call it death. But for the soul, there is no birth or death; it is eternal. When trapped in a material body, the soul forgets its true nature. Its consciousness is covered, and it identifies with the body.
The first and most cherished destination after death is to attain liberation (moksha in Sanskrit) by developing pure love of God (prema). Since the soul is trapped in the cycle of birth and death (samsara), the very goal of yoga is to free ourselves from this painful cycle and go back home, back to our original personal existence in God’s abode. Those who actively dedicate themselves to finding their true spiritual nature can achieve this. This is the ultimate purpose of human life – the chance to seek and attain enlightenment. For one who reaches this state, there will never again be another birth.
The second destination is a birth in the celestial planets of the Universe. According to Vedic cosmography, the Universe has all kinds of civilizations, with different species of advanced beings. Many of these have a much more advanced standard of comfort to what we experience here on Earth. The texts speak of pleasures ten thousand times superior to the best of what we can get here. Longevity, beauty, immense and varied sensory gratification are granted to these denizens. This kind of birth is achieved by those who have accumulated good karma as a human, by dedicating their lives to the good of others, doing their dharma and being ethically and morally strong. Since this destination is just one of millions of possible births in the Universe, it’s also temporary and after death as a celestial being, the soul again has to take birth as a human on Earth.
The third possibility is to immediately take birth as a human, again. This is good because it gives that person another chance to seek enlightenment, but it’s bad because it means that soul did not use its previous human life fully.
Lastly, the soul can take birth in the millions of other animal and plant species. This happens when a human uses his or her life very poorly, accumulating negative karma and cultivating a bestial mentality. In other words, that person failed to make use of the rare human birth and behaved just as an animal, with no thought to spiritual evolution.
For those who did not become enlightened here are also two unfortunate side journeys, two temporary states or experiences which the soul may have to undergo: being a ghost and going to hell.
Ghosts are the subtle bodies of the dead, usually humans. When a human dies and isn’t ready for it, maybe due to attachment, anger, or a desire for revenge, its willpower delays it from moving on to the next birth. It gets stuck between bodies. Because the subtle body is perfectly identified with the biological body, the person maintains the same form as its now dead biological body. When that attachment, anger, or desire for revenge wanes, the hold of that person to its previous incarnation ends, and the forces of nature carry the soul to its next birth.
Hell is a place a human soul gets dragged to work off some seriously bad karma. Hell in Vedic literature is described as a place with hundreds of thousands of different virtual reality zones, each meant to impart on the wayward soul a lesson, to help it overcome a particularly evil trait it has developed. Hell has absolutely nothing to do with religious choices or ignoring God. It’s strictly a type of morality spa or intense sensitivity training to teach the person to avoid the crudest kinds of evil behavior, such as boiling animals alive. After some time in hell, the soul moves on to its next birth, usually an animal or plant incarnation.
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Watch my video on this topic here.
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