Q. 350 – Heaven and Hell

Q: In Advaita, it is said that the heaven and the hell are mithya. They are just ideas for bhakti-natured people. But Advaita says this world is mithya too. So even though heaven and the hell are mithya, we are still gonna go there just as this world is mithya but it is still real enough for us? I mean the idea of heaven and hell is mithya but it is still as real as this world. So they indeed exist just as this world. Is that the correct interpretation?

A (Ramesam): Firstly the simple and straightforward answer: Yes, you are right, heaven and hell are mithya and are ideas for bhakti-natured people, in the sense that they are experienced by the people who believe in them but these loka-s (worlds) lack a substantive reality by themselves. However, we have to note that they are the second degree imaginations – imaginations of the already imaginary worldly people! By this logic, perhaps they will be strictly comparable to dreams in their order of reality. (The word mithya includes both the empirical (vyavaharika) reality and the dream world (prAtibhAsika) reality).

 We may also appreciate that Sankara did not himself use the word mithya very much in his writings and this word seems to have gained more popularity amongst the present day advaitin-s.

 Having said that, we may appreciate that, while accounting for the creation, fourteen worlds are described in the scriptures.  Our earth is almost at the center with seven worlds below us and six worlds above us. The worlds above us can be said to be different levels of heaven and those below us are those of the hell. Depending on the particular Godhead worshipped by a devotee, the highest enjoyable heavenly world is described as brahmaloka, vishnuloka, shivaloka, satyaloka and so on before the final attainment of salvation. In addition to motivating a seeker on the devotional path towards the cultivation of a disciplined behavior and benevolent lifestyle, these worlds also serve the purpose of being regulatory mechanisms in the control and management of inter- and intra- societal interactions of the people in general through the law of karma. Hence such of those advaitin-s who believe in karma theory also contribute to the concept of heaven and hell.

 While elaborating on the origin of the individual (jIva), Sage Vasishta explains in the fourth chapter, Sustenance, in Yogavasishta how the imaginary fourteen worlds come into being:

 “First there was the Power of Pure Consciousness.   An intention (sankalpa) to create arose in that Power of Consciousness.  The reason for this thought is the residual impressions of actions of the earlier Kalpa (Kalpa refers to a cycle of 4.32 billion years).  These impressions could be many, variegated and very startling.  Therefore, it is difficult to state decisively how and when this ‘thought to create’ arises.   Elders state that it happens randomly (without expectation, “yadruchaya”). The Pure Consciousness associated with the intention of creation is called Jiva

“When the intention condenses, it gives rise to a vibration referred to as a manifestation of “I” in Jiva.  This is called “Throb of Self or I-consciousness.”  It gets further dense to become mind.  The mind serves as a container to help Jiva to manifest himself.

“The mind in association with the Jiva, fantasizes this whole world in no time, like building castles in the air.  In this fantasy, mind pretends to have lost first its state of Pure Consciousness and then its state of being the seer (drigrupa). 

“The Jiva in that state does not comprehend his own Pure Consciousness.  Pure Consciousness appears as “vacuum” to him.   He calls it space (akasa). 

“The jiva experiences, under his power of intention, a creation as if a creator, a four-faced Brahma, is creating it.  Then the fourteen worlds (lokas) come up.  Where from have all these come?  Please observe. They have originated from the intention of the Jiva i.e. the mind of Jiva!”

To answer the last part of your query, one may say, based on the above discourse of the Sage, that the concepts of heaven and hell may not be taken to be of the same order of reality as that of this world.

A (Ted): As long as you take yourself to be a jiva, an individual person, you will both enjoy and suffer according to the fate of that apparent entity.  The important thing to understand, however, is that the apparent entity is just that – apparent.  In other words, the person you take yourself to be is not the real you.  As scripture states and discriminative self-inquiry into your own previously unexamined – or incorrectly analyzed – experience corroborates, you are whole and complete, limitless, actionless, attributeless, eternal, ever-present, all-pervasive, non-dual awareness.


 You are satyam, eternal – meaning beyond both time and space altogether – and inviolable being.  You are what is real.  Satyam, what is real, has a completely different ontological status than mithya, what is only apparently real.  In other words, the real and the apparent exist in two wholly different orders of reality.  Such being the case neither has any affect on the other.  Though all objects existing within the apparent reality, indeed the arena of the apparent reality itself, depend upon what is real – i.e. awareness, you – for their existence, what is real – i.e. awareness, you – are completely self-dependent and remain ever free of whatever appearances manifest on both the gross and subtle levels of the apparent reality.


 While heaven and hell apparently exist – indeed three-fourths of the Vedas (the whole of the karma kanda) are dedicated to instructing the apparent individual how to secure a stay in heaven and avoid a visit to hell – neither has any association with satyam.  So while the apparent individual may enjoy or suffer either experience, you will not.  For you there is no heaven or hell.


 In order for the mind to grasp this truth, it is important that it understand the fundamental nature of experience and its relationship to desire and fear, attraction and aversion.  Experience, which is entirely within the realm of mithya, is value neutral.  It is not “good” or “bad,” “right” or “wrong,” “pleasurable” or “painful” in itself.  Dharma, or universal law, which is a concept essentially denoting the chain of cause-and-effect that maintains the sound working order and “well-being” of the myriad component parts that constitute and contribute to the entire functioning “mechanism” that is the apparent reality, does deliver the experiential consequences of any given action according to the design of the machine, but these consequences are not based on value judgments. 


 For example, if someone smokes a pack of cigarettes a day for forty years and ends with a case of lung cancer, it is not because inhaling the smoke of burning vegetable matter is inherently “wrong” or “bad.”  It is simply the inevitable eventual consequence of violating physiological dharma by subjecting one’s biological system to an continual barrage of tar and other carcinogenic substances, only a limited amount of which the design of that system gives it the ability to process and purge before it begins to break down.  


 The neutrality of dharmic law would seem to enter an apparent grey area in the context of morality and ethics, but even with regard to actions that violate moral and ethical codes of conduct its essential impartiality holds true.  For example, while no one would say that rape is anything less than an atrocity, the horror of the act is intrinsic to neither its physical, emotional, nor intellectual character.  If the combative – even violent – nature of the interaction between the two bodies were inherently bad, then many sports, intense forms of consensual sex, surgery, self-defense, etc. would be criminal; it the angry and/or fearful emotional tenor of the situation were in itself bad, then a parent angrily disciplining a child’s inappropriate behavior or fearing for the child’s safety would be corrupt; if the intellectual intent to harm another or too satisfy one’s desire for power were fundamentally bad, then righteous warfare and the will to lead would be depraved.  The immorality of rape is rooted in its violation of universal, and in most cases societal and personal values.  Because everyone values the health of the body, heart, and mind, so to speak, the intentional violation of all simultaneously is considered a deplorable act, far more so than an act that violates either one or both of the other two and/or is tempered by a less malicious intent or augmented by a benevolent one.


 The basic point is that actions, events, situations, circumstances, and people have no fundamental nature themselves.  Their character is determined by the values that color the lens through which any given individual or group of individuals view them.


This means that the only significance the concepts or experience of heaven and hell have are with reference to the apparent person.  The jiva may very well experience these states, but again you will not. 


 Let us say then that, from the jiva’s point of view, the interpretation you offer concerning the possibility of experiencing heaven and/or hell would, according to reason, seem to be relatively true, though I must admit that I have no recollection of having visited either “place” myself nor have I heard anyone else offer an irrefutable account of their having done so.  Situated smack dab in the middle it, however, is a glaring point of confusion that betrays the fundamental ignorance – not stupidity, mind you, but mistaken understanding of the nature of reality and your own true identity as absolute awareness – out of which the entire issue arises. 


 You conclude that since the apparent individual, heaven, and hell all fall into the category of mithya, the jiva is “still gonna go there.”  This deduction reflects an error in understanding that begs for clarification in terms of both you as absolute awareness – assuming, that is, that you do want to get clear about who you really are – as well as the apparent individual for whom, it seems at this point, you mistake yourself.


 As absolute awareness, you are all-pervasive.  There is nowhere you can go where you are already not present.  You are the non-dual self, and every object – i.e. persons, places, things, sensations, feelings, and thoughts – that appears in awareness, in you, is nothing other than you.  We might almost say that everything you experience is you, but that is not precisely true.  Due again to your all-pervasiveness, you are technically not an experiencer.  All experiencing requires a subject and an object, but since you are non-dual no such split actually exists.  That is, it exists in the sense that you experience it, but it has no essential reality.  It is nothing more than an optical illusion, so to speak, produced by ignorance, or the deluding power of maya.  At any rate, the point is that you remain unchanged, unmoved, unaffected by any and all apparent phenomena that arise, abide, and subside within your being.  Hence, you don’t experience heaven or hell; you don’t go anywhere.


 From the apparent individual’s point of view, as we have acceded, you may very well experience heaven or hell, but you do not go there.  The fact is that there is no “there” where the apparent person could go.  The entire apparent reality, including the apparent person, is nothing more than an apparition within the scope of absolute awareness.  We might liken it to a dream or an elaborate holographic movie or video game within which you find yourself identified with a particular character.  Believing yourself to be this character, you feel as though you are the one thinking the character’s thoughts, feeling the character’s feelings, and executing the character’s actions.  You are under the impression that the world in which the character is situated is real.  And when the character “changes locations” – say, for instance, takes a plane ride from New York to London – you are fully convinced that you as the character have moved.  But have you gone anywhere?  Obviously, the reality of the situation is that the composition of the “picture” that includes both the character you take yourself to be and the apparent world “surrounding” him or her has simply transformed.  No one has gone anywhere.


 As hinted at earlier, the notion that you can go anywhere betrays the underlying assumption that duality is a reality, and that you are separate from the ever-present awareness within whose scope the apparent individual you take yourself to be is appearing and without which your erroneous identification with the apparent individual could not even take place.  This underlying assumption is, of course, the fundamental problem that causes all of the apparent individual’s existential angst.  And it is out of this angst, essentially the feelings of incompleteness and inadequacy that to one degree or another plague all jivas, arise all the desires and fears and their consequent judgments that color the apparent individual’s experience of life and, thus, cause him or her to “visit” heaven or hell, whether that be in terms of his or her here-and-now present circumstances or in terms of some supposed afterlife.


 The truth is that you are limitless, attributeless, absolute, ever-present, all-pervasive, non-dual awareness.  When you illumine the macrocosmic gross, subtle, and causal bodies, the universe appears and within it its microcosmic reflection in the form of the mind-body-sense complex that comprises the apparent individual person with whom you as absolute awareness, when under the spell of your own deluding power of maya, identify and thereafter take yourself to be. 


 When you, through the mechanism of the mind-body-sense complex that is the apparent individual, recognize your true identity and that understanding registers in the mind of the apparent individual, the apparent individual seems to gain the knowledge of its true identity – I say “seems to” because the mind-body-sense complex is actually nothing more than an aggregate of gross and subtle matter and is insentient but for its being illumined by you, and therefore it is actually you recognizing yourself through this mechanism.  Thereafter, the apparent individual’s desires, fears, and judgments begin to slacken their heretofore-compelling hold over him or her, and he or she simply relaxes into life and takes whatever comes with an attitude of forbearance if not outright gratitude, knowing that the banquet of agony and ecstasy that had in the past wetted his or her insatiable appetite for experience is not the source of fulfillment it promises to be.


 Though early in this inquiry I stated that because satyam, the real, and mithya, the apparent enjoyed two wholly separate orders of reality, neither could affect the other, it is nevertheless the case that when self-knowledge dawns in the mind of the apparent individual there ensues a qualitative shift in his or her experience of life.  This shift toward peace and happiness does not define self-knowledge or constitute a state of being that defines awareness and in which one must become permanently established.  It does, however, lighten one’s load, so to speak. 


 At this point, the appearance and experience of heaven or hell is of little significance.  Come what may, none of it affects me.

A (Meenakshi): //**In Advaita, it is said that the heaven and the hell are mithya. **//

Anything created is mithyA, ‘seemingly real’ but actually insubstantial. In other words, anything within the framework of time and space is mithyA.

//**They are just ideas for bhakti-natured people. But Advaita says this world is mithya too. So even though heaven and the hell are mithya, we are still gonna go there just as this world is mithya but it is still real enough for us?**//

 I shall use the words ‘svarga’ and ‘naraka’ for heaven and hell respectively as heaven and hell have a theological connotation.

When we are dreaming, the dream world is true. We know the dream world to be mithyA only after waking up. When we are awake, we consider the world we perceive as truth. When we wake up to self knowledge, we know this perceivable world to be mithyA.  Vedanta declares the creation as mithyA which includes svarga and naraka.

 //** I mean the idea of heaven and hell is mithya but it is still as real as this world. So they indeed exist just as this world. Is that the correct interpretation?**//

The point is not to find out if they really exist or not; or, if yes, how great svarga looks. Are there really celestial dancers there? Etc. The point is: ‘Since it is mithyA, do not strive for it. Go for the highest’. Self knowledge is what will liberate a person. Any other pursuit is finite and will give only finite results.

In the Bhagavad Geeta it is clearly stated that even if a person goes to svarga, he has to come back once his store of puNyA gets over (something similar to modern day visa status). Hence, when svarga is mentioned as mithyA, it is only to drive home the point that – ‘What you think as the ultimate is also not the ultimate, as it is finite, so please shun it and take to self knowledge which alone will liberate’.

Also, shri ShankarAchArya has mentioned that svarga is what we experience as peace in the mind and naraka is the negativities in the mind. Whether there is an outer svarga or not is immaterial; ‘Strive to remove negativities in the mind and attain peace here and now’, is the message. Do not wait for a travel elsewhere for peace. It can be known here and now.

A (Martin): This world is not “real enough for us”; it « appears » real from a state of

 (primordial) ignorance and within the empirical realm (vyavaharika), characterised by belief in duality (‘me’ and the world, ‘me’ and God or the Absolute – Atma-Brahman). Its (the world)  relative reality (mithya) may be ‘converted’ into true knowledge once the knowledge  of the identity of Atma-Brahman and the jiva (apparent individual) arises. It is then seen that ultimately there is no essential difference between mithya and the Reality on which it (they) are totally dependent. The ‘for us’, and all multiplicity, disappear.

 Phenomena (appearances) – on which the notion of mithya  depends – disappear along with ‘mithya’, and only the One reality remains. It is not that phenomena are converted into noumena in that moment of awakening, but that there is nothing other than noumenon (God or Reality – pure Consciousness), where the notions of singularity and plurality no longer apply.

 The means towards this understanding are studying the revealed texts (Upanishads, shruti), a prepared mind and strong desire for liberation (moksha) or ultimate truth (« the truth will make you free »). The Pramana-s (means of valid knowledge) are mere tools.

 Heavens and Hells are mithya also, but the doctrines embodying them, along with sacrificial practices, became only symbolical from the appearance of the Upanishads on. Cosmological doctrines are quite old, even from the time of the Rig Veda, and have persisted throughout. On the other hand, transmigration (a cosmological doctrine intimately related to the different realms) became widely accepted only since the Bhagavad Gita became popular around the 1st century CE.

 In any case, as from this newer tradition,  there is ample opportunity to improve one’s lot through good behaviour, thus landing, after the body’s demise, into any one of the several heavens, including the Svarga*, the Vaikunta heaven and the highest one, Brahmaloka, the abode of the gods and purified souls.

  *This is a “Good and nice” kind of temporary heaven where the soul enjoys  all its Punya (meritorious) karma before attaining either moksha, or  rebirth according to its karma.

A (Sitara): True, heaven and hell are mithyA just as this world is, so, yes, they have the same status of reality as this world or as the jIva has. The teaching of Advaita Vedanta is that after death of the gross body and before reincarnation the jIva goes through an interim existence in subtle worlds. This existence is for the same reason as reincarnation: to exhaust karma-s.

 Some karma-s cannot be exhausted in our gross world, so they are exhausted in subtle worlds. If these subtle worlds are suited to exhaust puNya they are called heavens, if they are suited to exhaust pApa they are called hells. The difference between reincarnation and an existence in one of these subtle words is that in the former case you do not only exhaust karmas (prArabdha karma) but also create new karmas (AgAmin karma).

A (Dennis): Apart from the comment about ‘bhakti-natured people’, what you say is correct. There are many loka-s in scriptural Advaita, not just the world, heaven and hell. But all are mithyA. This does not mean they are unreal. It means that, whilst you still believe in duality, you are effectively bound by all the seeming dualistic aspects. Your subtle-causal bodies are doomed to rebirth (saMsara), in accordance with the principle of karma, until you realize that you are not those bodies. This may include periods in heaven or hell as well as periods as plant or animal. So goes the empirical cycle of birth and death.

Of course, who-you-really-are is none of these and none of them ‘really’ exists (as something separate). Everything is name and form of brahman. And you are That.

3 thoughts on “Q. 350 – Heaven and Hell

  1. Ramesam: « heaven and hell are mithya and are ideas … [they] lack a substantive reality by themselves… they are the second degree imaginations – imaginations of the already imaginary worldly people! »

    This has reminded me of an unpublished essay I wrote in 1987 on Plato’s epistemology. Two important concepts in this Greek philosopher are: ‘image’ and ‘imitation’. One paragraph of my essay reads:

    ‘Since an image (eikon) is “less” than what it represents or symbolizes, the obvious conclusion is that the external world is less real than the world of Ideas or archetypes (uncreated Intellect or Logos). In turn, images of the former (reflexions in water, mirages, etc.) are even les real, less “substantial”, more prone to error by judgment based on them. Both sets of eikones (images and images of images) constitute the world of appearances, the phenomenal world.

    For Plato, painting, sculpture and all the arts are in the same category; as imitation (mimesis) they are at a third remove from reality, as are words, language… and mythology (heavens and hells, etc.). (cf. ‘The myth of the Cave’, by Plato).

    • Many Thanks for the kind observations.

      It looks to me from what you say that primacy is given to the ‘mind’
      which projects a world as an ‘icon’ of itself; hence world is of an inferior level of reality compared to the mind.

      It, then, is very much like the pecking order spelt out in Bhagavad-Gita: (III – 42):
      the objects (world) –> sense organs –> mind –> buddhi –> Consciousness.

      Whose projection should we say is the dream world then?

      Maybe I have to rethink the issue.


  2. Advaita: objects (world) –> sense organs –> mind –> buddhi –> Consciousness. (Ramesam)

    Plato: Sense impressions  objects (“name and form’’)  mind (different faculties, including reasoning)  Intellect (Nous = ‘buddhi’) ’The Good’ (supreme Idea) to be contemplated: Absolute reality (ananda-ananta?).

    NB. ‘Ideas’ are not “ideas” or mentations, but ingredients in the Cosmos as its constitution or immutable order. Like ‘cosmic laws, or blueprints coming from a supreme Intelligence (Ishvara or Demiurge).

    Both accounts are very close. Men, generally, only see shadows or images, not reality itself.

    ‘Ideas’ are multiple – realm of Being (Demiurge or Ishvara).

    “The Demiurge (also a subject) is introduced by Plato in order to account for both the order and the chaos of the Universe and primordially how order can be generated out of chaos, the Cosmos being, in other words, a combination of Reason and Necessity. The Demiurge (Creator God) can be related to as a personal God; man, also a subject or person (his soul in some sense divine), is also capable of creation, in his own way. The Demiurge is thus an intermediary (cause) between the supreme (supra-formal) Reality and the phenomenal world, in the same way as man occupies a place in between both worlds, even though at a lower level” — From my essay (opus cit). [This should now be seen as from vyavaharika]

    “As examples of Divine mimesis (God’s joke) we have shadows, dreams, and mirages” [pratibhasika]. (ibid).

    “… wisdom begins its life in the human spirit coincident with the mind’s passage from the ‘dream state’ of the multitude to the waking condition of the philosophic searcher. The dream state… is the ‘mistaking of resemblance for identity, confounding sensible realities with real Being.” (From ‘Therapeia’, Cushman.

    I think this answers your question about the source of dreams.

    Plato is generally seen as the greatest Western philosopher (others may think Aristotle was so), only comparable to Shankara (my view).

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