Ride to Heaven

World Mythology 14 Comments

Printed in Speaking Tree supplement, Times of India, 21 March 2010

Imagine a man who earns less than Rs. 100/- a day and supporting a family of four, watching his starving children and his unhappy wife day in and day out. Imagine him being given money and a purpose, one that will help him vent his rage against society and guarantee him a place in heaven. All he has to do is allow himself to killed. It is not suicide, he is told. Suicide is vile. It is a sacrifice, an offering of faith. This is your candidate for suicide bombing. By surrendering to the narrative presented before him, he suddenly becomes a significant member of society, respected by his peers and feared by his enemies. With this one decision, he suddenly matters. He is not one of the countless hungry faces in the fringes of society who have been forgotten.

What is interesting to note is the apparent faith of the suicide bomber in heaven, the place where he will go after death. One hears of terrorist bombers believing in a paradise where they will be welcomed and given seventy-two virgins to marry. Is that true? For the person who believes it, it is true. For the person who propogates it, it is true. For the rest, it is imagination. Heaven is not an objective reality. But is a subjective reality. And every culture has used the idea of heaven to influence the behavior of people in society.

In the 19th century, an idea was proposed, that during the crusades a band of murderers were given hashish, a drug that induced hallucinations. This gave them visions of paradise and gave them the strength to kill their feared enemies. Since hashish played a key role in turning them into lethal killers, they became known as assassins. Modern scholars feel this is orientalist nonsense. There was no such band of hashish-using assassins. But the idea of being seduced by a drug and a vision and a story rings true.

The ferocious Viking warriors of Europe believed that if they fought fiercely and died on the battlefield, beautiful women known as Valkyrie would carry them up to Valhalla, the hall of the gods, where they would be welcomed as heroes and allowed to drink and dine with the gods and fight beside them in their great celestial battles. It is this tale that made them ferocious warriors.

The idea of heaven motivates people across the world. The Chinese believed in Tian, heaven which had a Jade Emperor with his very own bureaucracy. They modeled their entire civilization to replicate the perfection of this world they imagined. Ancient Egyptians believed in the heaven of Osiris into which one gained access after death if one managed to perform the right rituals and preserve the body. This vision of heaven motivated them to build their tombs and their magnificent pyramids.

One can dismiss the idea of heaven as superstition and myth. This stems from the assumption that those who do not believe in heaven are rational, scientific and therefore superior. Look around you – there are millions of people who believe that if they earn the next million, they will be happy; if they lose the next inch around their waist, they will be happy; if they get the next distinction, they will be happy. Are these true? Or are these imaginary constructs? Different forms of heaven? How different is it from the heaven with the virgin wives? Let us ask ourselves: what is the heaven we sell to the soldier who stands cold and starving in the glaciers protecting our country while we sit at home reading our newspapers.

  • Amit

    Dear Doc,

    Well written. As usual. But the last line ins concerning,
    “Let us ask ourselves: what is the heaven we sell to the soldier who stands cold and starving in the glaciers protecting our country while we sit at home reading our newspapers.”

    We all do our bit, don’t we? Self criticims is good, but not at the expense of, appreciating one’s own role in the society and whatever miniscule contribution he/she accounts for.

    By the way, I do eagerly wait for your articles, and it is never in vain.

    Kind regards,


  • Akshay

    Brilliant point, subtly made. :-) Desh bhakti is, indeed, a higher form of belief in that there’s no exact promise of betterment that religion offers; there is no paradise to await, the paradise you’re looking for is right here.

    As with all your articles, yet another wow-moment. Keep up the good work!

  • $ujay

    Dr. Devdutt,

    For the sake of discussion:

    Different soldiers choose “different” types of heavens. After all soldiers are “humans” too!!!

    Philosophically, if one is “driven” by the construct of mind (I know, I am) then does it matter if he/she is serving country standing cold or not?

    Practically, Why serving the nation in cold on the glaciers deserves more “honor” than serving nation by other means?

  • Mohan Ramchandani

    Yet again a nice article. By the way is your
    book Mahabharta retold released in the market ?

  • Rashmi

    I agree with Amit on one point of self criticism. However, the aspect here is that proportion of contributions have to be increased. And why and how can be decided as per one’s discretion and self awareness, though!
    However, to stop the meaningless slaughter in the name of religious wars, we have to improve the social order and system. Its a collective effort and not one special super-human or a team of super-humans’ efforts.

    Else, if we are satisfied with the fact that we are ”contributing” however little…but still we are contributing | then situations would be as they are and would continue to degrade. Its a conscious decision. But then, in this fast paced materially inclined world, do the people have time???????

  • anushree


    Collective effort and collective things never happen. It is always individual effort.

    When joyous people get together, it becomes a joyous group. Even as part of project teams, one can see the structure as composed of individuals.

    We, as individuals, need to be the instrument of change; if not for anyone else, but only for ourselves.

  • Lostshouts

    I came across this recent article in the Telegraph which could lead to your Question of “the soldier who stands cold and starving in the glaciers protecting our country” @http://bit.ly/d4cisR and the same thing reminds of the instance about Ramakrishna and his reactions to Kamini and Kanchan.

  • Hardik Bhatt

    Dear Dr. Devdutt,

    It shows how even simple things are not easy to understand.
    Well written.

  • Lostshouts

    Hi Dr.Devdutt,
    Looks like you have got a contender here in Dr.Zahir Naik at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M3jRPDb2LXQ ,Looks impressive and I would like to know your feedback on his justification and stance on Jihad.


  • Abhay D

    I agree here. We have to respect the contribution of soldiers. All of us contribute but very few of us have ” you may die or injured during your work” as a part of our work contract. Respecting soldiers means respecting the nation and its sovereignty.

  • Mohan Ramchandani

    I was surprised to know that Laxman rekha
    was not mentioned in Valmik’s Ramayan.
    Who wrote about it ? Ved Vyas or Tulsidas ?

  • Satish

    The common assumption is that a suicide bomber is a guy who earns Rs 100 a day, but reality is something very different. Typical suicide bomber is educated and is most likely to come from middle to affluent class.

    • JC Moola

      You can see this radicalization in Bharat where people are bought for money by Christians and then later on go on to create problem, like in North East, Orissa etc. I am not saying that existence of such persons (poors who are buyable/ saleable) in society is good but that such persons are most vulnerable to evil schemes and designs. The latter type (educated) of guy comes across to explode because of his own ambitions. Education doesn’t make you wise; it only equips with a degree.