First City, New Delhi, Novemeber 2003.
Yama, is the Hindu god of the dead. The story goes that he was the first man on earth. His twin sister Yami was the first woman. According to the Rig Veda, she approached him to make a child. He refused this incestuous union on moral grounds. So he died childless. This meant he was trapped forever in the land of the dead for only an offspring left behind in the land of the living can help the dead return to the land of the living by producing children of their own and rotating the wheel of rebirths.
Yama became king of the dead. Whenever a person died, he arrived in Yama’s kingdom where Yama determined the biology and circumstances of his next life based on the karmic balance sheet maintained by his accountant Chitragupta. Yama rides a buffalo, that is moving slowly but surely and single-mindedly towards us from the moment we are born. The distance between Yama’s buffalo and us is determined by the karmic balance sheet in Yama’s hand. Ultimately, his noose will claim us. We will die. All of us. King or beggar. Yama carries out his duty so impersonally that he is renowned as Dharma, god of righteous conduct, too.
Yama ensures the cycle of rebirths rotates in a determined rhythm in the Hindu world. Buddhists and Jains also believe in the cycle of rebirths though the details vary. All three believe it is possible to break free from the cycle of rebirths through devotion according to Hindus, meditation according to Buddhists and austerity according to Jains. This leads to the Hindu moksha, the Buddhist nirvana and the Jain kaivalya.
Cultures did not see death in the same way. The Greeks also had a god called Hades who ruled the land of the dead. But he acted differently. When a Greek man died, he was cremated with a coin in his mouth and honey bread in his hand. The coin was payment for Charon who ferried his ghost across Styx to the land of the dead. The bread was to distract Cereberus, the three headed dog who guarded the gates of the netherworld. Inside, the dead man was tried by three judges. If he was good, he was sent to joyful Elysium; if he was bad, he was punished in terrible Tartarus; if he was neither good nor bad, he was sent to the unexciting Asphodel fields. And in these places the dead lived for all eternity.
The Egyptians believed that death was followed by an eternal life in the land of Osiris provided one’s body was intact (a belief that led to the practice of mummification), one knew the way and the spells needed to overpower potential hurdles in the path (a belief that led to the production of the hymns in “book of the dead”) and one’s heart was good (a belief, that expressed itself in the story of the dead man’s heart, was weighed against Maat’s feather of goodness by Thoth, the divine scribe).
The Israelities, who escaped from Egyptian slavery thanks to Moses, had a relatively tame site for the dead called Sheol, a dusty dry underworld in which good and evil souls commingled in a state of continual thirst, waiting for the messiah. But when they settled in the land of Palestine, around 1500 B.C. the seed of “Hell” was planted in their worldview after they witnessed the pagan child sacrifices carried out in the Valley of Gehinnom. So profound was the impact of events in this valley that the word “Gehinnom” also became the Arabic and later Islamic word for “hell fire” – “Jahannum”. For the Muslims in Jahannum will burn all those who reject the holy word of the Koran, which is the word of God. The rest will rejoice with Allah in Heaven or Jannat surrounded by angels.
The idea of Heaven and Hell in the Judaic mindset truly evolved after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon around the 5th century BC where the Israelites came in touch with the followers of the Persian prophet Zoroaster. The Zoroastrians saw life on earth as a reflection of battles between the forces of good and evil. All good things came from Ahura Mazda and all bad things came from his archenemy Angra Manyu. When a man died, he was asked to cross a bridge, which separated the land of the living from the land of the dead. The bridge widened or narrowed depending on the choices made by the man during life. These thoughts eventually made their way through Judaic worldview into Christian and Islamic theology. Along the way, ideas were also taken from the Greeks and the Egyptians. The Vikings also contributed: the word “Hell” has its origin in the name of the Nordic goddess Helas, ruler of the forbidding, dark, cold, windswept nether region Niflheimer. Incidentally, the Christian world “Paradise” comes from the Persian word meaning “royal garden.”
Hindus also believe in Heaven and Hell. But when one goes into the details, the Hindu Heaven and the Christian/Islamic Heaven is quite different. In a Bollywood film, Hindu heaven is where Indra rules, gods drink and nymphs entertain while in Hollywood films, the Christian heaven is seen as a place where angels play harps. The serenity of the latter contrasts the excitement of the former. Besides, according to the Puranas, entry into Hindu heavens is the result of good deeds and not by following a “Book” or a prophet. Hindus have many heavens, one greater than the other. There is the heaven of Indra and “greater” heavens like the heavens of Vishnu or Shiva. For a follower of Shiva, Shiva’s heaven is the “highest heaven” while to devotees of Vishnu, Vishnu’s heaven is higher. The idea of multiple heavens, from where one can be cast out, is totally different from the single Paradise of Christians and Jannat of the Muslims.
Clearly, different cultures have seen death differently and so have approached life differently. Now, imagine this: one group of people believe that this life is just one of the many lives we have to live. Then there are those who believe that this is the only life we have. How can one expect the two groups to see eye-to-eye on one’s approach to life? The missionary believes that this is the only life one has to “save the soul” and this explains the “missionary zeal” to convert, an idea that is uniquely Christian and Islamic. Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, however, believe life and death are alternating events in a karmic merry-go-round and so they are in no hurry to be “saved”. Herein lies the root of conflict between ideologies of Hindus on the one hand and of Christian/Muslims on the other, one that leads sometimes to violent confrontations. Respecting another’s understanding of death, hence life, is not easy — no matter what reformists may believe — for such a step is seen as the first in many steps that ultimately leads to invalidating one’s own belief system, making it just “a” truth, not “the” truth.