Religious Studies

Hinduism: beliefs about life after death

Death is the one thing in life we can be sure about and that is why religions have beliefs about what it means! Everything else 'might' happen to us: we might get married, be rich, be happy, have children, open our own business or travel the world, but the only real certainty is that we will die.

Faith and death

It is not surprising that people have always asked questions about what, if anything, happens after they die.

Although some people claim to have had 'near-death experiences' (NDEs), and others claim to be able to talk to the dead, or to have seen ghosts, there is no scientific proof that such experiences actually provide a glimpse into a possible afterlife. It is possible, therefore, that when people die, they simply stop living and that there is nothing beyond this life.

Ideas about what happens after death, and its connection with how life is lived on earth, is a fundamental part of all religions. The details may differ between religions, but belief in an afterlife almost always:

  • helps people to make sense of life, particularly when life seems unfair or at times of suffering (their own, and others people's)
  • gives support and comfort at times of loss and bereavement
  • provides a purpose to life

Hinduism and death

Hinduism teaches that any attempt to find permanent happiness in this world is maya (an illusion). Hindus believe that a person's atman (spirit) is permanent and cannot change while the physical body is not permanent and can change. The atman [Atman: Self. The real self, the soul. ] is reborn many times, this is samsara (reincarnation).

As a man casts off his worn-out clothes and takes on other new ones, so does the embodied soul cast off his worn-out bodies and enters other new.

Bhagavad Gita 2:22

Death is a natural event so that the atman can move nearer the ultimate release from rebirth, moksha.

For sure is the death of all that comes to birth, sure is the birth of all that dies. So in a matter that no one can prevent thou hast no cause to grieve.

Bhagavad Gita 2:27

Each group in society (varna) has its own dharma or duties which must be followed.

The speed with which a person can be freed from samsara [Samsara: The world - the place where transmigration (the soul's passage through a series of lives in different species) occurs. ] is dependent on karma, which is the law of cause and effect which teaches that all actions have corresponding results. The following terms are important:

  • Samchita karma - the karma from previous lives
  • Paapa - sinful actions in the past; these can cause suffering
  • Agami karma - the actions which are performed in the present life and which go on to affect the future.

When the atman finally reaches moksha [Moksha: Ultimate liberation from the process of transmigration, the continuous cycle of birth and death. ] it can rest:

'Coming right nigh to Me, these great of soul, are never born again. For rebirth is full of suffering, knows nothing that abides: free from it now they attain the all-highest prize.'

Bhagavad Gita 8:15

Euthanasia and suicide

Euthanasia and suicide are both attempts to shorten life, and there is a variety of views about them among Hindus.

Euthanasia

Most Hindus would say that a doctor should not accept a patient's request for euthanasia since this will cause the soul and body to be separated at an unnatural time. The result will change the karma of both doctor and patient.

Other Hindus believe that euthanasia cannot be allowed because it breaches the teaching of ahimsa (doing no harm).

However, some Hindus say that by helping to end a painful life a person is performing a good deed and so fulfilling their moral obligations.

Suicide

A Hindu who is very old or very ill may decide for themselves that the right time has come for death by choosing to stop eating or drinking. This act of renouncing the world shows that the Hindu realises that the world is not as important as it appears. This method of choosing death is often admired as a sign of great holiness.

The suicide of people who take their own lives because they are depressed or feel hopeless is not acceptable to Hindus, unless they took their lives as self-sacrifice or because they cannot live without someone who has just died.

The one who tries to escape from the trials of life by committing suicide will suffer even more in the next life.

Yajur Veda 40-43

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