(The principal of a large school in Bombay gave us a list of frequently asked questions by 13 year old children in her school and asked us whether we can prepare answers in the light of a spiritual perspective. When we looked at the question we found that they are not mere “kid-stuff.” Most of them are either fundamental and existential questions related to world and God or psychological problems faced by most of us. This series is an attempt to answer these questions from the children’s perspective in the light of a spiritual vision of life. We don’t know how far we have succeeded in communicating to the children. Nevertheless, we hope these answer may be of some help to teachers and parents who have to deal with children. There are around thirty questions with answers given in the light of a spiritual vision of life. We will post these questions at regular intervals.)
What is hell, and is it really under the earth? Is there such a place which is a heaven
Is that what you heard about Hell and Heaven? What else you have heard or read? Hell is under earth and Heaven is above in the Sky? Hell is where people are endlessly tortured for their sins and Heaven is where people enjoy all sorts of pleasures for their virtues? These are some of the popular ideas of hell and heaven which are mostly distorted conceptions of a truth beyond them.
The first thing we have to understand is that Hell and Heaven are not part of earth’s geography. They do not exist anywhere in our material world. In a deeper and truer perspective Hell and Heaven are inner, psychological states of consciousness. For example when you feel very angry, jealous, vengeful, depressed, unhappy, how do you feel inwardly? It is more or less a state of hell. Similarly how do you feel when you are loving, kind, benevolent, affectionate, forgiving, and cheerful? It is more or less the state of heaven. The following Zen story illustrates this deeper view of hell and heaven:
There lived in a small kingdom a great Zen master. One day the military chief of the kingdom came to see the Zen master. The General, a big man with a long sword hanging in his hips, haughtily asked the Zen master:
“Where is Hell and Heaven?’
The Master looked at the General with his small eyes and with a mischievous smile in his lips, said: “First tell me big man who are you”. The big man said proudly, “I am the military general of this kingdom”. The Master laughed loudly and said, “God save our kingdom! You look like a bloated pig and a butcher. Who made you the general?” The general, red with anger, took his sword and shouted at the Master, “How dare you insult me”. The Master again laughed, “Oh, you have a sword! It seems to me that your sword cannot even kill a rat, how can it save this kingdom”. The General, furious with rage, placed the sword at the Master’s neck and glowed.” If you insult me further, I will kill cut you to pieces”. The Master looked at the general calmly and said slowly and deliberately, stressing each word:
“Understand, my dear big man, you are now in Hell.”
The Master’s words penetrated the mind and heart of the general with a sudden illumination. The general dropped his sword on the ground. Bowing his head low before the Master, the general said, “I understand holy man. Please forgive me for my foolish behaviour”. The Master said smiling:
“Understand, my dear big man, you are now in heaven.”
However even this beautiful and illuminating Zen story does not give the entire truth of heaven and hell. There is another more universal aspect to it which requires an understanding of the Indian concept of Law of Karma. In simple words, Law of Karma means the consequences of our action bounces back on us. When you throw a ball on the wall it bounces back on to you. When you shout something in the midst of a mountaineer terrain you can hear the echo of it bouncing back to your ears. Here is an interesting and illustrative story which may give you a glimpse of how Law of Karma works:
“A little boy got angry with his mother and shouted at her, ‘I hate you, 1 hate you.’ For fear of being reprimanded, he ran out of the house. He went up to the mountains and shouted, ‘I hate you, I hate you,’ and back came the echo ‘1 hate you, 1 hate you.’ This was the first time that he had heard an echo. He got scared, went to his mother for protection, and said there was a bad boy in the valley who shouted ‘I hate you, I hate you.’ The mother understood the problem and asked her son to go back to the mountain and shout ‘1 love you, 1 love you,’ and back came the echo: ‘I love you, I love you.’ That taught the little boy a lesson that our life is like an echo; we get back what we give.”
In human life, Law of Karma works something like this: If you throw upon others thoughts or feelings of hate, anger or jealousy or vengefulness, it returns upon you with a more or less the same face from others. If you throw thoughts or feelings of hate or dislike on others, you will also be hated and disliked by other, bringing unhappiness and misery to your life. In terms of actions, if you do something which brings pain to others or if you do something which goes against universal laws of Nature, life or Divine, then also it will have its consequences in the form of pain, which means, it will also return upon you in the form of pain. And conversely if your thoughts and feeling are full of love, kindness generosity and goodwill to others, you will also feel a similar response from others bringing harmony and happiness and love in your relationship. Similarly, if what you do brings happiness and well being to others, then the law of karma will return that happiness to you or, if your actions are in harmony with the universal laws, it leads to joy. So the Law of Karma teaches us the biblical dictum, “Do unto others what you want others do unto you.” Moreover this is something logical. It is illogical to expect the other person to be good to you when you don’t have any goodwill for him or he will like or love you, when you harbor a dislike for him.
We are now moving towards a more universal and scientific understanding of Hell and Heaven. They are states of consciousness where we experience the consequences of our actions interms of Misery and Happiness. When our actions or the motives behind them are full of negativities or brought pain to others or deviates form the laws of life, the consequences are pain, which is the state of hell. Similarly when our actions brought joy to others or in harmony with the laws of life, it leads to happy consequences which are the state of heaven. However you must keep in mind, the consequences are not immediate. The consequences of the law of karma take some time to have their effect. Secondly the consequences may be inward, in the mind and heart of the person, and not necessarily in the outer life. For example, someone who is outwardly rich and prosperous, or appears to be happy may not be inwardly happy if his thoughts, feelings and actions are full of negativities. He is inwardly in a state of pain but outwardly may not appear to be so. Similarly, someone who is outwardly poor or living in a difficult or miserable environment may be inwardly happy, if his thoughts, feelings and actions are positive and beneficent.
Another important factor we have to keep in mind is that the death of the body does not put an end to our mind and heart. Our mind and heart are made of different kind of energies than the physical energies of the body. So when our body dies our mind and heart remain alive in another subtler world which is invisible to our senses. And therefore whatever inner condition we have achieved through our actions, misery or happiness, remain and continue after the death of our body. This is perhaps the truth behind the popular religious conception that after the death of our body, we go to heaven and hell depending upon the nature of our life when we are alive in our body. If our life is virtuous we go to heaven and enjoy godly pleasures and if it is sinful we go through terrible tortures in hell. If we define Virtues as those actions which are in harmony with the laws of life or which bring happiness and wellbeing to other and sins as those actions which are against the laws of life and which brought pain to others, then we can see that the popular religious conceptions of heaven and hell have a truth in it, but expressed in a rather crude and distorted way.
However please don’t make a too rigid equation between Pain and Hell and Joy and Heaven and add a moral content to them like good and evil. The equation pain=hell=sin=evil and a similar equation happiness=heaven=virtue=goodness are valid in a general way but not always entirely true. Pain or suffering, though it may be like hell when we are experiencing it, is not always bad or evil. Similarly happiness or joy, especially which comes from the pleasure of the senses, though it may be like heaven when we are enjoying it, is not always good in the long-term. We have said that the Law of Karma brings pain when we deviate from the universal laws of life. But this pain is not a punishment or something bad but a source of learning. For example when a child touches fire it burns and the pain he feels is not a punishment for touching fire. The child learns the nature of fire and will never touch it again. Thus pain and suffering may have some positive evolutionary purpose and can be a source of learning, reflection and growth. Similarly happiness which comes from pleasures of senses may lead to long-term pain. So the laws of consequences are only one aspect of karma. The other and higher aspect is learning and growth. But to understand this aspect fully we have to make another leap of reason and intuition which is beyond the scope of our discussion.