Those who have been meritorious, but have not quite attained liberation through self-knowledge, are sent to a heavenly realm to await their fate. There the Gandharvas (demigods of fertility) sing to them, and the bevies of celestial nymphs dance for them. Since there is no need for punishment, they go forth immediately on very high divine carriages. And when they get down from those carriages, they are born in the families of kings and other noble people. There they maintain and protect their good conduct and live out their days before they are reborn enjoying the very best of pleasures.
The fate for those who have participated in less honorable thoughts or actions is far less pleasant. The Arthasastra, a Hindu textbook from the second century BC, offers a detailed description of some of the more frightening realms. Yet before reaching these dangerous destinations, one must first endure a miserable journey. The hard-hearted men of Yama, terrifying, foul-smelling, with hammers and maces in their hands, come to get the deceased, who tremble and begin to scream. Filled with terror and pain, the soul leaves the body. Preceded by his vital wind, he takes on another body of the same form, a body born of his own karma in order for him to be tortured.
The evil man becomes born as an animal, among the worms, insects, moths, beasts of prey, mosquitoes, and so forth. There he is born in elephants, trees, and so forth, and in cows and horses, and in other wombs that are evil and painful. When he finally becomes a human, he is a despicable hunchback or dwarf, or he is born in the womb of a woman of some tribe of untouchables. When there is none of his evil left, and he is filled with merit, then he starts climbing up to higher castes, Shudra, Vaishya, Kshatriya, and so forth, sometimes eventually reaching the stage of Brahmin or king of men. With so many unpleasant possibilities, it is easy to understand why reincarnation is not the only goal of every Hindu.
Those who lead a life of austerity, meditation and grace can look forward to the possibility of reaching Brahmaloka. This is the highest among the heavenly planes and the dwelling place of Brahma himself. This is a place of intensely spiritual atmosphere, whose inhabitants live, free from disease, old age, and death, enjoying uninterrupted bliss in the companionship of the Deity. There is no need for them to return to earth because they have freed themselves from all material desires. While they do experience a sense of individuality, they also experience a oneness with Brahma. This is the realm of immortality.
There is one other way to achieve liberation from samsara. This is to die within the city of Benaras, on the Ganges. Death, which elsewhere is feared, here is welcomed as a long-expected guest. A city of many names, it was known in ancient time as Kashi, the city of light, and the Mahabharata refers to it as Varanasi. The funeral pyres, which are located on the river, burn nonstop. Death, which elsewhere is polluting, is here holy and auspicious. People travel from around the country and the planet to spend their last days in Benaras because, death, the most natural, unavoidable, and certain of human realities, is here the sure gate to moksha, the rarest, most precious, most difficult to achieve of spiritual goals.
For those who are unable to die in Benaras, cremation on the banks of the Ganges or the spreading of the ashes in her waters is the next best thing. Referred to as the “River of Heaven” or the “goddess and mother,” she is considered to be sacred from her source in the Himalayas, all the way to the sea in the Bay of Bengal. Her power to destroy sins is so great that, people say, even a droplet of Ganges water carried one’s way by the breeze will erase the sins of many lifetimes in an instant.
Hindu death rituals in all traditions follow a fairly uniform pattern drawn from the Vedas, with variations according to sect, region, caste and family tradition. Most rites are fulfilled by the family, all of whom participate, including the children, who need not be shielded from the death. Certain rites are traditionally performed by a priest, but may also be performed by the family if no priest is available. Religions such as Hinduism offer our own immortal souls satisfying answers to questions of life and death. Their ancient mythic texts provide real reasons for our existence here on earth. They also demonstrate that death is something that can be prepared for instead of being feared. In addition, they offer the possibility of something to look forward to, so we need not dread our last days on this planet. A true Hindu shall love death as he loves this life.