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Is There Heaven and Hell?
Jenny: Dear James, I met you at your satsang in Berkeley last year. It was an amazing experience and I realized that in spite of all my seeking I really didn’t know what I was doing.
I am regularly amazed at how the teachings of Vedanta covered aspects of psychological functioning that I didn’t think the world was aware of until the advent of behaviorism (e.g. the various mechanics of conditioning, etc.). Additionally, I have been “undergoing” a Jungian analysis for the past year-and-a-half and have had an interest in Jung since I was a high school student. I find myself frequently wondering just how much of Jung’s ideas were appropriated in some form from Vedanta or other Eastern teachings (though my analyst assures me he got it from the collective unconscious). If I had only encountered Vedanta when I was in high school or college, I probably wouldn’t have had to bother with the eleven years I spent studying psychology! (I am at least half serious here.)
James: Human psychology is pretty simple and has been well-known for thousands of years.The Bhagavad Gita’s understanding of human psychology and the tools for healing it is second to none. Jung was definitely aware of Vedic culture.
Jenny: My main Vedanta-related question at this moment is about transgressions. I work in a California prison with inmates who have committed some pretty awful crimes. Additionally, as a child, I was raised as a Christian and identified strongly as such into my late teens. In my early twenties I found myself struggling intellectually and morally with my faith and, now in my early thirties, I find myself alienated from traditional Christianity and no longer able to be a practicing Christian. As you know, the Christian God is personal and human qualities are attributed to Him. He is out there, somewhere, observing all the behaviors of human beings and, like Santa Claus, He is “making a list and checking it twice... He’s gonna find out who’s naughty and nice... Adonai is coming to town...”
James: I suggest you get my book The Yoga of Love. It will put the whole “God” business into perspective. It has been very popular, and when I teach it people are thrilled insofar as there is very little reason involved in the inquiry into God.
Jenny: As I’ve listened to your talks, sometimes God is described as personal and at other times as impersonal. I have often wondered whether or not even Jesus thought of God as impersonal but chose to describe Him as “Father,” as this is simply an easier way of explaining God and relating to Him (or It, as it were).
James: I think he was consciously personifying it. Seeing God as a mother/father is a universal and understandable, if somewhat unsophisticated, personification. Before we get into it you really must read The Yoga of Love and watch the videos or listen to the audios. It will sort you out on God. Guaranteed. If you still have questions, I will be happy to try to answer them.
Jenny: Personalizing God also aids in devotion, or “bhakti,” as Vedanta would put it, I guess. (I speculate a lot, and even worse, I enjoy it… I’ll try to be more on point here.) Anyway, these guys here in prison… they are stuck sitting in tiny, colorless cells, smelling each other as they go to the bathroom. Most are impulsive and childish. Every day they bicker with each other over trivialities and try to extort one another for sugary foods bought from the commissary. Sometimes there are fights. They criticize each other for their crimes. Even those who have committed numerous savage murders esteem themselves above those who have committed sex crimes, etc. Most staff seem to despise them and are indifferent to their ongoing, never-ending tormented state of mind. They are fed disgusting, cold food in dirty-looking containers. Many are so depressed they try to sleep through as much of the day as possible, often forgoing showering. Many of their faces are disfigured in some way or covered in tattoos. Everywhere you go, the place smells like some form of biological odor. Guys shuffle back and forth like zombies. They are constantly unhappy and the large majority blame anything and anyone other than themselves for how their lives have turned out. It is like what Jesus said about hell: “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth.” However, when I am honest with myself, this is what life is like for everyone. In prison, the volume is just turned up.
James: Yes. Samsara afflicts everyone except the wise. We call it “the jaws of the crocodile.” Once it has you, it is very difficult to escape. You just keep digging yourself in deeper and deeper. Just because a person lives in the lap of luxury doesn’t mean they aren’t in hell. Samsaris are definitely zombies.
Jenny: My question is about transgressions and the way in which God (or Bhagavan, I suppose I should say) responds to “sin.” Is imprisonment simply the result of the actions (or karma) these guys have engaged in? I’m listening to your talks on the Bhagavad Gita right now. In it, you point out that God is not watching from the cosmos, blessing the good and persecuting the evil. However, there are people who do not go to prison who have engaged in equal or worse activities than the guys here. I often get the impression that we are to understand that punishment and reward is meted out with precision, but then, on the other hand, “karma is inscrutable.” What gives? If you could point me to a book or article or some other previous in-depth treatment of this question, I’d be very grateful.
Ramji: So the “injustice” angle puzzles you? Karma is delivered impersonally according to the nature of the action, the temperament of the individual and the nature of the dharma field.
Jenny: I have spent (or perhaps squandered) a little over a decade by studying parapsychological works and old psychical research on the question of life after death. I’ve read gazillions of fanciful depictions of the afterlife by mediums, channelers and near-death experiencers. I’ve studied numerous arguments of varying degrees of philosophical and empirical merit of the perspective that consciousness is not generated by our brain matter, thus offering the possibility that consciousness survives death. I have even been privileged to have had a few very powerful spiritual experiences in my life which have given me a very imperfect “sneak peek” into the nature of these things. However, as you point out routinely, such experiences are far from fulfilling and, after having spent all this time trying to separate the wheat from the chaff, I am left none the wiser. All I have been able to determine is that something “more” seems to be going on than meets the eye. What it is and what it means, I don’t know. What good is that?
James: What wisdom are you looking for? There is no evidence that you die. If you think you are the body, then, yes, you die. You, existence/consciousness, doesn’t die. How could it? Consciousness/existence is the substrate. In it objects live and die. The body is just an instrument, an object, used by you, consciousness, to maneuver in the world. It is logically impossible that consciousness could evolve from matter insofar as matter is inert. You could only fall for that one if you didn’t know what consciousness was. In any case, it is an understandable mistake because most everyone identifies the body as the self. The world has it backwards, owing to the power of maya. In terms of creation, science came a little late to the party insofar as its epistemology only allows it to reason up to the point when matter appeared. Actually, thinking consciousness evolved from matter is an honest mistake, considering the lack of data from which science has to reason. We have a different take on it, one that makes perfect sense because we have a different means of knowledge.
You probably did waste a lot of time investigating parapsychology, but nothing is actually wasted. We call it a leading error. Parapsychology and religion are in the ballpark, and somehow you had the good karma to stumble on Vedanta. If you understand its value you will completely lose interest in such things.
Jenny: Christianity (and a few other religions too) as well as some of the near-death experience accounts appear to support the idea that at least some people end up in a place either identical with or very much resembling Biblical depictions of hell when they die. I must admit, even after reading your book and listening to your talks on Vedanta, I am still confused about what Vedanta teaches about this matter. I figure that this is because of my own previous conditioning and all the “baggage” I am bringing with me as I seek to absorb the teachings of Vedanta…
James: Yes. You are new to Vedanta, so it is not clear yet. Keep studying. In the meantime, there is a text at the website in the publications section called Atma Bodh. It is a free download. Read verse 12. It should help you understand.
Jenny: Anyway, to sum it up and put it in street language, do bad people go to hell when they die?
James: It depends on what you mean by hell. There are no bad people, only ignorant people. You don’t have to die to go to hell, but yes. However, they only stay there until the karma that sent them there is exhausted and then they get to come back and try again. However, they don’t remember who they were, so the whole question is a wash. Additionally, it is not clear that they suffer in the way the living imagine. If you made me live in a prison cell with the type of persons you described above, I think I would long for the fires of hell.
Conversely, “good people,” i.e. those who follow dharma, “go to heaven” and enjoy until the fruits of their actions bring them back here to try again. Intelligent people look for a way out of good and bad karma.
Jenny: From the “Vedantic” perspective, if one engages in disciplined self-inquiry, will this “cleanse” them from sin?
Jenny: I heard you say that Vedanta is not a salvation theology, but is it not fair to say that, should one’s ignorance be removed, that it might feel like salvation?
James: Yes, indeed. It is not a salvation theology, because the self is already saved. But when you don’t understand who you really are, you do actions that produce suffering.
~ Love, James