The Problem with Paradise

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People who want to go to heaven may not know exactly what they're in for.

One morning when going through an Indian daily, I came across the obituary section and a list of deceased people being fondly remembered by their close relatives and friends. Each departed soul was given the title svargavasi, "a resident of heaven." Although modern secular education teaches nothing about life on other planets—and knows nothing about it—I was surprised to see that people still believe their departed relative attained heaven. Has this person really gone to heaven? I wondered. Was he qualified to enter heaven and enjoy the heavenly delights and pleasures? What if he was a criminal or a butcher—could he still go there? And if he did make it, is it all he'd hoped it would be?

Heaven and Hell: Myth or Reality

Scientists would have us believe that heaven and hell are mythical concepts found in religious scriptures. They feel such ideas were propagated to encourage people to lead moral lives in the hope of attaining heaven after death. But scientists fail to adequately explain the nature and cause of this unlimited universe and its diversities. It is quite reasonable to believe in the existence of heaven and hell within this universe. We find that even on this planet different living conditions exist—from abject poverty to extreme luxury. Why shouldn't a similar disparity exist within the universe?

The Vedic scriptures give us a detailed account of life on other planets, including heaven. They tell us there are fourteen levels of planetary systems in the universe and the heavenly planets, known as Svargaloka, form one of them. They are above Bhuloka, the earthly planetary system. Above Svargaloka are still higher planets, the topmost being Satyaloka, or Brahmaloka, wherein resides Lord Brahma, the chief engineer of this universe.

The happiness and pleasures experienced by the denizens of heaven are immensely superior to those found on earth. The chief of the administrative demigods, Indra, is the king of heaven. Indraloka, the planet where Indra resides, has gardens where one can associate with beautiful, angelic women and enjoy a profuse supply of soma-rasa, a celestial beverage. There are magnificent palaces, beautiful landscapes, and huge gardens with aromatic flowers. There are Gandharvas, celestial beings who constantly perform delightful music. These are the pleasures in the paradise of Indraloka. As one goes higher, beyond Indraloka into other celestial realms, the senses and their objects become subtler and the quality of sense enjoyment becomes greatly refined. In contrast to the heavenly planets, the sense enjoyment on earth is insignificant and is experienced on an extremely gross level.

Another feature of the higher planets is the difference in time scale. Scientists agree that the time on other planets is different from that of earth. The Vedic scriptures tell us that six months on earth equal twelve hours on Indraloka. The duration of life there is ten thousand years by our calculation.

Demigods like Indra, Candra, Varuna, and Vayu inhabit the heavenly planets. People residing there are predominately in the mode of goodness, not much affected by the lower modes of passion and ignorance. They are all devotees of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, highly pious souls who strictly adhere to religious principles.

No one can barge freely, without restriction, into the heavenly planets. Today’s scientists try to enter various planets of outer space, and they claim to have succeeded in putting man on the moon. The Vedic scriptures reject such human attempts as childish. Just as countries restrict foreigners from entering, higher authorities restrict entrance to the heavenly planets. To enter the heavenly planets, one must have accumulated an immense supply of pious credits by performing many virtuous acts on earth. The karma-kanda ("path of works") portion of the Vedic literature recommends certain sacrifices for persons desiring to go to heaven.

The Temporary and Miserable Nature of Heaven

Despite all the comforts and luxuries available on the higher planets, the Vedic scriptures often discourage us from going there. As part of the material creation, heavenly planets are temporary by nature and will eventually be annihilated. Although their life span may appear infinitely great when compared to ours, it is insignificant when compared to eternity.

And the miseries of earth—birth, old age, disease, and death—exist even there. In the Bhagavad-gita (8.16) Krishna says, a-brahma-bhuvanal lokah punar avartino ’rjuna: “From the highest planet in the material world down to the lowest, all are places of misery wherein repeated birth and death take place.” The Srimad-Bhagavatam describes how powerful demons frequently attack the demigods, who sometimes lose the ensuing battle. As a result, they lose their prestigious positions as controllers of the universe and are in constant anxiety.

Srila Prabhupada compares the material world to a prison, where different criminals occupy various grades of cells. Depending on the severity of the crime, the criminal is put into a certain cell—the most horrible cells for the severest crime committed. Similarly this universe acts like a prison where the rebellious souls are sent to reform themselves and rectify their mistakes. Depending on our past activities, we are put into a certain living condition where we enjoy or suffer the results of our acts. For extremely pious acts, we are sent to heaven to enjoy godly delights. For sinful acts, we go to hell to suffer.

Sadly, even if someone qualifies to enter heaven, he will not be allowed to stay there permanently. Once he exhausts his accumulated pious credits, he must return to earth and start over again. Lord Krishna explains in the Bhagavad-gita (9.21),

te tam bhuktva svarga-lokam vishalam
kshine punye martya-lokam vishanti
evam trayi-dharmam anuprapanna
gatagatam kama-kama labhante

“When they have thus enjoyed vast heavenly sense pleasure and the results of their pious activities are exhausted, they return to this mortal planet again. Thus those who seek sense enjoyment by adhering to the principles of the three Vedic scriptures achieve only repeated birth and death.”

The Spiritual World

Krishna therefore encourages us to come to His own abode, the eternal spiritual world, full of bliss and knowledge, as opposed to the temporary, miserable material world. In Bhagavad-gita (15.6) He gives us a glimpse of the nature of His abode so that we may feel attracted to go there:

na tad bhasayate suryo
na shashanko na pavakah
yad gatva na nivartante
tad dhama paramam mama

“That supreme abode of Mine is not illumined by the sun or moon, nor by fire or electricity. Those who reach it never return to this material world.” The spiritual world contains innumerable self-luminous Vaikuntha planets, where there is no need of sunshine, moonlight, fire, or electricity. Here in the material world, we see that all-powerful time controls everything and gradually brings everything to an end. Debilitating time is missing from the spiritual world. In that atmosphere the lower material modes of ignorance and passion are absent. Everyone is on the platform of shuddha-sattva, pure goodness. The Supreme Lord is the chief leader there, and all the inhabitants assist in His loving service. There is no competition for leadership, and everyone is a follower of the Lord.

Srila Prabhupada writes in his purport to Bhagavad-gita (9.21), “Instead of being elevated to the spiritual world, from which there is no longer any possibility of coming down, one simply revolves in the cycle of birth and death on higher and lower planetary systems. One should better take to the spiritual world to enjoy an eternal life full of bliss and knowledge and never return to this miserable material existence.”

The Purpose of Human Life

Human life is endowed with greater responsibility than animal life. Rather than focus our energy on obtaining better resources within the material world, we need to focus on how we can permanently solve the real problems of life, namely birth, old age, disease, and death. Otherwise we will simply keep going up and down the material world, as if situated on a Ferris wheel.

Srila Prabodhananda Sarasvati, a great devotee of Lord Chaitanya, considers the heavenly planets and the position of the demigods phantasmagoria—something imaginary, like flowers in the sky. A pure devotee is never allured by such heavenly opulences. Indeed, for a devotee engaged fully in the service of the Lord, external situations do not matter at all. As Lord Shiva explains in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (6.17.28), “Devotees solely engaged in the devotional service of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Narayana, never fear any condition of life. For them the heavenly planets, liberation, and the hellish planets are all the same, for such devotees are interested only in the service of the Lord.”

A devotee wants to always remember Krishna and serve Him. In a situation of extreme comfort and luxury, as provided in the heavens, one can get carried away by sensual pleasures and forget the Lord. Being conscious of this danger, a devotee focuses all his energy to achieve the eternal spiritual world. When he passes away, he does not want to be called a svargavasi, a resident of heaven, but a Vaikunthavasi, a resident of Goloka, the spiritual world.

About the Author: 

Mukundamala Dasa

Mukundamala Dasa serves full time at ISKCON Mumbai (Chowpatty). He is part of the India Back to Godhead team and teaches Krishna consciousness to students.