By Mukundamala Dasa

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