Heaven and Hell in Early South Asia

After my broad Spalding paper, which took up overarching approaches to the significant past across Hindu, Buddhist and Jain narrative sources, I thought I would turn to a related sub-topic: that of heaven and hell, and their several inhabitants, across the three religious traditions. My paper at the Spalding focussed on the contrast between the dominantly genealogical orientation to the past in Brahminical sources (and their emphasis on the capacity for divine intervention in the universe and their reliance on a ‘blueprint’, of sorts: the Vedas) to that of the – different – transmigratory histories of Buddhist and Jains (and in particular their agents of religious insight viz. Buddhas and Jinas). Now, heaven and hell might not seem an obvious development from this broad theme. They are however of critical importance; heaven and hell play a major role in both Buddhist and Jain traditions in discussions of the ramifications of one’s actions after death and the long process that may, or may not, lead to release from rebirth. In Hindu traditions, the posthumous fate of one’s ancestors, and their ritual support in their afterlives, are a pressing concern, as well as, of course, one’s own personal destination (and all this is integrated with a variety of ‘mokṣic soteriologies’ that avoid both heaven and hell). Thus kinship and genealogy, as well as transmigration and ethics – and the elephant in the room of rebirth – mokṣa – are all richly interrelated. My Spalding paper mentioned the relatively slow rate of adoption of explicitly transmigratory ‘story arcs’ in Brahminical tradition compared to the thorough integration of rebirth in largely contemporaneous legal texts (where the transmigratory consequences of wrongdoings are painstakingly mapped out; to steal curd, for example, is to be reborn as a flamingo in the Manusmṛti). Heaven and hell also recurrently appear in epic and Purāṇic narratives (as does Yama, with Citragupta, in his role as a psychopomp, or judge of the dead, and Yama is known in Buddhist and Jain sources – something I will also explore). Their evocation seems to vacillate between a focus on the ramifications of karma and a more social, kin-oriented, emphasis on the fate of one’s ancestors (and – on occasion – the relation of all this to renunciation and release from rebirth). What is more, the divine realms are used to mirror forms of earthly (bhumic?) social and political organisation (one only has to read the account of the divine sabhā – ‘courts’ or ‘assemblies’ – of the second book of the Mahābhārata to see this). On the other hand, Buddhist and Jain sources emphasise the role of heaven and hell in establishing the consequences of actions. It tends to be religiously significant figures (not all of them positive examples), who are described in detail in their ongoing karmic journeys (as I have mentioned before: a sort of spiritual, multi-life, bildungsroman). This is not to say, however, that there is no concern for the posthumous fate of one’s relatives; certainly in Buddhist tradition the idea of making offerings for the sake of others, many of whom are deceased, is well known both in the distant past and to this day (and, on occasion, groups of people co-transmigrate). There is also a recurrent concern to depict recurrent social networks in successive lives in the Jātakas and elsewhere. All three traditions also routinely integrate heavens and hells in vast descriptions of the cosmos and the theatres of human action within it. Heaven and hell, and their associated narratives, thus allow one to explore Hindu, Buddhist and Jain attempts to marry religious doctrine with understandings of the physical and meta-physical universe (and on occasion to engage in utopian and dystopian political thought) in narrative.They are also very intimately connected to sets of ritual practice (the Hindu śrāddha and a variety of Buddhist rituals associated with the ‘transfer of merit’). They are thus an excellent means of providing a ‘lens’ through which to approach the broader topic of the relationship between kinship, genealogy, karma and its cessation in early Indian religious traditions and the use of narrative in this regard. Well, that is the plan anyway.

5 thoughts on “Heaven and Hell in Early South Asia

  1. Leedom Lefferts

    You wrote, “(and, on occasion, groups of people co-transmigrate).” Could you please expand on this and provide sources/citations? As you may know from Sandra Cate’s and my discussion of the Vessantara Jataka Festival (Bun Phra Wet) in Northeast Thailand and Laos, we are at pains to make the point that the members of the observant community, through their/its actions, are/is involved in the successive successful rebirths promised by this story. Would be nice to have other examples. Thank you.

    Reply
    1. hegartyjm Post author

      Thank you for your comment. You may already know of Jonathan Walter’s paper, ‘Communal Karma and Karmic Community in Theravada Buddhist History’. I would also recommend the fifth chapter of Naomi Appleton’s Narrating Karma and Rebirth. I hope this helps!

      Reply
      1. hegartyjm Post author

        Sorry, I suspect you will end up helping me rather than the other way round, as I will be reading your work. My comments at the moment are based on early stage research. I will provide more information as and when I find it! Best, James.

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