“He to whom heaven and hell and liberation are all one – for he beholds but You everywhere armed with bow and arrows – and who is Your servant in thought and word and deed – in his heart, Oh Rama, make Your permanent abode.” (Maharishi Valmiki speaking to Lord Rama, Ramacharitamanasa)
The existence of a heaven is a belief shared by almost all religions. As human beings, all we know is what we’ve witnessed in this life, and heaven represents the great unknown. Many of us eventually realize that this material world is full of miseries. Thus heaven represents our reprieve, a sort of resting place after we have finished our work in this life.
In general, most religions believe in heaven being a permanent residence for those who are good in this life. In Christianity, the belief is that all souls either go to heaven or to hell after this life depending on how they behaved. Hell is believed to be a very distressful place, ruled over by the devil with scorching hot temperatures due to a constant fire. Heaven is just the opposite, a place of complete happiness where there are no miseries. The time of death is referred to as judgment day, where it is decided whether the soul will enter heaven or be condemned to hell. Other religions envision heaven as a place where there is unlimited sense gratification, with beautiful women and an unending supply of sumptuous food.
Vedic philosophy also has its concept of heaven, but it differs slightly from other religions. The Vedas tell us there are indeed heavenly and hellish planets, but residence there is not permanent. Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, has created the material world with its millions of different planets. He has also deputed highly advanced souls known as demigods to manage the affairs of the material world. The god of death, known as Yamaraja, determines whether a soul will enter heaven or hell after it quits its current body. A person accumulates good and bad karma in their lifetime, and these merits or demerits determine which planet they will travel to after quitting their body. There are many different heavenly planets, each having their unique mode of enjoyment. In the same way, many hellish planets exist where different styles of punishment are handed out. However, these merits or demerits eventually expire and the soul is forced to accept a new body in the material world. Thus, the laws of karma repeat, causing spirit souls to constantly transmigrate from one body to another based on their fruitive work.
When Lord Krishna incarnated as Lord Rama many thousands of years ago in Ayodhya, He was forced into exile by His father, King Dashratha. Being married at the time, the Lord tried to convince His wife, Sita Devi, to remain in the kingdom during His exile period. Sita, however, refused to remain at home and rather insisted on coming along.
“Remaining dedicated to You, O large eyed one, I shall regularly bathe in those ponds and sport with You in full joy. Even if I stay with You for hundreds of thousands of years, I shall not feel any loss. Even residence in the heavenly realm is not preferred by me. O Raghava, even if I live in the heavenly realm, if I am without You, I will not find any pleasure there, O tiger among men.” (Sita Devi speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, 27.19-21)
In trying to persuade her husband, Sita told Him that she would always remain with Him no matter how long He had to live in the forest. She said that she didn’t find living in heaven appealing if He wasn’t there with her. In so saying, Sita exhibited the qualities of the perfect devotee of God. The heavenly planets are very nice, but one cannot remain there forever. The enjoyment on those planets is still on the material platform and thus one is forced to accept a material body upon completing his or her stay in heaven. However, there is a spiritual realm known as Krishnaloka and Vaikuntha, that is above all the heavenly planets for it is where Krishna and His various expansions reside. One who goes there never returns to the material world. In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna says that anyone who thinks of Him at the time of death, never takes birth again.
“And whoever, at the time of death, quits his body, remembering Me alone, at once attains My nature. Of this there is no doubt. Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, that state he will attain without fail.” (Bg 8.5-6)
While it is natural for us to want unending happiness, a devotee of the Lord actually rises above this desire. A pure devotee only wants to make God happy, and only thinks in terms of God’s interests. Sita Devi taught us that we should strive to think the same way that she did. Material happiness may be nice, but real happiness is Ramananda, the bliss that comes through association with Rama, or God. Krishna is the reservoir of pleasure. Life without Him is no life at all. By being constantly engaged in devotional service, one can feel a pleasure that is completely spiritual and above all the effects of karma.
A devotee will gladly go anywhere, heaven or hell, as long as they can worship the Supreme Lord. If we practice lovingly chanting the holy names of the Lord, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare” then we too can rise above the material platform and book our ticket back home, back to Godhead. Eternal association with God represents true heavenly life.