“Somehow or other, Ravana was raised to an exalted position as the king of a great kingdom with all material opulences, but because of his sinful act of kidnapping mother Sita, all the results of his pious activities were destroyed.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 9.10.23 Purport)
If you are good, then when you die you go to heaven. This is the popularly held belief. And why wouldn’t it be true? If there is a God, why would He punish people for behaving piously? From Vedic philosophy we get a clearer picture of the actual situation. Heaven and hell do exist, and they are part of the temporary realm. One certainly does ascend the more piously they behave, but just like the body itself, that ascension does not last forever. On the occasion of Dussehra we remember a notable king who rapidly ascended to the highest position in the world, only to have it all crash down in an instant.
The Vedic view on heaven is that it exists and that it is the destination in the afterlife for the pious. What exactly is pious? Think of good behavior. Be kind to others. Tell the truth. Don’t be selfish. Follow the religious traditions you inherited from your parents. More specifically, this kind of behavior falls into the mode of goodness. There are three modes of material nature, and the activities of this world fall into those three modes.
The default mode is passion. Think of the child who wants to play all day. In the National Hockey League there is a marquee game held annually that is played outside. Known as the Winter Classic, the event draws a lot of attention because it reminds the adult-aged players of their youth. When they were young, they would sometimes spend the entire day on the rink. They would only come home after repeated attempts were made by the parents.
Both children and adults play, and if the aim is only sense gratification the activities fall into the mode of passion. The mode of ignorance is useless, damaging behavior; think overindulgence in intoxicants and excessive sleeping. The mode of goodness is where intelligence increases. The general idea we have of religiosity matches up with the mode of goodness.
Interestingly, heavenly and hellish conditions already exist in the world we currently inhabit. We don’t have to wait for the afterlife to experience heavenly delights. Case in point Ravana, who was the king of Lanka many thousands of years ago. He had every material enjoyment available to him. Though modern airplanes were not yet invented, he could still fly through the air. He had an aerial car called the Pushpaka. This car belonged to Kuvera, Ravana’s brother. Kuvera abandoned it when Ravana went to take over Lanka from him.
Ravana had tremendous wealth in Lanka. Some of the buildings were made of gold. There were crystals in the floors. The beauty of the city would easily defeat the most amazing sites found in the modern world. Ravana also had plenty of sensual enjoyment. There was loads of meat and wine to consume. There were many wives with whom to enjoy. It would be difficult to imagine the heaven of the afterlife surpassing the opulence of Ravana’s kingdom.
Residence in heaven is not permanent; at least with the heaven of the material world. The reason is that the merits accumulated through good behavior eventually expire. Just as the inmate eventually gets released from jail through their sentence expiring, the same applies to the benediction of going to heaven. Since heaven is in the upward direction, the person who has their pious credits run out is described as falling back to earth. Falling back to earth from heaven is one example of how reincarnation works.
evaṁ kṣipan dhanuṣi sandhitam utsasarja
bāṇaṁ sa vajram iva tad-dhṛdayaṁ bibheda
so ’sṛg vaman daśa-mukhair nyapatad vimānād
dhāheti jalpati jane sukṛtīva riktaḥ
“After thus rebuking Ravana, Lord Ramachandra fixed an arrow to His bow, aimed at Ravana, and released the arrow, which pierced Ravana’s heart like a thunderbolt. Upon seeing this, Ravana’s followers raised a tumultuous sound, crying, ‘Alas! Alas! What has happened? What has happened?’ as Ravana, vomiting blood from his ten mouths, fell from his airplane, just as a pious man falls to earth from the heavenly planets when the results of his pious activities are exhausted.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 9.10.23)
When Ravana received the fatal arrow from Shri Rama, his fall to the earth was compared to a person falling from heaven. The comparison is accurate in so many ways. For starters, there was the material opulence in Ravana’s kingdom. He was the most feared king in the world. He took full advantage of that post. Yet it all vanished in a second.
The return to earth from heaven can ultimately be attributed to an underlying desire. The pious credits expire because they are earned with material motivations. Basically, if a person wants to enjoy separately from God the person, they have to go through reincarnation. The person within the cycle of reincarnation can take birth anywhere, in any species. They don’t have to necessarily live on earth.
“There are an infinite number of living beings, both moving and nonmoving, who have many different abodes, with some residing in the earth, some in the sky, and some in the water. But O helpless Tulsi, for you Shri Rama’s holy name is your only home.” (Dohavali, 37)
Goswami Tulsidas references this truth in his Dohavali. He says that he knows he can take birth in any species, in any of the three worlds. He doesn’t mind the physical location of his birth, for his real home is Rama’s holy name. This is an example of pure devotion. With that desire, there is no expiry. If you love Rama, you never have to lose His association.
Devoid of devotional service, any gain is only temporary. On the occasion of Dussehra, we remember how Shri Rama personally came to the scene to bring Ravana back down, to where he belonged. Ravana’s sinful desire manifest in his stealing of Rama’s wife Sita in secret. Ordinary sinful desire is automatically punished through the laws of nature. But when there is harm done to someone who loves Rama, the Lord Himself intervenes. He protects the devotion of the devotee.
When obstruction for devotee seen,
Rama personally to intervene.
Like when to Lanka went,
And arrows to Ravana sent.
Despite towards heaven to ascend,
At expiry again to earth to descend.
On Dussehra famous Ravana to recall,
Who despite opulence had to fall.