“Those situated in the mode of goodness gradually go upward to the higher planets; those in the mode of passion live on the earthly planets; and those in the mode of ignorance go down to the hellish worlds.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 14.18)
Friend1: Okay, I know you don’t like when I do this, but I’m going to proceed nonetheless.
Friend2: Ask a silly question?
Friend1: Bring up something in the news.
Friend1: A leader of a particular religious institution said that there is no such thing as hell.
Friend2: This was part of a sermon or something?
Friend1: A leak of an off-the-record conversation.
Friend2: Let me guess. Their explanation afterwards was something like, “That wasn’t me.” They tried to walk it back.
Friend1: I think the institution did it for them. Again, they can rely on the casual conversation part of it to discount the significance.
Friend2: Right, but if you think about it, there is no difference. You might be more honest when speaking in an informal setting. Unless, of course, there was an intentional misdirection.
Friend1: What do you mean?
Friend2: Where you tell the person that hell doesn’t exist so as to keep them from running away from religion.
Friend1: Oh, I get it. I understand the benefit of such a tactic, but shouldn’t a religious leader be truthful? That is to say when really pressed on an issue, shouldn’t they not hide anything?
Friend2: Who knows what actually went on in this instance.
Friend1: Anyway, my question is about hell. Do you think it really exists? How do you prove it?
Friend2: It really is a silly question, but I know you’re asking from the point of view of the common perception.
Friend1: Yes, the ole, “You better surrender or you’ll be doomed to hell,” line.
Friend2: The reason the wise person considers the whole issue ridiculous is because of the continuous existence of the soul. On the one side you’re worried about what will happen after death, about suffering in a mysterious place that no one has seen before. On the other side you understand that the soul continues to live on, just moving to a different body. There are hellish experiences already.
Friend1: What do you mean?
Friend2: Saying there is no hell is like saying there is no down. There is no cold. There is no winter. There is no losing. It’s just crazy.
Friend1: You mean hell is more of an experience than a physical location?
Friend2: It is both. Hell is a place where hellish conditions are experienced. Hellish here means “unwanted.” To say there is no hell is like saying there is no such thing as indigestion. You eat too many slices of pizza for dinner, guess what? The next day you won’t feel too well. That is unwanted. It is hellish, and there was a direct cause.
Friend1: And so not only is the hellish realm real, but there are specific actions that lead to residence there?
Friend2: Of course. Sin is just doing things the wrong way. To say there are no negative consequences to improper actions is to ignore reality. I put my hand in fire, I will get burned. Others tell me not to beforehand. I don’t listen to them. “What is this sin that they speak of? What is this burning that I have never experienced? They must be making it up.”
Friend1: Is residence in hell permanent? Is there a such thing as eternal damnation?
Friend2: This is where the Vedas provide the most clarity. Heaven and hell exist, and so does the in-between, namely the earthly realm. Heaven is a little better, hell a little worse, and on earth you have experiences of both. The idea is that all three are part of the material world, which means temporary. The eternal living beings residing in a temporary land.
Friend1: Do good and go to heaven.
Friend2: Do bad and go to hell.
Friend1: What about in between? Some good and some bad.
Friend2: Depends. You might go to heaven and hell, as described with Duryodhana in the Mahabharata. You might stay here. Rebirth on earth. Pretty straightforward.
Friend1: Where does religion play into this?
Friend2: Real religion is dharma. The faith aspect you are referencing makes little difference. Real religion is based on principles in piety, with corresponding qualities, such as austerity, cleanliness, honesty and compassion. Behave piously and you go to heaven. Show the good qualities. Follow higher authority instead of the senses.
Friend1: Is there a way to escape rebirth altogether?
Friend2: That is the ultimate objective. Heaven is like the candy offered to the child as reward for taking medicine. The candy is not important; the medicine is. Similarly, the purification of the consciousness is what matters most, not the temporary enjoyment in the heavenly realm. The idea is to eventually clear the consciousness of all material contamination, allowing bhakti to have majority influence.
Friend1: Devotion, but to whom?
Friend2: God the person. Be devoted to Him in thought, word and deed. In that highest platform of consciousness, there is no concern paid to heaven or hell. As Maharishi Valmiki notes, the pure devotees don’t mind going to hell, since wherever they are they see the Supreme Lord standing beautifully in their heart.
No matter to which place landing,
In heart Bhagavan beautifully standing.
So for wise hell not a concern,
A real place with demerits to earn.
Be good and to heaven go,
But all such temporary so.
Glimpses already in this life to receive,
So why difficulty in it to believe?