“Devotees solely engaged in the devotional service of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Narayana, never fear any condition of life. For them the heavenly planets, liberation and the hellish planets are all the same, for such devotees are interested only in the service of the Lord.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 6.17.28)
न कुतश्चन बिभ्यति
na kutaścana bibhyati
1. The heavenly planets
This is the reward for pious behavior. When you see a person growing up in a family following the Vedic tradition perform some ritual in their house, when they fast on a certain day, when they give in charity to specific people at a specific time of the year – the purpose is most often to accumulate pious credits.
These are known as sukriti in Sanskrit. You can use the comparison to an indoor arcade or playground. At the establishment you purchase a card that has a certain dollar amount on it. That amount then translates to time on different games and rides. With every experience in enjoyment, the balance depletes. Once it reaches zero, the balance has to be reloaded.
As money does not grow on trees, there has to be some work in order to receive money. We can equate that with piety for this context. Sin would be something that prevents the accumulation of money, or that which causes the loss of the balance for an unintended reason.
Bhagavad-gita describes the heavenly planets to be a place of extended and enhanced material enjoyment. We get glimpses of heaven in our earthly experience, and so we can correlate by multiplying the effect, in theory.
2. The hellish planets
The concept is almost identical, except the work is on the opposite end. Impious behavior. Sin. Killing people for no reason. Stealing the fruits of someone else’s labor. Dishonesty as a habit. Addiction to illicit behaviors, like gambling and associating with prostitutes.
We have experience of hellish life already, and so the destination of the hellish planets, patala-loka, is just a more extreme version of the same. Extended pain and suffering. Desperately wanting escape, but seemingly no hope in sight.
As heaven and hell are both part of the material world, the residence in either place is not fixed. We get confirmation from the Bhagavad-gita, where Krishna describes how after many years of enjoyment in svarga-loka, a person is forced to leave. This is upon expiry of their pious credits.
ते तं भुक्त्वा स्वर्ग-लोकं विशालं
क्षीणे पुण्ये मर्त्य-लोकं विशन्ति
एवं त्रयी-धर्मम् अनुप्रपन्ना
गतागतं काम-कामा लभन्ते
te taṁ bhuktvā svarga-lokaṁ viśālaṁ
kṣīṇe puṇye martya-lokaṁ viśanti
evaṁ trayī-dharmam anuprapannā
gatāgataṁ kāma-kāmā labhante
“When they have thus enjoyed heavenly sense pleasure, they return to this mortal planet again. Thus, through the Vedic principles, they achieve only flickering happiness.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.21)
Liberation, mukti, is the enjoyment accompanying release from the cycle of birth and death. This means that liberation is more or less a permanent achievement. It is a bodiless state in that the dichotomy between spirit and the temporary form covering it ceases. There is only one identity.
To help in understanding, there is one kind of mukti where the reward is the same type of body as Narayana. This is a bluish complexion with four hands and opulent ornaments decorating the body. Everyone looks the same in that destination for that liberation, except the real Narayana has the Shrivatsa mark to distinguish Himself from others. He is always the Supreme Lord, after all.
There is a verse in Shrimad Bhagavatam which describes the mood of the servants of Narayana. They do not mind heaven, hell or liberation. It is all the same to them. A similar comparison is made by Maharishi Valmiki in the Ramacharitamanasa. He remarks that devotees of Rama, who is an incarnation of Narayana, do not mind even going to hell, since they always see the beautiful husband of Sita standing there, holding His bow and arrow.
This is the key distinction. Eternal sight. Not that they carry a physical, visibly manifest form of Narayana with them wherever they go. The sight is the byproduct of a pure consciousness. They have the spiritual vision. They know that the entire creation belongs to Narayana. Therefore, they see Him everywhere. They do not make distinctions between good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant.
Studying this feature, what wise person wouldn’t take up service to Narayana? The process is easy. Simply chant the holy names and begin the transformation into purification: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
For them not important to tell,
Distinction between heaven and hell.
Experience really the same,
Since relishing His holy name.
Like Valmiki the poet to know,
That seeing Rama standing with bow.
This achievement most worthy to try,
The experience an unparalleled high.
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