Commentary on the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

Discourse 26: The Eighth Chapter Concludes – The Journey of the Soul After Death

The Eighth Chapter of the Bhagavadgita deals with the subject of life after death. The Puranas, the Upanishads, the Yoga Vasishtha and the Bhagavadgita contain many varieties of descriptions of the condition of the soul after it leaves this body. The Puranas, especially, go into a detailed, lurid description of the condition in which the soul finds itself—particularly if it has not done any merit, or if the merit it has done is so negligible that the wrongs it has committed outweigh the good or are on an equal footing with it.

The stories in the Garuda Purana and such other scriptures, even in the Bhagavata, are really frightening. When the soul departs from the body in the case of these lower, unpurified and negligibly religious souls, it is taken away by the messengers of Yama and placed before the Lord of Death for judgment.

It is said that Yama asks the soul, “What have you done?”

Ordinarily, it cannot remember anything. It will say, “I don’t know.”

The shock of separation from the body removes all memory, and it cannot remember what it has done in the previous life. It is said that then a hot rod, called a yamadanda, is kept on its head, and immediately it remembers its entire past. It knows every detail of the actions that it did, both good and bad.

The soul says, “I have done a little good, but have also made many mistakes and performed so many erroneous actions.”

Yama asks, “What do you have to say about it now?”

The soul replies, “I have got relatives. They will expiate them for me. They will conduct yajnas, charities, worship, sankirtans, bhajans and meditations in my name, and I shall be free from the consequence of the sins that I have committed or the mistakes that I have made.”

“Go then!” says Yama, “And see what they do.”

Apparently, it takes ten days for the soul to be brought back, so some ceremony is usually done on the tenth, eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth days. The soul hovers around, observing what the relatives are doing, and Yama’s messengers stand behind like policemen to see what is done. If an expiatory ceremony is done in the name of the soul, such as the Bhagavata Saptaham, the Rudra Yaga, the Narayana Bali and the Vishnu Yajna, and varieties of charities are done, and all those things that were dear to the soul are also given in gift, the effect of these good deeds is credited to the account of the soul and it is exonerated to that extent.

But suppose this is not done and, like modern boys, the relatives do not believe in these observances: “If our father died, let it go, that’s all. We won’t bother about it,” and there is no charity, no goodwill, and they behave as if nothing has happened; or, they do not even believe that something happens after death because they think that there is no life after death. If that is the case, the soul is dragged back. When the policemen know that someone is a culprit, and it is confirmed, they deal with him very severely. If they know that he is going to be released and nothing is going to happen to him, they do not bother much about it. But if his relatives have done nothing, it is certain that he is going to be punished, so for one year they drag the soul to the kingdom of the Lord of Death. At first they brought it within ten days because they wanted to know what was happening. When it is certain that it is going to be punished, they drag it, pull it, scratch and beat it, and it will be hungry and thirsty and bleeding. That is why another ceremony is done after one year; it takes one year for the soul to return to the abode of Yama. The varshika (annual) ceremony is very important. If nothing has been done on the tenth to thirteenth days after the passing of the soul, at least something should be done on the anniversary so that some mercy may be granted by Lord Yama before the sentence is passed.

If the soul has no merit at all, it will be sent to the land of punishment, whatever the punishment be. In the Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana, the Garuda Purana, etc., the type of punishment and difficulties that the soul has to undergo are described in such gory language that we would not like to be born into this world again.

When the soul is expunged of all its sins by suffering in the prison of Yama’s hell, it is released. It is said that then it is sent to Rudraloka, and will not be allowed to leave. To release the soul from Rudra’s clutches, Rudra Yajna is done. Then it is sent to Vaikuntha, so Vishnu Yajna is done; and after many, many years, the soul attains moksha. This is how a bad person gets purified in a very painful way, and then finally attains blessedness.

Or, if the soul has a tremendous attachment to relations and to wealth, it can be reborn into this world. A Muslim gentleman lived near a house in which a Hindu family had a little baby. The baby was very beautiful. The Muslim wanted to fondle it, sit it on his lap, but the Hindus would not allow the Muslim to touch the baby, which greatly disturbed him. The child grew up, and then the Muslim died. This child, which had grown up, started talking in Persian.

They asked, “What is this matter? Who are you?”

He replied, “I am that Muslim gentleman who wanted to caress this child, and you didn’t allow it; and now I am possessing it!”

This is the effect of attachments. And very intense attachments, which do not even give the soul time to take birth in this world, convert it into a ghost. Preta yoni is the outcome and, as described in the Bhagavata Purana, it hovers around in space, hungry and thirsty.

Here the Bhagavadgita describes the more glorious paths to the higher realms. Those who are not spiritually awakened but have done immensely good deeds reach a lower kingdom called Chandraloka, the realm of the moon, where they stay invisibly and enjoy the fruit of their good deeds. When the momentum of their good deeds, charitable deeds, etc., is exhausted, they come back into this world. But if a person is spiritually awakened and is not merely a good man—not merely a charitable or a philanthropic person—then the path is different. These two paths are called the northern path and the southern path.

Yatra kāle tvanāvṛttim āvṛttiṁ caiva yoginaḥ, prayātā yānti taṁ kālaṁ vakṣyāmi bharatarṣabha (8.23): “I shall now tell you,” says Bhagavan Sri Krishna, “about that path treading which one returns, and that path treading which one does not return. These two paths I shall describe to you now—uttaramarga or jyotirmarga, and dakshinamarga or dhumamarga, as they are called.”

Agnir jotir ahaḥ śuklaḥ ṣaṇmāsā uttarāyaṇam, tatra prayātā gacchanti brahma brahmavido janāḥ (8.24): Everything is filled with light, everything is filled with divinity, and everything is superintended over by a divinity. The fire of cremation—that is the agni, the physical fire, which has a divinity of its own—assumes a divine form in the case of a person who is to rise up to the celestial realms. Then there is a divinity superintending over the daytime, in contrast with the night. If a person passes away during the daytime, and during the bright half of the lunar month, and during the northern movement of the sun, he shall reach the solar orb—Suryaloka. From there, he will be taken up further.

The Upanishads describe many more stages than the ones mentioned here. And at a particular stage beyond the sun, a superhuman entity is supposed to come and take the soul by the hand. Up to the solar orb, or even a little beyond, is called the realm of lightning. That is, beyond the sun, the lightning of Brahmaloka flashes forth. The individuality consciousness of the soul slowly gets diminished at that time, and it is not aware of any self-effort. It does not know that it is moving at all, inasmuch as the ego is almost gone. It is said that at that time an amanava purusha deputed by Brahma himself comes down in a luminous form, and leads the soul to the abode of Brahma, the Creator. This is the path of krama mukti, or gradual liberation, in which the soul is supposed to be glorying in Brahmaloka until Brahma himself is dissolved at the end of time—at the end of a hundred years of his life—and then the Absolute Brahman is reached.

But there is a possibility of immediate salvation without passing through all these stages—a hundredfold promotion, as it were. It is the dissolution of the soul in the supreme Brahman at this very spot. The soul need not have to travel in space and time because it is a jivanmukta purusha, one who has attained to a consciousness where there is no distance to be travelled. For him, there is no solar orb or anything else. He has spread his consciousness everywhere, in all beings: sarvabhūtahite ratāḥ (12.4). He is the soul of all beings, like Suka Maharishi, Vyasa, Vasishtha, etc. When his soul spreads itself everywhere in the cosmos, where is the question of moving? Na tasya prāṇā utkrāmanti (B.U. 4.4.6): His pranas do not depart, as is the case of other people. Brahmaiva san brahmāpyeti: They dissolve here, just now. That is, the moment the soul departs the body, it enters the supreme Brahman, the Absolute, then and there, without having to pass through all these stages. But in the case of krama mukti, the graduated steps mentioned in the Bhagavadgita, it is different.

The divinity of fire, the divinity of daytime, the divinity of the lunar month’s bright half, and the divinity ruling over the northern movement of the sun will take care of the soul and bring it up. In the Moksha Parva of the Mahabharata there is the story of a great ascetic who rose up from his body, and a little flame rising up through the sky could be seen. It rose higher and higher until it reached the orb of the sun, where a divine being emerged from the solar orb and received it. According to our tradition, the sun is not a material substance. It is a divinity—hiranmaya purusha—in which a golden-coloured Narayana is seated. Just as a human being is not a body, the sun is also not a body; and just as we see only the body of a person and do not see what the person is on the inside, we do not see divinity of the sun. We see only its outer appearance, which we call helium, atomic energy, etc., in just the same way as we call a person bone and flesh, nerves, blood, etc.—which is not a correct description. So there is something beyond the human concept here. Divinities are everywhere in the cosmos, in every atom, which is also controlled and enveloped by the universal God. If God is everywhere, why should He not be in every atom and in everything? In the case of such a realisation, there is immediate dissolution.

Dhūmo rātris tathā kṛṣṇaḥ ṣaṇmāsā dakṣiṇāyanam, tatra cāndramasaṁ jyotir yogī prāpya nivartate (8.25). There are those who have not spiritually awakened themselves, have not done spiritual meditation, and have an insufficient devotion to God. Even if they are very good people, highly charitable and humanistic in their approach, they will not be allowed to move along this northern path to the sun. They will not go to Brahmaloka. They will go to a lower realm, called Chandraloka. The smoke which rises from the fire during cremation will be their guiding principle. The dark half of the lunar month, and the southern movement of the sun, signify a deficiency in divine powers and a lesser chance of the soul going up along the path of brightness. It will reach Chandraloka, where it will enjoy the fruits of the good deeds it has done. Whatever good deeds were done will have their effect. Every action produces a reaction. Any good, charitable deed will bring the soul an abundance of joy in Chandraloka; but the soul will come back, because anyone who has not realised the universality of God will come back. Only a soul who is totally devoted to God will gradually pass through these stages of divine ordinances to the Ultimate Being. But if we are united with God here itself, we will immediately merge into God.

Śuklakṛṣṇe gatī hyete jagataḥ śāśvate mate (8.26). Broadly speaking, these are two paths of the soul after death. Either we go that way or we go this way, according to our karma and our spiritual status. Śuklakṛṣṇe gatī hyete jagataḥ śāśvate mate, ekayā yāty anāvṛttim anyayāvartate punaḥ: By the one path, one does not come back to this world; by the other path, one returns.

Naite sṛtī pārtha jānan yogī muhyati kaścana, tasmāt sarveṣu kāleṣu yogayukto bhavārjuna (8.27). Having known clearly that these are the two paths, who would like to tread the lesser path? “Therefore, be a yogi, O Arjuna, and try to tread the upper path.” Whoever knows the merits and demerits of these two paths will certainly pursue the path of merit rather than the path of demerit. It is the lack of knowledge that prevents us from working for our own salvation. But if we know that such a thing exists, and that even after death our karmas will pursue us wherever we go—that even if we go to the nether regions, we will be caught by the nemesis of our actions, the results of what we have done, because there is a law which punishes us—we will obey the law. And if we know that there are these two paths, and there is a chance of our entering into the lower one, we will certainly work to attain the higher one. Knowing this, we will certainly become wiser and, therefore, work for a state of establishment in yoga—union with the divinities in the various graduated scales of development, or with the Supreme Absolute itself, whatever the case may be. Either way, one will be a supreme yogi who is united with the Absolute now, or one will be a graduated yogi who will move systematically through the stages mentioned. Anyway, knowing this, one will not come to grief. Tasmāt sarveṣu kāleṣu yogayukto bhavārjuna: “Therefore, become a yogi, Arjuna!”

Vedeṣu yajñeṣu tapaḥsu caiva dāneṣu yat puṇyaphalaṁ pradiṣṭam, atyeti tat sarvam idaṁ viditvā yogī paraṁ sthānam upaiti cādyam (8.28). These discourses that you are hearing now as satsanga—the knowledge of these wonderful things beyond this world that you are gaining—is greater than all the good deeds that you do by way of charity, and all the sacrifices that you perform. All the merits that you will accrue by doing charity, good deeds and even the study of scriptures like the Vedas, and by doing austerity and living an abstemious life will bring you some good results. But this phala of satsanga, the blessing of this highly purifying training that your soul is undergoing by listening to these glorious eternal realities, certainly has a greater capacity to produce an effect than all the charities, studies and scriptures, etc. It transcends even the Vedas, and you attain to that place, that abode, which is the Ancient One. With this, we conclude the Eighth Chapter.