How the Major Religions View the Afterlife


While the Buddhist text recognizes the existence of a self as a being that distinguishes one person from another, the Buddhist teachings state that the Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim concept of an eternal metaphysical soul is inaccurate. To Buddhists, the human person is but a temporary assemblage of various elements, both physical and psychical, and none of these individual aspects of a whole person can be isolated as the essential self; nor can the sum of them all constitute the self. Everything, all of reality, is in a constant state of change and decay. Because a human is composed of so many elements that are always in a state of flux, always dissolving and combining with one another in new ways, it is impossible to suggest that an individual could retain the same soul-self for eternity. Rather than atman, Buddhist doctrine teaches anatman/or, "no-self."

Although the Buddha (c. 567–487 B.C.E.) denied the Hindu concept of an immortal self that passes through a series of incarnations, he did accept the doctrines of karma ("actions," the cause-and-effect laws of material existence) and samsara (rebirth). If the Buddha recognized rebirth into another lifetime but did not believe in an essential self or soul, then what would be reborn? The Buddhist answer is difficult to comprehend; the various components in the perpetual process of change that constitute human beings do not reassemble themselves by random chance. The karmic laws determine the nature of a person's rebirth. Various aspects which make up a functioning human during his or her lifetime enter the santana, the "chain of being," whose various links are related one to the other by the law of cause and effect. While there is no atman or individual self that can be reincarnated, the "contingent self" that exists from moment to moment is comprised of aggregates that are burdened with the consequences of previous actions and bear the potential to be reborn again and again. Because the aggregates of each living person bear within them the fruits of past actions and desires, the moment of death sets in motion an immediate retribution for the consequences of these deeds, forcing the individual to be reborn once again into the unceasing cycle of karma and samsara. However, dharma, the physical and moral laws that govern the universe, flow through everything and everyone, thereby continually changing and rear-ranging every aspect of the human. Although driven by karma, the dharma rearranges the process of rebirth to form a new individual.

In his first sermon, the Noble Truth of Suffering (Dukha), the Buddha presented his views on the aggregates that constitute the human condition:

The Noble Truth of Suffering is this: Birth is suffering; aging is suffering; sickness is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are suffering; association with the unpleasant is suffering; dissociation with the pleasant is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering—in brief, the five aggregates of attachment are suffering.

In the Dhammapada (147:51) the Buddha speaks further of the destiny of all human flesh in quite graphic terms:

Behold this beautiful body, a mass of sores, a heaped up lump, diseased, much thought of, in which nothing lasts, nothing persists. Thoroughly worn out is this body, a nest of diseases, perishable.…Truly, life ends in death.…Of bones is this house made, plastered with flesh and blood. Herein are stored decay, death, conceit, and hypocrisy. Even ornamented royal chariots wear out. So too the body reaches old age. But the Dhamma of the Good grows not old. Thus do the Good reveal it among the Good.

The Buddha's advice to all those who wish to rise above the karmic laws of death and rebirth is to live a contemplative, religious life:

Men who have not led a religious life and have not laid up treasure in their youth, perish like old herons in a lake without fish. Men who have not led a religious life and have not laid up treasure in their youth lie like wornout bows, sighing after the past. (Dhammapada 155:56)

The counsel of the Buddha is quite similar to the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:19–21 when he admonished those who would follow him not to expend their energies accumulating treasures on Earth where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourself treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Dharma is the path to the goal of nirvana, which in Buddhist teachings can represent the final extinction of the desire to exist, or can also suggest a high level of mystical experience achieved through deep meditation or trance. It never means the complete annihilation of the self, only the squelching of the wish to be reborn. Most often, nirvana is meant to indicate a transformed state of human consciousness which achieves a reality independent of the material world.

Once the desire to continue existence in a material flesh form has been extinguished, and "when a son of the Buddha fulfills his course, in the world to come, he comes Buddha." To achieve one's Buddhahood in Buddhism is comparable to realizing Brahma, the Absolute and Ultimate, in Hinduism. Once those levels have been attained, it is believed that one is freed forever from material reality and becomes one with eternal reality.

There are many schools of historical Buddhism—Hinayana, Mahayana, Tantric, and Pure Land—and it is difficult to find consensus among them concerning the afterlife. Tibetan Buddhism's Book of the Dead provides an important source for an understanding of their concept of the afterlife journey of the soul. A lama (priest) sits at the side of the deceased and recites texts from the Book, a ritual which is thought to revive the bla, the life force within the body, and give it the power to embark upon a 49-day journey through the intermediate stage between death and rebirth. Such a recitation by the priest at the bedside of the deceased might include these words from the Tibetan Book of the Dead:

Since you [no longer] have a material body of flesh and blood, whatever may come—sounds, lights, or rays— are, all three, unable to harm you; you are incapable of dying. It is quite sufficient for you to know that these apparitions are your own thought-forms. Recognize this to be the bardo [the intermediate state after death].

If there is to be no rebirth for the soul, it appears before Yama, the god of the dead, to be judged. In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a direct link between one's earthly lifetimes and intermediate

The Fourteenth Dalai Lama. (AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS)
The Fourteenth Dalai Lama. (
stages of existence in the various spheres of paradise, extending to the appearance of the soul remaining the same as the one it assumed when living as a human on Earth.

Both Buddhism and Hinduism place Yama, god of the dead, in the position of judge in the afterlife, and these passages from the Rig-Veda depict the special reverence with which he was held:

Yama was the first to find us our abode, a place that can never be taken away, a place where our ancient Fathers have departed; all who are born go there by that path, treading their own. Meet the Fathers, meet Yama, meet with the fulfillment of wishes in the highest heaven; casting off imperfections, find anew your dwelling, and be united with a lustrous body.

Regardless of one's religious background, it is in the presence of death that all humans find themselves face to face with the single greatest mystery of their existence: Does life extend beyond the grave? Whether one believes in a supernatural heavenly kingdom, the inescapable laws of karma, or a state of eternal bliss, death remains a dreadful force beyond one's control. For untold millions of men and women the ceremonies of religion provide their only assurance that life goes on when the darkness of physical death envelops them.

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