Life and death in Hinduism is different from what the other major religions of the world believe and Hinduism afterlife concepts can be challenging to understand. Like Buddhists they believe in a karmic cycle of rebirth where the life you live now affects how you will be reborn in your next life. However, in Hinduism this ‘karmic debt’ determines not just what or who you will be reborn as, but also of the fourteen upper and lower worlds you may go to upon your death to wait for your rebirth. The exception to this is the realms that form Brahmaloka: Jana, Tapah, and Satyam. Brahmaloka is the highest realm, the equivalent to the idea of ‘heaven’. It is here that souls join the Brahman and no longer experience the cycle of life, death and rebirth.
Did you live a life of good works or did you engage in a life of evil? If you were a righteous person then you probably ended up in Bhuh, Bhavah, Swah or Mahah. But if you were evil, truly bad, then you end up in Patala; this realm is the closest to a ‘hell’ that Hinduism comes. Much like the Catholic idea of purgatory, in Patala those who lived a life of evil spend time suffering until their karmic debt is repaid. Their atman will be stuck in Patala for what may seem like an eternity but they will be allowed to once again enter a body and begin again. However, unlike rebirth from a higher world, those who are reborn from Patala will come back as an animal and insect.
The cycle is continuous; even if you end up in one of the realms waiting for rebirth your soul is still journeying through the cycle. Because of this there isn’t much of a belief in spirits like ghosts; you may have a soul that lingers because it was not properly released from its body but once funeral rites are properly given they will either go to one of the realms or they will be immediately reborn and begin their cycle again. The realm you end up in is all just part of the journey of your soul until you have achieved oneness with Brahman.
Reincarnation is the process of a soul being reborn. It is a process that exists to help souls understand the most important truth of existence: that there is nothing on earth that will fill the deepest longing of their souls. Once they learn this lesson and reach true fulfillment then they are ready to journey to Brahmaloka and become one with Brahman. Brahman isn’t a being or a deity, rather, Brahman is a supreme spirit from which all souls come and to which all souls will return. It is a consciousness of peace and rest and our cosmic goal is to rejoin this consciousness once again after leaving it to experience life. Death, therefore, is not a time for sadness but for joy! It is a happy occasion, a chance for a loved one to maybe pass on to that singular existence or maybe to be reborn with still more lessons to learn.