The last week has been one of sleepless nights as I sat glued to Dan Brown’s “Inferno” ( gone are those days when I could finish books of such volume  in one night!). The book makes  a number of references to Dante’s “ Divine Comedy” and through that introduces readers  to “Hell” as a concept in the Judeo Christian faith!  In a way, it has been a fascinating experience reading the book ,doing some web search to understand more and then discussing with my husband ( who is a Christian) about sin and hell!

I now wonder why are we so obsessed with the idea of heaven and hell? As a Hindu by birth and upbringing ( now that is a difficult identity to sustain given the different facets of this unique religion) I have a vague idea of the words “Swarg” and “Narak” – heaven and hell but the religion as such does not clearly indicate who deserves to go where. There are no catalogued groups of sins with their defined punishments. But Hinduism does have its own laws ( if I may say so?) of reward and punishment in the form of birth and rebirth! How many times have you heard someone tell you that in their next birth they do not want to be born as something?

Whatever be the religion, the idea of reward and punishment seems to be the driving force in instilling “virtues” among the common man/woman. This in itself defeats the entire purpose of what religion should be all about. If religion is about teaching us to be good human beings then one should be able to do it without the fear of being roasted in fire or being reborn as a grasshopper! We extend unto the world beyond our comprehension, our own desires and fears! Whoever said that there are Apsaras in heaven was probably a lecherous guy, a womanizer for whom sexual bliss was most important in the list of desires. Now there is nothing wrong in that except that these same feelings are also listed as “sins” in some other contexts.

In terms of listing vices, I must say that there is certainly a cultural or contextual  bias. “Gluttony” for example is not viewed as a sin in India given that many of our mythological characters like Bheem were known for their large appetites. But “lust” and “adultery” seem universal vices that can make you suffer terrible torture in the Judeo Christian version of hell or be born impotent in the Hindu context!

While the issue of reward and punishment being the drivers behind any religion is one issue there is also another –whether hell or heaven are indeed other worldly places? I believe that they definitely aren’t! You can experience either or both right here, everyday of your life depending on your life conditions. A child laborer who is denied education, made to work , being scolded and beaten by the employer experiences hell every day of his/her life. There is no way we can justify it saying that he is suffering the fruits of the sins of his previous life because that would condone what others are doing to him/her! It is also no point saying that he should suffer in silence because god is testing him and that his patience will pay off at some point after his death in some other world!

We only have one point of existence on this planet and that is the present. Whatever happens to us at that point is our experience of heaven or hell! Our conscience is the God who lives within us and it is he who guides us . It is up to us to listen to him or silence him.  It is but natural that anything good or  bad we do comes back to us at some point of  time in our lives. If we help someone the person remembers it and returns the favor and if we harm someone people remember that too…!

It is meaningless these days to pontificate about sin and describe creative and philosophical ways in which it would be punished. If you love to eat , eat by all means but do not deprive someone else of food in your desire to fulfil your appetite. If we indulge in “adultery” then it is important to be open about it and tell one’s partner that the relationship is over because by doing it in the sly one is being dishonest to the relationship.

In Dante’s description of hell there is one sentence that stands out. He says “ The darkest place in hell will be reserved for those who maintain neutrality at the time of moral crisis” – this sums up everything else! When we do not speak out against injustice we are allowing hell to rule and preventing the power of heaven to act. And whoever said that one had to die for this to happen?


  1. I personally do not believe in hell, heaven, and rebirth. One more thing I don't believe is "God testing someone". God must know everything about anything or anyone. Therefore, he does not have to "test" like a teacher testing a student.

    Yes, it is good to drop vice. A Vice Admiral should drop his vice before becoming Admiral. A Vice Captain should drop his vice before becoming Captain. (Just an attempted humor.)

  2. “The darkest place in hell will be reserved for those who maintain neutrality at the time of moral crisis.” This aptly sums up all that one has to catagorise as sin.
    It is in fact a sick mind that devised the notion of sin and perpetual abomination. The Christian version of heaven and hell and the raison d'être for being consigned to either is rather a thought out ploy to harness man’s mind and his acts. The Hindu version of karma and rebirth is also equally bizarre that if one is reborn as a wiggle for one’s sin in the previous life, I have to ask what purpose of correction and punishment will it serve if one is condemned to suffer not knowing what wrong deeds one did in the past life?
    Mercifully Buddhism doesn’t talk such nonsense and hence it was not sold well .
    As you said, heaven and hell is here and the kingdom of heaven is within you. The problem with men like Christ was that they spoke in jargons and polysemy of such utterances has created different interpretations.
    To embrace religion to have the passport to heaven is stupid as doing things that violates ones conscience. I’m yet to see a couple of people who tread the righteous path without fear and without the suffocation of religion and faith.

  3. I feel the concept of such concepts is lost the moment one tries to locate these "spaces" in a physical realm instead of the metaphysical.

    In Hinduism, we do not have the concept of sins as we do in Christianity. We have "paap" which is simply a bad deed but there is no word in Sanskrit or Hindi for 'sin' - that concept itself is Western. Because in our religion, whether you do a good deed or a bad deed, there is always a consequence :)

    And yes, Heaven and Hell are on earth - good actions lead you to find your paradise on earth. And if you are being negative in terms of thought and action, earth will be your living hell!

  4. Interesting thought...

    The way I look at it is somewhat similar. I just look at this present moment, this present life.

    Since I have no clue to what was in my previous life - or what I was in my previous life - conversly, there is no point in spending lot of time, worrying about what will happen after life.

  5. Meera, I feel my last sentence may be misunderstood and read that religion is the panacea.
    What I like to mention here is, I have not seen a person a vile one at that reformed and brought into the righteous way by the influence of religion.
    Because what is now seen around is damn the rest as they may not follow us.

  6. I also read Inferno last week, though I never managed to finish it, I was bored halfway and gave it up! :) At one level I liked his explanations about history of Florence and details about places like the secret stairs in Uffizi museum, at another, I thought he was showing off his knowledge of the city and its history and unneccessarily prolonging his book.

    BTW, Dante lived in Bologna for some time and I have heard that he was inspired to write some of the passages about the hell by some statues of Bologna! :)

  7. Rightly said, Meera. The idea of Heaven, Hell and rebirth is put forth by almost all religions, but to me it is the preset that matters :)

  8. @ SG well said - Vice Admiral and Vice captains certain need to drop their vice. I wonder how that word was coined :)

    @ Cloud Nine and Pradeep Nair glad that both of you also care about the present - Cloud Nine so glad that you could make it back here and Pradeep welcome to this space!

  9. @ Anil you are right- religion unfortunately does not seem to have influenced anyone positively in the recent past ( though I think Vishwamitra used to be dacoit before he turned into a sage). About those embracing religion currying favors with God, I also do not agree. I don't know if you have read the poem "Abou Ben Adam" -it is about a man who loved his kind and was therefore blessed by God .

    Divya I am sure Hinduism views "Paap" with equal seriousness though it offers you a "way out" where you can do "Prayashchyit" to get past it.

  10. @ Sunil, yes I agree with you with about Dan Brown showing off his knowledge of Florence! And about Dante living in Bologna-was that during his exile? He probably missed his beloved Florence and therefore the statues of Bologna seemed like images from hell :)

  11. Seriously I don't believe in this God punishing business... People just reap what they sow.. a very well articulated write up.. enjoyed reading it :)

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  13. Came across this post on accident (was looking for something else), but I enjoyed your take on this. I've written in the past for anthropology papers about some of the differences in viewpoint between India and the West, and why things developed as they did. I think your post her illuminates some of the same very eloquently. Thanks!


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