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?