Ideas and beliefs about dying, death, an afterlife, and rebirth, about the continuing “intactness” of what for lack of a better common word might be called the “soul” is a rich mosaic.
There is an old Muslim story about the inevitably of death. According to this fable, a man of much accomplishment and filled with self-importance made an unusual agreement with Hazrat Izraeel – the angel of death. He told Izraeel that he would be willing to accompany him (as though he had a choice), but only if Izraeel would send him notice well in advance. The agreement was made. Weeks became months and the months turned into years. One bitterly cold night, as the man sat alone thinking of his success in life, Izraeel tapped him on his shoulder. “You are here too soon” the man cried out. “You sent no messenger. I thought we had an agreement!” Izraeel whispered “Notice your hair, once it was full and black, now it has streaks of silver in it! Observe your face in the mirror and see the wrinkles. Yes! I have sent many messages through the years! I have kept my part. I am sorry that you are not ready for me but the order of Almighty God cannot be averted!”
Truly it seems, our existence does not cease with our death in the Muslim faith. Instead we only shed our bodies as we are accompanied to the kingdom of Allah by the angel of death.
The Jewish faith is more focused on what the living do after someone dies. What comes after death seems not to be universally agreed in Judaism. It was not until the Pharisees (c. 100 B.C.E.) that the notion of a spiritual life after death developed in any meaningful way. The Pharisees, who were the forerunners of the rabbis, taught that when the Torah spoke of reward for following God’s ways; that the reward would be forthcoming in an afterlife, or Olam Ha-Ba (world to come) as they called it. There is also a concept of purgatory (gehenna) and reincarnation (gilgul). Thus, in Judaism there is a belief in some sort of existence after this life.
In Hinduism, the soul (atman) is eternal and life and death is a cycle (samsara), of which there are four levels. Devayana, the way of the gods, is for those who have experienced enlightenment. These individuals go to Brahmaloka, the highest heaven and eventually achieve complete liberation. Pitriyana, known as the way of the fathers, is for those whose austerity, devoutness and charity is rewarded with travel after death to Chandraloka, the lunar sphere, where great happiness is experienced until the soul returns to earth and the individual ultimately seeks and attains Devayana. The third cycle is hell, where a soul is given the opportunity to expiate sins, return to earth in human form and try again. The fourth cycle is for the worst offenders, who must pass though many lives as creatures of the earth in order to be sufficiently purified before returning to human form to try once more. Concepts of karma, the afterlife, reincarnation, and rebirth are well developed.
Buddhism is a bit more complex in belief and philosophy regarding the “soul” and death. Life is part of a greater cosmic energy. Imperfectly generalized, the soul does not continue intact but continually changes and develops. Each person’s karma affects the circumstances of their new life. Rather than calling this a continuation the term awakening might be more appropriate. Gradually, we all progress towards Nirvana. Also, in Tibetan Buddhism and other disciplines the stages between death and rebirth are thoroughly and exhaustively studied and described.
The many other faiths and spiritual practices adhered to by millions around the world Zorastrianism, Bahai, Shinto, Wiccan, Sikh, and Christian – all include some notion of the continuance of a life force, or soul after death of the body and, for the most part, some sort of reincarnation on earth and continuation of the soul on a path towards perfection, whether in the eyes of Man or of God. In all of these faiths, where we go, what we are faced with when we return or are reincarnated, and what happens in between is inexorably linked to how we have conducted ourselves in this world, for which there are a variety of guides or tenets; what is commonly known in the Judeo-Christian tradition as the 10 Commandments.
For myself, all of these beliefs have merit. What I find interesting is that our beliefs are based on the experience and perspective of our present physical lives.
Somehow, this life seems to play out on a more important, if not grander, scale than “eternity.” So, just as I accept the best and common ground of all faiths, I, too, often prefer to focus on the richness and variety of our present lives.
This poem from my book, A Life Well Lived, A Death Well Met, expresses my sentiments.
Fabric of Our Lives
The artisan knows better … He sees a kaleidoscope
Of beauty reflected within and without, a purpose
Known to each of us if we but ask
and listen for the answer