World Scripture, A Comparative Anthology Of Sacred Texts

Editor, Andrew Wilson


The Passage Beyond

The passage into the next life at the moment of death is a nearly impenetrable mystery for us who have not yet experienced it. There are published accounts of near-death experiences by people who have been resuscitated from clinical death; they report a passing into another world, meeting a being of light, and feeling great warmth and accepting love. Perhaps they have experienced the first stages of the passage. But the religions of the world are nearly unanimous in describing another, less comfortable event: the individual undergoes a judgment where he must review his life with unsparing honesty. Yet even at that crucial moment the dying person may, by focusing his mind on God and accepting the Light that seems to embrace him, leap to a higher realm. Thus texts like the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Bhagavad Gita give counsel on the way to assure a safe passage. Jainism, above all, emphasizes the importance of control in the transition from this life to the next by the ideal of Sallekhana, the holy death, which is attained by the aspirant as he exerts himself in fasting and meditation.

The Self, having in dreams enjoyed the pleasures of sense, gone hither and thither, experienced good and evil, hastens back to the state of waking from which he started.

As a man passes from dream to wakefulness, so does he pass from this life to the next.

When a man is about to die, the subtle body, mounted by the intelligent self, groans--as a heavily laden cart groans under its burden.

When his body becomes thin through old age or disease, the dying man separates himself from his limbs, even as a mango or a fig or a banyan fruit separates itself from its stalk, and by the same way that he came he hastens to his new abode, and there assumes another body, in which to begin a new life.

When his body grows weak and he becomes apparently unconscious, the dying man gathers his senses about him and, completely withdrawing their powers, descends into his heart. No more does he see form or color without.

He neither sees, nor smells, nor tastes. He does not speak, he does not hear. He does not think, he does not know. For all the organs, detaching themselves from his physical body, unite with his subtle body. Then the point of his heart, where the nerves join, is lighted by the light of the Self, and by that light he departs either through the eye, or through the gate of the skull, or through some other aperture of the body. When he thus departs, life departs; and when life departs, all the functions of the vital principle depart. The Self remains conscious, and, conscious, the dying man goes to his abode. The deeds of this life, and the impressions they leave behind, follow him.

As a caterpillar, having reached the end of a blade of grass, takes hold of another blade and draws itself to it, so the Self, having left behind it [a body] unconscious, takes hold of another body and draws himself to it.

As a goldsmith, taking an old gold ornament, molds it into another, newer and more beautiful, so the Self, having given up the body and left it unconscious, takes on a new and better form, either that of the Fathers, or that of the Celestial Singers, or that of the gods, or that of other beings, heavenly or earthly.

Hinduism. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.3.34-4.4.4

Pre-recorded is the year and hour of nuptials: Gather ye all to anoint the door-step. Friend! utter blessing that with the Lord, the departed be united. In each home arrives this courier-packet, Calls continually keep arriving. Says Nanak, Contemplate Him who sends the call. May the day of union for each arrive!

Sikhism. Adi Granth, Kirtan Sohila, M.1, p. 12

O nobly-born... the body which you have now is called the thought-body of propensities. Since you do not 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).

Buddhism. Tibetan Book of the Dead

Brihadanyaka Upanishad 4.3.34-4.4.4: Cf. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.3.11-14, pp. 333f. These verses deal with rebirth for those who have not attained the highest. The Upanishad (4.4.6-7, p. 352) describes the passage of those who will pass beyond the realm of samsara to unity with Brahman. Kirtan Sohila, M.1: The passage to death is welcomed with this Peal of Laudation, recited at the finale of the funeral service as well as daily as an evening prayer. Union with Creator is likened to marriage. Through absorption in praising God, the soul on departing the body will find union with God and escape the wheel of transmigration.

Those who remember me at the time of death will come to me. Do not doubt this. Whatever occupies the mind at the time of death determines the destiny of the dying; always they will tend toward that state of being. Therefore, remember me at all times....

Remembering me at the time of death, close down the doors of the senses and place the mind in the heart. Then, while absorbed in meditation, focus all energy upwards towards the head. Repeating in this state the divine Name, the syllable OM that represents the changeless Brahman, you will go forth from the body and attain the supreme goal.

Hinduism. Bhagavad Gita 8.5-7, 12-13

If this thought occurs to a monk, "I am sick and not able, at this time, to regularly mortify the flesh," that monk should regularly reduce his food; regularly reducing his food and diminishing his sins, he should take proper care of his body, being immovable like a beam; exerting himself he dissolves his body....

This is the truth: speaking truth, free from passion, crossing the samsara, abating irresoluteness, knowing all truth and not being known, leaving this frail body. Overcoming all sorts of pains and troubles through trust in this, he accomplishes this fearful religious death. Even thus he will in due time put an end to existence. This has been adopted by many who were free from delusion; it is good, wholesome, proper, beatifying, meritorious. Thus I say.

Jainism. Acarangasutra 1.7.6

Bhagavad Gita 8.5-13: This teaches that one's prayer and attitude at the time of death is all-important for the soul's subsequent journey. Regardless of the quality of one's life, just remembering God at the time of death can lead to liberation. Yet since death may come suddenly, and may be accompanied by much pain and distraction, the habit of remembering God should be nurtured throughout life. Some Hindus name their children with divine names in order that, at the time of death, the natural human desire to think of one's child- ren will cause them to meditate on the divine name and thus win beatitude. For instance, the story of Ajamil in Srimad Bhagavatam 6.1 describes a dishonest man who on his deathbed lay thinking of his youngest son called Narayana (a name of Krishna), and hence inadvertently he found liberation. In contrast to this view, see Qur'an 4.17-18, p. 907. Acarangasutra 1.7.6: Sallekhana means to fast oneself to death while in the complete control of the passions through meditation and in full mindfulness. Such a holy death leads to Nirvana or to rebirth in the celestial realms. Lay people and monks alike may aspire to the holy death when the body has begun to deteriorate in old age or from a terminal illness. Then, under proper supervision and according to established ritual, they make an end that is at the same time a moment of purity, free of passion or delusion. Cf. Uttaradhyayana Sutra 4.7, p. 741; Gittin 57b, p. 886.

At the moment of death the sum of all the experiences of life on earth comes to the surface of the mind--for in the mind are stored all impressions of past deeds--and the dying man then becomes absorbed in these experiences. Then comes complete loss of memory. Next there arises before man's mind the vision of his life to come, a vision regulated by his impressions of his past deeds; and he no longer recollects his life on earth. This complete forgetfulness of his past identity is death.

His complete acceptance of another state and identification with a new body is said to be his birth. He no longer remembers his past life, and, though he has existed before, he considers himself newly born.

His next birth is regulated by the deeds of the present life--the deeds which make up his character. If his character is dominated by light, he achieves a higher birth, that of a deva or of a sage; if by passion, he is returned to earth as a demon or as a man; and if by darkness he is born from the lower wombs.

Hinduism. Srimad Bhagavatam 11.15

Leaving the dead body on the ground like a log of wood or a clod of earth, the relatives depart with averted faces; but spiritual merit follows the soul.

Let him therefore always slowly accumulate spiritual merit, in order that it may be his companion after death; for without merit as his companion he will traverse a gloom difficult to traverse.

That companion speedily conducts the man who is devoted to duty and effaces his sins by austerities, to the next world, radiant and clothed with an ethereal body.

Hinduism. Laws of Manu 4.241-43

He, having effected an activity of body that is harmful, effected an activity of speech that is harmful, effected an activity of mind that is harmful, arises in a world that is harmful. Because he has uprisen in a world that is harmful, harmful sensory impingements assail him. He, being assailed by harmful sensory impingements, experiences a harmful feeling, without exception painful, even as do creatures in Niraya Hell. In this way, there is the uprising of a being from what he has come to be; he uprises according to what he does; when he has uprisen sensory impingements assail him. So I speak thus: Creatures are heir to deeds.

Buddhism. Majjhima Nikaya i.389-90, Kukkuravatikasutta

And every man's augury have we fastened to his own neck, and We shall bring forth for him on the Day of Resurrection a book which he will find wide open. "Read your book! Your soul suffices as a reckoner against your this day."

Islam. Qur'an 17.13-14

Srimad Bhagavatam 11.15: 'Light' (sattva), 'passion' (rajas), and 'darkness' (tamas) are the three gunas, qualities of embodied existence; see Bhagavad Gita 18.40, p. 383. This passage speaks of a new embodied birth, and is not the way of the highest soul, who is no longer entangled in the fetters of the gunas. Cf. Svetasvatara Upanishad 5.11-12, p. 696. Laws of Manu 4.241-243: Cf. Laws of Manu 4.238-39, p. 338; Dhammapada 219-20, p. 338. Majjhima Nikaya i.389-90: Cf. Qur'an 28.83-84, p. 339; Majjhima Nikaya iii.202-06, pp. 697f; Garland Sutra 10, p. 188. Qur'an 17.13-14: Cf. Qur'an 39.47-48, p. 190.

Towards the wicked man and the righteous one And him in whom right and wrong meet Shall the Judge act in upright manner, According to the laws of the present existence.

Zoroastrianism. Avesta, Yasna 33.1

Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it; from His presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done.

Christianity. Bible, Revelation 20.11-12

After you depart this life, God shall demand a reckoning of your deeds That in His ledger are recorded. Those that are rebellious, shall be summoned. Azrael, the angel of death, will hover over them, And trapped in a blind alley they will know not any escape. Saith Nanak, Falsehood must be destroyed; Truth in the end shall prevail.

Sikhism. Adi Granth, Ramkali-ki-Var 13, M.1, p. 953

At the gates of the land of the dead You will pass before a searching Judge. His justice is true and he will examine your feet, He will know how to find every stain, Whether visible or hidden under the skin; If you have fallen on the way he will know. If the Judge finds no stains on your feet Open your belly to joy, for you have overcome And your belly is clean.

African Traditional Religion. Dahomey Song

They that are born are destined to die; and the dead to be brought to life again; and the living to be judged, to know, to make known, and to be made conscious that He is God, He the Maker, He the Creator, He the Discerner, He the Judge, He the Witness, He the Complainant; He it is that will in future judge, blessed be He, with whom there is no unrighteousness, nor forgetful- ness, nor respect of persons, nor taking of bribes. Know also that everything is according to reckoning; and let not your imagination give you hope that the grave will be a place of refuge for you. For perforce you were formed, and perforce you were born, and perforce you live, and perforce you will die, and perforce you will in the future have to give account and reckoning before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.

Judaism. Mishnah, Abot 4.29

Yasna 33.1: Cf. Yasna 48.4, p. 409; Book of Mormon, Alma 41:3-4, p. 190. Revelation 20.11-12: Cf. Matthew 25.31-45, p. 990; Abot 3.20, p. 187; Qur'an 99.6-8, p. 190. Abot 4.29: Cf. Abot 3.20, p. 187.

Behold, two guardian angels appointed to learn [man's doings] learn and note them, one sitting on the right and one on the left. Not a word does he utter but there is a sentinel by him, ready to note it. And the stupor of death will bring truth before his eyes, "This was the thing which you were trying to escape!"

Islam. Qur'an 50.17-19

Anything evil refrain from doing; all good deeds do! So will you be released forever from the influence of evil stars, and always be encompassed by good guardian angels.

Taoism. Tract of the Quiet Way

The Good Spirit, who was born simultaneously with you, will come now and count out your good deeds with white pebbles, and the Evil Spirit, who was born simultaneously with you, will come and count out your evil deeds with black pebbles. Thereupon you will be greatly frightened, awed, and terrified, and will tremble; and you will attempt to tell lies, saying, "I have not committed any evil deed."

Then the Lord of Death will say, "I will consult the Mirror of karma." He will look in the Mirror, wherein every good and evil act is vividly reflected. Lying will be of no avail.

Then one of the executive furies of the Lord of Death will place a rope around your neck and drag you along; he will cut off your head, extract your heart, pull out your intestines, lick up your brain, drink your blood, eat your flesh, and gnaw your bones; but you will be incapable of dying. Although your body be hacked to pieces, it will revive again. The repeated hacking [symbolizing the pangs of the deceased's conscience] will cause intense pain and torture.

Even at the time that the pebbles are being counted out, be not frightened; tell no lies; and fear not the Lord of Death.

Your body being a mental body is incapable of dying even though beheaded and quartered. In reality, your body is of the nature of voidness; you need not be afraid. The Lords of Death are your own hallucinations. Your desire-body is a body of propensities, and void. Voidness cannot injure voidness; the qualityless cannot injure the qualityless. Apart from one's own hallucinations, in reality there are no such things existing outside oneself as Lord of Death, or god, or demon. Act so as to recognize this.

Buddhism. Tibetan Book of the Dead

The self is the maker and non-maker, and itself makes happiness and misery, is its own friend and its own foe, decides its own condition good or evil, and is its own river Veyarana [the river in which hell-beings are tormented].

Jainism. Madaghishloka

Qur'an 50.17-19: Cf. Qur'an 13.10-11, p. 190; 41.30-31, p. 368. Tract of the Quiet Way: Cf. Abot 4.13, p. 338. Tibetan Book of the Dead: Cf. Milarepa, p. 381. Madaghishloka: Cf. Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life 4.28-35, p. 392.

When we subject ourselves to the least discrimination or particularization, transformation takes place; otherwise, all things remain as void as space, as they inherently are. By dwelling our mind on evil things, hell arises. By dwelling our mind on good acts, paradise appears. Dragons and snakes are the transformations of venomous hatred, while heavenly Bodhisattvas are mercy personified. The upper regions are Wisdom crystallized, while the underworld is only another form of ignorance and infatuation.

Buddhism. Sutra of Hui Neng 6

Naturally every Hopi wants to join the spirits of his loved ones who have passed beyond. To that end he keeps his heart pure and is kind and generous to other people.

When a bad person, one who is known as "not-Hopi," dies, his fate is very different. Witches called the "Two Hearts" take him by the hand as soon as the breath is out of his body, and they lead him away to their own country. The country of the Two Hearts is as bad as they are themselves.

Native American Religions. Hopi tradition

The Trumpet will be sounded, and whoever is in heaven and whoever is on earth will be stunned, except for someone God may wish. Then another [blast] will be blown and behold, they will stand there watching! The earth will shine through its Lord's light and the Book will be laid open. Prophets and witnesses will be brought in, and judgment will be pronounced among them formally, and they will not be harmed. Every soul will be repaid for whatever it has done; He is quite aware of what they are doing.

The ones who disbelieve will be driven along to hell in throngs until, just as they come up to it, its gates will swing open and its keepers will say to them, "Did not messengers come to you from among yourselves reciting your Lord's verses to you and warning you about meeting [Him] on this day of yours?" They will say, "Of course!" But the Sentence about torment has still come due for disbelievers. Someone else will say, "Enter hell's gates to remain there. What an awful lodging will it be for the overbearing!"

The ones who have heeded their Lord will be driven along to the Garden in throngs until just as they come up to it, its gates will swing open and its keepers will tell them, "Peace be upon you! You have been good, so enter it to remain there." They will say, "Praise be to God who has held true to His promise for us and let us inherit the earth! We shall settle down anywhere we wish to in the Garden. How favored are such workers' wages!"

You will see the angels clustering around the Throne hymning their Lord's praise. Judgment will be pronounced on them formally, and they will say, "Praise be to God, Lord of the universe!"

Islam. Qur'an 39.68-75

Qur'an 39.68-75: Cf. Qur'an 69.13-37, p. 1098.

Whoever, man or woman, O Wise Lord, Shall give me what thou knowest is the best of this existence, To wit--reward for righteousness and the dominion with the Good Mind-- And all those whom I shall induce to worship such as you, With all those will I cross the Bridge of the Separator! The sacrificers and the sorcerer princes Have subdued mankind to the yoke of their dominion, To destroy existence through evil deeds: They shall be tortured by their own soul and their own conscience, When they come to the Bridge of the Separator, Forever to be inmates of the House of Evil.

Zoroastrianism. Avesta, Yasna 46.10-11

God will then set up a bridge over Gehenna and intercession will be allowed, and they will say, "O God, keep safe, keep safe." The believers will then pass over like the twinkling of an eye, like lightning, like wind, like a bird, like the finest horses and camels. Some will escape and be kept safe, some will be lacerated [by flesh-hooks and thorns which will rise up from Gehenna] and let go, and some will be pushed into the fire of Gehenna.

Islam. Hadith of Bukhari and Muslim

Yasna 46.10-11: Zarathustra promises blessings for those who support him and help the teaching achieve dominion in the world, and woe for the evil-doers who practice false religion. The 'Bridge of the Separator,' where the righteous and the wicked will be sorted out, is an image also found in popular Islam, as in the following tradition. Compare also the Hindu theme of crossing the waters: see Atharva Veda 12.2.26-27, p. 543. Hadith of Bukhari and Muslim: This bridge is called Sirat.


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