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The idea of heaven and hell exists in some form or another in all religions. This gives the religions a great hold upon the masses keeping them completely under their sway, inducing them to do good and to keep from evil. Without this it would be almost impossible, for man is always being tempted to evil, and great difficulties stand in his way when he attempts to do good, since the wicked seem to possess the kingdom of the earth, while the righteous look to the mercy of God. If no such promise had been given, no other reward, however great, would ever have united mankind in the religion of faith.
The reward that God gives is quite different from any earthly comforts and riches, but in early times, and even with most people now, it could only be expressed in the form of earthly rewards. That is why the Apostles received the power to speak to every man in his own language.
The early scriptures were given at a time when the evolution of the world was such that people were eager for whatever material comfort was obtainable. If it had been at this time, something else would have been promised. They were told, 'If you will keep from sin, then you will be amid thornless lota trees and banana trees laden with fruit, the shade of them spreading over you, with water flowing and couches set up. Under them shall walk youths ever-blooming, and bright ones with large eyes like hidden pearls. There shall be created for you a new creation, and maidens young and beautiful, with golden goblets and ewers and a cup of flowing wine. Brows ache not thereat nor do the senses fail. And fruits of what you like best, and flesh of birds, whatever you desire. Ye shall hear therein no vain talk nor sin, only the cry, 'Peace, peace!''
When a child is told, 'If you do this, you shall have candy,' however great the sacrifice is, he will do it, for he thinks, 'I shall have candy.' The words in the scriptures about the reward of good deeds in heaven were spoken in a manner suited to the evolution of that time. The promises were made as an older person makes promises to a child and says, 'Do not take another person's apple. I will give you another apple, even sweeter than this. Don't take another child's doll. I will give you another doll even better than this.'
This was the only way of keeping unevolved people from undesirable actions.
In the same way mankind was threatened with punishment, such as being burnt by a scorching fire, made to drink from a fountain boiling fiercely, having no food but thorns and thistles, as a mother says to her child, 'You will get a whipping if you do so.'
The Prophet once said, 'Hell is for the wicked, and heaven is striven for by the fools.'
Each religion has pictured heaven and hell according to familiar scenes upon earth, in whatever part of the world it might be.
The heaven of the Hindu is an opera house. In it are the Apsaras and Gandharvas, the singers and dancers, and in their hell are snakes and scorpions, filth and worms.
In the Christian heaven the blessed become angels robed in white, with white wings. They hold golden harps. They are in the blue sky, seated on white clouds, singing the praise of God, and their joy is in knowing God and in the communion of the blessed. The Christian hell is a blazing, fiery furnace with lakes of brimstone and burning sulfur, where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched. The devils goad the damned with the red-hot prongs of their pitchforks. They are parched with thirst, and there they remain either forever or until they have paid the debt of their sins to the uttermost farthing.
In the Muslim heaven there will be Huris and Malaks to wait upon the inhabitants of Jannat, the heavenly attendants, whose faces will be luminous and radiant with heavenly beauty and incomparably more handsome than the fair ones of the earth. Milk and honey flow in streams, and jewels and gems roll underfoot. Cooling drinks, the bracing breeze, and all fruits, and delicious foods will always be ready, and fountains of Kauthar, the divine wine, will run. Every person who enters Jannat, be he a child or aged, will be young there. There will be the association of the holy, and the divine atmosphere will be felt throughout everything. Hell in the Muslim tradition is said to be like a raging fire, hotter beyond comparison than any fire on earth. There will be the company of those crying and shrieking, calling for water with flames in their mouths. Melancholy, miserable, helpless, and feeble will be the surroundings, and darkness, confusion, horror, and ignorance will be felt all around, while a devilish atmosphere will overwhelm all.
One might ask why the different religions have given differing accounts of heaven and hell. But the prophets never spoke what is not true, so that if we take the philosophical view, we see that the meaning is that whatever we have idealized we shall have.
The Hindus had idealized music, singing, playing, and dancing; therefore this was their heaven.
In Christianity, because from its foundation the thought of the distinction of sex was avoided, the holy place was held to be one where there are angels, sexless, singing to the God in the heavens above the clouds.
In Arabia, in the hot sand, a person wishes for a cooling drink every moment, and the climate makes the people emotional and gives them the desire to admire youth and beauty.
Hell, in almost all religions, has been described in some way or other as the place of torment, where all sources of torture are to be found.
The picture of heaven or hell had its origin in the simplest revelation as it came to the mind of the Prophet: a great horror at the idea of sin and a sense of joy and beauty at the sight of virtue. It expresses itself first in artistic imagination before it comes to the lips. The thought of horror at once brings pictures of fire, especially in the deserts and hot sand of Arabia, where water is the one salvation of all creatures, and fire is always the chief element of destruction. When the thought of joy and beauty comes, it at once pictures the beauty of the opposite sex, which has charmed the soul from the first day of creation and will do the same forever. Then all delights which appeal to the senses and all sights which one longs to see, stood before the Prophet's artistic view, and were expressed in the language that his listeners were capable of appreciating. While the Enlightened Muslim penetrates to the source of this idea, the simple believer revels in the words.
All that the traditions say is understood literally by the faithful, but the Enlightened Muslim perceives them differently. To him Huris are the heavenly expressions of beauty appearing before the eye which was open on earth, admiring the divine immanence on earth. 'God is beautiful and he loves beauty,' as it is said in the Hadith. The whole creation was made that the beauty within the Creator might manifest in His creation, that it might be witnessed. The same tendency is working throughout the whole circuit. God's eye sees the heavenly beauty through the godly on their way towards the eternal goal. 'No soul knows what is reserved for them, what joy will refresh their eyes as a reward for what they have done,' says the Quran.
Honey is the essence of all flowers. The essence of the whole being is wisdom. Wisdom is the honey which is found in heaven. Milk is the pure and essential substance prepared in the breast of the mother. The essential substance of our being is the spirit, which is pure like milk, and by spirituality we drink that milk on which our soul is nourished. It is said in the Bible, 'Man doth not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.' The earthly treasures such as gems and jewels, which the godly have renounced in their life upon earth, are rolling like pebbles, worthless, beneath their feet.
To the seer earthly wealth, which man pursues all his life, becomes in the end like pebbles rolling under his feet. Kauthar, wine, means the intoxicating influence of spiritual ecstasy, which is hidden in the heart as love. This purifies the mind from all impressions made upon it during the life on earth, thus preparing the soul for the at-one-ment with God.
There is a different heaven and hell for each person, in accordance with the grade of his evolution. What is heaven to one person may be hell to another. A poor man will think it heaven to have a comfortable house to live in and a carriage to drive in. If a king were made to live in the house of a rich merchant, with one or two carriages, and a few servants to wait upon him, he would think it hell. A click of the tongue is more painful to the horse than ten lashes on the back of a donkey. This shows that the hell of a horse and of a donkey cannot be the same.
There is a story told of a Padishah before whom four persons were brought, arrested for the same crime. He looked at one and said, 'Hang him.' He looked at another and said, 'Lifelong imprisonment.' He looked at the third and said, 'Banish him.' Then he saw the fourth and said, 'Shame! How dare you show your face to me? Go, and never come before me again.' The one who went to be hanged killed a few more on his way to the gallows. The exiled one went away and started his trade and roguery still more prosperously in another country. The imprisoned one rejoiced shamelessly with friends in the prison. But he who was exempted from all punishment went home and committed suicide. To him thePadishah's bitter words were worse than a bowl of poison.
It is not that God from His infinite state rewards us or punishes us, or that there is one fold or enclosure called heaven, in which the virtuous are allowed to be, and another called hell, in which all the sinners are penned. In reality we experience heaven and hell in our everyday life all the time. But here we experience both states, the dream and the physical life. There is always the possibility of change. If we experience hell now, tomorrow it may be heaven. If our experience today is heaven, then there is the chance that tomorrow it may be hell. But when we return from this world of variety we do not progress in experience. Our heaven and hell do not change much.
Let us take first the hell and heaven that each person makes for himself here. When a person does an action with which his conscience is not pleased, the impression remains with him, torturing him continually and keeping before his eyes the agonies that his self experiences. We see in the world people in high positions, in luxurious surroundings, possessed of wealth and power, yet whose evil deeds keep up a blazing fire within them. Sometimes their life shows outwardly what their inward state is. Sometimes it does not, and people think that they are happy, but they themselves find they are in hell. And yet it is partly hidden from their eyes, because of the continual variety of their experiences. This is the vague sight of their hell, which they will in the future experience fully.
When a person does some deed which his conscience likes, it approves him. It says, 'Bravo! Well done!' His soul is glad of his deeds. In however bad an environment he may be placed, the inner joy still suffices to keep him happy. When by his righteous deeds he has satisfied his conscience, the God within is pleased. However bad his worldly situation may be, he is happy within himself. The world, perhaps, may deem him unhappy, but he is happier than kings. This is his heaven, and the same experience continues uninterruptedly on the higher plane of existence, which is heaven and hell.
Every person creates his own heaven and hell. A disciple once asked his murshid, 'Pray, Murshid, let me see heaven in a vision.' The murshid said, 'Go into the next room, child, and sit and close your eyes and you will see heaven.' The mureed went into the next room and sat in meditation. He saw in his vision a large area but nothing else. There were no rivers of honey and seas of milk, nor bricks of ruby, nor roofs of diamonds. He went to his murshid and said, 'Thank you, Murshid. Now I have seen heaven, I should like to see hell.' The murshid said, 'Very well; do the same again.' The disciple went into the next room and sat in his meditation, and again he saw a large area, but nothing in it, no snakes, no fire, no devils, nor cruel animals, nothing. He went to the murshid and said, 'I saw an area, but again there was nothing in it.' The murshid said, 'Child, did you expect that the rivers of honey and the seas of milk would be there, or the snakes or the fire in hell? No. There is nothing there. You will have to take everything from here. This is the place to gather everything, either the delights of heaven or the fires of hell.' 1
'Heaven is the vision of fulfilled desire, and hell the shadow of a soul on fire,' says Omar Khayyam.
Our self, in reality, is heaven if blessed by divine mercy, and it is our self which is hell if cursed by the divine wrath. The seven gates spoken of in the Quran are the seven openings of our senses, through which gates we experience our heaven or hell, and the seven pinnacles mean the seven planes of man's existence, which have each its peculiar heaven and its peculiar hell.
Things appear to us as we make them appear. If we are tolerant with our surroundings and contented with whatever we have, enduring unavoidable discomforts and inconveniences, and if we acquire knowledge of our being, if we see the divine immanence around us, and if we develop within us the love on which the whole world is sustained, our life becomes a preparation for heaven and our hereafter its full expression. Such is the state of the godly. As it is said in the Quran, 'The pious enter therein in peace and security... They shall touch them therein no worry, nor shall they be cast out.' If they are covered with rags, if lying on the dust, that dust becomes the throne of Suleyman, and their turban of rags becomes Khusru's crown.
Our discontent with what we have in life, our intolerance of our surroundings, and lack of endurance of those conditions that we cannot avoid, our weakness in giving way to our passions and appetites, our lack of sociability, our ignorance of our true being and our blindness to the vision of God manifest in nature, are the torment of life here and the blazing fire in the hereafter.
Heaven is for the pious whose virtues were for this end, and hell is for the wicked who themselves have kindled its fire. The Enlightened Muslim says, 'I am beyond both. Happy in the arms of the eternal peace. Neither can the joy of heaven tempt me, nor can the fire of hell touch me, for I have embraced the bliss and have kissed the curse, and have been raised above life's joys and sorrows.'
Of course, no soul will remain in heaven or hell forever. It is a gradual process of dissolving in the ocean of the eternal Being the remainder of the individual being. It is this state which is called Pul-sirat, or purgatory.