Belief In The Afterlife In Non-Islamic Societies

This article covers Belief In The Afterlife In Non-Islamic Societies.

The universality of religious beliefs, including some kind of existence after death, is generally admitted by modern anthropologists. Some exceptions have been claimed to exist; but on closer scrutiny the provided evidence breaks down in so many cases that we can say that there are no exceptions. Among ancient peoples, the truth and purity of eschatological beliefs vary with the purity of the idea of God and prevailing moral standards. Some early peoples seem to limit existence after death to the good (with extinction for the wicked), as the Nicaraguans, or to men of rank, as the Tongas; while the various peoples of Greenland, New Guinea, and others seem to hold the possibility of a second death in the other world or on the way to it.

Tree of Life

Tree of Life

Let’s look at some of these beliefs more closely.


A person’s social position and circumstances of death were determining factors for his or her destiny in the next existence. We do not hear of any retribution after death based on one’s conduct during this life. This might have been expected, since the confession of sins and penance (e.g., asceticism or temple service) were common. Perhaps they were important only for happiness and success in this world.

From the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, an Aztec cosmological drawing with the god Xiuhtecuhtli, the lord of fire, and the calendar in the center with the other important gods around him each in front of a sacred tree

From the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, an Aztec cosmological drawing with the god Xiuhtecuhtli, the lord of fire, and the calendar in the center with the other important gods around him each in front of a sacred tree

The dead were distributed among several death realms. Mictlan was intended for the majority. Situated in the north, it belonged to the lower regions and was ruled by Mictlantecuhtli, a frightening skeletal figure surrounded by bats, spiders, owls, and his consort Mictecacihuatl. The journey to his kingdom led through nine subterranean worlds and took 4 years. As in other Indian tales of journeys to the land of the dead, especially among North American Indians, numerous obstacles were encountered: a difficult river, mountains, icy winds, and fierce beasts. Amulets buried with the dead offered protection.

Other death realms were lighter in tone. Those who drowned, were struck by lightning, or died from leprosy came to Tlaloc’s paradise (Tlalocan) in the south. Here, they enjoyed a pleasant existence with abundant fruit, corn, and beans. According to Sahagun, sorrow was unknown. Tlalocan has a long history in the Mesoamerican conceptual world. There is an exceedingly beautiful temple painting from Teotihuacan, in the early classical period, depicting its delights: a fortunate land with its lake, rivers, and cacao trees as the abode of many dancing, singing, and swimming people, all full of life and motion.

Another paradise was “the house of the sun,” the sun god’s kingdom in the east. Its inhabitants were warriors killed in battle and prisoners sacrificed to the gods. The sun summoned them and invited them to share his joy. They enjoyed the fragrance of marvelous flowers and feigned combat. When the sun rose in the east, they greeted him by beating their shields with loud shouts of joy.

The sun also had a propitious land in the west, “the corn house,” for women who died in childbirth. In the afternoon they escorted the sun on its way. At night they sometimes returned to the Earth, and their ghostly apparitions frightened women and small children.39


Landa writes that the Mayans had a paradise with its delights, including abundant food and drink in the holy tree’s shadow. They also had Mitnal, a subterranean hell for the wicked and evil, where hunger, cold, and sorrow tormented them. The “death god” Hunhau presided over this gloomy world. Little is known about the ruler of the paradise.40


If sinners did not make a full confession, they would be stricken with the wrath of the powers in this life, and after death would starve and freeze in a place deep in the Earth’s interior, where their only food would be stories. Those who led virtuous lives and confessed their sins would lead a happy existence with abundant food and drink in the sun god’s heaven. Members of the aristocracy, intended for a higher world, ended up there regardless of how they lived.

Now, coming to the more advanced societies, we shall glance briefly at the eschatologies of Babylonia and Assyria, Egypt, India, Persia, Greece, and of Judaism and Christianity.

Babylonia and Assyria

Bronze statuette of Pazuzu (c. 800 – c. 700 BC)

Bronze statuette of Pazuzu (c. 800 – c. 700 BC)

In the ancient Babylonian religion, with which the Assyrian is substantially identical, retribution seems to be mostly confined to the present life. Virtue is rewarded by the Divine bestowal of strength, prosperity, long life, numerous offspring, and the like. Wickedness is punished by temporal calamities.

As for the afterlife, it was believed that a kind of semi-material ghost, shade, or double (ekimmu) survived physical death. When the body was buried (or, less commonly, cremated), the ghost descended to the underworld to join the departed. In the Day of Ishtar, the underworld to which she descended to look for her deceased lover and the “waters of life” is described in gloomy colors, a feature found in the other descriptions. It is the “pit,” the “land of no return,” the “house of darkness,” the “place where dust is their bread, and their food is mud.” It is infested with demons, who, at least in Ishtar’s case, can inflict various chastisements for sins committed in the upper world.

This ancient religion suggests a brighter hope in the form of a resurrection, which some infer from the belief in the “waters of life” and from references to Marduk (or Merodach) as “one who brings the dead to life.”


Ancient Egyptian religion has a highly developed and comparatively elevated eschatology. Leaving aside some conflicting elements, we will refer to what is most prominent in its eschatology taken at its highest and best.

Pious Egyptians looked forward to a full, unending life with the sun god Osiris (who journeys daily through the underworld), and identification with him and the subsequent right to be called by his name, as the ultimate goal after death. The departed are habitually called the “living,” the coffin is the “chest of the living,” and the tomb is the “lord of life.”

It is not merely the disembodied spirit that continues to live, but the soul with certain bodily organs and functions suited to the new life’s conditions. In the elaborate anthropology underlying Egyptian eschatology, several constituents of the individual are distinguished. The most important is the ka, a kind of semi-material double. Those who pass the judgment after death have the use of these several constituents, separated by death, restored.

Egyptians believed that every person was composed of three essential elements: body, ba, and ka.

  • The body is the physical body and is unique to each individual. As a person gets older, it ages and changes. The Egyptians’ expressed the idea of growing up as a process of “making changes,” with death being the last change.
  • Each person has a unique, non-physical ba. Ba is sometimes translated as “manifestation,” and can be thought of as the sum total of all non-physical things that make a person unique.
  • In this sense, ba is very similar to personality or character. In the afterlife, it is represented as a bird, often with a human head.
  • Each person has a ka (life-force), which is the difference between being alive and being dead. The ka is common to all living people and the gods. In the beginning, the creator made the ka, which enters each person’s body at birth. The ka is not a physical entity, although it has a definite physical connection. In the plural, ka means “sustenance,” linking it to the idea of food. In fact, ancient Egyptians brought food to a tomb as an offering to the deceased’s ka. But since the ka is not strictly physical, the food was to be eaten by the deceased or the deceased’s ka, and its life-preserving force was offered to the ka.

At death, the ba and ka were separated from the body but did not die. In the New Kingdom (post-1570 BCE) period and after, this separation was effected through the Opening of the Mouth ritual, in which the ba and ka were released to go to the next world.

Egyptian Mummy

Egyptian Mummy

In the next world, or the underworld, the goal was to live with one’s ka. For this to happen, the ka had to be summoned back to the body and recognize it. But since the body by then had been mummified, it had to rely on its ba to seek out its ka. During the night, when the sun god Ra was said to visit the underworld, the ba could roam freely in the underworld or to popular places in this world. Its anchor in this world was the body. When Ra left the underworld, the ba had to return to this world, because together they are part of the same whole being.

The ba also had to overcome many potential dangers in the underworld. If it succeeded, it would reunite with the ka and form the akh. Egyptians believed that there were only three kinds of beings in the hereafter: the dead, the gods, and the akhs (those who have transitioned to the new life in the next world, where they live with the gods). The dead are those who failed to make the transition. Thus they were held to have “died again,” without hope of renewed life.

Egyptians believed that death was the end of physical life. But, it also was through death that one could be renewed and live an eternal life free of such physical limitations as age or poverty, just as the once-mortal god Osiris had. One’s renewal did not come about here, though, but in “Nun,” the mysterious underworld of primeval waters that was separate from this world. One could not see it or get to it by normal means; the only ways were through imagination and knowledge of the sun’s path.

Paintings on tomb walls and coffins usually depict this other underworld a strange and mysterious place. In fact, the dead often were called “those whose place is hidden or mysterious.” As mummies, they were said to sink into this endless, dark, and chaotic place. The underworld was held to be separated from the real world by a wide stream, and to have a great river flowing through it. This land had water, plants, and trees, where the dead, once they achieved resurrection, would grow crops to live on. This region of the underworld sometimes was called the Ealu fields.

According to the book of Amduat, the underworld was divided into twelve departments (or hours), and twelve portals representing the 12 hours of night between sunset and sunrise. But the underworld’s time differed from that of the Earth’s, for each hour in the former represented an entire lifetime in the latter.

The sun god Ra travels in his boat on the great river, bringing order and life to each department in turn. Along the way his boat may come across the sandbank of Apophis. This monster of chaos has the shape of a giant serpent and, being Ra’s enemy, tries to wreck his boat.

The most important of the obstacles that could stand in the way of the ba’s reunion with the ka, and the deceased’s resurrection, was the judgment of the dead. We know of this mostly from one of the latest and most popular collections of spells, the Book of the Dead, which became the standard for funerary literature from the 18th Dynasty (the New Kingdom) until the end of ancient Egyptian civilization. A great deal of relevant information is contained in “Spell 125.”

The deceased would begin to recite a formula called the Negative Confession, part of which follows:

I have not done falsehood against people. I have not impoverished my associates. I have done no wrong in the Place of Truth. I have not learned that which is not. I have done no evil. I have not made people labor daily in excess of what was due to be done for me.

These statements corresponded with the desire to separate one from his or her sins, the ultimate goal of the judgment. As this confession was recited, the balance’s scales would either stay in equilibrium, indicating that one’s heart was not heavy (the truth was being told), or else tip, indicating that one’s heart was heavy with falsehood. Anubis would verify the results, bring the scales in balance, and reassure the confessor.41 Thoth, god of the written word, would record the results.

Additionally, the one being judged also would have spoken to his or her heart from “Spell 30b”:

O my heart that I had from my mother! O my heart that I had from my mother! O my heart of my different ages! Do not stand up as a witness against me. Do not be opposed to me in the tribunal. Do not be hostile to me in the presence of the Keeper of the Balance …”

Assuming that all went well, as it usually did if one made it to the Hall of Two Truths, a general verdict would be given in which the truthfulness of the judged would be validated. After this, the person could receive offerings and take bread with Osiris, confirming his or her transfer to the order of the afterlife. The person also would receive a parcel of land on which to live eternally.

The principle value in achieving this eternal extension of one’s life is the promise it holds in fulfilling one’s life begun on Earth. Those who were debilitated in life by crippling diseases, who suffered from poverty, or who were barren would be given an opportunity to fulfill their desires in a new place without obstacles. The dream of an ideal life held on Earth could now be realized.


In the Vedas, the earliest historical form of Indian religion, eschatological belief is simpler and purer than in the Brahministic and Buddhist forms that succeeded it. Individual immortality is clearly taught. There is a kingdom of the dead, with distinct realms for the good and the wicked, ruled by Yama. The good dwell in a realm of light and share in the gods’ feasts; the wicked are banished to a place of “nethermost darkness.” Already in the later Vedas, however, retribution begins to be ruled more by ceremonial observances than by strictly moral tests. On the other hand, there is no trace as yet of the dreary doctrine of transmigration, although critics profess to discover the germs of later pantheism.

In Brahmanism, retribution gains in prominence and severity. However, it becomes hopelessly involved in transmigration, and is made more dependent either on sacrificial observances or theosophical knowledge. Though there are numerous heavens and hells for the reward and punishment of every degree of merit and demerit, these are only preludes to further rebirths in higher or lower forms. Pantheistic absorption in Brahma, the world-soul and only reality, with the consequent extinction of individual personality, is the only solution to the “problem” of existence, the only salvation to which a person may look forward. But this salvation is for the few, namely, those who have acquired a perfect knowledge of Brahma. Most people, who cannot rise to this high philosophic wisdom, may gain a temporary heaven via sacrificial observances, but they are destined to undergo further births and deaths.


See also: Reincarnation

Buddhism (Sanskrit: “enlightened one”) was founded in India by Siddharta Gautama Buddha (ca. 563-ca. 483 BCE) Under the Bodhi tree (the tree of enlightenment), Prince Gautama became aware of the four basic truths: Human existence is pain, the cause of pain is desire, pain ceases via emancipation from desire, and the cessation of pain may be attained via the eight fold way of deliverance.

This way involves right knowledge of these four truths, right intention, right speech, right action, right occupation, right effort, right control of sensations and ideas, and right concentration. This way promises to end suffering (which feeds on desire) and lead to Nirvana (Sanskrit: “being extinguished”) or a complete state of peace. The Buddhist scriptures exist in Pali (Sri Lanka) and Sanskrit (India).

Two basic doctrines are karma (Sanskrit: “action, faith”), the belief that old deeds are rewarded or punished in this or subsequent lives, and rebirth or the transmigration of souls. Mahayana Buddhism, which arose around the time of Christ, teaches that individuals can attain Nirvana and also can become Buddhas in order to save others.

Buddhism, which includes the worship of gods and various syncretistic features, has two forms: Hinayana (Sanskrit: little vehicle) or Theravada (Pali: old doctrine) Buddhism (found in Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and elsewhere), and Mahayana (Sanskrit: great vehicle) Buddhism (found in China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Tibet, and elsewhere). Mahayana Buddhists believe that the right path of a follower will lead to the redemption of humanity. Hinayana Buddhists believe that each person is responsible for his or her own fate.

A thangka showing the bhavacakra with the ancient five cyclic realms of saṃsāra in Buddhist cosmology. Medieval and contemporary texts typically describe six realms of reincarnation.

A thangka showing the bhavacakra with the ancient five cyclic realms of saṃsāra in Buddhist cosmology. Medieval and contemporary texts typically describe six realms of reincarnation.

Along with these doctrines, there are other Buddhist beliefs like Zen Buddhism (Japan) and the Hindu Tantric Buddhism (Tibet). Zen Buddhism is a mixture of Buddhism as it arrived from India and original Japanese beliefs. Hindu Tantric Buddhism is a mixture of Indian Buddhism and original pre-Buddhist Tibetan beliefs such as magic, ghosts and tantras (highly mystical and symbolic practices).

Buddhism is usually regarded as a religion without a god or eschatology. This must be largely due to the fact that it dwells on the individual’s spiritual perfection and purification and a harmonious social life. The Buddha stressed the supremacy of ethics, and his outlook was definitely practical and empirical. In fact, he did not tolerate any doctrines that appeared to divert the mind from the central problem of suffering, the cause of suffering and its removal, and the urgency of the moral task. Therefore it cannot be said that Buddhism directly and absolutely rejects belief in a Supreme Being.

Wendy Erickson, a Canadian writer who became an agnostic while an atheist after studying God and Revelation, drew on the “objective” nature of God to make a significant point here:

In his book, Medusa’s Hair, Gananath Obeyesekeri has shown us that even today Buddhist ascetics in India mystically experience the divine as a painful (and simultaneously ecstatic) possession by another being that completely takes over their bodies.

Experience has led people in all religious traditions to make very different faith statements about the “objective” nature of God or Ultimate Reality. Buddhists experience the Ultimate as Oneness, Creativity, or Consciousness. Jews, Christians and Muslims have sensed the Ultimate as transcendent Love, Power, and, yes, creativity too. Monistic Hindus perceive the Ultimate as a hidden Self, or Atman, which is one with the Godhead, Brahman. When Love is the predominant sense, transcendence is often sought after through worship and compassion toward others. Believers seek to get beyond themselves by recognizing that the world does not revolve around them; there is an Ultimate Reality that exists beyond their selves, is much bigger than them and, in some sense, more real. Prayer can be seen as one way for a believer to cultivate a sense of being in God’s presence. This Reality (God) also exists within each individual.42

What Buddha said about his faith and mission demonstrates that, rather than rejecting a faith or a transcendent reality, his real aim was to found a society on moral values and the cessation of pain in individuals:

Bear always in mind what it is that I have not elucidated, and what it is that I have elucidated. And what have I not elucidated? I have not elucidated that the world is eternal; I have not elucidated that the world is not eternal; … I have not elucidated that the soul and the body are identical; I have not elucidated that the monk who has attained (the arahat) exists after death; I have not elucidated that the arahat does not exist after death;

… I have not elucidated that the arahat neither exists nor does not exist after death. And why have I not elucidated this? Because this profits not, nor has to do with the fundamentals of religion; therefore I have not elucidated this. And what have I elucidated? Misery have I elucidated; the origin of misery have I elucidated; the cessation of misery have I elucidated; and the path leading to the cessation of misery have I elucidated. And why have I elucidated this? Because this does profit, has to do with the fundamentals of religion, and tends to absence of passion, to knowledge, supreme wisdom, and Nirvana.43

In Buddhism, meditating on impermanence is a traditional antidote to craving and attachment. You can hope to control and possess only that which is unchanging. Like a stream of flickering phenomena, life is ultimately ungraspable. So you begin to see that craving, trying to hold onto things to gain security from them, is doomed to fail from the start—there is nothing to hold onto. Ultimately things are like water, flowing through your fingers as you try to grasp them.

Life does not begin at birth or end at death; rather, it is a link in an infinite series of lives, each of which is conditioned and determined by acts done in previous lives. Relief from rebirth, which results in eternal life, is the goal, as indicated by such terms as moksha (deliverance) and Nirvana. Nirvana is the end of the cycles of birth, death, and re-birth; the end of pain; and union with the Ultimate reality, and therefore gaining eternity. Thus, Nirvana can be viewed as the “paradise” of the individual.


Dr. Arnold J. Toynbee points out in A Study of History that the principal civilizations placed different degrees of emphasis on specific lines of activity. Greek civilization, for instance, displays a manifest tendency toward a prominently aesthetic outlook on life as a whole. Indian civilization, on the other hand, shows an equally manifest tendency toward a predominantly religious outlook. Toynbee’s remark sums up what has been observed by many other scholars. Indeed, the study of Hinduism has to be, in large measure, a study of the general Hindu outlook on life.

With respect to life, death, and life after death, the inseparable unity of the material and spiritual worlds forms the foundation of Indian culture and determines the whole character of Indian social ideals. Every individual life, whether mineral, vegetable, animal, or human, has a beginning and an end. This creation and destruction, appearance and disappearance, are of the essence of the world process and equally originate in the past, present, and future. According to this view, then, every individual ego or separate expression of the general will to life must be regarded as having reached a certain stage of its own cycle.

The Upanishads, the most famous and widely accepted Hindu texts, recognize intuition rather than reason as a path to ultimate truth. They are supposed to be 108 or more in number. Twelve are generally recognized as the principal units. The Isa Upanishad begins with the statement that whatever exists in this world is enveloped by the Supreme. The soul is saved by renunciation and the absence of possessiveness.

The Mundaka Upanishad contains the verse that is the germ of the Bhagavad Gita. People who act and are attached to the world are pursuing a futile path, and this Upanishad accordingly declares:

Let the wise person, having examined the world and perceived the motives and the results of actions, realize that as from a blazing fire sparks proceed, living souls originate from the indestructible Brahman and return to Him. All doubts disappear, and the attachment to work subsides when the Supreme Being is cognized.

The Bhagavad Gita, a main source of Hindu belief and philosophy, contains the essence of Hindu teaching about the duties of life as well as of spiritual obligations. Everyone has his or her allotted duties. Sin arises not from the nature of the work itself, but from the disposition with which the work is performed. When it is performed without attachment to the result, it cannot tarnish the soul and impede its quest.

True Yoga consists of acquiring experience and passing through life in harmony with the ultimate laws of equanimity, non-attachment to the fruits of action, and faith in the Supreme Spirit’s pervasiveness. As absorption in that Spirit can be attained along several paths, no path is to be exclusively preferred or disdained. These doctrines have been interpreted as marking a Protestant movement stressing the personality of God and His accessibility to devotion. While following the Hindu ideal of the Asramas, the Bhagavad Gita emphasizes the importance of knowledge, charity, penance, and worship, and does not decry life as evil.

Later on, the fully organized Bhakti movement leading to Vaishnavism and Saivism arose. The ancient Vaishnava mystics and saints in the south were known as Alvars, and the Vaisnava teachers as Acaryas. They had a powerful exponent of these views in Ramanuja (d. 1137?), who attacked the Advaita interpretation of the Upanishads and recognized three ultimate realities: God, Soul, and Matter (the last two being dependent on the first).

The next important milestone is the advent of Sankara (d. 820). In his short but marvelously active life, he traveled throughout the country, refuted atheistic and materialistic systems of thought, and wrote commentaries on the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutra, and the Bhagavad Gita. He interpreted these scriptures and built up his thesis with wonderful clarity and depth of exposition. He remolded Indian thought and destroyed many dogmas. His great capacity for deep feeling and emotional expression was combined with a relentless logic.

Sankara’s contribution to philosophy is his blending of the doctrines of karma and maya, which culminated in a logical exposition of the idea of non-dualism: The entire universe consisting of namarupa (names and forms) is only an illusion; Brahman, infinite consciousness, is the sole reality. The objects of Sankara’s quest were its attainment and the annihilation of the great illusion of the universe (maya) by a process of realization.

One of the most influential and intrinsically valuable religious writings in India is Saiva Siddhanta. It recognizes three entities: God, the Soul or the aggregate of souls, and bondage. Bondage denotes the aggregate of elements that fetter the soul and hold it back from union with God. In one of its aspects it is malam, the taint clinging to the soul. In another aspect it is maya, the material cause of the world.

The peculiarity of the Saiva Siddhanta doctrine, which calls itself Suddhadvaita, is its difference from Vedanta Monism. God pervades and energizes all souls and, nevertheless, stands apart. This concept of the absolute is clear from the Tamil word for God, Kadavul, meaning that which transcends (kada) all things and is yet the heart (ul) of all things. When the absolute becomes manifest, it is as force (sakti), of which the universe is the product.

After many centuries, during which Hindu religion and philosophy underwent certain changes and reformations, came Rabindranath Tagore (d. 1941) and Mahatma Gandhi (d. 1948), who were extremely influential. Tagore made a rational, monistic interpretation of the Upanishads. Gandhi’s teachings led to vast social change and the uplift of the backward and depressed Hindu castes. He stated that his whole religion is based on surrendering to God’s will, the spirit of renunciation as embodied in the Isa Upanishad, the Bhagavad Gita, and the ideals of practical service. He gave a new interpretation to non-violence, which is as old as Hinduism, and tried to adapt it by means of satyagraha (passive resistance) to political and moral issues.

Gandhi sought to uplift the depressed and backward castes and to create a national entity. Speaking in Travancore on the Temple Entry Proclamation enacted there in 1936, he said:

These temples are the visible symbols of God’s power and authority. They are, therefore, truly called the houses of God, the houses of prayer. We go there in a prayerful mood and perform, first thing in the morning after ablution, the act of dedication and surrender. Now you can easily understand that, in the presence of God, the Ruler of the Universe, who pervades everything, even those whom we have called the lowest of the low, all are equal.44


Zoroastrianism, the indigenous religion of pre-Islamic Persia, was founded by Prophet Zarathustra (d. 551 BCE), known to the Greeks as Zoroaster. Zoroastrianism was the dominant regional religion during the Persian empires (559 BCE to 651 BCE), and was thus the most powerful religion at the time of Jesus. It had a major influence on other religions, and is still practiced today, especially in Iran and India.

According to Mary Boyce, Zoroaster believed that God had entrusted him with a message for humanity. He preached in plain words to ordinary people. His teachings were handed down orally and then written down under the Sassanids, rulers of the third Iranian empire (c.224 CE-c.640 CE). The language of that time was Middle Persian (Pahlavi). These books provide valuable keys for interpreting the obscurities of the Gathas (the hymns of Zarathustra) themselves.45

Moral values have a prominent place, and belief in an afterlife is a major creedal pillar. We quote below some sayings of Adhurbadh (son of Mahraspand) a Zoroastrian saint46:

  • Do not hoard against the day when you may be in need.
  • Strive to hoard up only righteousness, (that is) virtuous deeds, for of (all) the things that one may hoard, only righteousness is good.
  • Do not harbor vengeance in your thoughts, lest your enemies catch up with you.
  • Show moderation in your eating (and drinking) so that you may live long.
  • Though a man be very poor in the goods of this world, he is (nevertheless) rich if there is moderation in his character.
  • Pay more attention to your soul than to your belly, for one who fills his belly usually brings disorder on his spirit.
  • Make the traveler welcome so that you yourself may receive a heartier welcome in this world and the next.
  • Do not strive for (high) office, for the man who strives for (high) office usually brings disorder on his spirit.
  • Live in harmony with virtue and do not consent to sin.
  • Abstain rigorously from churlishness, self-will, enmity to the good, anger, rapine, calumny, and lying so that your body be not ill-famed and your soul damned.
  • Do not plot evil against the evil, for the evil man reaps “the fruit of ” his own bad actions.
  • Do good simply because it is good. Do not do to others anything that does not seem good to yourself.
  • Do not violently strike innocent people because you are angry with someone.
  • Do not rejoice overmuch when good fortune attends you, and do not grieve overmuch when bad fortune overtakes you, for both good and bad fortune must befall man.
  • Do not mock at anyone at all, for he who mocks himself becomes the object of mockery.
  • Do not leave any sin for which penance is demanded (unconfessed) even for a moment so that the pure Religion of the worshippers of Ohrmazd may not be your enemy.
  • The body is mortal, but the soul does not pass away.
  • Do good, for the soul (really) is, not the body; spirit (really) is, not matter.
  • Out of respect for the body do not neglect your soul; and do not, out of respect for anyone, forget that the things of this world are transitory. Desire nothing that will bring Penance on your body and punishment on your soul.

A journeying to Heaven and Hell

Arda Viraf was an important scholar of Zoroastrianism. His book narrates a vision of Heaven and Hell that he claimed to have seen in an inspired dream or vision.47 It is truly Dantesque. We do not know its age, but we can say confidently that it is several centuries older than the work of Dante. The following passages give an idea about the Zoroastrian belief in afterlife.

In the Name of God

And the soul of Viraf went, from the body, to the Chinwad bridge of Chakat-i-Daitik, and came back the seventh day, and went into the body. Viraf rose up, as if he arose from a pleasant sleep, thinking of Vohuman and joyful… And he recounted the praises of Ohrmazd and the archangels; and thanks to Hordad and Amurdad, the archangels; and he muttered the benedictions (afrinagan).

He directed thus: “Bring a writer who is wise and learned.” And an accomplished writer, who was learned, was brought, and sat before him; and whatsoever Viraf said, he wrote correctly, clearly, and explicitly.

And he ordered him to write thus:

In that first night, Srosh the pious and Adar the angel came to meet me, and they bowed to me, and spoke thus: “Be thou welcome, Arda Viraf, although thou hast come when it is not thy time.” I said: “I am a messenger.” And then the victorious Srosh the pious, and Adar the angel, took hold of my hand. Taking the first footstep with the good thought, and the second footstep with the good word, and the third footstep with the good deed, I came up to the Chinwad bridge, the very wide and strong and created by Ohrmazd.

When I came up there, I saw a soul of the departed, whilst in those first three nights the soul was seated on the top of the body, and uttered those words of the Gatha: “Ushta ahmai yahmai ushta kahmaichit”; that is, “Well is he by whom that which is his benefit becomes the benefit of any one else.” And in those three nights, as much benefit and comfort and enjoyment came to it, as all the benefit which it beheld in the world; just as a man who, whilst he was in the world, was more comfortable and happy and joyful through it.

In the third dawn, that soul of the pious departed into the sweet scent of trees; and he considered that scent which passed by his nose among the living; and the air of that fragrance comes from the more southern side, from the direction of God.

And there stood before him his own religion and his own deeds, in the graceful form of a damsel, as a beautiful appearance, that is, grown up in virtue; with prominent breasts, that is, her breasts swelled downward, which is charming to the heart and soul; whose form was as brilliant, as the sight of it was the more well-pleasing, the observation of it more desirable.

And the soul of the pious asked that damsel thus: “Who art thou? and what person art thou? than whom, in the world of the living, any damsel more elegant, and of more beautiful body than thine, was never seen by me.”

To him replied she who was his own religion and his own deeds, thus: “I am thy actions, O youth of good thoughts, of good words, of good deeds, of good religion. It is on account of thy will and actions that I am as great and good and sweet-scented and triumphant and undistressed as appears to thee….”

And afterward, Srosh the pious, and Adar the angel, took hold of my hand, and said thus: “Come on, so that we may show unto thee heaven and hell; and the splendor and glory and ease and comfort and pleasure and joy and delight and gladness and fragrance which are the reward of the pious in heaven. We shall show thee the darkness and confinement and ingloriousness and misfortune and distress and evil and pain and sickness and dreadfulness and fearfulness and hurtfulness and stench in the punishments of hell, of various kinds, which the demons and sorcerers and sinners perform. We shall show thee the place of the true and that of the false.”

I came to a place, and I saw the souls of several people, who remain in the same position. And I asked the victorious Srosh the pious, and Adar the angel, thus: “Who are they? and why remain they here?”

Srosh the pious, and Adar the angel, said thus: “They call this place Hamestagan (the ever-stationary); and they are the souls of those men whose good works and sin were equal. Speak out to the worlds thus: “Let not avarice and vexation prevent you from doing a very easy work, for every one whose good works are three Srosho-charanam more than his sin goes to heaven; they whose sin is more go to hell; they in whom both are equal remain among these Hamestagan till the future body.” Their punishment is cold, or heat, from the revolution of the atmosphere; and they have no other adversity.”

And afterward, I put forth the first footstep to the star track, on Humat, the place where good thoughts (humat) are received with hospitality. And I saw those souls of the pious whose radiance, which ever increased, was glittering as the stars; and their throne and seat were under the radiance, and splendid and full of glory.

And I asked Srosh the pious, and Adar the angel, thus: “Which place is this? and which people are these?”

Srosh the pious, and Adar the angel, said thus: “This place is the star track; and those are the souls who, in the world, offered no prayers, and chanted no Gathas, and contracted no next-ofkin marriage; they have also exercised no sovereignty, nor rulership nor chieftainship. Through other good works they have become pious.”

I also saw the souls of those who, in the world, chanted the Gathas and used the prescribed prayers (yeshts), and were steadfast in the good religion of the Mazda-yasnians, which Ohrmazd taught to Zartosht; when I advanced, they were in gold-embroidered and silver-embroidered clothes, the most embellished of all clothing. And it seem to me very sublime.

I also saw the souls of warriors, whose walk was in the supremest pleasure and joyfulness, and together with that of kings; and the well-made arms and equipments of those heroes were made of gold, studded with jewels, well-ornamented and all embroidered; and they were in wonderful trousers with much pomp and power and triumph. And it seemed to me sublime.

I came back again to the Chinwad bridge. And I saw a soul of those who were wicked, when in those first three nights so much mischief and evil were shown to their souls, as never such distress was seen by them in the world. And I inquired of Srosh the pious, and Adar the angel, thus: “Whose soul is this?”

Afterward, a stinking cold wind comes to meet him. So it seemed to that soul as if it came forth from the northern quarter, from the quarter of the demons, a more stinking wind than which he had not perceived in the world. And in that wind he saw his own religion and deeds as a profligate woman, naked, decayed, gapping, bandy-legged, lean-hipped, and unlimitedly spotted so that spot was joined to spot, like the most hideous, noxious creature (khrafstar), most filthy and most stinking.

Then that wicked soul spoke thus: “Who art thou, than whom I never saw any one of the creatures of Ohrmazd and Ahriman uglier, or filthier, or more stinking?”

To him she spoke thus: “I am thy bad actions, O youth of evil thoughts, of evil words, of evil deeds, of evil religion. It is on account of thy will and actions that I am hideous and vile, iniquitous and diseased, rotten and foul-smelling, unfortunate and distressed, as appears to thee.”

Afterward, that soul of the wicked advanced the first footstep on Dush-humat and the second footstep on Dush-hukt, and the third on Dush-huvarsht; and with the fourth footstep he ran to hell.

I saw the soul of a man whom they ever forced to measure dust and ashes, with a bushel and gallon, and they ever gave it him to eat.

And I asked thus: “What sin was committed by this body, whose soul suffers such a punishment?”

Srosh the pious, and Adar the angel, said thus: “This is the soul of that wicked man who, in the world, kept no true bushel, nor gallons, nor weight, nor measure of length; he mixed water with wine, and put dust into grain, and sold them to the people at a high price; and stole and extorted something from the good.” I also saw the soul of a man who was held in the atmosphere, and fifty demons ever flogged him, before and behind, with darting serpents.

And I asked thus: “What sin was committed by this body, whose soul suffers such a punishment?”

Srosh the pious, and Adar the angel, said thus: “This is the soul of that wicked man who, in the world, was a bad ruler, and was unmerciful and destructive among men, and caused torment and punishment of various kinds.”

I also saw the soul of a man whose tongue hung on the outside of his jaw, and was ever gnawed by noxious creatures (khrafstars).

And I asked thus: “What sin was committed by this body, whose soul suffers such a punishment?”

Srosh the pious, and Adar the angel, said thus: “This is the soul of that man who, in the world, committed slander, and embroiled people one with the other; and his soul, in the end, fled to hell.” I also saw the soul of a man whose tongue a worm ever gnawed.

And I asked thus: “What sin was committed by this body?” Srosh the pious, and Adar the angel, said thus: “This is the soul of that wicked man who, in the world, spoke many lies and falsehoods; and, thereby, much harm and injury were diffused among all creatures.”


Greek eschatology, as reflected in the Homeric poems, remains at a low level. Life on Earth, for all its shortcomings, is the highest good for people, and death the worst evil. Yet death is not extinction. The psyche survives, not the purely spiritual soul of later Greek and Christian thought, but an attenuated, semimaterial ghost, shade, or image, of the earthly person. The life of this shade in the underworld is a dull, impoverished, almost functionless existence.

In later Greek thought on the future life, there are notable advances beyond the Homeric state, but it is doubtful whether the average popular faith ever reached a much higher level. Among early philosophers, Anaxagoras (d. c.428 BCE) contributes to the notion of a purely spiritual soul.

A more directly religious contribution is made by the Eleusinian and Orphic mysteries, to the influence of which in brightening and moralizing the hope of a future life we have the concurrent witness of philosophers, poets, and historians. In the Orphic mysteries, the soul’s divine origin and pre-existence, for which the body is but a temporary prison, and the doctrine of a retributive transmigration are more or less closely associated. It is hard to see how far the common belief of the people was influenced by these mysteries, but in poetical and philosophical literature their influence is unmistakable. This is seen especially in Pindar (d. c.438 BCE) among the poets, and in Plato (d. 348 or 347 BCE) among the philosophers.

Pindar has a definite promise of a future life of bliss for the good or the initiated—not merely for a few, but for all. Even the wicked who descend to Hades have hope. Having purged their wickedness they obtain rebirth on earth, and if, during three successive lives they prove themselves worthy of the boon, they will attain happiness in the Isles of the Blessed.

In Plato’s teaching, the divine dignity, spirituality, and essential immortality of the soul being established, issues of the future for every soul are made clearly dependent on its moral conduct in the present life. There is a divine judgment after death, a heaven and a hell, and an intermediate state for penance and purification. Rewards and punishments are graduated according to the merits and demerits of each. The incurably wicked are condemned to everlasting punishment in Tartarus; the less wicked or indifferent also go to Tartarus or to the Acherusian Lake, but only for a time. Those who pursued goodness go to a happy home, the highest reward of all being for those who have purified themselves by philosophy.

By Ali Unal, PhD

39 Ake Hultkrantz, The Religion of the American Indians, The University of California Press, Los Angeles: 1979.
40 ibid.
41 Anubis, the Egyptian god who presided over mummification, was presumed to have much knowledge about the dead.
42 See
43 Henry Clarke Warren, Buddhism in Translation, Harvard University Press: 1922, p. 122; John B. Noss, Man’s Religions, “Majjhima Nikaya,” Macmillan, New York: 1956, p.166.
44 Much of this section was taken from
45 Mary Boyce, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, London: 1979, p. 17.
46 J. D. Jamasp-Asana, ed., Pahlavi Texts, Bombay: 1897, pp. 144-53.
47 Contained in Charles F. Horne, ed., The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East, Vol. VII, Ancient Persia, 1917.

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