Heaven & Hell as per Vedas & Puranas

Authors: Rami Sivan & Ram Abloh

Author: Rami Sivan (Hindu priest and teacher of Indian Philosophy)
Jan 24th, 2020

Heaven and Hell as distinct places of reward and punishment with lurid details are a later development in the evolution of Hinduism. They are to be found in the Purāṇas especially the Garuḍa Purāṇa but are not to be taken literally – they are social control devices – to either incentivise common folks to pursue virtue and goodness or to terrify them from criminal acts. They fall into the category of “artha-vāda” or allegory.

The Gītā repeatedly deprecates the pursuit of heaven, declaring it to be “spiritual materialism” and emphasis the highest of all goals which is direct communion with the Divine. Heaven is su-varga = “a good-state”- which lasts only as long as the merit which produced it. So in material terms you can make as much money as you can and then retire to a beach-side mansion in Cote d’Azur, but once the money runs out you return to your old neighbourhood (or die wealthy).

te taṁ bhuktvā svarga-lokaṁ viśālaṁ kṣīṇe puṇye marta-lokaṁ viśanti | evaṁ trayī-dharmam anuprapannā gatāgataṁ kāmakāmā labhante || 21 ||

9:21. Having enjoyed the vast realm of heaven, they return to the realm of mortals when their merit is exhausted. Thus, those who follow the Vedic rituals and are motivated by desire, come and go.

So the conclusion in modern philosophical Hinduism is that heaven is an inferior spiritual goal unworthy of the serious spiritual aspirant and should be rejected from the outset.

My most favourite prayer of all time is the one recited by Ranti Deva:–

na kāmaye’haṁ gatiṁ īśvarāt parāṁ,
aṣṭaṛddhi-yuktām apunar-bhavam vā |
ārtiṁ prapadye’khila deha bhājām,
antas sthito yena bhavanty-aduḥkhāḥ ||

I do not ask for the reward of heaven nor of mystical powers and prosperity, nor even liberation from the Lord, all I ask is that I may relieve the suffering of all beings by empathising with their misery. (S.B. 9:21:12)


Author: Ram Abloh, (Hindu, studied Veda (incl. Upanishads), Vedanta, Gita)
Nov 11th, 2017

In the Vedas, and in particular, in the Rig Veda the concepts of “heaven” and “hell” are mostly abstract than physical. They are more spiritual states of being than actual tangible worlds.

This is in contrast to the common Hindu view that is more influenced by the Puranic descriptions of various levels of heaven worlds and hell worlds. But this is not to say that the Puranas are divorced from the Vedas. Both have different purposes and audiences.

The Vedas contain the highest expressions of spiritual discoveries of the Hindu mind. As such, the descriptions are very esoteric, terse, symbolic and subtle. These descriptions would probably be fully understood by a small minority of people, and the vast majority would probably misunderstand. This is where the Puranas come in. The Puranas take the seed ideas from the Vedas and puff them up, artistically and poetically elaborating and exaggerating them. In this new form, the ideas are made more concrete and less abstract, and thus more palatable and consumable to the vast majority.

Coming back to the Rig Veda, I find there are four words that describe a higher world or state of being:

dyauh (द्यौः)

nAkah (नाकः)

svah/svar (स्वः, स्वर्)

paramam vyoma (परमं व्योम)

Although there is significant overlap in usage and meaning of the first 3 words, there are still differences in shades of meaning.

The first word, dyauh, is the word that seems to have the most physical connotation. It is the third and highest “world” and is the realm of the sun. It is frequently paired with the earth (pRthivI) and there are several hymns to the pair “dyAvApRthivI”. They are seen as the parents of all living things that dwell between them.

Examples of “dyauh”:

  • There are hundreds of mentions of dyauh in various contexts. However I will give a few examples where dyauh is the main focus.
  • RV 1.89.4 This is the famous benediction hymn. “tan no vAto mayobhu vAtu bheShajam tan mAtA pRthivI tat pitA dyauh” — “May the wind blow soothingly, and may Mother Earth and Father Heaven be healing to us”.
  • RV 1.89.10 Same hymn. “aditir dyaur aditir antarikSham aditir mAtA sa pitA sa putrah” — “Aditi (infinite) is heaven, infinite is the atmosphere, infinite are the mother, the father and the son.”
  • RV 1.90.7 Another benediction hymn. “madhu naktam utoShaso madhumat pArthivam rajah; madhu dyaurastu nah pitA.” — “May the night and day be sweet (i.e. helpful) to us, may the earth’s dust be sweet to us, may our father heaven be sweet to us.”
  • RV 1.164.33 The famous riddle hymn. “dyaur me pitA janitA nAbhiratra bandhur me mAtA pRthivI mahIyam” — “Heaven is my father, my progenitor and source, and Earth is my mother and my tether.”
  • RV 1.191.6 “dyaur vah pitA pRthivI mAtA somo bhrAtAditih svasA” — “Heaven is (plural)your father, Earth your mother, Soma your brother and Aditi your sister.”

The second word “nAkah” is less physical and more “divine”. The list of Vedic words (nighaNTu) has it as a synonym for atmosphere or sky or outer space:

स्वः । पृश्निः । नाकः । गौः । विष्टप् । नभः”

svah, pRshnih, nAkah, gauh, viShTap, nabhah

You might ask — “svah” is the first word in the list, so isn’t “svah” equivalent to “nAkah”. Although they are listed as synonyms, the mantras show these 2 words being used in slightly different senses.

Examples of “nAkah”:

  1. RV 1.19.6 “ye nAkasyAdhi rocane divi devAsa Asate” — “the gods (Maruts) who ride on top of the shining world”
  2. RV 1.68.10 In praise of Agni: “pipesha nAkam stRbhir damUnAh” — “he shaped the sky with stars”.
  3. RV 1.85.7 In praise of Maruts: “te’vardhanta svatavaso mahitvanA nAkam tasthur uru cakrire sadah” — “they grew by their own strength and made their home in the widespread atmosphere.”
  4. RV 1.164.50 In praise of devas: “te ha nAkam mahimAnah sacanta yatra pUrve sAdhyAh santi devAh” — “those glorious ones go heaven where the earlier accomplished devas exist.”
  5. RV 3.2.12 In praise of Agni: “vaishvAnarah pratnathA nAkamAruhad divaspRShTham bhandamAnah sumanmabhih” — “the universal one climbed up to the other side of sky (heaven) as he did since ancient times bearing well-made hymns.”
  6. RV 3.5.10 In praise of Agni: “ud astambhIt samidhA nAkam RShvah agnih” — “the powerful Agni supported heaven (i.e. propped it up) by the sacred offerings.”

The third word “svah” is more abstract than the previous words. This is more of a spiritual state or knowledge.

Examples of “svah”:

  • RV 1.44.9 In praise of Agni: “patir hyadhvarANAm agne dUto vishAmasi; …. devAn adya svardRshah” — “O Agni! you are the lord of all people and the messenger of sacred offerings. Please bring the heaven-sighted (or spiritual) gods here.”
  • RV 1.50.5 In praise of Surya: “pratya.n devAnAm vishah pratya.n.n udeShi mAnuShAn; pratya.n vishvam svar dRshe” — “You wake up the gods and men. You wake up the whole world so they may see the light (physical or spiritual awakening).”
  • RV 1.52.1 In praise of Indra, it calls him “svarvit”, meaning “one who knows svah”. This is clearly a deeper meaning that implies wisdom or spiritual knowledge.
  • RV 1.59.4 In praise of Agni: “svarvate satyashuShmAya …. vaishvAnarAya…” — Here the word “svarvate” is the dative case of “svarvAn” which means “possessor of svah”, which can only have a spiritual sense.
  • RV 1.71.2 In praise of the angiras rishis : “… pitaro na a.ngiraso … cakrur divo bRhato gAtumasme … svar vividuh…” — “Our ancestors, the angiras rishis created a path to heaven for us, because they knew svah.” Clearly here again, “svah” means something more than a physical world. It is more of a spiritual knowledge or state.
  • RV 1.96.4 In praise of Agni: “… vidad gAtum tanayAya svarvit …” — “he paves the path for his offspring, from his knowledge of svah”. Again, “svarvit”.
  • And countless other examples that show different shades of meaning related to metaphysical truths

The last word “paramam vyoma” is the most significant of all. As the name itself implies, “paramam” means the ultimate, the highest, the most subtle; “vyoma” is a synonym of space or reality or state or plane of existence & consciousness. This word is only used in its locative case – “parame vyomani” — “in the highest reality”. This is one of the tools that the Vedic rishis used to express the most abstract and highest spiritual truth regarding the one absolute existence, consciousness and bliss. In other words, they are describing Brahman.

Examples of “parame vyoman”:

  • RV 1.143.2 Describing Agni: “sa jAyamAnah parame vyomani Aviragnirabhavat mAtarishvane” — “He manifests first in the highest state where he reveals himself to the rishi”.
  • RV 1.164.39 Describing the importance of spiritual enlightenment over mere physical rituals: “Rco akShare parame vyoman yasmin devA adhi vishve niSheduh; yastanna veda kimRcA kariShyati ya ittadvidusta ime samAsate” — “The Veda mantras are present in the highest spiritual state in which all the gods exist. He who doesn’t realize this, what use are the mantras to him? But those who understand the spiritual truth, they are with the gods.” This mantra is trying to emphasize that empty rituals or mantras do not mean anything unless the person has deeper spiritual enlightenment.
  • RV 6.8.2 Describing Agni: “sa jAyamAnah parame vyomani…”.
  • RV 7.5.7 Describing Agni: “sa jAyamAnah parame vyomani…”

This repeated connection of Agni with “parame vyoman” is very significant as seen below:

  • RV 10.5.7 Describing Agni:

asat ca sat ca parame vyoman … agnir ha nah prathamajA Rtasya pUrve Ayuni vRShabhashca dhenuh

“He is both existence and non-existence in the highest state… Agni is verily the first form of the universe because in the previous state he is both bull and cow.”

This is the best poetic description of the state of absolute and pure existence, consciousness and bliss, the state of reconciliation of all opposites, the state of the one silent observer, the state of Brahman that the Upanishads talk about.

Now coming to hell, I am not aware of any words that solidly mean “hell” as a separate world. There are many mentions of “nirRti” (निर्ऋति) which basically means “lack of order”, in other words, chaos. I think this is the closest to a “hell”.

This took a lot of research, but thanks for answer request Ghanashyam Chakravarthi