What happens after death?

Nothing happens to the Atman which is merely a witness. It is the subtle body that is affected by death.Check Gita 2.17-2.22 for the answer to your question. For example, Gita 2.22 says,
‘Just as a man gives up old garments and puts on new ones, so the embodied self abandons decrepit bodies and assumes new ones.’
Gita 2.22
What happens immediately after death? The answer is given in Gita 15.8 which says,
When he gets a new body or abandons an old one, the Jiva, the lord of the body, moves, carrying them (the mind and the senses) with him, as the wind carries smells from their seats (in flowers and the like).
Gita 15.8
What this means is that the physical body dies but the mind and the senses leave the physical body.Persons who have not attained moksha are part of the life-death-life…. cycle. They may also have to stay in heaven or hell for some time if they have done a particularly good thing or a heinous crime, respectively. After the merit of their particular good karma or the demerit of their particular bad karma is exhausted, they will again be born into the Earth plane. The process is linked to the concept of residual karma. This residual karma idea and what happens to evil-doers is explained in Brahma Sutra.
But of others (i.e. those who have not performed sacrifices etc.) the ascent is to the abode of Yama, and after having experienced (the results of their evil works) the descent (to the earth again takes place). On account of such a passage (for the evil-doer) being declared by the Sruti.
(Brahma Sutra Sankara Bhasya 3.1.13)
The Sruti passage referred to in the above shloka is:
The Hereafter never reveals itself to a person devoid of discrimination, heedless, and perplexed by the delusion of wealth. “This world alone exists,” he thinks,” and there is no other.” Again and again he comes under my sway.
(Yama speaks in Katha Upanishad I.2.6)
It is clear that if you do bad deeds that you end up in Yama Loka. However, there are two perplexing questions here. Does the person who descends to earth from Yama loka return with any Karma (i.e. is the Karma of the evil-doer after serving his term in Yama loka zero?)? What decides that a person will after death be immediately reborn in earth or return to earth after serving a time in Yama loka? These two questions are actually linked. The answer to this question is given in Brahma Sutra:
On the exhaustion of (good) work (the soul) with residual Karma (descends to this earth), as is known from the Sruti amd Smriti, along the path (it) went by (from here) and differently too.
(Brahma Sutra Sankara Bhasya 3.1.8)
The above Sutra says that what is exhausted in heaven is only that specific Karma which gave the soul a birth in lower heaven, but on the exhaustion of this Karma the remaining Karma, good and bad, brings it back to earth. While this Sutra talks of heaven and good deed, it also applies to Yama Loka and bad deeds. Let me explain the idea by a concrete example. Let us suppose that a dead person has a list of 10 karmas with goodness values (1, -3, 4, 5, -100, 4, 3, 2, 5, 8) where the minus sign stands for evil deeds. What Brahma Sutra Sankara Bhasya 3.1.8 is saying is that this person will go to Yama Loka only for that extremely evil deed of goodness value -100. After he has exhausted the bad effect due to the -100 Karma, he can then go back to earth with the residual karma (1, -3, 4,5,4,3,2,5,8). The idea is that only extremely evil or good deeds lead a man to Yama loka or to lower heavens. All minor good and bad karmas are served on the earth plane.The person who has attained moksha is free forever from the endless cycle of Samsara. The cycle of birth and death will only end after the attainment of moksha or liberation. The length of the process will depend on how quickly or slowly the person will attain moksha.
So what happens after moksha?
The answer to this question varies depending on the Vedanta school.

Advaita Vedanta

This school believes both in moksha while still living (Jivanmukti) and after death (krama-mukti). It is not possible to go any further than moskha since Advaita moksha is non-dual in nature. Nevertheless I am posting the following passage:

Bhishma continued [Suka said],’..By knowledge, one attains to that whither there is no occasion for grief; whither one becomes freed from birth and death; whither one is not subject to decrepitude; whither one transcends the state of conscious existence; whither is Brahma which is Supreme, Unmanifest, immutable, ever-existent, imperceptible, above the reach of pain, immortal, and transcending destruction; whither all become freed from the influence of all pairs of opposites (like pleasure and pain, etc), as also wish or purpose. Reaching that stage, they cast equal eyes on everything, becoming universal friends and devoted to the good of all the creatures.
Mahabharata Santi Parva Section CCXLI
Dvaita Vedanta
According to this school moksha is only possible after death. In ascending order, this school believes in four levels of moksha: (1) salokya, (2) samipya, (3) sarupya and (4) sayujya. ….. In salokya mukti, the departed soul goes to Ishta-loka (the abode of Vishnu) and stays there blissfully enjoying His presence. In samipya-mukti the departed soul enjoys the bliss of extreme proximity to Vishnu. In sarupya-mukti the departed soul acquires the form of Vishnu and enjoys intense bliss. In sayujya-mukti the departed soul becomes blissfully absorbed in Vishnu.
Vishistadvaita Vedanta

The school of Qualified Non-dualism or Vishishtadvaita-vada, is a school of theism. Its main exponent was Ramanuja. According to this school, a person can have moksha only after the person’s death. Moksha means living blissfully in Vaikuntha (the abode of Vishnu) in spiritual bodies. They acquire many divine powers such as omniscience, but unlike God they cannot create, sustain, or dissolve the world. In spite of their exalted state they remain subservient to God.

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2 Replies to “What happens after death?”

  1. Dear pradip da,

    From the nondual perspective, the concept of recycling is the bondage, correct?
    If all are none other than Atman itself, then the notion of Lokas, heavens and hell are also avidya?

    Yet, there seem to be those phenomena. How is one to know without any doubt that all this is indeed Brahman?

    This is a question I get frequently – “if all there is Brahman, what is the purpose of jagat?”

    Best…

    Dwai

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