The afterlife, in many cases, sounds more magnificent than life as we know it. Beliefs about an afterlife are, in fact, beliefs and not perfectly accurate information. Having specific beliefs about a person's destiny after death is a way for many people to cope with death and have a sense of closure. Ideas about the afterlife may vary greatly, but one thing all religions and cultures have in common is that they trust that their own specific beliefs are the only way. There is, and always will be, a broad range of views on the ideas of afterlife, from traditions as diverse as apocalyptic Judaism to Hellenistic religious culture.
For more than 3,000 years Egyptians have supported their initial, original ideas of the afterlife. The Egyptian afterlife is very detailed and is described thoroughly in the Book of the Dead. Once an Egyptian passes away they transform into two parts, the Ba and the Ka. The Ba is described as being the breath or soul and looks like a human-headed bird while the Ka is a carbon copy of the deceased and is the guardian spirit or life force (Lewis 123). Both parts travel in a boat to the underworld and once they reach their destination they proceed through seven different gates. At each gate they have to give certain names and formulas to be able to pass. Once they make it through the gates, the Ka's continue to the Hall of Justice. Similar to most courtrooms, there is a judge, a prosecutor, and jury members. Thoth, the god of wisdom, is the prosecutor, while forty-two divine figures make up the jury, but the final decision is based on Osiris, the judge (Lewis 125). The deceased are to give a detailed account of their lives. After they have completed the account, their heart is placed on a scale opposite either a feather or an image of Maat. Maat is the goddess of truth and to Egyptians, a feather is symbolic of the same. If the heart outweighs the symbol of truth, it is a clear sign that the person has been sinful. They have failed the test and are immediately destroyed by Ammit, a horrid, monstrous creature (Lewis 125). If the heart balances on the scale, the deceased is free to enter "Sekhet Aaru, which translates to a blissful world" (Lewis 125). Once they enter that realm they have yet another choice. They may choose to live the remainder of their afterlife as a bird or live with an abundance of delicious fruit that will never cease. Close friends and family traditionally place models of servants, also known as Shabtis, into the tomb. The deceased are capable of turning the Shabti models into real servants to be the slaves of the deceased. When King Tut died he was known to have 414 Shabtis in his tomb (Lewis 126). The Egyptian process seems like a long, difficult journey for everyone, but not everyone is required to go through these steps. Immediately after death Pharaohs, by right, enter a divine realm. They never have to pass any tests, answer to anyone, or visit Osiris to determine their future.
Within the Hindu culture there are three types of religions, each believing something slightly different about the afterlife. Vedic Hindus believe that a new body is formed for the deceased and that process is called sapindikarana. Pitri-loka, the afterlife realm, is a place where everyone goes after being judged by Yama. Yama was the first man ever to die, he is now their god, king and judge of the deceased (Sharp 87). The next religious group, Upanishadic Hindus, are strong believers in karma and reincarnation. The samsaric process, reincarnation, is dreadful to these people. They believe that "life in this world means suffering" (Lewis 186). Samsara all depends on one's karma. Karma is described as the natural law ensuring that every good or bad deed eventually returns to the person in the form of reward or punishment. The Hindus that become engaged in the samsaric process can attain Moksha. Moksha is the release or liberation from samsara, which may be achieved by proper performance of rituals or highly disciplined yoga (Sharp 86). The last religious group believes in extreme devotion. Devotional Hindus believe that the souls of the deceased partake in devotional activities towards god in a heaven world. Their heaven world is very similar to western religion heavens. God was approached as very personal and loving. Devotional Hindus think that "god would respond to devotional worship and forgive any sins that may have been committed" (Lewis 186). Although each religion has their differences, Hindu hell worlds are all the same. Each is a place where your soul is tortured by demons, but hell is never a final resting place. Everyone is given another chance to prove themselves creditable.
Judaic beliefs are quite simple because they believe, in most cases, individuals have one life and one death on earth. The only exception to that rule is Gilgul, limited reincarnation (Lewis 210). People who commit extraordinary sins were given the opportunity to return to life in order to set things right. Jews believe that a small bone in the spine, called the luz, never really disintegrates. The luz ends up "forming the nucleus around which the body is resurrected" (Lewis 210). God resurrects the dead and judges them on their lives on Yom Din, the day of judgment. For this reason, Jews are strongly advised not to cremate the deceased in order to preserve the luz. Hell is represented as a valley of fire where children were said to be sacrificed as burnt offering to semitic deities. This valley was called Gehenna, and to the Jews Gehenna is translated as hell. The garden of Eden, on the other hand, is their ideal heaven.
Christian beliefs have made it very evident that they have collected many views of the afterlife from numerous traditions and cultures. The earliest Christians believed that the afterlife was simply bodily resurrection. That idea came from apocalyptic Judaism (Benz 1). Over the years, modifications have been made to the afterlife beliefs. Christians now think that death is not the end, but the start of a new life with God. They think of eternal death as a positive thing and the deceased are able to live the remainder of time with God. Heaven is conveyed as the physical sky where God resides, and is open to all who are faithful. Christian's heaven is a place free from pain and sorrow.
Chinese afterlife is a combination of spiritual traditions including ensuring one's health, showing compassion, as well as giving devotion and support to ancestors. When the Chinese die, similar to the Egyptians, they form two different parts. The first part is the yin, or p'o. The yin follows the body under the earth into an extraordinary kingdom known as yellow springs. The second part, the yang, progresses outward into the universe (Ganeri 23). The Chinese hell world is a projection of the imperial Chinese prison. In the prison money could be given in form of bribes to alleviate punishment. In the netherworld, "spirit money" is offered to the dead by the living family to ensure that any punishment put upon the dead would be lightened (Lewis 75).
Although many consider Greek beliefs to be solely based on mythology, there are many preparatory factors prior to death that they feel is necessary. There are five different tasks that need to be accomplished to ensure a better fate in the afterlife realm. The Greeks believe the following: The deceased must go through a purification process, which may be as simple as bathing in the sea. Next, they must receive instructions with hidden knowledge which often takes place behind closed doors in a mystic hall. They must also have a ceremonial handling of numerous sacred objects. As soon as that task is completed the individual is required to act out a scene from the central myth or sacred story. The final action is to be crowned as a full initiate for a better afterlife. (Lewis 131)
The Greeks have had a myth about death that has stayed consistent for decades:
Persephone was the wife of Hades, ruler of the underworld, and the daughter of Demeter, goddess of fertility, grain and harvest. Hades kidnapped Persephone and brought her to the underworld. Because Demeter was so upset about this, she neglected her duties and the earth became barren. Soon, Hades and Demeter compromised and decided to let Persephone live with Hades in the fall and winter and with Demeter in the spring and summer. Persephone became a symbol of renewal and rebirth and she was one of the only figures to enter the realm of the dead and return. (Lewis 131)
Because it was such a mystery at how this all occurred these mythological figures became key parts of the Eleusinian mysteries which were mythological mysteries in ancient Greece.
The Inca beliefs are very similar to many other cultures, because they keep their beliefs simple yet sufficient. The deceased are to cross a bridge in order to reach "the silent land". The bridge is made purely of hair and if an individual falls they are doomed to the realm of punishment. The realm of punishment is located at the bowels of the earth and they are forced to eat stones for every meal. The individuals who make it across the bridge safely go to a happy realm in the "heaven of the sun deity" (Sharp 22). When royalty dies, there are many expectations of the living. All family and close friends, such as wives and servants were expected to commit suicide in order to accompany their ruler in the "other" world.
Muslims, having two different denominations, still seem to hold true to the same beliefs in most cases. The deceased stay in an interworld called Barzakh until the day of resurrection. Barzakh resembles a state of dreaming and awareness. The individual's soul becomes aware of its true nature and disappears until resurrection. Qiyama, the day of resurrection, is a crucial day for the deceased. On this day the soul rejoins with the body and they are assigned eternal life in paradise or in hell. Paradise, translated as Al-Jannah, has eight different levels and is located at the macrocosmic center of light. While Hell, or An-Nar, is on the outer part of the macrocosm and consists of seven layers. Both Muslim denominations, the Shiites and Sunnis, believe in the prior statements about the afterlife, but there are some trivial points that are different. For instance, the Shiites believe the human body is a spirit and the Sunnis consider the human body to be a material compound of body and soul.
Buddhists believe that the deceased will never be in permanent hell, but will have a chance to prove themselves worthy. At the moment of death, the conscious part of the departed will experience a "clear light." The average person will descend into the lesser state of the secondary "clear light," whereas royalty or people of that rank will experience the top level of "clear light" (Lewis 63). The spirit of the departed goes through a process lasting forty-nine days. After the process is completed, they are told whether they will enter nirvana, a state of perfect peace and happiness, return to earth for rebirth, or suffer in purgatory, which is only for a limited time and then they are given the chance to be reincarnated.
Perception of afterlife varies to such a great extent that it leaves the world to wonder which beliefs, no matter how inconceivable they may appear, are real and which are fictional. Some religions believe cremation is key, while others preserve bodies through mummification. The deceased are reincarnated to some, but repositioned to heaven and hell worlds to others. There will always be the question of whether individual's create their own fate through karma or if each person has a predetermined destiny. Everything about death is different no matter where one may go, even the actions of the people who have not passed away. In some cultures mourning is the only way to deal with a loss, while in others it is a time to celebrate because the deceased have moved on to a better place. How is it possible to justify certain beliefs and discard others when there are so many people who have full faith in their own specific afterlife judgments?