Do you believe you have s soul—an entity that is distinct from your physical body? Do you believe in the existence of a soul? Individuals may or may not believe in the existence of a soul. But since ancient times, almost all religions, at least the major ones, have believed in the existence of a soul. Today as well, it is widely believed that a soul exists and after death, the soul leaves the physical body and travels to another realm or world. Descriptions of where this other world is located vary from religion to religion, community to community. How long does it take for the soul to journey from earth to the other world, no matter where it may be located?
The beliefs—mythological, religious, community and individual—all vary on this, as do the beliefs on when after death this all important journey begins for the soul. Depending on the belief, the soul’s journey to the other world begins immediately after death, or three, four days or seven, eleven, twelve or thirteen days or forty days after death. Again, depending on the belief, the duration of the soul’s astral journey to the other world is contingent upon the kind of soul it is and can range upto a year after death—if one doesn’t become ghost.
It is fascinating to observe that several common elements, such as 40 days, the crossing of a river, the existence of two worlds—usually Hell and Heaven, the existence of ‘gates’ as entry points to these worlds, etc, link ancient times to the present and feature in almost all religions and community beliefs. As with much else, their significance of course, varies from community to community, religion to religion, family to family. For instance, according to Wikipedia, “It is believed that the soul of the departed remains wandering on Earth during the 40-day period, coming back home, visiting places the departed has lived in as well as their fresh grave. The soul also completes the journey through the Aerial toll house finally leaving this world.
“In Russian tradition, bread and a glass of water is put in the Icon Corner in the house of the departed… It is common to make up the bed for the departed during the 40-day period, donating the bedding to poor on the 40th Day…In some traditions all night vigils with intense prayers are held on the night before the 40th Day. The motif of the 40th Day is ‘we said good bye to you, no longer come to us, we will come to you.’ After the 40th Day the living can no longer grieve about the departed, they must move on with their lives.”
In India, in many families a ‘diya’ is kept lit for the departed soul for 40 days and it is believed that on the 40th day, the soul crosses the river that separates the world of the living and the world of the dead and the soul’s journey to the other world will henceforth be smoother. Many families also believe the river crossing erases or considerably reduces the soul’s memories of its earthly existence and dissolves its earthly ‘personality’, enabling an easier transition to a true spirit form.
In Greek mythology, the Styx river had to be crossed to reach the other world. The river crossing could only be made in a ferryboat rowed by an old, grizzled boatman named Charon and he in turn would only take a soul if proper funeral rites for the body had been performed on earth. In India, the 47th chapter of the Preta Khanda in the Garuda Purana describes the Vaitarni River which must be crossed by the souls of the dead. Those with good karma could cross it easily, otherwise they would sink into it.
Wikipedia says that “Vaitarna or Vaitarani river… lies between the earth and the infernal Naraka, the realm of Yama, Hindu god of death and is believed to purify one’s sins. Furthermore, while the righteous see it filled with nectar-like water, the sinful see it filled with blood… According to the Garuda Purana, this river falls on the path leading to the Southern Gate of the city of Yama. It is also mentioned that only the sinful souls come via the southern gate.”
I’ve written earlier about my paternal grandmother who ‘died’ but came back before she could be cremated and narrated how she had to cross a river and other gripping details. When it comes to experiences similar to those of my grandmother and other near death experiences or NDEs, passing through a tunnel and seeing a bright light are often recounted. Some time ago, Time carried an adaptation from Lisa Miller’s book ‘Visions of Heaven: A Journey Through the Afterlife’ in which she quoted Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist and professor at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital who has made his reputation studying the brain scans of religious people—nuns and monks—who have ecstatic experiences as they meditate. “He believes the ‘tunnel’ and the ‘light’ that NDE-ers so frequently describe can be easily explained. As your eyesight fades, you lose the peripheral areas first, he points out. ‘That’s why you’d have a tunnel sensation.’ If you see a bright light, that could be the central part of the visual system shutting down last…. It is possible, Newberg asserts—though not at all certain—that visions of heaven are merely chemical and neurological events that occur during death.” It is worth noting that Newberg only ‘believes’ and has not ‘proved’.
For some scientists, however, Miller points out, purely scientific explanations of heavenly visions do not suffice. Emily Williams Kelly, she says, is a psychologist who works at the University of Virginia’s Division of Perceptual Studies, which treats the study of NDEs as legitimate science. Kelly interviews dying people and tries to find patterns among their similarities. Kelly believes the experiences of people who have had near-death visions demonstrate that consciousness exists even after normal brain function ceases.
This theory, Kelly argues, could suggest explanations for the afterlife: “If our conscious experience totally depends on the brain, then there can’t be an afterlife—when the brain is gone, the mind is gone. But it’s not that simple. Even when the brain seems to be virtually disabled, people are still having these experiences.” What is she saying? That upon death, people really go to another realm? And that science can prove it? Kelly shrugs. NDEs “tell us to open our minds and think there may be a great deal more to mind and consciousness—that’s as far as I’m willing to go.” And that, for lack of more space, is as far as I can go in this column. More on the engrossing subject of the soul’s journey to the other world in the next column.