Hellish thoughts – Part II

4 06 2019


The Srimad Bhagavatam is the 18,000 verse story of Krishna, or rather, the story of all reality in relation to Krishna. The fifth of the twelve cantos is noted for its mathematical outline of the material universe, and the last part of that canto describes the lower planets, or what would be considered Hell in the Western monotheistic religions. Here is an example of the punishments described in this canto:

By the arrangement of the Supreme Lord, low-grade living beings like bugs and mosquitoes suck the blood of human beings and other animals. Such insignificant creatures are unaware that their bites are painful to the human being. However, first-class human beings — brāhmaṇas, kṣatriyas and vaiśyas — are developed in consciousness, and therefore they know how painful it is to be killed. A human being endowed with knowledge certainly commits sin if he kills or torments insignificant creatures, who have no discrimination. The Supreme Lord punishes such a man by putting him into the hell known as Andhakūpa, where he is attacked by all the birds and beasts, reptiles, mosquitoes, lice, worms, flies, and any other creatures he tormented during his life. They attack him from all sides, robbing him of the pleasure of sleep. Unable to rest, he constantly wanders about in the darkness. Thus in Andhakūpa his suffering is just like that of a creature in the lower species.

At the beginning of the Sixth Canto, the speaker of the Bhagavatam, Sukadeva Goswami, is asked by the hearer, Maharaj Pariksit, how to avoid punishments in the hellish planets. The story of the fallen brahmin Ajamila is then told. Ajamila was a righteous young brahmin who stumbled across a prostitute having intercourse with a man. Unable to overcome the contamination of this sight, he falls in love with that prostitute and runs off with her. He abandons his saintly life and commits all sorts of crimes to maintain his lover and the children he has by her.

At the end of his life, Ajamila is set to be judged for his crimes and delivered to hell. As the Yamaduttas or hellish demons came to get him, he cried out to his most beloved son, Narayana, to help him in his time of need. This was enough to call down the Visnuduttas, or heavenly creatures equivalent to angels, to contest the soul of Ajamila. For “Narayana” is the name of the four-handed Vishnu, and even though Ajamila was not calling directly on God but rather on his son who happened to have that name (just like Spanish-speakers sometimes name their sons “Jesus”), that was enough to deliver him. It would seem then that in the Srimad Bhagavatam, one can be saved by trick.

This is simplifying things substantially. Ajamila was saved for the most part due to his previous devotional service, both in that present life and others. And I have been told that he had to live one more life before he could return to Vaikuntha (the heavenly realm). Good and evil in the Srimad Bhagavatam then isn’t particularly straightforward. Even the keeper of Hell, Yamaraj, is a great devotee of the Lord. In this reality, the entire created material world, including higher planets inhabited by demigods, is one big prison house created from the three modes (gunas) of material nature, sattva (goodness), rajas (passion), and tamas (ignorance). Vishnu is the deity of goodness, Brahma is the deity of passion, and Shiva is the deity of ignorance. That doesn’t mean that Vishnu is the Abrahmic god nor is Shiva the devil. All of these modes of material nature mix and dissolve to create every entity from dirt to demigods. A demigod may appear good, but much of that goodness is keeping him in the material world and from going back to Godhead. Ajamila may have looked like he was given over to evil and ignorance, but he had enough devotional service under his figurative belt that only one invocation of Narayana was needed to deliver him. Nothing is ever as clear as it seems in the prison house of material nature, which is the cycle of birth and death.

Instances of a fall of the perfect devotees of the Lord are often catalysts for greater things. For example, the Bhagavad Gita is recited by Krishna to Arjuna on the Battlefield of Kuruksetra since Arjuna is covered by ignorance, namely, his inability to see that killing his beloved friends and relatives was his duty in the restoration of righteousness to the world. The Srimad Bhagavatam itself is spoken because the emperor of the world, Maharaj Pariksit, had a very minor lapse into the mode of ignorance by placing a dead snake on around the neck of a meditating brahmin who failed to acknowledge him. The brahmin’s son, upon seeing his father humiliated, cursed Maharaj Pariksit to die in seven days. This led the king to go to the bank of the River Ganges to fast until death, and it is there he met Sukadeva Goswami. Similarly, demonic asuras such as Bhakta Prahlada and Bali Maharaj ended up being devotees of the Lord in spite of their natures. No matter how far gone the person and their activities, in the end they often end up oriented to Krishna anyway as the ground and source of their being.

In the story of Krishna proper, the Supreme Personality of Godhead arrives on the scene as a slayer of demons, but paradoxically, everyone slain by Krishna is liberated. The demon Putana disguises herself as a goddess to breastfeed the baby Krishna and thus poison him but is destroyed by him instead; she still achieved liberation due to her intimate contact with Krishna (in spite of her intentions). The same was the case for his uncle Kamsa (who kills his younger siblings just out of the womb), or Sisupala, a man who harbors nothing but enmity for Krishna since he stole his supposed bride and can’t let go of the slight.

Sisupala got Swayuja mukti by insulting Sri Krsna | Vedic ...

This is what liberation looks like.

Delivering one’s enemies by killing them is one of the unique qualities of Krishna. It’s a privilege to have Krishna as an enemy, because even if you hate him (he’s living “rent-free in your head” according to the modern slang), you are still thinking of Krishna, and only the thought of Krishna, or even more specific, the name कृष्ण, is enough to deliver you from the cycle of birth and death. He is present in his name as much as Jesus is present in the Eucharist for Catholics.

The last anecdote I want to mention is the one pictured in the very beginning of this reflection. Bhismadeva is a central noble character in the Mahabharata. A great devotee of the Lord, he ends up on the other side of Arjuna in the Battle of Kuruksetra. In this way, as a ksatriya or warrior he is able to offer Krishna the pleasure of engaging in battle with his friend, Arjuna. As Bhisma was firing arrow after arrow against Arjuna and Krishna (the chariot driver), the bloodied Krishna broke his pledge not to pick up weapons and charged Bhisma with a broken chariot wheel. Only the sound of the conch ending the battle saved Bhismadeva from certain death. In defeat and lying on a bed of arrows, Bhismadeva says the following as recorded in the First Canto of the Srimad Bhagavatam:

May He, Lord Śrī Kṛṣṇa, the Personality of Godhead, who awards salvation, be my ultimate destination. On the battlefield He charged me, as if angry because of the wounds dealt by my sharp arrows. His shield was scattered, and His body was smeared with blood due to the wounds.

At the moment of death, let my ultimate attraction be to Śrī Kṛṣṇa, the Personality of Godhead. I concentrate my mind upon the chariot driver of Arjuna who stood with a whip in His right hand and a bridle rope in His left, who was very careful to give protection to Arjuna’s chariot by all means. Those who saw Him on the Battlefield of Kurukṣetra attained their original forms after death.

Tim Ralphs » Blog Archive » The right story for the right ...

Srila Prabhupada gives the following explanation in his purport:

Had Bhīṣmadeva been an enemy of the Lord, Lord Kṛṣṇa could have annihilated him without even moving. There was no need to come before Bhīṣmadeva with blood and wounds. But He did so because the warrior devotee wanted to see the transcendental beauty of the Lord decorated with wounds created by a pure devotee. This is the way of exchanging transcendental rasa, or relations between the Lord and the servitor. By such dealings both the Lord and the devotee become glorified in their respective positions. The Lord was so angry that Arjuna checked Him when He was moving towards Bhīṣmadeva, but in spite of Arjuna’s checking, He proceeded towards Bhīṣmadeva as a lover goes to a lover, without caring for hindrances. Apparently His determination was to kill Bhīṣmadeva, but factually it was to please him as a great devotee of the Lord. The Lord is undoubtedly the deliverer of all conditioned souls.

I have been told that when Bhismadeva returns home back to Godhead, his “planet”, his paradise in other words, is the Battlefield of Kuruksetra on the opposing side of Lord Krisha, seeing him charge with horse and chariot. Even in attacking Krishna, he was serving Krishna as a pure devotee. All of these extraordinary narrations probably don’t apply to you and me, but they are there to astound and captivate us nonetheless.

What can we say about these scattered anecdotes about hell, sin, and enmity? How does it relate to the Catholic Christian view of things? In the literal sense, it doesn’t. The intricate web of interlocking stories in the Srimad Bhagavatam is predicated on a scope of existence not really deemed possible in the Christian cosmos. Figures like Jay and Vijay get cursed and pass from life to life, body to body, accomplishing enmity to the Lord and his devotees, only return to their original state. The Lord’s external potency, his maya (literally “not this”) leads people astray, granting their most compelling desire in material nature only to lead them over and over again into birth after birth, death after death. Over millions of lifetimes, a jiva or spirit soul might pass from being a worm to being Brahma, that is, the creator of their own universe, only to fall all the way back down again. In the wheel of samsara, liberation from material existence is impossible without the mercy of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna, and the guru who guides one back to Godhead. Only by the process of bhakti, or devotional service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead does one make it back to one’s original form in the spirit world.


In contrast with Christian salvation history, the transmigration of souls is highly didactic. As stated previously, whatever one has in mind at the end of one life leads one into another body in the next, until one finally desires to stop the cycle. That can only occur when one is focused on the Supreme Lord at the time of death, when one has no more attachments and only desires to serve Krishna for the rest of one’s existence. In this age of Kali, as taught by the yuga avatar, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the only way to return to Godhead is harinam sankirtan, the constant chanting of the holy names of God:

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare

It is thus not a question of good works or bad, of enmity or obedience per se, but rather of devotional service to the Lord, mainly using the invocations of his names to sever oneself from the idea that this body is one’s identity, to then cling to one’s eternal identity as a servant, friend, parent, or lover of Krishna. This is a process that has been going on for a very long time, almost infinite perhaps by our standards. Perhaps we just need one more push, or maybe we need to spend a million more years in a horrible hell, but the destination is the same.

That is why you might have seen the Hare Krishnas dancing down the street in a large city: they want you to hear the Holy Names that can bring their mercy to you by hearing and seeing. Ajimila only needed to say the divine name once unintentionally to be saved. Maybe you seeing it chanted a few times this lifetime might save you from hell, and maybe it’s enough to get you home.

Honestly, I am far more comfortable with the Hare Krishna approach than the Catholic approach at this point. Gaudiya Vaishnavism doesn’t need to convince you that it’s right: the power of the Name of the Lord is enough to save you if you are of the right disposition. It certainly can’t hurt. Catholicism on the other hand has to keep moving goal posts to not make God seem like a cosmic ogre playing a cruel joke on the universe, making sons and daughters just to cast them into Hell forever without a chance at redemption. It is far easier for me to think, along with Origen, that when we enter the temple the first time, we are remembering something we once learned but have since forgotten, rather than merely lucking out at having received a previously unheard message in one variable lifespan. At least that’s where I am at the moment.



2 responses

6 06 2019

Really, if you compare the devotionalism of late Medieval Catholic authors and the bhakti of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, there’s a lot of similarity. The ideas of dedicating all one’s works to God/Jesus/Jesus through Mary/Krishna, the idea of absolute devotion of one’s whole self to the Deity, the emphasis on the love of the Divine (however conceived) for us and the absolute love we are to return, and so forth, are strikingly similar. I re-read the Bhagavad Gītā a few years ago some thirty years after I’d first read it, and about twenty-five years after joining the Catholic Church, and I was struck by the number of places where you could substitute “Christ” for “Krishna” and it would sound like a Catholic devotional.

You’re right, though, that Catholicism never could get rid of that Hell thing, and the Vaishnava view seems more logical and humane. It is interesting, as I’ve noted before, that some of the late Medieval devotional writing and some of the writing of Liguori and de Montfort come very close to saying that God (or Mary acting on His behalf–the Catholic version of Devi, it seems) will pretty much save anyone who makes even the faintest plea, de-emphasizig hell as much as you could probably get away with then.

Of course, according to the Gītā (can’t remember the verse), Krishna is the ultimate recipient of all true worship and devotion, anyway, so if the Gaudiya Vaishnavas are correct, Catholics are worshiping Krishna, just under another name and in a culturally appropriate form. I’m OK with that.

5 06 2019
John burnett.

Speaking of Origen (and Gregory of Nyssa) you might like this: https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/the-severity-of-universal-salvation/

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