What is our soul's destiny? What is the goal of the spiritual life?
Is it to find happiness?
Is it to be good, and not bad or selfish?
Is it to earn the reward of an eternal after-death paradise?
Is it to avoid eternal punishment?
Is it to love God (whom you probably haven’t ever met)?
Is it to be virtuous in order to be prosperous?
Is it because you will feel better rather than worse?
A Christian who accepts Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and is baptized in the church can go to heaven if their sins are not overly egregious. After death, the Christian might suffer in Purgatory in order to purify the soul of the burden of their venial sins before at last entering through the pearly gate where St. Peter welcomes them into heaven (assuming their name appears in the good book). In heaven, some say they sing praises to the Lord, perhaps strumming a harp. Maybe they visit with family and friends. No one is really sure but forever is a very long time. Maybe there’s no sense of time in heaven? The explanation isn’t very complete. I suppose a good Moslem has a similar experience though I’ve heard that his rewards are more heavenly sensual in nature. But for all that, the idea is similar. There’s even the idea that at some future Day of Judgement one’s former physical body is resurrected and returned to your soul. I suppose for many people these rewards are enough for them to try to be good, but not too good.
Judaism is less interested, I’m told, in dogma and more interested in behavior (a very practical, and as it turns out, modern concept). But there is some talk of an afterlife. Details are sketchy, however.
Buddhism started as a sect of Hinduism much as the first Christians were Jews. As the centuries went along and as Buddhism more or less vanished from India much as Christianity left Palestine for Europe, it has taken on, in some of its sects or branches, a more nihilistic tone—even for some to claim they are atheists, though Buddha never said that. Buddhism is not straight-forward on the question of heaven because reincarnation remained in the canon from its original Hindu roots. In general, the idea seems to be that nirvana is achieved when the self is dissolved but as there is no concept of soul and only emptiness, Sunyata, beyond form, there is, appropriately, not much to say about it (ha, ha). No wonder they are more inclined to think about improving their next life. Who would wish to become nothing? It seems a bit like committing spiritual hari kari. No wonder the Bodhisattvas choose to return to help others! While this assessment is not entirely fair and in principle is not unlike the concept of dissolving the ego, Buddhism does not admit of God and does not discuss the transcendent state of freedom from samsara (the cycle of birth, life, death and reincarnation).
Hinduism affirms reincarnation and the states between reincarnation, the afterlife, as various forms of heaven and hell, though such states are temporary rather than everlasting. The end game of this otherwise endless cycle of birth, life, death, afterlife, rebirth moves toward enlightenment and then culminates in soul liberation. Enlightenment is the kind of awakening to the soul-Self (Atman) that, when it reaches its full realization, frees one from the delusion of separateness but not necessarily from the karma of past actions and identifications. Freeing one's soul identification from the past then becomes the next goal of the otherwise free soul called a jivan mukta. Once all past karma is dissolved by releasing one’s memory and identification with past actions, then one merges into God and achieves the final state of samadhi (there are different levels of samadhi). This merging into and union with God is often described with the metaphor of a drop of water, or a river, dissolving into the ocean. The drop of water or the water of the river still exist but have been merged into the ocean. Nonetheless, Hinduism is so old and there are so many branches of it and teachers in Hinduism that there’s no point even attempting to state what “Hinduism” teaches no matter how insistently any one branch or teacher proclaims their definition of liberation, known as moksha.
Paramhansa Yogananda (1893-1952), author of the now classic story, “Autobiography of a Yogi,” offered a nuanced description of moksha: the soul’s liberation in God. Freedom from all karma, he taught, allows the Atman, the soul, to achieve identification with what it has always been: the Infinite Spirit. Yet, from the dawn of time, so to speak, each Atman, each soul, carries a unique stamp of individuality. As all created things, mental, emotional or physical, are manifestations of the One, nothing is ever apart from Spirit no matter how dark it becomes. A rock is as much God as a saint, but the rock is simply unaware of “who am I” while the perfect being (saint) is “One with the Father” even if embodied in form.
The Self-realized saint then enjoys a two-fold beatitude: the bliss of God while in incarnate and in activity and yet with access to the vibrationless Bliss of God beyond creation.
There are many stages described in the Hindu scriptures of the soul’s long journey through time and space and its concomitant levels of awakening. But in this article, we are focusing on the final stage: union with God. God realization is not barred by the fact of being incarnate in form, whether that form be the physical, astral; or causal. While it may be gainsaid that this final step is natural to the causal state of the soul, there are those who maintain that it is the desireless desire of God that the soul achieves its liberation while in the outer form of the creation as a kind of victory dance proving, like the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the supremacy of Spirit over matter.
Once merged into the Infinite, the memory of the soul’s many incarnations remain. While enjoying the bliss of union with God, the Infinite Spirit might send the soul back into the creation to fulfill the divine mission of redeeming other souls. Returning to form, such a soul is called, in India, an avatar: a descent of Spirit into form. “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14)
It is also
possible that the deep devotion of an incarnate devotee might be strong enough
to call back into vision or even fleshly form, a liberated soul who is in fact
the savior for that soul. St. Francis, for example, walked with Jesus. Paramhansa Yogananda was visited by the flesh and blood form of his guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar months of his guru's burial.
In God nothing is lost and all is achieved; all is possible.
Meditate, then, on the indwelling, omnipresent, immanent Spirit in your Self and in every atom of creation. "Hear O Israel, the Lord, the Lord is ONE!" The Infinite Spirit sends into creation in every age a divine "son" to call the children back into the blissful Fold. The "son" says to us "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except by following Me." Krishna, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Paramhansa Yogananda and countless other "sons" (and daughters) of God have been sent. Do you hear their voice?