AARP ( American Assosciation of Retired Persons ) polled 1011 people ,age 50 and over, to learn what Americans in the second half of life think about life after death. The results were published in the Sept/Oct issue of the AARP magazine and they make interesting reading.
Some of the results : 94% believe in God ;86% believe in Heaven and 70% in Hell. And , 23% believe in reincarnation. This means that a fair number of people have overlapping beliefs in Heaven as well as in reincarnation. The 23% figure is surprisingly high and the article quotes an eminent authority as saying ” If you took this study 50 years ago, the belief in reincarnation would be down at about one percent…..”.
Generally, our religious beliefs are shaped during childhood and very strongly influenced, even dictated, by the beliefs of our parents. Those brought up in Christian/ Jewish Muslim families are comfortable with the idea of Heaven and Hell; those who are from Hindu/ Buddhist/ Jain/ Sikh families are more at ease with the idea of multiple lives and re-birth .
As one from the latter group I , even in my younger days, could not fathom how one could be rewarded or punished for all eternity on the basis of a relatively short stay on Earth. Reincarnation seemed to be much more logical even though it also had it’s anomalies. In this theory, one’s circumstances in this life are the product of one’s actions in past lives. If one has lived a good life in one’s past incarnation, one is rewarded with good fortune, good health etc. in this go-around ; conversely,those who have been wicked will be punished for it in this life. The cycle of birth and death continues until “we get it right” and attain moksha or become one with God. But this Law of Karma never explained to my satisfaction why bad people sometimes flourish and good people don’t.
Then , a few years ago, I attended a religious discourse by Swami Tadatmananda which resolved this anomaly in my mind. The Swami, an American by birth and an electrical engineer by profession, had given up his worldly pursuits to become a Hindu monk. His talk was about reincarnation and karma, exactly what I was interested in. In brief, this is how he explained it.( This is written very baldly; I can’t hope to match his eloquence). In the course of our life , all our actions result in karma of one sort or another ; good actions result in good karma, bad actions result in bad karma. All this karma, good and bad, is deposited in our “account” in a central ” bank” and builds up over all our past lives. Each time our soul is about to be re-born , it dips into it’s account and “withdraws ” a portion of the accrued karma. Since the account contains both good and bad karma and the withdrawal is made at random it too contains a mixture of both . If it is predominantly good, we are blessed with good circumstances in this life ; the converse also holds true. This would seem to explain the anomaly I wrote about earlier as well as the fact that no one’s life is entirely happy since our withdrawals contain both good and bad karma.
Everything , of course, is speculation and theorising. Nobody really knows, even though they may sound very definite. Maybe there is a Heaven and Hell. Maybe we do go through a series of lives until we are finally released from the cycle. Maybe this life is IT and we just step off into a void.
One of the respondents in the AARP survey , Tom, had a response that I loved. Though a Catholic, he said he didn’t believe in life after death. ” I’ve always felt that way. Life’s short enough without having to worry about something you can’t do anything about anyway….. Sure. They preach life after death, you know ?I just say, hey, people preach a lot of stuff. You just gotta make up your mind about things . I go to Mass. I live my life like there’s life after death, but I don’t believe there is. If it’s true, well, hey, it’s a plus. But ,if it ain’t, I didn’t lose nothing.”
Words of wisdom ,indeed. I suspect that most of us are like Tom, whether we admit it or not. We just muddle through and hope for the best.
P.S. Do read the AARP article if you can. It has some fascinating stuff such as people’s ideas of Heaven, who they believe will get, in and who won’t etc.