In almost all religions of the world there is a concept of after-life bliss or paradise. In Hinduism, the oldest religion, the concepts of swarga and apvarga have been vividly described. While apvarga means liberation from the cycle of birth and death, attainment of swarga is a temporal bliss as a result of good deeds or karma. When the fruits of the good deeds have exhausted, one is bound to return to the realm of this world. Though Lord Buddha himself scoffed at the idea of paradise or anything supernatural, the latter day Buddhism did invent the notion of many realms of samsaar in which one had to take repeated births as a human, animal or any other being until one gets free from the cycle of birth and death and attains nirvaana. Buddhism has traveled to several lands and each one of them has given it a different hue. Zen Buddhism, as it is prevalent today in Japan, has inspired construction of ‘pleasure gardens’, also known as ‘Zen gardens’ supposedly on the pattern of the pleasure gardens of the paradise.
Even the ancient Judaism and the Persian Zoroastrianism held belief in after-life and Heaven that was supposed to be populated by gods and angels. In the Chinese Confucian tradition Heaven (Tian) is an important concept, where the ancestors reside and from where the emperors got their mandate to rule. Both Christianity and Islam have very vivid descriptions of their respective paradise. While in Christianity paradise is first lost before it is regained by the mediation of Jesus Christ, in the Islamic tradition the believers or the servants of Allah go straight to the Jannat, while the quafirs or non-believers go to jahannum, the opposite of Jannat.
Glorification of the Concept
Descriptions of all these varied forms of the paradise are fabulous and fantastic. Fairy tales are put to shame when compared to the luxuries of the paradise. All that is good, godly and fabulous is found in rich abundance in the paradise. We find fabulous description of the swarga lok in Hindu mythology and pauranic literature - an ocean of milk (kshir saagar) and a mountain of gold (sumeru giri), flowers that never wither, celestial damsels (apsaras) of divine beauty and everlasting youth, so forth and so on. Christianity takes care to define its paradise as devoid of carnal and sensuous pleasures but, nevertheless, is profuse in the glories of God’s heaven where men, women and children get perfect resurrected bodies devoid of pain and tears. The most sumptuous description of the paradise is, however, found in Islam. In jannat there are four rivers each of delicious water, milk, honey and wine. While the believers in Islam are forbidden to drink wine on the earth, they are privileged to drink from the river of wine in the jannat. Shaded trees laden with divine fruits are to be found in abundance, whose branches lie low for the believers to reach them. Moreover, there are virgins (hoor) of unmatched beauty and given to sensuous enjoyments. A true believer, particularly one who has laid down his life in the cause of jehad, can have as many as seventy-two of them. Perhaps amused by this description of the jannat, the renowned Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib had once remarked:
“Hum ko maloom hai jannat ki haqueeqat lekin,
Dil ki khushrat ko Ghalib ye khayal achchha hai”
How the Paradise was made?
A question arises here: Why all this fantasy about the paradise? Any person given to scientific reasoning and query may ask. The answer is simple, though not so simple as it may look. The world we live in is a mix of pleasures and pain but it appears that God has not given to mankind pleasures and pains in equal measures. Often on the scale of human fortunes, pains seem to outweigh pleasures and, more often than not, the stings of pain are much more severe than the soothing sensations of pleasure. While the moments of pleasure are few and far between, agonizing days and nights of pain are long and unending. In this context, an English novelist has aptly remarked: “Happiness is but an occasional episode in the general drama of pain” (Thomas Hardy in his The Mayor of Casterbridge). The picture of pain and misery is writ so large on the canvas of this world of mortals that it impelled the highly compassionate Lord Buddha to make “affirmation of pain” as one of ‘Four Noble Truths’ (Chattwari Arya Sattyani) of Buddhism.
The fact being so, whenever the highly tormented man has attempted, in his moments of leisure, to fancy about an after-life existence, he has willfully omitted from it everything which causes him pain and lavished it with everything that gives him pleasure, even though for a passing moment. As we know, Islam took birth in the land of arid deserts where the difference between shade and the burning sun is like the difference between life and death. As such, in the conception of jannat rich abundance of shaded trees laden with sweet and juicy fruits was rather presupposed. Similar was the conception of canals and four rivers filled with water, milk, honey and wine. Islam’s strict forbidding of drinking wine to its followers was perhaps the reason behind the conception of a river filled with wine in the paradise so that what the true believers have been deprived of, whilst on the earth, should be available to them as rewards when they visit the jannat. Likewise a social and religious code of restrictions on carnal and sensuous pleasures in this world seems to be the impetus behind the conception of hoors in Islam and that of apsaras (celestial damsels) in the Hindu mythology, so that the deprivations of this world may be fully compensated in gay abandon in the other world. It is not that this world is devoid of beauty or its gratification but the beauty found in this world is such that withers away with time. So in the conception of the paradise both Hindus and Muslims take care to make it ageless or everlasting. Even blossoms there do not wither, not to speak of beauty.
Paradise – A Myth or Reality?
So where does such a paradise exist? Does it not in the dreams and fantasies of the much tormented and deprived man of this world, who has lost all hopes of finding a lasting happiness and pleasure while on this earth? So, is he not justified, while fashioning a world of his dreams and fantasies, to lavish it with all the good things of life his imagination is capable of? Certainly, he is and how wonderfully he has done it with the result that the concept of an after-life paradise or ‘the abode of eternal bliss’ has lived on in the psyche of the mankind from the time when man first started reacting sensitively to the feelings of pleasure and pain. It would be wrong, therefore, to associate the concept of paradise to religion, though subsequently religion did play a prominent role in the determination of the kind of paradise of a person according to the persuasions of its religious beliefs and did give to it a particular hue in order to distinguish it from those of other religions. As a matter of fact, the concept of an after-life paradise has existed in the psyche of the mankind from the very beginning when religion had not stepped in to divide him into different sects and religious communities, when he was just a free- thinking being treading perilously on rocks and hills with his eyes wandering ceaselessly among stars and other wondrous beauties of nature. He keenly observed them and chose from them that he found for himself to be good and gratifying, serene and sensuous, joyous and jubilant, fabulous and fanciful, plenty and pleasurable and willfully omitted from his conscious mind what was offensive and painful. Thus was born out of his own fertile brain the paradise of his own making, of his own liking, where he would fancy to live in an after-life existence, if at all it exists.
The Moral Aspect
Should, therefore, the concept of paradise be taken to be the product of man’s own wishful thinking or is there something more to it? Has it no other significance than being merely a fiction? On a deep analysis of its religious overtones, we may come to the conclusion that it has a moral aspect, too. Every religion has promoted, along side the concept of paradise, a parallel concept of ‘hell’ or the other extreme of paradise, which is variously known as narak in Hindu mythology, ‘hell’ in Christianity and jahannum in Islam. Just as the idea of paradise is soothing to our senses, the idea of hell is repulsive to it, because the picture that is painted of the narak or jahannum, as we find in Hindu mythology and Islam is harrowing and heart-rending. All that is repulsive and retrograde, fearful and frightening, aversive and agonizing, can be found aplenty in the so-called narak or jahannum. The idea of the hell as found in Christianity is not any better. No doubt, it is a negative concept developed by the religious leaders at a much later stage. The ideas of ‘paradise’ and ‘hell’ were used by the religious leaders as moral precepts to ensure the restoration of a ‘moral order’ in the world or at least within the community to which they belonged. Those who engaged themselves in performance of good deeds were supposed to be rewarded with a prolonged or permanent stay in the paradise, while those of evil deeds were supposed to be punished by a permanent deposition to the hell. In order to determine the balance of ‘good deeds’ against ‘evil ones’ on the scale of justice (dharma) we find mention, as a logical corollary, of the concept of Yama in Hindu mythology and that of ‘the Day of Judgment’ in Christianity and Islam. Thus we find that the concepts of paradise and hell, though having no more than a mythical reality, have proved to be quite useful in sustaining a moral order in the world, which could otherwise have been reduced to a state of anarchy.
Can the Paradise be Realized?
Let us examine an interesting question here: Even if the concept of paradise be a myth, can this myth be realized? Normally speaking, no myth has the potential to be realized in actual reality but the myth of paradise is of a peculiar type. If I am given the liberty to say so, the myth of paradise is made out of hard realities of this world. As it has been observed earlier on, man first observed the realities of this universe and then chose from it the best and the most fancied ones to fashion his ‘abode of permanent bliss’. As such it is made out of realities which he has observed, experienced and found to be worthwhile. The world of realities we actually live in, may have some imperfections and, as a matter of fact, it does have many of them, but the world man has fashioned for his ‘after-life existence’ should have none because he has taken meticulous care to see that it is perfect – full of every pleasure and devoid of every pain. It can, therefore, be logically deduced that the so-called myth of paradise is composed of hard realities - realities which have been felt, experienced and observed in our real life. So, how can the paradise be a myth? Apparently it does not look like so but, when put to the test of logical scrutiny, the conclusion deduced above is found to be fallacious. True, the so-called paradise is composed of hard realities, each one of which taken one by one is not only realizable but has been actually realized by man, yet the composite picture they make out of these realities is not realizable. For example, a ‘river of wine’ presents before us a composite picture of two realities – river and wine. Viewed separately both these realities – river as well as wine – are realizable but the composite picture they present, that of a ‘river of wine’ is not realizable and is a myth. Similarly, the composite picture presented by the concept of paradise, though composed of hard realities, is not realizable and is a myth.
Myth or reality, the concept of paradise has given to the suffering humanity a hope, a soothing balm to his battered and brutalized ego and also a sanctified code of ethical precepts for sustenance of a moral order in this world. If for nothing else, the concept of paradise deserves to be extolled, not rejected.