The afterlife acts as a pervading presence in the Hindu religion, one of the oldest organized religions in the world. In contrast to many other religions, the Hindu afterlife is dynamic and cyclical -- final rest can only be attained by breaking this cycle. Many Hindus seek truth from multiple sources, acknowledging the fluid nature of time, location, social status and evolving cultural mores, so these views are more faith-based beliefs than they are hard facts.
In Hinduism, the concepts of death and the afterlife go hand-in-hand with the concept of impermanence. Hindus believe that worldly happiness is impermanent, and they call it “maya,” which means “an illusion.” Hinduism teaches that the human body is impermanent and changeable; it fades in death. In contrast, the eternal soul, or "atman," is said to be unchangeable and immortal.
Rather than dwelling in a permanent afterlife, Hindus believe that the immortal soul undergoes a continual rebirth or reincarnation known as "samsara." The Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu sacred text, compares the soul entering a new body to a person changing his clothes: “The embodied soul cast[s] off his worn-out bodies and enters other new.” In this way, death in Hinduism is viewed as both an end and a beginning.
When the cycle of death and rebirth is broken, Hindus refer to this as "moksha," or the final, ultimate release from rebirth. Only once a soul attains moksha is it at rest. Once the cycle of reincarnation is broken, a Hindu is said to achieve unity with Brahman, the ultimate reality of the universe. To become free from samsara, Hindus believe in following the path of karma. This moral system focuses on cause and effect; sins and actions from current and past lives are said to affect the future. The ethical beliefs of karma include selfless actions and religious devotion. Good deeds in one life are believed to lead to rebirth in a better life in a higher realm, closer to unity with Brahman.
Ideally, Hindus often prefer to “attain” death, a concept that helps secure their soul's transition. This may include choosing the moment of the final breath, a pilgrimage to the holy city of Banaras and the drinking of water from the sacred river Ganges. Family members recite chants, songs, prayers and mantras, which act to help the dying person focus on Brahman. After passing, the deceased's body is thoroughly washed and cleanly dressed before cremation, which is said to free the soul for the process of transmigration, or the migration to a new body. Prayers seek to help the atman on its journey to the next destination.
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