In the earliest strata of Hinduism, the Vedas, there is very little discussion of the afterlife, and really only a vague notion of salvation. Some texts, such as the Rig Veda, suggest that different people go to different places after they die, but there is little detail regarding the matter. This was simply not the focus of the religion. Rather, the concern was the proper performance of rituals that would keep the gods satisfied, and thus keep the cosmos in order.
|List of "principal" Upanishads
(there are over 100 others)
Some in the Vedic world eventually rejected this sacrificial emphasis and set out to find a new path, a path that would lead to eternal salvation. This path is among the focus of the Upanishads. In these texts, there is much discussion of what happens after death. In a famous passage from the Katha Upanishad, a sage named Nachiketas wins a boon from the god of death, Yama, and asks the god what happens to humans after they die. Yama at first refuses to answer, and then, after Nachiketas persists, tells the sage that if he wishes to know the answer to this question, he must study the nature of the self, and in the process he will be able to leave both joy and sorrow behind.
This is a typically cryptic message from the Upanishads, but it points to a basic understanding of salvation articulated there: human beings continue to be reborn because they continue to generate karma, and they continue to generate karma because they are ignorant. They are ignorant of the true nature of the self. According to the Upanishads, the individual self, or atman, is no different than the ultimate reality of Brahman. However, human beings are deluded, and think they are different. They think "I am," and thus they grasp on to the things of the material world. "I want . . . that is mine," and so on. But there is nothing that is not encompassed by the ultimate, by Brahman. According to the Upanishads, if one knows the true nature of the self—that it does not, in any ultimate sense, exist—then one will stop grasping. If one stops grasping, then one stops generating karma. And when there is no karma, there is no rebirth. One is released.
This release, called moksha, is ultimate salvation. The individual is absorbed in the ultimate, Brahman, in the same manner that a stream or a river (a metaphor for the individual atman) is absorbed into the ocean (Brahman). When one attains this state, rebirth stops. One is released, forever. The individual is one with Brahman.
This path, the jnana marga or path of knowledge, is not the only means to attain ultimate salvation. Indeed, Hinduism very much holds that there are many paths to reach the same destination.
|Karma marga||Path of action
(especially ritual action)
|Jnana marga||Path of knowledge
(meditation and analysis)
|Bhakti marga||Path of devotion
(especially towards Krishna)
The Bhagavad Gita introduces the path of devotion, or bhakti marga. One can attain salvation, in the context of this path, through selfless loving devotion to a chosen god. In the Bhagavad Gita this god is Krishna, although because all of the gods in Hinduism are ultimately encompassed by the overarching divine powerhouse Brahman, bhakti directed at any god can lead to salvation.