Heaven and hell (NARAKA) have been known to Hinduism since ancient times. VEDIC Hinduism conceived of a realm beyond the sky called svar or svarga, a realm of immortality and happiness beyond this world. One reached it through proper performance of the Vedic duties, especially the rituals (YAJNA).
   In later mythology, beginning in the epics RAMAYANA and MAHABHARATA, svarga began to be understood as the realm of INDRA, king of the gods. His paradise contained the sacred wish-giv-ing tree and the cow who grants all wishes. The beautiful courtesans of the gods (APSARASES) reside there, along with the divine musicians (GANDHAR-VA S). There all desires for pleasure are instantly satisfied.
   Later Hindu traditions, starting around 400 B.C.E., considered svarga or heaven to be only a waystation in the transmigrating life. One could enjoy one’s accumulated KARMIC merit there but would still be reborn into the physical world. In Shaivite tradition, SHIVA resides in Kailash, a para-dise of sorts located at an actual mountain in the HIMALAYAS, but one was only meant to visit this site once in a lifetime. It generally was not seen as a place for souls to go after death.
   Among Vaishnavites (VISHNU devotees), the ancient realm that once belonged to INDRA remains as a goal, to be reached after liberation from birth and rebirth. Vishnu and his wife, Lakshmi, preside over this paradise, where souls may live in efful-gent bliss eternally, in proximity to the divinity himself.
   Further readings: J. A. Dowson, A Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology (Portland, Oreg.: Trubner, 2003).

Encyclopedia of Hinduism. . 2007.

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