Understanding Heaven as Home

In the wake of the kiss of death fromcurrent pandemic, it is urgent to ask why flee from the honoured angelic(Izrael’s) embrace whose agent is Corona. And what do we really seek in thisworld that will be denied by abiding by laws of lockdown?  For those who were never attached to theworld, Corona is not an issue as death is no punishment. Let us analyze ourmost basic existential commitment to faith and belief in paradise and ask whyCorona disturbs.  God/ the Real/ Being isour Origin and End to whom/which is return and what is indestructible is the Faceof God/the Real. It means that the fellowship of God is being in one’s home.But people have fuzzy and fantastic notions and even doubts about heaven, ourreal home. If a man succeeds in being loyal to himself or divine image on whichhe is created, he enters what has been called terrestrial paradise. Sheikh ‘ĪsāNūr ad-Dīn Ahmad (Schuon) writes:

“What is paradise? It is the inward natureof pure Existence; to be in conformity with that nature is to be carried by thewave of becoming toward beatitude. To be in conformity with Existence is to submit;to submit ourselves to the celestial law, to conform to our own essence, theessence by which we exist and which is the innermost nature of things. WithoutExistence we would not be; how can we reasonably revolt against it and setourselves against that by which we are, that, which makes us to be ourselves?The essence of Existence is blissful; opposition to that essence- the idolatryof contents or of accidents-leads us away from Beatitude and encloses us in theblind alley of our own contingency and in the measureless hell of our ownabsurdity.”

Often, believers believe in Heaven buthardly mind it and it is so-called non-believers who take it seriously. Howmany people we know who are virtually living in heaven here and now or seeingthem one recalls God/Heaven? If very few it means most people choose to dwellin hell. Darshan or deedar of a saint or prophet is a vision of Heaven. It isprophets, saints, sages,  artists –messengers of love and beauty – that invite us to exchange the hell of our ownmaking for the Heaven. Heaven is accessible here and now, albeit partially, toall.  And if we haven’t found a semblanceof heaven here, we can’t get it there. It isn’t a deal with insurance companythat you pay premiums for life here and get returns there. Every moment is, totranspose Renan’s metaphor for nation, a plebiscite for heaven or hell. God hasordained self determination. Every day we witness the Judgment, Ghalib wouldquip. Numerous writers including Kafka have, in their own way, expressed thesame insight.

This world is a shadow of heaven for thosewho have no greed. We all believe it is beautiful beyond imagination and aren’tready to exchange it for anything. If this weren’t so we would consent to die.The oldest and poorest have tasted life’s joys – and continue to taste it – andthat is why they aren’t ready to part with life. Aquinas in his Summa arguedhow the best joys life has to offer are all free.

We need treasure taking Heaven seriouslyeven though it may, paradoxically, not taking affairs of life too seriously asPlato would implore. Taking affairs of life in a playful spirit – but not ourassigned or chosen roles in that play – is taking Heaven seriously. Prayingwith all one’s heart – praying not for this or that boon but just praying forthe sheer joy of it – is entry to heaven to which five times believers areroutinely called to visit. Engaging a ritual is participating in heaven in away. Religion is performance. It is not loan account only that God maintains;to live in virtue is to be in heaven and that is why it is said that virtue isits own reward. All virtuous people know this. One here recalls Wittgensteinaninsights on ethics.

It is not that we don’t know Heaven at alland are condemned to resort to faith to take it seriously. Hayy bin Yazqan, thefamous hero of Ibn Tufail’s great work in which is explored the possibility ofintellectual and spiritual development without help of society or Revelation,experiences a sort of Heaven here and now. Without necessarily taking any position on posthumous Heaven or wishingto deny it or claiming Heaven is exhausted by all the good experienced here onearth, it needs to be emphasized that the deepest interest of truly religiousview is not in the pleasure garden of posthumous Heaven but living a virtuouslife, a life of easy conscience, a life not debased by sin and one experiencesa reward in the form of sweetness or joy of halawat-i iman/ihsan.

Every day we see Heaven in flowers, inhuman face, in loving embrace, in art,  inclassics,  in solitude, in prayer orcontemplation, in just being – the holy act of being. Those who have nothing,no worldly supports for contemplation of Heaven (like wives, children, parents,beautiful houses or work place) nevertheless have graces emanating from virginnature, in imagination. Qaedkhaney kae ander bi sooraj her roz chamkta hae,thus notes Azad in his immortal essay “The Fountainhead of Joy.” Aasman her rozshabnem afshani kerta hae and clouds “bring fresh showers for the thirstingflowers” and “bear light shade for the leaves when laid/In their noon-daydreams.” Everything can be taken away from us but not the power to contemplate,”to say I”   and dwell in freedom or joythat is Spirit.

There is a heaven here and a heaven thereand there is some difference between the two. If we fail to cultivate theformer, we fail to win the later. How seriously do we take God’s invitation tovisit heaven or to create/cultivate a space called heaven? This can be known bythe quality of lives we live. Very few people live life as if heaven is itsconstant horizon and depth dimension and thus “reserve” their seats inotherworldly heaven. All education and religion consist in learning how toexperience this world as heaven.

Other world is better described as higherworld and the two worlds – here and there – are ultimately not separated. TheBeyond can be within though too deep to be accessed ordinarily. None of us –not even among atheists – is ready to go for certain sins. It means all of uslive lives with some consciousness of sin that costs us exile from heaven thatis the serenity of spirit that accompanies clear conscience. It is implied in aprophetic tradition that all noble things that delight the soul are fromheaven.

Our greatest or most beautiful buildingsare mosques/temples/cathedrals or tombs and all are modelled on the other worldor seek to evoke that. Taj Mahal’s design, for instance, is copied from Quranicdescription and Ibn Arabi’s diagrams of heaven. Our houses, the sciences of vastuand its counterpart in Islamic tradition inform us, should be consecrated toGod and be places where Heaven is felt. Heaven is a space to be cultivated inthis world – “Ad-dunya mazra’atul aakhira” – and unfortunately few succeed inthe job. Very few can claim, like Bedil, that they have found it in theirhearts. Every small act of gratitude and love and attention to beauty isnurturing this space. Whether one is religious or secular, the notion of sacredspace we can nurture within and around remains a viable project. Dreyfus andKelly’s provocative All Things Shining shows how there remain a lot of entrypoints to certain space that partakes of Heaven – a fulfilled or meaningfullife is the life giving shade of heaven we all seek here – open for those whodon’ t know God as believers know Him. The world is indeed a ravishing bride orhouri that chooses to unveil before all who care to see. Dostoveskyean insight”This very garden is the Garden of Eden” is shared by saints of all traditions.How challenging it is to feel this when one strolls in one’s garden. Recallingsomething of Hafiz as rendered by Landinskey, try:

Now is the time for the world to know

That every thought and action is sacred.

This is the time

For you to compute the impossibility

That there is anything

But Grace.

Now is the season to know

That everything you do

Is sacred.

All of us have been given some apartment inHeaven thanks to which we consent to live or enjoy life’s blessings.  And love is experiencing something of thatheavenly perfection even now on earth. Prophetic traditions testify that goodthings here are shadows from there. Isn’t life and our love of it something that commands us and we can’t doanything about it? This speaks we know something – are gripped – by that whatis a gift. A sense of gratitude for this gift is life of faith that results inlightness of Spirit that is like travelling in the shade of trees in Heaven.The promised heaven awaits those who carry its image, its seeds in their heartshere. Indeed “Once you go to Heaven, you don’t live on earth any more.”

Swedenborg’s visions of heaven, dictated tohim by the angels and gathered in the course of numerous astral voy­ages, fillnumerous volumes and “were taken with the utmost seriousness during the 19thcentury by such as Blake, Emerson, Coleridge, Carlyle, Henry James Sr.,Tennyson, the Brownings, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Thoreau, Goethe, and manyothers.” Muslim Sufis have made much of the experience of ascension that givesa peep into Heaven. Somerset Maugham’s encounter with a sage captured later inhis novel The Painted Veil may be considered a preview of visit to Heaven: “Ihad a sense that a knowledge more than human possessed me, so that everythingthat had been confused was clear and everything that had perplexed me wasexplained. I was so happy that it was pain and I struggled to release myselffrom it, for I felt that if it lasted a moment longer I should die; and yet itwas such rapture that I was ready to die rather than forego it…” Further: “Ihave an idea that the only thing which makes it possible to regard this worldwe live in without disgust is the beauty which now and then men create out ofthe chaos. The pictures they paint, the music they compose, the books theywrite, and the lives they lead. Of all these the richest in beauty is thebeautiful life. That is the perfect work of art.” Dostoevsky described one ofhundreds of ecstatic experiences in his secret diary as follows: “I felt…thatheaven had come down to earth and absorbed me. I really perceived God and wasimbued with Him. Yes, God exists…I cried. And I can recall no more…””I do notknow whether that blessedness lasts seconds, hours or minutes, yet, take myword, I would not exchange it for all the joys which life can give.”  Note this is how encounter with houris inposthumous heaven is described for believers. Saints somehow witness this inthis life.

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