Birth and death have always proved to be a deep mystery for mankind. Every religion has tried to solve this in its own way. The solution Hinduism offers is found in the Vedic literature—the Ṛgveda, the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa and some of the Upaniṣads like the Bṛhadāraṇyaka and the Chāndogya.
The religion of the Ṛgveda, the earliest available record of human civilisation, is not only optimistic but also dynamic. A life lived well here, in accordance with the principles of ṛta (straightforwardness), satya (truth) and dharma (righteousness), will automatically give you happiness and peace in the life hereafter also. This is the main teaching of the Vedas, the Upaniṣads and all the allied scriptures.
A strong belief in an uncreated, unborn eternal soul, born out of their mystical experiences, naturally made the Vedic seers reflect on its sojourn after the death of this body also. What they discovered in their moments of revelation was given expression to in some of the mantras.
Generally, three destinies for the soul of a dead person have been predicated in these Vedic works: going to the Brahma-loka (or the world of Brahmā) by the Arcirādimārga (the path of light, also called Devayāna or Uttarāyaṇa), from which there is no return to this mundane existence; going to the Pitṛloka or Candra-loka (the world of manes) by the Dhūmādi-mārga (the path of smoke) from which there is return after exhausting the fruits of the merit acquired earlier in this world; repeated birth and death in various bodies.
The first mention of the words Devayāna and Pitṛyāna is found in the Ṛgveda where Agni is addressed as the knower of the path of gods (1.72.7) and the path of the manes (10.2.7). In the mantra (10.18.1) Mṛtyu, the god of death, is requested to clear away from the path of gods. The Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa also mentions these paths in several places. The Ṛgvedic verse (10.18.1) is repeated almost verbatim in the Atharvaveda (12.2.21).
It is quite likely that the Devayāna and the Pitṛyāna were the celestial paths by which the gods (like Indra) and the manes used to descend to this earth to receive their sacrificial and obsequial offerings and return. Gradually, however the paths were ‘thrown open’ as it were, to deserving human beings too.
The Devayāna starts with arcis or the light of the funeral pyre and ends with the Brahmaloka. Various stations are mentioned in between. The enumeration of these stations is found in the following Upaniṣads: Bṛhadāraṇyaka (6.2.15 and 16); Chāndogya (4.15.5 and 5.10.1 to 6); Kauṣītaki-brāhmaṇa (1.3). It is mentioned in the Bhagavadgītā (8.24) also. The stations commonly mentioned are:
Arcis (light), ahaḥ (day), āpūrya-māṇapakṣa (bright fortnight), uttarāyaṇa (summer solstice), saṁvatsara (year), āditya (sun) and candramas (moon).
At this point, an ‘amānavapuruṣa’ (a being who is not a human; a divine being) will come and take the soul to Brahmā in Brahmaloka or Satyaloka.
Sometimes ‘candramas’ is omitted and ‘devaloka’ is substituted for ‘saṁ-vatsara’. The divine being had also been called ‘puruṣo mānasaḥ’ (‘the mind-born person’).
The terms used in these lists such as arcis (light) or ahaḥ (day) actually refer to the ātivāhikās or divine guides on the path (vide Brahmasūtras 4.3.4).
Who are those fortunate persons considered as fit enough to tread this path and go to Brahmaloka, from which there is no return? The Chāndogya (5.10.1) and the Bṛhadāraṇyaka (6.2.15) Upaniṣads declare that the knowers of the Pañcāgni-vidyā (‘the doctrine of five fires’) (See PAÑCĀGNIVIDYĀ.) as also those who live in the forests, devoted to faith, austerity and truth, go by this path. The Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad too (1.2.11) mentions that those who are self-controlled, full of knowledge and wisdom, living on alms and in forests and devoted to austerity, go by the ‘Sūryadvāra’ (i.e., Devayāna) and attain the Immortal Being. The Praśna Upaniṣad (1.10) also proclaims the same thing.
Those who reach the Brahmaloka are supposed to live there enjoying great peace and bliss till the end of Brahmā’s life, after which they—along with the Brahma-loka and Brahmā—get merged in Parabrahman or the Supreme Spirit.
This mode of mukti or liberation is called kramamukti or gradual liberation.
See also PITṚYĀNA.