Bhagavad Gita: Chapter 8, Verse 16

आब्रह्मभुवनाल्लोका: पुनरावर्तिनोऽर्जुन |
मामुपेत्य तु कौन्तेय पुनर्जन्म न विद्यते || 16||

ā-brahma-bhuvanāl lokāḥ punar āvartino ’rjuna
mām upetya tu kaunteya punar janma na vidyate

ā-brahma-bhuvanātup to the abode of Brahma; lokāḥworlds; punaḥ āvartinaḥsubject to rebirth; arjunaArjun; māmmine; upetyahaving attained; tubut; kaunteyaArjun, the son of Kunti; punaḥ janmarebirth; nanever; vidyateis

Translation

BG 8.16: In all the worlds of this material creation, up to the highest abode of Brahma, you will be subject to rebirth, O Arjun. But on attaining my abode, O son of Kunti, there is no further rebirth.

Commentary

The Vedic scriptures describe seven planes of existence lower than the earthly plane—tal, atal, vital, sutal, talātal, rasātal, pātāl. These are called narak, or the hellish abodes. There are also seven planes of existence starting from the earthly plane and above—bhūḥ, bhuvaḥ, swaḥ, mahaḥ, janaḥ, tapaḥ, satyaḥ. The ones above are called swarg, or celestial abodes. Other religious traditions also refer to the seven heavens. In Judaism, seven heavens are named in the Talmud, with Araboth named as the highest (see also Psalm 68.4). In Islam also, there is mention of seven heavens with the sātvāñ āsmān (seventh sky) enumerated as the highest.

The different planes of existence are called the various worlds. There are fourteen worlds in our universe. The highest amongst them is the abode of Brahma, called Brahma Lok. All of these lokas are within the realm of Maya, and the residents of these lokas are subject to the cycle of birth and death. Shree Krishna has referred to them in the previous verse as duḥkhālayam and aśhāśhvatam (impermanent and full of misery).

Even Indra, the king of the celestial gods, has to die one day. The Puranas relate that once Indra engaged Vishwakarma, the celestial architect, in the construction of a huge palace. Wearied by its construction, which was not ending, Vishwakarma prayed to God for help. God came there, and he asked Indra, “Such a huge palace! How many Vishwakarmas have been engaged in its making?” Indra was surprised by the question, and replied, “I thought there was only one Vishwakarma.” God smiled and said, “Like this universe with fourteen worlds, there are unlimited universes. Each has one Indra and one Vishwakarma.”

Then Indra saw lines of ants walking toward him. He was surprised and asked from where so many ants were coming. God said, “I have brought all those souls here who were Indra once in their past lives, and are now in the bodies of ants.” Indra was astonished by their vast number.

Shortly after, Lomesh Rishi came to the scene. He was carrying a straw mat on his head; on his chest was a circle of hair. Some hair had fallen from the circle, creating gaps. Indra received the sage, and politely queried from him, “Sir, why do you carry a straw mattress on your head. And what is the meaning of the hair circle on your chest?”

Lomesh Rishi replied, “I have received the boon of chirāyu (long life). At the end of one Indra’s tenure in this universe, one hair falls of. That explains the gaps in the circle. My disciples wish to build a house for me to stay in, but I think that life is temporary, so why build a residence here? I keep this straw mat, which protects me from rain and the sun. At night, I spread it on the ground and go to sleep.” Indra was astonished, thinking, “This ṛiṣhi has the lifespan of many Indras, and yet he says that life is temporary. Then why am I building such a big palace?” His pride was squashed and he let Vishwakarma go.

While reading these stories, we also must not fail to marvel at the amazing insight of the Bhagavad Gita regarding the cosmology of the universe. As late as in the sixteenth century, Nicholas Copernicus was the first western scientist to propose a proper heliocentric theory stating that the sun was in fact the center of the universe. Until then, the entire Western world believed that the earth was the center of the universe. Subsequent advancement in astronomy revealed that the sun was also not the center of the universe, but rotating around the epicenter of a galaxy called the Milky Way. Further progress enabled scientists to conclude that there are many galaxies like the Milky Way, each of them having innumerable stars, like our Sun.

In contrast, Vedic philosophy states five thousand years ago that the earth is Bhūr Lok, which is rotating around Swar Lok, and between them is the realm called Bhuvar Lok. But Swar Lok is also not stationary either; it is fixed in the gravitation of Jana Lok, and between them is the realm called Mahar Lok. But Jana Lok is not stationary either; it is rotating around Brahma Lok (Satya Lok), and between them is the realm called Tapa Lok. This explains the seven higher worlds; similarly, there are seven lower worlds. Now, for an insight given five thousand years ago, this is most amazing!

Shree Krishna says in this verse that all the fourteen worlds in the universe are within the realm of Maya, and hence their residents are subject to the cycle of birth and death. However, those who attain God-realization are released from the bondage of the material energy. Upon leaving this material body at death, they attain the divine abode of God. There, they receive divine bodies in which they eternally participate in the divine pastimes of God. Thus, they do not have to take birth in this material world again. Some Saints do come back even after liberation from Maya. But they do so only to help others get out of bondage as well. These are the great descended Masters and great Prophets, who engage in the divine welfare of humankind.