Ancient Civilizations: Afterlife Essay, Research Paper
16 February 2000
When we think about the afterlife today it is easy to categorize the locations after death: Heaven and Hell. As Christians, we have guidelines in which to receive eternal life and we follow the life as Jesus Christ, and according to the Bible, through Him we are saved. Pretty simple to concept, but in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and India, the afterlife is not so easy to grasp. Polytheism, pharaohs, and Buddha will all be prevalent in this exploration of the afterlife in ancient civilizations.
Mesopotamians also called Sumerians believed that the afterlife was a bleak and dismal existence. It was commonly called the House of Darkness and entitled an eternity in the ground. They were polytheistic and the Gods in which they believed in were said to be just like us. In fact, we were copies of divine models, made in the image of the Gods. They were petty and violent. If the Mesopotamians did not worship correctly the Gods would become angry and punished the people. The punishment often took form of natural catastrophes such as droughts or floods (Adler, 11-12). ?To avert punishment, the gods had to be appeased with frequent, costly rituals and ceremonies, which were the responsibly of a
hereditary priesthood? (Adler, 17). Worshipping of the Gods meant building huge temples called Ziggurats in their name (Adler, 11). The Tower of Babel in Babylon is the temple which gained the most fame through the Bible(Adler , 11). It was built long after the Sumerian epoch (Adler, 11). The certainty of afterlife was not known, but the best approach was to appease the Gods by making offerings and hope for the best in the afterlife (Adler, 12).
The Assyrian Empire could certainly be compared to the Gods in Mesopotamia. The Assyrians were very cruel and thought that they should be worshipped like divine leaders. Tiglath- Pilesar III helped come up with the five pillars of the empire. One pillar was the religious ideology that the Gods wanted territory and war was the duty of all people. Another pillar was to use horror and terror to control people.
Mesopotamian literature was often pessimistic and doubtful of the Gods. In The Epic of Gilgamesh the society is in search of a religious basis for human action, but the main focus of the story is the negligence of eternal life and the defeat of the hero in search of immortality. Lastly, the Sumerians could not get a grasp on nature. With their dependence upon irrigation from the Tigris and Euphrates that constantly faced flash floods and the Euphrates changed course rapidly causing salty soil, not to mention the droughts. There animosity towards the Gods was the basis of their cruelty. Through the Enuma Elish, the Mesopotamian creation
account, we see that humans are slaves to the Gods, in every regard.
Just like the Sumerians, the Egyptians were polytheistic, but they differed in many areas. Egyptians had pharaohs that ruled the kingdom of Egypt. These pharaohs were Egypt?s God-Kings (Adler, 24). The pharaoh was not like the Gods, but instead was a God, a God who chose to live on Earth for a time (Adler, 24). The pharaoh?s will was law and his wisdom was all-knowing (Adler, 24). The people of Egypt had to carry out his wishes or the Gods might not bless the land.
Originally, Egyptians were angered about the afterlife. They thought that it was only for the pharaoh and the upper-class, but soon it was democratized to be a place for the commoners. The afterlife was sacred and, therefore, restricted. By about 1000 B.C.E., most Egyptians believed in a scheme of eternal reward or punishment for their ka (the life-essence that could return to life, given the correct preparation, even after death of the physical body), which hd to submit Last Judgment by Osiris (Adler. 27). There heaven was seen as a circle around the sun where there was no work and no suffering (Adler, 28). Hell came about during the New Kingdom, when things began to go roughly (Adler, 28). Amenhotep introduced the idea of monotheism during his reign of 1364 -1347 B.C.. He worshipped one god known as Aten and then changed his name to Akhenaten in honor of Aten. After his death, under the rule of Tutankhamen (King Tut), the egyptians went back to the traditional belief
Nature and religion went hand in hand in Egyptian culture. The people of Egypt were dependent upon the Nile and they more that they understood its functions the more confident they became. As human beings their ability to understand nature grew. Egyptians represented Gods with ferocious animals. They were also portrayed as half man, half animal. As a whole, the Egyptian culture was optimistic and according to The Book of the Dead the afterlife may be secured through your doings or not doings on earth.
There were two religions prevalent in India?s beginning. The first of the two was Hinduism. The Hindu faith is a product of slow mixing of the Aryan beliefs with those of the native Indians (Adler, 48). Early Hinduism was given by the Laws of Manu (human and divine). These laws were based on caste system and men and women, as well. The afterlife is based on a lengthy series of bodily existence’s, being reincarnated (samsura) in accord with its karma (Adler, 48). Karma is the tally of good and bad committed in a given life (Adler, 48) Good karma would promote you to a higher caste in the next life (Adler, 48). To obtain good kharma, one must follow the code of morals prescribed for one?s caste, called dharma (Adler, 48). If a person lived a perfect life within there dharma, after a series of reincarnations, death would not entitle another reincarnation,
but instead free them from the great Wheel of Life, called moksha (Adler,
48). Moksha is an end of individuality, and the soul then submerges into a world-soul represented by Brahman (Adler, 48).
Siddartha Gautama was considered the Buddha and his life created a whole new mode of thought among Indians. Buddhists goal was to obtain nirvana, which is the Buddhist equivalent of Hindu moksha: release from human life and its woes (Adler, 51). Nirvana is attained by mastery of oneself and the following of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, which Buddha laid out in his teachings (Adler, 51). In the Four Noble Truths it is said that all suffering is brought on by desire and desire can only be overcome by reaching the state of nirvana (Adler, 51). The Eightfold Path is a path of righteous done on Earth. The grasp of oneself, as well as, nature is the only true way to reach nirvana. Religious belief, rather than government, was the cement that held its people together and gave the basis for their consciousness of being a nation (Adler, 53).
These ancient civilizations differ rather drastically when it comes to the afterlife. Although that phenomenon is true, it is the afterlife that molded these different cultures. The Sumerians were pessimistic about nature and religion because they had nothing to look forward to after death, just a life in the dirt, complete darkness. Egyptians lived optimistic lives and hoped to eventually live in that circle around the sun with no
worries. Lastly, the Buddhists of India wanted to become masters of
themselves and obtain nirvana; the Hindus hoped to sustain good kharma
and survive the dharma to flee from the Wheel of Life and become one
with Brahman. All of these religious beliefs became of a way of life for the ancient civilizations, just as Christianity is the basis of human in most of the Western world.
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Handout: Enuma Elish
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