Elysian Fields in the Occident and the Orient:
The Middle Heaven in the Aeneid and Indian Religious Traditions
What is the state of the soul between this life and the final resting place? Most religious traditions do not simply make a theological jump from earthly death to final heavens or hells, and many use the concept of a “middle heaven” to describe the occupation of a soul in limbo. Though I will not here focus on the Latter-day Saint view, most of what I describe should ring with a measure of truth – the spirit world, where the righteous in paradise and the wicked and untaught in hell retain their personalities and inclinations, where the wicked mourn, the untaught are educated, and the righteous take their rest in doing the Lord’s work, is a reality for us. The human soul reasons and is taught by divine inspiration that there is a place or a state betwixt the cosmic here and there. The Elysian Fields described in Vergil’s Aeneid provide the Roman conception of a middle heaven, and may be instructively compared and contrasted with similar ideas in the various Indian religious traditions.
The impetus for this journal entry is my surprise at finding of a type of selective reincarnation in the Aeneid, and a brief treatment of this doctrine will serve as a springboard to understanding overarching similarities and differences in the traditions. “When they have turned Time’s wheel a thousand years, the god calls in a crowd to Lethe stream, that there unmemoried they may see again the heavens and wish re-entry into bodies.” (1009) This is the culmination of Anchises’ answer to Aeneas’ startled question regarding those about to be reincarnated. Aeneas held, in a similar fashion to most Indian religions, a negative view regarding the “bodies’ dead weight” (1008), and saw the disembodied soul as something light, free, and closer to pure. In Indian tradition, impurities keep one on the rounds of rebirth, or samsara, and rebirth is something to be escaped. In the Aeneid, reincarnation is part of the god’s plans, and only some are subjected to it. Anchises’ descendents are to be reborn for specific purposes in the building up of the Roman Empire. The Indians generally treat reincarnation as universal, not restricted to humans, and only chosen purposefully by a very few (the Buddhist Bodhisattva, for example, chooses to be reborn in order to assist the rest of the human family in gaining enlightenment. The Dalai Lama is one such being.). And here we have our similarities and differences: both the Aeneid and Eastern tradition view the spiritual state, bereft of body, as a state of higher bliss, but reincarnation is selective, rather than universal, in the Aeneid. Now that we have examined those who are on their way out of a middle heaven, let us look at those who are going to be staying there a while.
Within samsara, the cosmological hierarchy goes something like this, from the bottom up: hell beings, vegetation, animals, humans, and gods. Acts that accrue karma send a person down the ladder, and meritorious acts shoot a person up the ladder. The gods occupy a heaven strikingly similar to Vergil’s verdant fields. Elysium is described as “places of delight… green park land, where souls take ease amid the Blessed Groves” (1006) and also as the place “where a few abide in happy lands, till the long day, the round of Time fulfilled, has worn our stains away” (1009). The Indian middle heaven is a resting place for those with an excess of merit, and may be generally described using the same words Vergil used for Elysium. In most Indian traditions, though, it is not only stains that are here washed away, but merit as well– any mark upon one’s being is damning in most Indic thought, regardless if it is a positive or negative mark, and the goal of religion is to remove from one’s self any marks so as to be able to return to the original, primordial state of perfection. The gods in middle heaven are biding their time until merit is worn away. In the Aeneid, this cleansing period is followed by entry into the realm of the gods and eternal bliss. In Indian tradition, there is generally one more rebirth as a human and then entry into what may be collectively described as the “heavens.” Again, the similarities are striking.
With what do those in the middle heaven occupy themselves? “All joy they took, alive, in cars and weapons, as in the care and pasturing of horses, remained with them when they were laid in earth” (1006). As in Indian and LDS thought, the dead carry with them their personalities and passions. The middle heaven for Indians may involve much of what Vergil here describes – with no fatigue, hunger, or pain, the gods fill their time with largely idle and enjoyable pursuits. These gods cannot help others to get off the rounds of rebirth, for they themselves are trapped in samsara. They may have some sway in earthly matters, such as weather, crop production, military endeavors, and so forth, but in Indian thinking such things are paltry when compared to a soul’s liberation. In the Hindu caste system, those at the top are not the richest or most powerful (Kshatriya, warrior and noble, or Vaisya, merchant castes) but those entitled to a greater portion of spirituality (the Brahmin caste). Therefore these gods have a level of comfort that is to be envied, but, as in Vergil, their true plight (separation from the final heaven) is largely unchanged. I have heard Indian middle heaven described as that proverbial “rest home for the righteous,” and that seems to be a good description of Elysium. The main difference here is that the residents of Elysium are not recognized as gods, nor do they have godlike powers and temporal influence, with the exception being freedom from pain, hunger, etc. In the ancient world, where a much higher proportion of humanity died from disease and starvation than it does now, it seems to me that this freedom may very well be characterized as a desirable form of godhood.
The more I read Western and Eastern thought concurrently, the more I am convinced of several things. The problems common to humankind really are common, and they stir up in us ideas and solutions that may seem very different superficially, but deeper inspection yields a rather united core. Also, I believe that God continues to inspire His kids and give them, here a little and there a little, glimmers of truth. It is also possible that similar truths are found across the human family because the human family has a common root. From examining Western and Eastern thought and comparing it with my own Latter-day Saint background and beliefs, I find much common ground on which to build, as well as interesting differences that enliven the mind and enrich the bright tapestry of human experience.
 As a note to avoid confusion, in Hinduism and several forms of Buddhism there are Gods and then there are gods. “Big G” Gods are not and never were on the wheel of samsara, but will often choose to manifest themselves as avatars or incarnations in order to help the human race. The Hindu Trimurti (Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma) and the five Cosmic Buddhas are examples. “Little g” gods are stuck on the rounds of rebirth just like humans, and it is these gods who occupy a middle heaven in Indic thought.
 What “heaven” means differs depending on the specific religion, and Buddhism in particular shies away from too-specific description of heaven, bringing to mind Confucius’ pragmatic sentiment – how can we worry about heaven when we can’t even get earth right! Various traditions hold to nirvana, or an extinguishment of desire and unification with the infinite, as heaven, whereas others hold a view similar to the Christian heaven of personal conference with deity and bliss in deity’s presence.
 In one version of the Buddha’s enlightenment, gods appear to Siddhartha disguised as a sick man, and old man, a dead man, and an ascetic holy man, in order to awaken in him a desire for the transcendent. Their reason for doing this is simple – they know the Buddha will discover the way to leave samsara, and they desire this knowledge for themselves so they might attain nirvana.