Q: Question: How the concept of Heaven and Hell compares in Hinduism v/s Christianity?
This is an interesting question because a lot of Westerners do not realize that there even is such a thing as heaven and hell in South Asian religions. In the so-called Western religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), heaven and hell are the rewards that a person receives at the end of life. These religions teach that a human being has only one life, and that one’s ultimate outcome depends entirely on what occurs during that single lifetime. Even though there are important differences between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, they all have this much in common: a human being walks on the earth only once, and that short span determines an eternity of happiness (heaven) or misery (hell).
Hinduism and other Eastern religions believe in a virtually never-ending cycle of reincarnations, from which we cannot escape because of the fruits of our karma. The ultimate goal becomes release (moksha) from the cycle altogether. Thus, heaven and hell really do not seem to play an important role in Hinduism (or, for that matter, Jainism or Buddhism). Thus, it is not surprising that one perfectly legitimate use of those terms in Hinduism it is to see them as purely symbolic, where heaven stands for release from incarnation, and hell for continuing to be imprisoned in that cycle of samsara.
Still, in Hinduism heaven and hell also have a meaning referring to localities. The fact that attaining heaven is not the ultimate goal of a religion does not mean that, therefore, the religion cannot include the concepts of heaven (and of hell, for that matter). Such is the case with Hinduism and its allied religions. Heaven and hell are two of the three levels of the universe. Heaven is up above us, so to speak, and it is the place of residence for the gods and for some other beings whom I shall mention below. Hell is the netherworld, the abode of the demons (asuras) and, again, it is also where certain other beings may spend some time. So, in spite of radical differences, heaven and hell are considered real places by both Christians and Hindus.
When I say "real places," I am obviously not referring to earthbound geography or even astronomy, as I would be if I were saying that Kokomo, Indiana, or the planet Jupiter are real places. Here is an interesting point where scientific discoveries have come to lend greater credence to religious claims. Many people still say that to claim that heaven and hell are real places, though they cannot be located geographically, is a cop-out. However, contemporary physics has opened up the possibility of more than three dimensions (or four, counting time) as well as multiple universes. Consequently, not being able to locate places on three-dimensional maps means nothing in terms of their real existence. Thus, we do not engage in special pleading by saying that they are real places, but are not directly accessible with our present physical limitations.
Let me become a little bit more specific and focus on Christianity rather than making general statements about Western religions. Understanding the nature of Christianity begins with two important facts: God''s holiness, which cannot be accommodated to coexistence with human sinfulness, and the fact that human beings are born into a state of fallenness and alienation from God. Our human nature was created so as to find its ultimate fulfillment in direct harmony with God, but sin stands in the way of this goal. Furthermore, the problem is self-recursive, so to speak, by which I mean that the very problem that keeps us from being in fellowship with God right now also keeps us from being able to achieve fellowship with God by our own efforts. Consequently, Christianity goes on to teach that Jesus Christ came to earth in order to provide a way for us to be reconciled to God and, thus, to live with a new and restored nature in God''s presence in heaven for all eternity. Hell, on the other hand, is simply the extension of our present lives in separation from God. Without Christ, we are right now living our lives apart from God with a spirit that has been corrupted by sin, and, according to Christian theology, the person who is not reconciled to God and whose spirit has not been restored, will continue in that miserable state after his physical death. In other words, in Christianity, since we are born in a fallen state, Hell is not something that a person receives for having been an especially bad human being, but it is simply the continuation of what has been true for us all along. We spend our lives corrupted by sin, and, unless we allow Christ to restore us, that state of affairs will simply continue forever. The descriptions in the Bible of both heaven and hell are relatively sketchy, and we must be careful to understand that most of the references to hell in particular are symbolic insofar as they attempt to convey the idea of how our godless existence is intrinsically injurious to us to our spirits, and that this painful state will extend beyond the physical death of our bodies.
In Hinduism, heaven and hell, in addition to serving as the abodes of gods or demons, can also be places of reward or retribution. The "other beings" that I mentioned above are, in fact that human persons spending time in these places on a temporary basis. Reincarnation is not limited to human forms, but it includes the entire scale of living beings. Thus, if one is not measuring up to the moral standards of one''s caste, one could be reborn as a low caste human being, as an animal, or even as a demon in hell. It might take thousands of generations of rebirths in order to escape from there and to find your way into our common plane of existence again, and then perhaps only as various animals for a long, long time.
Heaven can also be a reward for a life lived well, but only temporarily. In the Bhagavad-Gita we read:
"The doers of the rituals prescribed in the Vedas. . . worship Me by doing good deeds for gaining heaven. As a result of their meritorious deeds they go to heaven and enjoy celestial sense pleasures. . . They return to the mortal world . . . upon exhaustion of the fruits of their good Karma. Thus . . . persons working for the fruit of their actions take repeated birth and death." (Bhagavad Gita 9:20-21, translation by the American Gita Society).
In other words heaven can be a temporary vacation from reincarnation, as it were, but then one must return and continue with the cycles of rebirth. How finally to escape from the cycles of samsara is a totally different question, the answer to which varies among different Hindu schools.
So you can see that there are both the similarities and differences in the way in which heaven and hell occur in Christianity and in Hinduism. For both religions, they are real places. For Hinduism, they are temporary way stations as a person goes through potentially billions of lives. In Christianity they are the final outcome on the basis of a single lifetime. Now, it may appear at first glance that the Hindu view is far more preferable because it gives us billions of chances, whereas in Christianity we are limited to only one. Unfortunately, the belief that it may take a billion or more lifetimes just to get to the point where one has a chance at moksha, and that even then the outcome is uncertain, actually changes what initially may have seemed optimistic to a realistic pessimism. On the other hand, even though in Christianity there is only one lifetime available in order to reach eternity in heaven, there is no need for any further reincarnations because attaining this goal does not require anything except to trust in the work of salvation that Jesus Christ has already accomplished. That is why Christians refer to this basic doctrine as "the Gospel," which means "the good news."