We all know so many clever jokes about how hell should be preferred “because of the good company” and about how boring should heaven be. Let me take the chance to focus on the Śrīvaiṣṇava heaven, i.e., Vaikuṇṭha, and see whether they apply also to it.
First, some history of the concept (move to next paragraph if not interested):
The name Vaikuṇṭha is used for both a particular form of Viṣṇu (with four faces) and for the Vaiṣṇava heaven. Please notice that we are not talking of one among many heavens, but the only and upmost one, where God’s bhaktas can live with Him. The first usage seemingly predates the other (since it is attested in the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa and in the KauśUp for Indra and in MBh and Harivaṃśa for Viṣṇu). Vaikuṇṭha for the place is attested in the Bhāgavata and in the works of the Āḻvārs.
Did the two usages influenced each other? Possibly, but I could not yet reconstruct the missing links (any help is appreciated).
Vaikuṇṭha is mentioned just once in the early three Tiruvantātis of the Divyaprabandha (or Tivyappirapantam), namely by the Āḻvār called Pēyāḻvār. The text is translated as follows by Eva Wilden (with Marcus Schmücker):
“As in all earlier times Vēṅkaṭam, the milk ocean [and] Vaikuntam were the temples for him who took [them and] dwelled there, [so now is] Kaṭikai, with lush flowers in long groves where a wealth of bees rises, the heavenly city for the young prince.”
In Tamil (separation among words and breaking of some sandhis mine, based on the book’s transcription):
பண்டெல்லாம் வேங்கடம் பாற் கடல் வைகுந்தங்
கொண்டங்கு உறைவார்க்குக் கோயில் போல் —வண்டு
வளங் கிளரும் நீள் சோலை வண் பூங் கடிகை
யிளங் குமரன் தன் விண் நகர். (2342)
Conceptually it is interesting to notice that Vaikuṇṭha is mentioned as the place in which Viṣṇu resided, like the milk-ocean and Vēṅkaṭam. Now, unless I am wrong, there is no (Skt or Tamil) mention of the devotees of God being able to reside in Vēṅkaṭam or in the milk ocean, so this first mention of Vaikuṇṭha seems to list only places of Viṣṇu, with no hint of the fact that one of them will become also the heavenly abode of His devotees.
A possible alternative reading is suggested by Eva Wilden herself, who, based on a linguistic problem, writes in a footnote:
“Slightly disconcerting in this verse is that we have one designation for the lord in line 2 which makes use of the honorific form (uṟaivārkku), while line 4 refers to him as a prince in masculine singular (kumaraṉ). We might consider reading uṟaivārkku instead as a slightly elliptical reference to his devotees who take (perceive; koṇṭu) Vēṅkaṭam, the milk ocean and Vaikuntam as his abodes and dwell there to do worship, but that, while working nicely for Vēṅkaṭam, is somewhat more difficult to imagine for the latter two places.”
I am not completely sure I can follow Wilden’s argument here, since I would imagine that the ideal place for the devotees to dwell and do worship were Vaikuṇṭam, but anyway, the suggestion is interesting, since it points to the possibility of reading the first part of the verse as describing the places in which the devotees visualise Viṣṇu.
Later on, the Āḻvārs discuss of Vaikuṇṭha as if it were the only place one might want to reach –no mention of liberation, either as an alternative (and possibly lower) goal or as identical with Vaikuṇṭha.
Why exactly is Vaikuṇṭha such a great place? As pointed out already, for the Āḻvārs the main reason seems to be that one is in the same world with one’s beloved One. Veṅkaṭanātha adds some more theology to it, speaking of the fact that one does not only share sālokya ‘being in the same world [with God]’, but also paramasāmya ‘supreme identity [with God]’. This last state seems to violate exactly the residual dualism necessary in order to allow for love and service to God, and it is possible that Veṅkaṭanātha only included it because of the Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad passage about it (nirañjanaḥ paramam sāmyam upaiti, 3.1.3). Therefore, Veṅkaṭanātha explains that this paramasāmya is not tādātmya (as for the Advaitins), but rather sādharmya ‘having the same characteristics’. Still, the person having attained sādharmya is not equal to God in every respect. For instance, they cannot create the world. So, the sādharmya regards other aspects, most notably bhogasāmya ‘equality of enjoyment’. In other words, one enjoys all the blessing experiences of God in Vaikuṇṭha, although one does not have the same level of independent agency (but still a lot of freedom, according to Tattvamuktākalāpa 2.63).
The idea of equal enjoyment with God raises the problem of embodiment, since it seems difficult to imagine enjoyment without a body. Veṅkaṭanātha in the TMK says that in fact the soul can at their own will get a body, which is not determined by karman and is therefore not a vehicle of bondage.
Within the sādharmya there is also the attainment of omniscience, which in fact was the natural condition of the soul but was temporarily blocked by karman. (So, in Vaikuṇṭha you will finally be able to understand perfectly Tamil and Sanskrit and solve any philosophical puzzle you wondered about!)
Why should it not get boring at a certain point? Veṅkaṭanātha does not directly address this question, but his Rahasyatrayasāra seems to point to the idea that one would be busy with a continuous flow of beautiful experiences, all connected with the fact that one is with nice people (the other liberated ones) and especially with the object of one’s love, Viṣṇu.
Does it sound convincing? Or would one still eventually get bored?
Eternity is long… Yes, but one might also speculate that during cosmic dissolutions everything is reabsorbed in Viṣṇu, so that eternity is long but always interrupted. I will get back to this in future posts.
The book I mentioned above on the Tivyappirapantam is available here.
I was prompted to write this post by a remark of Helen De Cruz.