There is one thing that is certain in this lifetime: eventually we all must die. A belief in the cyclical reincarnation of the soul is one of the foundations of the Hindu religion. Death is viewed as a natural aspect of life, and there are numerous epic tales, sacred scriptures, and vedic guidance that describe the reason for death’s existence, the rituals that should be performed surrounding it, and the many possible destinations of the soul after departure from its earthly existence.
While the ultimate goal is to transcend the need to return to life on earth, all Hindus believe they will be reborn into a future that is based primarily on their past thoughts and actions.
The first mortal to meet his fate with Death was named Yama. This dubious honor makes him uniquely qualified to lead the way for others after death. The sacred scriptures of the Rig Veda, which call him King Yama, promise that all who have been good will receive “admission to Yama’s paradise and the everlasting enjoyment of all the heavenly pleasures, include the restoration of a sick body, the maintaining of family relations and the highly desired apotheosis”. Yama is aided by two killer guide dogs that are described as the “four-eyed keepers of the path, who watch over men.” These “two dark messengers of Yama with flaring nostrils wander among men, thirsting for the breath of life”. Yet, once they have secured their prey, they lead them back to their heavenly realm, where Yama directs them to their destiny.
Cremation is a ritual designed to do much more than dispose of the body; it is intended to release the soul from its earthly existence. “Hindus believe that cremation (compared to burial or outside disintegration) is most spiritually beneficial to the departed soul.” This is based on the belief that the “astral body” will linger “as long as the physical body remains visible.” If the body is not cremated, “the soul remains nearby for days or months”The only bodies that are not generally burned are unnamed babies and the lowliest of castes, who are returned to the earth.
The standard cremation ceremony begins with the ritual cleansing, dressing and adorning of the body. The body is then carried to the cremation ground as prayers are chanted to Yama, invoking his aid.
It is the chief mourner, usually the eldest son, who takes the twigs of holy kusha grass, flaming, from the Doms’ (the untouchable caste who tend funeral pyres) eternal fire to the pyre upon which the dead has been laid. He circumambulates the pyre counterclockwise– for everything is backward at the time of death. As he walks round the pyre, his sacred thread, which usually hangs from the left shoulder, has been reversed to hang from the right. He lights the pyre. The dead, now, is an offering to Agni, the fire. Here, as in the most ancient Vedic times, the fire conveys the offering to heaven.
After the corpse is almost completely burned, the chief mourner performs the rite called kapälakriyä, the ‘rite of the skull,’ cracking the skull with a long bamboo stick, thus releasing the soul from entrapment in the body. After the cremation, the ashes are thrown into a river, ideally the Ganges river, and the mourners walk away without looking back.
The death ritual does not end with the elimination of the body. There is still the safety of the soul to look after. To ensure the passage during its voyage to the Otherworld, an eleven-day ritual called shraddha is performed. It “consist(s) of daily offerings of rice balls, called pindas, which provide a symbolic, transitional body for the dead. During these days, the dead person makes the journey to the heavens, or the world of the ancestors, or the ‘far shore.'” “On the twelfth day, the departed soul is said to reach its destination and be joined with its ancestors, a fact expressed symbolically by joining a small pinda to a much larger one” Without these rites, the soul may never find it way to Yama’s realm.
Those who have been “meritorious,” but have not quite attained liberation through Self-knowledge, are sent to a heavenly realm to await their fate. “There the Gandharvas (demigods of fertility) sing to them and the bevies of celestial nymphs dance for them.” Since there is no need for punishment, “they go forth immediately on very high divine carriages. And when they get down from those carriages, they are born in the families of kings and other noble people.” There they “maintain and protect their good conduct” and live out their days before they are reborn enjoying “the very best of pleasures”.
The fate for those who have participated in less honorable thoughts or actions is far less pleasant. The Arthasastra, a Hindu textbook from the second century BCE, offers a detailed description of some of the more frightening realms. Yet before reaching these dangerous destinations, one must first endure a miserable journey. “The hard-hearted men of Yama, terrifying, foul-smelling, with hammers and maces in their hands” come to get the deceased, who tremble and begin to scream. Filled with terror and pain, the soul leaves the body. “Preceded by his vital wind, he takes on another body of the same form, a body born of his own karma in order for him to be tortured.”
The evil man becomes born as an animal, among the worms, insects, moths, beasts of prey, mosquitoes, and so forth. There he is born in elephants, trees, and so forth, and in cows and horses, and in other wombs that are evil and painful. When he finally becomes a human, he is a despicable hunchback or dwarf, or he is born in the womb of a woman of some tribe of Untouchables. When there is none of his evil left, and he is filled with merit, then he starts climbing up to higher castes, Shudra, Vaishya, Kshatriya, and so forth, sometimes eventually reaching the stage of Brahmin or king of men. With so many unpleasant possibilities, it is easy to understand why reincarnation is not the only goal of every Hindu.
Those who lead a life of austerity, meditation and grace can look forward to the possibility of reaching Brahmaloka. This is the “highest among the heavenly planes” and the dwelling place of Brahma himself. “This is a place of intensely spiritual atmosphere, whose inhabitants live, free from disease, old age, and death, enjoying uninterrupted bliss in the companionship of the Deity.” There is no need for them to return to earth because they have freed themselves “from all material desires.” While they do experience a sense of individuality, they also experience a oneness with Brahma. This is the realm of immortality.
There is one other way to achieve liberation from samsara. This is to die within the city of Banaras, on the Ganges. “Death, which elsewhere is feared, here is welcomed as a long-expected guest.” A city of many names, it was known in ancient time as Kashi, the city of light, and the Mahabharata refers to it as Varanasi. The funeral pyres, which are located on the river, burn nonstop. “Death, which elsewhere is polluting, is here holy and auspicious.” People travel from around the country and the planet to spend their last days in Banaras because, “Death, the most natural, unavoidable, and certain of human realities, is here the sure gate to moksha, the rarest, most precious, most difficult to achieve of “spiritual goals”.
For those who are unable to die in Banaras, cremation on the banks of the Ganges or the spreading of the ashes in her waters is the next best thing. Referred to as the “River of Heaven” or the “goddess and mother,” she is considered to be sacred from her source in the Himalayas, all the way to the sea in the Bay of Bengal. Her power to destroy sins is so great that, people say, “even a droplet of Ganges water carried one’s way by the breeze will erase the sins of many lifetimes in an instant”.
The Hindu Faith, Mourning, Burial at Sea and Cremation
It must be understood that while this information was furnished by reliable sources, there are many different opinions between those of Hindu faith, and any Hindu contemplating cremation or burial at sea must seek the advice of a trusted priest.
Hindu death rituals in all traditions follow a fairly uniform pattern drawn from the Vedas, with variations according to sect, region, caste and family tradition. Most rites are fulfilled by the family, all of whom participate, including the children, who need not be shielded from the death. Certain rites are traditionally performed by a priest but may also be performed by the family if no priest is available. Here is a simple outline of rites that can be performed by Hindus in any locality. Variations are noted and suggestions made for Hindus in Western countries.
1. As Death Approaches
Traditionally, a Hindu dies at home. Nowadays the dying are increasingly kept in hospitals, even when recovery is clearly not possible. Knowing the merits of dying at home among loved ones, Hindus bring the ill home. When death is imminent, kindred are notified. The person is placed in his room or in the entryway of the house, with the head facing east. A lamp is lit near his head and he is urged to concentrate on his mantra. Kindred keep vigil until the great departure, singing hymns, praying and reading scripture. If he cannot come home, this happens at the hospital, regardless of institutional objections.
2. The Moment of Death
If the dying person is unconscious at departure, a family member chants the mantra softly in the right ear. If none is known, “Aum Namo Narayana” or “Aum Nama Sivaya” is intoned. (This is also done for sudden-death victims, such as on a battlefield or in a car accident.) Holy ash or sandal paste is applied to the forehead, Vedic verses are chanted, and a few drops of milk, Ganga or other holy water are trickled into the mouth. After death, the body is laid in the home’s entryway, with the head facing south, on a cot or the ground–reflecting a return to the lap of Mother Earth. The lamp is kept lit near the head and incense burned. A cloth is tied under the chin and over the top of the head. The thumbs are tied together, as are the big toes. In a hospital, the family has the death certificate signed immediately and transports the body home. Under no circumstances should the body be embalmed or organs removed for use by others. Religious pictures are turned to the wall, and in some traditions mirrors are covered. Relatives are beckoned to bid farewell and sing sacred songs at the side of the body.
3. The Homa Fire Ritual
If available, a special funeral priest is called. In a shelter built by the family, a fire ritual (homa) is performed to bless nine brass kumbhas (water pots) and one clay pot. Lacking the shelter, an appropriate fire is made in the home. The “chief mourner” leads the rites. He is the eldest son in the case of the father’s death and the youngest son in the case of the mother’s. In some traditions, the eldest son serves for both, or the wife, son-in-law or nearest male relative.
4. Preparing the Body
The chief mourner now performs arati, passing an oil lamp over the remains, then offering flowers. The male (or female, depending on the gender of the deceased) relatives carry the body to the back porch, remove the clothes and drape it with a white cloth. (If there is no porch, the body can be sponge bathed and prepared where it is.) Each applies sesame oil to the head, and the body is bathed with water from the nine kumbhas, dressed, placed in a coffin (or on a palanquin) and carried to the homa shelter. The young children, holding small lighted sticks, encircle the body, singing hymns. The women then walk around the body and offer puffed rice into the mouth to nourish the deceased for the journey ahead. A widow will place her tali (wedding pendant) around her husband’s neck, signifying her enduring tie to him. The coffin is then closed. If unable to bring the body home, the family arranges to clean and dress it at the mortuary rather than leave these duties to strangers. The ritual homa fire can be made at home or kindled at the crematorium.
Only men go to the cremation site, led by the chief mourner. Two pots are carried: the clay kumbha and another containing burning embers from the homa. The body is carried three times counterclockwise around the pyre, then placed upon it. All circumambulating, and some arati, in the rites is counterclockwise. If a coffin is used, the cover is now removed. The men offer puffed rice as the women did earlier, cover the body with wood and offer incense and ghee. With the clay pot on his left shoulder, the chief mourner circles the pyre while holding a fire brand behind his back. At each turn around the pyre, a relative knocks a hole in the pot with a knife, letting water out, signifying life’s leaving its vessel. At the end of three turns, the chief mourner drops the pot. Then, without turning to face the body, he lights the pyre and leaves the cremation grounds. The others follow. At a gas-fueled crematorium, sacred wood and ghee are placed inside the coffin with the body. Where permitted, the body is carried around the chamber, and a small fire is lit in the coffin before it is consigned to the flames. The cremation switch then is engaged by the chief mourner.
6. Return Home; Ritual Impurity
Returning home, all bathe and share in cleaning the house. A lamp and water pot are set where the body lay in state. The water is changed daily, and pictures remain turned to the wall. The shrine room is closed, with white cloth draping all icons. During these days of ritual impurity, family and close relatives do not visit others’ homes, though neighbors and relatives bring daily meals to relieve the burdens during mourning. Neither do they attend festivals and temples, visit swamis, nor take part in marriage arrangements. Some observe this period up to one year. For the death of friends, teachers or students, observances are optional. While mourning is never suppressed or denied, scriptures admonish against excessive lamentation and encourage joyous release. The departed soul is acutely conscious of emotional forces directed at him. Prolonged grieving can hold him in earthly consciousness, inhibiting full transition to the heaven worlds. In Hindu Bali, it is shameful to cry for the dead.
7. Bone-Gathering Ceremony
About 12 hours after cremation, family men return to collect the remains. Water is sprinkled on the ash; the remains are collected on a large tray. At crematoriums the family can arrange to personally gather the remains: ashes and small pieces of white bone called “flowers.” In crematoriums these are ground to dust, and arrangements must be made to preserve them. Ashes are carried or sent to India for deposition in the Ganges or placed them in an auspicious river or the ocean, along with garlands and flowers.
8. First Memorial
On the 3rd, 5th, 7th or 9th day, relatives gather for a meal of the deceased’s favorite foods. A portion is offered before his photo and later ceremonially left at an abandoned place, along with some lit camphor. Customs for this period are varied. Some offer pinda (rice balls) daily for nine days. Others combine all these offerings with the following sapindikarana rituals for a few days or one day of ceremonies.
9. 31st-Day Memorial
On the 31st day, a memorial service is held. In some traditions it is a repetition of the funeral rites. At home, all thoroughly clean the house. A priest purifies the home, and performs the sapindikarana, making one large pinda (representing the deceased) and three small, representing the father, grandfather and greatgrandfather. The large ball is cut in three pieces and joined with the small pindas to ritually unite the soul with the ancestors in the next world. The pindas are fed to the crows, to a cow or thrown in a river for the fish. Some perform this rite on the 11th day after cremation. Others perform it twice: on the 31st day or (11th, 15th, etc.) and after one year. Once the first sapindikarana is completed, the ritual impurity ends. Monthly repetition is also common for one year.
10. One-Year Memorial
At the yearly anniversary of the death (according to the moon calendar), a priest conducts the shraddha rites in the home, offering pinda to the ancestors. This ceremony is done yearly as long as the sons of the deceased are alive (or for a specified period). It is now common in India to observe shraddha for ancestors just prior to the yearly Navaratri festival. This time is also appropriate for cases where the day of death is unknown.
Hindu funeral rites can be simple or exceedingly complex. These ten steps, devotedly completed according to the customs, means, and ability of the family, will properly conclude one earthly sojourn of any Hindu soul.
Religions such as Hinduism offer our own immortal souls satisfying answers to questions of life and death. Their ancient mythic texts provide real reasons for our existence here on earth. They also demonstrate that death is something that can be prepared for instead of being feared. In addition, they offer the possibility of something to look forward to, so we need not dread our last days on this planet. A true hindu shall love death as he loves this life.