Hinduism and the Grand Marking called Death

The concept of death in Hinduism is fluid and meanders between the multiple lives assigned to a soul. Hindus firmly believe in a separate existence of the body and the soul where the body is nashwar (destructible) but the soul is beyond the realm of creation and destruction. It simply keeps changing attires (physical body) till it reaches nirvana or moksha. This is precisely why death is celebrated with all the pompousness assigned to the other two most important markings of a Hindu life – birth and marriage. But of course, the celebration of death in its full glory usually takes places when an old person dies who has lived a full life, and has had the full potential to realise all the karmas assigned to the soul in this particular lifetime. Procession to the cremation ground in this case is generally accompanied by drums, bursting of firecrackers and dancing to mark the person’s final procession.

The majority of the Hindu population in North India cremates their dead. The fundamental guiding principle is that the human body, composed of panch tattva or five elements (earth, water, fire, wind and space), needs to be restored back to these elements and burning ensures a natural restoration of the elements to their respective sources. It is further believed that the soul needs to be freed from all the bondages to this world to be prepared for its rebirth. The bondages between the subtle body (atman or soul) and the physical body can be best broken by cremating the dead body as fast as possible, and most preferably, within 24 hours of death. Expediting the process ensures lessening of pain for the deceased and for mourners on the following fronts: firstly, it ensures that the attachment of the soul to the current physical form is severed and a peaceful ascension to the land of pitris or ancestors takes place on the 13th day marking the end of death rituals. Secondly, burning of the corpse allows the bereaved family to take solace in the fact that the soul has moved on to the land of ancestors. 

The exceptions to this rule concern the death of renunciates, yogis and anchorites, often known as sanyasis or sadhus, and young children. The shastras or the guidelines as prescribed in the Vedas specify that the enlightened bodies should be buried as the life force or prana in these cases is absorbed by the body and the space around their burial ground can act as a source of energy, inspiration and relief to those who visit their samadhis or shrine. This is precisely the reason why samadhis (for Hindu saints) and mazars (for Muslim saints) continue to be equally popular in India and visited by millions of devotees irrespective of their religion. It is believed that these shrines have the potential to fulfill desires and bring solace to the human heart with the sheer spiritual healing prowess of the shrines. Young children are also buried as it is envisaged that the soul did not spend enough time to develop deep bonds with the sansar or cement worldy relationships.

Most Hindu practices are rooted in appeasing the energies of the five (visible) planets, two luminaries, sun and moon and mathematical shadow points of the moon, Rahu and Ketu.  Death ceremonies typically involve invoking all the planets to seek their blessings for the departed soul. Saturn, the lord of death, Venus, the giver of moksha, and Ketu, representing ancestors, are given special offerings in form of a mound of rice (representing Venus) embedded with black sesame seeds (representing Saturn) by the son of the deceased wearing a ring made of kusha grass (representing Ketu) for the departed soul to be united with ancestors and attain moksha. On the 13th day of the death rituals or the shraddh ceremony, this marking is complete and the entire family bows down to the pind (rice mounds with black sesame seeds) to pay respect and mark the soul’s final departure from the bhuloka or earth plane to pitriloka or land of the ancestors. Each year during pitrapaksha, a 15-day period in the Hindu calendar, marks the visit of ancestors to the earthly plane and collective prayers are offered to the ancestors in form of a collection of pind.

Picture 1: Pind-daan, ritual offering to ancestors. Source: www.visitkashi.com

The spatial attributes of Hindu death rituals once again vary in different parts of India and the world. Cremation is often done on the banks of a river in designated areas and the ash and remains of the body is supposed to be submerged in the river Ganges. It is a common practice that the ash and remains are submerged in other rivers as well in South India as travelling to North India is often not a viable option for all families. Varanasi, the holiest city in Hindu psyche, remains the most coveted place for cremation and submerging of the last remains while Gaya, a small town in the state of Bihar, North India, occupies the most important position for the annual pind-daan to ancestors in the period marking pitrapaksha.

Picture 2: Pitrupaksha shraddh ceremony to pay collective respect to the ancestors. Source: www.dnaindia.com

But the diversity of Hindu death practices is relatively hidden. For example, a markedly different tradition is practiced in the southern state of Kerala where it is not uncommon to burn the dead body at the household premises, a practice which is unheard of in North India.   

And further on, as opposed to the common belief that all Hindus burn their dead, there exists what Maddrell and colleagues have described as ‘diversity within diversity’ in Hindu death practices. Burial was a common practice in pre-Vedic times in India and it is still practiced by some communities in India. The Virashaiva community of South India, who are devotees of lord Shiva are, for example, buried and not cremated. They are buried in a yogic pose called Dhyana mudra (meditating position) with the Ishta linga (symbol of lord Shiva) in their left hand. Another example is drawn from the Nath Yogi community of India where the practice of Yoga is so deeply embedded in the community doctrines that the community endorses death as the deepest state of meditation  or deep samadhi. The corpse is therefore buried in a lotus position inside an underground chamber. Some other communities in South India also practice burial instead of cremation, as illustrated in the following examples drawn from different parts of South India:

Picture 3: Kannada (left) and Tamil (right) tombstones. Source: Rajiv Satyanarayana, https://www.quora.com/Why-do-some-Hindus-in-South-India-bury-the-dead-and-in-North-India-they-burn-them
Picture 4: Burial ground of a Kannada caste, Lingayat, in Pune, India. Source: Rajiv Satyanarayana, https://www.quora.com/Why-do-some-Hindus-in-South-India-bury-the-dead-and-in-North-India-they-burn-them

Further, a variation of urn burial is also practiced in the state of Andhra Pradesh in India where the ashes and remains after cremation are collected to be placed in a grave-like structure, mostly in front of the house or in the front courtyard and worshipped as a regular shrine.

Picture 5: Grave-like structures to bury the ashes and remains after cremation, Andhra Pradesh, India. Source: Shubbam Savant, https://www.quora.com/Why-do-some-Hindus-in-South-India-bury-the-dead-and-in-North-India-they-burn-them

The complex layers of the evolution of the Hindu society and its unfolding over centuries is prevalent in death rituals as well. If one takes a deep dive in these rituals, then evidently the issue of burial vs. cremation is dependent on a number of factors. Some variations are as following: (i) some castes in South India cremate while others follow the practice of burial, (ii) in some families, it is a tradition that the eldest child of the family is cremated while the younger siblings are buried, and (iii) in some areas, cremation is done only when you have entered the grihastha ashram, i.e have been married and established a family, one is buried if unmarried.

Similarly, the Hindu communities living outside India are interpreting the Hindu death rituals to accommodate traditional practices in new settings. Seeking permission to submerge the ashes after cremation in flowing water in a special assigned area on the banks of a river or ocean is an ongoing discussion in many parts of the world. There are some battles which have been won and the immigrant communities have found a bank for the final passage of their loved ones while others are still searching for the right bank or shoreline.  

Gender is another variable which is progressively being redefined in the death rituals both inside and outside India. Traditionally, death rituals are performed strictly by the eldest son or male relatives of the deceased; daughters and female relatives could not give the mukhagni or the first fire to the dead body or perform any worshiping ceremonies like shraddh or pind-daan. Though this gender equation is firmly rooted in the current Hindu society, changes are also increasingly being witnessed. If and when will we reach equal role allocations in death rituals remains to be seen, but the Hindu society cannot and should not ignore its living goddesses for long!

It is a common belief that Hindu death rituals automatically equate to cremation, but the sumptuous layering of caste, age, region and timeline needs further recognition for a nuanced discussion on the topic. Ways in which spatiality gets manifested through allocation of different ghats (assigned area of the riverfront) for burning the funeral pyres for different castes, the politics of death as played out at these ghats, access to and bargaining for the material to fire the death pyre, and the different roles assigned to different castes before the body is finally offered the mukhagni offer a rich material for further study and exploration.

How these different elements are being brought together for the Indian diaspora spread across the world needs further study to unravel the administrative, political, emotional and spiritual marking of a Hindus’ ‘death at a distance’. Repatriation is increasingly receding and death rituals are part of the portfolio of ‘making home away from home’. 

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