HINDU FUNERALS AND VIEWS ON DEATH

HINDU VIEWS ON DEATH

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On the subject of death one passage in the Rig Veda reads:
When he goes on the path that lead away the breath of life.
Then he will be led by the will of the gods
May your eye go to the sun, you life’s breath to the wind
Go to the sky or the earth, as is your nature.

According to the BBC: “The doctrine of karma means that a Hindu tries to get their life in a good state before they die, making sure that there is no unfinished business, or unhappinesses. They try to enter the state of a sannyasin - one who has renounced everything. The ideal death is a conscious death, and this means that palliative treatments will be a problem if they reduce mental alertness. The state of mind that leads a person to choose euthanasia may affect the process of reincarnation, since one's final thoughts are relevant to the process. [Source: BBC]

Hindu thinkers criticized ancestor worship like that practiced in China by claiming that their ancestors no longer exist as spirits but have reincarnated. The canonical response, according to Hindu scholar Pandurang Vaman Kane, was that wherever the ancestors may be, such offerings from relatives will help them, either in some other world as spiritual food and blessing or as additional good karma in their new life in this world.

Websites and Resources on Hinduism: Hinduism Today hinduismtoday.com ; Heart of Hinduism (Hare Krishna Movement) iskconeducationalservices.org ; India Divine indiadivine.org ; Religious Tolerance Hindu Page religioustolerance.org/hinduism ; Hinduism Index uni-giessen.de/~gk1415/hinduism ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ochs.org.uk ; Hindu Website hinduwebsite.com/hinduindex ; Hindu Gallery hindugallery.com ; Hindusim Today Image Gallery himalayanacademy.com ; Encyclopædia Britannica Online article britannica.com ; International Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Shyam Ranganathan, York University iep.utm.edu/hindu ; Vedic Hinduism SW Jamison and M Witzel, Harvard University people.fas.harvard.edu ; The Hindu Religion, Swami Vivekananda (1894), Wikisource ; Hinduism by Swami Nikhilananda, The Ramakrishna Mission .wikisource.org ; All About Hinduism by Swami Sivananda dlshq.org ; Advaita Vedanta Hinduism by Sangeetha Menon, International Encyclopedia of Philosophy (one of the non-Theistic school of Hindu philosophy) ; Journal of Hindu Studies, Oxford University Press academic.oup.com/jhs

Moment of Death as Described by the Upanishads

The Moment of Death as Described by the Upanishads “When this self gets to weakness, gets to confusedness, as it were, then the breaths gather round him. He takes to himself those particles of light and descends into the heart. When the person in the eye turns away, then he becomes non-knowing of forms. [When his body grows weak and he becomes apparently unconscious, the dying man gathers his senses about him, completely withdraws their powers and descends into the heart. Radhakrishnan.] [Source: S. Radhakrishnan (editor and translator), The Principal Upanishads (New York: Harper & Row, 1951) pp. 269-70, 296, Eliade Page website]

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Preparation for cremation of Brahmin corpse
He is becoming one, he does not see, they say; he is becoming one, he does not smell, they say; he is becoming one, he does not taste, they say, he is becoming one, he does not speak, they say; he is becoming one, he does not hear, they say; he is becoming one, he does not think, they say; he is becoming one, he does not touch, they say; he is becoming one, he does not know, they say. The point of his heart becomes lighted up and by that light the self departs either through the eye or through the head or through other apertures of the body. And when he thus departs, life departs after him. And when life thus departs, all the vital breaths depart after him. He becomes one with intelligence. What has intelligence departs with him. His knowledge and his work take hold of him as also his past experience. (Brihad-aranyaka Upanishad, IV, 4, 1-2.)

Verily, when a person departs from this world, he goes to the air. It opens out there for him like the hole of a chariot wheel. Through that he goes upwards. He goes to the sun. It opens out there for him like the hole of a lambara. Through that he goes upwards. He reaches the moon. It opens out there for him like the hole of a drum. Through that he goes upwards. He goes to the world free from grief, free from snow. There he dwells eternal years. (ibid.,.V, II,I.)

The Soul and Afterlife in Hinduism

Hindus often have little interest in the afterlife. There is little mourning when a Hindu dies because they believe that once a person is born he or she never dies. Krishna said in the Bhagavad-Gita that "Worn-out garments are shed by the body: worn-out bodies are shed by the dweller within...New bodies are donned by the dweller, like garments.” Death is often viewed in a positive light: as an escape from one life on the road to a better an ultimate moksha (nirvana), shanti (peace) and paramapada (the ultimate place).

Atman (the self or spiritual soul) is seen as a kernel that lies at the center of a large onion and is only revealed after the layers around it---associated with the body, passions and mental powers---are removed in a step by step fashion. The Taittiriya Upanishad defines five layers or sheaths (from the outer to the kernel): 1) the body 2) bio-energy, the equivalent of Chinese qi; 3) mental energy; 4) intuition and wisdom; 5) pure bliss achieved mainly through meditation. These layers can be removed through self actualization and the kernel of eternal bliss can ultimately be realized.

The Vedas refer to two paths taken after death: 1) the path of the ancestors, where the deceased travels to a heaven occupied by ancestors and is ultimately reborn; 2) the path of gods, where the deceased enters a realm at the sun and never returns. The latter is the equivalent of reaching nirvana and escaping reincarnation. There is also a reference to a hell-like “pit” where sinners are punished.

At death the sheaths break apart one by one, and go their separate ways revealing the atman, which departs the body and goes on a path defined by an individual’s karma. In most cases the individual goes to a niche in the cosmos occupied by his ancestors or to one of the 21 heavens and hells of Hindu cosmology and remains there for duration defined by their karma until he or she is ready to be reborn.

Hindu Beliefs About Reincarnation

Reincarnation is viewed as a never-ending set of cycles ( yugas and kalpas ). One may be reincarnated millions of times. The doctrine that the soul repeatedly dies and is reborn is called samsara (Sanskrit for migration). Karma determines what a person is reincarnated as. Escape from the weary cycle of reincarnation can be achieved through escape into “an unchanging anonymous Absolute" and attaining moksha , the Hindu equivalent or nirvana . For More on These Ideas See Below.

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Hindu funeral

Barbara Bradley of NPR wrote: “According to Hindu philosophy, human beings are not always reborn as human beings. Some are, but others are promoted to still higher forms, forms beyond our present experience, and others are degraded to lower species. One's future status depends on whether one lives in harmony with nature's laws or violates them. Only human beings can gain freedom from the cycle of birth and death. According to the Bhagavad Gita, whatever a person thinks about at the time of death determines what sort of body he or she will take in the next life. Those death-bed thoughts shape the next body — what sort of eyes, nose, ears and tongue, as well as what sort of hands and legs and other bodily features one will have. And what one thinks about at death depends largely on one's thoughts and actions during life.” [Source: Barbara Bradley, NPR, May 22, 2008]

According to Hindu theology an atman (an internal self or soul) dwells in each person as a kind of cosmic energy that exists beyond worldly reality and karma and doesn’t require good deeds or prayers to improve on itself. The problem is that few creatures can tune into their atman and thus require deeds and prayer to help them establish their place in the world Reincarnation helps them do this and evolve to reach closer to their atman.

The cycles of birth and death are perceived a continuations of the disintegrating force of Creation while transmigration of the soul from one life to another is viewed a perpetuation of the separation of the individual from the unifying force of existence. The aim of the individual is to "get off the wheel," to escape the cycle and merge finally with the Oneness that was there before Creation began. into the original One. Methods used on the path of escaping reincarnation include yoga, meditation, and charity. Since the chances of escaping it are quite low people are encouraged to work to achieve a better position in their next life by doing good deeds, living simply and praying a lot.

Behavior at the end of one’s life and last thought before dying are believed to be very important in determining how an individual will be reincarnated. Thus a great deal of care goes into making sure a person is well cared before they die and after. This is achieved by creating a calm atmosphere and reading Vedic scriptures and reciting mantras so the soon-to-be-dead can earn as much merit as possible.

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Yama, Hindu hell

Hindu Heaven and Hell

Hindus believe that all living creatures---from bacteria to blue whales, and even some plants---have souls, which are essentially equal, and all these life forms are manifestations of the unity of the universe. This is why Hindus are vegetarians and abhor killing animals; and ahimsa , the belief that it is a sin to harm any living creature, is an important precept in Hinduism. The concept was eluded to in the Upanishads and contrasts sharply with doctrines of Western religions which holds that mankind is a special creation on a plane higher than other creatures.

Life and death are seen as meaningless cycles. Life itself is often characterized as a dream that has little to with relevance of the true nature of things in terms of the universe, cosmology and forces behind life. Reality is like an onion whose successive layers have to be pealed to reveal the universe eternal truth. On this subject Krishna told Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita:
Do not say
God gave us this delusion.”
You dream you are a doer.
You dream that action is done.
You dream that action bears fruit.
It is your ignorance.
It is your delusion
That gives these dreams.

Hindus believe in Paramatman (the eternal, blissful self), which contradicts the Buddhist belief in the impermanent and transitory nature of things.

Mt. Meru

Reincarnation is the transmigration of the soul from one life form to another. It doesn’t just apply to humans but to all creatures and some non-living things too. Transmigration of the soul can take place from a human or creature into another human or creature up or down a scale based on good and evil deeds (See Karma Below). If a person has lived a virtuous life he moves up the scale, say, from a low caste to a high caste. If a person has lived an unworthy life he moves down the scale, say, from a low caste to a rat.

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Kailash, Mt. Meru
Reincarnation is a belief found in most Asian religions and is a cornerstone of all the major religions found in India except Islam. The Hindu idea of reincarnation is roughly the same regardless of which Hindu god an individual venerates most.

The Hindu concept of reincarnation first appeared in the Upanishads and is believed to have originated in the Ganges Plain and was absorbed b the Aryan-centered Hinduism as the Aryans moved into the Ganges Plain. Beliefs in reincarnation are not just found in India and Asia but are found in tribal cultures all over the world and were held by the ancient Greeks, Vikings and other groups in the West. Ideas about reincarnation are probably very old and were held by people who lived in Neolithic times.

Astral Cosmos — Hindu Heaven

The Theravada Buddhist scholar Dr. Gamini Karunanayake wrote: “ In the book 'Autobiography of a Yogi', Swami Yogananda's guru Sri Yukteswar after his death came back to his beloved devotee, in flesh and blood form to give a sermon on the after life in other planes of existence. Sri Sathya Sai Baba's mother Easwaramma, who died long years ago has been seen on several occasions in her physical form talking to Sai Baba in his Ashram. Swami Yogananda while lecturing on a topic of a spiritual nature had seen some of his devotees who died earlier, seated in the lecture hall, in their astral bodies and listening to his lecture. [Source: lankalibrary.com <><>]

“It has also been stated that, the astral cosmos is much larger than the physical cosmos, and infinitely more beautiful. It is teeming with astral beings who have arrived from the physical world. The environment there is extremely beautiful, and pleasant. There are beautiful flowers, streams, waterfalls etc. The fruit trees hear extremely delicious fruits. There are no snakes and insects but birds and butterflies are present. The climate is always a very comfortable spring time with no extremes of temperature. <><>

“Communication among all astral world residents is by telepathy or thought transference astral persons can sometimes observe human activities, but certain human beings who are spiritually developed can view the astral world e.g. Swami Yogananda was able to see the spirit of the mother of one of his devotees after she died of breast cancer. She was being escorted by astral helpers to her new residence in the astral world. Her career was fully cured. There is extremely melodious heavenly music composed by famous musicians Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Kabirdas, Mirabhai who are now living in the astral heavens. <><>

Astral Inhabitants

Dr. Karunanayake wrote: “The astral inhabitants are not born from the wombs of a woman, but they automatically arrive in the youthful form and are welcomed into household occupied by persons who have similar spiritual and mental tendencies. As such there are no differences of opinion of serious nature and therefore there is always peace and harmony in the household and the community. Friends of previous lives in the physical world recognise each other in the astral world. One can meet several fathers, mothers, brothers, wives, husbands and other relatives of previous lives. As such, it is difficult to decide whom to love in particular as all have been connected at sometime or other. That is why all religious teachers advise us to love everybody equally. <><>

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Astral inhabitants can reincarnate into the physical or causal worlds. Their life span is about 1,500 to 2,000 years. Our being is composed of three parts. (1) physical body (2) Astral body (3) causal body. These three bodies are joined together due to the force of unfulfilled desires. The Causal body is composed of mind and ideas and is represented by a spark of light. In Buddhism, the beings in the Brahma lokas are of two types. Those with a body (Rupa) and those with mind only (Nama). Beings of the physical world can go direct to the Brahma worlds, if they have developed their minds in meditation to a very high level. The beings in the causal world are only one step away from total liberation or Nirvana. They have only to apply themselves to get rid of the remaining traces of desires to achieve liberation.

People who accumulate good or wholesome Karma by performing Dana, Seela, Bhavana (charity, morality, meditation) need not unduly fear death, as they will be able to be happy in life beyond. Others who accumulate bad or unwholesome Karma will have to improve themselves sooner than later, to avoid the consequences in this very life, and in the life beyond.

“They are entertaining vast astral audiences. Most of us living in the physical world are able to contact our dead relatives living in the astral world. When we are in deep sleep astral body detaches from the physical body and goes to the astral planes. When we wake up, we are not able to recollect but the astral beings know this and therefore they do not miss us so much. During the Second World War, the great Indian Saint Sri Aurobindo who is now living in the highest of the astral heavens decided that he should stop Adolph Hitler from destroying the world. Hitler summoned a conference of his Military Generals to decide on whether he should first attack Russia or Britain. <><>

He told the generals to decide on that issue and he himself retreated to another room to 'meditate'. It was at this stage that Sri Aurobindo intervened to influence Hitler mind that he should first attack Russia and not Britain. This decision taken by Hitler against the advice tendered by his Generals resulted in disastrous consequences for Hitler and Nazi Germany. Thus Sri Aurobindo saved the world from the Nazi dictator (Ref Howard Murphen "Where the road ends")” <><>

Hindu Funeral Customs

In keeping with the Hindu custom of swift cremation, bodies are cremated within 24 hours after death, if at all possible, even if close relatives can not attend the funeral. Ideally cremation is done within 12 hours after death, or at the very latest before sundown on the next day if death occurs late in the afternoon. The first person families of the dead usually call is the "ice wallah" in the nearby market. Normally the eldest son carries out the funerary rites. He lights the funeral pyre after first placing a burning stick in the mouth of the deceased. One of the primary reasons that Hindus wish for a son is that only sons can carry out funeral rites. It is possible to substitute another relative for a son but this is generally regarded as much less effective.

There is little mourning when a Hindu dies because they believe that once a person is born he or she never dies. Often there is little crying. Some Indians have said this is because the point of a funeral is to show respect not sadness. Other say it is because Hindu believe the dead are off to a world far better than the one they left behind. Traditionally women have not been allowed at cremations because they might cry. Their tears like all bodily fluids are regard as pollutants. Women are not supposed to enter the cremation area or even watch what goes on inside it. This includes close relatives and family members. They may help lay out the body at home but carrying the body, gathering the wood and lighting the fire are all considered man's work.

According to the BBC: “ It is preferable for a Hindu to die at home. Traditionally a candle is lit by the head of the deceased. The body is then placed in the entranceway of the house with the head facing south. The body is bathed, anointed with sandalwood, shaved (if male) and wrapped in cloth. It is preferable for cremation to take place on the day of death. The body is then carried to the funeral pyre by the male relatives and prayers are said to Yama, the god of death. Sometimes the name of God (Ram) is chanted. While doing this the pyre is circled three times anti-clockwise. This is usually done by the male relatives of the family, lead by the chief mourner. [Source: BBC |::|]

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Manikarnika Cremation Ghat in Varanasi

“On the funeral pyre the feet of the body are positioned pointing south in the direction of the realm of Yama and the head positioned north towards the realm of Kubera, the god of wealth. Traditionally it is the chief mourner who sets light to the pyre. This is done by accepting flaming kusha twigs from the Doms' who are part of the Untouchable Hindu caste responsible for tending to funeral pyres. The body is now an offering to Agni, the god of fire. |::|

“After cremation the ashes are collected and usually scattered in water. The River Ganges is considered the most sacred place to scatter ashes. Similarly, Benares (the home of Siva, Lord of destruction) is a preferred place of death because it takes the pollution out of death and makes it a positive event. Anyone who dies here breaks the cycle of life and achieves moksha (enlightenment or release).” |::|

Hindu Preparations for Dying

When death is imminent the dying person is taken from his bed and laid on the ground, facing south, on a layer of sacred grass. Then a series rites is carried out, presided over by the oldest son or another male relative. These include: 1) the vratodyapana (“completion of the vows”), in which all the vows that the dying has not yet complected are magically completed and ten gifts are made in the name of the dying in one last effort to earn merit ; 2) savraprayascitta (“atonement for everything”), in which is a cow is donated to Brahma to absolve the dying of all his sins and guarantee he or she is carried over the river into heaven; and 3) a ritual bath in holy water from the Ganges.

When death occurs verses from the Vedas should be recited in the ear of the dying. Behavior at the end of one’s life and last thought before dying are believed to be very important in determining how an individual will be reincarnated. Thus a great deal of care goes into making sure a person is well cared before they die and after. This is achieved by creating a calm atmosphere and reading Vedic scriptures and reciting mantras so the soon-to-be-dead can earn as much merit as possible. It is believed that if a person’s final thoughts are angry or disturbed he may end up in hell.

Hindu Mourning Period and Departure of the Soul

Hindus believe that the soul exists in a ghost-like state for 10 to 30 days until it is ready to move on to the next stage. For ten to 30 days after a funeral, depending on the caste, the mourners are secluded from society while daily ceremonies. with special ones on 4th, 10th and 14th days, are performed to provide the souls of the deceased with a new spiritual body needed to pass on to the next life. These rites involve offering rice balls and vessels of milk to the deceased. Mourners are expected to refrain from cutting their fingernails, combing their hair, wearing jewelry or shoes, reading sacred texts, having sex and cooking their own food. If not properly performed the soul may become a ghost that haunts its relatives.

After the tenth day, the soul move on and the mourners are regarded as purified. The 12th day after a death has special meaning for Hindus. It is when the soul passes on to the next life. The day is marked by special prayers. A caste dinner is given on the 12th or 13th day after special “ritual of peace” is performed to mark the ending of the mourning period . The ritual involves the chanting of mantras while making a fire and placing four offerings in the fire and touching a red bull.

The full mourning period lasts two weeks to a year depending on the age of the deceased and the closeness of the relationship to him or her. At the end of a mourning period for his mother a son shaves his head. Sometimes this is done in a river and the hair carried away is a "sign of renewal." When the morning period is complete the eldest son become the head of the family and the wife of a deceased man becomes a widow.

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sati, Hindu widow burning herself

There are restrictions on eating salt, lentils, oil and a number of other foods during the mourning period. Restrictions on the eldest son are even stricter. He often can eat only one meal a day consisting of rice, ghee and sugar and must shave all the hair from his body and conduct hours of rituals and take periodic ritual cold baths for a period of mourning that lasts up to one year.

Rites with offerings known as shaddha are periodically held after a person has died to nourish the soul in the afterlife. The rites are often performed once a year and feature a feast with a plate of food of food offered to the dead. Hindu believe the living must feed the dead living in the World of the Fathers. If the ancestors are properly taken care of they will reward the living with prosperity and sons. The shaddha is thought to day back to the Aryans. It is viewed as a meeting between the living and the dead. The souls of the dead who are nor properly buried are thought live outside the World of Fathers as ghosts that torment their relatives until they are there. custom ["World Religions" edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]

Hindu Inheritance

Inheritance was given to this who were obligated to perform shraddha. Since only males can perform the shraddha only they could receive an inheritance. Men without sons could adopt a boy or appoint a daughter, if he had one, to give birth to a boy. Since one male can only serve one the grandson or adopted son gave up the right to perform shraddha to his immediate family. ["World Religions" edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]

The concept of shraddha was an Aryan idea supplanted by the idea of reincarnation but many of its beliefs remain.

Village women are given their inheritance at birth because they are not a son.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); The Creators by Daniel Boorstin; A Guide to Angkor: an Introduction to the Temples by Dawn Rooney (Asia Book) for Information on temples and architecture. National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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