The death of an infant or young child — a common event in India — causes sorrow but usually not major social disruption. The death of a married adult has wider repercussions. Among Hindus, the demise of a lineage member immediately ritually pollutes the entire lineage for a period of several days. As part of the mourning process, closely related male mourners have their heads and facial hair shaved, thus publicly declaring their close links to the deceased. Various funeral rites, feasts, and mourning practices affirm kinship ties with the deceased and among survivors. Crucial social bonds become visible to all concerned. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Most Indians see their present lifetimes as but a prelude to an afterlife, the quality of which depends on their behavior in this life. Muslims envision heaven and hell, but Hindus conceptualize a series of rebirths ideally culminating in union with the divine. Some Hindus believe they are destined to marry the same person in each of their lifetimes. Thus people feel connected with different permutations of themselves and others over cosmic cycles of time. *

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 ; India Divine indiadivine.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ochs.org.uk ; Hindu Website hinduwebsite.com/hinduindex ; Hindu Gallery hindugallery.com ; Encyclopædia Britannica Online article britannica.com ; International Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu/hindu ; The Hindu Religion, Swami Vivekananda (1894), .wikisource.org ; 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]

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.

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.

20120501-Yama Hindu_hell.jpg
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.

20120501-Kailash south side.jpg
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.

20120502-sati Jodhpur_Sati.jpg
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")”

Dead Woman Kept for Five Days; Believed She Would Come Back to Life

In August 2012, the Star of Malaysia reported: “Tension was high in Sathamangalam village in Namakkal district, about 300 kilometers from Chennai, Tamil Nadu, after a family refused to bury the body of woman who had died five days ago. Tamil Nesan reported that villagers had to call the police to retrieve the body and bury it. [Source: The Star, August 28, 2012]

Police said Muthusami, 70, the husband of the deceased Chinnammal, 65, and his son Palanivel had kept the body for five days, believing that the dead woman would come back to life. Other villagers learnt about the death only after the body started decomposing. The father and son had been conducting prayers in the house for five days, hoping that Chinnammal, who had been bedridden for a year, would return. When neighbours asked the father and son to bury the body, they refused and threatened them. Police were informed and a post-mortem was conducted before the body was buried.

Aghoris: Extreme Sadhus That Eat the Dead

Holy men of the 1,000-year-old Aghor sect of Shiva worshipers in Varanasi drink whiskey from human skulls, have sex with corpses and eat the charred remains of the dead from funeral pyres on the banks of the Ganges. They eat corpses in the belief that ingesting dead flesh will make them ageless and give them supernatural powers. By breaking humanity's strict taboos they claim to transcend society and come closer to enlightenment. They say human meat tastes good and identify the brains as the best part. [Source: Richard Grant, Washington Post, July 30, 2008]

In a story on “Feeding on the Dead,” a 10-minute documentary about the Aghori sect by director Sandeep Singh, Associated Press reported: There are about 70 Aghori sadhus at a given time, and they remain with the sect for 12 years before returning to their families. Unlike other Hindu holy men, most of whom are vegetarian teetotalers, the Aghoris consume alcohol and meat. But it is their consumption of human flesh — a practice whose origins remain a mystery — which has earned them the condemnation of other Hindus and relegated most Aghori sadhus to living around crematoriums in the hills around the holy city of Varanasi. [Source: Associated Press, October 27, 2005]

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); Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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