The Hindu belief is that the soul is eternal, that is, it never dies. It continues to go through many rebirths until it merges with the supreme God, Brahman, and becomes free from . The soul, called atman, is given a new life and body as an appropriate reward for the kind of life he led before. During the period between one’s death and the next birth, one’s soul remains in a subtle form (that which cannot be seen) and roams in space until it enters another body at its birth.
In the Atharva veda the cremation of a dead body is explained thus; “O, departed soul, your lifeless body is offered so that the two fires may unite for your salvation. I set the body on fire. Through those two fires you may go in your best state of Yama, who controls death.”
Hindus cremate their dead because they believe that the physical body is not needed any more and it is the immortal soul that is important. It is believed that the body is made up of five elements which are earth, water, air, fire and either and that the God of Fire transports these five elements to their respective sources at death. Agni (holy fire) is the purifying agent that enables the soul to be liberated from the physical body.
Hindus believe that death generates negative attitudes like sorrow and grief in those who mourn the passing away of a loved one. It is believed that these negative attitudes will be passed on to others so the mourners stay at home and do not go out to mingle with people until the Anthyeshti or the funeral ceremony has been completed.
Ceremonies Associated With Death – Rituals And Practices
The Anthyeshti is to give a send-off to the soul of the deceased by the family members. The soul remains in the vicinity until the ceremony is completed.
Usually the body is cremated within six hours, and on the very day the death occurs. However, if this cannot be done, cremation is carried out as soon as possible. It is rare for the body to be kept longer than a day.
Before the cremation, the body is brought home, washed, clothed, garlanded and laid on its back on the floor, head pointing south as the region of Yama, the God of Death, is in the south. A lamp is lit and placed near the head of the body and this lamp is not to be extinguished until the body is cremated. A vigil is kept until the time of the cremation. The body is then placed in a bamboo strecher just before the mourners accompany it to the cremation site.
Relatives and friends pay their last respects by walking round the body and by placing some flowers on it. They offer condolences by only touching the hands of the grieving family members. As this is a solemn and sad moment, no food is prepared or served in a house where a death has occurred.
At the cremation, the services of a priest are usually engaged. Where a priest is not available, a knowledgeable elder in the community gives guidance. The eldest son performs the ceremony as directed by the priest or elder. If there is no son in the family, an elder male relative performs the ceremony.
The body is placed with the head pointing south. The eldest son carries a pot of water on his left shoulder, using his right hand to hold the pot in place. He has to circumambulate (or go around) the body three times in an anti-clockwise direction, from left to right. The younger sons follow behind him.
When the eldest son circumambulates the body, the priest makes a hole in the pot so as to allow water to flow out of it. Water is important as it is a purifying agent. Each time he circumambulates, a hole is made. As he moves, he swings his left hand to the side dispersing the water that flows from the pot.
In the first circumambulation, the water that flows facilitates the departure of the soul from this world. During the second circumambulation, the water that flows is to purify the atmosphere. During the third circumambulation, the water that flows is to lead the soul to heaven.
After the third circumambulation, the son faces north and throws the pot over the shoulder southwards. He turns by the right and picks up a piece of the broken pot that contains water. He then pours the water into the mouth of the body. This is the last act of purification.
He goes to the foot of the body where a pot of fire which is brought from the home has been placed. He takes a twig or cinder and lights it with the fire from the pot. He walks in a clockwise direction, places the burning twig or cinder on the chest and bows facing south where Yama is. The younger sons walk off first, followed by the eldest son who walks off last.
There are variations to the rituals described above. The normal practice is for the person carrying the Pot of water to place a burning cinder on the chest of the body after he has completed the third round. He then drops the pot backwards and walks off with the other members of the family who are performing the rituals. He is not to look back.
Prayers and hymns from the Hindu scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita are recited while the body burns. They express the belief in reincarnation: “For to one that one is born, death is certain; and to one that dies, birth is certain. Therefore do not grieve over what is unavoidable.”
The next day the son returns to pick the bones and collect the ashes which are then put into an earthen pot. The pot is placed into a flowing river where there is little likelihood of it coming back to land. The mourning period is usually ten, fifteen days or a year from the date of death in the Hindu almanac.
The Sraadha is a ceremony to offer prayers of loving homage to the departed. This is performed on the tenth, fifteenth, twentieth or thirtieth day after death. The days chosen will depend on the custom of the community. This ceremony may be performed at home. Relatives and friends are invited and then later, served a meal. The Sraadha is also performed annually by the son or heir of the deceased.
Visitors who attend the Anthyesthi must not wear bright-coloured clothing. They must keep absolute silence even when offering condolences. They can touch the hands or they can clasp the hands of the bereaved family members to offer their sympathies. Owing to cultural practices, visitors usually clasp only the hands of members of the same sex. Although it is a sad occasion, there must be no crying as crying is considered a disturbance. If donations are given, they must not be handed directly to the immediate members of the grieving family but can be handed through other relatives.
Bodies of holy men are however sometimes buried or sunk in rivers and children are buried not cremated.