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A cremation along the Ganges in the sacred ‘burning ghats’ of Varanasi via blog.eddiebauer.com

In Hinduism, death is not the end, rather it is a series of alterations through which one travels. A Hindu text- Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, thus describes death as the passage of the soul. First, the soul departs from the body, followed by the breath and finally gets released from the organs. Then the soul becomes blessed with a certain consciousness and goes to the body which is related closest to that consciousness.

Death rituals in Hinduism, more or less, follow a uniform pattern adapted from the Vedas, with variations on the basis of a region, caste, and customs. Almost, all rites are fulfilled by the family members themselves including children. Some specific rites are customarily performed by the priest, but can also be fulfilled by the family members as well, in case the priest is unavailable.



A Hindu cremation rite. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Here is a simple outline of rites that is performed by generally all Hindus.

  • Moments before Death (Preparations)-
    If a person feels sick or gets unconscious during the final moments, another close family member chants the mantra softly in the right ear of the deceased. In case, the mantras are not known, “Aum Nama Sivaya” is chanted continuously. Holy ash is applied on the forehead of the deceased, Vedic verses are chanted, and a few drops of milk and holy water is drizzled into his mouth. After death, the body is laid at the home entrance, with his head facing the southern direction. The lamp is kept lit near the body and the room is fragmented. A piece of cloth is tied under the chin and on top of the forehead. Pictures of Hindu deities or any sort of images that has religious significance are faced towards the wall while mirrors are covered as well in some traditions. Relatives are also called to bid farewell to the departing soul and sing sacred songs.

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  • As Death Approaches-
    According to Hindu rituals, in earlier times, if a person is ill and people can around him can predict that death will consume him/her soon, the ill is brought home from the hospital. Close family members are informed. The person laid in his room or near the entrance of the house, with his head facing east. A candle or a lamp is lit near him, and he is asked to concentrate on the mantra. The family stays awake until the soul departs from the body, while they sing hymns, pray and read mantras. If the ill can’t be brought back home, this ritual is often completed at the hospital itself.

An 1820 painting showing a Hindu funeral procession in south India. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

  • Preparing the Body-
    A chief mourner performs aarti while passing the lit lamp over the body, and offering flowers. The relatives clean the body and drape it with a white cloth. Sesame oil is applied to the head and the body is bathed with holy water from the nine Kumbha and finally carried to the homa shelter, neatly covering and singing hymns. The women then walk around the body and give puffed rice in the mouth of the deceased, to feed him for the journey ahead.

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  • Cremation-
    Traditionally, only men go to the cremation site, often led by the karta, a family member who will perform the last rituals. A clay Kumbha is to be carried along as well and the body is carried thrice in the anti-clockwise direction around the pyre, before placing it on it. The cover is removed from the body. The men again put puffed rice as the women did earlier. The body is covered with wood, as per the rituals. The person in charge of the rites then circles the pyre while holding the clay pot on his left shoulder. At each corner of the pyre, a small hole in the pot is made with a sharp object, to let the water flow through it slowly, signifying soul leaving the body. At the end of three turns, the chief mourner drops the pot on the ground. Then, without turning towards the body, he lights the pyre.

Once the body of the deceased has been completely cremated, those gathered go back to their home and purify themselves by washing themselves with water. This marks the beginning of mourning period in Hindu rituals, that lasts for 13 days. During the period, the visitors are received and attended with care. Rituals are performed, throughout the mourning period as it is commonly known as the rite of “preta-karma”. It is believed that this custom will assist the disembodied spirit of the deceased and help it to obtain a new body for the reincarnation.

The ritual doesn’t end here, one year after the death, the family members will observe a memorial event calledshradh,” that is meant to pay homage to the deceased. According to the tradition, the member of the highest caste- Brahmins are to be invited by the Karta, to the deceased’s home and then they are offered an elaborate meal and treat them with respect and love, just like a family member.

– by Yajush Gupta of NewsGram, Twitter: @yajush_gupta

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