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Find out why Antima Sanskar (Funeral Rites) are of significance in the Hindu rituals!

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

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Antima Sanskar
A cremation along the Ganges in the sacred ‘burning ghats’ of Varanasi via blog.eddiebauer.com
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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 via Wikipedia.org
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 via wikipedia.org
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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Shankaracharya: A remarkable genius that Hinduism produced (Book Review)

The irony is that most leading scientists, particularly outside India but also within, have little knowledge of the structure of Shankara's philosophy and the transparent interface it has with scientific discoveries today.

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He was greatly influenced by three basic texts of Hindu philosophy: Upanishads, the Brahma Sutra and the Bhagavad Gita
He was greatly influenced by three basic texts of Hindu philosophy: Upanishads, the Brahma Sutra and the Bhagavad Gita.

Title: Adi Shankaracharya: Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker; Author: Pavan K. Varma; Publisher: Tranquebar Press; Pages: 364; Price: Rs 699

This must be one of the greatest tributes ever paid to Shankaracharya, the quintessential “paramarthachintakh”, who wished to search for the ultimate truths behind the mysteries of the universe. His genius lay in building a complete and original philosophical edifice upon the foundational wisdom of the Upanishads.

A gifted writer, Pavan Varma, diplomat-turned-politician and author of several books including one on Lord Krishna, takes us through Shankara’s short but eventful span of life during which, from having been born in what is present-day Kerala, he made unparalleled contributions to Hindu religion that encompassed the entire country. Hinduism has not seen a thinker of his calibre and one with such indefatigable energy, before or since.

Shankara’s real contribution was to cull out a rigorous system of philosophy that was based on the essential thrust of Upanishadic thought but without being constrained by its unstructured presentation and contradictory meanderings.

He was greatly influenced by three basic texts of Hindu philosophy: Upanishads, the Brahma Sutra and the Bhagavad Gita. He wrote extensive and definitive commentaries on each of them. Of course, the importance he gave to the Mother Goddess, in the form of Shakti or Devi, can be traced to his own attachment to his mother whom he left when he set off, at a young age, in search of a guru and higher learning.

The irony is that most leading scientists, particularly outside India but also within, have little knowledge of the structure of Shankara's philosophy and the transparent interface it has with scientific discoveries today.
Shankara wrote hymns in praise of many deities but his personal preference was the worship of the Mother Goddess.

Against all odds, Shankara created institutions for the preservation and propagation of Vedantic philosophy. He established “mathas” with the specific aim of creating institutions that would develop and project the Advaita doctrine. He spoke against both caste discriminations and social inequality, at a time when large sections of conservative Hindu opinion thought otherwise.

Shankara was both the absolutist Vedantin, uncompromising in his belief in the non-dual Brahman, and a great synthesiser, willing to assimilate within his theoretical canvas several key elements of other schools of philosophy. He revived and restored Hinduism both as a philosophy and a religion that appealed to its followers.

Also Read: Hinduism: The Nine Basic Beliefs that you need to know

Varma rightly says that it must have required great courage of conviction as well as deep spiritual and philosophical insight for Shankaracharya to build on the insights of the Upanishads a structure of thought, over a millennium ago, that saw the universe and our own lives within it with a clairvoyance that is being so amazingly endorsed by science today. The irony is that most leading scientists, particularly outside India but also within, have little knowledge of the structure of Shankara’s philosophy and the transparent interface it has with scientific discoveries today.

Shankara wrote hymns in praise of many deities but his personal preference was the worship of the Mother Goddess. The added value of the book is that it has, in English, a great deal of Shankara’s writings. Unfortunately, most Hindus today are often largely uninformed about the remarkable philosophical foundations of their religion. They are, the author points out, deliberately choosing the shell for the great treasure that lies within. This is indeed a rich book. (IANS)