Last Rituals-Part 1: Hindu Rituals

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(Editor’s note: This is the first part-1 of Last Rituals Series published by INDIA New England News in collaboration with the Desai Foundation. There are many different religions and communities in India and each has has different beliefs, customs, prayers, and practices regarding last rituals. In today’s series, we focus on Hindu rituals.)

By Jayant Sane 

Hindu beliefs and practices vary widely not only from one geographic region to another but from one religious sect to another. The description given below attempts to describe widely accepted basic Hindu views on this complex topic of “Last Rituals.”

History and Introduction:

First, it is important to understand the origin and development of the various steps involved in “Last Rituals.” Hindus believe in the concept of “Samskaras” or “Sacraments.” There are sixteen Samskaras performed from birth to death. Samskaras are performed at important stages of life by means of religious ceremonies involving rituals. These rituals are acts of purifying, refining, and developing the mind, body, and Soul. After a person’s death the last, 16th Samskara, called “Antyeshti” (Death Rights), is performed by his survivor. The various steps of the funeral are born from the belief of an afterlife. These steps offer some rational justification for the peace of mind and some comfort to those living.

Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita says:   “To that which is born death is certain and to that which is dead birth is certain. Therefore you should not grieve over unavoidable… Just as a person casts off worn out clothes and puts on new ones. So does the embodied Soul casts of old worn out body and enters into new body.”

The Hindu concept of reincarnation means life after death; the Soul is in bondage as long as it is within the body. The final goal of human life is liberation of the Soul from its bondage to the body.  Freeing the Soul, therefore, to its original pure Godly state will allow it to enjoy eternal divine bliss. The eternal divine bliss is called “Moksha” meaning salvation and liberation of the Soul from the reincarnation cycle. Thus, last rights and rituals involve a journey of the Soul from “Preta” (one in the body) to “Pitru loka” (world where ancesters reside), and finally to “Deva Loka” or “Vaikuntha” (where God resides in Heaven).  This journey of the Soul begins as soon as the body is cremated. In India, the purpose of cremating as soon as possible is so the Soul’s journey can quickly begin.

Why do Hindus cremate and not bury the deceased?

  • The fire God, “Agni,” was regarded as a messenger between humans and God. Agni consumes the body and conveys the spirit to the ancestors.
  • The body is believed to be made up of five principle physical elements: Earth (Pruthwi), Air (Vayu), Fire (Tej), Water (Jala) and Space (Akash), and the cremation process returns the body to these elements in the form of smoke and ash to be placed in water.
  • The whole life of a Hindu is looked upon as a continuous sacrifice. Death is observed as a sacrifice as well. Cremating the deceased is the final sacrifice that is offered to Agni.
  • If the body is buried and if the deceased carried a contagious disease, such as the Plague, Typhoid etc. it may promote further spread of the disease which was prevented through cremation.
  • Lack of available land and the high cost of land would prevent many poor people from exercising the last right.

Over the years, the cremation process evolved to accommodate present day needs. Original cremation processes used Sandalwood for its fragrant and antibacterial properties; however this caused depletion of an already limited supply of Sandalwood forcing the use of other kinds of easily available wood for “Chita” (fire pit). Unfortunately, the large number of wood burning cremations using other wood resulted in depleting forests, so the Indian government built electric crematories to prevent the depletion of India’s valuable, natural resource, wood. Today in India and in the United States, using an electric crematorium is generally accepted by Hindu priests and other religious leaders. To satisfy our need to adhere to old traditions, a small piece of Sandalwood is placed on the deceased prior to cremation.

All rituals before and after cremation are performed only by men. Women were not allowed to perform death rituals for two reasons:

  • Generally women were regarded as more emotional and soft hearted with a bigger attachment to the dead, so rituals may become overwhelming to them. During these rituals they may become incapable of continuing on with all the required steps resulting in an incomplete death rites ceremony.
  • Women had to deal with other feminine issues such as their menstrual cycle and pregnancy which prevented them from performing the death rites ceremony. It was such considerations that prevented them from performing these rituals.

Finally, in modern times donating important body parts such as eyes, kidneys, the heart, etc. to other human beings prior to cremation is becoming an acceptable practice. Donating organs is one of the noblest gestures that can only hasten the journey of the Soul to the Heavens.

Steps for the “Antyeshti Vidhi” (Death Rites Ceremony):

  • All mourners wear white cotton clothing to signify purity and peace. The eldest son, husband, or nearest male relative performs the service. An oil lamp is lit and placed near the head and right side of the body. The flame of the lamp is considered a symbol of the Soul’s presence. This lamp is kept lit until the 12th day when it is finally extinguished.
  • The body of the deceased is washed with water containing “Chandan” (Sandalwood) paste or powder. A few drops of Holy water (Ganga jal) and Tulsi leaves are placed on the mouth of the deceased. The body is wrapped in a white cloth and is kept on the ground (to signify its return to mother Earth) with its feet facing south because Lord Yama (God of death) resides in the south.
  • The priest starts the ceremony following these steps:

Initially the worship of Kalash to invoke Holy Water is done. This water is sprinkled on and around the body for purification. o The body pooja is done by applying Chandan, Kumkum, and Haldi to the body and offering fresh flowers, Agarbatti, deepa, and food.  o Havan, or offerings to the God of Fire (Agni) is done. This is called “Praayaschitta Homam”. In this ceremony verses are recited and the performer offers Ghee and Black Seasame seeds to Agni.  During the offering he asks lord Yama, Surya, Chandra, Shiva and Vishnu to forgive the dead for his or her sins and mistakes done knowingly or unknowingly from birth to death. If the person dies on an unholy or inauspicious day, tithi, Nakshatra, Dakshinayana or in Kishna Paksha, additional special verses are recited to forgive and bless the dead person.  o A special commitment is made at this time for a large donation in the form of food and money to Brahmins, people who are less fortunate, and/or to a charity of choice. o At the end of the Havan ceremony some pieces of burning wood from Havan are removed and placed in a clay pot which is carried to the “Smashana” (Crematorium) for initiating the fire for “Chita” or the fire pit.

  • All family members carry the body to the “Smashana” (crematorium) while chanting “Ram bolo bhai Ram” or “Huri bol Huri bol.” Nowadays, a hearse, provided by the funeral home, carries the body to the crematorium.
  • The body is placed with the feet facing south. Ghee is poured on the body and black Seasame seeds are sprinkled. Ashes from the Havan ceremony done at home and a piece of Sandalwood are placed on the body. Again, Ganga jal and Tulsi are placed on the mouth.
  • The Priest recites a verse for peace. At this time family members and friends view the face and pay their final respects.
  • Fire is initiated with a burning wood brought from the Havan ceremony done at home. More Ghee is poured on the wood to thoroughly and fully ignite the fire so that Agni can completely consume the body.
  • Mourners come home, immediately bathe, and may sing prayers for the peace of the departed Soul.
  • After 2 to 3 days, the ashes from the cremation are collected and placed in an urn. Ashes from the urn are immersed in the Holy River Ganga in India or can also be placed in another moving body of water.

After the Cremation: Shraadha Ceremonies

Normally a mourning period of 10 to 13 days is observed and is called “Shraadha.” This period is considered an inauspicious, impure time; therefore during this period immediate family members are not allowed to perform their daily pooja or go to temple. They are also not allowed to participate in any parties or joyous celebrations. The word “Shraadha” is derived from the word “Shruddha,” which means devotion or a religious duty done with true and loyal belief.  All of the steps in these ceremonies, therefore, should be followed with full faith and devotion

  • A Hindu Priest performs all of the steps for the “Shraadha” ceremonies. The general procedure is invocation, worship, offering of food, and finally, asking for forgiveness and blessings.
  • The “Shraadha” ceremony can be performed everyday or all on the 11th day to maintain the “Preta” state of the deceased. “Preta” means departed. At this stage, the Soul has not reached the “Pitru” world yet, and the Soul continues his relation with the world from which he left.
  • To pay homage to the departed, people perform the “Ekodishta” ceremony on the 11th day. A “Pindadaan” (“pinda” meaning balls of cooked rice) for each day (total 10) is offered. It is believed that these “pindas” provide nourishment for full growth of the body and energy for the journey Soul to “Pitru” world.
  • On the 12th day, the “Sapindikarana” ceremony is conducted to elevate the Soul to “Pitruloka.” Here, the Soul is joined with its forefathers. All friends and family members are invited to the “Sapindikarana” ceremony. This ceremony is usually done on a larger scale and large donations of food and money are given.  With Vishnu as a special witness, Brahma, Rudra, and Yama are invoked by the priest. In their presence the deceased is offered “Pindas.” Four “Pindas”(rice balls) , three representing three generations of forefathers and one representing the deceased, are used in the ceremonial worship. At the end of the ceremony all four “Pindas” are united by pressing cooked rice balls together to make one large “Pinda,” hence the name “Sapindikarana.” Joining the “Pindas” symbolizes the meeting of the departed Soul with his forefathers. This ceremony completes the journey of the Soul that started in “Pretaloka” and attains its final destination in “Pitruloka,” the world of forefathers; thus elevating “Preta” to “Pitre”. • One of the final steps in the ceremony is offering a ball of rice, “Pindadaana,” to a crow. This much-despised bird becomes very important because it is believed to be the messenger of Yama, the Lord of death.

All of the people attending the ceremony eagerly wait for the crow(s) to pounce and eat the rice. The belief is that when crows eat the rice, it symbolizes a fulfillment of all the deceased’s wishes. Since the Soul joined his forefathers (ancestors) in Pitru Loka there is a sense of relief among his loved ones. If the crows do not come or there is a long delay, it is considered a signal that the deceased had an unfulfilled desire. Hindus believe that unfulfilled desires of the dead prevent the Soul from being liberated. The priest will ask the mourner to think of possible unfulfilled desires the deceased may have had and declare that those desires be fulfilled.  Then the priest asks the crows to eat the rice. If nothing occurs then, declare a large donation for a worthy cause.

  • In some parts of India, people believe the best thing that can happen is when an Eagle (or another species of the eagle family such as a Hawk) pounces on the rice ball suggesting that the Soul is being directly elevated to Deva loka or Swarg Loka (Heaven). This is considered the best because the Eagle is a messenger of the Lord Vishnu and it takes the Soul to Vaikuntha (Heaven).

For the last two bullets above, it should be noted that this is all symbolic and based on belief.  It is designed for ceremonies done in India. Those performing this “Shraadha” ceremony in U.S should consider that a crow or an eagle may never come because of weather conditions and the lack of crows in general. Therefore, do not take this as a bad omen.

In India, many continue to perform the “Shraadha” ceremony on other specific days including the death anniversary and beyond to remember the deceased.  Today in the U.S, many people perform other rituals on the death anniversary that are all different because they tend to reflect something specific about the person.  Many people, for example, will go to their loved one’s favorite restaurant, or will dedicate a memorial or monument in a place where the Decedent loved to be.  Some people visit a place of worship and pray, then have a simple meal at home with other family members and friends.

These rituals vary depending on what the Decedent’s family and/or friends feel comfortable doing and appropriate for the person they are honoring. As with this whole process, there is no specific ritual or practice, social or religious, that you have to do; you should do what you feel will honor the memory of your loved one and what will help you cope best.

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