Death Rituals in Hinduism
In the last week, I performed the last rites of my Mother. Since most of us were not much knowledgeable in the sequence and the process, and nothing was available on the net, we had to keep on asking. Here is how we did and the notes on various steps, which might be of help to others.
Remember, in Hinduism, there is a lot of significance on symbolism. Its not as if that act itself will do the trick, but the act and its symbolism will lead to creation of appropriate energies that ultimately may do the desired. There is very little difference between the “Energy” of an act and the thought. Everything is an energy – from thought, to body, to food, to water, air, fire and what we call soul. The energies in any situation are the ones which interact for a final result. Therefore, follow whatever rituals you may with the understanding that it is about creation of the requisite “Energy situation”, as opposed to fretting about the irrelevance of a ritual and its rather outlandish symbolism.
At the time of Death: As soon as the death is confirmed*, one should bring the deceased body on the floor and place it on a peace of cloth. Do the following thereafter:
– Light a lamp and dhoop or agarbatti. The lamp is supposed to be symbolic of showing light to the soul as it exits the body.
– Tie the toes with a red string (Molli – used in religious ceremonies). This act symbolises that it will help the soul from the body to go further on and “enter heaven”.
– Create a boundary around the body with turmeric. Turmeric helps to ward of negative energies from harming the soul as it exits the body.
– Some people like to put a gold ornament or one made of 5 metals (panchrattan) in the mouth of the deceased as well.
(* if the death occurs at home without a doctor around you, please call a doctor who should come and certify the death. IMPORTANT: Without that certificate, the Cremation Ground will NOT allow the Cremation to happen)
Call the priest – from the local temple or the nearest Cremation ground to help you with the last rites for the body. He will do the rites and then the Arthi (platform to carry the body made of bamboo and hay). The structure of Arthi is a brilliant concept as in the end, every thing it is made of is used up in the Cremation and nothing is left behind.
At the Cremation Ground:
Before you go to the Cremation Ground, remember to take some green leafy vegetable with you, it is used at the end and you may not be able to procure it at that time.
At the cremation ground, the body is first placed on a platform and the last rites are performed by the Son of the deceased. If the Son is not available, then the Wife or the Husband of the Deceased should perform it. If they are not available, then a real brother should do it. In their absence, the son-in-law or his son may do it. This almost seems like a tree of those who could be legal heirs and that is precisely its significance! The act of cremation prepares the heir apparent of the dead to take over the responsibilities of the departed in context of the family, business and society.
One major act here is of taking a earthen pot full of water and circling around the body offering it water and then smashing the pot near the head.
The body is then taken to the cremation area and the pyre is built up. The hay in the Arthi is used to start the fire at the pyre.
Significance of Burning the body: Hindus have a belief that the soul continues to hover around the dead body due to its attachment with it. When the body is consigned to flames and burnt down to ashes, the link between the soul and the body is completely broken and the soul is freed from its bondage with that body
A few minutes after the pyre has been consigned to the flames, Kapal Kriya is performed. In this, one of the longer bamboos used in the Arthi is used to break the skull of the body. This is done by the person doing the cremation. There are many reasons why this is done:
– The Skull bone is a very hard bone. Once it is broken, its easy for it to burn with the rest of the body.
– Many occult practitioners prey around Cremation grounds for fresh spirits (of the recent dead) to “use”. A spirit cannot be used endlessly by the occultists so Cremation grounds are frequented by them. Skull is an effective way and tool for them to do what they are doing. If the skull is broken, it is of no use to them. If the skull is not broken and has not burnt along with the body, then the spirit of the dead is susceptible to the malafides of the occultists.
– Forehead is where the soul of the dead is supposed to be concentrated. Once broken, the soul is freed from the body and starts the search for the next body.
Besides this, having gone through the experience with both my parents, I can say that this one act breaks all the attachment to the deceased. Before doing it, you shiver – for this person was alive just a few hours back – but once you hit the skull, you know what burns in front of you, is after all just a body. All attachments are gone.
Attachment with the deceased by those who are left behind probably has the same effect as the attachment that the deceased’s soul may have for them. So, breaking the attachments of the loved ones left behind is an important step in breaking the departed soul free.
Before leaving Cremation Ground
Make sure you do the following, before you come out of the Cremation Ground:
– Get the receipt from the office to help you get the Death certificate. This will be the most important document for you in the process of getting the Death Certificate in India.
– Discuss the time for coming for collecting the last remains (bones – or phool, meaning flowers, as they are called). Usually one comes after a day after next in the morning – mostly before 9 am – to do that.
– Announce the time for collecting the last remains and the next ceremony to all those who have collected so they can plan their week/s ahead accordingly.
Remember that leafy vegetable? Now is the time for that. Everyone from the family takes a few leaves each and throws it back over the head, without looking back, praying for a happy life and prosperous life ahead. The rest of the vegetable can be left for cow to finish.
Beyond the Cremation, the last rites are done at Haridwar (mostly), although some parts can be done in Kurukshetra as well. Here is an outline of the main steps:
Following the rites most closely, you should plan on going to Haridwar 10 days AFTER the Cremation. Plan on procuring the ashes early morning from the Cremation Ground before you leave for Haridwar. I would suggest to hire a car. Remember not to put the ashes down anywhere, keep holding it or put it on the dashboard if you want, but not on the ground.
The first act of immersing the ashes in Ganga is done in Kankhal near Haridwar. The exact place is “Sati Ghat”. Go there are there will be the Pundits who will help you. They will ask you for your family and where they belong. The rites here are linked to the next step in Haridwar at Har Ki Paudi, where you make an entry in the family register.
REMEMBER: for the Pundits in this place, you are a source of income and no more than a customer whose deep pockets they are after and what better time than the death of their loved ones. They will use your love for the deceased and your superstition AGAINST you.. to the hilt! So, while doing what you have to do, remember to not give into the various cries for more money and the emotional blackmail that goes along with that.
I would pay no more than Rs 500 to the Pundit for the ceremony here. When you go to the steps to immerse the ashes (bones) in Ganga, remember that (i) water flow is fast and you don’t want to fall into that place, and (ii) the step under the water are usually very slippery, so be very aware!
After this, head for Haridwar (Har ki Paudi). There you will try to locate the Pundit who has your family tree. Before heading off to Haridwar, remember to get the details – your grand father’s name, his father’s name. Which city they lived in and which street or colony (mohalla). All the details are kept and locatable if you know enough details.
The Pundit who locates your details will also perform your ceremony. The ceremony can take some half an hour to an hour.
After the ceremony you should take a small bath in the Ganga. The payment here to the Pundit and his assistants may be no more than Rs 500-800. Make sure you do NOT give into the emotional blackmail.
We thought it was FAR better to give the money to people who took care of my Mother during her illness than to the Pundits.
This ceremony is the last on this trip and make sure when you need to do the last set of Pujas on the 13th day.
Before you leave the Har ki Paudi, remember to look for the Desi Ghee ki Puris at a shop there.. it is probably the best I have ever had! Great eating place if you are into road-side stuff!