The topic of death can be an emotional subject for most people to consider and most avoid it but while death is a difficult topic, the Hindu religion has its own unique ways to deal with death and to confront death while alive. Like all religions, Hinduism brings people together in life and in deaththey provide prayers, comfort, and the purpose for life and death. This paper will examine the Hinduism beliefs, rituals, prayers, and processes around death.
A widely known fact about Hindus, is that they generally believe in reincarnation where the soul leaves a current body and is reincarnated into anothereither an animal or a human which is a seen as a higher form of reincarnation. For the Hindus the soul, or real self, of the person is eternal but must be reincarnated in different forms until it ultimately attains moksha, or spiritual and physical liberation (Colman 34). Hindus believe that reincarnation allows their souls to fulfill certain work during each lifetime and when their work is completed, it hopefully gets them closer and closer to moksha, enlightenment. However, enlightenment is the final stage that happens in this order: atman, karma, dharma, samsara and moksha. Each of these stages plays a very important role to Hindus who try to honor each role and live up to the expectations of each role so they can achieve moksha.
First, Hindu’s life focuses a lot on the afterlife or understanding and preparing for it. All Hindus believe in an undying soul or self, the atman, whose nature is neither limited by the physical body nor defined by its relationship to the world. It is the atman that moves from body to body through successive incarnations (Brood 38). So, the atman is really the soul moving between bodies during each lifetime. Next is karmaand Westerners commonly use the term to mean ‘what goes around, comes around.’ Karma in Hinduism is the belief that actions in our current life will produce certain results in our future livesso good actions would lead to good results in a future life, while bad actions lead to bad results in a future life. Then Hindus live by dharma which means living in a way that upholds cosmic and social order (Brood 39). Dharma seems to be like the Ten Commandments and principles of how to live one’s life with respect and honor for their fellow man and respect for the spiritual life.
Then there is the samsara, which is the familiar concept of reincarnation that Westerners understand, but samara is not only one rebirth but samsara is the continuing cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (Brood 39). Reincarnation or samsara can happen again and again but clearly that rebirth cannot always wash away the bad from another life. Reincarnation is generally regarded as a fresh start, but the tabula is not always quiet so rasa as more simplistic treatments of the doctrine assume. The goal of liberation theology, Hindu style, is to untangle the knots of karma, to achieve moksha, freedom from the same old same old in the life after life. For a Hindu, this means to break out altogether from samsara (the cycle of transmigration), but it could also mean to be free to go forward without compulsion for self-imitation (Doniger 110). So, the goal is free oneself from the continued cycle of samsara and so the final state is moksha. To achieve this moksha, there are three paths Hindus can follow to assist in this liberation, the first is karma marga where family and work life focuses on rituals and ethics; the second is bhakti marga which is a religious devotion; the third is jnana marga which is focus on spiritual learning (Brood 41). These actions and steps people take to what they are preparing fortheir end: death, but ideally before the death, families will conduct prayers with the dying person so that they are able to transition to their next life (Gupta 10).
Hindus have something called a good and bad death which is explained by Firth in End of life: a Hindu View. First, just by good judgment, a good death is what we can guessliving a full life to old age and being prepared for death. Two other characteristics of a good Hindu death are dying at the right astrological time and dying at home or at the Ganges River. On the other hand, a bad death is a life cut short for various reasons. An important part of the death includes the family singing traditional religious songs, like bhajans, and blessing the deceased with blessed water, these things will happen in a good death. Sometimes there are circumstances that prevent families from performing these rituals and so this leads to a bad death (683). When a bad death occurs, a family cannot have a celebration without doing a prayer for the deceased and this will continue for generations until the spirit is free (683).
When a Hindu person dies, there are certain practices that are followed to make sure the deceased enters into the afterlife as they had hoped. One practice is bathing of the dead. Colman quotes a native Indian woman in Corpses, Coffins, and CryptsA History of Burial and the native Indian woman says, for a Hindu, death is really clean. The body is washed, the it is cremated and it mingles with the wind, air, and earth (121). Other practices typically require the oldest son to play a major role in prayers and rituals, as a I witnessed after my grandfather’s passing when I was in elementary school.
My family did not strictly follow Hindu practices, but my grandmother arranged that members of the Hindu temple join and lead the singing of bhajans, religious songs, during the wake service and during the twelve days of mourning. Hindus also observe and require the family to follow certain rules. My uncle shaved his head, wore all white, didn’t eat meat, and performed all puja, religious service, for my grandfather during the mourning period and then later for the one-year puja. During the one year after a person dies, the family does not participate in weddings or celebrations, which also what my family observed. My grandparents always had an altar, a place for prayer, in their home and today my grandmother still has my grandfather’s picture on the alter and prays daily and asks for blessings.
Another part a Hindu death is cremation where it is a required part of their religious practice (Colman 64). In the United States the cremation is performed at a crematorium, but in India this is done with a funeral pyre made with flammable materials such as wood, sandalwood, ghee, and other things that burn easier. The funeral pyre is usually sprinkled with holy oil, and the cremations are accompanied by chanting and the beating of gongs (Perl 39). The Ganges is such a sacred place for Hindus that parts of the Ganges are designated for cremations. Landings along the banks of India’s holy Ganges River, which are known as ghats, are the scene of many cremations. These ceremonies are performed in keeping with the belief that by offering the body to the Hindu god of fire, the corrupt soul will be purified and eventually released (Perl 39). After the pyre has burned, many Hindus put cremated remains in the Ganges River, a sacred place according to their beliefs (Colman 117). The Ganges River is so sacred to Hindus that they often bathe in the river because they believe rivers wash away one’s sins (Brood 36). Indians outside of the India, have places ashes in other rivers or made personal choices to inter at a cemetery.
An older traditional practice involved wives but has been banned. In the past, Hindu widows used to have a very specific practicethat in other religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam would be categorized as suicide and therefore a sin. During the middle ages any of those religions would forbid a wife that committed suicide from being buried a cemetery (Perl 26). The Hindu tradition called suttee said that when a husband died and while his funeral pyre was burning it was considered the duty of a man’s widow to throw herself on the funeral pyre to be burned alive (Perl 36). This practiced was outlawed during British colonization when they had the power to make such laws, there is disagreement when the practice was outlawed, Perl says it was outlawed in 1828 while Colman says 1929. After the ban on this practice but it continued in secret among the devout for some years (Perl 38). According to Perl, there were two reasons women did this, first women did this is because it showed the wife’s complete devotion to her husband. The other reason was because in a patriarchal society like India, widows were seen as a burden to society who had not husband to provide for her. While that practice is now outdated, Hindus around the world try to follow traditions as closely as they can.
In conclusion, Hindu beliefs and practices surrounding life and death change over time and are very detailed and elaborate. I’ve highlighted a few key things that are important to Hindus in order to achieve moktha, or liberation. Hindus believe they must live a proper life, worship gods, perform good deeds, so they will be reincarnated or hopefully, liberated. They also believe sacredness of cremations and the Ganges River, along with the concepts of good deaths and bad deaths. They believe some rituals must be performed by the eldest son and they must say prayers before the person dies and sings bhajans after their death along with placing holy water on them. These are just some of the Hinduism beliefs, rituals, prayers, and processes around deathall which can provide comfort and peace for the dying and their family.
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