In India "death in the midst of life" is a literal, not figurative, notion. Along the Ganges River, for instance, bodies are regularly cremated, and the odor of burning flesh fills the air. And in the city of Calcutta, dead bodies become a problem to those responsible for keeping the streets clean. Thus, it is not surprising that in India's sacred texts and stories, how one lives one's life determines one's fate after death.

Hinduism As a Religion

The roots of Hinduism go back to the Indus civilization in the third millennium B.C.E., but it is only with the migratory waves of Indo-European Aryans in the late second millennium B.C.E. that researchers have access to Hindu ideas about death and afterlife. The religious rituals that were brought by the Aryan pastoral nomads mingled with the customs of the native peoples, the Dravidians, and the culture that developed between them has come to be known as classical Hinduism. The word Hindu comes from the Sanskrit name for the river Indus. Hindu was not originally a religious term but was used by Persians and Greeks in the first millennium B.C.E. as a name for the people east of the Indus River. Muslims later borrowed the term Hindu to designate the non-Muslim population of India, and the British (who governed India in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) used it in much the same way. In its current usage, Hindu refers to those who follow the mainstream religious traditions of India and accept, at least nominally, the authority of the ancient priestly scriptures known as the Vedas.

Adherents of the Hindu path, or sanatana dharma (universal, eternal teaching), made up about 83 percent of India's population, or about 808 million people, as of 1997. While a vast majority of Hindus reside in India, over the last several hundred years varied expressions of Hinduism have migrated to such places as Sri Lanka and Indonesia, in part because of the political and economic domination by England from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century. Beginning with Vivekananda's (a disciple of Ramakrishna) attendance at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, held in conjunction with the World Fair, about 1.3 million Hindus have emigrated to North America over the past century.

While Hinduism is not a religion in the familiar Western sense—it has no specific founder, no clear time of origin, and no organizational structure—at the core of its cumulative tradition are the three margas, or paths to spiritual liberation, which include ritual action ( Karma-marga ), the path of knowledge ( Jnana-marga ), and the path of devotion ( Bhakti-marga ). Each of these systems has its own justification, and each presents a distinctive view of death.

The Path of Ritual Action

Sacrificial celebration ( yajna ) was a central feature of the evolving Aryan religious tradition. By around 1200 B.C.E.a collection of hymns used for these sacrifices was brought together in the earliest scripture, the Rig Veda, and by the first millennium B.C.E. its complex rituals had come under the control of a class of priests or Brahmins. It was one of their special responsibilities to perform rituals correctly and to maintain and transmit the knowledge required for their proper performance.

Two major principles emerged in this period: the concepts of ritual knowledge ( veda ) and of ritual action ( karma ). At the center of these ritual celebrations was Agni, the lord of fire. It was to Agni that an offering was made, and by Agni that it was consumed and transformed. In the Rig Veda, one reads, "At yajna the prayerful community worships Agni, / Priest of all joy, blessed with youth, / He, untiring envoy for the Gods at the hour of offering, / He is the Lord of all treasure" (7.10.5). The Brahmins taught that fire sacrifices, properly conceived and correctly performed, reciprocally embodied the fundamental structures of the universe. Ritual action thus had cosmic consequences. Indeed, proper ritual action could produce desired results at a personal level.

The final sacrificial fire ritual is performed after one dies. In the Vedic view, early Hindus believed that cremation returned the physical remains of the deceased back to nature as smoke and ashes. Properly performed, the karma of this ritual established the departed in the "World of the Fathers." To this early Vedic understanding was added the need for a special set of postcremation rituals to complete a transition to the ancestral world. Afterlife is thus not only a matter of individual effort but also depends on correct ritual performances.

The Path of Liberating Knowledge

After about 800 B.C.E., the viewpoints and values of the Vedic ritual tradition were challenged by another system that emerged from within the Vedic system and developed into the classic scripture of Hinduism, known as the Upanishads ("Sitting near the feet of the teacher"). Upanishadic thinkers distinguished what is permanent and unchanging from what is transient and impermanent. At the cosmic level, the unchanging reality is Brahman, the absolute that underlies the transient names and forms of phenomena. At the personal level, this same reality is called the atman, or true self, the essential, unalterable being that underlies each person in the midst of activity.

The goal of the Upanishadic teachers was to escape from the ceaseless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth that was called samsara. Freedom from rebirth was made possible only by giving up one's attachments to desires. In turn, this was only possible if one realized that true self, atman, was not part of the transient phenomenal world. The idea of samsara, including reincarnation (also called transmigration), refers to successive life embodiments of an individual soul ( jiva ). This life flux embodies a continual series of births, deaths, and rebirths. Reincarnation blends the natural evolution with a spiritual evolution toward awakening. For example, at the subhuman level, growth is automatic and progresses toward ever-increasing complexity from inorganic to organic to vegetative to human levels. At the human level, however, the soul has the opportunity to break out of this cycle of births, deaths, and rebirths.

To illustrate what happens at death from the Hindu standpoint, the outer or gross body (skin, bones, muscles, nervous system, and brain) is said to fall away. The subtle body sheath (composed of karmic tendencies, knowledge, breath, and mind) that coats the jiva, or psychic substratum, also begins to disappear. After death the jiva initially remains within or near the body before it completely departs from the body to eventually enter an otherworldly reality conditioned by one's susceptibility to earthly sensual cravings. When these cravings have ceased, the jiva enters a temporally blissful existence until, at a karmically determined time, it takes on a new physical body and is reborn.

Upanishadic teachers agreed that moksha, the final liberation from a cycle of painful rebirths, is the goal of life. This final union with Brahman— which takes place before death—is described as a state of sat (being), chit (consciousness), and ananda (pure joy). The early Hindu sages, therefore, sought a realization that liberated the mind from the fear of death. This realization, or moksha, can be described as a spiritual death, a dying before dying, which accentuates at least four consequences: liberation (moksha) from the endless cycle of birth and death and birth and death; activation of samadhi, or the void, which is also absolute fullness and compassion; freedom from the effects of the reincarnation cycle at death; and a return to full identification with atman.

One of the most dramatic examples of this view occurs in the Katha Upanishad (800–500 B.C.E.), which relates the visit of Nachiketas to the Land of Death, Yama's kingdom. In the story, a teaching dialogue occurs between an archetypal seeker and an immortal teacher. Nachiketas, the seeker, asks Yama, "What is the purpose of life, given the certainty of death?" Yama replies by affirming the way to freedom from attachments through realizing atman (the deathless Self): "Unborn is he, eternal, everlasting and primeval, / He is not slain when the body is slain. / Should the killer think 'I kill.' / Or the killed 'I have been killed,' / Both these have no [right] knowledge"(2.19). That is, for Yama, when the body dies, atman does not die. The secret of death, then, is realized not by preaching, not by sacrifice, but through meditation and grace. This realization of the supreme self hidden in the cave of the heart emancipates one from the vagaries of samsara.

The Path of Devotion

Both the Vedic rituals and the Upanishadic path of knowledge are products of the Vedic priesthood. The appeal of these paths was mostly confined to the elite social classes, and thus each path denied access to the majority of Hindus. In response to this limitation, by the second century B.C.E.a third path was emerging, one with both greater popular appeal and greater accessibility. This new path— devotional theism—was based not on Vedic rituals or Vedic knowledge, but on the worship of various popular deities. The way of devotion ( bhakti ) is dramatically expounded in the Bhagavad Gita, or Song of the Lord (500–200 B.C.E.). Not a Vedic text, the Bhagavad Gita is a part of a long popular epic known as the Mahabharata that was accessible to the populace.

Devotional theism took root, expanded rapidly, and, by the early centuries of the common era, had become, in terms of numbers of followers, the dominant form of Hinduism. In this path, many gods and goddesses are worshipped (e.g., Vishnu, the protector, with his incarnations as Krishna and Rama; Shiva, the destroyer, the divine Yogi and cosmic Lord of dance; and Devi, the goddess in a variety of names and forms). Devotional theism, this third path within Hinduism, emphasized above all faith and grace. Release from rebirth was no longer viewed as a matter of knowledge alone but also could be received as a divine gift by faithful devotees. The sought-for afterlife, then, was not the sterile or abstract "World of the Fathers" but a life—or afterlife—of devotion to God.

The Bhagavad Gita presents a dialogue between Krishna, the divine teacher, and Arjuna, the warrior disciple. Unlike the Buddha (the awakened one), Krishna is the incarnation of Vishnu. Krishna, disguised as a charioteer, listens to Arjuna's despair at the prospect of fighting his kinsmen to retrieve land that is rightfully his. Then Krishna speaks: "All things born must die," and "out of death in truth comes life" (2:27). Echoing Yama's words to Nachiketas, Krishna goes on to say that death is an illusion. Like those of the Katha Upanishad, Krishna's teachings on death argue four basic attitudes: the death of one's physical body is inevitable and should not cause prolonged grief; the subtle dimension of the person (jiva) does not die at death, rather takes on a new body; the eternal self (atman) is birthless and deathless, and cannot be destroyed; and one who realizes the eternal self while yet alive will not be reborn but, at death, will merge with ultimate reality, or Brahman.

Whereas the practice of sacrifice in the Vedas referred to an external ritual that included fire, drink, chants, stories, and grain or animal offerings, Krishna teaches devotional sacrifice. Performing all actions without attachment to the results, the devotee sacrifices even attachments to the divine. However, Arjuna is left with a significant question: How does one realize atman? Krishna provides several clues. Beyond jnana yoga, the way of knowledge (intuitive, single-minded awareness of the eternal self), Krishna emphasizes karma yoga (self-sacrificing, detached activity) and bhakti yoga (self surrendering devotion to the divine). In fact, the highest secret of the Bhagavad Gita is most appropriately practiced at the time of death. Krishna teaches: "Let him [the dying person] utter [the sound] Om, Brahman in one syllable, / Keeping Me in mind; / Then when his time is come to leave aside the ody, / tread the highest Way" (8:13). And then Krishna promises that a person will be freed from the bonds of misfortune when "Armed with the discipline of renunciation, / Yourself liberated, you will join me . . . / Keep me in your mind and devotion, sacrifice / To me, bow to me, discipline yourself to me, / And you will reach me!" (9:28, 34). These verses express a constant refrain of devotional Hinduism—not only to be freed from karma-caused traces of rebirth, but also to achieve a permanent union with one's personal deity through a devotional relationship. While the Gita represents only one version of the path of devotion, its teachings are broadly typical with respect to both devotion and the afterlife.

Death Ritual

All of the views of afterlife outlined above became part of the continuing Hindu religious tradition, and they and their related systems of liberation— the three margas—have provided the basic framework of Hinduism for the past 2,000 years. What Hinduism offers with regard to death and afterlife is thus not a final decision that must be made in one's present lifetime, but a process that leads through many cycles of death and rebirth until one is able to reach the goal of liberation.

Typically, as a Hindu approaches death, he or she is surrounded with religious rites and ceremonies that support the dying person. Before a Hindu dies, the eldest son and relatives put water taken, if possible, from the Ganges River into the dying person's mouth. At this time, family and friends sing devotional prayers and chant Vedic mantras (sacred sounds). More than the words, which are themselves comforting, the tone of the communal chanting soothes the dying person and comforts relatives in their time of stress and grief.

Hinduism requires cremation as soon as possible (unless the deceased is less than three years old, in which case he or she is buried). In New Delhi alone, it is estimated that 50,000 bodies are cremated annually. In response to the depletion of forests caused by wood-burning cremations, the Indian government has begun building electric crematoriums throughout India. Some traditional Hindus, however, have argued that ending wood-burning cremations could violate their religious rights.

Prior to cremation, the body is washed and anointed, the hair (and beard) is trimmed, and the corpse is given new or clean clothes. During the procession, relatives and mourners, who carry the body to the cremation ground, chant verses that invoke Yama's help. The body is then placed on a funeral pyre. The eldest son finally walks around the pyre three times, each time pouring sacred water on the deceased. He then sets fire to the wood with a torch that has been blessed. Throughout the sacred ritual, relatives and mourners chant Vedic mantras to quicken the soul's release.

See also: Buddhism ; Chinese Beliefs ; Islam ; Reincarnation ; Widow-Burning


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