The Hindu Way of Death

Anantanand Rambachan. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 2: The Response to Death. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003. 

Before commencing an account of Hindu practices and attitudes relating to death and dying, it will be helpful to selectively identify certain central features of the Hindu tradition. These will illumine and place in proper context many aspects of the subsequent discussion.

Hinduism is an astoundingly diverse tradition, and this fact is indicated by the name Hindu itself. Hindu is not the personal name of a founder, nor is it descriptive of a central belief or practice. “Hindu” is the Iranian variation for a name of a river that Indo-Europeans referred to as the Sindhu, Greeks as the Indos, and British as the Indus. Those who lived on the territory drained by the Indus were derivatively called Hindus. They did not necessarily share a uniform religious culture, and today, the Hindu tradition reflects the astonishing variation in geography, language, and culture across the Indian subcontinent. It helps to think of Hinduism as a large, ancient, and extended family, recognizable through common features but also reflecting the uniqueness of its individual members. Necessary generalizations will not be misleading if we are attentive to this fact of diversity.

Many of the common features of the Hindu tradition are derived from the scriptures known as the Vedas. The four Vedas (Rig, Sama, Yajur, and Atharva) are considered by orthodox Hindus as revelation and have a privileged authoritative status. Particular Hindu groups regard many other texts as revelation, but the Vedas enjoy an almost unanimous recognition as revealed knowledge. Each Veda may be broadly divided into two sections. The first section of each text provides information and rules for the performance of religious rituals, including those associated with death. The last section of each text contains a series of dialogues known as the Upanishads, which are the most important sources of religious and philosophical thinking in Hinduism. Any Hindu tradition that seeks the stamp of orthodoxy tries to establish, through commentaries, that its interpretations are faithful to the Upanishads. These dialogues have deeply influenced Hindu attitudes concerning the meaning of dying and death. Beliefs and practices related to dying and death vary considerably, and this chapter will emphasize those that have a common character and that are connected to the traditions of the Vedas.

The Goals of Hindu Life

Contrary to popular stereotypes, the Hindu tradition is neither life denying nor otherworldly. It does not uphold the attainment and enjoyment of material things as life’s highest end but has acknowledged their significance in the scheme of human existence. Wealth (artha) and pleasure (kama) are among the four legitimate goals of life. While affirming these, Hinduism also reminds us of their transience and inability to fully satisfy us.

Wealth and pleasure must be sought by being responsive to the demands of the third goal, referred to as dharma. Dharma derives its meaning from the fact that every human being is inseparably connected with and dependent on other human beings as well as nonhuman realities. The goal of dharma requires that we be attentive to the well-being of the whole, even as we are nourished and sustained by it. Dharma is violated when we obsessively and narrowly pursue private desires that destroy the harmony of the community on which our lives depend. Noninjury (ahimsa) is regarded as the highest expression of dharma.

Although the Hindu tradition ascribes great value to the practice of dharma, it does not see this as the ultimate goal of human existence. Hinduism’s highest and most valued goal is moksha. The Sanskrit term moksha means freedom, and if we keep in mind the diversity of Hinduism, it is not inaccurate to say that this freedom is primarily from ignorance (avidya). It is a common view in the Hindu tradition that ignorance of the true nature of the human self (atman) and God (brahman) is the fundamental human problem and the underlying cause of suffering. Freedom or liberation cannot be obtained without right knowledge of reality.

Moksha, Karma, and Samsara

For three of the great theologians and traditions of Hinduism, Shankara (nondualism—Advaita), Ramanuja (qualified nondualism—Vishishtadvaita), and Madhva (dualism—Dvaita), the self (atman) cannot be equated with the time-bound physical body or the ever-changing mind. In its essential nature, the self is eternal. Consciousness and bliss constitute its essence. For Shankara, the self is ultimately identical with brahman; for Ramanuja, it is inseparably related to brahman as part to whole; and for Madhva, it is entirely different from but completely dependent on brahman.

Ignorant of the true nature of the self, one wrongly identifies it with the body and mind, imposes the limitations of these on the self, and becomes subject to greed and want. To obtain the objects of desire, one puts forth actions (karma) of various kinds. Desire-prompted actions generate results for which the performer of actions is responsible and that lead to subsequent rebirths in order to experience the consequences of these actions. All traditions of Hinduism adhere firmly to a belief in the doctrine of karma as a law of cause and effect that includes the moral dimensions of human life.

The belief in a cycle of multiple births and deaths, referred to as samsara, is intrinsically related to the doctrine of karma. The latter affirms that every volitional action produces a result determined by the nature of the action and the motive that underlies it. Because births have been multiple, we can conceive of a storehouse of the effects of previous actions that cannot be exhausted in a single lifetime. Future births are thus necessitated for the purpose of experiencing the desirable and undesirable consequences of past and present lives and for the attainment of unfulfilled desires. In these future lives, of course, the effects of new actions are added to the storehouse of karma and the cycle of samsara is perpetuated.

Moksha is consequent on the right understanding of the nature of the self. Although, as noted above, the self is understood differently within the tradition, moksha, in all cases, implies the recognition of the self as different from the psychophysical apparatus and as immortal. Such an understanding of the self’s essential nature brings an end to the cycle of death, birth, and rebirth. For Shankara, liberation is possible while the individual is alive in the body. When one knows the self, one ceases to equate the self with the body and is free. For Ramanuja, on the other hand, the self can never recover its innate purity as long as it remains associated with the body. Freedom must await the death of the body. For all traditions of Hinduism, moksha implies freedom from suffering, greed, and mortality.

Hindu Views of the Person

Hindu postures toward death are better understood through an account of the way in which the tradition has described the constitution of the human being. Chapter II of the Taittiriya Upanishad offers an anthropological analysis that has been widely adopted. It describes the essential human self (atman) as enveloped in five sheaths or koshas. These are the physical sheath (annamaya kosha), the vitality sheath (pranamaya kosha), the mind sheath (manomaya kosha), the intellect sheath (vijnanamaya kosha), and the bliss sheath (anandamaya kosha). These are called sheaths because they enclose the self in the same manner that a sheath may enclose a sword. These sheaths are successively subtler in character. The outermost, the physical sheath, is the most visible and tangible of them all, whereas the innermost is the least tangible and the most subtle. They are arranged one within another in a telescopic manner. The physical sheath is filled by the vitality sheath; the vitality sheath by the mind sheath; the mind sheath by the intellect sheath; and the latter by the sheath of bliss.

This detailed anthropology has been simplified in later works that describe the self as clothed with three bodies. The outermost is the physical body. It is described as being composed of the five great elements—space, air, fire, water, and earth—and is the medium through which the self experiences the world in the waking state. Like any finite object, the physical body originates in time, grows, changes, declines, and perishes.

Scriptural texts liken the body to a city and the self to the dweller. The Bhagavadgita (5:11), for example, describes the body as a “city of nine gates.” One of the many purposes of the analogy is to underline the distinction of the self from the body. The self is different from the body, even as the householder is different from the house in which he or she lives. In relation to the self, the body is an object and the self is the knower or subject. The self lends awareness to the essentially inert body and enables all the sense organs to function. It is, in the words of the Kena Upanishad (I:2) “the ear of the ear, the mind of the mind, the speech of speech and the eye of the eye.”

Along with the physical body, the atman is associated with what is referred to in Sanskrit as the sukshma sharira or subtle body. It is appropriately called the subtle body because it is described as being composed of the five elements in an uncompounded form; it is, therefore, not available for sense perception in the same manner as the physical body. In the Hindu understanding, the physical sense organs, located in the physical body, derive their powers of functioning from their counterparts in the subtle body. In the absence of the subtle body, the physical body has no capacity for independent functioning. The subtle body is not destroyed with the death of the physical body. Hindus believe that it normally survives the destruction of the physical body and continues to be associated with the self until liberation. It is understood to be the repository of individual karma. Each thought, desire, or action creates an appropriate impression on the subtle body that determines its character and influences its journey into the future.

The third and final body of the self is the karana sharira or causal body. Although this body is more difficult to conceptualize and describe than the physical or subtle bodies, it may be thought of as being particularly manifested in the state of deep sleep. In this state, all individual personality traits enter into a causal or seedlike condition from which they manifest again in the dream and waking states. The causal state of the subtle body may be equated with the causal body.

Hindu Views of Death and Afterlife

In the Hindu understanding, death may be properly thought of as the separation of the subtle from the physical body. Hinduism, as already noted, conceives of life as a continuous chain of existence. The physical body, as a vital and necessary component in any particular life experience, is also conditioned by preceding life occurrences. It is an instrument through which diverse experiences, influenced by the past karma, are gained. Its purpose is fulfilled when these experiences are realized and the physical body gained is shed at death. Such an understanding engenders an acceptance the reality of death.

In the case of an unliberated individual, the subtle body, illumined by the consciousness that is the self, and consistent with its own karma and individual tendencies, will identify with another physical body. The Bhagavadgita (2:22), in one of its famous verses, commonly recited at Hindu funereal ceremonies, likens death to the changing of clothing: “As, after casting away worn out garments, a person later takes new ones, so, after casting away worn out bodies, the embodied Self encounters other, new ones.” This text continues to give comfort and solace to Hindus in the face of death, reducing the fear of death and sustaining the hope that the departed one continues to exist.

The analogy is rich with suggestions. First, a suit of clothing is not identical with the wearer. Similarly, the changing physical body, which is likened here to clothing, is not the repository of the true identity of the person. Second, there is the similarity of a continuity of being. When a suit of clothing is changed, the wearer continues to exist, and with the death of the physical body, the indweller does not die. The subtle body is the link of continuity between the old and new bodies. From the Hindu standpoint, there is every reason to suppose that the subtle body is imbued with consciousness after its detachment from the physical body. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (4.4.2) describes it as having consciousness.

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (4.3.36) likens death in old age to the separation of a ripe fruit from its stalk and emphasizes that is not to be seen as an abnormal event in human existence.

When this [body] becomes thin—is emaciated through old age or disease—then, as a mango, or a fig, or a fruit of the peepul tree is detached from its stalk, so does this Infinite being completely detached himself from the parts of the body, again go in the same way that he came, to particular bodies, for the unfoldment of his vital force.

The Upanishads, on the whole, suggest that the journey and destiny of the individual after death is determined by the nature of the person’s consciousness. The idea is that just as a person’s thoughts, desires, hopes, and actions determine the course of his or her life before death, so do these factors also guide the individual’s journey after death. The Bhagavadgita (8:6) reiterates this position:

Moreover, whatever state of being he remembers when he gives up the body at the end, he goes respectively to that state of being, Arjuna, transformed into that state of being.

In terms of the actual modes of being attainable after death, the Upanishads make mention of a number of these and many of these coincide with the options mentioned in the Bhagavadgita. The world of Heaven (svargaloka) and its limitations are acknowledged in the Upanishads. It is attained by those who desire it, believe in the existence of a body other than the physical one, and engage in good works of public charity and service. The Bhagavadgita also mentions svargaloka as the reward of the faithful performance of worldly duties. The path to Heaven, however, is still characterized as a path of darkness because it does not require knowledge of the true self and is subject to rebirth. It is referred to in the Upanishads as the pitriyana or the path of the ancestors.

The heavenly world is conceived as a sphere of enjoyment earned by those who desire it through the performance of righteous actions. An individual does not acquire new karma in this world. Upon the exhaustion of the effects of meritorious actions, the individual again enters the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Although the Upanishads seem generally to propose that individuals returning from the heavenly world are reborn as human beings, there are indeed several texts that suggest rebirth after death in a nonhuman physical form. Chandogya Upanishad (5.10.7) mentions the possibility of rebirth as an animal, and Katha Upanishad (2.2.5) refers to birth in stationary forms. The function of such texts may be to inspire virtuous action, but they have also been interpreted as indicative of the real possibility of rebirth into these nonhuman forms. It should be remembered, however, that in none of these forms is the individual capable of acquiring new karma. When the effects of unmeritorious actions have been exhausted, the individual returns to human life to continue the journey to liberation. The attainment of svargaloka by those who desire it and who are meritorious does not, it appears to me, preclude the possibility of rebirth immediately or within a short time after physical death.

Another possibility mentioned in the Upanishads is the attainment of brahmaloka, or the world of the creator. According to the Advaita (nondual) tradition, brahmaloka is attained by those who have sought God with intensity but whose understanding of God is still limited by human conceptions. Such individuals abide in the world of brahmaloka, where they continue their spiritual journeys and come to understand God as the sole reality, transcending all human definitions and characteristics, and nondifferent from the self (atman). At the time of cosmic dissolution, such individuals attain liberation. The path to brahmaloka, referred to as the devayana or way of the gods, is described in the Upanishads as a luminous path because one does not return to the world of mortality and one attains liberation at the end of the creation cycle. It is a path of gradual liberation in that it involves a journey to brahmaloka and existence there until cosmic liberation.

Even as there are pleasurable worlds that may be attained for temporary periods after the death of the physical body, there are also unpleasant worlds, which may be similarly achieved. The Bhagavadgita (1:42-44; 16:16-21) refers on several occasions to the disagreeable world of naraka. In the 1st chapter, Arjuna expresses the fear that the loss of family traditions will lead to this world and, in the 16th chapter, Krishna speaks of naraka as the destiny of human beings possessing demonic qualities. If the heavenly worlds are temporary because the meritorious actions that lead to their gain are finite, one must also assume that the unpleasant worlds are also transient because evil actions have a finite character.

In the vision of the Upanishads, the highest destiny of the individual after death involves no journey or travel. For the individual who has come to understand the identity of self (atman) and ultimate reality (brahman), there is no departure. At the time of death, the physical body disintegrates into its constituent elements and the subtle body, free from all egocentric characteristics that perpetuate its individuality, merges into the subtle elements. The self, transcending all dualities of space and time, abides as itself. Liberated in life with the body (jivan mukti), such a person is liberated in death without the body (videha mukti).

Many beautiful passages in the Upanishads describe this liberation in life. One of the most detailed is the description offered in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (4.4.6-7):

Of him who is without desires, who is free from desires, the objects of whose desires have been attained, and to whom all objects or desire are but the Self—the organs do not depart. Being but brahman, he is merged in brahman.

Regarding this, there is the verse: “When all desires that dwell in his heart are gone, then he, having been mortal, becomes immortal, and attains brahman in this very body.” Just as the lifeless slough of a snake is cast off and lies in the anthill, so does the body lie. Then the self becomes disembodied and immortal, becomes the Supreme Self, brahman, the light.

The Mundaka Upanishad (2.2.8) employs a popular Hindu scriptural image:

As rivers, flowing down, become indistinguishable on reaching the sea by giving up their names and forms, so also the illumined soul, having become freed from name and form, reaches the self-effulgent Being who is higher than the highest.

It is clear, from the Hindu account, that life and death are points on a continuum. One does not attain an experience after the death of the physical body discontinuous with the quality of one’s life in the physical body. At the time of death, the essential self (atman), clothed with the subtle body, embarks on a journey, the destiny of which is determined by its acquired merits and demerits, its desires, tendencies, and capacities. Our life in this world launches us into the next. With this in view, life after death, in the Hindu perspective, offers us a number of perspectives.

If our lives have been brutish and our thoughts and deeds cruel and destructive, our journeys may take us to regions of darkness or rebirth in a subhuman form. Existence in these regions or states is not indefinite. When the effects of actions that brought such a fall are exhausted, we return to human life to continue our onward journey. A second possibility is rebirth as a human being without a journey to any other region. This is conceivably the fate of a virtuous person who doubts the existence of other worlds or one whose store of merit and demerit is relatively balanced.

The third possibility is the attainment of the heavenly world (svargaloka). This, as we have seen, is for those who are virtuous but who desire a pleasurable life in the hereafter as a reward of virtue. Life in svargaloka is immensely pleasurable, but not eternal. When the fruits of meritorious deeds are exhausted, such individuals are reborn in the human sphere.

The fourth possibility is the journey to brahmaloka, the world of the creator from which there is no return to mortality. It is a luminous path for those who seek God for God’s sake, and it provides the opportunity for loving communion with the personal God of one’s choice. Because the experience of brahmaloka involves dualistic presuppositions, it is not considered ultimate by the nondualistic tradition. In this realm, however, the individual has the opportunity for further spiritual growth, which culminates in the understanding of the identity between oneself and the self of God.

The fifth possibility involves no journey. It is the destiny of those who, in this life itself, come to know the identity of the atman and brahman. Such rare persons are considered to be liberated even in the body. At the time of death, both the physical and subtle bodies are absorbed in their respective elements. The eternal, effulgent, and liberated self abides in its own nature.

The Dying Process and a Good Death

The good death, for a Hindu, is one that occurs at the right time, in the right place, and under the right circumstances. The preferable place to die is on the bank of the Ganges at Varanasi or at some other place of pilgrimage. When this is not possible, the desirable place of death is one’s own home, on the ground, and in the open air (Parry 1994). Lying on the ground is symbolic of the return to the earth, the source and sustainer of life. It is generally believed that placing a dying person on the floor eases the separation of the subtle body from the physical body. Although it is true that the majority of Hindus in rural India die at home, increasing numbers in urban centers in India and in the Hindu diaspora die in hospitals. Although this trend is inevitable, it is not welcome. Dying at home makes it easier to perform required predeath rituals and to be surrounded by members of one’s immediate family. Many hospitals in India allow dying patients to return to their homes.

As far as the appropriate time to die is concerned, death during the 6 months of the year following the winter solstice (utttarayana) is desirable, whereas death during the remaining 6 months (dakshinayana) is unwelcome. The Bhagavadgita (8:24-26) associates the former with fire, light, day, and the bright half of the moon. The latter time is associated with smoke, night, and the dark half of the moon. Contemporary commentators are reluctant to admit that a person’s postmortem destiny is determined entirely by the time of death. They emphasize the metaphorical meanings of such passages and contend that the different times represent contrasting mental states. One represents an enlightened understanding and is conducive to the attainment of moksha, whereas the other suggests a state of ignorance (avidya) that results in rebirth.

On the whole, a good death in Hinduism is one that occurs in old age, after one has lived a full life. It takes place when one is still in control of one’s mental faculties and has the character of a voluntary relinquishment of one’s body. A bad death (akala mrtya), on the other hand, is one that seems uncontrolled and for which one is mentally unprepared. It is premature, violent, and painful. It leads to the feeling that the person “did not die his own death” (Parry 1994).

When death is imminent, the dying person, as noted above, is placed on the floor or the ground. This may be difficult if death occurs in a hospital. Hindu families consider it important to know when death approaches so that predeath rituals can be performed and necessary preparations made. Family members, relatives, and friends congregate around the dying person. This is very important, both to the dying person and family members. It is an opportunity to bid farewell, to speak parting words, and for extending forgiveness. Grief is intensified if a family member is not afforded the opportunity to be present during the dying process and at the moment of death. Absence causes deep feelings of regret and guilt. Mahatma Gandhi (1927), in his autobiography, records what he describes as the unforgettable “blot” of being with his wife and not with his father at the moment of his death. The news of his father’s death was brought to his bedroom by his uncle.

So it was all over! I had but to wring my hands. I felt deeply ashamed and miserable. I ran to my father’s room. I saw that, if animal passion had not blinded me, I should have been spared the torture of separation from my father during his last moments. I should have been massaging him and he would have died in my arms. But now it was my uncle who had this privilege. He was so deeply devoted to his elder brother that he had earned the honor of doing him the last services! (P. 26)

Gandhi’s pain is one that continues to be experienced by Hindus, especially when hospitalization makes it more difficult to determine if death is imminent. Firth (1997) records the lament of a British Hindu son who was not with his dying father because of the hospital’s assurance that all was well.

My mistake was going away. I looked after him for eight months, and still feel guilty because I wasn’t there … All my life I will feel guilty because I should have accepted the general practitioner’s verdict rather than the hospital’s. I should not have left my father. I never said goodbye, all my life these things will bug me. I have failed in my religious duties to my father. If someone comes to visit, or leaves the house, you go to the gates of the house to say good-bye. He died conscious and I was not there. (P. 122)

The family priest, if available, is invited to begin the rituals that will be performed both before and after death. In the absence of a priest, family members will do rituals for the dying. Such rituals typically include placing a leaf of the sacred tulasi (basil) leaf on the lips of the dying and pouring a few drops of Ganges water on the tongue. One of the important obligations of family members is to help the dying person keep his or her mind centered on God. This is done by the recitation of mantras (prayers) such as the Gayatri Mantra or the Mahamrityunjaya Mantra. Appropriate bhajans (hymns) may be sung and the names of God recited. The intention is to avoid worldly thoughts or feelings in the dying. Such efforts find their justification in the belief, enunciated in the Bhagavadgita (8:5-6), that the mental and emotional state at the time of death influence the destination of the departed after death.

And whoever, at the time of death, gives up his body and departs, thinking of Me alone, he comes to my being; of that there is no doubt.

Thinking of whatever state (of being) he at the end gives up his body, to that being does he attain.

Deathbed rituals are very important for Hindus, and a lack of understanding of the nature and significance by medical professionals can contribute to the agony of the bereaved family. Firth (1997) discusses the anxieties of a British Hindu family who were prevented by the attending doctor from giving Ganges water to a dying aunt. Although the doctor may have wrongly believed that a large quantity of water would be poured down the aunt’s throat, the family lived with the fear that generations would be affected by the omission, and an expensive ritual was required to avert the negative outcomes for both the aunt and the family. With growing numbers of Hindus now settled outside India and dying in hospital settings, better communication is needed so that the obligations of medical personnel and family members are fulfilled without conflict.

Hindu Funeral Rites

In India, if there is no good reason for delay, cremation of the body takes place within 24 hours of death. Arrangements can proceed with haste because most Hindus die at home. Family members, under the guidance of the family priest or elders, perform all postmortem rites and rituals. Male relatives wash and dress the male body, and female relatives do the same for the female. Regional customs dictate the cremation attire. Generally speaking, males are dressed in white dhotis (a single piece of cloth wrapped around the waist and tucked between the legs) and kurtas (long, loose-fitting shirt). Men from the Punjab may be dressed in kurta-pyjama (loose-fitting trousers and long shirt). A woman who dies before her husband is dressed in her wedding sari, usually red, and a widow is dressed in white. Unmarried women, depending on age, may be dressed in red or white.

Although contact with a corpse is polluting, the preparation of the body is still undertaken by relatives because of obedience to caste regulations. Traditionally, members of the lowest caste (shudras) and untouchables (dalits) undertook the work of disposing dead bodies. Because high-caste homes, however, are polluted by the entry of untouchables, the tasks of preparing the corpse and making arrangements for the funeral must be done by family members (Laungani 1996). The pollution brought about by such contact is only temporary. Far more important is the fulfillment of ritual obligation to the departed relative.

After preparation, the body is placed on a bier and adorned with garlands of flowers. It is ritually transported on the shoulders of male relatives on its final journey to the cremation site. Women do not normally accompany the body, although in urban areas, where crematoria facilities are available, women sometimes enter. The chief mourner, who is usually the eldest son, or family priest, carrying a brass pot containing fire from the domestic hearth, may lead the funeral procession. The words “Ram Naam Satya Hai” (God’s name is true) are chanted throughout the procession. The priest leads the chant and the mourners repeat in unison. A number of stops are made along the way to allow others the opportunity of shouldering the bier. It is an act of piety to carry the departed on his or her final journey (Laungani 1997).

On arrival at the cremation site, the body is placed at the top of the pyre and additional logs packed on top. Depending on location, the funereal pyre may be prepared by relatives or by crematorium attendants qualified by caste. In Varanasi, for example, the Doms, an untouchable caste, have exclusive rights to prepare the fire (Parry 1994). High-caste Hindus, however, still try to ensure that there is no contact between the Dom attendant and the corpse. The chief mourner circumambulates the pyre five times, holding a firebrand and touching the mouth of the corpse on each revolution. Other male relatives usually accompany him. Eventually, the pyre is lit and relatives withdraw to a safe distance to witness the reduction of the body to ashes.

Midway through the cremation process, depending on local tradition, the chief mourner may perform kapala kriya (the ritual of the skull). This involves cracking open the skull of the deceased with a bamboo pole. Both Parry (1994) and Firth (1997) note that this ritual is becoming less common. In Varanasi, and in other parts of India, a pot is symbolically smashed toward the end of the cremation or at its conclusion. Before entering their homes, male mourners will have a ritualistic bath to purify themselves from the pollution of contact with the dead and will wear new white clothing.3 The following day, the ash and charred bones are collected for disposal. The preferred method is immersion in a sacred river. If the body is cremated in Varanasi, the ash and bones are immediately washed into the river. There is no need to transport the remains elsewhere for immersion.

Changing Traditions

Hindu cremation rituals, as described above, are quite difficult to perform outside India, and a process or adaptation and compromise is already underway. Changes in the practices of British Hindus have been studied in some detail (Firth 1997; Laungani 1996) and may be very similar to those occurring elsewhere. These changes begin even before death occurs.

We have already noted the Hindu tradition of placing the dying person on the floor, the gathering of relatives, and the offering of Ganges water and a basil (tulasi) leaf. Such rituals can be easily followed when death occurs at home. When death occurs in a hospital, as is common outside India, these procedures become difficult, if not impossible. Hospitals may not be willing to allow a dying patient to be placed on the ground and, unless the room is a private one, may be reluctant to permit large numbers of relatives to gather around the deathbed for chanting and singing. Laungani (1997) suggests that “there is no reason why a thoughtful hospital chaplain might not keep a supply of Ganges water and offer some to the relatives of dying patients.” Such a gesture, he feels, will inspire feelings of deep gratitude. He recommends better consultation between medical personnel, patient, and family to determine their needs.

Although some Hindu families in Britain will bring the body home for funeral rituals, this is rare in the United States.4Funeral directors take charge of the body after death and transport it to their mortuary, where it is kept until the day of the funeral. Cremations do not usually take place, as in India, within 24 hours, and although there may be valid reasons for delay, such as necessary legal requirements, this may add to the pain of the bereaved (Laungani 2000). In India, close relatives wash, anoint, and dress the body for cremation. In the West, mortuary attendants, who may not be familiar with Hindu customs, increasingly do this. On the day of the funeral, undertakers, dressed in black, transport the body to the crematorium in a closed casket. In India, family members, who view this as a privilege and an act of virtue, carry the body on a bier. The traditional Hindu color of mourning is white.

Crematoria rituals are an attenuated form of the traditional ones. Coward (2000), describing a Hindu funeral in Canada, notes that funeral home facilities do not allow the indoor fires with mantras and offerings to Agni (deity of fire).Mantras are recited without accompanying offerings. A high-technology furnace has replaced the wooden pyre, and with this change, “the natural symbolism of ghi (clarified butter), with all its surrounding imagery from hearth and table to pyre is broken and, with it, the immediacy of symbolic connections ‘showing’ the integration of the deceased with the divine” (Coward 2000:159). After the service, the body, with the push of a button, is sent to the cremation furnace. There is no more personal shouldering of the body by the family and friends and placing it gently on the pyre. Ash and bones are collected by the crematorium attendants and stored in an urn that the family will later collect. The eldest son does not ignite the fire. Laungani (1996) laments the loss of meaning involved in a ceremony that appears designed “toconceal funerals rather than to display them.”

For the mourners, there is neither smoke to sting their eyes, nor the fire to singe their hair, nor the smell of burning flesh to bring the poignant immediacy and reality of the experience to their consciousness. They see nothing, they hear nothing, they feel nothing. There is just the dull realization that their loved one, bundled in a dubba (closed coffin), is being cremated by an anonymous, faceless bureaucratic caveat. (Pp. 198-99)

The consequences on the bereaved family of all of these changes await further study, but Coward (2000) compares the loss of power and meaning in Hindu funeral rituals in North America with what has happened with Christian funeral services in the past few generations.

Mourning Practices

Although mourning practices will differ depending on whether death is seen as timely or untimely, these differences are expressed in the severity of the restrictions observed by the family of the deceased. The family enters a period of impurity (asaucha) arising from the event of death and possible contact with the dead body. Pandey (1969) notes that the period of impurity differs with the age, sex, and caste of the deceased. The death of a child, for example, causes less impurity than that of an adult.

During the formal mourning period of approximately 12 days, close relatives adopt ascetic habits of life. It is customary for sons and grandsons of the departed to have their heads completely shaved and for the entire immediate family to abstain from sexual relations and other forms of pleasure, such as music and singing (with the exception of religious songs and chants) and lavish meals. Families usually arrange for daily readings of scriptural texts in the home. The text selected will depend on the sectarian affiliations of the family but commonly include the Bhagavadgita, Garuda Purana, and Ramayana. The priest (pandit) doing the reading may also add some commentary aiming to console the family and help them accept the fact of death. This nightly religious event is an opportunity for relatives, friends, and members of the community to gather at the home of the deceased to provide support and to help with some of the practical tasks facing the family. Stories of the deceased are exchanged, and visitors willingly relate accounts of their own family losses as a way of sharing and identifying with the sadness of the family.

During this formal mourning period, most Hindu families will observe some form of food restrictions. In India, where funerals occur within 24 hours of death, family members will fast until the funeral is over. Food may not be cooked in the home for some days after death or during the mourning period. Relatives and friends supply the family with the simple meals eaten during this period. Conservative Hindus will not partake of food or drinks in a home where death has occurred until the mourning period is over. Firth (1997) notes that the variation in food restrictions among British Hindus depends on the region of origin in India. Some Gujaratis do not even venture into the kitchen until the formal mourning period is over. All communities limit themselves to simple and bland meals, avoiding spicy, sweet, and nonvegetarian dishes.

Although the effects of death extend to the immediate family and beyond, the Hindu widow often experiences its most painful consequences. These consequences have to been seen in the context of Hindu patriarchy and the traditional status of women. In general, women are accorded status and significance only in relation to men (Rambachan 2001). They are regarded with the highest esteem in their roles as wives and mothers. For a woman, marriage and the service of her husband become the purpose of her life and the means of her salvation. She is to look on her husband as lord. Through the service of her husband, she accomplishes what an ascetic might attain after many years of arduous religious discipline.

The tragic consequences of perceiving the significance of women only in relation to men is seen most clearly in Hindu attitudes to women. A widow, particularly one from the upper castes, are regarded as inauspicious. With such a bleak future, it does not surprise that some women chose to immolate themselves on the funeral pyres of their dead husbands. Through this act, the woman avoided the status of widowhood and became a sati, a virtuous and revered goddess (for a detailed discussion of this practice, see Narasimhan 1990). Although always small in number and illegal since 1829, the patriarchal values that made it appear to be an honorable choice for some women are still influential.

Although the status of the widow has been improving, the stigma of inauspiciousness still lingers. After the death of her husband, her change in status is dramatically signified by the discarding of her marriage necklace (mangala sutra), the breaking and disposal of her bangles, and the removal of the red powder, signifying marriage, from her parted hair. Although they are no longer required, as in the past, to shave their heads as a symbol of an ascetic life, some communities do no permit widows to be present before religious leaders and exempt them from certain rituals (Rambachan 2001). A widow’s status is still precarious and depends on her education level, age, and the availability of sons to care for her.

Postdeath Memorialization: Sraddha Rituals

Postdeath rituals in Hinduism are referred to as sraddha, a term with meanings connected to faith or belief. Knipe (1977), in his detailed work on these rituals, makes the important observation that these rituals “bear a stamp of rigorous antiquity.”

They persist, with some regional variations, in spite of the fact that they contradict the widely accepted worldview, earlier discussed, of karma, samsara, and moksha. They are based not on the assumption of rebirth, but on the hope of the departed eventually joining the company of ancestors in an ancestral world (pitr loka). The emphasis is not on the moral law of karma determining the individual’s future prospects, but on the ritual offerings of the descendant. Sraddha rites nourish the departed relative on the journey to the ancestral world and ensure entry and permanence there. They testify to, as Knipe (1977) puts it, “the peculiar capacity of death rites” to endure, even when eschatological beliefs have been supplanted by other assumptions.

Sraddha rituals proceed on the basis of the belief that a new body must be ritually created with food offerings soon after death. On the first day after death, the chief mourner, accompanied by the family priest and by a special priest (mahapatra) who serves as a surrogate for the departed, goes to a riverbank or temple tank. There, he offers to the departed, a ball of rice, referred to as a pinda (Pandey 1969). The rice ball represents the spirit of the departed, designated as a preta, while also gradually constituting the new body. A small clay cup of water, with sesame seeds, is poured on the ball, while the priest recites the lineage of the departed, name, and month of death. This procedure is repeated for 10 days, with the addition of a cup of water each day until there are 10 water offerings on the 10th day. Each daily offering is believed to generate a part or organ of the new body, beginning with the head on the first day and ending with digestive powers on the 10th. Although 10 days of offerings are still common, it is not unusual, depending on family circumstances, for all 10 pindas to be offered on the 10th day.

On the 11th day, which signifies the end of extreme ritual impurity for the household, rites include the offering of 16pindas, the feeding of brahmins, and the offering of gifts to them. A cow may also be given away. It is also the occasion for the payment of the priest who has served as the surrogate for the dead. Although ritually necessary, his status is ambiguous because his specific role in death rituals lends an aura of defilement and impurity. Because gifts made to the mahapatra are believed to go the departed, some can be quite demanding, knowing that families feel obliged to satisfy their requests. The sraddha rite on the final or 12th day is known as sapindikarana, and marks the entry of the deceased into the world of the ancestors. The preta has now become an ancestor (pitr).

Ritual obligations to departed ancestors continue after the sapindikarana. One of the obligations of Hindu life is the daily honoring of the ancestors (pitr yajna). In addition, the tradition has also designated a special fortnight each year (pitr paksha) in memory of departed ancestors. Ancestors are also honored on the anniversary (tithi) of their death. These memorialization rituals take many forms. In one British temple, for example, families pay an annual sum for each ancestor to be remembered. The temple priest then recites prayers on a day in the Gregorian calendar closest to the corresponding day of death in the Hindu lunar calendar (Firth 1997). Prayers may also be offered at home by the family priest and gifts made to brahmins or to charity. The offering of food to brahmins and the reading of portions of the Bhagavadgita, on the occasion of pitr paksha are quite common. Memorialization rituals do vary a great deal and depend on the orthodoxy of the family and the value for tradition.


Changes in the Hindu way of death are inevitable and already discernible in diaspora communities in Europe and North America. Yet it will be a significant loss if the values and insights embodied in the Hindu way of death disappear and are replaced by the dominant practices of the majority culture. To avert this, and to preserve the rich uniqueness of traditional Hindu practices, it is necessary for health care institutions and funeral homes to understand the needs of Hindu families and to respond appropriately. Because deathbed rituals are an important part of the dying process, it is important for Hindus to know when death is imminent. Provisions ought to be made for family members to gather so that they can help the dying to be conscious of God. The importance of this may also influence the administration of drugs in the final moments of life. Funeral directors can offer family members the opportunity to assist in the preparation of the body for cremation and to consult about the ways in which the process of cremation may be rendered less impersonal. One trend, already evident in larger Hindu communities, is the establishment of funeral homes familiar with Hindu death rituals and catering to the special needs of the Hindu community. Such facilities are already available in cities such as Chicago and New Jersey.

As far as death rituals are concerned, it is quite likely that a process of simplification and rationalization will occur and that the worldview articulated in a widely popular text, such as the Bhagavadgita, will prevail. This is the perspective that emphasizes the significance of the moral law of karma and the inevitability of rebirth, except in the case of one who attains moksha. The assurance of rebirth or liberation will, I believe, eventually avert the need for rituals that aim to create and sustain a new body for the departed. A new generation of Hindus may find it difficult to reconcile the teaching of karma with ritual practices that seem to make the postmortem fate of the departed dependent on the activities of the living. This process of simplification may be hastened by the fact that the requirements of the workplace will not permit prolonged absence from one’s profession. It is also likely that memorialization ceremonies will take on a more communal character in temples rather than individual homes. This trend is already evident in Britain. A new generation of Hindus is being challenged to define the core values of the tradition and to ensure that these are meaningfully reflected in their ways of living and dying.