Every culture, and every person within that culture, has a different way of dealing with death. A different set of rules, beliefs, practices, personal and societal rituals, strategies for dealing with the inevitable trauma and equally inevitable aftermath. Hinduism, the world’s oldest extant religion, is no exception. Except, perhaps, that Hinduism, strictly speaking, is not a religion. It is referred to as Dharma, a way of life, with a specific set of tenets that inform an individual’s way of being, emphasizing righteousness and morality. Hinduism is polytheistic. There are many different gods, and there are many different ways to worship. It is difficult to describe a Hindu as a “convert” or “acolyte” of some kind: rather, a Hindu is a person who has agreed to live his life by the tenets of the Vedic scripture, the ancient Hindu sacred texts.
And yet, in common with all the world’s major and minor religions, Hindu death rituals are, in fact, quite clearly defined. As death approaches, the dying stay in home and are attended by their family (though in modern times more are choosing to stay in the hospital). At the moment of death, if the dying person is unconscious, a family member chants the mantra into their ear, and after death, the body is removed from the deathbed and placed at the home’s entrance. There are fire rituals, edicts for the preparation of the body, and the famous Hindu practice of cremation, which, when conducted correctly, is meant to release the dead person’s soul into the heavenly worlds. Then, upon returning home after the cremation ceremony, the mourners cleanse their bodies and the households, using water and purification rituals involving the setting of lamps, candles and altars throughout the household. Interestingly enough, and highly distinct from Western practices, Hinduism death rituals do not terminate at death, or cremation or burial. They continue on in specified memorial days on the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th and 31st days after death, and on the one-year memorial. Overmuch personal grieving is discouraged, and believed to hold the departed soul to his earthly consciousness, impeding his transition to the heaven worlds. So, while obsessive personal grief is discouraged, as if in deference to the fact that it may be as inevitable as death itself, the very grieving process is codified in the dharmic texts. Perhaps another example of Hinduism’s unique nature, as less a religion, than a method to inform the way one lives their life.
Here in the West, we are more comfortable with categories than broad notions of inter-connectivity, such as found in Hinduism or Buddhism. Hinduism, like Buddhism, is in touch less with sin and redemption, heaven and hell, life and death, than with life forces and energies surrounding and binding us. And yet, despite these foundational differences, the universal similarities are perhaps equally striking, as we find, in each and every culture around the world, different strategies for dealing with the same human, emotional problems, the inevitability of death being first and foremost among them.
Perhaps, counter-intuitively, we can take this as a certain comfort. Even despite our differences, in lifestyle, prosperity, upbringing, in the end, we all face many of the same human dilemmas. Perhaps this can tell us something. Perhaps this can teach us something.
- Learn more about Eastern Religions in our exploration of Buddhism
- Discover All for Now, a novel about an American Catholic who discovers the meaning of life only after his death
- Cremation is an integral part of Hindu tradition; learn what it means to choose cremation here in the United States