Understanding and Coping with Death: A Hindu Perspective

hindu-oil-lamp-burning-mainPhoto: www.everplans.com

My uncle passed away a few days back. My aunt is utterly distraught, and her husband’s death has affected her profoundly both emotionally and mentally. Everyone has their mechanism of coping with grief and are not comfortable talking about death.

Death invokes different emotions in human beings. Most of the people I know don’t want to talk about death, some are extremely scared, and few like me are extremely fascinated by death.

To me, death is not an occasion for just mourning but also a deep understanding of life. I firmly believe if you can understand death, you can not embrace and live life fully.

I often visualize or contemplate upon various images that are associated with death. I usually read books about how different cultures and religions have different rituals associated with death.

I often visit graveyards and cremation ground and contemplate upon death. It helps me in understanding the impermanence of life and to overcome the fear of death.

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To me, death is the final journey and cremation place will be the last stoppage for this body. As a believer in Hindu philosophy, the next phase of the journey will begin from that moment.

In Hindu metaphysics, both birth and death have been of immense interest. In Katha Upanishad, there is a story of a young boy, Nachiketa who was to given the God of Death, ‘Yama’ by his father in a fit of anger. God of death was impressed by young Nachiketa and told him to ask for three boons. As a third boon, Nachiketa wanted to know the mystery of death and what happens to man after death.

Death is associated with elaborate rituals. Right from the preparation of the body for the funeral to the burning of the dead body, series of rites and ceremonies take place for continuous days.

Death is of great significance as it as a next step in the process of a series of change and transition through which an individual passes. The below prayer from Brhadaranyaka Upanishad summarizes this journey beautifully:

asato ma sadgamaya
tamaso ma jyotirgamaya
mrtyorma amrtam gamaya
om Shanti Shanti Shanti.

Lead me from the unreal to real.
Lead me from darkness to light.
Lead me from death to immortality.
Om Peace Peace Peace

Bhagavad Gita, describes the phenomena of death in a very solacing manner. It says we change old and dirty clothes every day and put on new clothes. Similarly, the soul casts off its worn out physical body and takes on a new physical body at regular intervals in time. As the clothes we wear are not permanent similarly the body will also deteriorate over time because of disease and old age.

Bhagavad Gita, says that only the body dies, for the soul, there is neither birth nor death at any time. One who has taken birth is sure to die, and after death one is sure to be reborn. So there is no point in lamenting and grieving. Bodies are meant to die, but the soul which possesses the body is eternal. It cannot be limited, destroyed and is unborn and unchanging. So the death as we see is only an illusion.

There is a Poem, ‘Weep Not’, by Caroline A. F. Rhys Davids, written initially by Buddhist nun Paccara.

Weep not for such is here the life of man

Unasked he came, unbidden he went hence

Lo, ask thyself again whence came thy son

To bide on earth this little breathing space

By one way come and by another gone,

So hither and so hence – why should you weep?

 The cremation rituals are based on the fundamental Hindu philosophy that body is a transitory vehicle and is composed of five essential elements: – air, water, fire, earth, and space. By burning the body, it returns back to its origin. The hymn in the Rig Veda describes it as follows:

Burn him not up, nor entirely consume him, Agni: let not his body or his skin be scattered,
O all possessing Fire, when thou hast matured him, then send him on his way unto the Fathers.
When thou hast made him ready, all possessing Fire, then do thou give him over to the Fathers, When he attains unto the life that waits for him, he shall become subject to the will of gods.
The Sun receive thine eye, the Wind thy Prana (life-principle, breathe); go, as thy merit is, to earth or heaven.Go, if it is thy lot, unto the waters; go, make thine home in plants with all thy members.

Cremation much more than disposing or burning of the body, it is intended to release the soul from its earthly existence. For centuries, Varanasi or Banaras, the holy city on the Ganges, in the northern part of India, attracts pilgrims and mourners. It is believed that one gets instant liberation if one dies or last rites are performed in this city.

140806-mcbride-ganges-02Photo: The Pyres of Varanasi: Breaking the Cycle of Death and Rebirth by Peter McBride

Hindu death rituals are extraordinarily elaborate and can prepare the individual and his near and dear ones for inevitable and can also help in mourning after death. It signifies that both life and death should be celebrated and not feared.

 

 

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