Religions of Asia - Death Practices
This post is part of our ongoing series featuring the works of Professor LeBoeuf 's students in her Introduction to Religions of Asia course at Whittier College!
I choose for my Hinduism topic, death practices in Religions in Asia. This specific topic was a key interest for me, coming into this class and was excited to dissect it further. I was always fascinated with the thought of death and how humans go about the dead because when you think about it, everyone has their own ritual or belief on how to bury a loved one. Everyone dies, it’s the circle of life but how you choose to deal with death is in your own way. In Hinduism, that meant burning a loved one so they can be reborn or reincarnated into their next life.
In the topic of Hindu religion there is a long ritual that one must go through in order to be reincarnated or reborn. According to (Everplans, 2018), most death rituals depend on the caste, region and sect you’re in and all can participate in the practice, even children. That is odd because in a Western stand point, having children around death isn’t encouraged or seen as natural, it’s actually thought of as quite the opposite. The whole point of this ritual is through tradition and traditionally this practice is done through a priest but not always. As the loved one gets closer to passing, the family sings hymns, prays and reads from the scripture to help the process. The person is generally laid at the entry way of the house as the kin waits for the “Great Departure.”
According to (Religions in South Asia: An Introduction, pg.68), that most Hindus cremate there dead. Before that, as the person dies, holy ash is applied to forehead and Vedic verses are chanted and holy water is applied to the mouth. They call this, “Return to Mother earth” and no organs are removed or embalmed. The mirrors are covered and any religious pictures seen in the house gets turned towards the wall. This is because evil spirits are found in homes where a person’s death has recently occurred. Shiva spirits are said to easily attach to mirrors when this occurs and the same goes for religious portraits.
After the death occurs, the “home fire ritual,” then commences and a Chief Mourner is selected. According to (Everplans, 2018), the Chief Mourner is either the eldest son in case of father’s death or youngest son in case of mother’s death. Or the eldest son takes on both roles if a younger brother doesn’t exist or a relative serve for both if there is no other male in the family. Then Chief Mourner performs arati which spreads oil over the body and drapes with white. This symbolizes death instead of the traditional black which is seen commonly in Western society. The body is cleaned and sesame oil is put on the head and brought to the home shelter. Women then feed the corpse so it’ll be well fed on his journey and children encircle the coffin, singing hymns while the widow places her tali (wedding pendant) around the husband’s neck. This signals her everlasting tie to him, even though he’s gone.
As the ritual progresses into its final stages, the men head into the cremation site (only men are allowed in). In (Religions in South Asia: An Introduction, pg.68), it’s explained that the process is led by the Chief Mourner. The Chief Mourner walks around the pyre they built and with each turn a relative knocks a hole in the clay pot by the left shoulder of the dead, spilling water. This signals the life leaving the vessel. At the end of three turns, counterclockwise, the Chief Mourner drops the pot then lights the pyre and leaves. The ritual doesn’t end there.
The “Ritual of Impurity,” then commences. This is the last and final step when dealing with the dead. According to (Everplans, 2018), a lamp and water pot is left at the entryway where the body once lay out of respect. The water is changed daily and the pictures stayed turned. The family is in mourning 12 hours after and are encouraged not to cry. This is because grieving such as this can hold back the loved one from traveling on. The remains are picked up and sent to the Ganges to be thrown in. The 3rd, 5th, and 9th day the deceased family gather to eat the favorite foods of the one who passed. They still live on through reincarnation.
My religious background as a Christian never really opened my eyes to any new religions. I’m not super religious so learning about Hinduism was really challenging to understand from their perspective and why this ritual is so important. Having respect for other people’s religions have always been a priority for me because I knew of high schoolers who made fun of people for the way they dressed or believed in. I never thought that, that was okay so learning and understanding the differences between all religions is so important to me.
About Isabela (Bela)
I’m undecided as a major but have thought of something on the lines of journalism or English at least as a minor. I play soccer here at Whittier College and I’m from Oregon! I love to read and write and my favorite color is red. I go by Bela but my full name is Isabela Maya Vargas and I love pasta. Also, I drink a red bull almost every day.
“Hindu Funeral Traditions.” Everplans, www.everplans.com/articles/hindu-funeral-traditions
Mittal, Sushil & Thursby (2006) Religions in South Asia: An Introduction. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. (pg.63)