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Monday, September 15, 2014

WHY HINDUS CREMATE THEIR DEAD

By Stephen Knapp

Whoever is born must die. Amongst Hindus it is customary to do the last rites by consigning the body to fire. On this occasion, all relatives, friends and acquaintances get together to mentally convey a farewell to the departed soul. Their presence on this occasion reminds everyone of the ultimate truth -- everyone has to die some day. It also reminds them of the futility of living only for oneself or without spiritual development.

In the Chudaman Upanishad it is said that Brahma gave birth only to the flame-like soul. From the soul, the sky was born. From the sky, air was born, from air fire, from fire water, and from water the earth was born. These five elements united to form the human body. When a dead body is cremated in fire, the elements return to nature from where they came initially.

In the Atharva-Veda (18/2/56), the cremation of a dead body is explained thus: O Departed Soul, your lifeless body is offered so that the two fires may unite for your salvation. I set the body on fire. Through these two fires you may go in your best state to Yama (the lord of death), who controls death.

The Atharva-Veda (18/3/71) also says: O Fire. Accept this dead body. Give it refuge. May your acceptance of the body bring you glory. O God in the garb of fire, burn this body and deliver the person to the abode of righteousness.

The Yajur-Veda (40/15) also relates: “O industrious person! At the time of leaving the body, chant the principal and outstanding name of God, Om. Remember God. Remember your past deeds. The air that goes in and out of the body is like celestial nectar. However, the end of the physical body is ash. It will end as ash. The dead body is worthy of being turned to ash.”

There is the understanding amongst Hindus that after death the soul continues to hover around the dead body due to its earlier attachment with it. When the body is consigned to the flames and burnt to ashes the relationship between the soul and the body ends. Therefore, to help speed the soul along to its next existence, the body is burned to ashes.

It is customary amongst Hindus that the son of the deceased performs the cremation ceremony. This is to prepare the son to accept that his father or mother is dead. It also prepares him emotionally to take over the responsibilities of the household and also fulfill his duties towards society.

During the cremation ceremony when the dead body is set on fire, an important part of the ceremony is kapal kriya. The significance of this is explained in the Gamda Purana. During kapal kriya, the skull is broken with a bamboo pole because it consists of very hard bone that cannot be burnt easily, even by fire. When broken, it burns with the rest of the body and is converted to the five elements that constitute the body and becomes a part of the ashes.


THE PURPOSE OF IMMERSING THE ASHES OF THE DEAD INTO SACRED RIVERS

If you go to many of the holy places around India, such as Gaya, Haridwar, Pushkar, Ujjain, Varanasi, and other places, you will see that Hindus who have had a death in the family do a particular ritual wherein they offer the ashes of the dead to the sacred rivers, such as the Ganga, Yamuna, Sipra, etc. There is much meaning and purpose behind this practice.

The remnant of the dead body after burning is left behind in the form of ashes. Hindus respectfully call these ashes phool - literally flowers - to express devotion and respect for the departed soul. When children are symbolically referred to as 'fruit', it is appropriate to refer to the ashes of forefathers as 'flowers'.

It is customary to gather or take the ashes on the fourth day after death. They are then immersed in sacred rivers like the Ganga. If it is not possible to immerse them immediately, they are kept in a locker in the crematorium or at home and immersed as soon as possible. This should be done no later than a year after the death of the person.

The Shankha Smriti (page 7) explains the consigning of ashes to the Ganga as follows: As long as the ashes of the deceased person remain in the Ganga, the person continues to enjoy happiness in worthy places for thousands of years (in the next existence).

Furthermore, in the Kurma Purana (35/31-34) it is said: Whatever number of years the ashes remain in the Ganga, the departed soul is held in reverence in heaven for thousand times the number. Of all the pilgrimages and of all the rivers, Ganga is considered most holy. It grants liberation to all, including those that have committed gross sins. Although accessible everywhere to the common man, Ganga is unique at Haridwar, Prayag, and Gangasagar. Those who desire liberation, including emotionally downtrodden sinners, there is no better place than the Ganga.

Religious writers also understand that the deceased person's journey towards the eternal home (the spiritual realm beyond heaven and hell) does not start until the ashes are consigned to the Ganga.