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Vedic Rituals

Death Samskara

(16) Antyesthi (Death rites)

 

The rishis and Dharma Sutras were at a consensus regarding the final goal of life, which they enjoined in the four ashrams - stages of life. The stalwart poet Kalidas in his classic, Raghuvansha (1-8) stipulates:

"Shaishave abhyastavidyãnãm yauvane vishayaishinãm;
Vãrdhakye munivruttinãm yogenãnte tanutyajãm."

"One studies during childhood (brahmacharya ashram), fulfills his desires during youth (gruhastha ashram), renounces worldly activity for silent contemplation during old age (vanprastha ashram) and then endeavors for God-realisation, after which he leaves his body."

Antyeshti is the final samskara in a Hindu's life. Yajur Veda regards vivaha as the sixteenth samskara while Rig Veda considers antyeshti. Though performed after the death of a person by his relatives, it is of importance because the value of the next world is higher than that of the present. The final rituals are performed with meticulous care with the help of Brahmin priests.

The first ritual after death is to place a few tulsi leaves and a few drops of water in the mouth of the dead person. It is then laid on the floor which has been purified by applying the sacred cowdung. The old clothes are removed and the body is bathed with sanctified water. The body is then covered with one piece of a new, unbleached, uncut cloth (kafan). It is then laid on a bier (nanami) made of bamboo canes tied with jute strings. The underlying message in removing the old clothes can be gleaned from a Sanskrit verse:

"Dhanãni bhumau pashavashcha goshthe,
Nãri gruhadware sakhã smashãne,
Dehashchitãyãm paraloka mãrge,
Dharmãnugo gachhati jiva ekaha."

"Wealth will remain buried, cattle will remain in the pen, (his) wife will accompany (him) to the doorway, friends will accompany him to the crematorium, the body will come till the funeral pyre, but on the path to the next world, the jiva goes alone (with his karmas)."
In the Swaminarayan Sampraday there is a special ritual. Where possible the sadhus are called, who then do puja of the deceased with vermilion powder. A new kanthi and flower garlands are placed around the neck. The sadhus and the nearest relatives then do arti, followed by pradakshina. Everyone present chants the Swaminarayan mantra. The sadhus then leave after delivering a consolatory message.

This rite performed by sadhus remains unique to the Swaminarayan Sampraday. It infuses spiritual strength and thus considerably offsets the grief and hurt suffered by the relatives of the deceased.
The family members then take the body to the cremation pyre, all the while chanting the Lord's name. 'Ram bolo bhai Ram' is the most commonly uttered phrase. In Bengal it is 'Hari bol, Hari bol.' In the Swaminarayan Sampradaya the Swaminarayan dhun is chanted. After the body is laid on the funeral pyre, ghee is poured over it and the fire kindled by the nearest relative. Sesame seeds are also sprinkled onto the fire as a form of puja. The latter two steps are obviously not possible where an electric kiln is used for cremation. The fire lighted in the vivaha ceremony was later, by tradition, taken to the house and kept kindled in an altar throughout life. This signified that married life was to be lived through life's vicissitudes, together. When one of the spouse died, the agni (fire) was taken in a crucible or pot to the crematorium, where it was used to light the pyre. This symbolized the end of vivaha and the beginning of agni (antyeshti) samskara.

The rituals and observances which then follow vary in different groups and parts of Gujarat.
By cremation, the body's five basic components - known as panch bhuts - prithvi (earth), jal (water), tej (fire), vayu (wind) and akash (space) are returned to those of the universe, thus maintaining the cosmic equilibrium. All the samskaras are spiritually oriented. However, some directly benefit the environment in one way or another.

Scientists in the past decade have begun to realize this. They have pointed out that cremation, for example, is the best, most effective and environmentally prudent method for disposing of the dead. Burial leads to enormous problems of space and groundwater contamination. Corpses infected with plague and slow virus diseases infect vectors which directly feed on them. This ultimately affects humans. Recently in England, the wisdom of cremating even diseased cattle has been realized, especially those afflicted with mad cow disease.

Asthi Sanchayan

After cremation, the ashes and residual bones (asthi) are collected in an urn. In some communities it is customary to wash them with milk and sanctified water. The urn is then taken to a sacred river such as Ganga, Narmada or to the sacred confluence of the three rivers Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati in Allahabad, known as the Triveni Sangam. The Swaminarayan devotees also sprinkle the ashes in the sacred river Ghela, in Gadhada and the river Gondali in Gondal. During the ritual a Brahmin priest utters Vedic mantras and performs the final rites for the salvation of the deceased. The ashes are then sprinkled into the river.

Sutak (Ashauch) - Impurity

This is a period of ten to thirteen days during which the nearest family members do not perform their personal daily religious rituals such as puja, arti and thal. Their personal puja is given to a friend to perform on their behalf. The family members can visit the mandir for darshan. During this period, religious scriptures and devotional songs are recited and sung respectively, for the attainment of Akshardham by the deceased.

On either the eleventh, twelfth or thirteenth day, the relatives offer thal (food) to the Lord in the local mandir to repay pitru (ancestral) debt. The general Hindu belief is that as soon as the soul leaves the body, it adopts another body whose limbs grow day by day. On the tenth day after death this 'interim' body grows completely. The son of the deceased offers the pindas - food balls made from wheat flour and water - to the growing limbs, either day-to-day or all ten together on the tenth day. It is believed that, upto this day, the deceased still continues his relation with this world. Therefore the deceased is termed preta, which means one who has departed, but who has not yet reached the other world.

On the eleventh day, Brahma, Vishnu, Rudra and Yama are invoked, with Vishnu as the special witness. In their presence the deceased is offered pindas. On the twelfth day the departed soul is given away to the other world, where he then resides with his forefathers. As soon as he reaches the other world he is released from his preta body. The relatives are then freed from the sutak and can then perform their daily puja. These rites are also samskaras on the soul to lead it to God.

An associated rite after cremation, generally practiced in India, is for one or more male members of the deceased to shave their heads. This is rarely observed by Hindus abroad. Some communities eat only simple foods for a fixed number of days.

Daana

In Gujarat the family members then perform the sajjaa ritual. In this, they offer a cow, a cot, utensils, food grains, a set of clothes and footwear and anything else that the deceased used to a Brahmin. The Brahmin performs a ritual and takes the objects, symbolically to send them to the deceased for his use in the next world.

Conclusion

Samskaras like ours have their parallels in the world's other religious denominations - baptism, confirmation, holy matrimony in Christianity; barmitzvahs, and circumcision in Judaism; navjot in Parsis; and circumcision in Islam. These have significance in their own way in the lives of the members of these religions.

In the past the sixteen Hindu samskaras formed an integral part of Hindu life. Today, with the encroachment of modern living, especially in urban India, only a few of them have survived: chaul, upanayan, vivaha and antyeshti. Yet these samskaras, with their spiritual import, holistically 'samskarize' (edify) all aspects of an individual's life. Since each samskara ritual makes the individual the focus of the occasion, he/she is psychologically boosted. This strengthens the individual's self-esteem and enriches interaction with those around. The samskaras bring together family members, close relatives and friends, hence increase the cohesiveness of the family unit. Therein the unit harmonizes and strengthens the social structure. The consequence of this is a healthy society with a strong cultural identity which easily refines, boosts and perpetuates its traditional beliefs, customs, morals and values. This has been one of the key reasons for the Hindu Dharma withstanding the rigors and onslaughts of foreign incursions and upheavals through the ages.

The ancient rishis and sages enjoined the sixteen samskaras for the eternal benefit of mankind through their direct experience with the Divine. They wove them as into the fabric of daily life of the Hindu. They are 'outward acts,' from pre-birth to post-death, for inward or spiritual grace. Today, the key samskara which will determine the cohesion and perpetuation of Hindu traditions anywhere in the world is vivaha, if observed sincerely with its pristine and lofty sentiments.

Source References:

  • Ramaswami Aiyer, C.P., et.al. The Cultural Heritage of India, Vol. II, Calcutta: The Ramakrishna Mission Institute, rpt.1969.
  • Pandey, Rajbali. The Sixteen Samskaras. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, rpt., 1993
  • Shelat, Bharati. K., Bharatiya Samskaro. Amdavad: University Book Production Board of Gujarat, 1983
  • Shrutiprakashdas, Shastri, Shastri Parmanand Dave & Shastri Ghanshyam Shukla. Naimittikkarmaprakashaha. Gandhinagar: AARSH, Akshardham, 1998
  • Vivekpriyadas, Sadhu. Apano Samskrutik Varaso, Part 2. Amdavad: Swaminarayan Aksharpith,1998
  • Gnaneshwardas, Sadhu. Dharmik Vidhano ane Bhavana. Amdavad: Swaminarayan Aksharpith, 1993 (Translated as Hindu Rites & Rituals)
  • Taittiriya Upanishad
  • Kalidas's Raghuvansha
  • Charak Samhita
  • Sushrut Samhita
  • Manu Smruti
  • Kautilya's Arthashastra

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