There is one thing that is certain in this lifetime: eventually we all must die. A belief in the cyclical reincarnation of the soul is one of the foundations of the Hindu religion. Death is viewed as a natural aspect of life, and there are numerous epic tales, sacred scriptures, and Vedic guidance that describe the reason for death’s existence, the rituals that should be performed surrounding it, and the many possible destinations of the soul after departure from its earthly existence. While the ultimate goal is to transcend the need to return to life on earth, all Hindus believe they will be reborn into a future that is based primarily on their past thoughts and actions.
The first mortal to meet his fate with Death was named Yama. This dubious honor makes him uniquely qualified to lead the way for others after death. The sacred scriptures of the Rig Veda, which call him King Yama, promise that all who have been good will receive admission to Yama’s paradise and the everlasting enjoyment of all the heavenly pleasures, include the restoration of a sick body, the maintaining of family relations and the highly desired apotheosis. Yama is aided by two killer guide dogs that are described as the four-eyed keepers of the path, who watch over men. These two dark messengers of Yama with flaring nostrils wander among men, thirsting for the breath of life. Yet, once they have secured their prey, they lead them back to their heavenly realm, where Yama directs them to their destiny.
Cremation is ritual designed to do much more than dispose of the body, it is intended to release the soul from its earthly existence. Hindus believe that cremation (compared to burial or outside disintegration) is most spiritually beneficial to the departed soul. This is based on the belief that the astral body will linger as long as the physical body remains visible. If the body is not cremated, the soul remains nearby for days or months. The only bodies that are not generally burned are unnamed babies and the lowliest of castes, who are returned to the earth.
The standard cremation ceremony begins with the ritual cleansing, dressing and adorning of the body. The body is then carried to the cremation ground as prayers are chanted to Yama, invoking his aid. It is the chief mourner, usually the eldest son, who takes the twigs of holy kusha grass, flaming, from the Doms (the untouchable caste who tend funeral pyres) eternal fire to the pyre upon which the dead has been laid. He circumambulates the pyre counterclockwise for everything is backward at the time of death. As he walks round the pyre, his sacred thread, which usually hangs from the left shoulder, has been reversed to hang from the right. He lights the pyre. The dead, now, is an offering to Agni, the fire. Here, as in the most ancient Vedic times, the fire conveys the offering to heaven. After the corpse is almost completely burned, the chief mourner performs the rite called kapälakriyä, the ‘rite of the skull,’ cracking the skull with a long bamboo stick, thus releasing the soul from entrapment in the body. After the cremation, the ashes are thrown into a river, ideally the Ganges river, and the mourners walk away without looking back.
The death ritual does not end with the elimination of the body. There is still the safety of the soul to look after. To ensure the passage during its voyage to the Otherworld, an eleven-day ritual called shraddha is performed. It consists of daily offerings of rice balls, called pindas, which provide a symbolic, transitional body for the dead. During these days, the dead person makes the journey to the heavens, or the world of the ancestors, or the far shore. On the twelfth day, the departed soul is said to reach its destination and be joined with its ancestors, a fact expressed symbolically by joining a small pinda to a much larger one. Without these rites, the soul may never find it way to Yama’s realm.