Many scholars believe that Hinduism is the oldest religion at more than 4.000 years, predating Christianity. If you talk to many Hindus, they will tell you Hinduism has been around since the beginning of time. However, it can be traced to somewhere between 2300 B.C. and 1500 B.C. There are 9 recognized religions in India, Hinduism is the largest followed religion with about 80% of the population practicing it. Islam and Christianity are the second and third largest religions consecutively.
Hinduism does not have a leader or someone that can be traced to as a beginning leader like Christianity (Jesus). As well, Hinduism does not seem to be just one religion, but one that has many aspects to it. There is one central God, but they also believe and worship in other Gods (deities) as well. There are 7 prominent deities that are most worshiped. In addition to the multiple deities, Hinduism has 4 sects and a caste system with 4 main castes. The caste system still exists today, but it is not as strictly followed with the exception of, marrying within your caste. In 1947 when India became an independent nation, it changed it’s constitution no longer allowing discrimination based on which caste you were born into.
Most Hindu’s believe in reincarnation. This is a well-known fact and there are different directions the soul can take related to reincarnation. . They believe in Samsara which means “rebirth.” There are a few steps Hindus have to take in order to obtain Samsara. First, they have to be free of desire which will allow them to move forward into Moksha, which is considered to be the state of salvation. (citation). Once a person has reached Moksha, then they move onto Brahman. Brahman is not a mortal state, but rather one that is considered the ultimate reality. Reincarnation is not an absolute, your soul can by-pass it so to speak and go straight to heaven.
Karma also plays a role in Hinduism and the dying process. Karma basically means a person is in control of their actions, and what happens to them is directly related to their actions. If an individual does bad things during their life it will affect their death. In short, what goes around comes around.
The Dying Process and Death Rituals
Hindus do not believe in prolonging life. They believe that death is a natural event and they die when their time has come. Therefore, they do not believe in using un-natural means of extending one’s life unless there is a chance there could be a positive result in the treatment and the individual’s life will be better in the end. If it is a child, then treatment is usually agreed upon hoping to prolong the child’s life. Enduring pain allows a type of cleansing and if you’ve done bad things in your life, the suffering can help improve Karma.
Hindu’s believe that a person should die at home. Hinduism has priest and once it is deemed that death is near, the family members or appropriate people will call in the priest. Not unlike other religions, family and friends are called to the home. If an individual is at a hospital and can not be taken home, all the same rituals will be performed in the hospital room. There are specific ritualistic steps that need to be taken. The most important one is positioning the head so that it is facing East. Hindus believe the gods are in the eastern direction from earth. A lamp is lit as well. The priest and family members will say prayers and chat a mantra that is specific to that dying person if the dying person is unable to chant their own mantra. Once the individual has passed, the body is placed in the main doorway facing South and the lamp continues to burn. The change in position designates that the soul is returning to Mother Earth. 'The deceased’s thumbs and big toes are tied together, and a cloth is tied around the head and under the chin.' (citation) In some homes the mirrors are covered, and any religious pictures are turned around.
A chief mourner is designated. “It is usually the eldest son for a father and the youngest son for a mother. Sometimes the eldest son serves for both.” (citation) However other family members may be designated if there is no son or the son is absent.
The bodies are then taken to a porch if one is available and draped in a white cloth and bathed. During this process hymns are sung, and children walk around the body with lighted candles. The women place rice in the mouth of the deceased so it will not be hungry. If it is a husband, the wife will place her tali (wedding pendant) around his neck as a representation of her eternal devotion. The deceased is then placed in the casket and taken to the crematorium and only males go with the body.
Hindus do not believe in embalming or organ donation. The body is prepared in the home and is kept there until the cremation which typically is about 24 hours. This is similar to Judaism with the exception that the bodies are not kept at home. If the death takes place is in the hospital, the death certificate is signed immediately, and the body is transported home.
After Death Rituals
Once the males return home from the crematorium, everyone baths and then the house is cleaned. Family members and relatives do not leave the home, and neighbors bring food during the morning period. The time of morning varies, but some morn for up to a year. Some believe that if you morn too long you are keeping the deceased individual too close to earth and not allowing it to pass to heaven.
About 12 hours after the cremation, the males collect the ashes. The ashes are placed in a container to be preserved until they can be taken to the Ganges for disposal. If the deceased is outside of India, their ashes will usually be sent back to India to be placed in the river. Usually flowers are thrown in as well signifying that ashes have been recently placed.
There is a 31st day service as well as a one-year memorial. Some families preform a service on the 11th and 15th day as well. Hindu funeral rites can be very simple or detailed. There are some guidelines related on how to dress for Hindu funerals. Being respectful in how you dress is very important . This in part is due to how religious they are, again like Judaism (Reform, Conservative or Orthodox). The levels of the caste system play a part in the extent of the rituals performed.
The 5,000 year old city of Varanasi is the holy city to where many Indians go to die. It is believed that if you die in Varanasi, then you will reach salvation, thus breaking the believed cycle of being born, dying and then reincarnated.
Because of the spiritual importance of this city, there are an array of places people can stay until their time of death. Cost is based on ability to pay. Most stay about 2 weeks, some as few as a couple of days, and then there are others who have been there for years. Most of the “hotels” do not allow you to stay for an extended length of time.
Cremation is very important to those who practice Hinduism. There are a lot of differing theories about reincarnation. Some believe that the sole escapes during cremation and is reincarnated into a new life, so they are not really gone forever. Others believe if the cremation is not done properly there can be the chance of a bad reincarnation and your sole can possibly be wandering for eternity without ever getting to their version of heaven. Some believe if you have not lead a good life, have sinned, you can be reincarnated into something lesser, ie: bugs, animals, etc.
The city of Varnasi sits on the Ganges river. It is thought that is your body is cleaned with river water, then your cremated ashes are thrown in the Ganges your soul will rest forever. The waters of the Ganges river are believed to wash away any of your sins.
The cremation ghats burn 24 hours a day. The bodies are laid on top of a pile of wood called a pyre and burned. Then the ashes are put into the river, preferably by a family member.
There are instances where the dying will accept pain medication to control their symptoms, but they will not allow pain management to the point that they are less aware. Hindus believe they need to be in a clear minded state to meet death.
Although Western beliefs and laws are that suicide is wrong, assisted suicide is illegal in most states. If a person who practices Hinduism wants to end their suffering by what is termed “self-willed death by fasting,” this is acceptable. However, they must notify the family and others prior to doing so. It is considered an acceptable method of ending one’s own suffering.
There are no laws that prohibit Hindus from donating their organs. Even their religious references support organ donations. Hinduism believes in keeping life going, organ donations do exactly that. As well, some Hindus get embalmed and buried rather than cremated although this is not very common.