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HomePageTurnerBook ExcerptsCremating, dunking, burying—how the Hindu understanding of death transformed over time

Cremating, dunking, burying—how the Hindu understanding of death transformed over time

In 'Garuda Purana', Devdutt Pattanaik delves into Hindu ideas of death, rebirth, and immmortality.

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The shift from animal to human began when humans reflected on death and afterlife and created rituals for the dead. In most Stone Age cultures, we find burial rituals. The dead are sometimes adorned. Their graves are filled with food, clothes, jewellery, weapons and other goods they may need in a future life. Some cremated their dead. Others exposed the body on rocks for birds to eat. Some dunked the body in flowing water. Still others chopped it into pieces which they then cast in rivers; a practice still followed by certain tribes in Northeast India.

Across India, burial sites and pot burial sites have been found in the Stone Age and Iron Age communities, with menhirs and dolmens raised to honour the dead. Cremation may have been practised too but one would not know, since cremation leaves no record, unless bones and ashes are collected and buried in pots. Harappan Period As per archaeologists, the ancient Harappans who built fabulously organised cities around the Indus over 4,000 years ago were the first to grow sesame (til) and crush it to make oil (tel). This was exported to the Middle East.

Even today, Hindus offer black sesame seeds to ancestors during Pitr-paksha, the fortnight of the ancestors, while white sesame seeds are offered to the gods (Devas) during festivals like Makara Sankranti, marking the arrival of spring. Sesame oil is lit in ceremonies involving the ancestors, while ghee is lit in ceremonies involving the gods. Through sesame, Hindu culture remains connected to a civilisation that existed over 4,000 years ago. Harappans used pots in funeral rites. Even today, Hindus use pots in funeral rites to carry the fire that lights the pyre and to carry the water that is poured around the corpse. The pot containing water is symbolically cracked three times to mark the shattering of the body and the release of the spirit.

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The horse was domesticated in 2000 bce, north of the Black Sea. By 1500 bce, horse-drawn chariots had reached every corner of the known world—Greece, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, China and India. The Eurasian nomads who brought them to India via Central Asia buried the dead with horses and chariots in Central Asia. However, by the time they had reached the Punjab-Haryana region, around 1500 bce, and the Rig Veda, after marrying local women, we find hymns that speak of cremation and the journey of ancestors. In the Atharva Samhita, the last collection of Vedic hymns, we find words for the embodied soul (atma) and the cosmic soul (brahman), and the earliest mention of the metaphor that is repeatedly used in later literature for the human body: ‘the lotus flower with nine doors’.

The Atharva Veda states that the body results from the contribution of asu by the father and garbha by the mother. These ideas contribute to the incremental Hindu understanding of the body and its origins as elaborated in the Vedanta and Tantra that came much later. The Atharva Veda clearly refers to offering of grain, sesame, milk, ghee and even meat to the deceased and shows veneration for three generations of ancestors. While the Rig Veda focused on bidding farewell to the dead, the Atharva Veda refers to veneration of the dead. In Rig Samhita, the earliest collection of Vedic hymns, there are hymns that ask fire to gently burn the dead, of ancestors who go on a journey, fear of ghosts who torment the dead and aspiration for a bright imperishable heaven. The word ‘svadha’ used in rituals related to ancestors is first found here. We also find words that speculate on breath (prana), life (jiva), consciousness (manas) and force (asu). The Rig Veda introduces Yama as the god of the dead, and his four-eyed dogs.

There is reference to animals being sacrificed and burnt along with the deceased. The animal thus offered was called anustarani. In the Rig Veda, there is also reference to the earth who is asked to embrace and comfort the dead like a mother and a sister. There is reference to the idea of returning to nature itself. The breath becomes the wind, the mind becomes the moon, the eyes become the sun. There is talk of regeneration and a new life. The Rig Veda introduces the concepts of Swarga and Naraka, but these are not connected to karma, punishment or rebirth. In all this we see a diversity of beliefs and customs: burials, cremations, collection of bones in urns that are scattered back in nature and a return to a new life in a new body.

Today, during the pinda-daan, tarpan is poured over the pinda, which represents both the flesh and the food of ancestors. The tarpan is water mixed with black sesame, barley and kusha grass. Pinda is made from rice, barley and sesame. Harappan cities used to grow sesame and wheat. Rice came much later, probably from the east. The Rig Veda speaks of barley and kusha grass. This indicates that the funeral rituals today are an amalgamation of many ideas: the pre-Vedic sesame, the Vedic barley and kusha, and the post-Vedic rice. The mixing of ideas indicates a mixing of cultures. Among the women that the Aryas married, some may have descended from the ancient mercantile cities of the Harappan civilisation, and others from the eastern regions where the dead were buried under mounds. That is why the last verse of the Rig Veda invites all to collaborate.

This excerpt from Devdutt Pattanaik’s ‘Garuda Purana and Other Hindu Ideas on Death, Rebirth and Immortality’ has been published with permission from Westland Books.


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