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A Hindu Perspective on Death

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Body and soul

The Taittiriya Upanishad comments on every individual having five sheaths, the outermost sheath being the body and the essential innermost nature being the spirit (called Atman or the Self). The outer four sheaths are always in a state of flux while  our esssential nature or Self remains changeless. The teachings of the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads express death of the body as the individual discarding his outermost sheath like a worn out garment and replacing it with a new body. This is the theory of reincarnation which is a central tenet of Hinduism.     

How do Hindus console themselves when someone passes away in the family?

At the time of cremation, Hindus recite verses from Chapter 2 of the Bhagavad Gita (their scripture of authority) to console the family. The verses emphasis that the essential nature of the departed soul is the Self which never dies. Birth and death are of the body and not of the spirit.    


Reincarnation or the cycle of rebirth

Recent research by Professor Ian Stevenson at University of Virginia gives credence to the theory of reincarnation. He has done research on a large number of children who spontaneously recall their past lives and in many cases it has been possible to verify their stories.  The theory of reincarnation suggests that our inner or mental make-up is something we take with us when we transmigrate from one body to another. This trait begins to reveal itself as the individual characteristics of a child. This provides an interesting insight into the possible reasons why some people may have phobias or why we have child prodigies.  Hinduism claims that as long as we have unfulfilled desires we will continue to reincarnate. It is only when one begins to realise that desires can never be fulfilled that he or she will search for a permanent resolution to the human condition. The resolution lies in discovering our essential nature as the Spirit and not the body and mind that we have been associating ourselves with. This realization is called: Moksha (or end of delusion regarding our essential nature). The aim of Hindu life is to gain Moksha (literally means end of delusion) or liberation from the bondage of body and mind.


The law of karma

Hindus say that the law of cause and effect does not only operate in the physical realm but also in the human realm. The law of karma is: the law of action and its consequences. It simply affirms that every activity we do produces consequences which we have to bear. The law also says that if we fail to do something that needed doing, then that too can have consequences for us. Hence if we observe something that is unjust and turn our backs on it that too can produce consequences we have to bear. This is a fair system because it offers measured risks for measured activities we do. It also negates the idea of a God sitting in judgment. It is this impersonal law of causation that decides what happens to us after we die.     
 
The conventional rites following a death


For a period of about two weeks following a death, the bereaved are surrounded by close friends, family and community. During that fortnight, family and friends will cook, eat and pray together. Communal prayers are sung, not only for the deceased, but also to provide the bereaved with the strength to bear the loss they feel.

Prior to the funeral rites, it is customary for the body to be brought home so that close family and friends may pay their last respects. The funeral involves the cremation of the body. Hindus generally celebrate the memory of their loved ones through acts of charity made in their name. An annual rite is called the shraddh – whereby prayers are offered and a tribute made to the deceased through the offering of food to the hungry. In any case, the memory of the dead is cherished through acts that give life or improve the quality of life – which for many Hindus is a fitting way of remembering that death is itself a gateway to life.

 

 


 

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