10 Astonishing Death Customs of Hindus
Death is a complicated affair for Hindus. For a heterogeneous religion so immersed in customs and traditions, death too has no escape. From sealing body parts to posthumous abortions, these 10 astonishing death customs of Hindus will give you some first-hand insights into death, the Hindu way.
10. Reading of Garud Purana
On the death of a family member, Hindus organise the telling (paath) of Garud Purana. Narrated as a dialog between Vishnu (the highest Hindu God) and Garuda (his carrier, the king of birds), this epic covers details of funeral rites, life after death and reincarnation.
Hindus believe that by retelling and listening to this epic, people understand the cycle of life and death and the higher purposes of life. This tale is narrated daily over a period of nine days and ends on the thirteenth day or the kriya of the deceased.
9. Free the Dead of all Bonds, Literally
Hindus believe that after the body ceases to exist the soul should also be free of any shackles. Therefore, before cremating the body, they remove all knots or bounds including jewellery, bands, threads, stitched clothes and even bandages and wraps of the hospital. After bathing the body in its natural state, it is wrapped in a new cloth and then cremated.
8. Abstaining for 12 days or Sutak
According to the Garud Purana, Sutak or Sootak is a period of abstinence which should be observed at the time of birth and death but in different ways. When someone dies, the family observes Sutak for up to 12 days. The spirit of the deceased is believed to be in this world and all this while, the immediate family and relatives call a priest to narrate the Garud Purana and follow the rules of Sutak. This includes avoiding things like performing religious practices, reading holy books, consuming food with spices, eating sweets, and exchanging gifts. Socially, this custom aims to convey to the society that the family is in mourning. On the thirteenth day or the kriya ceremony, the Garud Purana is concluded and that ends the Sutak period. The degree of abstinence and number of days of Sootak are different in different casts and clans.
7. Predicting the next life-form of the departed
After completing all formalities and seeing off the relatives, sand is evenly spread in a plate with uniform surface and placed outside within the boundaries of the house. The next incarnation of the departed soul is depicted on the even surface of sand with some markings on it. This is an uncommon ritual and the only time I happened to see it was when an old man in my neighbourhood passed away. The feet marks on his ashes were that of a sparrow as interpreted/imagined by the elders of the house, which makes me rather cynical of this tradition.
6. Preventing Five Deaths in the Family during Panchak
In Hindu astronomy, Panchak Kaal is a planetary condition which aligns five constellations and is considered inauspicious. Astrologers determine this period as per the Hindu calendar each year. Hindus believe that every unfortunate thing that happens in this period will repeat five times. And death tops the list. Naturally, if someone in the family dies during Panchak, it is followed by four more deaths anytime between two days and a year, if the following is not done. While cremating the deceased, five dummy funerals made of flour and grass are cremated alongside the pyre. This nullifies the inauspiciousness of Panchak and prevents any more deaths in the family. Other tasks prohibited during Panchak include building a new house, buying wooden items, and travelling down south.
5. Reincarnation of the Departed in Same Family
This is so common among Hindus that it fails to stir any surprise. The spirits of elders are often believed to be reborn through newborn in the same family. This is however not an assumption without any premise. The newborn often shows physical features and personality traits of the departed, which to a rational mind might be a result of alternate inheritance of the genes. Starting from a mole, a cut on forehead, a body mark, the similarity can be as striking as voice, articulation, iterating the words/leitmotifs of the deceased and addressing family members as the deceased used to. Thankfully, it doesn’t affect the emotional or physical growth of the child and neither does (s)he has a recollection of the past life.
4. Finding the Subtle Body of the Cremated
After a body is cremated, the relatives of the deceased, including the person who set fire to the pyre return after a day or two to collect the ashes are then scattered at one of the holy rivers of India. At this time, the pyres of the pious and spiritually initiated people leave behind subtle body. Also known as Sukshma Shareer or Aatmaram in Hindi, it is an idol made of bones and is no bigger than the size of your palm. The idol is found in different positions and facial expressions which are interpreted as varying degrees of piety.
Instead of being preserved, the subtle body is submerged in to the river with the ashes. Given the overall moral decline of the world, citing of the subtle bodies is getting uncommon, in fact almost unheard of. As a kid, I’ve seen the subtle body of my paternal grandfather.
3. Water Burial in case of Death due to Snake Bite
While snake is considered sacred in the form of Sheshnag and as the garland of Lord Shiva, death due to its bite is highly inauspicious. The body of such a victim is not cremated. Instead, a symbolic pyre is made by putting a burning log of wood on the lips and then the body is submerged in flowing water and is often consumed by the aquatic beings and microbes.
2. Abortion before Cremation
In this uncanny custom mentioned in the Garud Purana, if a woman and her foetus die during pregnancy or while giving birth, the foetus should be separated from the mother. The foetus is first buried, followed by the cremation of the woman. According to priests, this is done to liberate the soul that was inside the stillborn. On that note, any stillborn or premature child or miscarriage is always buried and not cremated.
1. Sealing vagina of young women
When a menstruating woman dies an untimely death, her vaginal area is sealed before cremation. More surprising than this custom is the reason behind it. Mainstream Hindus’ belief of afterlife is unshakeable. They consider – and their epics tell them to consider – the afterworld as another realm of existence with good, evil and divine energies/spirits existing together. Like this world, the young women are vulnerable in that one too. This is the reason their vaginas are sealed to prevent evil spirits from raping them. How is the vagina sealed? Usually, a ball of kneaded dough is pushed deep inside the vagina and a coin is fixed on the top of this ball. Only then are the females cremated.
There are many such astonishing death-related customs in Hinduism, most of which are well explained in the Garud Purana. The notion that Garud Purana shouldn’t be kept at home is an illogical one. Any Hindu scripture can be studied and read as an allegorical work of wisdom and not necessarily as a holy discourse.