I had kept my promise of telling my daughter the story of Ganga avtaran (see Why is River Ganga so sacred to Hindus- Part 1 ). It was now my father’s turn to keep his promise. I was tense so as to what he was about to do? How would he detangle the rituals, myths, superstitions and psychological state of grieving, for an eleven-year-old child? On the other hand, she had invited her elder sister to join the discussion, who was no less curious.
Once my father came back home, the pair of curious girls was quick to take positions near his bed. He asked the little one, “So you learnt the three stories about Haridwar, do you know the story of Nachiketa and Yama?
A quarrel broke out between the two sisters, each was eager to recount what they had read. At last the little one spoke, “Nanu, Nachiketa was an eight year old boy, whose father sent him to Yama, the God of death in a fit of anger. This brave boy reached there and waited for three days. When Yama arrived, to make up for three days, he offered him three boons, apart from happiness for his father and a fire ritual to reduce perils of living, Nachiketa asked to know the secret of death. Yama tried to dissuade him with many tempting offers but he did not agree. At last Yama disclosed it to him.
The elder one took off from where she paused, “Just as a person changes clothes the soul changes body once it gets old. We are born, we grow, we are adults, we age and we die to be reborn again. It is cyclic. Each life carries a balance of karma, good or bad that decides the quality of life in next birth. Only in the living state, we can strive to break this cycle by making the balance zero. If that happens, we attain nirvana and are liberated forever.”
It was as if my father sat with two Nachiketas instead of one, asking him the same complex questions, only that he was a lesser mortal and not as equipped as Yama to answer. Still he tried:
“Since you both already know, I would start with what happens to us when we die. The Hindus believe that when it is time to die, the envoy of Yama or his aid the ‘Yamdoot’ appears he extracts the soul first. This causes a system shut down of mind and vital organs. Body becomes insensitive and unresponsive to external stimuli. Self-breakdown begins after sometime and it starts to decay. The family needs to dispose it. There are several ways but Hindus burn or cremate it.” The girls were all somber and attentive.
He continued further, however the cremation process has one more step without which the soul cannot leave the world and reach the land of dead. It has to carry the memories; the karma account to Yama, who with the help of his aid, Chitragupta decides the fate of the soul. These memories lie trapped in the brain. So just like a computer, the soul can be understood as non-chargeable power, the memories it’s software; the mind is the chip and hardware the flesh body.
The whole process of keeping the body (Antim darshan), funeral procession (Antim yatra), cremation (Antayeshti) and immersion of ashes (Asthi visarjan) slowly help establish the reality of death to the family and foster detachment to ease pain and accept death. Some steps are procedures with a purpose and some are mere symbolic.”
The moment a person is declared dead, usually by a doctor, the family shifts it to the floor in the lap of mother earth. It is no longer called by its name but referred as ‘body’ the first blow of reality for the family. It is a way to impress upon the bereaved, that the living portion is already detached and what remains is not their dear one, but his mortal flesh. Some families light a lamp near the head as symbolic of luminous flame the soul separated from body.
The soul is said to linger around the family this time, so they are asked to bid a gracious good bye, to keep the seemingly the impossible composure and pray for the departed person’s peace. All near and dear ones are informed to see their loved one for the last time (Antim darshan). If the relatives are very far or in other countries, body is preserved on slabs of ice.
When everyone has arrived, the men prepare a stretcher with bamboos, hay and jute cord, all combustible material that burns along with the body. Together they carry this stretcher on their shoulders for short distance or on transport to the creation ground, usually near a stream or river. This is the funeral procession (Shav yatra). It announces to the remaining community about the death.
The elder one interrupted, “…..but Nanu why make such a show of your sorrow, why make it such a lengthy process? Wouldn’t shortening that, save everyone from suffering so much?”
My father did not negate her point but was armed with a very strong counter argument, “Some people hurry everything and want to finish it as soon as possible, thinking it will save the family from pain, but my experience says, one needs to give him time to grieve. When people skip the funeral or do not see the body, the effect is exactly the opposite. The pain is temporarily suppressed but comes back with a vengeance, along with guilt of not saying a proper good bye.
The sixteen year old still had her doubts, “That means one must suffer?”
I was amazed with what all goes on in those minds. I would have by now surely lost my patience or run out of answers, excused myself on pretext of daily chores and avoided the bevy of questions. But my father was unfazed; he had experience with all kinds of people, situations. Powered by his reading and the desire to enrich my children, he went on to the precarious parts of discussion now. I realized this is the reason, why having grandparents are so vital to a child.
Papa replied, “The sadness of losing a person never goes away, but one should be able to remember the person with bitter sweet memories. The sound of his or her name or sight of his pictures or things, can disturb you in the beginning but should not last forever. In some cases of untimely or very sudden, unexpected deaths, mourner feels guilty to be alive. Family is caught in extreme anxiety, the pain is so constant and severe that it does not let you get back to normal life. Survivor aches to be with the dead, imagine him alive, get nightmares or break into tears suddenly, either cling to their things or avoid them completely. Feel their life is meaningless. The loss overpowers them so much that they fail to look at what good things they have in life.’
A funeral serves this purpose; it is as much for the living as for the dead. See how this series of customs help:
Need for family: When the whole family gathers for last meeting, it crystallises the idea of loss and gives a chance to all relatives to stand together and reaffirm family bonds. Often relatives recall experiences with the deceased, which even the close family is not aware of and it gives a sense of satisfaction to them, to know others miss as much as them.
Need for Friends: Friends and neighbours gather to visit and help the grieving family. They send food, offer accommodation for guests, help with their pick and drop. It is a time when community bonds beyond boundaries of religion and caste.
Need for fellow mourners: When we meet people who have gone through similar experiences there is immediate identification, confessing fears and intellectualizing is easier. The visit to the cremation ground and later to religious places helps here. Mourners from far and wide sit together and remember their respective deceased relations, contemplate on the cycle of life and death.
The teenager finally asked the most difficult question of the day, “Nanu what exactly do they do at the cremation ground?”
At the cremation ground, the body is first placed on a platform. The deceased person’s son performs the last rites or in his absence, any other responsible person the family nominates. The act of cremation prepares the heir apparent of the dead to take over the responsibilities of the departed in context of the family, business and society. One major act here is of taking an earthen pot full of water and circling around the body, offering it water and then smashing the pot near the head. This is a symbol that as the man lives his life, his age (time in world) keeps getting over and in the end remains the empty body which is useless. The pyre is then built up. The hay in the Arthi is used to start the fire at the pyre.
A few minutes after the pyre has been consigned to the flames, Kapal Kriya is performed. In this, one of the longer bamboos used in the Arthi is used to break the skull of the body. The person doing the cremation does this.
My daughters were shocked to hear this and they shrieked, “WHY?????”
My father continued, “The skull is said to hold the mind that encases the memories, the soul is supposedly still waiting to carry this account of his karma to Yama. Once it is released, the spirit finally leaves for its next journey. I feel the real reason is that the Skull bone is a very hard bone. Once it is broken, it’s easy for it to burn with the rest of the body. Since it is tough for family to carry out, the ritual I think ensures that the process is completed and not left to chance.
Besides this, having gone through the experience with both my parents, I can say that this one act breaks all the attachment to the deceased. Before doing it, you shiver – for this person was alive just a few hours back – but once you hit the skull, you know what burns in front of you, is after all just a body. All attachments are gone.
At the time of departure, everyone from the family keeps a leaf of Tulsi on his tongue (probably to disinfect) and leaves without looking back, praying for a happy life and prosperous life ahead in next birth.
One or two days after the funeral, the chief mourner returns to the cremation ground with few people to collect the mortal remains and put them in an urn. These remains are then immersed in a river. Those who can afford it may go to special sacred places like Varanasi, Haridwar, Allahabad, Sri Rangam, and Kanya Kumari to perform this rite of immersion of mortal remains.
“Nanu tell us how does the Haridwar journey help?”
The whole belief supported by the stories that this place released Shiva’s grief, was touched by Amrit and liberating Ganga helps the bereaved reconcile that they are leaving their loved one in a sacred and safe place, which will be good for him. All the rituals begin at day break and take a long time, act as a tiring cool down period. The fire of cremation and the fire of anguish both are cooled by the invigorating dip in the icy waters of the sacred Ganga.
The Panda then takes them to his ‘Gaddi’ the office and they are shown their family ‘Bahi’. They see numerous signatures and names of their forefathers who had come to perform last rites of their family members. It is often a very revealing moment when one realizes the continuous nature of life, the family tree, to reflect that they are a wrung in the family ladder and the generations before them have also gone though the same pain. How the Ganga has accepted their ashes from time immemorial and helped them cross over.
These are legal records and are signed by witnesses of both the purohit and the family. With past and present addresses, names of children and spouses.
What is the importance of Genealogy records at Haridwar?
Often people find it very disturbing to be approached by pandas claiming to know about their families, feel anxious that they will be fleeced. Though the cases are not unknown but these Bahis have served very important functions in the past that cannot be discounted.
They were precious tools of data collection about populations in times when there was no census. The death was a certainty and families were tapped at that time to reveal occupations, migration, marriages and births that had occurred since the last death. In Hindi, the word “Gotra” means family tree, representing a clan, group of families or a lineage back to a common ancestor. At weddings, the wedding couple’s Gotra are read aloud to establish that they are not from the same family, which is forbidden (for genetic reasons).
My daughters’ eyes had widened to size of saucers, “Really???”
My father said beaming, “…and this is not all, there have been cases when people converted to different religions (Islam and Christianity) or married in different countries have remembered the name of their last Hindu ancestor and have traveled to Haridwar and have been able to find their family trees.
At the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, microfilms of these records from Haridwar are available for viewing at a Family History Center. They have collected data of Hindus that traveled there and mixed with their gene pool.
“What there is a way to trace our family tree???”
Before we could finish both the girls were at the computer trying to find their family tree, leaving me to write this wonderful interaction between both generations.
(Continued in- why-is-river-ganga-so-scared-to-hindus-part-3)