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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Why do Hindus burn their dead?

Funeral rites of the Hindus 
The last sacrament in the life of a person is Funeral with which he closes the concluding chapter of worldly career. The way one grieves, commemorates, and disposes the dead varies greatly from culture to culture…Hindus burn (Except some groups in Hindu who bury the dead ones),Christians Muslims bury and Buddhists some people bury and some people burn. However, the only common belief at this point is that the survivors need to consecrate the death for the deceased’s future felicity in the next world. Hinduism is unique among the world’s major religions in mandating cremation as one of the 16 life rituals. Let’s explore, why…...?
The significance of Antim-Sanskara
This Samskara, being post-mortem, is not less important, because for a Hindu the value of the next world is higher than that of the present one. The Baudhayana Pitrmedha-Sutras say, ‘It is well-known that through the Samskaras after the birth one conquers this earth; through the Samskaras after the death the heaven". Therefore the ritualists are very anxious to have the funerals performed with meticulous care.
A mention in Mahabharata 
‘What is the greatest wonder?’ Lord Yamraj asks in the Mahabharata. Yudhisthir replies, ‘Day after day countless people die. Yet the living wish to live forever.’ Death has been an enigma from time immemorial. The human mind refuses to accept its utter finality. All civilizations and religions believe that somehow, the ‘individual’ keeps living, goes somewhere else, or will eventually ‘rise’ and reach heaven or hell. Hindus believe both in ‘life’ after death and in reincarnation.
Hinduism and Cremation
Hindus believe in the soul being indestructible; and that death symbolises end of the existence of a person's physical being, but the start of a new journey for the soul. This soul then reincarnates in some other life form, and passes through the same cycle of taking birth, growing and eventually meeting death- only to begin the cycle afresh. Cremation of a person's dead body is therefore, supposed to rid the departed soul of any attachments to the body it previously resided in.
Surrendering to the Holy fire
Fire is considered holy in Hinduism. It burns away everything until nothing remains. On the other hand, burying is a very slow process of dissolving the five elements inside the body back into the five elements of the cosmos. By cremating the body, the physical remnants of the ghost are entirely wiped out from the face of earth, so that the ghost may continue with its journey forward after the 11 days.
Agni, consume not this body to cinders neither give it pain nor scatter about its skin or limbs. When the body is fairly burnt, convey the spirit to the ancestors. May the five elements be merged with their basic forms. – Vedic hymn to Agni. Since Agni, the god of fire is seen as a link between the gross and subtle, matter and spirit, the seen and unseen, the known and unknown and a messenger between men and gods, dead bodies were disposed by cremation.
Thus, the dead body is an offering to Agni with an earnest prayer to purify and lead the individual to a better and brighter life. Another reason for preferring cremation is to produce a feeling of detachment in the freshly disembodied subtle body and to encourage it to pass on, rather than hover around loved ones. Moreover, Hindus, out of respect for the dead, did not want to leave the bodies around to be consumed by vultures and other animals.
Releasing the spirit 
Hindus cremate their dead, believing that the burning of a dead body signifies the release of the spirit and that the flames represent Brahma, the creator. In addition, burial sites utilize large areas of arable land. Earlier, digging a grave was laborious and required special implements compared to cremation which was easier, quicker and cheaper because everyone who came would bring along some wood for the fire.
Exceptions to cremation 
The exceptions to cremation are saints, holy men, pregnant women and children. Since saints are supposed to have attained a high degree of detachment from the body, they do not need to be cremated – they are buried in the lotus position. For children too, the attachment to the body is much less. Also, according to custom, an offspring is required to light the funeral pyre, and both categories would normally not have any.

Children are not grown so their funeral must differ from that of the adult. Their tender body should be spared the fierce flames; their innocent life neither inflicts so much impurity nor does it require so much purification. The next special rite is that of a Garbhini or a pregnant woman who dies in her pregnancy. Baudhayana says that she should be carried to the cremation ground but after saving the child. In case, the child could not be saved, she should be floated or buried.
Burial versus Cremation
In ancient Egypt, the physical body was preserved through an elaborate process of mummification, as it was believed that, without a home, the soul wandered around to be lost forever. Similarly, Chinese emperors were buried with replicas of objects called grave goods. Again the belief was that on death, the person enters an ‘after life.’ All the daily comforts of their past life such as servants, attendants, objects, pets, wives, guardians, concubines, food and drink were buried along with the emperor.
Among the ancient Greeks and Romans, both cremation and burial were practiced. Christianity and Judaism discourage cremation and Islam prohibits it. Lately, more Christians are becoming open to the idea of cremation, but the Eastern Orthodox churches still forbid it. Many Liberal and Reform Jews support cremation as an option. The Roman Catholic Church’s discouragement of cremation stems from the idea that the body is holy and should be treated with honour and respect. Moreover cremation constituted a denial of the resurrection of the body.
Burial as opposed to cremation, apparently, seems to be a ‘neater’ and ‘nicer’ way of disposal. However, since the whole dreadful process of gradual decomposition and decay of the body is not seen, cremation is, in actual fact, a ‘kinder’ method. Moreover, it is definitely preferable for environmental reasons. Since a traditional burial consumes nearly one tree, Hindus are enjoined to plant three trees, on special occasions, during their life span.
Islamic belief
According to Islamic belief, Allah will resurrect all dead from the graves on judgment day and send them to heaven. If they cremate the body then there will be no body to resurrect. They consider body belongs to god and burning it is disrespectful. Geographical conditions may also be responsible for this difference in opinion as Islam is originated in region (desert) where cremating cannot be followed because of lack wood (main requirement of creating fire)!
The logic behind the ritual
A Human Being does not always die from old-age, he may die due to diseases. If he is burnt, the micro-organisms in his body will die (no pathogen survives at the temperature of fire). Thus, burning of a body after a person is dead ensures that you are not committing murder, and also you are preventing it from being a source of spread of any disease.
Being a part of the Five Tatvas
Also, a traditional belief among Hindus says that a person's body is composed of 5 elements- earth, fire, water, air and sky. The cremation ceremonies of Hindus are directed towards returning the body to these elements. The body is progressively returned to earth, air, sky and fire by burning it under skies; and the ashes are respectfully collected and poured in a river. 
The concept of restrictive mourning
It is said that excessive mourning over a deceased prevents the soul from being completely detached from its loved ones, and keeps it from undertaking its new journey- that of taking up a new life. Cremation (and subsequent ceremonies in mourning) help to remove most of those things that can act as a reminder for the person's existence, and thereby also assist the family in getting over the loss.
To be cremated near Ganga
It is the ultimate wish of a Hindu to die and be cremated along a riverbank; the holier the river the better for the departed soul. Many Hindu holy shrines are built along famous riverbanks. Banaras, situated along the holy river Ganges, is the holiest of them all, considered so holy that every Hindu wishes to die there. Indeed, this desire is so irrepressible that some pious Hindus make provisions to move to Banaras at an old age for the sole purpose of uniting with God.

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