Hindu Rituals for Death and Grief
Ceremonies help Hindus confront their grief, interact with it, accept it, and go on.
BY: Lavina Melwani
ritual, in which food and prayers for the departed soul are offered, goes back to Vedic times. These feasts symbolically provide sustenance for the ancestors (rituals with similar philosophies are also found in China and Japan). In Hinduism, they are conducted every month for a year after the death, based ontithi
(the phase of the moon), and then once annually by the same person who performed the last rites. In recent years, people have substituted other activities in lieu of the Shraddha, such as feeding the poor or giving donations to orphanages. Feeding people in memory of the dead is considered particularly meritorious.
"The protocol that surrounds the Hindu funeral in America has changed, the style and texture of the event is far more Americanized than any other rite of passage," observes Narayanan. Indeed, the body is not kept at home as in India but must be taken immediately to a funeral home, and the funeral services reflect Judeo-Christian ones, with mourners watching the rituals take place, while in India these are done in private.
What happens when you don't have a body or just body parts, as in the World Trade Center or Columbia tragedies? Says Narayanan, "Whatever part you have you do the cremation with that--it's comparable to when you find a limb during a war or a person is lost in a fire."
Asked if there is anything in the theory of reincarnation or Hindu philosophy that can give solace to the grieving, she says, "What gives solace is the notion of immortality of the soul. The soul never dies and we have discarded this body because the soul is here and always will be. When you read the verses in the Bhagavad Gita in your time of grief, they speak to you. When you read them in a class or at other times, they are very beautiful. But when you read them in a time of pain, they are almost like a revelation, and it's like a soothing hand on you."
Some Indian-Americans journey all the way back to India to immerse the ashes in the Ganges or visit many pilgrimage sites to seek blessings for the departed soul and solace for their own pain. As Narayanan explains, "Rituals give us a way of cathartically dealing with our grief. Every one of the rituals within the Hindu ceremonies is a reality check to help us confront our grief, interact with it, accept it and keep going on--both in life and spiritually."