Hindu Rituals for Death and Grief

Ceremonies help Hindus confront their grief, interact with it, accept it, and go on.

Continued from page 1

In the place where the person died, a lamp is lit to light the way for the departed soul and water is kept there for its nourishment. The next day the ashes are collected and immersed in a river--particularly where two rivers meet; in the ocean; or scattered over the earth in India. "This whole time is one of ritual pollution. There are a certain number of days, depending on the community, after which the family is re-integrated into the society," says Narayanan. "That can happen after 13 days or 40 days--the specific number of days corresponds with caste and community."

While prayers for the dead are common in all faiths, including Hinduism, the introduction of

bhajans

(religious hymns) set to music at a gathering of mourners are a later innovation for Hindus in both India and the diaspora. "Frequently both here and in India you have the recitation of the thousand names of Vishnu," says Narayanan. "This is particularly common for people from South India. These invocations bring the peace that everyone is searching for in the days after death--peace for the mind and the soul."

The

Shraddha

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 on

tithi

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(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."

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