2016-06-30
My beloved aunt died in Bombay last week. She had battled pancreatic cancer for years and finally succumbed. Unlike many traditional Indian women, Aunt Vijayam was loud and boisterous. She had no problems being assertive and aggressive. As a child, I would accompany her to the bazaars where she would bully the vendors into giving us a big discount in her inimitable style--half-joking, half-scolding. She had a passion for music and was a concert-level violinist. She used the same half-scolding, half-joking approach to wring the best out of her students. And there were many. Yet, for all her "out-there" personality, she was an extremely devoted wife, coaxing and cajoling her husband into taking his blood-pressure pills and eating nutritious food.

I enjoyed Aunt Vijayam. She was a Hindu woman, but she wasn't a doormat. She wore a sari and bindi but didn't conform to the stereotype of a demure Indian wife. She participated in rituals and went to temple, but took them all with a pinch of salt. She was religious but not too ritualistic.

Immediately after her death, our Hindu family kicked into gear and set in motion all the rituals and traditions surrounding death and dying. When my mother called to tell me that Aunt Vijayam was dead, for instance, she instructed me to take a bath immediately. I had heard this instruction since childhood: take a bath as soon as you hear that someone in the family has died. Only I didn't know why. This time I asked.

The custom originated in the Hindu joint family. Like many Hindu customs, its basis is to preserve the family's health and sanctity. In the olden days, when large numbers of people (the extended family) shared a home, all members were instructed to take a bath as soon as one family member died and give away the clothes they were wearing to beggars. The reason, I was told, was because most deaths happened as a result of illness and by washing yourself clean and giving away your clothes, you were in effect removing the germs associated with the dead person's illness. Nowadays, most Indians don't live in joint families anymore and are only connected by phone or internet. Still, some of us undertake this symbolic bath anyhow as part of the grieving process.

The Hindu religion, like most others, has certain prescriptions that help the bereaved grieve for the dead. When there is a death in the family, all daily religious rituals are suspended. There is no daily puja; no offering of prasad (food) to the Gods; no anointing the deity with flowers; nothing. The entire family congregates and engages in only those activities that have to do with sending the dead soul on its way to heaven. Priests are invited, bricks are laid to create a 'havan' or sacred fire and mantras are chanted that help give peace to the dead soul. When my grandmother died, I remember how the whole house reverberated with the sound of ten priests loudly chanting, 'Shanti,' or 'peace' many times a day. I also remember that even though we didn't understand the Sanskrit mantras, somehow listening to them made us feel better.

Ancient seers, we are told, prescribed these specific mantras and rituals to help the grieving family heal. It is for the same reason that they recommended a suspension of normal prayer. When the mind is clouded with grief, it is hard to approach God. Yet, paradoxically it is only prayer that helps overcome such grief and helps the living kinsfolk carry on. So we pray for the dead soul. We light an oil lamp beside the dead body and leave it on overnight. We invite groups of women who chant the thevaram and other religious texts. We follow a prescribed diet.

I've often wondered if such rituals are meaningful or even necessary. After a Hindu death, the whole family gets caught up in a variety of elaborate detailed tasks that involve buying rice, making rice balls, drying grass, creating a 'havan' with bricks and fire, making ghee. All of these focus the mind on the death and yet distract from it somehow. Grief becomes the subtext, as the whole family gets into "being a good Hindu" mode. All this activity, I am convinced, helps the individual and the family cope with a loss. By immersing yourself in action, you are pushing thought into the subconscious and allowing yourself to heal.

Most Hindu families engage in these death rituals for about 12 days. The first 3 days following death are the most intense with specific rituals intended to elevate the recently dead to the status of a beloved ancestor. Rice balls specked with black sesame seeds are offered on a banana leaf. Although Indian food is heavily spiced, the food following death is less so: pepper and salt are pretty much the only spices used. Similarly, only indigenous vegetables such as plantain, yam and long beans are used for cooking. This shraddha diet is an acquired taste, I have to say.

Ayurveda, a branch of Hindu philosophy, divides all food into the categories satvic, rajasic, and tamasic, according to the food's quality. Rajasic food, such as onions and garlic, are aggravating; they stir the body into action and are to be eaten by warriors--or, action-oriented people. Tamasic food, such as rich oily pilafs and thick sauces, are enervating and promoted inertia. They make you sleepy. Satvic food, such as rice and vegetables, is light and balancing. Brahmin scholars eat them to keep the mind alert and limber.

Most Hindu rituals--including the ones surrounding death--prescribe satvic food. As children, we hated the simply spiced recipes made with mostly bitter and root vegetables. It is only as an adult that I appreciate its satvic qualities.

One change that has come about in recent years is the number of women who participate in funeral rites. In the past, women weren't allowed into the cremation-ground and had little to do with the actual rites themselves. It is only recently, with the rise in electric crematoriums, that women have actually been able to press the button to cremate a parent--pushing the button itself being a new rite brought about by the introduction of electric crematoriums.

When a different aunt of mine died, her two daughters hired a priest to perform all the death rituals for their mother, but there was no male heir to participate in the rite. So my female cousins did it themselves. And powerfully so. After a moment of silence, they together pressed the button in the Long Island crematorium. Most Indian cremations happen after the body is taken in a cortege of cars to the cremation ground. In Long Island, our family hired a limo. The two daughters fed the water of the holy river Ganges to their mother before she died, for Hindus believe that a dip in the Ganges can wash away all sins. Indeed, many old Hindus migrate to Benares, a holy city on the banks of the Ganges, simply to await death. Those that don't live by a river can chant the Lord's name at the time of death (as Mahatma Gandhi did when he said "Ram Ram" during his assassination). This too is believed to take you straight to heaven.

Aunt Vijayam died on a day when Bombay was deluged by rains. Her younger son was to fly out for Los Angeles the previous night, but all the flights were cancelled. Did the heavens conspire to keep a son in Bombay with the mother at the time of death? Hindus would believe so. Similarly dying on Ekadasi day (the 11th day after a full or new moon) was a wish granted only to fortunate souls. The concept of anayasa maranam or painless death is yet another favorite prayer of Hindus. Dying in the sleep, dying while indulging in a favorite activity, dying without pain or protracted illness would all constitute this type of death. Once cremated, the ashes are usually scattered in a river, preferably the Ganges. Indira Gandhi, India's one-time Prime Minister, wanted her ashes to be scattered over the Himalayas. Some families throw the ashes into the sea, as would be the case in Bombay where my aunt died.

My aunt died early in the morning, in her own house with her family near her. It was just the way she would have wanted. Now, all that we have are memories and grief.

May her soul rest in peace!



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