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Hindu Funeral Rites Rituals Explained


Have you ever had the misfortune of losing a loved one? I have had this tribulation; losing both parents at a young age. I though readers could benefit from my experience and the excerpts from Pundit Munelal Maharaj’s book “Death and The Soul’s Journey”. This book in my readings; does well to have Hindu Funeral Rites Rituals Explained.Thus taking the guesswork on how to perform these rituals ensuring proper passage to and through the afterlife.

Who performs the final rites

The final rites are the last of the sixteen major samskaara which the Hindu traditionally performs during his lifetime. A samskaara may also be described as a rite of passage. The eldest son of the deceased person is the one who takes the responsibility of being the main performer of the final rites. However, there are many situations in which this may not be possible. For example, the deceased may not have any sons or may not have any sons who are willing or available to perform the final rites of his parent. Where a son is not available then grandsons, brothers of the deceased or their sons, or other nephews (sister’s sons are permitted in the event a brother son is not available).

Why are women not allowed to perform the final rites?

Funeral rites should be performed by one who maintains the family name and continues the lineage. This is perhaps the main reason why traditionally, it is the sons and not the daughters who have performed these rites. Also, in ancient times, a daughter was not considered as “belonging” to her parents. As long as a girl was given in marriage by her parents she was considered to be “given away”.

The funeral rites last for approximately two weeks, and the person performing these rites must be physically clean at all times. Women, however, are subjected to their menstrual cycle and may not be fit to perform the rites during these two weeks. Also, shaving of the hair is a compulsory sign of mourning, and is prescribed for men rather than women whose hair was and still is their crowning glory. Lastly the people who perform these rites were required to be strong enough to carry the coffin over long distances and so men were again chosen.

Funeral ceremony at the home

At the funeral ceremony at the home it is recommended that the yajmaan which are those performing the rites should bathe and put on clean white clothes, preferably kurta and dhoti. When the body arrives at the home, it is usually first taken inside the house. Here the immediate family can morn privately and express grief at the passing of a loved one. Here also the first of five pindas is placed in the coffin. If the deceased were a married man, then the widow is made to use her late husband’s finger to remove the sindoor from her hair path, using ashes and a little water, wiping it off in a downward direction.

A circular area where the coffin is to be placed is smeared with gobar (cow dung) and is also scattered with kush grass and sprinkled with black til. If the body was first taken indoors, at an appropriate time it is brought outside and placed over the prepared spot with the head towards the north and the feet facing south. A lotaa with a lighted deeyaa should be placed on a small table at the northern end of the coffin. The yajmaan stand next to the coffin, usually facing east or (preferably south).

The ceremony begins with the pandit performing the purification rites. The pandit sprinkles water sanctified with tulsee leaves over the yajmaan, the items to be used in the rituals and himself. The yajmaan then performs sipping of water and washing of hands. The pandit then places the ring on the yajmaan finger. One ring made out of two strands of kush grass, is placed on the ring finger of the right hand and another made out of three strands of kush grass is placed on the index finger of the same hand, the latter because the index finger should be used for the rituals of the deceased. The yajmaan then makes a resolution to the Lord, declaring, their desire to perform the final rites for the deceased.

The main yajmaan then sprinkles water on the body as a symbolic bath, places chandan downwards on the forehead of the corpse and sprinkles a little perfume on the body. Next, each of the five yajmaan, after breaking the thread of a flower maalaa, places it around the neck of the body.

Placing malaas around the body


Artee is then performed over the body as the yajmaan circumambulate the coffin five times. Suitable bhajans may be sung at this time. If the body has been taken inside previously and the first pinda was offered at that time, then all the purification rites up to and including the resolution to the Lord would have been done at that time.

Offering of Pindas

Five pindas or rice balls are offered on the day of cremation and a sixth is offered at the time of the collection of the bones. The pindas are made out of ground rice, ghee, milk, black til and honey. After each pinda is given, water and til is offered on the pinda from the area between the index and the thumb of the right hand. It is said that the five people performing the final rites for the decease represent the five pindas water, fire, earth, air and space. They also represent the five stops to be taken.

The first is placed inside the coffin at the home of the deceased. The second is offered into the right hand of the corpse at the gateway. The first pinda which was placed in the right hand is now transferred to the left hand where it is covered with a piece of clothing or it is tied and secured in the body’s garments. Here, the body is described as paantha and this offering is to ensure that the journey to the cremation site is not obstructed.
The third pinda is offered at a four road intersection. This pinda replaces the second pinda which was previously placed in the right hand. The latter is broken into four pieces, with one piece been thrown in each of the four directions for the birds.

This is to ensure that no elemental beings desecrate the corpse. The fourth pinda is offered at an intervening point where the body is placed down to rest. When the coffin is placed along the funeral pyre the fifth pinda is offered. This remains with the body as it is placed on the pyre. It is for the soul in its new dimension. A six pinda is offered the day after the cremation when the bones are collected.

What to do at the cremation site

On reaching the cremation site the hearse usually stop some distance from the actual pyre. Here the coffin is removed and the yajmaan carries the coffin by hand to facilitate three or four intervening stops to perform manzil. The coffin is borne towards the pure feet first. The tradition is that the manzil is performed five times as one symbolically bid farewell to each of the five elements of which the body is compromised earth, fire, water, air and space.

The manzil is done by first sprinkling water over the body and offering artee using a lighted camphor on a mango leaf. The lighted camphor and mango leaf are placed on the ground preferably at the head of the body and water is sprinkled around the lighted camphor while reciting a mantra. Before placing the body on the pyre flowers and wreaths are removed from the coffin since it is held that flowers are more connected with the elements of earth, water and air than the element of fire. Flowers are said to represent the beauty of God’s creation and thus should not be burnt.

Performing the final rites

Preparing the body to burn

Ghee, sugar, googol and rice are spread over the body, together with generous amounts of camphor, pitch pine wood and dried tulsee branches. A piece of sandal wood and camphor are placed on the lips. Sometimes, five pieces of gold are placed one on each eye, in both nostrils and on the mouth.

Cremation rites

Having prepared the body for cremation, it is then placed on the pyre with the head to the north and the feet pointing southwards. A spot on the northern side of the pyre is prepared for havan by pasting it with gobar or cow dung and sprinkling black til over it. The main yajmaan or eldest son uses a piece of kush grass to draw seven lines on that spot and water is sprinkled while the pandit recites the following mantras. Pieces of wood are then arranged for havan and a piece of camphor placed in the middle is lit. The fire God who is invoked to receive the offering is the flesh consuming fire, because it is into this fire that the body is now consecrated.

The offering into the fire is performed using a mixture of rice, sugar, googol, black til and ghee. Thirty four offerings into the fire are made while a special verse is chanted.Each of the five yajmaan takes one of the torches. This torch is dipped in ghee and lit from the havan fire. The yajmaan then circumambulate the pyre in a clockwise direction while mantras are recited. On completion of the fifth circumambulation of the pyre the eldest son sets the pyre alight by using his torch to first ignite the camphor placed on the corpse’s mouth. Thereafter, the others assist in lighting the blocks of camphor scattered in the coffin.

Circulating the pyre five times

The eldest son setting the pyre alight

When the pyre is well ablaze, the yajmaan and other relatives, moving away from the fire, face south and chant mantras or bhajans in praise of Lord Vishnu. When the burning is almost completed, the yajmaan, under the direction of the pandit and while facing south, offer water and black til on some strands of kush grass knotted at the top.

At the end of setting the pyre ablaze

The yajmaan then remove their rings and untie them while the knot of the kush grass is also undone. These can be offered into the nearby sea. The yajmaan together with their close relatives and friends remain at the cremation site until it appears that burning is reasonably completed and then return home. The family members who had remained back at the home should have already cleaned out the house by mopping the floors with a mixture of lime-water and lavender or rose-water before the yajmaan return from the cremation site.

Returning home from the cremation site

On returning, the yajmaan should wash their hands and touch several items which as follows: Fire, Water, Iron (blade of knife or cutlass), Wood (burning stick), Hardi (haldee), Doob grass. According to tradition, they are given some sugar water or lime juice to drink. They should then bathe and change into clean clothing, A deeya should be kept lighting in the home. The first evening is reserved for the bereaved family to reminisce, to console each other and meet with those bringing condolences.

Rites performed on the 2nd day after cremation

A lotaa of water is brought back from a source near the cremation site and this is used in the suspended lotaa on the following day. On the morning of the day following disposal of the body, the eldest son should awake early, perform morning abluations and take a bath. He should then plan some kush grass outside the home, in a clean spot which is smeared with gobar. The kush grass is also knotted at the top and the yajmaan, while facing south, then offers one handful of black til over the knotted kush grass through the area between the thumb and index finger.

Returning to the cremation site

The yajmaan and other family members then journey to the cremation site for collection of the bones and disposal of the ashes. On arrival they should do the following. Perform circumambulation around the ashes three times, sprinkling tulseejal and milk on the ashes to cool them. Collecting at least five pieces of bones. However, if there are none remaining, and then collect five pieces of coal. Wash the bone in milk and then place them in a lotaa or other suitable container. Collect the ashes and throw them into the nearby sea or nearest body of water.

Wash out the place where the body was created and a pinda should be offered on a leaf nearby, reciting a mantra. Taking the container with the bones by the sea side or riverside, the eldest son performs aachmana and puts on a painti. Water and milk are then sprinkled on the bones while chandan, hardi and flowers are also offered. Touching the container to his head and heart and offering a prayer to Mother Gangaa, the eldest son then immerses the container in the sea or river. Thereafter, all pray to Lord Vishnu with due reverence for the blessing and safe journey of the soul.

Second evening after cremation

During the second evening after cremation the following rituals are to be performed before sunset. A deeya and incense should be lit near the knotted kush grass which was planted on the post disposal morning. Mixed rice and urdi without salt should be placed on a plate made by joining together several or jack fruit leaves and offered near the kush grass while facing south. A cup of water and a container of milk should also be offered. A prayer to Lord Vishnu should also be chanted for the welfare of the soul of the departed. Later that evening there should be scriptural readings and offering of prayers for the blessings of the departed soul.

Shaving ceremony

The shaving ceremony is performed on the 9th day after the disposal of the body and usually takes place by a river. On arriving at the river, the hair, moustache and beard of the eldest son and other yajmaan should be shaven and their fingers and toe nails should be trimmed. Afterwards, the yajmaan may take a bath in the river or some of the river water could be sprinkled on them. The lotaa which was kept over the kush grass at home should be filled with river water and hung from a nearby tree. A lighted deeya is placed on the lotaa. Prior to the commencement of the shaving ceremony milk, water and black til is to be offered ten times on a knotted kush grass planted by the mahaapatra at the river’s edge.

Offering of pindas and gifts to the mahaapatra

The pindas, which are offered during the ten days following the funeral ceremony and which constitute the central ritual of the shaving ceremony are dedicated to the formation and the development of the subtle body.
At the end of the shaving ceremony, various gifts are given to the presiding mahaapatra. The items gifted are intended to serve the deceased during his journey to Yamaloka. Eight main types of gifts are identified which are an umbrella, shoes, clothing, piece of gold, water vessel, bed, vessel of black til and food.

Returning home from the shaving

On returning from the river and before entering the home, the participants must wash their hands and mouth, sip sugar water and touch the ash from burning incense, as well as some saffron placed on a cutlass blade. Traditionally, boiled channa without salt, and some sugar water and black pepper should be prepared and fed to the yajmaan on returning home. Water brought from the river is sprinkled throughout the house in a symbolic act of cleansing or purification. In the home, the women purify themselves for the shaving by trimming their nails and taking a bath before preparation of food. Some of the food which is prepared is taken to the river for the mahaapatra and the remainder is shared by the family especially those belonging to the same lineage and close friends. It is not considered appropriate for this food to be sent out to relatives and it must be consumed at the place of the shaving.

The bhandaaraa ceremony

The bhandaaraa ceremony is performed on the 13th day following the disposal of the body. The word bhandaaraa means the preparation of food. One of the reasons for its importance in this ceremony is that food is a vital prerequisite for the survival of man as well as any living entity on earth. Food also plays the critical role in the formation of the subtle body after death through the pindas which are made from rice. The ritual of feeding the holy men and others is said to be done in the name of the deceased so that when that soul returns on earth, it will take birth in a home with abundant food and it would not have to suffer from hunger. It is said that a live creature should be given to the pandit or any animal the person can afford, because the creature escorts the soul to its next form.The bhandaaraa ceremony comprises the following aspects Deva Poojaa, Bikara Pinda, First eleven pindas, offering of five pindas, offering of four pindas, Havan, Geetaa Paath and Bali Daan. The one year bhandaaraa ceremony takes place on or before the lunar anniversary of the cremation of the body. Usually one lunar year is about eleven months of a solar year. The ritual are essentially the same as those performed on the 13th day after cremation of the body, except that sixteen pindas are identified by the particular fortnight or month for which they are offered.

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