Significance of Death in Hinduism
In both Hinduism and Buddhism, death has a great significance. We can trace its origin and roots to the Vedas themselves. In them, you find solutions to the problem of death. Death is another name of God. It is one of his first manifestations. According to the Vedas, Death appeared before life manifested upon earth.
Hence, the world in which we live is a mortal world. The Supreme Brahman, who was originally a non-being, manifested as a Supreme Being in the world. Also known as Isvara, He is the lord of the universe. From him emerged Death. He subjected it to hunger (or desire). Because of hunger, Death sought food. Since there was not enough food in the early stages of creation, the Lord of the universe performed a great sacrifice and offered parts of himself as an offering to produce a rich diversity of animate and inanimate objects which characterize creation. They became the food for Death.
Thus, Death is the all devouring lord of the mortal world. Since the world is created for his enjoyment only, he devours everything. Since death is encoded in creation as both cause and effect which become active in their due time, the lord of Death is also known as the lord of Time (Kala). Time subjects all living beings to the cycle of births and deaths (samsara) and facilitates the renewal and rebirth of life forms upon earth. In the material world Death manifests as decay and destruction, while in the subtle worlds it becomes desire, hunger, and thirst.
The hidden purpose of ritual and spiritual practices in Hinduism
The Vedas recognize Death as the major source of suffering for the living beings. They depict the predicament and helplessness of humans against natural calamities, aging, sickness, and the impermanence they cause. Death is the inescapable part of human life as long as human beings are caught in the cycle of births and deaths. Because Death is hidden in all and devours all, everything in the world is in a constant flux and progresses from one state of impermanence to another. In the Vedas you will find the following three effective solutions to deal with the problem of death.
1. Rituals: According to the Vedas, rituals are the means by which you can prolong the lifespan of beings, prevent hunger and sickness, and safeguard yourself against death caused by natural and manmade disasters such as wars. For this purpose they prescribe daily sacrifices, sacraments, and sacrificial ceremonies. Human beings have to perform the various rituals prescribed in the Vedas to appease gods through offerings and seek their support and protection from the forces of death and destruction. Gods are obliged to help humans because their only source of nourishment is the food the humans offer to them through sacrifices. The performance of Vedic rituals also helps people to practice and fulfill the first aim of human life (purushartha), namely Dharma, and thereby ensure the order and regularity of the three regions namely, the earth, the mid-region and the heaven.
2. Good deeds: The Vedas proclaim that karma is the cause of rebirth and human suffering. None can escape from the consequences of desire-ridden actions. Virtuous deeds result in good karma, and secure the help of gods. The best way to earn it is by performing obligatory duties. Those who sincerely perform their duties earn the merit (punya) to enter the ancestral world, where they can stay for a long time until their karma is fully exhausted. Good karma does not completely address the problem of death. At the most, it is a temporary measure which helps the souls to avoid the mortal world for a long time by staying in the ancestral world and thereby death. Besides by performing meritorious actions, once can secure a better life in the next birth. By performing obligatory duties, a householder achieves the second and third aims of human life, namely wealth (Artha) and pleasure (Kama) and prepare himself for his liberation.
3. Liberation: Neither the first nor the second approach helps the humans escape from the cycle of births and deaths. They provide a temporary relief, and delay the inevitable. However, they do not offer a permanent escape from mortality, which can be attained only by means of liberation (moksha), the fourth aim of human life. Liberation means eternal freedom from existential suffering caused by the cycle of births and deaths. It is achieved when a seeker renounces worldly life, studies the Vedas by himself, acquires the knowledge of Self, cultivates detachment by overcoming desires, engages in actions with sameness and stability, and offers their fruit to God as a sacrifice. Through such means when a person becomes pure, he attains liberation and enters the world of Brahman as a free soul (mukta), where he lives eternally without ever suffering from death or hunger.
Thus, the Vedas and the knowledge of the Vedas are primarily meant to address the problem of human birth and death, and to escape from them either temporarily by securing a place in the ancestral heaven or permanently by attaining liberation. The lower knowledge of rituals (avidya) helps humans to temporarily escape from death and suffering, while the higher knowledge of the Self (vidya) helps them achieve a permanent escape. Death and destruction are woven in the fabric of creation. They are also inherent in human life. The universal presence of Death in creation and human life is symbolized in Hinduism in various ways. Every deity in the Hindu pantheon symbolizes the duality of life and death, and of creation and destruction, in their pleasant, unpleasant and fierce aspects. They carry weapons to symbolize the power of destruction, and do not spare the demons and evil beings if they cross the line. The life of an individual is a sacrifice in which he has to offer himself and his possessions and actions as the sacrificial material. Death is also considered a sacrifice in which he has to eventually offer his own mind and body as the sacrifice. Sacrifice is the means by which one can temporarily or permanently escape from death.
The importance of death in spiritual life
In Hinduism as well as in Buddhism contemplation upon death is an important spiritual practice to overcome desires and attachment and cultivate detachment and dispassion. Contemplation upon death helps you overcome your fear of death, and your longing for life. It also changes your attitude and approach to worldly life and relationships. The life of the Buddha who turned to asceticism after he watched a corpse is a great example in this regard. Both moderate and extreme methods of contemplation upon death are practiced in Hinduism. In moderate methods, the practitioners are advised to visualize or contemplate upon various images that are associated with death and decay. In extreme methods, they are advised to visit grave yards and contemplate upon burning corpses or bodies in various states of decay and destruction. Another well-known technique is to visualize oneself as dead and watch oneself being cremated in the presence of friends and family members. The purpose of such practices is to understand the impermanence of life, and overcome fear of death, which is a must to cultivate detachment and achieve success on the path of liberation.
References to death in Hindu scriptures
Death is frequently mentioned in many major Upanishads, and in almost in all the hymns, which describe the beginnings of creation. The Samhitas contain several hymns which are used in rituals to seek protection from death and destruction. Some of them are also meant to cast death spells and cause destruction of enemies. Vedic people invoked Rudra through hymns to avoid untimely death of their kin and cattle, and to become healed from injury and sickness. They convey the fear and anxiety experienced by them watching the death and injury caused by sickness, wars, enmity, natural calamities, famines, and snakebites. Most hymns seek the favor of gods to obtain name and fame, progeny, longer life span, peace and prosperity. They describe that the mind and body are subject to death and destruction, while the soul is eternal and indestructible. In the body all the organs of action and organs of perception are subject to death, hunger and decay, while breath is immortal and indestructible.
The Upanishads describe three main paths by which souls travel after their departure from here. One is the southward path (dakshinayana) that leads to the ancestral world located in the moon, and the other is the northward path (uttarayana) that leads to the immortal world of Brahman located in the resplendent sun. Those who perform grave sins go by the downward path (adhogati) to the underworld of Yama to pay for their sins. When they are cleansed of their bad karmas, they return to the earth to be reborn in lower life forms as worms and insects.
In the Brihadaranyaka and Chandogya Upanishad we find hymns which describe in great detail how a person gradually loses consciousness at the time of death and how the soul leaves the body through an aperture in the head. They also describe how a father never dies because he lives through his son, and how through rituals a father can transmit his name, fame, power of speech, energy, and knowledge to his eldest before dying. The same father is again has a chance to be reborn in the same family to his son or grandson and continue the lineage. Thus, although death is a problem, a duty bound householder can circumvent it by ensuring that fathers and sons are born and reborn in the same family to protect their lineage, inheritance, and family name.
As in Zoroastrianism, in Hinduism also death is considered an impurity. Hence, by all means one is advised to avoid any direct or indirect contact with a dead body and cremate it as early as possible. Those who come into contact with a dead body are defiled by it. Therefore, people who participate in a cremation ceremony or visit cremation grounds to observe a cremation ceremony have to perform purification rituals to avoid its negative effects. Since the defilement caused by death and cremation can last up to a year, which is the time the souls may take to reach the next world, blood relations of the deceased have to abstain from auspicious events like marriage or other sacraments for longer period. The restrictions are even more when a person dies due to self-inflicted injuries or suicide.
Hindu legends associated with death
Death also figures prominently in many stories and legends found in Hindu religious texts. Some of them are listed below
1. The story of Nachiketa: The dialogue between Yama and Nachiketa is mentioned in the Katha Upanishad. Upon his sacrifice by his father, young Nachiketa travels to the world of Death and learns from him the sacred knowledge of sacrifice that would lead to immortality.
2. The story of Savitri and Satyavan: Savitri was a beautiful princess and a devout wife of Satyavan, who was destined to die due to a curse. When Yama came to claim his soul in a forest, Savitri engaged him in a long conversation and ultimately secured freedom for her husband from the bonds of death.
3. The story of Nala and Damayanti: Damayanti was a princess of Vidarbha and Nala was her husband, who was destined to carry in him the poison of death and suffer from loss of his wife and kingdom because of the wrath of goddess Kali. In the end, after many twists and turns of fate, Nala managed to exorcise himself from poisonous influence of Kali and regained his kingdom and his wife.
4. The story of Markandeya: Markandeya was born to an ascetic couple with a blessing of Shiva. However, he was destined to die at the age of sixteen as Shiva granted him only a short lifespan. In the end, due to a twist of fate when Yama came to claim his soul, Shiva himself turned into his protector and became the destroyer of death (Kalantaka Shiva).
5. The story of Daddhichi: Dadhichi was a master of Vedas who specialized in the knowledge of sweet nectar (madhu vidya) that would grant immortality to mortals. Since Indra was opposed to anyone superseding him to reach the world of Brahman, he threatened to cut off his head if he ever taught the knowledge to anyone. The Ashwins devised a clever plan to acquire the knowledge and save Dadhichi at the same time. They first replaced his head with that of a horse and learned the knowledge from him. When Indra cut off his head, they replaced it with his original head and brought him back to life.
6. The story of the origin of Ganga: A great sage name Bhagiratha performed severe penances to rescue his ancestors who were caught in the nether region. Through the power of his austerities and with the blessings of Shiva, he managed to bring the sacred river Ganga from heaven to the earth and obtained immortality for his ancestors. According to Hindu tradition, the river Ganga is so sacred that anyone who takes a dip in its waters is cleansed of his or her past sins and escapes from the cycle of births and deaths forever.
7. The story of the churning of oceans: It is said that in the beginning of creation, gods and demons churned the oceans to obtain the nectar of life (amritam) and become immortal. As they were churning intensely using a giant snake for a rope and a mountain for the churn, Death manifested as a great poison (halahalam) and threatened the whole creation. Lord Shiva came to the rescue by consuming the poison and holding it in his throat. Finally, when the elixir emerged from the oceans, the gods managed to secure it wholly for themselves and prevented the demons from becoming immortal. Hence, the rivalry between gods and demons continues until now.
Death, longevity, and immortality in Yoga
The ultimate purpose of yoga is to prolong the life of a yogi upon earth by ensuring his or her wellbeing and to obtain immortality upon death. Yoga ensures freedom from afflictions and modifications of the mind, better health, and peace through detachment, and dispassion. Its regular practice involving the restraint of the mind and the senses, breathing techniques and postures results in the purification of the mind and body and improved health. The more advanced practices of restraints and observances, concentration and meditation result in inner transformation, cleansing of the karmas, and destruction of past life impressions, whereby a person becomes liberated from the mortal life forever. Apart from classical yoga, which is also known as Samkhya yoga, Hinduism prescribes several other yogas namely, rajayoga, hatha yoga, karma yoga, sanyasa yoga, bhakti yoga, karma sanyasa yoga, dhyana yoga, etc., which are equally effective in achieving self-transformation and liberation. As the Bhagavadgita suggests, any effort made in yoga is never wasted. If a practitioner deviates from the path of liberation due to some reason, he has a chance to return to it in his next birth and exactly start from where he left.
Symbolism of death in Hinduism
Death is symbolized in Hinduism as an impurity, poison, time, serpent and divinities. Death causes impurity because upon death the divinities (deities of the organs) who are present in the body leave the it and accompany the breath (prana) to the mid region, from where they return to their respective spheres. Since the dead body is devoid of purity (shivam) it becomes impure (shavam). Fire (agni) being the highest purifier in the mortal world, the unclean body is offered to him as the food of gods. The act of cremation is considered the ultimate sacrifice (antyesthi) in human life. Itpurifies the soul from the impurities of the decaying body and as it is consumed by the fire. When the body is destroyed in the final sacrifice, the elements that are present in it return to their elemental state.
Death is symbolized in Hinduism as a Time and Time as the serpent of infinity which keeps devouring its own tail in an endless loop. The image of the serpent eating its own tail is a powerful Vedic symbol for the infinite and absolute Brahman as the all consuming Death.
Among the divinities, at the highest level, death is personified by Shiva, Shakti and Yama. Death shows up in its universal form (visvarupam) as the hidden aspect of the Supreme Self in the Bhagavadgita. In popular Hinduism and Shaivism it is personified by Shiva and Shakti. Shiva is the quintessential destroyer of the worlds at the end of each time cycle. He can unleash death not just upon beings but upon entire worlds as the dissolver of all. However, his destruction is part of a renewal process, as in case of the infinite serpent eating its own tail, without which creation cannot move forward.
Shiva's fierce forms, such as Bhairava, Kala, Rudra, and Virabhadra connote his destructive power as well as his control over death itself. If Shiva is the destroyer, he is also conqueror of death. Hence, he is also known as Mrityunjaya Shiva and Kalantaka Shiva. The Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra is an invocation to Shiva by mortals to grant immunity from death. Those who chant it regularly are believed to become free from the fear of death and possibility of untimely death.
As an aspect of Brahman or Brahman herself, Shakti has numerous destructive and fierce forms such as Maha Kali, Durga, Chandi and their aspects, which nclude Bhutamata and Bhadrakali. Lord Yama figures prominently in the Vedic pantheon and the Puranas as the lord of Death and the underworld (narakam) where those who perform grave sins are subjected to innumerable and unbearable punishments. He is also described as a great scholar, and the most balanced and excellent judge of human behavior.
Thus, it can be seen death plays an important role in the theology, imagery and philosophy of Hinduism. Death is recognized in Hinduism as a major existential problem and all the ritual and spiritual practices are meant to address the problem either wholly or partially. It is not an exaggeration to say that Hinduism emerged in the early history of India as an answer to problem of death and as the means to escape from it.
Suggestions for Further Reading
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- God and Self in Hinduism
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- Purusharthas in Hinduism
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