Part I – Women’s participation in Hindu death rituals

Exit of prāṇa and journey of the jīva

Through Part I of this write-up, we will understand the transformation that happens in the sūkṣma śarīra at the time of death and we will explore the journey of the jīva after death. The pre-death rituals will also be covered. This will lay the foundation to help us understand the purpose of antyeśti and śrāddh rules pertaining to women, which will be covered in Part II.

As with all other rituals in the Hindu tradition, with antyeśti and śrāddh (rituals associated with death) too, there is much more than mere symbolism. There is a deep science rooted in the understanding of the sūkṣma śarīra (subtle body), without the knowledge of which, it is almost impossible to understand these practices and its impact.

This subject came to my attention after few women reached out to me asking if it was permitted for them to take part in the death rituals of their loved ones. Some of the women expressed that their menstrual cycles became problematic after taking part in the death ritual (in spite of being told not to by their relatives). The combined guilt of not heeding the traditional rules and the consequence of disturbed menstrual cycles makes this a difficult topic for several women to talk about. 

As several supporters of women’s rights would say, I too agree, that women should be given the choice to decide. I would only put it a bit differently – women should be able to make an ‘informed decision’. This means that women will need the right information with which to decide. This write-up series is intended to provide the necessary information to help women and their families make the decision that is right for them and their dear departed.

What happens after death?

Life, as we know it, begins when prāṇa enters a jīva. Death, as we know it, occurs when prāṇa leaves the jīva. What happens to the jīva after death? Where does it go? Does it feel joy and sadness, pain and pleasure, hunger and thirst? Can we who are alive help the jīva in its journey?

These are the many questions that occur to us when we lose a loved one. We feel that somehow we must help them. The intention is beautiful, but when we do it without the proper rituals we might actually make it more difficult for the jīva and ourselves. A pre-requisite to understand the need of the death rituals is to first understand what happens after death. Hindu texts such as the Gāruḍa Pūraṇa and some Upaniṣads too provide elaborate descriptions of the journey of the jīva after death. What is presented here is a summary from books referenced at the end of this write-up.

Role of Prāṇa during death

The seat of prāṇa vāyu (one of the pañca prāṇa-s) is the region of the heart. At the time of death, prāṇa from various organs start gathering and moves towards the heart. The organs from which prāṇa vāyu is pulled out experience severe pain because the feeling of pain is an experience brought about by prāṇa. In some cases the pain is so intense that the person becomes unconscious. This process goes on for a while during the last stages of one’s life. Prāṇa is closely linked to the mind. Prāṇa follows the mind and vice versa. So at the time of the exit of prāṇa, if the mind decides to cling on, then the inner conflict makes it difficult and painful for prāṇa to leave. It is said that the intensity of the pain and the difficulty in exit of prāṇa is greater for those who have more worldly attachments.1

Many aspects of spiritual practice in the Hindu tradition play an important role in easing this last moment of one’s life. Learning to cultivate vairāgya (dispassion and detachment), practising karma yoga (remaining unattached to the fruits of action even while engaged in worldly life), and especially the practice of yogāsana and prāṇāyāma help us disengage with the body more easily when the time comes. One who has learnt to control prāṇā through practice of prāṇāyāma is said to feel very little pain at the time of death.

Laying the person on ground

One of the ways to ease the exit of prāṇā for one whose time is near, is by laying the person outside the house in a specific manner. Often this practice is misunderstood by many as being disrespectful, when in fact it is a very important step.

Humans are comprised of the pañca tattva-s (five elements), which are pṛthvi (earth), jal (water), agni (fire), vāyu (air) and ākāśa (ether). Upon death, we disperse into these tattvas at different stages. The first to go is the physical body which is closely associated with the tattva of pṛthvi (earth). This process is made easier when we are in contact with Mother Earth. Atharva Veda says: ‘Mātā bhūmi putroham pruthivyāhā,’ meaning that for every person born of Mother Earth, she is the best place for him or her to be at the end of life.2

As per the rules, when it is known that the person is nearing death, a part of the ground outside the house must be prepared either by plastering it with cow dung or laying a darbha mat or at least a soft blanket. The dying person must be laid on this, with the head facing North to ease the movement of prāṇā from the upper part of the body which is considered as auspicious (reason is explained later). Sometimes, the toes of the person are tied together to prevent the exit of prāṇā from the lower apertures which is considered as inauspicious. A lamp is lit so that the dying person can see it. This is said to ease their journey after death.

As prāṇā exits, it is said to make the dying person feel extremely hungry and thirsty. This is also confirmed by some published studies(3,4) which show that around 80-90% of dying patients report significant thirst. Significant thirst has also been reported in over 70% of critically ill patients (5). This is an important point to remember as many of the rituals pertain to helping the dying person (and later the jīva), quench this thirst. This is also the reason for the practice of giving the dying person Tulasi Teertha, which is a leaf of tulasi plant and some holy water from the River Ganga or other sanctified water.  

The final memory

There is great importance attached to the final memory/thought with which the dying person leaves. It is important to make it a pleasant one, full of awareness and surrender to the Divine. In the Bhagvad Geeta, Sri Krishna says, “Yam yam vāpi smaranbhāvam tyajyante kalevaram, Tam tamevaiti kaunteya sadā tadbhāva bhāvitaḥ”, meaning, “The feelings or sentiments recalled at the time the soul leaves the body are the feelings or sentiments that a person attains after death” (Bhagavad Gita 8.6). Similarly, the Prashnopanishad also says ‘Yathā sankalpitam lokam nayati’, or whatever wishes or desires one has at the time of death are what one attains after death (Prashnopanishad 3.10).2  In his book on Death,6 Sadhguru stresses greatly on the awareness of the individual in the last moments of life. That is why, those around the dying person are told not to cry or express grief. It is also recommended to chant the name of the Divine in the ear of the dying person, so that he/she is able to leave peacefully.

Exit of prāṇā

At the time of death, prāṇā is said to exit the body primarily out of four different exit points in the body. The point of exit of prāṇā determines the journey of the jīva after death, and is therefore important to understand.

  1. Brahmarandhra – exit point of prāṇa at the crown of the head

This point is situated at the crown of the head and is the channel by which prāṇā leaves in the case of elevated spiritual seekers and yogī-s who have been able to reach the state of samādhi through rigorous yogic techniques. Such persons are said to have attained mokṣa upon death. Such a leaving of prāṇā is referred to as mahāsamādhi, wherein the person is able to leave the body at will. When prāṇa exists from Brahmarandhra, then udāna vāyu (one of the sub-types of prāṇa) is the one which is in action. Since udāna vāyu operates in the region of the head, it helps the subtle body of the jīva with ūrdhvagati (upward movement). They do not experience pain during such an exit. There is no wandering of the jīva after death and there is no re-birth in this case. The rituals too, therefore, do not apply for such persons.

Note: Prāṇa of seekers who have opened the viśuddhi cakra (throat chakra) by yogic practice, but their Brahmarandra has not opened yet, will leave their body with an upward movement after death by the action of udāna vāyu. The jīva of such a seeker does not take on a vāsana deḥ (subtle body comprising emotions and habitual patterns) and quickly finds an upward journey.

2. From the eyes and from the mouth

When prāṇa exits from the mouth or eyes, prāṇa vāyu and vyāna vāyu are in action. This is likely to be the case for majority of us. In this case, after death, the jīvā takes on a vāsana deḥ due to worldly attachments and continue to wander for a specific amount of time. This happens for people of mixed karma – some good and some bad. Such jīvā-s also experience hunger and thirst and suffer from it. After death, such jīvā-s remain attached to their worldly life and are said to keep watching their homes and families. This is where the rituals of antyeśti and offering of śrāddh play an important role in helping the jīvā journey ahead.1

3.    From the lower aperture

When prāṇa exists from anus, then apāna vāyu is dominant. Since apāna is a downward acting force, it cause a downward (lower level) movement of the jīvā due to unvirtuous karmas and actions. For such jīvā-s, the next birth might not be of a human form and they are said to undergo tremendous suffering owing to their bad karmas.1

The case of accidental death (ex. murder or road accident) usually comes in the category of the lower realms due to the fear experienced in the final moments. This need not be the case for a seeker in whom the viśuddhi cakra has opened. Such a person may go to vāsana deḥ for a short duration, but he/she will be released from it soon to begin his upward journey.

The jīva of a person who has committed suicide surely goes into an inferior realm. Such Jīva-s keep wandering in the vāsana deḥ for a very long time and suffer greatly. That is why karma should be exhausted by living them out, by experiencing and enduring them. 1

Note:

Death of children – Regardless of how the prāṇa may exit during the death of a small child, they do not acquire a vāsana deḥ because the feeling of attachment towards worldly objects and desires have not developed much in them. That is why, small children of 8 to 10 years get birth soon after death. For children of 2 years or lesser, the rituals are also not very elaborate for this reason.

Death of non-humans – Animals, birds, etc. do not go into a vāsana deḥ because their existence and their body is meant to endure their previous karmas. After death, their jīva finds an upward journey. The practices associated with animal sacrifice in some Hindu temples are due to this understanding. When the animal is offered to the deity with appropriate mantras, we facilitate the onward journey of the animal whose life is otherwise considered as a life of suffering (due to the absence of a mind that can move them towards mokṣa).

The three lokas

Most Hindus have heard of the existence of 14 lokas. Of these, we will explore three lokas, since they correspond to what most of us will have to go through in our repeated cycles of birth and re-birth, until we attain to mokṣa. Note that for all ascetics there is no burning, no water rites; and the ten-days’ ceremonies should not be performed for them by their sons.

Bhūrloka – When the jīva is embodied or alive, the world where it operates is called the bhūrloka, or the terrestrial world, which we are all currently living in. The dominant tattva in this loka is pṛthvī (earth). This loka is partly visible to us, and partly invisible. The visible part comprises the annamaya kośa, the sheath formed through the consumption of food, and is composed of matter in the form of solids, liquids and gases. The invisible part of the Bhūrloka comprises the prāṇamaya kośa, the sheath formed through the life-force called prāṇa and comprising the invisible ether. The gross physical form is also called the sthūlā śarīra, while the subtle portion is called the sūkṣma śarīra. While annamaya kośa comprises our sthūlā śarīra, the prāṇamaya kośa is part of the sūkṣma śarīra (along with other kośas covered later on).7

At the time of death, prāṇa is drawn away from the physical body or annamaya kośa. Thus, the embodied jīva no longer has access to the sthūlā śarīra and becomes disembodied, residing now in the prāṇamaya kośa part of the sūkṣma śarīra, until cremation. When the annamaya kośa is destroyed, the prāṇamaya kośa rapidly disperses and this dispersal is quickened by some of the mantras used at the cremation. Very quickly, the jīva then sheds the prāṇamaya kośa part of his sūkṣma śarīra and moves on from the Bhūrloka, entering the next loka.

Bhūvarloka – The Bhūvarloka is an intermediate place for the jīva, and he reaches here after disembodiment and before moving on to the next loka. While here, the jīva is called a preta and is considered a resident of the preta loka. In this loka, jal (water) is the main tattva, making the use of water in rituals an important aspect of communicating with this loka. The dominant kośa in this loka is the manomaya kośa (mental sheath).7

Within the manomaya kośa, there is a denser part and finer part. The finer part is connected with the next loka, svargaloka and is discussed later. The denser part is connected with  Bhūvarloka which comprises the vāsanā deḥ that include all our passions and mental impressions borne out of habit. But unlike the embodied state, here there is no mind to control these habits. Therefore, in this loka, the preta that operates from the denser part of the manomaya kośa sways with the accumulated vāsanā and have no conscious ability to control it or move themselves to the next loka. A preta suffers greatly because of the cravings arising out of the vāsanās, and the inability to have a body to satisfy those cravings. Based on the extent of the cravings, the duration of the preta’s residence in the preta loka is determined. As per Gāruḍa Pūraṇa, this duration of remaining a preta is about a year. However, there are some rituals (sapiṇḍīkarana ceremony) which are undertaken earlier these days and help the jīva move on from the preta state. When the sapiṇḍīkarana ceremony is performed, it helps the jīva to pass from Preta loka to Pitri loka, and then he is enrolled among the Pitris, or the ancestors living in the subtler regions of Bhūvarloka. While in the pitri loka, the rituals performed by the relatives help the pitri to purify the manomaya kośa to make it ready for the next part of the journey into the svarga loka.

Both the preta loka and the pitri loka are part of the Bhūvarloka. Seven generations, one in Bhūrloka, and six in Bhūvarloka, can affect each other. This means that in the absence of proper rituals, up to seven generations can be affected. When the jīva passes on into svarga, he has no further need of the help furnished by śrāddha.

Svargaloka – The pitri who has successfully purified the manomaya kośa is able to enter svargaloka through the finer part of the manomaya kośa. Agni (fire) Tattva is the basis here, and the rituals which involve agni are meant for the residents of this loka. In this loka, reached after exhausting the cravings and resultant sufferings in the previous loka, the jīva enjoys the fruits of his good karma. When that too is exhausted, he is ready to be born again and goes back to the Bhūrloka.7

Vijñānamaya and Ānandamaya kośa

In addition to the three kośas mentioned above, there is also the vijñānamaya kośa, the knowledge-sheath, which connects the jīva with maharloka, a loka beyond the Triloka in which the pilgrimage is carried on, one which is not destroyed, though it is rendered uninhabitable, at the close of the Day of Brahma. This part of the sūkṣma śarīra (called kāraṇa śarīra or causal body), is relatively permanent, and lasts through the series of births and deaths. While the annamaya, prāṇamaya and manomaya kośa perish at death and are renewed at re-birth, the vijñānamaya  kośa does not perish at death and so is not renewed at re-birth. 7

Then, there is the fifth sheath called the ānandamaya kośa. If the jīva, while in the Bhūrloka, has accomplished the task of resting his/her awareness in this kośa (through the samadhi state), it will have broken the cycle of birth and re-birth and is said to have attained mokṣa. Hence they do not expect/need rituals and rice-balls to be given.

Note that it is only possible for a jīva to work towards mokṣa when it has a human physical form where it can employ consciousness to move towards mokṣa. Even the celestial beings in svargaloka will need to be born in the human form to attain mokṣa. The time that jīvas have as humans is therefore considered very critical, because it is a small window of opportunity compared to the endless journey in the other lokas, before mokṣa.

With this foundational knowledge, we may now proceed to understand specific rituals, rules and the reason for restriction on women in some cases, as detailed in Part II of this series.


References:

1. Yogi Anand ji. Prana Tattva (Koshas, Chakras, Kundalini).

2. Shrutiprakashdas, Sadhu. Hindu Funeral Rites: Antyeshti Sanskar. Swaminarayan Aksharpith. July 2017.

3. Welch J. Development of the thirst distress scale. Nephrol Nurs J. 2002; 29(4):337-41.

4. Ellershaw J, Sutcliff J, Saunders C. Dehydration and the dying patient. J Pain Sympt Manag. 1995; 10(3): 192-197

5. Puntillo K, Arai S, et al.  Symptoms experienced by intensive care unit patients at high risk of dying. Crit Care Med. 2010; 38(11):2155-60.

6. Sadhguru. Death; An Inside Story: A book for all those who shall die. Penguin Ananda. 21 Feb 2020.

7. Sanatana Dharma: An elementary text book of Hindu religion and ethics, published by Central Hindu College, Benaras. 1916.

8. Garuda Purana

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