Part II – Women’s participation in Hindu death rituals

The rules and the reasons for it

This write-up is the second part of a series. If you have not read Part I, please do so before you read Part II. Here is the link to Part I.

Part II of this write-up is intended to answer the following questions:

  1. What are the rules pertaining to women performing the Hindu death rites, and what are the reasons for the rules?
  2. How are women impacted when they perform the death rites as per the Hindu customs?
  3. How is the Jīvātma impacted when the rituals are performed by women against the rules?

Rules on women’s participation in Antyeśti saṃskāra

Antyeśti is the body’s final saṃskāra and it includes all the rites and rituals performed just prior to death, at the time of death and after death. Antya means last, and iṣṭi means yagna or sacrifice.

According to Gāruḍa Pūraṇa, the order of preference for who should perform the rituals is as follows:

“If there is no son, the wife should perform them, and if no wife, the brother; or a Brāhmiṇ’s pupil or a proper kinsman should perform them.”

So yes, the Gāruḍa Pūraṇa does mention that the wife can perform the ritual if there is no son. But it is crucial to understand why she is not the first preference. Note that it does not mention the daughter or the daughter-in-law as a preference.

When it comes to the ten-day ceremony, Gāruḍa Pūraṇa says:

“The ten-days’ ceremonies, for the man who has no son, should be performed by the sons or grandsons of his younger or his elder brother. Manu declared that if, of brothers of the same father, only one has a son, they are all considered, on account of that son, to have a son. If a man has several wives, but only one of them has a son, all of them have a son, on account of that son.”

Note that it is always preferred that the ten-day ceremony be performed by a male relative.

Finally, it must be stated that even though performing the rituals by a woman is not generally preferred, when it comes to choosing between the welfare of the dead and that of the woman performing the ritual, the preference is given to the welfare of the dead, as is stated in the Gāruḍa Pūraṇa:

“For all who have no sons, a friend (man or woman) may offer the rice-balls. The rites must not be neglected. If there is nobody else, the family priest may do them.”

And again, it says:

“From 7th day after menstruation women can perform rites to forefathers”

We will now proceed to explore the reasons for these rules. The details of the ritual itself is best understood by reading the original texts such as the Gāruḍa Pūraṇa. Also, different Hindu communities in different locations have rituals that are slightly different from each other. Here, a brief overview of the steps in the ritual is presented, with explanation where women are involved.

Rituals at home

  • The puja ritual begins with the male relatives reciting Mangalacharan, Shantipath and Sankalp. All these are intended towards enabling the jīva’s journey towards mokṣa.
  • The deceased is then bathed and dressed in clean clothes and placed on the ground. If the deceased is male, then the male relatives undertake this process, and if female, then it is the female relatives who do this.
  • Then, the deceased should be covered with a cloth. If the deceased is a male of any age, an unstitched white cloth should be draped over the body as a shroud. If the deceased is a young girl or a married woman, a chundadi or a sari should be used to cover her from head to toe. If the deceased is a widow, then she should be covered with a white sari.
  • Thereafter, male relatives take turns in applying vermillion or sandalwood paste and few grains of rice to the deceased’s forehead, while reciting some mantras.
  • Next, garlands of flowers or sandalwood should be placed around the neck of the deceased by male relatives. The male relatives should perform arti of the body of the deceased, along with some mantra chanting
  • The ritual offering of flowers, or pushpanjali, should then be performed – by both male and female relatives.
  • Then the male relatives should offer flowers at the feet of the deceased and circumambulate the body. Once all the males have finished, then the female relatives should offer flowers at the feet and circumambulate the body. 1

Note that in instances where chanting of mantras are involved, it is traditionally preferred that the male relatives do it. This is because the mantras recited as part of the death rituals carry the saṅkalpa of mokṣa for the jīvā. For women of menstruating age, such mantras are traditionally restricted because they cause the elevation of prāṇa towards the higher cakras, resulting in inversion of the downward moving apāna vāyu which is crucial for menstrual and reproductive processes. When women of menstrual age are exposed to mokṣa mantras it could throw their menstrual cycles out of order. This is also the reason why several Vedic mantras are traditionally prohibited for women of the reproductive age. To know more about how traditional rules pertaining to Hindu women impact their menstrual health, study the book ‘Ṛtu Vidyā: Ancient Science behind Menstrual Practices’.

This in itself explains a large part of why women (of menstrual age) are not encouraged to be part of death rituals, given that the whole process is about enabling the jīvā to move towards mokṣa (to whatever extent its karma permits). One of the reasons for exclusion of daughters and daughters-in-law is because their menstrual and reproductive health could be affected. However, when it comes to the wife, even though her reproductive health could be affected, she is permitted to do so, since her husband is no longer alive. Moreover, if the wife has reached menopause, then it is safe for her to perform the rituals.

However, processes such as bathing and dressing the deceased if she is a woman, or offering flowers can be done by the women. These do not involve any chants and are therefore safe for women to perform.

Preference for the son

As per the Gāruḍa Pūraṇa, if the deceased has a son, it is always preferred that the son perform the rituals. The reason for this has to do with the way in which male relatives are connected, with the son being the closest in this connection. In the Hindu tradition, this is understood through the gotra system. In the language of modern science, we can understand this through the knowledge of the y chromosome. While women have two x-chromosomes, men have an xy-chromosome. The y-chromosome is carried across generations only by the males, resulting in the gotra system. In essence, it means that the male relatives are all connected in a subtle manner through their sūkṣma śarīra. Therefore, it is easier for the deceased to receive the subtle offerings of food and water when it is passed on through a male relative because of this common connection at the subtle level. This also explains why the Gāruḍa Pūraṇa says that up to seven generations are affected when the death rituals are not performed properly. If the sūkṣma śarīra of our pitr (ancestors) suffers, then up to seven generations, especially the sons, also suffer. So it is said that sons must repay their debt (ruṇa) to their forefathers by performing the rituals.

Wife’s connection to the deceased husband

The same connection of gotra is extended to a woman who is married into that family. When marriage rituals are performed as per the Vedas (traditionally there were rituals extending to 15 days or more), the man and woman are connected as one-half of each other. This is not merely symbolic, but rather a connection at the level of the sūkṣma śarīra. Many of us might have witnessed how the previous generation of Hindu couples would rarely separate and sometimes die within six months of one of them passing away. This is explained in Sadhguru’s book on Death2, as well. So when the marriage is a true Vedic Vivāha, the wife’s gotra becomes that of her husband’s. This is why the wife is the second preference for performance of the rituals, in case of the absence of the son. The rituals for widows such as removing the mangalsūtra, etc. are intended to help the dead husband’s jīvā move onward by breaking the attachment to the living wife. The connection of the wife to the husband’s gotra is the reason why the sapiṇḍīkarana rituals for a deceased married woman is intended to connect her to the pitr-s of her husbands’s side (husband’s mother, grandmother and great grandmother) and not to her biological parents or grandparents.

Why Daughters & Daughters-in-law are not encouraged to perform the rituals

Daughters and daughters-in-law have no such subtle connection to their fathers or fathers-in-law. Therefore, it is not preferred to involve daughters if there are sons (or other male relatives) to help the jīvā’s journey. At the same time, participating in death rituals is not safe for their own menstrual and reproductive health. Women who have questioned this practice should note that it has nothing to do with women’s rights, but simply about what is most suitable for their dear departed, for their sons or other male relatives, as well as for their own health.

Rituals from home to cremation ground

In Hindu tradition, it is usually recommended to burn the body, to prevent the jīvā from wandering around the body and to enable its onward journey. The following is an outline of the stages involved, as mentioned in the book Antyeshti Sanskar1 which is in line with what is given in Gāruḍa Pūraṇa:

  • After the rituals have been completed, the deceased in placed on a palanquin or a bier, and the journey from the deceased’s home to the funeral home begins. Only a very close relative, such as an elder son, elder brother, husband, etc. should offer their right shoulder while carrying the bier. The other three corners may be carried by other relatives (usually male).
  • Traditionally, women would only follow the bier as far as the gate of the house. Even if they did go further in some communities, they would stop at the village square. At that point, water would be sprinkled upon the ground and the bier would be placed on the site so that women could perform their final circumambulations before returning home. Only the men would proceed further.
  • The carrying of the cremation flame/fire is also to be done by a male relative from the father’s side. The relative carrying the flame should walk in front of the bier and no one should come between the bier carrying the body and the relative carrying the fire pot.
  • Ṣaṭpiṇḍ Rites – Six balls of wheat or barley are placed upon the bier with the body, and offered at different points in the journey from the home to the cremation ground with specific saṅkalp. These are the utkrānti piṇḍ – placed on the bier, pānth piṇḍ – offered at the threshold just before stepping out of the house, khecara nimitta piṇḍ – placed at a junction or open space in the neighbourhood, bhūt nimitta piṇḍ – placed at crossroads between the deceased’s home and the funeral home/cremation site, vāyu nimitta piṇḍ – placed at the site of cremation and sādhak piṇd – placed in both hands of the deceased. The first four types of piṇd have to be ceremoniously immersed in a nearby body of water, and the last two are burned during the cremation.
  • Sprinkling of sesamum seeds is often done during the procession to cremation ground. This is so that the asuras, dānavas and daityas are gratified by the gift of these sesamums. Oblations should be made in order that goblins, demons and fiends, and others in the various directions, shall not cause disturbance of that body which is to be sacrificed.

The reason for this is that, as soon as the body steps outside the home (where it is protected by the deity in the home), the newly released jīvā is prone to be attacked by other preta-s. These preta-s may attempt to pervade the newly deceased body or harass the jīvā which continues to remain near the body in its confused state. To prevent this, the rice, barley or wheat balls are offered as oblations, with a saṅkalp.

Why women would not go to the cremation site

Traditionally, women, especially those of the menstrual age, would not accompany the body to the cremation site. The most common reason given is that women are emotionally weaker compared to men. So the question would arise that if a woman was emotionally strong, would it be alright for her to accompany the body to the cremation site?

The actual reason perhaps has to do with how a woman in her menstrual years has a body that represents a possibility for a wandering jīvā to be born again. Remember that after death, a jīvā that becomes a preta only has a vāsana deh without a mind. This means that pretas act out of compulsion and habit, and not logic, and are therefore drawn to a woman’s body. At such a time, a woman with a weaker emotional state becomes more susceptible, given that grief weakens the manōmaya and prāṇamaya kośa, making it easier for a preta to attempt mischief. If a preta manages to influence a person then that person will exhibit the vāsanās of the preta and will seem to act out of character. This is a phenomenon that has been recorded across cultures over time.

When the deceased person’s body is at home, it is protected by the gṛha devata (home deity) and similarly within the borders of the village, the grāma devata (village deity) protects them. That is why women would stop either at the threshold of their home (especially in towns and cities) or at the border of the village, and not accompany the funeral procession.

Rituals during cremation

Until the body is burnt, the jīvā that has suddenly been separated from the annamaya kośa resides in the prāṇamaya kośa, staying near the body. It is only when cremation is completed that the jīvā is able to move to the manōmaya kośa and enter the next loka (Bhūvarloka). The rituals around cremation are also accompanied by mokṣa mantras, again making it unsuitable for women of the menstrual age.     

  • The human body is made up of five tattvas of earth (pṛthvi), air (vāyu), fire (tejas), water (jal) and space (ākāśa). The process of cremation returns the body to these elements in the form of smoke and ash to be placed in water.
  • Kapāla Kriya or splitting open of the skull – According to Gāruḍa Pūraṇa, “Whether half or wholly burnt, the deceased person’s skull should be split open, in the case of householders with a piece of wood, in that of ascetics with a coconut.”

This is done to release the dhananjay prāṇa. This is a sub-type of udāna vāyu and is related to the ākāśa tattva. It resides inside the head. That is why we have the custom of kapāla kriya. At this time, pressure is applied with a wooden stick to puncture the scalp to provide exit for dhananjay prāṇa. After being released, dhananjay prāṇa merges with the ākāśa tattva.3

  • When the burning is finished the women (if present) should bathe, then the sons, and offer water mixed with sesamum, in the name of the family. Then they should walk home with women in front and men behind. 1

Śrāddha – rituals after cremation

Gifts to deserving Brahmanas for the sake of benefit to the Pitris, in the proper times and places and with faith, are known as śrāddha.

Forming of the sūkṣma śarīra

For a Jīva to be able to receive the offerings made through rituals and to proceed in its journey, it must have a fully formed sūkṣma śarīra. The ten-day offerings of piṇd through śrāddha is said to aid in this process. According to the Gāruḍa Pūraṇa,

“For ten days after cremation, the son should offer rice balls. Each rice ball is divided into four portions. Of these, two portions give nourishment to the five elements of the body; the third goes to the messengers of Yama; he lives upon the fourth. By the rice-ball of the first day the head is-formed; the neck and shoulders by the second; by the third the heart forms: By the fourth the back forms; and by the fifth the navel; by the sixth the hips and secret parts; by the seventh the thigh forms; Likewise next the knees and feet by two; on the tenth day hunger and thirst. Dwelling in the body formed by the rice-balls, very hungry and pained with thirst, on both the eleventh and twelfth days the departed eats.”

In recent times, especially owing to Covid, many families complete the rituals in a rush without understanding the necessity for the ten-day ceremony. Just as a foetus takes nine months to be fully formed, the jīvā’s sūkṣma śarīra takes ten days to be fully formed, and this time should not be cut-short.

Sapiṇḍīkarana

There is a ritual called Sapiṇḍīkarana performed on the 12th day from the date of death. Originally, this was performed along with the first year ceremonial rites. Nowadays it has become part of the funeral rites. By performing this rite, the preta body of the dead enters the world of ancestors known as pitr loka. The subtle body of the dead is known as preta until sapiṇḍīkarana is performed. Till sapiṇḍīkarana is performed, no auspicious functions should be held in the family of the deceased. 4

Note that this is the reason why the ten days are considered as polluted (sūtaka), since the newly departed is in the form of preta, likely to be near the family members, and has not moved forward to the pitr loka.

Gāruḍa Pūraṇa says that sapiṇḍīkarana can be performed on the 12th day. If this is not possible, it can be performed at the end of the 45th day or six months or at the end of one year. During the first year after death, 16 śrāddha-s are to be performed. If these 16 śrāddha-s along with sapiṇḍīkarana are performed, preta body of the dead is able to becomes a pitr or ancestor. Till then, the subtle body continues to suffer as pretas. The 16 śrāddha-s are:

1. At the place of death

2. At halfway to the cremation ground

3. At the pyre

4. In the hand of the corpse

5. To the spirits living in the cremation ground

6. At the time of collecting ashes

7. To 16 – during the first ten days after death.

Sapiṇḍīkarana should be performed only by the son as per traditional rules. If the deceased has no son, it can be performed by his wife, brothers, brother’s son or other close relatives. For a woman, only her son, husband or husband’s brother alone can perform Sapiṇḍīkarana.

Why are women not encouraged to perform the śrāddha rituals

To understand why women are not encouraged to perform the śrāddha rituals, we need to understand  the method of transfer of the subtle tattvas of the offerings. As explained in the book Prana Tattva by Yogi Anand ji.3

“As per the Karmakāṇḍ in Hindu Dharm, the soul of the deceased is offered water Tarpaṇ in a particular way, pouring water towards the sun, with a Sankalp to send water to the deceased. They also perform the ritual of Terahavi (thirtheenth day after death) to bring ātmāśānti to the soul by offering which includes feeding the Brahmins, etc. In this way, the effort of providing food and water to the deceased is performed through the Karmakāṇḍ, to quench their suffering of hunger and thirst.

Now the question arises, can the Jīvātma of a deceased person receive food through Karmakāṇḍ? The answer is that the soul can receive the food and water only when the medium to deliver such food and water has enough capability to separate the subtle part of the food from the gross and make it reach the soul through his Yogābal. If the Brahmins who perform such Karmakāṇḍ, do not have the Yogābal to do it, then too, the purpose will not be served. Only a person who has performed an arduous practice of Yoga, and has evolved internally through spiritual practice can separate the subtle food from its gross form. Until the competent person is found, the Jīvātma cannot receive the gross food. Such a ritual of feeding the Jīvātma of the deceased can only be performed by Yogis, seekers, or devotees, who are in higher states.

When an evolved seeker offers food to a Jīvātma, then such a Jīvātma can receive the subtle form of the food and water, thus satisfying its hunger and thirst. The seeker who tries to perform such ritual needs to have his Brahmarandhra open, and only then he is considered capable of performing such a ritual. This is so because he also needs, through Divya Drishti, to see that the Jīvātma has received the food or not.”

While the presence of a highly accomplished yogi/brahmana might be ideal to offer the piṇd, in other cases, the mantras and procedures followed serve the purpose of enabling the person performing the ritual (such as the son) to raise his prāṇa towards the Brahmarandra (at the crown of the head), through which the subtle offerings are transferred. In other words, momentarily, the performer becomes the yogi by whose body the offerings reach the jīvā. This is probably why the performer of the rituals (when male) often feels relieved, peaceful and detached by the end of the rituals.

It is easy to understand why women should not perform this during menstruation, since the process would forcibly turn the downward moving apāna vāyu (which is active during menstruation) upwards towards the Brahmarandra. This would also impact the ritual offering since the upward movement of prāṇa will be countered by a menstruating woman’s downward movement of apāna. But what about the times when women are not menstruating?

For women of the menstrual age, even if they are not menstruating at the time of the ritual, this process would necessitate them to force their prāṇa upwards, affecting their menstrual cycles which are dependent on the downward moving apāna. When done continuously for 10-14 days, it could permanently impact their ability to menstruate. I would have had trouble understanding this, had I not received this message from a woman who wrote to me. This is what she wrote:

“I experienced same symptoms. After I performed my father’s last rites my menses ceased soon as I performed the 14th day ceremony. I was only 44…never could understand what happened….actually, and I forcefully did the cremation when my uncles and cousins were against it…my cousin was willing to do it. But being brought up as a headstrong girls by my father, did not want it…..seven years down the line realising my faults too late.”

Conclusion

When I began the study of the Hindu death rituals a few months ago, it was largely to help women understand the reasons for the restrictions, so that they can make an informed decision. By the end of the study, the point that emerged was that these rituals are not about women or their rights, but rather about compassion for the newly departed and to do whatever is best for them. Of course, breaking the rules will impact the women performers of the rituals, but that is just for one lifetime. The greater suffering is for the jīvā that will wander around as a preta for hundreds or thousands of years with all its cravings, unable to fulfil them and unable to move forward, just because we failed to understand the need to do the rituals appropriately. This is why in dire circumstances, Gāruḍa Pūraṇa does permit women to perform the rituals, even if that is not the ideal option.

So now, it is up to women to understand the consequences of being the performer of the death rituals – of how it will impact the departed, of how it will affect the sons in the family, of how it will impact their own health – and then decide accordingly.


References:

  1. Shrutiprakashdas, Sadhu. Hindu Funeral Rites: Antyeshti Sanskar. Swaminarayan Aksharpith. July 2017.
  2. Sadhguru. Death; An Inside Story: A book for all those who shall die. Penguin Ananda. 21 Feb 2020.
  3. Yogi Anand ji. Prana Tattva (Koshas, Chakras, Kundalini).
  4. Garuda Purana – https://www.manblunder.com/articlesview/garuda-purana-abode-of-yama

Featured Image courtesy – Image by Jan Beiler from Pixabay

4 comments

  1. Always love reading your posts. You provide intricate details and thorough understanding of so many rituals passed through generations which many of us fail to understand and try to brush them off. Thank you very much for sharing this wisdom!

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