Why Hindus Cremate Their Dead•
Posted on November 09 2021
One of the basic tenets upon which Hinduism rests is that a person takes several births and reincarnates till such time that he has evolved and become merged with his Creator. Reincarnation is the bedrock of Hindu funeral practices.
The Sanskrit word for death is ‘Dehanta’ meaning the ‘end of the body’ but not the end of life. Cremation is the act of reducing the body to ashes through the medium of fire.
The role of cremation or burning of the body among Hindus is to assist the soul to sever all ties and leave it free to move towards moksha or freedom from the endless cycle of births and deaths. Reducing the body to ashes helps the soul to leave behind all attachments. Hindus believe that the death of the body releases the soul from its earthly suffering and smoothens its passage towards inhabiting another body and forming new attachments. The eventual goal is to finally become one with the Creator. It is believed that the soul will inhabit several bodies before attaining liberation.
These beliefs form the fulcrum for the funeral rites of cremation. The body is viewed as a prison in which the soul is entrapped by various desires and attachments. These attachments prevent the soul from moving forward towards liberation. The body goes up to the funeral pyre but the soul moves onwards with its accumulated karmic deeds.
Only infants, small children, and saints are not cremated because they are believed to be unattached to their bodies.
It is believed that the soul remains attached to the body after death which is why it is cremated to free it from all attachments and allow its transition to another body.
Traditionally, the body is cremated and the ashes are immersed in the Ganges to purify the soul for its onward journey. Immersion of the ashes in the river is symbolic of its final detachment. The flowing water takes the soul away from the mortal world. This is the quickest way to release the soul and help it to reincarnate. Another basic reason for burning the body is to help the grieving family to let go so that the soul is unhindered in its journey towards another body.
The central tenet of Hindu philosophy is the distinction between the body and the soul. The body is just a temporary abode for the soul which is immortal. At death, the physical body perishes but the soul lives on and continues its journey. Detachment is thus given a lot of importance in Hinduism and encouraged as a way of life. The concept of detachment to the physical body is embodied in our traditions. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna exhorts his disciples to do their duty or karma but not be attached to the results. The ultimate proof of detachment is the acceptance of death and the belief that there is something more ahead in the soul’s journey.
It is also believed that we are made up of the earth and unto the earth, we return. The famous phrase ‘Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust is often referred to while performing the last rites.
Written by Aarti Natarajan Sharma