We are all accustomed to funerals and the general order in which one goes, right? Service, burial/cremations, drinks and gatherings for family and friends…Well, scrap the idea that you have of a ‘conventional’ funeral and let us enlighten you on the rituals of Hindu funerals which take place alongside the holy river Ganges at Varanasi, India.
Why Cremation?... After death, Hindus believe that the soul must be released from the body in order to achieve RE-INCARNATION. Cremation is the only way to achieve this, with the fire acting as a purifying agent, releasing the soul from the skull of the body. KARMA is a major factor here, with followers of the Hindu religion believing that the soul faces rebirth after rebirth, though through different forms each time as a result of how you lived your previous life.
Now, the ultimate aim of every Hindu is to achieve MOKSHA, meaning an end to the rebirth cycle, an end to KARMA, allowing the soul to finally reach NIRVANA. The only way to achieve this is to be cremated and have your ashes scattered in holy waters. The Ganges is considered to be the most sacred of rivers, therefore each year, thousands upon thousands have their wishes granted by being cremated at the burning ghats of Varanasi.
There are around 88 ghats (sets of steps leading to the river bank) situated around the Ganges, with 2 being specifically used for these cremations. They are called the MANIKARNIKA and HARISHCHANDRA ghats, and they carry out on average around 80 cremations per day. A caste of Untouchables known as the Doms are the caretakers as such, of the ghats, and their role is to protect the ever-burning flame at the Temple. This flame is believed to have been created by Lord Shiva, and has been burning for over 3500 years! The Doms provide the cremation packages, which includes the purchasing of essential wood that is needed to burn the bodies, and assistance during the rituals (sometimes the Doms have to give the skulls a bit of a whack during the cremation in order for the soul to be released properly!)
During the cremation rituals, special prayers (PUJA’S) are recited, as well as hymns and mantras. The eldest son or male family member is then required to light the pyre from the ever-burning flame which then starts the cremation fire. This process requires a LOT of wood in order to cremate the body fully, so you can imagine what those who cannot afford the wood must have to go through! The richer you are, the more wood you can provide for your cremation. Once the cremation is complete, the ashes are then scattered into holy waters, whereby MOKSHA can be achieved.Here, the eldest son or family member receives a head shave, for purposes of showing respect for the deceased, preparing him for his new role as family leader, and also to get rid of any arrogance or vanity.
Check out this interesting and insightful interview with a Barber who works right beside the Ghats at Varanasi...