Life and death is an eternal cycle. The person that is born one day will surely die some day. The manner in which the dead body is treated has always been the subject of discussions. While the main forms of funeral rites are either by burial or by cremation, the small sect of Parsis or Zoroastrians leaves its dead out in the open in the Tower of Silence where the body is consumed by vultures. Of course in the past the Pharaohs believed in mummification and it is possible that in the days gone by people may have disposed off the bodies by casting them in the river or the sea. But, today the two main forms of funeral rites remain cremation and burial.
The Practice of Cremation
There are several methods of disposing of the human body on death. Two of the principal methods of disposal are cremation and burial. Cremation is the method of disposal by fire wherein the body is consumed by fire either in the form of a wooden pyre or as in modern times inside an electric incinerator. In either case of cremation the body reaches a temperature of around 900 C till it is reduced to merely fragments of bones and ashes. Cremation is practiced predominantly by Hindus because of the philosophy of life and death as seen by a Hindu. One can view the selection from the point of view of religious philosophy, from the point of view of hygiene and purity or from other viewpoints such as environmental aspects and the cost factor.
Philosophy of Life and Death in Hinduism
Hinduism considers the human body as a clothing to be discarded as the person moves from the mortal world to the life of immortality. Hinduism stresses on reincarnation wherein the person is born repeatedly till he/she achieves moksha or eternal union with the creator. The body is therefore irrelevant to a Hindu once the person has moved on to the next world or life.
Man is made up of four different bodies and these are physical, mental, causal or intellectual and Supra-Causal or the subtle ego. When the person dies it is the physical body that ceases to exist while his other bodies continue. The practice of cremation therefore appeals to the Hindu due to the total lack of significance attached to the physical body after the death of the individual. Here, the two shlokas from Gita are relevant. The first of these pertains to the immortality of the soul.
Na jaaytey mriyate wa kadachin nayang bhutwa bhavita wa na bhuyah
Ajo Nityah shaswatohyang purano na hanyate hanyamane sharire
(Shloka No 20 Second Chapter ShreeMad Bhagwat Gita)
The soul is never born nor dies; nor does it exist on coming into being For it is unborn, eternal, everlasting and primeval; even though the body is slain, the soul is not.
The second one pertains to the invincibility of the soul.
Nainang chhindanti shashtrani nainang dahati pavakah
Na chainang kledayantyapo na shoshayati marutah
(Shloka No 23 Second Chapter ShreeMad Bhagwat Gita)
The soul cannot be cut by any weapon. It cannot be burnt by any fire. Water cannot wet it nor can wind dry it up.
One cannot ignore yet another shloka in the Gita that deals with life.
Vasangsi jirnani yatha vihaya nabani grihnati narohparani
Tatha sharirani vihaya jirnanyanyani sangjati navani dehi
(Shloka No 2, Second Chapter Shree Mad Bhagwat Gita)
Just like man discards his old and tattered clothes and wears a new set of clothes, similarly the being discards his old and weak body in preparation for its new mantle.
From the above, a few observations can be made.
The body is mortal. It is born and reborn many times depending upon the preparation of the soul for its final state of immortality and moksha. However, the soul cannot be destroyed. It is never born and therefore cannot die. It is at once immortal and invincible. Death cannot harm the soul. It follows therefore that the soul is eternal and the being is subject to reincarnation. It is due to this reason that the Hindu is not overly concerned with the body after the being has left it. The Hindu understands that a clean disconnect must be made between the body and the being so that the being can quickly move on to the next world in preparation for its reincarnation or moksha, the ultimate goal for all souls.
For this reason Lord Krishna consoles Arjuna and reveals to him the relationship between life and soul. The Lord says that Atma being immortal and life being transient it is inappropriate to feel sorry and weep when the body dies. He further asserts that any living being is unknown before its birth. It is known and seen only in its life time. Once again when life has left the body the living being is no longer seen. There is therefore no cause for anguish when the life departs from the body of a living being.
The Christian Perspective of Life and Death
The Christian’s perspective of life and death is at variance with that of the Hindu primarily because while the Hindu believes in reincarnation the Christian does not. Although there is probably no specific teaching in the Bible regarding cremation there are accounts of cremation in the holy book of Christians. Today there are several Christians who seek the option of cremation because of two major reasons. These are firstly paucity of land and secondly the increasing costs of funeral. But, basically traditional Jews are prohibited under the law from practicing cremation while Eastern Orthodox and some Fundamentalist Christian communities also do not allow cremation. Cremation is also forbidden under Islam. One of the biggest arguments that the average Christian may have against cremation involves the biblical concept of resurrection and the belief that a body destroyed by fire cannot be resurrected subsequently and reunited with spirit and soul.
The Christian Belief for and against Cremation
The general consensus among Christians is in favor of burial since most of the main people in the Old Testament were buried. It was also felt that for those in Israel it was a dishonor not to be properly buried. It is also possible that cremation was a punishment handed down as recorded in the Bible. One can associate burning at the stakes with so called justice meted out to witches in the past.
One of the major points against cremation is that there is no specific place to either honor or memorialize the person’s life and death for the forthcoming generations. However, logically speaking there is some strength in the argument in favor of cremation too. Therefore, rationally there is no difference between cremation and burial as in both cases the body is returned to dust from where it had originated. Cremation is a faster process and God will certainly provide a resurrected body for those that have been cremated.
The Rationale of Cremation
Cremation is less expensive as compared to burial. Cremation also allows greater flexibility while scheduling the memorial service. Allowing the body to decay in the ground may be offensive to some and cremation may be more appealing as it offers a clean disposal by fire. Especially in the case of Hindus, cremation creates an option of scattering the remains in a location of one’s choice such as in Varanasi or Gaya. One good option would be to create a memorial where the remains can be inurned. This would meet the requirement of perpetuating the memory of a person who has gone.
Hinduism, Environment and Fire
Hindus have always been concerned with the environment. It is perhaps true that no other religion lays as much stress on the ethics of environment as Hinduism. Throughout the epics such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana or the Vedas and Upanishads, the Gita and the Puranas one will find messages exhorting ecological balance and the preservation of the environment. Nature has been worshipped in the Vedic times and today also the accent on the elements, fire, wind and water is evident. One will see fire at the center of all religious functions in a traditional Hindu family whether it is the Upanayan, the Mundan ceremony, the Sraddh or the wedding ceremony. Here the role of fire is that of a deity, the purifier and the ultimate power of The Master. Fire since the Aryan and Vedic times has always played this role of power and reverence. Similarly, the Rishis and Munis in the past have always shown great respect for nature and the environment. Ecology is therefore an essential part of Hinduism. Cremation is therefore the obvious choice of Hindus on account of several reasons. Two of these concern the superior status of fire as the purifier and the importance of the environment in our basic way of life.
How Cremation is the Obvious Choice
Cremation is the obvious choice for the Hindu and for all those that apply rationality to the subject of hygienic disposal of the human body. The reasons that have been discussed so far pertain to the concern for the environment, the position of fire as the cleanser, immortality through reincarnation and the more mundane aspect of land conservation besides cremation being a cheaper option. Let us consider these points more closely.
The Concern for the Environment
Our concern for the environment is not a recent one. Hinduism unlike Christianity has not supported the exploitation of our trees, mountains and the seas. As a matter of fact, Hinduism has always related to these with divinity whether they are rivers or mountains and lakes or animals and the flora or the mineral world. Hinduism has acknowledged that there is Prana/Shakti energy or power in every electron and atom and in each cell. Therefore, our concern for the environment is all inclusive. It concerns the trees as much as it concerns the seas or the oceans.
Hinduism also appreciates the necessity of the human body returning from whence it came, dust. This journey must be completed quickly with the use of minimum energy. Here, fire is considered to be the ideal power that can achieve this task efficiently and quickly without hurting the environment. People may argue that the use of fire means the cutting down of trees and this is against environmental interests. However, the important requirement here is to convert the body to dust in the quickest time frame so that there is no chance of the spread of any disease. One may recollect the dreaded diseases in the past such as plague and cholera that would wipe out villages overnight such was its speed of spread. Fire was the only way to stop the disease from spreading further.
Fire is the most effective source of energy that can achieve this. Leaving the body to decay inside the earth can only increase the chances of spreading diseases that may be inside the body. Feeding the body to vultures similarly is unhygienic and irrational. Above all there is a cycle that is obvious in nature. This cycle not only concerns life and death but also the way nature must be rejuvenated at every step taken by man. Man must be in a constant sync with nature. Using fire to quickly bring the lifeless body to its nascent state is the only moral way of living a pure life.
The Status of Fire as the Cleanser
The Vedas tell us about the Aryan people and these mention fire with great respect. The Rig Veda starts with a song in praise of Agni. Most of the ten books that compose of the Rig Veda actually begin with a chapter on Agni. One of the many examples relates to Agni that shines in its glory being brought to life from the waters and the stone and from the trees and herbs that grow on the ground. Agni is addressed as the herald and the cleanser, a leader, a priest, the Brahmin and the Lord and The Master. In Hindu mythology one worships the sun god as a symbol of good health and an immortal life. The Rig Veda declares that “Surya is the Soul, both of the moving and unmoving beings”. Here, fire is an extension of Surya. When one is cremated with the use of fire, one is cleansed and transported to the realm of The Master. This is the power of fire as seen by the Hindu.
Immortality and Reincarnation
There are avatars such as Buddha who taught us of rebirth or reincarnation based entirely on his own experience and subsequently through meditative powers. There are yogis that acquired the ability to remember not only their own but other’s past lives as well. From the logical point of view, the single life theory does not make sense. A single life implies that you get only one chance to make it to heaven. When you see people all around leading different kinds of lives, it is not possible to see any rationality in believing that The Master has given us all one life to either make it or lose it.
When we see the variations in the conditions of lives of the different people living around us it begins to make sense that reincarnation and karma is rational. We are born repeatedly so that we can understand our ultimate goal, that of achieving immortality with The Master. While living out our life according to our karma we are born again. This process continues till we have reached the highest level and have attained moksha. In this philosophy the concept of cremation is the only rational one. Since there is no significance attached to the human body, no special effort is made to preserve it in coffin or to embalm it. Cremation using fire is the efficient process of returning the body to the elements from whence it came.
Cremation and Modernity
Cremation was as much in vogue in Scandinavia as was burial. The Vikings practiced both the options until Christianity arrived in the 11th Century. Beginning in the 9th Century the body was placed in a ship that was either buried or burnt on a pyre or towed out to the sea and then set on fire. Death was seen as a journey, much like in the case of the Hindus, although in the case of the Vikings, the body was accompanied by the goods that would be useful in the next life. These goods included weapons, animals and servants.
There is a rise in interest in cremation in modern times. This revival of interest began in the 1800s due to an increasing size of modern cities associated with the health hazard that is associated with overflowing cemeteries. It is understood that in 1884 a British Court ruled that cremation was indeed legal. Thereafter several European countries have made cremation legal and as per records the first crematorium in Australia was built in 1925 in New South Wales. Today many Christian denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church, allow cremation. The Pope lifted the ban on cremations on the 5th of July1963 and in 1966 made it permissible for Roman Catholic priests to conduct a cremation service at a crematorium.
Death is as sure as life. When death comes, the relatives of the person who has died will need to dispose of the body. All religions treat the dead body with reverence. The Hindus however appreciate the greater significance of the soul in comparison to that accorded to the body. The Hindu appreciates that the body has to be discarded once the being’s role is complete in this world and he must move to the next world. He understands that the ultimate salvation is the union with The Master.
There is a great importance attached to the role of fire in the life of a Hindu. Fire is treated with Godly reverence and worshipped as the cleanser of all that is impure. Therefore, it is for these reasons that the Hindu offers the dead body to the fire so that the body can be purified while being consumed. In a sense, the purification is in preparation for the journey that the being has to make to his next incarnation or moksha as the case may be. For this reason the cremation service is conducted by a Hindu priest who chants from the scriptures the appropriate shlokas for the occasion.
While the Hindu adopts cremation for disposal of the dead, the Christians generally prefer the burial process. This is mainly on account of the belief that since Christ was resurrected; burial offers the right method for salvation. The average Christian does not believe in reincarnation. However, today several European countries have acknowledged cremation to be the more hygienic process for disposal of the dead when compared to burial. It is understood that the Pope has also decreed that cremation can be covered as a service by the Christian priest. There is also the important aspect of cremation being the cheaper option primarily because of very high land prices. There is no doubt that cremation is a more logical and rational choice. It is environment-friendly, hygienic and cheaper option when compared to burial. For the Hindu, cremation must surely be the best process of disposal of the dead, one that is in harmony not only with nature but also in resonance with what is laid down in the Hindu scriptures.