In the Indian epic Mahabharata, a Yaksha (heron) asks the eldest Pandava brother, Yudhishtra, what he thinks is the most amazing thing about the world? Yudhishtra replies, “Everyday creatures die, yet the rest live as if immortal.” And that is precisely how we relate to death. We see it as a phenomenon that is exclusive of us. For all of us death is something that happens to others, with others.
Like the conception of life, death too is a natural occurrence. And yet different cultures have different customs and rituals to mark these natural occurrences, which are based on inherited truths of every culture. These customs and rituals that we follow are our way of acknowledging the truth behind the myths and, thereby, validating the relevance of the irrational in a world governed by rational truths.
In an otherwise meaningless and purposeless existence of ours, which as Albert Camus calls, “The Theatre of the Absurd,” and Shakespeare refers to as “All sound and fury signifying nothing,” these seemingly irrational myths weave a meaning around these natural occurrences through mythological tales. They respond to our need for answers and validate our existence.
These myths are essentially a cultural construct that binds the community on the basis of their common understanding of the world. Since different cultures have different understanding of life and death, their beliefs and customs vary. These beliefs and customs construct the truth of a particular culture.
According to Hindu understanding of life and death, a human body has two parts – soul (atma) and body (sharira). The body, which surrounds the soul is of three types – the gross body (sthula sharira), the subtle body (sukshma sharira) and the causal body (kaarana sharira). When a person dies, the gross body is cremated and the soul wrapped in causal body travels across river Vaitarni to the land of the dead.
Legend has it that Yama, the first being to die, became the presider over death and the dead. He is described as the dark and impersonal ruler who rides a buffalo. He determines the future circumstances of the jivas (individuals) on the basis of their past deeds. Chitragupta, his accountant meticulously classifies the deeds of the jivas as debt or equity and submits them to Yama.
Yama is also known as the god of order because he is totally dispassionate in his judgment. The land of the dead is where our pitr (ancestors) reside awaiting their rebirth. According to Hindu understanding of life and death, rebirth can happen only when an offspring or descendent left behind in the land of the living produces a child.
When a Hindu man or a woman dies, his/her children perform a ceremony known as ‘shraadh’. During this ceremony, three generations of ancestors are invited to a meal and an offering of rice cakes is made. This is symbolic of the promise to produce children and repay the debt to the ancestors (pitr). If this ceremony is not performed, the causal body lingers in the land of the living as a ghost since it has no gross (physical/sthula sharira) body to support it. The shraadh ceremony ensures that the causal body is able to cross the river Vaitarni and reach the land of the dead.
Only after reaching the land of the dead is rebirth possible. For the pitr who are unable to cross the river, a modified shraadh or the ritual of atma shanti is performed which helps in the rebirth of the preta (ghost). However, for the pitr who died childless or whose children have not produced an offspring, there is no hope. According to Hindu mythology, these pitr are trapped in a place called put, the land of the dead. Unless their offspring produces a child and releases them, there is no hope for them. The childless pitr are doomed to stay in put.
In keeping with this idea of the Hindus, a son is known as putra and a daughter, a putri, which in Sanskrit means – deliverers from put. This is also the reason behind the Hindu obsession with marriage and childbirth. According to yet another mythological tale of the Hindus, a certain sage named Agastya had visions of his pitr trapped in put. They requested him to marry and bear children so that they can enter the land of the living, since it is only by entering the land of the manifested world that they can gain moksha or liberation – that is, release from the cycle of birth and death.
The period of shraadh is, thus, a time to serve and communicate with the ancestors.
At the end of the day, these are just myths. We outgrow them if they fail to respond to our needs or if it does not help us to cope with life’s absurdities. The choice of belief rests with us finally!