A Look at Hindu Views of Life and Death
MY FATHER, a prominent businessman in Jamnagar, India, was critically ill. For years he had had a heart condition, but then complications developed.
It was in February of 1976 that my older brother, who lives in upstate New York, received the call: ‘Come home as soon as possible; no later than a week.’ He informed me immediately, and two days later we were boarding a plane at New York’s Kennedy Airport.
A number of things had happened since my last visit home eight years before. So as I settled back in the seat for the long flight, many thoughts went through my mind.
Background and Reflections
Father had sent me to college in the United States in the early 1960’s. Although I had grown up as a Hindu, after graduation my religious views began to change when I started studying the Bible. In time father and I corresponded quite a bit about this. Father was deeply religious; in fact, he had a personal guru. As a boy, I can remember him leaving home for several weeks each year to visit his guru in the Himalayas.
So as our jetliner droned through the night, my thoughts were preoccupied with father’s condition. I wondered: What did he think now about life beyond this present existence? How strong would his convictions be in his critically ill condition?
I thought of things father had written me. For instance, he wrote in a letter of August 1973: “The strength derived from the knowledge of Brahman or Supreme Reality is superior to any strength. . . . Real strength is that which does not quail even in the face of death, knowing full well that death is only a change affecting the physical sheath. The self does not die, because it was never born. . . .
“One with this knowledge accepts crucifixion with a smile and prays for his tormentors. When death comes, he will be hard as stone, for he has ‘touched the feet of God.’ . . . Therefore the physical death of a man of knowledge is described as mahat-samadhi, or the ‘great ecstasy.’ in Hindu parlance.”
Father believed, as Hindus do, in the immortality of an ‘inner self.’ or soul. This soul he felt, is simply encased within the physical body, or ‘outer self.’ At death the ‘real self’ is released to “transmigrate” or pass into another body. Father believed that if a person’s conduct has been good and proper, at death he will pass on to a superior existence, but if he has lived badly, the ‘real self’ may even enter a lower animal.
Now that father was facing death, I wondered how his beliefs would sustain and help him. My thoughts also turned to other members of the family, and life back home.
My younger brother and sister had both married since I had last seen them. They had chosen their own marriage mates, a departure from Indian custom. I knew that changes had occurred in social customs, but I was curious now and wanted to see things for myself.
For example, when I grew up in Jamnagar it was not socially acceptable for a man to see the face of his daughter-in-law, or for a woman to speak directly to her father-in-law. Thus my grandfather, who had lived with us, would not look at the face of my mother. And when grandfather would speak to her, mother would never answer directly, not even on the telephone, but would relay the message through someone else. They would never be in the same room alone together.
Also, it was not socially acceptable for unmarried boys and girls to hold hands or even to speak to one another. I never saw any of them do so on the streets of Jamnagar. Nor did I speak to an unmarried woman, outside of my immediate family, while living there. It wasn’t socially acceptable. But what about such customs now?
Our plane landed in Bombay, India, the afternoon of February 27. Since somehow there was a failure to book me on the flight to Jamnagar, we had to take a plane to Rajkot, a city about fifty miles (80 kilometers) from home. Then we took a taxi the rest of the way.
As we rode along, many memories came back to me. In the later 1950’s my grandfather was minister of agriculture for Saurashtra State, which is now part of Gujarat State. During my vacations from high school, he often took me along on official visits to villages, some of which we were now passing. In the distance I could see the meeting hall in Dhhrol where grandfather used to speak to the farmers.
In the late 1950’s most of the people in the villages lived in one-room huts made of mud mixed with cow dung. The floor was of the same material. It is like hardened dirt. The women carried water from the village well in large jars balanced on their heads. From what I could see, conditions hadn’t changed much.
At the Hospital
When we arrived, father was in a local hospital. He recognized us and was happy we were there, but he was so weak that communication was virtually impossible. Hospitals in India are much different from those in the United States. The patient’s family provides the food and most nursing care. It was my pleasure to serve father in this way for the next nine days.
In the afternoon I would go to the hospital and spend the night with father. He was fed intravenously, but at times we also spoon-fed him nourishment. When he would indicate discomfort, we would turn him to a more comfortable position. I hoped that he would gain strength so that we might talk, but he never did.
While sitting near father, I would use my time reading the Bible and the publication Aid to Bible Understanding. My sister-in-law would see me, and was curious. When she married my younger brother about three years ago, she moved into my family’s very large home, and I could see that she had come to love my father very much.
There was much uncertainty as to what to do for father, and yet no matter what was done he was expected to die. One evening my sister-in-law and I were alone at the hospital, and she asked: “Do you feel confused and bewildered as others seem to?”
At first I thought she had reference to my father’s future, so I said: “Not really.” She wanted to know why not. I suggested that it was because of this book, the Bible, which helps one to understand our Creator’s purposes. She told me that when I had left my Bible at the hospital she had picked it up and read parts of Genesis, but hadn’t understood it. She asked: “Who is the Creator?”
We both knew that, according to Hindu religion, there are many gods, and some are creators and others are destroyers. So I opened the Bible to Psalm 83:18 and asked her to read it. Her pronunciation of English was quite good: “That people may know that you, whose name is Jehovah, you alone are the Most High over all the earth.”
However, the name Jehovah was new to her; she did not know how to pronounce it. But she was able to see that the God of the Bible has a name. It impressed her that the Bible teaches that there is one supreme God named Jehovah who created all things, and that he is without either a beginning or an end of existence.—Rev. 4:11; Ps. 90:1, 2.
My family already knew that I had become a Christian. I had written them about my full-time preaching activities as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. So during these days of great concern over my father, many discussions developed regarding death and the prospect of life after death.
The Soul and God’s Love
Like my father, the other relatives held to the Hindu belief that the soul is immortal—that the ‘inner self,’ or ‘real self,’ goes on existing in another form after death. But my sister-in-law, who is a medical doctor, was somewhat of an exception in that she didn’t fully accept the Hindu view. So she was quite open to what the Bible says.
I explained to her that, according to the Bible, the human soul is YOU—the entire person—and that there is no separate, invisible soul that lives on after death. “The soul that is sinning—it itself will die,” the Bible says. And the Bible also teaches: “As for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all.” (Ezek. 18:4, 20; Eccl. 9:5) These were new thoughts to her, but they fitted better with what she had seen, so she seemed to accept them.
One day I had opportunity to ask my brother-in-law, who also is a medical doctor: “What is it that determines whether a soul’s transmigration will be to a better life or to a poorer one? There must be some outside agency,” I noted, “that is responsible for determining whether the soul will have either a superior or an inferior life existence.”
He answered that we could view “God” as having a giant computer, explaining: “He keeps records of one’s karma, or deeds. If his good deeds exceed his bad deeds, then his rebirth will be in a favorable condition. But if the bad deeds exceed the good deeds, then the rebirth will be under unfavorable conditions.”
Thus, as it was explained, what a person does throughout all his life determines whether he will have a favorable or an unfavorable rebirth. I asked: “How can we tell, then, if my father will have a favorable or an unfavorable rebirth?”
He said that we could not know, because we had not known my father throughout all his life. Then I turned attention to the Bible’s teaching, saying: “Jehovah God is not a God who keeps track of all our life course. We may have done many bad things, but if we repent and reform, then our past course is forgotten; it is forgiven. And it is what we do from that point on that is important to Jehovah God.”
This is how the Bible explains Jehovah’s dealings with his people: “As far off as the sunrise is from the sunset, so far off from us he has put our transgressions. As a father shows mercy to his sons, Jehovah has shown mercy to those fearing him.” (Ps. 103:12, 13) This loving way of dealing with humankind was very appealing to my brother-in-law, for he had never thought of God like that.
My sister-in-law especially was curious as to what the Bible teaches. She wanted to know what God’s purpose is for the earth and mankind. I showed her Jehovah’s promise to establish “a new earth,” which would be made up of people who do God’s will. (2 Pet. 3:13) As the Bible says: “The meek ones themselves will possess the earth, and they will indeed find their exquisite delight in the abundance of peace.”—Ps. 37:11.
Conditions on earth among people will then be entirely different, I noted, reading to her Revelation 21:3, 4: “God himself will be with them. And he will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore. The former things have passed away.” Such Bible promises amazed her. She really became interested and wanted to learn more.
Change in Customs
After a few days at home the change in social customs became strikingly apparent. My sister-in-law, for example, treated people much like women do in the Western world. She spoke to father and me face-to-face. Since I am an older brother-in-law, if it had been twenty years ago she would probably have turned her head or hidden her face in her sari when speaking to me. And she probably would never have been alone with me in a room.
Obviously young single men and women now talk to one another, since it has become not uncommon for them to select their own marriage mates. In fact, I learned that students go on picnics together, something unheard of when I was in school. On the other hand, I observed that my mother and other older women still held to the former customs.
In the meantime, father’s condition was deteriorating rapidly, and so he was moved back home to die. During the early morning of Sunday March 7 the end seemed near. As our family gathered around father’s bed, he let out a deep breath—failing to draw another.
My brother-in-law asked me to pass him a stethoscope. He put it on my father’s chest and, with a sad face, pulled the sheet over his head. It was 3:30 a.m. Father was dead—at only fifty-eight years of age. Mother immediately burst into tears, and so did others of the women present.
In the procedure that followed, the deep influence of religious belief was striking. Before her tears had even dried, my sister-in-law went outside and returned with fresh cow manure, making a straight line with it across the floor about five-and-a-half feet (1.7 meters) in length. She then sprinkled on the floor some water brought from the Ganges River. Then a white sheet was placed over this area and father’s body laid upon it.
Everything from the cow is considered holy, including its manure. Also, the Ganges River is viewed as sacred. So this area of floor was supposed to be purified by the treatment with manure and water. Sweet-smelling incense was burned in front of the body. This is thought to create a pure atmosphere, inviting clean spirits to the vicinity.
Almost immediately the chanting of a Hindu prayer began, my brother-in-law taking the lead and others joining him at will. The phrase “Shri Rama Jay Rama Jay Jay Rama” was constantly repeated, with a distinct melody. Rama is the name of a Hindu god, and the chanting means “May Rama be victorious.” This chanting is supposed to calm the mourners, and to help them to concentrate on God. It seemed to serve, at least, as a substitute for crying.
As this was going on, a couple of messengers went out to inform friends and relatives concerning the death. A friend spread the news by telephone. The funeral procession was arranged for 7:30 a.m., just four hours after father died.
Preparation of the Body
My older brother spread ground sandalwood mixed with water on father’s forehead. Then he put a red powderlike material called kanku across his forehead and sprinkled Ganges water on his face. Next he went around father’s body five times, a procedure known as prudikchana. Finally, he shouted three times into father’s ear, “Hari ohm Tatsat,” which, since Hari is another Hindu god, means “Praise God.” This phrase suggests that the soul must leave the body and go on praising God. Others present followed the same procedure.
After this, everyone left the room except a few of us. The body was stripped of its clothing and washed, and kanku was spread all over it. As this was being done, certain ones kept uttering mantras (prayers) in Sanskrit. A prayer was also said in my native Gujarati language, to the effect: “O Lord! Please take the soul of this man and may his soul rest in peace.” Then the entire body, except for the face, was covered with a white cloth and some bright-red silk material. After that it was placed on a bamboo cot.
The cot was constructed right there in the room. Two men, who regularly do this work, finished it in a half hour. The cot was made of two bamboo poles about ten feet (3 meters) long, and there were about twelve bamboo crosspieces, all connected together by a rope. The body was placed on the cot and tied to it with a piece of string. Many flowers then were placed around my father’s neck.
The Funeral Procession
My two brothers, one of my cousins and I carried father’s flower-bedecked body outside the house. As we did so, there was a loud cry from among the women. This was the last time they would see his body, since women are not part of the funeral procession.
Men dressed in white or pale clothing were waiting outside the house with towels around their necks. As the body was carried along the streets, they followed in an orderly fashion. Since my father was a prominent businessman, there must have been some 500 men participating in the procession, including doctors, lawyers, engineers, businessmen, farmers and philosophers.
After a forty-five-minute walk, the procession came to the entrance of Smashan (the place for cremation), where it stopped. Up to this point my father’s body was carried head forward, suggesting that he was looking back at all he had done in this world. Now, as we entered the Smashan, he was carried with his feet first, suggesting that he must now look ahead to whatever was coming.
Here in Smashan is an area about eight feet by ten feet (2.4 by 3 meters) where the actual cremating is done. As the body was brought here, four men started to prepare the fire. They first made a layer of dried cow manure, approximately four feet (1.2 meters) wide, six feet (1.8 meters) long and four inches (10 centimeters) high. (In addition to being considered holy, cow manure is highly flammable.) On this they placed layer upon layer of logs, and finally my father’s body was placed on top.
The body was then stripped of all clothing and flowers, and rubbed with ghee, a fatty, butterlike extract from milk. Ghee is considered holy, and also is highly flammable. Then logs were placed on top of and on the sides of the body. Finally the fire was started.
For the first hour, as we all watched, mantras in Sanskrit were constantly uttered. At the end of each, the men uttering the mantras called out “Swaha,” meaning “So be it.” Also to show agreement, at each “Swaha,” my younger brother poured into the fire more ghee, and my older brother poured some samagri, a sweet-smelling, flammable mixture. These mantras were for the supposed benefit of the soul. For example, one states: “May the soul that never dies continue in its efforts to approach God.”
In two hours the body was consumed. A portion of the ashes was collected in a clay jar to be deposited later by my brother in the Ganges River. All present then bathed at the facilities provided at the Smashan.
A Basis for True Comfort and Hope
In the Smashan there are many statues that depict various teachings of the Hindu religion. For example, I particularly noted the one entitled “Circles of Life.” On a huge circular monument there are seven scenes. The first shows the birth of a child. The second, a child going to school. The third, a couple getting married. The fourth, a scene of family life. The fifth, sickness and old age. The sixth, the death of the person. And the seventh, the carrying of the person to the place for cremation of the body.
This circle of life is depicted in Hindu religion as being normal, as the way things are meant to be. Sickness and death, according to this cycle, will always be. But does such teaching provide real comfort and hope for mourning ones?
After bathing, we returned home. That evening as everyone was busy doing other things, I noticed my sister-in-law by herself crying softly. So I asked: “What is the problem?” She replied that she was going to miss my father, and already missed him.
So once again we spoke about Jehovah God, and I asked her: “Have the things you’ve learned about Jehovah made you happy?” She said, “Yes, if all these things come true, there are certainly reasons to rejoice.”
We hadn’t talked about the resurrection up to this point, so I asked: “How would you feel if you were able to see my father again with the same personality as when you knew him? Would you like that?” The answer was, of course, “Yes!”
At that I opened my Bible and we read Acts 24:15, which says: “I have hope toward God, which hope these men themselves also entertain, that there is going to be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous.” This word “resurrection” was new to her; it was a new thought. I explained that resurrection is not a rebirth or reincarnation, but is an actual coming back to life of one who has been completely unconscious in death. Most persons who have lived, I told her, will be restored to life on earth when better conditions exist.
She was able to grasp this Bible teaching, for she was really interested in learning what the Bible taught. And she was able to compare it with the Hindu idea of reincarnation. According to Hindu teaching, a person comes back to life on earth also, but as a different personality, since the soul supposedly enters a womb to be reborn as someone else. As a result, she would never be able to recognize my father in his rebirth. So the Bible teaching of the resurrection appealed to her because she missed my father and longed to see him again as she had known him.
Furthermore, I pointed out that, according to reincarnation, one returns in this system, under these conditions where people grow sick and die. But the resurrection will take place after Jehovah God, by means of his Kingdom government, will bring an end to this corrupt system. (Matt. 6:9, 10; Dan. 2:44) Then, in God’s new system of things, the conditions that we earlier had read about in Revelation 21:3, 4 will be enjoyed. Sickness, mourning and even death will be things of the past!
Need of Help
By now the tears of my sister-in-law had dried, and she felt much better. But in a few days I would be leaving, and her concern was, ‘Who is going to teach me? How am I going to learn these things from the Bible?’
I gave her a Bible and a number of Bible study aids. Particularly did I draw her attention to the booklet There Is Much More to Life! And I showed her how to use it in studying the Bible. In recent correspondence we have used the booklet as a basis for discussion of Bible topics.
There are no Jehovah’s Witnesses in Jamnagar or in that part of India. But on this visit I was happy to find that especially young people are searching and, if given the needed help, may well respond to the truths in God’s Word. If it is God’s will, my hope is that I may eventually be instrumental in helping some of them there to learn the truth about the living God Jehovah, which truth leads to eternal life. (John 17:3)—Contributed.
[Blurb on page 19]
“I asked: ‘How can we tell, then, if my father will have a favorable or an unfavorable rebirth?”’
[Blurb on page 21]
“In two hours the body was consumed.”
[Blurb on page 23]
“The Bible teaching of the resurrection appealed to her.”
[Picture on page 17]
My sister and my sister-in-law
[Picture on page 20]
“Everything from the cow is considered holy, including its manure”
[Picture on page 22]
The monument entitled “Circles of Life”