A Fascination for Death

I’d like to see Benares. I’m allured by pictures of it, of the grey-yellow Ganges rippling under the weight of thousands of lamps, garlands and the washed-away hopes of charred corpses. So many thousands of people bathe in the waters, wanting to consign their sins to the river and begin life anew; seeking to die in the holy city and be freed of the rebirth that is inevitably our lot, according to the scriptures. Flames rise on funeral pyres on the riverside, burning to ash the bodies that Hinduism says account for very little.

Death fascinates me. I don’t understand it and I know very little about it. But the mystery that shrouds it attracts us to long-gone civilisations and their skeletons in the sand. I find it difficult to take my eyes off the stained bandages peeling off a mummy at the museum or from elaborately painted coffins excavated from distant places, belonging to an age beyond belief. And it isn’t all morbidity, as various rituals around the world can confirm. Look at the ceremonies the Karbi tribe of Assam perform, for instance: a sense of worldly luxury attends the sorrow of death. Many cultures live in the hope that they will be reunited with the beloved dead at some point.

When my grandfather died, we had the ten-day rituals at home in Vizag, even though he was cremated in Bhilai. It was a difficult time. I was twenty-one, and it was the first time I’d heard of a death in the family. I stayed back in Vizag, attending classes, while my parents went to Bhilai for the last rites. Two of my friends came over to stay with me, but I was still quite nervy: a knock on the door at 10 pm had me on edge, though it turned out to be just a well-meaning neighbour wanting to make sure we were all okay and not in need of anything.

Death has never been openly discussed in our house. We don’t have to pick out tombstones or write epitaphs or decide where we’d like to be buried, and we comfortably keep death at a distance. The only time when we actually talk of death, perhaps, is around the time of the yearly ancestor-worship rituals. What happens to the dead? Are their souls actually consigned to three levels in order of precedence, until another death and proper prayers can relieve them of their “imprisonment”? My parents were never given satisfactory answers; their parents probably didn’t know.

During a Sanskrit lesson, our teacher explained the significance of the rituals surrounding a Hindu death: from the preparation of the corpse, to the lamp lit at its head. Several years later, when my grandfather died, some of it came back to me. My room was taken over for the rituals, and as there were a number of people in the house, it didn’t really matter where anyone slept. A lamp had to be kept burning continuously in my room, and offerings of food and water were left out for it. The theory was that the soul, not immediately aware of the fact of death, lingers around its house. (Should it have meant in Bhilai, in this case? I didn’t receive a proper answer, but I obviously didn’t want to push further.) My aunt went in one evening and said she could feel a presence there; it was enough to make me rush in and out of that darkened room, frightened out of my wits, every time I was asked to fetch something from there. I’d never known death, and this first encounter wasn’t all too comfortable.

Returning to the ritual- maybe out of sympathy, or to satisfy the soul’s very earthly hunger and thirst, offerings were made to it: but they were bland so as to wean it off its desire. During this period, we were ’tainted’: nobody was supposed to visit us, and we couldn’t go to anybody’s house. I went to college, of course, but I suppose things have changed now. A few decades earlier, I don’t think people would have been allowed to step out of the house. After ten days, all these visible signs of mourning came to an end. The soul, for all practical purposes, was supposed to have departed. A ceremony was held, a feast prepared and gifts of clothes given to us, the family of the deceased, by my maternal grandmother. I have no idea what they signified, except maybe the end of deep mourning and a sign to us to get on with our lives. The full mourning period did last a year, and we didn’t celebrate festivals or visit hill temples then.

I couldn’t sleep in my room for several weeks after the rituals ended. I wasn’t sure the “presence” had left; how could it possibly know when to leave, where to go? It didn’t help matters that I had been reading Autobiography of a Yogi, and it discussed astral bodies, levitation, ancient sages in the Himalayas and other things entirely beyond earthly comprehension. But it was too fascinating to put down, so I chose to continue being scared over giving up the book and attempting a return to normalcy.

I have several questions, but haven’t managed to find satisfactory answers to them, probably because there is a good deal of vagueness born out of the reluctance to talk openly about death. After all, in Hinduism, death isn’t just about merging with dust, but involves the complicated concept of rebirth and the in-between stages. Only sons can perform rituals for the dead and for their ancestors: what of those who do not have sons? Who frees their souls and allows them to go wherever they are supposed to? Why should the fate of these spirits hang in the balance, based on the (in)competence of their children? If it is just energy, surely it will be transformed and transferred to another body at the earliest possible instance?

We worship gods who roam cremation grounds and wear garlands of skulls. We are familiar with them. It shouldn’t then be difficult to relax our attitude to death and talk of it rationally, especially as many of the rituals around it have a scientific explanation. Death isn’t easy; but being prepared for it might do away with a good deal of the silly fears I once experienced and which aren’t the preserve of one particular age or time.

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