Cremation and its origin in Hinduism
It is an ancient custom among Hindus to cremate their dead. After a person dies, it is understood that the lighting of the funeral pyre will be led by the eldest son of the deceased. In this article, a number of issues dealing with cremation and its origins are discussed.
During early days of civilization, fire used to be started by rubbing sticks of special materials against each other. Lighting any fire afresh therefore used to be a difficult task that was time-consuming, laborious and required a lot of effort and energy. One of the prayers (Book 1: Hymn 94.3) in the Rig Veda, "O Agni, may we have power to kindle thee," indicates that the person lighting a flame had to be in good physical condition.
A ritual fire, such as in yajna (fire worship) or cremation (using a pyre of wood), was usually ignited afresh. This would also mean therefore that a healthy and strong person in the family had to light the fire on any special occasion. A physically fit and robust son would naturally be an ideal choice for this job. In this regard, a number of Vedic prayers were dedicated for obtaining a good, strong and healthy offspring (usually a male). It was expected that he would eventually be involved in fire starting duties. Moreover, by igniting the fire himself, he would spare his family from depending on others for lighting the ritual flame or borrowing it from outside.
The practice of a strong male (usually the son) lighting the funeral pyre slowly grew into a custom, which over time became quite rigid. It implied that a son had to perform the last rites for his parents. It also led to the unfortunate belief that the last rites for a parent would not be acceptable religiously unless the deceased's son had carried them out. This thinking put more pressure on the families to have sons while undermining the importance of daughters.
There were also several reasons for a daughter (or another woman) to not play an active part at her parent's funeral. A woman was generally not as strong as a man for lighting the funeral flame by rubbing sticks against each other. This was a strenuous and time-consuming task that had to be carried out usually in wet and cold conditions of crematorium near a river. Moreover, a woman's health during menstruation, pregnancy and child delivery could make it difficult for her to take any strenuous assignment. Women would also be prone to get emotionally more upset at funerals than men, and therefore not suited to undertake additional responsibility. Similarly, a daughter could be away at her in-laws when her parents died and therefore not able to attend the funeral in time. Note in this regard that there used to be no holding and refrigeration facilities to safely store a corpse, and therefore the funeral was held without delay -- usually within a day after the death of a person. To eliminate any uncertainty regarding women's participation at funerals for their family members, the cremation duties were assigned to their male kin in stead. This was basically to avoid any confusion at the last moment. Furthermore, in case of a deceased person having more than one son, job of lighting the pyre would go first to the eldest son. If he was unable to fulfil his duty, then his place would automatically be taken by the second son, and so on. This orderly division of labor was to complete the cremation reliably and without delay. Everyone understood his role in the family.
Traditionally, whenever there was a death in the community, a male person belonging to each household -- irrespective of the caste -- would attend the funeral to pay respects to the dead. Moreover, everyone going to the crematorium on such occasion would carry some wood with him to add to the pyre. This was to assist in gathering the necessary fuel for cremation.
Note that the Hindus originally started the practice of cremating their dead for several reasons. They did not want to leave dead bodies around to be consumed by vultures. Such a sight could be very traumatic . especially to the family of the deceased. Hindus also had a reverence for their dead and wanted to maintain sanctity of the corpse against attacks from savages. They did not therefore follow the practice of leaving their dead to the vultures.
Cremation was also preferable to burying the dead. A grave or burial site would require a piece of land, which had to be in a good, safe and secure location. Moreover, if the practice of burying the dead had been prevalent, huge areas of good territory would be lost as graves. During early days of civilization, digging a grave would be more difficult, laborious and time-consuming because of lack of proper tools. In comparison, cremation was easier and cheaper (needing no land), because everyone going to the crematorium to pay respects to the dead would simply carry some wood with him to add to the fire.
In case of burials, fresh graves would also need to be guarded against attacks by prowlers. As indicated in some of the Vedic hymns for seeking protection from intruders, the early communities were under a constant threat from beasts, wild dogs, and rakshashas (cannibals, uncivilized humans). Danger from these savages seeking food and flesh (literally) used to be more imminent during special rituals (yajnas, funerals, and other celebrations). As people on such occasions would gather outside for extended periods of time and display large quantities of food (holy offerings), they would become an easy prey. Thus if people were to bury a dead body in the ground, there would the possibility of savages (intruders) raiding the fresh grave for an easy meal. Such an occurrence would be traumatic and unacceptable to the surviving family-members. They would therefore need to protect the grave so that it did not get disturbed. But guarding a grave was not easy and cheap long ago because of lack of resources. Furthermore, in case of a large number of graves or burial sites in the community, securing them all against attacks from savages would almost be impossible. In comparison, cremation by fire was quite simple and it hardly posed undesired situation of intrusions that might have occurred in case of buried corpses. Cremation by fire was therefore the better way to dispose of a dead body.
In some unusual situations though, such as, when monks and children died, the dead were buried rather than cremated. It was perhaps because the deceased in this case did not leave any offspring behind. Since the prevailing custom required a son to ignite the funeral pyre, cremation would be considered inappropriate for a child or a monk -- dying usually without leaving any offspring (son) behind. Therefore the dead were buried in such cases. Note also that burying the body of a small child in the ground was probably easier than preparing and igniting the pyre for its cremation. Similarly, ensuring the safety of burial site in such infrequent and special instances would be relatively easy because of the close proximity of the grave to a community. For example, grave for a monk would generally be located close to the monastery, and that for a child would be near the surviving parents' home. People would thus be able to watch over these sites easily and also thwart any potential attacks on them.
The Hindu custom of cremating the dead also indicates that there was probably no significant Aryan invasion or large scale Parsee (Persian) infiltration into ancient India. Had there been such foreign influences on the early Hindus, they would have adopted the Aryan custom of burying the dead or the Parsees' way of leaving corpses to the vultures. But such is not the case. Hindus do not bury their dead or leave the corpses to vultures. Note also that disposal of a dead body makes a very important ritual in each culture. Had the foreign invaders drastically influenced Hinduism -- already prevailing as a religion -- in India, or if they had introduced Hinduism -- as a fully developed religion from outside -- in India, the Hindu ritual for the dead would now be something else and not cremation. Hinduism thus -- having customs different than those of the ancient foreigners -- appears to be an indigenous and unique faith that originated and evolved in India over a long time with small, insignificant and infrequent inputs from outside. Moreover, whenever the foreigners arrived in India (usually in trickles), they were quickly absorbed into the local culture without influencing it drastically.
Finally, in a related discussion, the reverence to Sun by people in India, Egypt, Mesopotamia and elsewhere does not imply that Indians were ever under the cultural influence of outsiders. It simply indicates that the Sun is a very important natural force, and its impact is felt by all forms of life (animals and plants) everywhere since times immemorial.
By: Dr. Subhash C. Sharma
Date: Oct. 12, 2003
link to: Related topics by the author
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