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Hindu Funerals in Varanasi, India

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Varanasi is one of the holiest cities in India and it sits beside the revered River Ganges. The city's high level of religious significance to Hindus makes it a place that people come to to await the end of their lives in the belief that the place of their death confers on them the reward of eternal salvation.

A priest performs the aarti at Varanasi that is a ritual to give thanks to the River Ganges and to seek its blessings.

A priest performs the aarti at Varanasi that is a ritual to give thanks to the River Ganges and to seek its blessings.

What is Moksha?

Hindu scholars tell us that moksha is a reward for living a perfect life or series of lives. This means abandoning desire, selflessly serving others, and achieving perfect self control and self awareness. How a person lives their life, karma, determines where they will be in their next existence; good karma brings you closer to moksha, bad karma takes you in the opposite direction.

Moksha frees a person from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth and all the suffering and sorrow that goes with this rhythm. As noted by hindutsav.com “In the state of Moksha, a person experiences oneness with Brahman, the Supreme Self or God. It is a state of knowledge, peace, and bliss.” It is the goal of every practicing Hindu.

Please understand that this is a superficial look at a small part of Hinduism, which is a complex set of beliefs and practices that is as much a way of life as it is a religion. The purpose here is explain a little bit about the concept of moksha and its centrality to Hinduism.

The Holy City of Varanasi

The Hindu religion recognizes seven cities as being holy; they are Ayodhya, Dvaraka, Haridwar, Kanchipuram, Mathura, Ujjain, and Varanasi. Of these, Varanasi is considered the most sacred as, according to Hindu mythology it was founded by Shiva, one of primary Hindu deities. Many Hindus believe that if they die in Varanasi they will receive immediate salvation.

The city is on the banks of the River Ganges, which is sacred to Hindus. Here's Cultural India, “The Ganges is considered to be a Goddess and mother in Hindu tradition. A pilgrimage to Ganges is regarded as a pious ritual and that taking a dip in the holy water of the Ganges can purge a person from all his past wrongdoings.”

The Death Hotels

Mukti Bhawan, or Salvation House, in Varanasi is the last dwelling for many who arrive from around the world. It has about a dozen rooms with concrete floors. It is run by a charity and is open only to those on the brink of death. It costs less than a dollar a day for accommodation. Mukti Bhawan has been operating for more than a century and about 1,000 people a year make their brief stays there.

Occupation is limited to two weeks and Romita Saluja, reporting for the BBC, noted that “If the ailing person doesn’t die during that time, they are politely asked to leave.” The caretaker, Narhari Shukla, added that “We make a few exceptions though. The manager may sometimes allow for an overstay depending on the person’s health.”

Over at the Mumukshu Bhawan they set aside 40 rooms for what are called kashivasis, people who have travelled to Varanasi to die. There's no time limit on stays as long as guests can drum up a donation of about $1,300. Rooms are well below what North Americans would call basic, with shared bathrooms and only a few having air conditioning in a city whose temperatures frequently reach the high 90s F.

Ms. Saluja interviewed some guests who had been waiting in the Mumukshu Bhawan for five years for their last rites.

Varanasi Funerals

The ghats are a series of steps along the banks of the Ganges. Some give access for people wishing to bathe in the river's sacred water. There are 88 of these in Varanasi, with two set aside as places of cremation that operate around the clock.

In Hindu belief, the soul is pure and is imprisoned by the body. Therefore, when the body dies it must be purified by fire to release the soul from its temporal tether and allow it to be taken to another body in the reincarnation cycle.

Up to 100 bodies a day arrive at the Varanasi ghats, wrapped in cloth and draped in flowers. The deceased is taken to the edge of the river and the family pours the sacred water of the Ganges over the body as prayers are said. Then, the body is placed on a funeral pyre of wood and the oldest son sets the logs ablaze.

Once everything has been reduced to ashes, these are collected and scattered on the Ganges. Meanwhile, on the river, tourists in boats watch the entire proceedings.

Cremations at the Manikarnika Ghat.

Cremations at the Manikarnika Ghat.

Bonus Factoids

  • In the curious way that India has of changing place names, Varanasi was once known as Benares, in the same way that Bombay became Mumbai and Madras changed into Chennai.
  • There are approximately 3,600 Hindu temples in Varanasi, which claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.
  • The whole cremation process is overseen by Doms, members of low caste Indians. According to India's News18, “The Hindu mythology may suggest that the Doms were cursed by Lord Shiva when a member from their community named Kallu Dom tried to steal an earring of the goddess Parvati . . .”
  • The practice of sati involved a widow dying on her husband's funeral pyre. It is largely a thing of the past, but it does still occur occasionally in India.

Sources

  • “What is Moksha in Hinduism and How to Achieve Moksha?” hindutsav.com,undated.
  • “The Guide to Obtaining Moksha.” Stephanie Hertzenberg, beliefnet.com, undated.
  • “River Ganga.” learn.culturalindia.net, undated.
  • “Varanasi's 'Death Hotel' - Where Hindus Go to Die.” Agence France Presse, February 14, 2019.
  • “India’s City where People Come to Die.” Romita Saluja, BBC, June 18, 2019.
  • “Between Masaan And Moksha.” Adrija Bose, News18, undated.
  • “Varanasi Cremation Ghats with 8 Important Things You Need to Know!” Sophie, thirdeyetraveller.com, August 5, 2020.
  • “Doms of Varanasi Make a Living Among the Dead.” Priyanka Shankar, Reuters, October 26, 2017.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on July 31, 2021:

Rupert, okay. They're human beings that deserve every respect from us. Hindus is Hindus. Any negative remark that I've made here, that I recant. Thanks.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on July 31, 2021:

You've done it again Miebakagh. You've called the beliefs of Hindus "foolish." I'm sure you would get mighty upset if people called your beliefs foolish, ignorant, or superstitious.

Please be more respectful of the faiths of other people.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 30, 2021:

I found this to be fascinating. In that second video, there is wise advice. Resolve your conflicts and never go to bed angry. That would be an ideal way to live!

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on July 30, 2021:

Rupert, you're okay. I don't have the element of hate in my thoughts when you respond to my comment though. Honestly, heathenism, Islam, Zoroaster, Christianity, and other religions has one universal God as the central theme. That tell you something. Theocentric. But when a belief centers on creative things, its another question. For example, cow is God. And you don't eat it. This river is God, all sounds foolish. Thank you.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on July 30, 2021:

Miebakagh - You may not agree with the beliefs of a religion other than your own but to call them ignorant and superstitious is highly pejorative. Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, and all the other faiths, are free to believe whatever they wish and, as long as their teaching does not direct hate or harm toward others, they are entitled to be treated with respect.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on July 29, 2021:

Rupert, I think all these is ignorance or supestitions hidden under the cover of religion. What is a person waiting for to die at the Gange? Would it make any difference for the majority that die in they homes while sleeping? As it turns out, some were sent home to die?

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