The title of this article takes me directly into the subject of reincarnation. Re-incarnation is a term familiar to most people these days. It is the Hindu doctrine referring to the continual process of dying and being born again.
Another name for it transmigration. In today’s Western world this doctrine has become popular. It is part of the New Age beliefs; it is popularised by such people as the actress Shirley McCaine, and by others who declare they can remember something of their previous life or lives. Most of us have met people with this belief.
In Hinduism this doctrine of reincarnation doesn’t stand alone. Along with it is the Hindu teaching of karma, the law that what you do in this world, every deed, whether good or evil, influences what you are in your next birth. The consequences of one’s attitude and conduct follow as inevitably as effects follow causes in the physical world. The conditions into which an individual is born into this world depend on his conduct in previous lives. This makes it possible to explain any apparently undeserved pleasure or suffering as a result of deeds done in a previous life.
Hindu beliefs and Practices in the Area of Life and Death
Let’s see if we can explain in an interesting manner what Hinduism teaches in the area of life and death. One problem is Hinduism has no one book like our Bible, no one doctrine, no one way of being a Hindu. It varies from area to area, and from caste to caste. In fact, for a number of years not there have been groups which teach, “There is no god,” but still consider themselves as Hindus.
But one thing is certain, all Hindus; believe in re-birth. It is an important part of their world-view, and of their everyday thinking. This thinking is that those who fulfill their caste duty, those who have lived lives of piety, charity and austerity, go through a series of incarnations, hopefully gradually rising in caste. To be born as a woman would be to be born on a low plane; the highest plain is the “twice-born” Brahmin caste ( the priestly caste). The Brahmin men wear a special three-fold sacred thread over their shoulder at all times to indicate their high caste, that they are twice-born. A Brahmin ascetic is considered very holy, and would come to the place where he would consider himself one with god, even say, “I am god.” He would confidently not expect to be reborn on earth.
The souls of those who lived evil lives however, are reborn as animals or insects. One result of this thinking, is the view that all living things are the same in essence; and this thinking is comeing out in the modern emphasis that man is not anything more important than other animals.
There is a philosophical Hinduism , and there is everyday life Hinduism of the common people. The philosophical expression of Hinduism is not concerned about appeasing the gods and getting their favour. It is concerned with obtaining release from the process of being continually reincarnated.
How to get release from re-births? Before 300BC, there were sacrifices in Hinduism but theoretically they are no longer required, being thought of as unnecessary destruction of life and not effective for salvation. (Salvation, remember, being the release from rebirths.) But nevertheless, sacrifices do continue, even though forbidden by low in India. At least sacrifices of hens and goats do continue to come extent. And though repugnant to Hindus in general, some deluded people do occasionally engage in human sacrifice. However, they do this not to gain salvation, but to try and gain some material benefits. Though illegal, there are still occasional occurrences of suttee ( burning of widows on their husband’s funeral pyres), and religious suicide.
So, if sacrifice is not a way to obtain release, what should one do? One can start with moral living, and with religious observances; but mysticism and asceticism are required to actually be freeed from the ties of rebirth. Hence the final stage of life for a man ( after the stages of being a celibate, a student, a householder) is to leave family and go out alone and in poverty as an ascetic. The ascetic may attach himself to a guru ( religious director and teacher), and learn techniques like breath control, go into rapt meditation, and so on, until he has fully realised the identity of his soul with the Absolute.
He whose soul becomes one with the Absolute will, upon death, be set free from the bondage to the law of karma ( that is the low that what you do in this life influences what you are in your next). He escapes forever the dreary and painful cycle of life and death. This is given the term nirvana, a Sanskrit word meaning, literally,”waning away”, as of a flame when the fuel is exhausted.
The ceremonies at death have to do with this seeking after release from rebirths. The disposal of the body is usually by cremation.
It is essential for ensuring a happy rebirth, that man have a son to light his father’s funeral pyre. (This necessity becomes a difficulty for Christian young men whose parents and relatives remain Hindu. It can cause deep divisions in the family, as the Christian does not want to undertake a Hindu ceremony. )
Whenever possible, the ceremony is performed near a river. The ashes may be scattered on the river. The river Ganges is particularly sacred for this purpose. Many Hindus want to die on the banks of the river Ganges.
Besides the ceremonies connected with cremation, there are numerous other rituals which go on for days after the death, differing from caste to caste. Strictly speaking, the family is unclean for ten days, and should confine themselves to the home, performing ceremonies for the welfare of the dead man, who cannot attain rebirth without the assistance of these rites. The ceremonies continue on certain specified days, certains months and annually on the anniversity of the death.
A woman’s position is very different from a man’s. A woman’s husband is her god, and her position in her next life depends on her fulfillment of her duties as a wide. Hinduism teaches that a wife should have no desires or thought apart from her husband. She does not even refer to him by name. She should bear a son for her husband, a son who would perform the necessary rites to ensure his father’s salvation. Failure to bear sons could be a reason for him to take a second wife, or cast her aside. If her husband dies, she is not permitted to remarry (though India’s secular law now decrees otherwise).