Hinduism is the world’s oldest religion, dating back to approximately 1500 BC. It is also the world’s third most common religion after Christianity and Islam, with between 900 million to one billion followers.
The majority of Hindus live in India, Nepal, and the nations of Southwestern Asia. The United States has a Hindu population of approximately one million. With continued immigration from Southwest Asia, it is reasonable to expect that this population will grow and Hindu funeral rites will become more commonplace.
What is Hinduism?
In contrast to other major world religions such as Christianity, Buddhism or Islam, Hinduism does not have an individual founder. Nor, in contrast to monotheistic religions such as Judaism and its offshoots Christianity and Islam, do Hindus believe in one God. Hindus believe in multiple gods and can worship – or not worship – whichever ones they choose.
What does bring Hindus together is a belief in “Sanatana Dharma,” or the “Universal Law”. When a practitioner of other religions hears the term “Universal Law,” they might be thinking that Hinduism offers one set path for all of its followers, but that is not the case. Sanatana Dharma actually means that each individual has his own path to follow towards “mukti” which can be understood as freedom from a continuous cycle of death and rebirth.
According to Sanatana Dharma, individuals are born, live, and die multiple times. This will happen as many times as it takes for the soul to finally become perfected and unite with its Source. The Hindu view of the body is that it is essentially a prison for the soul. The soul itself is inherently pure, but in its corporeal form is prone to desires and attachments that keep it bound to the mortal world and divided from the Source.
In Hinduism, each death of the body temporarily releases the soul from its earthly suffering, but soon the soul will be taken prisoner in a new body, where it will experience new challenges and new desires and attachments may form. The ultimate goal of each cycle of birth, death, and rebirth is to move along a continuum towards ultimate release from the cycle, but this progression may not always be moving forward. Some lives may take a soul backwards. Either way, the cycle will continue until the final stage is reached.
Hinduism and Cremation
These beliefs about the soul and the body form the basis for why Hindu funeral rites generally include cremation. Hindus believe that the soul is not strictly bound to one body, but will actually reside in any number of bodies – which may or may not be human – before reaching the final destination of freedom, or mukti. Hindus must work toward freeing themselves from attachments and desires and living a life that will free them from the cycle in order to reach the final stage.
Hindus place little value on the body itself. They see the body as a prison for the soul, one that generates attachments and desires that prevent forward progress towards freedom. Therefore, in Hindu funerals, the role of cremation is to sever the ties of the soul to the body that it is leaving, freeing it to move toward mukti.
The only Hindus typically not cremated are babies, children, and saints, who are believed to be pure and unattached to their bodies; therefore they may be buried instead of cremated.
Traditionally in India, Hindus are cremated along the Ganges River as part of a month-long series of funeral rites intended to purify and prepare the soul to move out of the body and assist it in moving toward mukti. Although a few Hindus in America may choose to have their bodies sent to India for these traditional funeral rites, many others choose to be cremated in America.
In the United States, the law requires that cremation must be done in a crematorium, resulting in some differences in how American Hindus must observe their funeral customs. Yet, many Hindu families try to incorporate what they can of the ancient traditions as they are observed in India. Families may have a little water from the Ganges River placed in the mouth of the one who has died. Viewing of the cremation is also sometimes requested.
If you or a loved one is considering cremation, we at Neptune Society encourage you to consider carefully your own position on the subject, discuss your options with your religious leader, and make the choice you believe is right for you and your family. For more articles in this series, please see our religion and cremation article archive.