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Why Do Hindu Cremate

One may applaud the altruistic effort of Hindu in promoting organ donation to save the lives of others on a humanitarian level. As living or deceased organ donation and tissue donation are relatively new practices, most Hindu proponents of organ donation have attempted to address the issue from a humanitarian perspective introducing the concept of "Daan" (donation) and "Yagya" (giving up) indicative to our Faith. Although Daan is also about sacrifice, in the Hindu faith they are considered two distinct though interconnected concepts. Etymologically Daan (originated from Dhaatu "da" which means "to give"); and Yagya (originated from Dhaatu "yaj" - means to relinquish) and indeed Shree Krishn describes Yagya, Daan and Tap as separate practices, (Yagyo daanam tapashchaiv, paavnaani maneeshinaam); that the wise say we are purified by the acts of Yagya, donation and penance (Vrat, Upavaas, Tap etc.)

We should question some Hindu scholars' standpoint that when only the soul is sacrosanct and not the body then why do we bathe the deceased, dress it in new clothes, pay reverence to it by offering garlands and flowers etc, keep a lighted flame by it, circumambulate it with fire prior to cremation to dispel malevolent spirits and negative forces, if it has no sanctity and is just a corpse to be discarded. The whole essence of Hindu cremation is not just purely destructive, but rather to revivify the deceased in the spiritual abode.

While living, we can sacrifice (Yaj) many things which we hold dear to us as an act of devotion, to repay debt to Devtaa (gods), Pitri (ancestors) and people (mankind) etc, or as an act of philanthropy. No one would condemn a father for donating a kidney to save his daughter in renal failure, whilst both are alive. However this is his free will driven by Moh (attachment to physical things) and that he knows he can survive with just one kidney.

In the matter of cadaveric organ donation, the consent to do so is given by the >prospective donor in life when the corporeal body is in the Jeev's control but not necessarily its property. We should question whether this Shareer (body) is ours in the first place and that its constituent components can be given away by us once the life force (Jeev) has left? We would consider this body as having been given to us by Paramaatmaa to whom it is returned once death has occurred. If we reject this, then we can give away the thing which we no longer have any use. But does that constitute the act of Daan? - We think not.

Quite simply there is no scriptural support in Shruti or Smriti that we are aware of, for cadaveric harvesting of organs or tissues; there are of course incidences from our scriptures whereby characters such as Dadheechi, Karn etc have donated their body or body parts, in vivo, but not post-mortem. Moreover, part of the Hindu funeral rites (Antyeshti Kriyaa) describes the return of the life force (Jeevaatmaa) and the constituent parts of the Paarthiv Shareer (mortal remains) to Eeshwar. Here is the Pramaan (scriptural evidence):

Sooryam Chakshurgachatu Vaatamaatmaa dyaam cha gachaprithiveem cha dharmanaa
Apo vaa gacha yadi tatra te hitamoshadheeshu prati tishthaa shareeraih
(Rig Ved, X.16.3)

Some Hindu may feel therefore that by removing constituent parts of the body after death may hinder the progress of the Aatmaan to the celestial realm and they would not be wrong to think so. After all, the cremation sacrament is called Antyeshti which means "final offering" of the physical remains in its entirety to Kravyaagni Dev (consecrated fire that consumes raw flesh).

Ved stipulate that in the Antyeshti Kriyaa the Paarthiv Shareer (corporeal body of the deceased) is entrusted to Agni as a complete offering, Havya and its constituents, such as the integument, fat, flesh, bone etc, are the individual oblations (Aahuti). The whole process of cremation is considered a sacred offering to the fire-Hom Yagya (Pitrimedh) whereby each component of the deceased's remains is delivered to the celestial abode.

The offerings given in Grihya Sootra are over 160 in number; one may refer to the relevant sections of Ved listed below for details of the actual Mantra:

Rig Ved Sanhitaaa, Mandal 10
Sookt 14, Mantra 1-5, 7-9, 13-15
Sookt 16, Mantra 3, 4, 5, 7, 13
Sookt 20, Mantra 9

Shukla Yajur Ved Sanhitaa
Chapter 39, Mantra 1-3, 10-14

Atharv Veda Sanhitaa
Kaand 18, Sookt 2, Mantra 7, 14-17, 19, 29, 32, 33, 56

Taittireeya Aranyakaa (Krishn Yajur Ved Sanhitaa)
Prapathak 6, Anuvaak

Details of the actual ritual are given in Ashwalayan Grihya Sootra 4.1.6-10, 15-17 and 4.2.1.

In fact, the need to ritually cremate the dead body in consecrated fire is so overwhelming that even bodies which are buried, immersed or never found are still ceremonially offered to Agni in the form of a replica body made of Kushaa (vide Aitareya Braahman XXXII.1).

The Jeevaatmaa once it departs the physical body at the point of death becomes known as the Pretaatmaa.

Until Aatmaa is untied with Paramaatmaa (Rig Ved, 10.16.5) from the corporeal remains it remains in limbo pending the oblations made into the ignited fire which will consume the corpse simultaneously accompanied with the relevant Mantra suffixed with sSwaahaa,(swa + aahaa) meaning safely convey x, y, z constituents to Swar Lok. (medebhyaah swaahaa, maasebhyoh Swaahaa, tvachebhyah Swaahaa etc).

This is not ritualistic pedantry, rather is in accordance with Hindu authoritative Scriptures (Shaastra ) which emphasizes in the scriptural validation below, the importance of post-mortem Sanskaar.

Jaat Sanskaarenemam lokam abhi jayati mrit sanskaarenaamum lokam
"It is well-known that through the Sanskaar (sacraments) after birth one conquers this earth; through the Sanskaar after death, the celestial realm."
[Baudhyaayan Pitrimedh-Sootra iii. 1.4.]

Evidently, if a deceased's organs have been removed at death and transplanted into others, though the deceased's Aatmaa has left its body, Garud Puraan tells us that even if Angushth Maatra (the size of a thumb) of the corporeal body remains unburnt, the disembodied soul (Pretaatmaa) will remain associated with it. Moreover one who does not obtain proper rites is condemned to perpetually remain a Pret (disembodied soul). Once again here is the evidence from scriptures:

Pretatwa susthir tasya dattai shraaddhashatairapi | eva gyaqatwaa mahaaraaj Pretatwaaduddharaswa maam ||
[Garud Puraan, 2,9.49]

Therefore if the transplanted organ of the deceased will continue to live in the recipient's body, the complete dissociation of the Pretaatmaa from the corporeal body of the deceased would be impaired. Quite intriguingly, many patients who receive donated kidneys for instance report subsequent changes in their diet, habits, and impulses etc. which on investigation often mimic the likes and dislikes of the deceased donor. This is well documented as "organ memory" and may allude to what our scriptures have stated.

Who is to say that this will not have implications on the progress of the soul?
Do we fully understand the ramification of donating organs?

Whilst many Hindu mean well and very passionate about their Faith, they are not conversant in the Hindu scriptures nor acquainted with the actual theological perspective; they often get carried away with how Hindu Faith is perceived by others. Though it is highly surprising that in the UK a learned Sanskrit scholar and member of this very forum who is part of Vivekanand Centre, London (aka Hindu Academy -link somewhat prematurely advised the Government that Hindu had no issue with cadaveric harvesting of organs; well, in light of the guidance of our scriptures, some of us would beg to differ.

Why to Immerse Ashes of the Dead in the River Water?
Since the river moves constantly towards the sea where all the waters of its various tributaries mingle, it is believed that it will also carry the ashes of the dead to their final resting place, reintegrating them once again with the creator, the ocean, from which all life began. It is noted here that Gangaa came here on Prithvi only to give Mukti to 60,000 dead sons of Raajaa Sagar.



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Created by Sushma Gupta on 8/9/09
Updated on 04/07/12