As flowing rivers become one with the ocean by losing their identities, so do great souls become one with the Divine when their lives end.”
–Mundakopanishada; Section-II (8).
The 1st of January is that international date, when people, despite their faith and cultural differences, celebrate the birth of a new-year and wish each other A Happy New Year. But I went to inform masi of the end of a life; the passing of her brother-in-law.
I stayed with her just long enough to comfort her and pick up my white cotton shirt, the one I had dreamt of dad, when he was alive, dressed in. He must have liked that shirt very much, or why would I see him in that shirt?
As soon as I returned from masi, I hurried off to Pundit Vishnu Das’s home to inform him about his prediction, seek his advice on the funeral arrangements and also take him to the market with me to purchase the necessary items for his final rites. That was one of the phases of life I was completely ignorant about.
By the time we returned, I noticed a few neighbourhood aunties had gathered and were sitting around dad’s lifeless body. Suddenly, the grandmother of the young man, who had helped us with dad’s check up at the BHEL hospital, looked at me and questioned, “Where is Tripta? Why isn’t she here?”
What could I say? I was not taking her absence calmly either. How unlucky one could get? We all traveled all the way from Canada and Ram from Nigeria, and yet neither of them, except me was around to bid dad a final good bye. Was it some kind of karmic punishment?
I left dad’s room and went to the front of the house where men folks had gathered, but only to be confronted once again, this time by elder brother Shashi. He was upset with me because the silk shroud I had purchased was not up to family standard. May be he was right, but I kept struggling with his outright rejection. If the shroud was below family standard, it was not because I was trying to nickel and dime dad’s funeral, it was only because I had no experience in shopping for shrouds.
Mind stores memories; both pleasant and unpleasant and is always ready, with or without your command, to reproduce recollections of similar incidents occurred. They might comfort you, compound current grief or anger, or navigate one’s troubled present. Shashi’s critical comment reminded me of a scolding I had once received from mom, but not about a silk shroud. It was about a bridal silk sari.
Before I got married, I lived in Poona, teaching at the American Institute of Indian Studies. Mom instructed me to buy two good quality Maharastrian silk saris for my future bride. If Mrs. Pattanayak, my boss’s wife were around I would have requested her go shopping with me. But she was in Bhuvneshwar at the time, visiting her parents. I asked Barbara, a visiting professor from the Columbia University, who happened to be my student at the time. On the way, she asked my hundreds of questions about Tripta’s likes and dislikes.
“This is an arranged marriage, Barbara! What the hell do I know about her likes and dislikes? If I can marry her not knowing her likes and dislikes, you sure can help me pick two saris,” I told her.
“I feel sorry for you, Dr. Kurl, but I will do my best,” she responded with a smile, which felt heavily lased with pity.
Barbara and I visited several sari stores and finally decided on two beautiful saris, yellowish and pale green, both with delicate silver work.
When I handed them to mom, hell broke loose. She rejected them outright, “They are not appropriate for a bride. They did not have enough silver work on them.” She pronounced her final verdict and left.
Guess who jumped to my rescue? It was dad.
“What is wrong with these saris” he asked. Mom did not answer his question; instead, she launched a verbal attack on him. “What do you know about bridal saris?”
“Well, well, well. If I, who have married a daughter and three sons to date in my life how do you expect Suresh to know about bridal saris?”
Mom invoked God and left for the kitchen leaving those saris at the spot where she sat, on the floor.
Where was dad? Why was he not standing up for me? I felt so alone. I began to cry.
Our Hindu customs could be rigid, flexible or custom made, depending on the circumstances of the individual and the creativity of his advisors, especially the family priest. Traditionally, it is the eldest son, who performs the final rites of his parents. But if he is not available or forbidden to perform, the youngest son is given that right and responsibility. Also, as a sign of his grief he has to have his head shaved before cremating the body. Something else, after the cremation, at night he sleeps on the floor and stays house bound until all the rites are completed, which could take a minimum of eleven to thirteen days, depending on the lunar cycle.
Since our eldest brother Ravi was not to perform the cremation, the dilemma we were faced with was that as the youngest son, if I were to perform the cremation rites, I was also to stay put at home. Pundit Vishnu Das suggested a compromise. He advised that I should perform the cremation rites and Shashi, who was still limping with a broken leg in cast, should have his head shaved, stay home and be recognized as the head of the family. It was a practical solution. It freed me to do all the outdoor work.
I bathed dad with the holy Ganges water, dressed him up in my white cotton shirt, wrapped a dhoti around his waist, put sandalwood paste on his forehead, just the way he used to after his morning prayers, placed a marigold garland around his neck and covered him from head to toe with the shroud. The men standing around helped me pick up his body from the floor, place it on the bamboo stretcher, and tie it around with a string. The next step was to carry him to the cremation grounds to the banks of the Ganges.
All that time, I kept hoping that Tripta and my daughters would suddenly show up just as uncle Keshav, my maternal grandfather’s younger brother, had magically appeared before the people were just about ready to pick up grandmother’s body and carry her to the banks of the Ganges. But my hopes remained empty; beggars’ hopes.
Ignorant of the funeral custom, I put on a pair of leather shoes to protect my feet from pieces of broken glass, nails, small rocks, animal dung or any other harmful debris scattered on the way to the Ganges. Then, just as I bent to lift one end of the stretcher, I heard a stern command from a stranger, “Don’t touch the stretcher until you take those shoes off. You will assist this journey only with bare feet.”
I looked at Punditji hoping he would veto the ruling. He did not. Instead, he suggested that since my shoes were made of the skin of dead animals, they were apavitra (impure) and therefore I could not be allowed to perform religious rites and rituals with them on. But as my bathroom slippers were made of rubber, I could put them on.
Priests could be very creative, at least he was, I thought, and took off those shows as required, washed my hands and picked up the head side of the stretcher, placed one end of it on my shoulder, while three other people picked up the remaining three ends and carried him out of his worldly home for his final send off with a loud burst of “Raam naam satya hai, satya bolo gata hai.” God’s name is the (only) truth. Speak the truth. Salvation lies in truth. How strange it was that an out burst of such a profound philosophical chant marrying truth with salvation was allowed only at funerals processions; as though it was a confession made out of fear.
I kept moving forward, while some people showered the body with flowers, candies and pennies. Shashi followed on a rickshaw. We had hardly gone two hundred yards from home, a stranger cut in to relieve me and also as a gesture of respect for the departed individual.
Once we reached the banks, the body once again had to be bathed by submerging in the holy waters. Twelve-year-old-Shekhar, Shashi’s son was the only relative who could assist me, but he was too young to lift that weight. Who else could I ask for help? I spotted Ravi standing aloof at a distance. I could not say how he heard of dad’s passing but he was there, looking at me. Our eyes locked. The incident reminded me of his last night behaviour and dad’s words not to let him touch his body.
Should I or should I not invite? I had a difficult decision to make, and fast. If I obeyed dad, I would license the entire community to perform a postmortem on our family relations. That would bring us nothing but disgrace. Ravi was not a stranger to the people of this town. Every one knew that he was dad’s eldest son, and the principal of the biggest senior secondary school in Haridwar. On the other hand, if I disobeyed, I would be guilty of not following his instruction. I had no choice, but to find a solution to the dilemma. Several pairs of eyes were looking at me.
I thought of a spiritual solution and attempted to convince myself. No, no matter what decision I make dad could not be upset with me. Why? Because when he instructed us not to let his eldest son touch him, he was an earthly being of emotional weaknesses. Since then, he has moved to the spirit world, a world that is void of all emotions and all attachments. He just could not be disappointed or appointed. He does not those faculties.
With these thought I invited Ravi with a gesture of my eyes. And he came, immediately, as though he had been waiting for that signal. We picked up the ends of the stretcher, and having submerged it in the holy waters placed it on the pyre.
In addition to Pundit Vishnu Das, there was another priest standing and waiting to assist me. He only performed the sacrificial karma-kanda rites. Right away, he moved forward and started instructing me in short imperative sentences, “Pour the melted ghee on the pyre. Place those pieces of sandalwood and incense sticks on the pyre. Make three circles around the pyre. Now touch your dad’s feet with your forehead and ask for his forgiveness for any disrespectful words you might have uttered to him or unpleasant behaviour you might have displayed when he was alive.” After that, he handed me a bundle of dry grass and asked me to torch it and set the pyre ablaze.
In about twenty minutes he approached me again, and gently putting his hand on my shoulder said, “We believe that human spirit lives in the forehead. We perform this rite to set the spirit free from falling in the hands of tantrik yogis. They are occasionally seen roaming around cremation grounds at night, looking for unbroken skulls to use them in their occult practices.” Then he handed me a long bamboo and asked, “Please poke this bamboo into your dad’s skull and break it into pieces and perform your dad’s Kapaal Kriya rite.”
The cruelty to dad’s skull stoked my pain. Only fifteen hours ago both of us had reminisced and conversed; he had affectionately stroked my hair and told me how happy I was when he took me to the bazaar to see those colourful Diwali lights. How excited I was that I began to beat on his face like a drum. Only fifteen hours ago, he had blessed me to live a happily life. And only fifteen hours later,
I was being asked to break his skull into pieces to save his spirit from tantriks. I felt shattered.
I heard Pundit Vishnu Das reciting the most popular funeral-hymn from the Bhagavad Gita, “Sword can cut it not, fire can burn it not, waters can wet it not and wind can dry it not. It’s the spirit. It is never born and it never dies.”
He came over, called me, “Son” and said, “I know you loved your father very much. You have good karma. Don’t you see how he pulled you from thousands of miles away? Don’t cry for the loss of his body. Cherish his memories. He was a great soul. Bid him farewell. We are a gift from God. We are a loan to this earth. A loan has to be returned.”
The Karma-Kand Priest came over and asked, “Please go around the ashes and bow to them.” I bowed but not his ashes. I bowed to the sum total of my dad’s life lived and loved.
When we returned home, the house looked and felt empty. His bed was gone. His clothes were removed. His medicines and tonics were put away. We swept, washed and purified the house with the holy water and lit a lamp where he slept.
Mom treated that space as his shrine from then on. She mourned him there, communed with him there in silence and received mourners there. And at the end of the day, both mom and Shashi slept over there for ten days.
The same evening Tripta and the girls returned from Dehradun. They were much too late to be a part of the most important chapter of my life. When she noticed mom sitting in the corner, on the floor, wrapped in a white dhoti, I could not say which emotion gripped Tripta first? Was it shock, shame, anger, disappointment, grief or fear of the consequences of not respecting her husband’s repeated requests to return within twenty-four hours?
On the third day, Shashi, a few of his close friends and I went to the Ganges to pick dad’s ashes, euphemistically called, pushpa (flowers), and dedicated them to the Ganges. That was his final payment of a debt to mother earth and our final goodbye to him.
Thus, days, evenings and nights passed mourning and performing different rites. Hindus believe that the spirit of the departed stays around his house for ten days. On the eleventh day, it leaves after receiving a send off and unite with the spirits of his/her ancestors. But to me, dad’s Kriya was not another rite, but it was a celebration of the ultimate liberation from his earthly life. To me, his soul, the moment it separated from his body, left and united with the Supreme, just as the five composing elements united with the nature one by one.
Pundit Vishnu Das returned on the eleventh day, along with ten additional priests, including a few young students in training for priesthood. The students in training purified dad’s room with holy waters and coated a portion of the floor with cow-dung and clay. A few of them prepared for a fire sacrifice (havan). Then, in the centre of that coated space they heaped small kindling of mango and sandal wood and placed pieces of camphor underneath that heap. They poured ghee on the kindling and then set them alight.
Then, we heard a sudden burst of Vedic mantras, chanted in unison. The fire sacrifice started by invocations to gods, including the god of fire (Agni Deva), who is the priest (purohitam) of gods. Ritually speaking, there were twelve priests performing that kriya ceremony. Eleven of them were representing our family and one, Agni Deva representing the gods.
Their Vedic chants and the offerings rising on the wings of those divine flames were uplifting and therapeutic for our grieving hearts. That was the first time in my life I had experienced the enormous healing power of rites, rituals and ceremonies. That was the moment I realized that traditions do have a meaning in life and they must be preserved.