By Swami Harshananda
Antyesti literally means ‘the last sacrifice’.
According to the dharmaśāstras, a person is expected to lead his life religiously. At every stage of his life he is expected to perform or undergo certain religious ceremonies which will add a peculiar excellence not only to his body but also to his mind and spirit. This is technically called ‘sanskāra’ (purificatory rite or sacrament).
Out of the sixteen such samskāras (called ṣoḍaśa-saiṅskāras), antyeṣṭi is the one that comes at the very end. It is the grand finale of a life that has been well-lived.
As the very name indicates (antya = end, death) it is performed on the death of a person, by his survivors, usually the sons or the nearest male relatives. Since cremation seems to have been the general rule among the Vedic people, it was considered as a sacrifice (iṣṭi = sacrifice). It was believed that Agni, the fire-god, who acted as a messenger between gods and men, would lead the soul of the dead to the next world.
On the approach of death, the person who is expecting to die shortly, bids farewell to the assembled relatives and the world. Alms and gifts are distributed. Oblations are offered into the sacrificial fire maintained by him. In the modern days dropping the water of Gaṅgā and tulasī leaves into his mouth are in vogue. The body is removed in a bier specially prepared and taken in a procession to the cremation ground, being led by the chief mourner (usually the eldest son).
A cow is let free on this occasion. She is called ‘anustaraṇi’ and is believed to be helpful in crossing the ocean of mortality. The corpse after washing is laid on the pyre and fire is applied with appropriate Vedic mantras. After udakakarma (offering of water) and consoling the mourners, the nearest relatives observe aśauca (ceremonial impurity) usually for three days.
- Rgveda Samhitā 10.16.1
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore