By Swami Harshananda
History reveals that the disposal of the dead bodies has been practiced by mankind in several ways. From the list given below the first two have been most widely practiced:
- Consigning it to water
- Leaving it on mountain tops or tree tops to be devoured by animals and vultures
Cremation of dead bodies has existed since very ancient days. Bodies of dvijas (‘twice-born’) who had kept duly consecrated Vedic fires (such people were called ‘āhitāgnis’) were cremated. Initially Vedic fires, various wooden sacrificial vessels and implements were placed on the different limbs of the dead body at the time of cremation. Those who had not kept the Vedic fires were cremated with ordinary fire.
There was one more practice of dismembering a she-goat or a cow. This process was called as ‘anustaraṇi. In this various severed parts on the dead body of she-goat or a cow was placed on the dead body at the time of cremation. But this practice was given up later on. Then the practice of animal being let off or gifted away started. The whole process of cremation was an elaborate ritual.
Dead bodies could be carried on the shoulders by the male relatives or could be transported by a cart. According to one account, a great deal of noise is to be made by means of instruments like the symbols, while carrying the dead body to the crematorium. Though weeping was allowed during the time of cremation, it was prohibited after the cremation was over.
During a period when transport and communication were difficult, people who traveled either for pilgrimage, business or any other purpose, had to face many hardships. So when someone who had gone out was heard to have died and the body could not be recovered, cremation was done to an effigy prepared out of palāśa (Butea frondosa) leaves, flour of barley and woolen thread. This was called ‘ākṛti-dahana’ (‘burning the effigy’). Such cremation of an effigy was done to people who were not heard of for twelve years or more also. If by chance they returned later, they had to undergo all the sacraments like jātakarma, nāmakarana etc.
The ashes and bones were collected after cremation. This was called ‘asthi- sañcayana’. Then these ashes were either interred in a suitable place or consigned to a sacred river or sea.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore