Hinduism has more than 900 million adherents throughout the world. One of the oldest religions, it does not stem from a single founding figure or an original scripture. It is a religion that has evolved through the teachings of many practitioners and is considered by many as a framework for living, rather than simply an article of faith. The Hindu religion has rituals associated with death and the afterlife.
After a person dies, the chief mourner, usually the deceased's eldest son, passes an oil lamp over the body before it receives a final bath. Flowers are placed around the deceased as relatives of the same gender bathe the body, anoint the head with sesame oil and wrap the deceased in white cloth. The body is placed into a coffin. During this ceremony, the body will be positioned so that its feet point toward the south, the direction of Yama, the lord of death, and the head toward the north, the direction of Kubera, the lord of wealth.
Hindus believe cremation is the best way for the soul to throw off the shackles of earthly existence. It allows the elements that make up the corporeal body--fire, air, earth and water--to return to their natural spheres. The chief mourner lights the funeral pyre using a flaming bundle of kusha grass. He will walk counterclockwise around the body three times, lighting the pyre. When the body is almost completely cremated, the skull will be cracked with a bamboo pole in order to allow the soul to float free. This ritual is called kapala kriya.
Approximately 12 hours after the cremation ceremony, the male members of the family will return to collect the ashes. The ashes and small bits of bone, called "flowers," are ground into dust.
If a Hindu lives near the Ganges River, his remains may be placed upon a floating pyre that is set alight and pushed into the flow of the river so that the ashes will disperse in the water. Hindus believe the Ganges is sacred as it is mentioned in one of the earliest Hindu texts, the "Rig Veda." Varanasi, a holy city in northern India, is situated on the banks of the Ganges and often people in this area will scatter the ashes of their loved ones into the river.
While most Hindus are cremated after death, exceptions exist. Children are usually buried in holy ground near temples. An enlightened master, someone who has devoted himself to study and worship and often been a teacher of Hinduism, is interred inside a tomb called a samadhi.
For 12 days after the cremation, the deceased's family members will be ritually unclean. They will remain in the home, not attending the temple or any religious festivities. They will drape religious icons with white cloth and share their problems in the belief that this will ease the burden of sin carried by the deceased. Hindus believe in reincarnation and that, upon dying, a person's soul is simply being transferred to the next stage of existence.
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