What do Hindus believe?

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Our understanding of Hindu beliefs about death follow naturally from their beliefs about the ultimate purpose of life. The soul (atman, from the word for breath, an) is trapped in a cycle of seemingly endless reincarnation as it seeks moksa, the absorption into the godhead of Brahman. Death is then the release of the soul from its present incarnation and its preparation for the next stage of the cycle. What that will be depends on the karma, the merit, or quality of life lived in this incarnation. If it has been particularly unworthy then a huge number of reincarnation-cycles (8,400,00 in one set of teachings) will be added. Some Hindus believe that if a person has shown him or herself to be especially resistant to goodness, they will be reincarnated in animal form, even insect form.

At death, traditionally experienced on a mattress on the ground and, at the very last, actually lying on the ground, the soul is released. Some believe this is nearly instantaneous; others that it occurs at the cremation, on the funeral pyre. For the most worthy, the frontal fontanel will open (as it closed at birth) and allow the soul to escape. For the least worthy, the soul will proceed from the rectum and will be fouled and polluted, requiring much purification at the next cycle.

Preparations for the cremation are important - and urgent. The body is washed in ghee, honey, milk and yoghurt, while the head is bathed in oil - turmeric for women and sandalwood for men. The hands are put in an attitude of prayer and the big toes are tied together. The body is dressed in smart clothes and flowers are garlanded round the shoulders, and a lamp, lit and burning, is placed near the head to illuminate the soul on its journey.

The cremation happens within 24 hours of death and is led by a Hindu priest and/or the eldest son. Traditionally women were not allowed to attend, but that is no longer enforced. Chants are sung throughout the ceremony, with mourners dressed in white. Mourning may last from 10 to 30 days, when friends and family members will visit the bereaved family, sometimes with flowers but not usually with food. On the 13th day after the death, the family will hold a ceremony of remembrance, (the preta-karma) praying for the successful reincarnation of the deceased.

We welcome views and comments from Hindu believers.