Hinduism Death
by
Ariel Glucklich
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 January 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0014

Introduction

Like every other religion, Hinduism has treated the subject of death as one of the major concerns of human life, both as an existential problem to be overcome and as a great intellectual, spiritual, and moral mystery. Death occupies many areas of the religious life of Hindus, including mythology, philosophy, medicine, ritual, social arrangements, and even sacred geography. It pervades high Sanskritic culture along with village and folk religions, and the scholarship bearing on the subject of death in India reflects this diversity. This article covers the broad range of areas and academic approaches to death throughout Hindu South Asia.

General Overviews

Due to the open-ended and fluid nature of this subject matter, there are very few works that focus exclusively on death and cover it in its full range of application. Filippi 1996 is the most thorough but Ghosh 1989 and Wilson 2003 are good overviews. Brief chapters in comparative volumes, such as Hopkins 1992, Hikita 2000, or Rambachan’s essays in Coward 1997, tend to be useful, if general, introductory approaches to death in India. Butzenberger 1996 introduces older scriptural approaches to the subject.

  • Butzenberger, Klaus. “Ancient Indian Conceptions of Man’s Destiny after Death.” Berliner Indologische Studien 9 (1996): 55–118.

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    Contains a general overview of major characteristics of the afterlife in the Vedas and Brahmanas, including the netherworlds, worlds of the fathers, the moral quality of man’s destiny in the afterlife, and its darkness and sufferings.

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  • Coward, Harold G., ed. Life after Death in World Religions. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997.

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    This broad survey includes three chapters by Anantanand Rambachan, covering the person and views of death and afterlife.

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  • Filippi, Gian Giuseppe. Mrtyu: Concept of Death in Indian Traditions. Translated by Antonio Rigopoulos. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld, 1996.

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    Presents a comprehensive survey of Indian ideas regarding death, as well as life. These are drawn from philosophical systems, tribal and folk sources, scriptures, and myths. The book also discusses the relation of death and pollution.

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  • Ghosh, Shyam. Hindu Concept of Life and Death as Portrayed in Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanisads, Smrtis, Puranas and Epics: A Survey and Exposition. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1989.

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    Directed at a nonscholarly Hindu readership and is programmatic. It presents a comprehensive overview and synthesis of a large number of texts on the topics of death and the afterlife, along with rituals that range from sraddhas to yoga.

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  • Hikita, Hiromichi. “Funeral Ceremonies and the Destiny of the Dead.” In The Way To Liberation: Indological Studies in Japan. Vol. 1. Edited by Sengaku Mayeda, 13–29. New Delhi: Manohar, 2000.

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    A brief but detailed overview of the topic of death and the afterlife based on primary sources beginning in the Rig Veda and running through the Puranas.

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  • Hopkins, Thomas J. “Hindu Views of Death and Afterlife.” In Death and Afterlife: Perspectives of World Religions. Edited by Hiroshi Obayashi, 143–155. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1992.

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    A brief but accurate general overview on the topic of death and the afterlife—a good starting point.

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  • Wilson, Liz, ed. The Living and the Dead: The Social Dimension of Death in South Asian Religions. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003.

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    Presents a wide-ranging collection of essays on the social dimension of death and death rituals. Contributions include siddhas, female Brahmin ritualists, Tamil rituals, Buddhist nuns, and other topics related to death and dying.

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Afterlife and Immortality

Death in Hinduism has provoked more than fear and more than speculations about the afterlife. There have also been a variety of traditions, such as yoga, siddha, medicine, and alchemy, that developed ritual and practical methods for overcoming the finality of death. An early overview of such traditions is found in Clark 1934, while Eliade 1958 and more recently Feuerstein 1998 have made these traditions, especially in the case of yoga, famous in the West. White 1996 is a superb analysis of medieval alchemy and its theoretical and ritual contexts, and Weiss 2009 situates death and immortality in more pragmatic contexts.

  • Clark, Walter Eugene. Indian Conceptions of Immortality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934.

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    This short work is based on the Ingersoll Lecture. It surveys a broad span of works from Vedic and Upanisadic to theistic on ideas concerning death and immortality.

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  • Eliade, Mircea. Yoga: Immortality and Freedom. Translated by William R. Task. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958.

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    Argues for the centrality of yoga for the entirety of India’s religious traditions in terms of allowing individuals to attain spiritual freedom from conditioned existence and gain immortality. Deeply colored by Eliade’s familiar theoretical approach to religion.

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  • Feuerstein, Georg. The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy, and Practice. Prescott, AZ: Hohm, 1998.

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    A remarkably broad and expansive overview of yoga thought and practice, including sources that range from Vedic to medieval and modern periods. Discusses in detail yogic techniques for achieving so-called immortality.

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  • Weiss, Richard S. Recipes for Immortality: Medicine, Religion, and Community in South India. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

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    Contains a discussion of siddha, or traditional medicine in contemporary South India and explains its success in terms of the practitioners’ ability to control communication and foster community.

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  • White, David Gordon. The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

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    Relying on tantric texts from Siddha Kaulas, Rasa Siddhas and Nath Siddhas, along with mythological material and alchemical/magical practices, the author discusses both tantric conceptions of immortality and shows the ways in which substances such as silver and gold were used to obtain immortality.

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Karma and Rebirth

Karma and rebirth are two areas of Hinduism possessing immense scope and have generated an enormous body of scholarly work. They are both clearly related to death and dying as Doniger O’Flaherty 1980 and Neufeldt 1986 demonstrate. Hart 1980 covers South Indian material that sheds important light on karma in India. Bronkhorst 2007 argues based on a wide range of sources that the idea of karma as moral retribution did not originate with the Vedas but in Magadha. Selecting from an immense topic Stoeber 1990 and Perrett 1987 examine the relationship of rebirth and dying in a more explicit manner than is usually the norm, and Kaufman 2005 examines karma in relation to the existential and ethical problems triggered by death. Stuart 1991 looks at the conceptual and emotional problems posed by an important death and possible responses to it among the followers of Krsna Caitanya, and Mukherje 2004 does the same for the tradition of Sri Aurobindo.

  • Bronkhorst, Johannes. Greater Magadha: Studies in the Culture of Early India. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 2007.

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    Argues for the separate geographical, political and cultural existence of a “greater Magadha,” lying to the east of the Ganges-Yamuna confluence. Argues that the religion of Magadha promoted not just the belief in repeated rebirth but karmic retribution, along with the techniques for overcoming the effects of previous actions—which did not originate in Vedic religion, but which survived the encounter with it.

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  • Hart, George. “The Theory of Reincarnation among the Tamils.” In Karma and Rebirth in Indian Classical Traditions. Edited by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, 116–130. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

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    States that before the coming of Aryan influence Tamils did not believe in reincarnation. Discusses alternative views of the afterlife, including belief in ghosts and spirits of dead relatives and describes rituals to avoid possession by them.

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  • Doniger O’Flaherty, Wendy, ed. Karma and Rebirth in Indian Classical Traditions. Papers presented at two conferences, the first held near Seattle, WA, on 22–23 October 1976 and the second in Pasadena, CA, on 26–29 January 1978. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

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    Presents twelve essays on karma, with several touching on the relation between moral retribution, rebirth (and the afterlife), and final liberation.

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  • Kaufman, Whitley R. P. “Karma, Rebirth, and the Problem of Evil.” Philosophy East and West 55.1 (2005): 15–32.

    DOI: 10.1353/pew.2004.0044Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Discusses the effect that a theory of karma and rebirth can have on resolving the problem of evil. Concludes that the theory of karma does not solve the problem.

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  • Mukherje, Jugal Kishore. Mysteries of Death, Fate, Karma, and Rebirth in Light of the Teachings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Pondicherry, India: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 2004.

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    Sponsored by the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, this book represents an insider’s view of Aurobindo’s views on death, karma, and rebirth. Consists mainly of quotes from Aurobindo and the Mother and a commentary that links these quotes to ancient sources.

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  • Neufeldt, Ronald. Karma and Rebirth: Post Classical Developments. Papers presented at a conference held at the University of Calgary, 20–23 September 1982. Albany: State University of New York, 1986.

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    Continuing the work of Doniger O’Flaherty 1980, this volume contains several essays on karma in Hinduism (A. Creel, K. Klostermaier, D. Miller, and R. Williams) and a critical evaluation of these by Karl H. Potter.

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  • Perrett, Roy W. “Rebirth.” Religious Studies 23.1 (1987): 41–57.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0034412500018539Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Provides a rationale, based on ethical, theological and metaphysical grounds, for regarding Indian ideas of rebirth as credible.

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  • Stoeber, Michael. “Personal Identity and Rebirth.” Religious Studies 26.4 (1990): 493–500.

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    The author presents a philosophical examination of how the notion of rebirth may account for the experiential connection between a deceased individual and his new embodiment.

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  • Stuart, Tony K. “When Biographical Narratives Disagree: The Death of Krsna Caitanya.” Numen 38.2 (1991): 231–260.

    DOI: 10.1163/156852791X00141Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Looks at the conflicting narratives on the death of Krsna Caitanya (1486–1533) and narrows down four major ways of conceptualizing such a problematic event in the history of a devotional movement.

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Folk Traditions

India’s size and rural nature guarantees a rich and diverse range of local customs relating to death, ancestors, ghosts and the many rituals associated with such beliefs—all of these varying from one region to the next. General approaches to local and folk customs, all of them based more or less on a limited region, are found in Blackburn 1985 and Babb 1975 and are excellent launching points for investigating the general topic of death. However, a sustained stream of scholarly works in sociological, anthropological, and religious publications has explored specific aspects of death in far greater detail. These topics include deification of humans in Thapar 1981 and Coccari 1989, mourning rituals in Blackburn 1988 and Wolf 2000–2001, and afterlife beliefs in Peyer 2004, Furer-Haimendorf 1953, and Parkin 1988.

  • Babb, Lawrence. The Divine Hierarchy: Popular Hinduism in Central India. New York: Columbia University Press, 1975.

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    Contains a description of ancestral offerings in the context of several other rituals in Chhattisgarh. Babb situates local practices in conceptual continuity with broadly conceived cultural beliefs and practices of Hinduism.

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  • Blackburn, Stuart H. “Death and Deification: Folk Cults in Hinduism.” History of Religions 24.3 (1985): 255–274.

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    Looks at the importance as a conceptual driver in folk Hinduism and contrasts it with classical Hinduism. Surveys narrative, ritual, and iconographical contexts related to cults of the dead in India.

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  • Blackburn, Stuart H. Singing of Birth and Death: Texts in Performance. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988.

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    Blackburn translates and analyzes three bow narrative songs from Nancil Natu in South India. The sung stories include birth, death, and an auspicious story, all of which are analyzed within a ritual context and in the broader context of Tamil and Malayalam village culture.

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  • Coccari, Diane M. “The Bir Babas of Banaras and the Deified Dead.” In Criminal Gods and Demon Devotees: Essays on the Guardians of Popular Hinduism. Edited by Alf Hiltebeitel, 251–269. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.

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    Based on oral accounts and folk songs in the Banaras area, this study looks at the process of deifying heroes, Bir Babas, and the social significance of their worship today.

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  • Furer-Haimendorf, Christoph von. “The After-Life in Indian Tribal Belief: The Frazer Lecture in Social Anthropology, 1952.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 83.1 (1953): 37–49.

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    Presents the case of the Raj Gonds from Madhya Pradesh to illustrate two meanings of the notion of jiv (soul), both as an impersonal life-substance and as the nonphysical individuality that survives death.

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  • Parkin, Robert. “Reincarnation and Alternate Generation Equivalence in Middle India.” Journal of Anthropological Research 44.1 (1988): 1–20.

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    Studies beliefs and patterns of reincarnation among the Munda speakers of Middle India in order to examine the question of generational kinship terminology in Proto-Dravidian.

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  • Peyer, Nathalie. Death and Afterlife in a Tamil Village: Discourses of Low Caste Women. Munster, Germany: Lit Verlag, 2004.

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    Presents a comprehensive but detailed view of major topics relating to death in a Tamil Nadu village, including dying, rebirth, ghosts and ancestors, rituals, impurity, and the social implications of death.

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  • Thapar, Romila. “Death and the Hero.” In Mortality and Immortality: The Anthropology and Archaeology of Death; Proceedings of a Meeting of the Research Seminar in Archaeology and Related Subjects Held at the Institute of Archaeology, London University, in June 1980. Edited by S. C. Humphreys and Helen King. New York: Academic Press, 1981.

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    Shows that alternative view of the afterlife—based on the Vedic pitrloka—prevailed alongside that of karma and rebirth in classical and later times. This was the foundation of the hero cults or deification of heroes, which also influenced the practice of sati.

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  • Wolf, Richard Kent. “Mourning Songs and Human Pasts among the Kotas of South India.” Asian Music 32.1 (2000–2001): 141–183.

    DOI: 10.2307/834333Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A study of the Kotas, who live in the Nilgiri Hills of Tamil Nadu. The author shows how changes that are intentionally introduced into mourning songs and rituals reflect a conscious awareness of cultural identity and philosophy.

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Ghosts, Possession, and Exorcism

Common to both folk and the major Sanskritic traditions is a wide range of customs and practices related to the spirit of those who did not die in a timely fashion and whose ghosts are still roaming the world, possessing the living and requiring exorcism and various forms of satisfaction. Freed and Freed 1993 presents a comprehensive overview of the topic from northern India while Gough 1959 examines both a more specific location and sets the tone for a sociological understanding of this phenomenon. Knipe 1989, Bharati 1976, and Glucklich 1997 take up specific aspects of ghost possession and exorcism, Smith 2006 covers the full historical and textual sweep of the topic while McDaniel 2004 connects possession to the religion of the Goddess and Kakar 1991 looks at the psychoanalytical implications of possession and exorcism.

  • Bharati, Agehananda, ed. The Realm of the Extra Human: Agents and Audiences. Papers presented to the Ninth International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, Chicago, 1973. Paris: Mouton, 1976.

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    One of two volumes edited by Bharati based on the Ninth International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences in 1973. This volume contains Susan Wadley’s contribution that deals with good and bad spirits or ghosts in northern India and their relationship to possession and exorcism.

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  • Freed, Ruth, and Stanley A. Freed. Ghosts: Life and Death in North India. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History 72. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993.

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    This is the ninth volume of the Freeds’ fieldwork in Shanti Nagar. The Freeds report on oral interviews among the three ideological sectors of the village on a variety of topics related to karma, death, ancestors, and ghosts.

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  • Glucklich, Ariel. The End of Magic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

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    Describes ghost possession and exorcism rituals at Baba Bahadur Sayyid in Banaras and situates the beliefs and practices associated with these in a broader context of social relationships and a theory of magic.

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  • Gough, Kathleen. “Cults of the Dead among the Nayar.” In Traditional India: Structure and Change. Edited by Milton Singer, 240–272. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1959.

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    Renowned functionalist study of the South Indian Nayar caste that focuses on beliefs and ritual surrounding the topic of death. Gough analyzes the social function of faith in ghosts and of funerary rites and examines both emotional and legal dimensions of these practices.

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  • Kakar, Sudhir. Shamans, Mystics, and Doctors: A Psychological Inquiry into India and Its Healing Traditions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

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    Contains a detailed description of one girl’s possession and the elaborate, pseudo-juridical ritual of exorcism, which is carefully analyzed in psychoanalytical terms. Applies the term “shaman” to ojhas and sokhas who are professional exorcists.

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  • Knipe, David M. “Night of the Growing Dead: A Cult of Vrabhadra in Coastal Andhra. In Criminal Gods and Demon Devotees: Essays on the Guardians of Popular Hinduism. Edited by Alf Hiltebeitel, 123–156. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.

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    Examines the untimely death of children who have not reached the householder stage in the town of Rajahmundri, Andhra Pradesh. The author surveys general beliefs in the afterlife and rituals dealing with the needs of the departed and the specific case of the young departed who become raging ghosts.

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  • McDaniel, June. Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls: Popular Goddess Worship in West Bengal. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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    Studies many of the worship forms directed at the Goddess, including songs, rituals, possession, exorcism, healing and others. Discusses several ways of coping with death, including the tantric ritual of sitting on the chest of the corpse.

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  • Smith, Frederick M. The Self-Possessed: Deity and Spirit Possession in South Asian Literature and Civilization. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.

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    Presents the most comprehensive overview of the subject of spirit and deity possession in South Asia examining the Vedas, medical literature, tantra, folk traditions while also explaining the reasons that the subject has remained neglected in contemporary scholarship.

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Mythology

The topic of death has confronted the narrators and storytellers of India since the earliest Vedas, as a character, a problem or a source of implicit theological and ethical reflection. Doniger O’Flaherty 1976 surveys most of these themes as she links death to human perception of evil while Long 1977 and Beane 1977 focus on the intellectual responses to mortality, and Kinsley 1975 looks at the duality of human response. The mythology of Bhairava, the horrific aspect of Shiva, is a rich source of insights on the ethical and emotional link between death and contemporary Hinduism as Visuvalingam 1989 shows, while Helfer 1968 has shown that the famous narrative about death in the Katha Upanisad can also be linked to ritual structure. The earliest mythical data is presented by Bodewitz 2002, based on Vedic sources.

  • Beane, Wendell Charles. Myth, Cult, and Symbols in Sakta Hinduism: A Study of the Indian Mother Goddess. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1977.

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    Examines the metaphysics and ethics of Sakta Hinduism with a particular focus on the horrific aspects of the symbolism of Kali as an embodiment of time and death.

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  • Bodewitz, H. W. “The Dark and Deep Underworld in the Veda.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 122.2 (2002): 213–223.

    DOI: 10.2307/3087614Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Examines pre-Upanisadic passages in the Vedas and Brahmanas to describe the characteristics of various underworlds with a particular focus on depth and darkness, along with their denizens and moral implications.

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  • Doniger O’Flaherty, Wendy. The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

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    Monumental study of theodicy in ancient Indian mythology, including the emergence and necessity of evil, the role of time, fate, demons, and the complexity of dharma. Chapter 8 describes and analyzes the mythology of Death (Mrtyu or Yama) and the following chapter deals with heaven.

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  • Helfer, James S. “The Initiatory Structure of the Kathopanisad.” History of Religions 7.2 (1968): 348–367.

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    Presents a critique of Eliade’s theory of Brahmanic initiatory ritual as consisting of “dramatic” and “easy” categories. Helfer discusses the initiatory structure of the Katha Upanisad in relation to the ritual performance of the Adhvaryu priest. He argues that this structure symbolizes death and rebirth.

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  • Kinsley, David. “Freedom from Death in the Worship of Kali.” Numen 22.3 (1975): 183–207.

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    Examines the history, mythology, and iconography of Kali to emphasize two fundamental approaches to death: heroic-confrontational and childlike resignation.

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  • Long, Bruce J. “Death as a Necessity and a Gift in Hindu Mythology.” Paper prepared for the annual convention of the American Academy of Religion held in Chicago, 1973. In Religious Encounters with Death: Insights from the History and Anthropology of Religions. Edited by Frank E. Reynolds and Earle H. Waugh, 73–96. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977.

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    Based on mythological and narrative accounts within the Brahmanas, Upanisads, Mahabharata and other sources, this article examines theological and ethical responses to the problem of mortality.

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  • Visuvalingam, Elizabeth-Chalier. “Bhairava’s Royal Brahmincide: The Problem of the Mahabrahmana.” In Criminal Gods and Demon Devotees: Essays on the Guardians of Popular Hinduism. Edited by Alf Hiltebeitel, 157–229. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.

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    Connects the Bhairava mythology, associated with murder, death and guilt, to the ritual function of the funerary priests in Banaras.

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Rituals of Death

While folk customs related to death dominate in remote countryside regions, the major religious centers and normative texts also abound in rituals that deal with death, cremation, ancestor offerings, sacrifices, and pilgrimages that focus on death.

Cremation

Cremation rituals in Banaras have received sustained scholarly analysis, particularly in the work of Parry 1985, Parry 1994, and Srivastava and Srivastava 1997, and more broadly by Davis 1988. The topic of gift-giving, and the dangers involved, is closely related, as both Parry 1985 and Parry 1994 demonstrate, but seen also in Snodgrass 2001. The broader theological implications of cremation are examined in Davis 1988, while Das 1977 and Kaushik 1976 look at their sociological functions.

Ancestor Rites

Ancestral rituals take place after the deceased has moved into the state of being an ancestor. Knipe 1977 focuses on one ritual, while Prasad 1997 offers a far wider of sraddha and Kaelber 1978 considers the rituals in the broader context of samskaras as initiatory rituals.

  • Kaelber, Walter O. “The Dramatic Element in Brahmanic Initiation: Symbols of Death, Danger, and Difficult Passage.” History of Religions 18.1 (1978): 54–76.

    DOI: 10.1086/462806Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Considers initiatory symbolism in light of Mircea Eliade’s theoretical approach and the empirical data contained in the Upanisads and in rituals such as the Upanayana and Diksa.

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  • Knipe, David M. “Sapindikarana: The Hindu Rite of Entry into Heaven.” In Religious Encounters with Death: Insights from the History and Anthropology of Religions. Edited by Frank E. Reynolds and Earle H. Waugh, 111–124. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977.

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    Examines the practice of sapindikarana (offering of rice balls) in Banaras and Uttar Pradesh, and in the scriptural sources. Focuses on the moment of the deceased’s entry into the worlds of ancestors.

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  • Prasad, Rāmachandra. The Śrāddha: The Hindu Book of the Dead. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1997.

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    Presents a translation of texts on the Antyesti Samskara taken from numerous passages in the Puranas and Dharmasastras that describe the ritual of sraddha and its significance in the scheme of samskaras. Introduction describes and justifies ancient Hindu views of the afterlife and significance of ancestors.

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Sacrifices and Metaphorical Death

The topics of death and sacrifices intersect where Levi 1966 shows that the Vedic sacrifice deals with dying and the afterlife, but also where Saindon 2000 shows that funerary rituals possess sacrificial dimensions, Parry 1982 argues that the good death is sacrificial in a structural sense. Kinsley 1977 explains the spiritual implications of death-ritual symbolism and Gray 1987 connects exorcism to sacrifice or second cremation.

  • Gray, John N. “Bayu Utarnu: Ghost Exorcism and Sacrifice in Nepal.” Ethnology 26.3 (1987): 179–199.

    DOI: 10.2307/3773656Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Focuses on the Bayu Utarnu ritual, which is conducted for people who died prematurely or under violent circumstances and cannot become ancestors. Based in a Hindu village in Nepal, the research shows that this exorcism ritual is a sacrifice or second cremation.

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  • Kinsley, David R. “The Death that Conquers Death: Dying to the World in Medieval Hinduism.” In Religious Encounters with Death: Insights from the History and Anthropology of Religions. Edited by Frank E. Reynolds and Earle H. Waugh, 97–110. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977.

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    Briefly describes and explains a number of sectarian ritual practices that focus on death as disciplinary practice and demonstrates the way that such “dying to the world” helps achieve spiritual immortality.

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  • Levi, Sylvain. La Doctrine du sacrifice dans les Brahmanas. 2d ed. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1966.

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    Presents a general but detailed overview of the Vedic beliefs and rituals relating to death and the afterlife.

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  • Parry, Jonathan. “Sacrificial Death and the Necrophagous Ascetic.” In Death and the Regeneration of Life. Edited by Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry, 74–110. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

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    Contrasts the “good death” (sacrificial) of the householder, which regenerates time, with the practices of Aghori ascetics who seek to suspend time by avoiding death.

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  • Saindon, Marcelle. Céremonies funé raires et postfuné raires en Inde: La tradition derrière les rites. Sainte-Foy, QC: Les Presses de l’Université Laval, 2000.

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    Uses mortuary rituals as a fulcrum for analyzing a variety of domains such as Vedic sacrifice, conceptions of action and rebirth, social hierarchy; the author uses these ideas in turn as tools for ritual analysis.

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Pilgrimage

While Banaras figures very prominently in Parry’s work on cremation (Parry 1985 and Parry 1994, both cited under Cremation), Eck 1983 provides a broader context on the city as a place where people come to die and be cremated, and Gesler and Pierce 2000 places the death rituals in the context of the city’s sacred geography.

Ritual Impurity

Ritual impurity has largely defined and controlled the nature of traditional Hindu society, its rank, and social and interpersonal relations. It has also played a major role in Indian sociology and anthropology over the last seventy years. As a major source of impurity death has been studied in relation to kin relationships by Orenstein 1970 and Nicholas 1982 and examined in terms of etiology by Mines 1990 and in relation to the Aghori practitioners in Banaras by Barrett 2008.

  • Barrett, Ron. Aghor Medicine: Pollution, Death, and Healing in Northern India. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

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    Study of medical practices in Banaras, especially among the Aghori ascetics and their leprosy patients, written by a trained nurse. The author examines the practices that involve pollution, particularly death pollution, and situates these in a broader philosophical and social context.

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  • Mines, Diane Paul. “Hindu Periods of Death ‘Impurity.’” In India through Indian Categories. Edited by McKim Marriott, 103–130. New Delhi: SAGE, 1990.

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    Sets out to explain what causes impurity (“incapacity”) following death, how it ends and why periods of impurity vary in length.

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  • Nicholas, Ralph. “Sraddha, Impurity, and Relations between the Living and the Dead.” In Way of Life: King, Householder, Renouncer; Essays in Honor of Louis Dumont. Edited by Triloki Nath Madan, 366–380. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1982.

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    Relies on Dharmasastra sources to outline the structure of purity in connection with death rites (sraddha) and emphasizes the family relationships that are expressed by ritual practice. The structural approach is designed to reinforce a functionalist theory.

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  • Orenstein, Henry. “Death and Kinship in Hinduism: Structural and Functional Interpretation.” American Anthropologist, n.s., 72.6 (1970): 1357–1377.

    DOI: 10.1525/aa.1970.72.6.02a00090Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Argues that the rules of death pollution in the Dharmasastra directly reflect kinship relation and proximity and extends this empirical observation to a structuralist and functionalist theory that extends beyond Hinduism.

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Dying and Bereavement

Geriatrics, end of life health care, hospice, and dying usually figure in medical and nursing journals. However, two recent publications—Justice 1997 and Firth 1997—treat these topics in a broader cultural and even religious context. Whereas both Justice 1997 and Firth 1997 study Hindu practices, the former focuses on Varanasi while the latter studies Hindu practices in England.

  • Firth, Shirley. Dying, Death, and Bereavement in a British Hindu Community. Louvain, Belgium: Peeters, 1997.

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    Based on a doctoral dissertation at the School of Oriental and African Studies, this work examines the ritual, social and psychological contexts of Hindu death practices in contemporary England.

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  • Justice, Christopher. Dying the Good Death: The Pilgrimage to Die in India’s Holy City. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

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    The research for this work is based on oral interviews at the Kashi Labh Mukti Bhavan, which is a home for the dying in Varanasi. The author examines beliefs in the afterlife among the patients and discusses the ways that a good death is conceptualized.

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Death in the Vedas, Sutras, Upanisads, and Puranas

Death commends a great deal of attention in the Vedas, including numerous hymns in the Rig Veda and technical ritual discussions and mythical narratives in the Brahmanas. Oldenberg 1886–1892, on the Gihya Sutras, is still useful and an excellent source of data on death rituals. Bodewitz 2002 focuses on mythical material while Smith 1985 deals with ritual, while Tull 1989 covers both topics. Death is central to numerous Upanisadic discussions, including the famous episode of Naciketas in the Katha Upanisad. Black 2007 and Gotshalk 1998 explore the philosophical and social implication of such texts, while Jarow 2003, on death in the Bhagavata Purana, covers much later sources.

  • Black, Brian. The Character of the Self in Ancient India: Priests, Kings, and Women in the Early Upanisads. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007.

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    Presents a comprehensive overview of early Upanisadic religion, including both worldviews and rituals. The topic of death is discussed in connection with notions of the self and its survival after death.

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  • Bodewitz, H. W. “The Dark and Deep Underworld in the Veda.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 122.2 (2002): 213–223.

    DOI: 10.2307/3087614Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Presents a comprehensive and thorough look at the afterlife, primarily hell, in Vedic literature, with several references to later texts such as Manu and the Mahabharata.

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  • Gotshalk, Richard. The Beginnings of Philosophy in India. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1998.

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    Presents a historical context for the earliest layers of Indian philosophy, including economic, political, and social contexts. Discusses Yama in the Rig Veda and death in the Upanisads.

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  • Jarow, Rick E. H. Tales for the Dying: The Death Narrative of the Bhagavata Purana. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003.

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    A close reading of the Bhagavata Purana along with major commentaries, designed to achieve an empathetic reading of its message on dying, loss, separation, renewal, and similar themes woven into its narrative.

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  • Oldenberg, Hermann, trans. The Grihya-Sutras: Rules of Vedic Domestic Ceremonies. Oxford: Clarendon, 1886–1892.

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    Though dated and other translations are now available, this is still the only comprehensive translation of all the major Grhya Sutras, including Sankhayana, Asvalayana, Apastamba, and others. Includes late Vedic prescriptions for death rites.

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  • Smith, Brian K. “Gods and Men in Vedic Ritualism: Toward a Hierarchy of Resemblance.” History of Religions 24.4 (1985): 291–307.

    DOI: 10.1086/463010Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Discusses the role of heaven (svarga loka) as a goal of the Vedic sacrificial ritual, emphasizing the difficulties and dangers of the journey from living to heaven.

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  • Tull, Herman Wayne. The Vedic Origins of Karma: Cosmos as Man in Ancient Indian Myth and Ritual. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.

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    The author analyzes the Vedic ritual sacrifice, interpreting the way it prepares the sacrificer to cope with death by symbolically expressing the transition from life to death and finally, rebirth.

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Death in the Mahābhārata

The central but complex link between the Mahabharata and the Vedic sacrifice, which deals with death, the afterlife and immortality, makes the epic fertile ground for scholarly analysis bearing on death. As Hiltebeitel 1972 and Hiltebeitel 1976 show the great battle at the heart of the epic, the death of the hero and the destruction of the world situate the topic of death at a possible textual intersect between the epic and Vedic and early European sources. More recently Reich 2001 has continued such an examination of the battle as trope while Hiltebeitel 1995 has moved in an opposite direction, linking the text to contemporary practice in South India. However, as an immense source of information on every aspect of life, the Mahabharata often provides explicit data on the topic of death, seen in Buitenen 1975 or Thomas 1994, which links Yama and Shiva as cosmic destroyer.

  • Buitenen, J. A. B. van “Pandu’s Funeral.” In The Mahabharata: 2 The Book of the Assembly Hall, 3 The Book of the Forest. Translated and edited by J. A. B. van Buitenen, 250–264. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975.

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    Van Buitenen superbly renders into English the narrative of Pandu’s preordained death, followed by the detailed account of his funeral and cremation, which provides a paradigmatic case of Madri’s self-immolation in sati.

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  • Hiltebeitel, Alf. “The Mahabharata and Hindu Eschatology.” History of Religions 12.2 (1972): 95–135.

    DOI: 10.1086/462670Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Presents an early version of the author’s thesis that the Pandava heroes continue the mythological themes of the Vedas and that the great battle of the Mahabharata preserves an ancient eschatological myth.

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  • Hiltebeitel, Alf. The Ritual of Battle: Krishna in the Mahabharata. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976.

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    Presents a complex hypothesis that sorts out comparative mythology and Indology in connection with the precise relationship between the Mahabharata and early European mythology on the one hand and Vedic Indian antecedents on the other. Discusses several topics related to death including the death of the hero and the destruction of the world, and especially the great battle at the core of the epic.

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  • Hiltebeitel, Alf. “Dying Before the Mahabharata War: Martial and Transsexual Body-Building for Aravan.” Journal of Asian Studies 54.2 (1995): 447–473.

    DOI: 10.2307/2058746Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Focuses on the cult of Kuttantavar, the son of Arjuna and the serpent woman Ulupi in a Tamil folk cult based on the Mahabharata. Shows how the cult’s symbolic conceptions of death are expressed through the mythic and ritual forms of bodybuilding.

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  • Reich, Tamar C. “Sacrificial Violence and Textual Battles: Inner Textual Interpretation in the Sanskrit Mahabharata.” History of Religions 41.2 (2001): 142–169.

    DOI: 10.1086/463672Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Analyzes the Asvamedhika Parvan of the Mahabharata and argues that the heterogeneity of this book reflects an ongoing cultural debated on the epic battle as a trope for a sacrifice.

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  • Thomas, Lynn. “The Identity of the Destroyer in the Mahabharata.” Numen 41.3 (1994): 255–272.

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    Identifies Yama as the deity who acts as the cosmic destroyer in the Mahabharata—even where this is not explicitly stated. Regards this as an older version of Shiva acting as the destroyer in the Puranas.

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The Widow

The murder of Roop Kanwar in 1987 in Rajasthan, performed in the name of perpetuating the tradition of sati or the “good wife” (who immolates herself with her husband) triggered extensive scholarly reactions. A conference at Columbia University led to a significant volume, edited in Hawley 1994 and critically reviewed in Menski 1998. The murder of Kanwar was described and analyzed in Sen 2002, but the most thorough cultural analysis of the widow-burning, for those who heed Menski 1998 and wish to understand the cultural phenomenon, is Weinberger-Thomas 1999. Mani 1998 adds an important feminist perspective to the historical debates over sati, while Sharma 2001 provides a wide range of contexts in which sati figures.

  • Hawley, John Stratton, ed., Sati, the Blessing and the Curse: The Burning of Wives in India. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

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    A collection of papers from a conference at Columbia in 1988, following the murder of Roop Kanwar. A rich and nuanced contribution to the cultural history and conceptual framing of sati, including contributions by eleven authors.

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  • Mani, Lata. Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

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    Using the debates over sati as its focus, this work critiques both colonialist and Hindu nationalist discourse in the light of women’s perspective and social role during the colonial period.

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  • Menski, Werner. “Sati: A Review Article.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 61.1 (1998): 74–81.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0041977X00015767Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A critical review of the literature on sati, covering the decade following the murder of Roop Kanwar in 1987. The author focuses primarily on the essays published in Hawley 1994 and emphasizes the rich cultural and historical dimension above the feminist or human-rights approach of previous scholarship.

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  • Sen, Mala. Death by Fire: Sati, Dowry, Death, and Female Infanticide in Modern India. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002.

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    Examines the murder of Roop Kanwar in 1987 in the Indian village of Deorala in Rajasthan and the broader social and legal implications of Sati.

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  • Sharma, Arvind. Sati: Historical and Phenomenological Essays. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2001.

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    A collection of free-standing essays that center on the subject of sati. These include essays on Western and Hindu opposition to the practice, the writings of Rammohun Roy and B. G. Tilak on sati, the ancient laws on sati, and other topics.

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  • Weinberger-Thomas, Catherine. Ashes of Immortality: Widow-Burning in India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

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    Based on historical material, including reports of missionaries, this book looks at the immolation of widows (sati) in Hinduism. The author examines the linguistic, mythological, symbolical and sociological elements of sati and closely discerns in these the structure of female subordination.

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Dharma and Ethics

There are numerous Hindu sources of dharma that deal directly and indirectly with the subject of death. These range from the early Dharmasutras to the sastras, followed by medieval and early modern commentaries and compendia. Chief among the sources is the Manava Dharmasastra, translated in Olivelle 2005. But another sastra, the Yajnavalkya Smrti, was equally if not more influential in rules touching on death rituals and laws, leading to later codes, translated in Colebrook 1984. A massive overview of dharma, with lengthy and detailed discussions of death rituals, inheritance laws and similar topics is Kane 1962–1975. More specific and ethical approaches explore childhood death in Sharma 2007 and abortion and euthanasia in Coward and Lipner 1989.

  • Colebrook, H. T. Daya-Bhaga and Mitaksara: Two Treatises on the Hindu Law of Inheritance. Delhi: Parimal, 1984.

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    A republication of a two-hundred-year-old translation of 12th-century commentaries with enormous influence on laws of inheritance and succession that even had an effect on sati.

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  • Coward, Harold G., Julius J. Lipner and Katherine K. Young. Hindu Ethics: Purity, Abortion, and Euthanasia. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.

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    Consists of three main chapters written by the coauthors on the broad topic of Hindu ethics and more specifically on three important areas of contention. Two—abortion and euthanasia—bear directly on the question of life and death, suicide, and quality of life from the perspective of traditional and contemporary sources.

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  • Kane, Pandurang Vaman. History of Dharmasastra (Ancient and Medieval Religious and Civil Law in India). 5 vols. Pune, India: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1962–1975.

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    Kane’s monumental work on dharma provides a comprehensive and detailed survey of rituals relating to death, including cremation and sraddhas. Originally published in 1930–1962.

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  • Olivelle, Patrick, trans. and ed. Manu’s Code of Law: A Critical Edition and Translation of the Mānava-Dharmaśāstra. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

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    A new translation based on Olivelle’s critical edition of this text, which is a central source of dharma. The text touches on the subject of death in a variety of contexts, including death rituals and offerings, views of the afterlife, rebirth, karma, and penances for avoiding punishments after death.

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  • Sharma, Renuka. “Gender/Infanticide: Ethics of Death in the Shadow of Motherhood and Childbirth in India.” Bioethical Inquiry 4.3 (2007): 181–192.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11673-007-9060-7Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Examines the systematic practice of infanticide based on gender considerations such as the devaluing of females. Places this discussion in the context of Western ethical discourse on justice and rights.

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Death in Non-Hindu Indian Traditions

It is often difficult to clearly separate Hindu from other South Asian beliefs and practices relating to death, especially at the level of regional or folk religion. Settar 1989 and Chapple 1993, for example, demonstrate this with reference to local and broader forms of Jainism, while Moss 1996 does the same for Tamil Christians. On the northern boundaries of India, death customs in Ladakh (Brauen 1982 and Aggarwal 2001) fall into the general category of South Asian death folk practice. Indian and Tibetan Buddhist treatments of death are just as rich as Hindu treatments, but a number of studies are particularly suggestive for comparative (Hindu-Buddhist) analysis. These include Karma 2006, which discusses the bioethics of death in Tibet; Holt 1981, which examines death as a rite of passage in Indian Buddhism; Wilson 1996, which analyzes the images of decay in the body of women; and Law 2005, which studies early Buddhist cosmologies.

  • Aggarwal, Ravina. “At the Margins of Death: Ritual Space and the Politics of Location in an Indo-Himalayan Border Village.” American Ethnologist 28.3 (2001): 549–573.

    DOI: 10.1525/ae.2001.28.3.549Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This study uses a funerary ritual in a Buddhist village near Ladakh to analyze the ritual and conceptual significance of margins in defining and contesting power.

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  • Brauen, Martin. “Death Customs in Ladakh.” Kailash 9.4 (1982): 319–332.

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    Describes in detail those aspects of Himalayan Buddhist death practices and beliefs that differ in Ladakh from those in Tibet. Special focus on the burning of corpses and practices surrounding this difference.

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  • Chapple, Christopher Key. Nonviolence to Animals, Earth, and Self in Asian Traditions. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

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    The sixth chapter, “The Jaina Path of Nonresistant Death,” looks at fasting and the taking of one’s own life for religious purposes.

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  • Holt, John C. “Assisting the Dead by Venerating the Living: Merit Transfer in Early Buddhist Tradition.” Numen 28.1 (1981): 1–28.

    DOI: 10.2307/3269794Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Examines early Indian Buddhist conceptions of death, their cultural origin, cosmological significance, and social implications with a particular emphasis on the notion of death as a rite of passage that reflects human relationships.

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  • Karma Lekshe Tsomo. Into the Jaws of Yama, Lord of Death: Buddhism, Bioethics, and Death. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006.

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    Presents a Buddhist (primarily Tibetan) perspective on death and rebirth and analyzes some bioethical implications.

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  • Law, Bimala Churn. Heaven and Hell in Buddhist Perspective. Delhi: Winsome Books, 2005.

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    An early work by a prominent Indologist on the emergence of Buddhist views on the temporary nature of hells and heavens, their relation to moral conduct, and their limits in relation to both Buddhist and Hindu soteriology. First published in 1925.

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  • Moss, David. “South Indian Christians, Purity/Impurity, and the Caste System: Death Ritual in a Tamil Roman Catholic Community.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 2.3 (1996): 461–483.

    DOI: 10.2307/3034898Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Looks at a death ritual in a Tamil Roman Catholic community to show that caste hierarchy is not necessarily based on purity and pollution but other factors such as division of labor and honor.

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  • Settar, S. Inviting Death: Indian Attitudes toward the Ritual Death. Monographs and Theoretical Studies in Sociology and Anthropology in Honour of Nels Anderson 28. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1989.

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    Presents a detailed examination of death rituals in Jainism (mostly), consisting of both a historical analysis of mortuary rituals and art-historical materials taken primarily from Sravana Belgola in Karnataka.

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  • Wilson, Liz. Charming Cadavers: Horrific Figurations of the Feminine in Indian Buddhist Hagiographic Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

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    Describes and analyzes the Buddhist monastic use of the female body in decay and death as a cautionary tool toward the spiritual growth of monks.

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