Death in a Brahmin household
My grandfather passed away almost two weeks ago. He was a great man and his passing caused our immediate family a great deal of sorrow. Luckily he had a dignified death that only so few of us can hope for when our time comes. My grandfather was a practical person and said he did not want the Hindu priests ripping us off by means of antiquated last rites and elaborate post-mourning rites.
However my family decided to go ahead with some of the rites out of fear of society gazing at us with its judging and accusing eyes.

One of the things that alarmed and nauseated me was on the 10th day (when family and very very close friends assemble) when the pundit narrated a tale of how a departed soul was yanked along by Yama ,grovelled and pleaded to grant him leave to his body back on earth. Yama finally relents and lets the soul go back to the body, only to discover that it had been cremated by fire. So the soul has nowhere to go and is in a state of limbo. We must perform these rites and rituals to allow the soul peace, the pundit concluded.

My mother was crying. Can you imagine the kind of psychological trauma that the priest is inducing knowingly or not by insinuating that, had we preserved the body of my grandfather for a few hours more, he might have come back to life? Was he insinuating that because we cremated him, he couldn't return to us? How dare this priest takes money from us and spin us such lies and deceit and more importantly carry on as if this is all really happening and true?

Another incident: our maid who belongs to a low caste heard of the news very late and rushed in to give us her condolences. The maid stopped short of the house and then without a word went away. We later realized that she knew that her "caste" should not come into a Brahmin household during the time of mourning.

If my grandfather were alive today, he would be aghast that civilized society runs amok with priests who exercise control over "our souls" and oppressed people who whole heartedly accept their diminished status in society. I feel so sad and ashamed.
"It's alright, I rarely meet anyone who's able to read it properly. Although personally, I never thought that it to be an odd of a name. Once I give people the pronunciation, they tend to remember my name by easily associating me with it. A unique face, a unique moniker."
I'm sorry for your loss.

It is indeed disgusting how religion exploits death.
We are sorry to hear about your loss, Nick. To honour the memory of the departed, in a manner that is not in opposition with our convictions, is something which the remnants of orthodoxy in our society continue to make a challenge.

A suggestion which the spokespersons of orthodoxy make for families in mourning is a reading of the Garuda Purana, a travelogue of the afterworlds and a catalogue of ghosts, which apparently is inauspicious to read at other times. To suggest such a grim narrative with graphic stygian descriptions at a time when the need is for solace, is itself a very callous practice which ought to be called out for what it is and discouraged.

Ceremonies continue well after mourning, starting with lavish priestly feedings accompanied by full ritualistic paraphernalia every month in the year of mourning, repeated thereafter on the death anniversary in following years. Some of the more progressive elements within the religious establishment have called for a curtailment of some of the ritualism, retaining the prayer and charity, for their salutary effects on the survivors and other living beneficiaries. This counsel for emphasizing humanistic considerations over ritualistic ones is credited to the Charvakas by Madhava Vidyaranya, the author of Sarvadarshana Sangraha :

Quote:If the Sraddha produces gratification to beings who are dead,
Then, here, too, in the case of travellers when they start, it is needless to give provisions for the journey.

If beings in heaven are gratified by our offering the Sraddha here,
Then why not give the food down below to those who are standing on the house top?
(Translation from Cowell and Gough)

While the quoting from the acerbic wit of the Charvakas maybe somewhat incongruous when a solemn mood prevails, their counsel for redirecting our sentiments towards saner, more engaged addressing of earthly workaday concerns in the here and now rather than imagined otherworldly ones, may indeed resonate with and find some takers among the more open-minded and humanistically minded believers as well. For example, the memory of loved ones can be collectively cherished by contributing every year on a day special to them, to a cause which they would have cherished too.
An ongoing discussion on suffering and grief is something that understandably finds few takers for obvious reasons, but there is a case to be made for having the discussion right away because its value is preparatory rather than palliative. Our imagination can be pressed into the task of finding reason-based alternatives to religious enjoined responses to bereavement, more readily while examining previous case studies or hypothetical situations, and not when weighed down by actual, immediate sorrow.

It is because the discourse on attitudes towards death is not yet fully injected with reason-based alternatives, that it is still dominated by scriptural injunctions of ancestor-worship like in this Speaking Tree article brought to our attention by Prof. Nayak on Facebook. Criticizing scriptural injunctions, which is frowned upon in the best of times, becomes all the more delicate and sensitive in such situations and freethinkers must be prepared to face the questions: "What's the harm? What are the alternatives?"
The problems with the worldview in the Speaking Tree article are many. Firstly, 'due respect to the departed' is conveniently conflated with 'ancestor worship' until the two become indistinguishable in ritual practice. The results can be counter-productive and self-defeating, as the conflation of supposed 'reverence for Nature' with a murderous ritual on snakes is shown to be year after year. Ritual injunctions overriding respect for the actual wishes of the departed has become all too common. Out of deference to tradition, Jawaharlal Nehru was given an orthodox funeral complete with all ritual paraphernalia, despite his wishes to the contrary expressed clearly before his demise. To this day, considerations of welfare in the 'hereafter' continue to override and render irrelevant considerations for the here-and-now much to the detriment of the living and at variance with the wishes of the dead at times. Further, during a time when Hindu revivalists always stress on the importance of personal responsibility in their faith versus the irresponsible-seeming surrender of say, Christianity, what the article seems to espouse is an idea of vicarious redemption where the buck of your redemption can be passed on to family or friends.

The article draws its authority from Krishna's promise of deliverance in the Bhagavad Gita, but it maybe more useful to now to first examine Arjuna's misgivings. Arjuna, though dismissed as a 'bundle-of-nerves' by most Gita commentators, actually comes across as the more earnest and conscientious of the two interlocutors at the outset of the text. Arjuna does shudder at the possibility of ancestor-related rituals dying out. However we may hear him out as this may have been the one kind of symbolism at his disposal to convey his concern for the maintenance of filial obligation and the institution of the family. Marital fidelity is another one of his concerns, born out of a desire for harmonious homes which freethinkers too share, and in a sense, what seems as a defence of ritualism may simply be a poorly expressed concern of threats to the institution of the family and social order. It is upto us to provide an effective,reasonable, contemporary articulation of this poorly expressed concern and at the same time call out the literalist interpreters on their slippery-slope fallacy of viewing a phasing out of ancestor-worship as the beginning of social degeneracy.

The discourse on filial obligation, quite bizarrely, overly stresses upon posthumous conduct as is evident from the 'judging and accusing eyes of society' on a household in mourning, while the crying need of the hour is a fuller discussion on the special needs of the elderly and amenities for long-term care, especially given the time-constraints of their sons and daughters. On the concomitant social obligation, the reason-based alternatives to priest-officiated ancestor worship are many, like instituting scholarships for deserving students or setting up a periodic donation to feed the hungry or contributing on behalf of the departed to any cause that is in keeping with the solemnity of the occasion and with their own expressed wishes. Even for those of more limited means, opportunities to do good with even a minuscule contribution are numerous and readily actionable thanks to mechanisms like PayPal. It is true that canvassing for charity explicitly in a household in mourning can seem as exploitative and intentful as insisting upon ritual ancestor worship. That is why it is important that the conversation begins right now and these possibilities become so integral to the public discourse that these possibilities occur unbidden and seem the natural course of action to people when they, inevitably, are visited with such a life experience.

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