Historical and literary perspectives

In document Death, dying and bereavement in a British Hindu community. (Page 78-82)

Originally I had intended to explore the relationship between religious belief and adjustment, but the amount of ethnographic material I needed to

3.1 Historical and literary perspectives

In order to place the subsequent discussion of current belief and practice into a cultural and historical context the principal textual sources which have contributed most to contemporary Hindu belief and practice relating to death and the afterlife are discussed briefly: they are used to illustrate each following section, where relevant, to indicate areas of continuity and change.

The principal literary sources for Hindu death rituals, and for m a n y beliefs about death and the afterlife are h y m n s in three of the four Vedas; the later Sutras, 'manuals of instruction' based on these for the use of Brahmins; and the Puranas. The Upanisads and the Bhagavad GTta are sources for further concepts about the nature of the soul, atman, karma

and rebirth which have been continuously developed and refined.1* the Atharvaveda provides more detailed information on ritual and considerably more on heaven and hell. The Vajasaneyi-Samhita has m u c h unpublished translation. Further sources in Evison are Caland's Bber Toteoverehrung bei einigen <fer 1 adogermani schea Vdlker, 1888. A l t i n dimchcr Ahneocult, 1893, Kane's BhZradvaJa, Apastamba and HiranyakeAin (c f . Evison 19B9:302ff., 41 iff-).

5. The term veda literally means knowledge, from the root v i d r to know. It applies firstly, to the four individual smmhitas', the Rgveda, Sams veda, Yajfurveda and Atharvaveda, "collections of hymns, prayers, incantations, benedictions, sacrificial formulas and litanies" (Winternitx 1927: 53). The Vedic texts are the most ancient

less material overall, but contains a detailed description of the preparation of the ground before and after the cremation, which is expanded in later literature. Further developments take place in the Brahmanas, which elaborate on the sacrificial rituals and add "symbolic interpretations and speculative reasons for the ceremonies" (Winternitz 1927:188).

Traditionally the Vedas have been accessible only to learned Brahmins and those of the twice-born (dvija) with access to a Sanskritic education.

Brockington points out that their very inaccessibility

facilitated an almost endless reinterpretation of doctrine, for the appeal to the authority of the Veda m a y be used to lend respectability to any innovation. E...! The appeal to the Veda permits both an affirmation of the supremacy of tradition and an implicit acceptance of the reality of adaptation. (1981:6)

Death rituals were regarded by the majority of later Vedic schools as grhya rites. Sometimes they appear in separate texts k n o w n as

Pitr-medhasutras, while others appeared in the Srautasutras. Th e Grhyasutras according to Winternitz,

contain directions for all usages, ceremonies and sacrifices by virtue of which the life of the Indian receives a higher "sanctity", what the Indians call saihskaras, from the . m o m e n t w h e n he is conceived in the womb, till the hour of his death and still further through the death ceremonies and the cult of the soul. (1927:272; cf. Gonda

1977:469, 616ff.; 1980:441; Evison 1989:301ff.)

The Puranas are important texts for understanding the development of beliefs, myths and domestic rituals (Winternitz 1927:529). In particular, the last book of the Garuda Purapa, the Uttarakhanda contains detailed descriptions of mythology, beliefs and rituals relating to death (Evison 1989:302). This text plays a major role in contemporary funeral and post­

funeral ceremonies, according to m y o w n informants and observations.

Evison states that it is

firmly established as the text which is the basis for all funeral rites Eof which! the published editions probably represent only a small sample of the variations that exist. Th e unsystematic nature of

the Uttarakhandha encourages the production of local digests and the conviction that it is the authority for all funeral ritual m a y lead to these local versions including purely local customs in order to provide textual justification for established practices. (1989:197) 6 Th e great epics, the R a m a y a n a and the Mahabharata have had a profound influence on mythology and devotion. Winternitz describes the latter as "not one poetic production C...3 but rather a whole literature"

(1927:316). It contains not only important mythical stories about death, but also the Bhagavad GTta, nowadays probably the most popular of all Hindu writings which has been influential in shaping the philosophical ideas of contemporary Hindus about salvation and is often systematically read during the mourning period (cf. Brockington 1981:56).

A m o n g the modern texts of relevance there are m a n y handbooks in classical Sanskrit and vernacular languages used by the priests in Britain, such as the Preta M a n jar T Bhasha TTka, Sraddha Kalpadrum and SrT Naimittikakarmaprakasha, which will be referred to in Chapters 8 and 12 below in the context of contemporary usage. Passages from the Rgveda.

Yajurveda, Atharvaveda, the Upanisads and the Bhagavad GTta m a y be

incorporated into these or quoted during funerals in Britain.

6. The Ut tmrakhanda of the Garuda Purana is si so ref erred to ss the Pr-etakalpa or P r e t a k h a n d a . It is ‘an unsystematic and repetitious account of death and the beyond,

contains material on k a r m a , rebirth and release from rebirth, the path to Yama, the fate of pi'ctaa (ghosts) and the torments of hell, interspersed with instructions about rites for dying persons, the corpse and the g h o s t 1. (Evison 1989il9S). This is the principal text we shall use, referred to as the G P . The SSroddhSra recension will be referred to as Sir. (cf. Evison 1989:6). References in the present work to the Garuda Purana (GP) are taken from the translation in the Ancient Indian Tradition and Mythology Series, V o l . 13, 1979, and 14, 1980, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi.

3.2 Ancient Indian concepts of death and the afterlife

In document Death, dying and bereavement in a British Hindu community. (Page 78-82)

Related documents