Author – Manu Mukundan
‘Death’ is a dreadful word for Indians despite our scriptures enlightening us that it is just a ritual of our body passing through from life to another. Be it Munshi Premchand’s famous novel ‘Godaan’ or Bollywood movies, a death and the cost associated with it, is shown in a grim and often pitiful way. From helpless heroines with no one to help them with the funerals of their loved ones, to families that are plunged into debt, Bollywood has most often used this grim side of death.
Even though, most of it is true, I would like to explore the costs associated with death, and a world that thrives on after death rituals in the Hindu community, to which I belong. The poor along with the rich tend to be rather lavish when it comes to matters associated with death. This can be attributed to our staunch belief in afterlife and to the need for honoring the dead, both of which are basic elements of Indian society. After all, no one wants to hinder the soul of a departed from achieving ‘Moksha’ ¬– eternal peace.
Hindus are a class of people who have delved deeper into death’s spiritual nature. Each caste in the Hindu community has a vast array of rituals associated with death. Since, Hindus believe in the afterlife and reincarnation of the spirit, their Hindu funeral rites have a deep spiritual meaning. One of the major pre-death rituals is the ‘Godaan’, in which a person lying in his death bed donates a cow or its monetary value to a Brahmin. The fear of afterlife compel even a poor farmer to conform to this Brahmanic tradition. Renowned social reformer Jyotirao Phule criticized these rituals that they are a ploy by the social elite to give prominence to Brahmins and ensure their religious superiority.
In early days, Hindus used to burn the corpse of the deceased in a funeral pyre in the vicinity of their home. As the urban society grew, increasing objections from neighbours and lack of proper infrastructure, made Hindus to rely heavily on private crematoriums. Such crematoriums are typically located next to a river or a lake so that later the ashes can be immersed in the water body.
In Kerala, the banks of the river Bharatapuzha has evolved into a hotspot of such centres, private cremation centres that cater to the needs of the ever busy Keralite. These cremation centres offer all services related to a Hindu funeral, charge anywhere from Rs.1,000-10,000, and have the capability to cremate 10-15 corpses at the same time. Even though electric cremation centres run by local governing bodies offer the same service at prices like Rs.500, religious superstition and prejudice, have inhibited their widespread use. Hindus believe that the spirit is liberated only when the skull is broken, and since this is not done in the electric cremation centres Hindus are reluctant to use them.
Thus traditional crematoriums have become a highly profitable business with very low investment.
‘Dakshina’, is a word which one will hear a lot as he goes through after death rituals, and is money that a relative pays as gratitude for a service, mostly out of fear than gratitude. Most funeral directors receive Dakshinas that average between Rs.500-1000. The bones and ash collecting ceremony three days after cremation also requires another round of Dakshina. There have been instances where funeral directors have refused to release the mortal remains without prior payment of Dakshina. They claim that the deceased’s soul will not be liberated if they are not satisfied.
The next step where Dakshina pays a crucial role is Pindadaanam. Some famous centres where Keralites throng for Pindadaanam are Thirunelli, Thirunavaaya and Panchavadi. The fee charged by these temples for Pindadaanam is quite low, but here too Dakshina plays an important role. The road leading to the famous Tirunavaya temple is lined with posh, two storey homes of Ilayads and Brahmins, who supervise the Pindadaanam. This priesthood receives a modest payment from the temple authorities besides the Dakshina. Most people claim that their prosperity is a direct result of the Dakshina they receive. Due to fear of divine repercussions, Dakshina-a purely voluntary payment has now become compulsory. It is this fear of Divine repercussion that compels an already indebted family to borrow more and pay off the Brahmins, even at the peril of endangering their own financial future.
While this religious custom has become big business, we cannot solely blame the malignant section of our religious elite for exploiting the common man. For them, the common man’s financial and emotional conditions do not matter as long as they receive their cut of divine payment. It is our ignorance and blind beliefs that lead to such exploitation. This is a country where the government’s primary space agency takes replicas of spacecraft for blessings and to seek divine intervention. This blatant display of superstition at India’s premier temple of science is an example of how deep religious superstitions are entrenched in our society. Unless we get rid of this parasite that has attached itself to our society, it can never attain a wholesome evolution.