Category Archives: Antyesti (Final Sacrifice)

Death and Cremation

Cremation in Hinduism is classified as the last samskara (life cycle rites); the last ritual to perform that concludes a life. Cremation is considered a samskara because it is changing the state of the person from one realm to another; it is viewed as a medium between life and the ancestral realm (pitr-loka). There are many different frameworks as to how the cremation ritual is completed, yet the outcome is always the same. Cremation is an important aspect of Hinduism because it is freeing the spirit from the current world. Sacrifices, transformations, and the knowledge of how to perform the ritual surrounding the cremation are all aspects of this particular samskara.

Knipe, as quoted in Richard Davis’ Cremation and Liberation: The Revision Of A Hindu Ritual states, “ With few exceptions, the Hindu rites at the time of death and the procedures for cremation (antyesti) are fairly uniform throughout the regions of India…This conformity in ritual across vedic, epic, pursnic, and agamic periods, and on into modern practice, is remarkable”
(39). A basic intention of the cremation ritual is to prevent the spirit from coming back and haunting its family. This basic intention can be known as a Preta (spirits that are not properly installed in the ancestral realm) [haunting/harassing the family- this information can be found and expanded upon in the Hinduism eBook (177)]. Death throughout the Hindu tradition is looked upon as dangerous because it is during this time that the body is between cycles of life and rebirth. Weightman states that in Hinduism, the prevailing “fire and its illumination symbolize either the cosmic cycle of creation and dissolution or samsara [To flow together; to wander; the cycle of repeated rebirths], the earthly cycle of birth and death” (1).

Davis further support the notion of birth and death cycles, as stated above by Weightman, by illustrating another aspect of the cremation ritual. This aspect is known as the third birth. Davis argues, “A person is indeed born three times, as follows: First he is born from his mother and father. One whose lot is to sacrifice is born a second time when he performs sacrifice. He is born a third time when he dies, and is placed upon the fire, and he arises again…” (41). Death and cremation are the processes that allow the spirit from the dead body to leave this world and enter the ancestral realm, where the bodies “…receive nourishment through the sraddha [funerary rites] offerings made by his descendants” (Davis 41). Death is not viewed as the final stage in Hinduism; it is merely a transition from one place to another.

Cremation is the main ritual for disposing of a body in Hinduism (Davis 44). “[T]his same basic physical and ritual act of cremation has been very differently conceived and has performed very different functions within different metaphysical frameworks”(Davis 44-45). In other words, although cremation is the preferred method, there are numerous different ways to understand this last samskara (Davis 44). For example, cremation is a path for some into the ancestral realm, while for others, like the Saiva Siddhanta [a group of people who worship the god Siva above all others; Siva centered groups] it is defined as the souls last barrier on the path to moksa [liberation from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth] (Davis 45). In both instances the rituals performed are designed so each individual can be set in the right direction for the next stage of the transformation (Davis 45). Both Weightman and Davis emphasize the importance of the life cycle rites; the importance of death and rebirth in the Hinduism tradition.

Funerary Pyres at Pasupatinath Temple near Kathmandu, Nepal
Funerary Pyres at Pasupatinath Temple near Kathmandu, Nepal

In contradiction with dominant western religions, funerals in the Hindu religion can take place only hours after the death has occurred. The funerals are performed after the purification rites have been performed [purification rituals are performed on the deceased to rid him or her of all impurities before the transformation into the other realm occurs]. However, “[T]he waiting period from ascertained death to the elimination of the corpse by cremation, can extend up to three and a half days” (Filippi 131). This promptness is due in large part to the fact that there is a fear among those close to the deceased that something could happen to the body. This is also why it is now routine to carry the body to the cremation site (Filippi 131).

Royal Cremation in Bali

Once it is certain that the individual has passed away, kinsmen care for the body by first cleaning it and then decorating it. It is at this point in time that the body is transferred to the cremation grounds [cremation grounds are called smasana and are often located outside of the city. More information can be found in Dying the Good Death by Christopher Justice]. Davis describes the intricacies of the beginning of the cremation ritual as follows, “Like any sacrificial terrain, the place of cremation must be ritually constituted. The officiant, preferably the eldest son of the deceased, purifies the ground by sprinkling water, circling the spot counterclockwise…” (45). Once all of this has been completed and the body is facing south [this is done so the deceased is facing the kingdom of Yama; more information can be found in Gian Giuseppe Filippi’s MRYTU: Conecpt of Death In Indian Traditions], the sacrificial wood is brought in and fires are started in three different places around the pyre (Davis 45). The body is then laid upon the pyre with the individual’s personal sacrificial offerings placed around and on the being (Davis 44). Davis provides examples of items placed on the individual by stating how, “The sacrificial spoon [is] in his right hand, the wooden ladle in his left, the wooden stirring sword on his right side, the ladle used in fire oblation on his left…” (45). In accordance with Davis, Filippi states that depending on which class you are from, a certain item will be placed into the individuals hand. For example, if one were born into the Brahmin [priests and scholars] class, a piece of gold is placed in the hand, but if one were born into the vaisya [merchant] class, a jewel would be placed in the hand [more information can be found in Gian Giuseppe Filippi’s MRYTU: Concept of Death In Indian Traditions 137]. Certain items are placed around the body on the pyre because it is these items that the deceased has previously practiced sacrificial rituals with. They are returned back to him during the cremation ritual (Davis 45). Normally the eldest son (the officiate) will then contribute his own offering into the ritual in support of certain gods and a Rg mantra will also be recited while the pyre is lit from the three sacrificial fires (Davis 45). The reason the cremation ritual is often performed by someone the deceased has known is because it is assumed that the individual will undeniably arrive in heaven along with the smoke of the fires if the ritual is performed this way (Davis 45).

Once the cremation has taken place the officiate circles the ritual site three times (in reverse direction) with a jar that sits upon his left shoulder. The officiant will then moisten the ground by drizzling droplets of water and when he reaches a position that is near the head of the dead body, he will break the jar and leave. He will then be followed by the others at the ritual (Davis 45). After the ritual has been performed the individuals who knew the deceased will experience a period of impurity (savasauca). The length of the period of impurity varies depending on how well they knew the deceased. After this is done, the family will then perform the sraddha rites that will ritually place the body into another realm. The reason sraddha is performed is because it replaces the old body that was cremated (Davis 46).

After the cremation ritual, Parry states that “A funeral priest presides over the rituals performed by relatives for the “ghost” of the departed for eleven days after cremation, accepting gifts from the deceased’s family. It is his [funeral priest] job to confer salvation and allow the soul of the departed to “swim across” to the other world” (Gesler and Pierce 1). The rituals that are performed post cremation are just as important as the cremation ritual itself because it is these rituals that send the ghost or spirit of the deceased to the ancestral pitr-loka [world of ancestors] (Gesler and Pierce). This is why eating is seen as an important aspect of the post cremation ritual; the old body must be “eaten” when the soul of the deceased attains a new body (Gesler, Pierce). “The Brahman priest who performs the ceremonies is likened to a medieval European alchemist who, using a philosopher’s stone, can turn base metal into gold, or to the Ganges, which transforms the city’s sewage into holy water” (Gesler and Pierce 1). Cremation rituals and post cremation rituals are equally important.

Cremation Pyres in Varanasi (Harischandra Ghat)

Banaras is thought to be a place in India that is very important for cremation. Thousands upon thousands of bodies are brought there every year to be cremated. In 1989 alone 24,000 bodies were brought in from around the world to be cremated there [more information can be found in Dying The Good Death by Christopher Justice]. It was also found that many will make a one way trip to Banaras to die there and be thrown into the Ganges River (Justice 21). Some families even send the cremated remains to Banaras in order for their loved ones to be placed in the Ganges River; this is common when the whole funeral procession cannot be done there due to external circumstances (Justice 21). Varanasi also holds an extremely elevated position in the eyes of many Hindus for their final resting place. However, no matter where the cremation takes place, the ritual is believed to be equally important.


Davis, Richard (1988) “Cremation and Liberation: The Revision Of A Hindu Ritual”. History of Religions, Vol.27, No. 1, pp.37-53.

Filippi, Gian (1996) MRTYU Concept of Death In Indian Traditions. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld (P) Ltd.

Gesler, Wilbert M.and Pierce, Margaret (2000) Hindu Varanasi. Geographical Review, Vol. 90 Issue 2. P222, 16p.

Justice, Christopher (1997) Dying the Good Death. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism The eBook: An Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Related Topics








Sraddha Rites/Rituals

Related Websites

Written by Rachel Jose (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Death Hospitals in Kashi (Kasi)

The people of the Hindu tradition travel from near and far on the brink of death to inhale their final breath in their sacred City of Banaras. Banaras’ city circumference is marked by the panch-kroshi (also spelled, panch-kosi), a pilgrimage route that, at times, has approximately tens of thousands of pilgrims walking along its paths. The entire route of the panch-kroshi is about 50 miles long and generally takes five days to complete (Parry 15). The pilgrimage route of panch-kroshi is deemed so extraordinary due to the belief of the Hindu’s that all who die within this boundary will attain moksa, a Hindu’s lifelong quest for liberation (Justice 20). Hindu’s refer to the sacred city of Banaras as Kashi and speak of the attainment of moksa as ending the unwanted cycle of birth, death and rebirth. This continuous cycle, known as mukti, exists for each Hindu until moksa is accomplished (Justice 49). Kashyam marnam mukti means ‘death in Kashi is liberation’; this often quoted Sanskrit tag beautifully sums up the almost universal belief of a Hindu (Parry 21). Once this liberation has been attained, mukti ceases and the ghost of the dead is able to rise up past hell and rebirth, into heaven where it stays unchanging forever. Exceptions and regulations exist for proper attainment of moksa; a few exceptions to reaching moksa HoweverHmay be ones final thoughts, and which riverbank in Banaras one dies. The city of Banaras is located between Delhi and Calcutta in the middle of the Ganges valley (Parry 33). The Ganges River separates Banaras into two riverbanks, the west and the east. The west bank is where one will find the Manikarnika Ghat, which is the center of Kashi where it is often believed that on the west bank of Banaras, “[the] universe is created at the beginning of time and the universe burns at the end of time” (Justice 20). It is on the west bank that moksa is granted (provided the right frame of mind and other requirements have been met). The east bank is usually vacant due to people’s fear of dying on that side of the bank because of the belief that those who expire on the east bank will not attain moksa; instead, rebirth as a jackass will occur (Justice16).

As previously mentioned, there are regulations to the attainment of moksa for a Hindu. It is sometimes said that the physical act of dying in Kashi is, in fact, not a direct guarantee to mukti. Also, it is not guaranteed that one will attain mukti immediately after death. The mindset at the moment of death is what determines the speed and level of mukti that the dying will achieve. If one dies in Kashi but does not have the proper mindset at the moment of passing to achieve immediate mukti, then they will be reborn again a specified number of times before the process is ended, finally allowing them to proceed to heaven (Justice 172). There are four levels of mukti that one can arrive at, which level is attained is based on the dying thoughts one produces. Salokya is when one resides in the same world as god; samipya, the dead remain near to god; sarupya, one will take the same form of god and in sayuja, the highest level, one actually becomes merged with god (Justice173).

Within the City of Banaras there are places set up where people and a few of their loved ones are welcome to stay while they await the final breath of a family member. These places are similar to a hospital but instead of the goal of saving the dying, their purpose is to let people die in a way that allows them to attain immediate, and the highest-level of, mukti while in Kashi. Two of the hospitals that will be discussed still exist in Kashi today, although unfortunately with declining popularity. The Ganga-labh Bhavan, the first of these death hospitals, is located in the most populous area of Manikarnika and is unfortunately difficult to travel to, especially when attempted by those who are weakened by encroaching death. The three-story Ganga-labh Bhavan was once used as a Manikarnika police station; it began by two rich capitalist families, one of which traveled to Kashi bringing their grandmother for kashi-labh (promise of salvation). They found it difficult to locate a place to settle while they stayed in Manikarnika and began to wonder how anyone lower than their financial situation would find accommodation either. This capitalist family joined with another, together, they chose to lease this former police station and begin running it as a hostel where people are welcome to stay while they, or a loved one dies (Justice 59). It is thought that since the beginning of the Ganga-labh Bhavan approximately 10 000 people have died and 12 000 have registered between the walls of this three-story building (Justice 58). Since the introduction of the Ganga-labh Bhavan there are a number of rules to be followed to maintain order and allow the ghat (river frontage) to function the way it was intended to. Some of these rules include: a dying pilgrim can stay at most fifteen days; untouchables and those with infectious diseases are not permitted to stay; do not associate with the noble people staying at the rest house next door; pay special attention that you do not do things which may trouble or inconvenience others; within twenty-four hours of the pilgrim becoming Kashi-labh (‘the profit of Kashi’, attainment of salvation), the accompanying people must free up the Bhavan (Justice 60-61). It is evident through these rules that a caste system exists up until the moment of death and that the ghat is there for a purpose. Even the dying are not equal, although their bodies are deteriorating in the same fashion, some Hindu’s are still seen as more prestigious and noble than others; the act of dying itself does not even change the rules and roles of a caste system.

The second, and currently the most favoured of these hospitals of death is the Kashi-labh Muktibhavan. A man named Jaydal Dalmia, whose mother happily passed away within the boundary of Kashi, founded the Muktibhavan. After their mother’s death and death ceremonies were completed, Dalmia and his brother used the left over rupees for religious purposes and purchased a building with the intention to provide a satsang where music, religious chanting and recitation of the Bhagavad-Gita would take place. Dalmia and his brother had no intention of producing a home for the dying, but they did invite those who were fading from life to join them in their satsang. After a year or more, people started to travel to the Muktibhavan for the purpose of dying, and thus, the death hospital that it is today began (Justice 63-65). Muktibhavan is not in the center of Manikarnika as the Ganga-labh Bhavan is, yet it is the more used of the two; this is because Muktibhavan is in a less crowded area and has easier access from the railway station (Justice 126). Although Muktibhavan is further from the “center of the universe” it is said to have a more religious feel due to the constant spiritual chants, music, and the reading of the Bhagavad-Gita (Justice 126). A major objective of the Muktibhavan is to yield the maximum spiritual benefit of each guest by providing amenities that capitalize on the spiritual atmosphere for the dying. The services offered by the Muktibhavan include specific rituals and a list of rules and restrictions designed to create a religious environment. A number of these regulations include: only those faithful believers and sick on the brink of death are allowed to stay; a place to stay will be available for fifteen days, if there is a special need, with the permission from the manager, one will be able to stay; the making of food must be done on a closed stove using charcoal, there should not be any type of smoke in the rooms or verandas; those infected with infectious diseases cannot stay; incompatible, indecent or reprehensible behaviour will not be tolerated (Justice 174). The underlying rules of each of the hospitals of death within Kashi are quite similar which makes sense since they each are vying for the same purpose.

The Holy City of Banaras has been around in the eyes of believers since existence itself began. The tradition of dying within the panch-kroshi will continue for as long as the belief of dying within the boundaries of panch-kroshi attains that moksa. As travel to Kashi continues the sacredness of each of the death hospitals, Ganga-labh Bhavan and Kashi Labh Muktibhavan, will persist. They will continue aiding the dying on their journey to their sacred space in heaven through achieving the highest level of mukti. As the tradition of dying in Kashi continues, so will it also draw in new believers through the popularity that it has attained, and so on the cycle will continue.


Justice, Christopher (1997) Dying the good death: the pilgrimage to die in India’s Holy

City. Shakti Nagar: Sri Satguru Publications

Parry, Jonathan P. (1994) Death in Banaras. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University


Further Recommended Readings

Filippi, Gian Giuseppe (1996) Mrtyu: concept of death in Indian traditions:

transformation of the body and funeral rites. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld

Oestigaard, Terje (2005) Death and Life – giving waters: cremation, caste and

cosmogony in karmic traditions. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Prakash, Satya (1985) Hindu Religion and Mortality. New Delhi: Asian Publication


Related Topics for Further Investigation

The Bhagavad-Gita




Ganges Valley



Manikarnika Ghat









Jaydal Dalmia

Death Rites


Notable Websites

Written by Sarah Richardson (March 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.