Sanskrit the term antyesti refers to the
final sacrifice, the last of the 16 samskaras
or life sacraments that mark important events in an individual's
life. The antyesti ceremony is the funeral ceremony. This samskara is performed to dispose of the dead body, to give peace
to the departed soul, and to enable it to enter the world
of the ancestors (pitrs). From the earliest
Vedic times cremation was the most common means of disposing
of a body. There is, however, written evidence that burial
and post burial ceremonies also occurred during the Vedic
period. The Rg and Atharva Vedas mention
both burial and cremation as legitimate methods for the disposal
of the dead. We find evidence in the
Aranyakas that the burial of incinerated
bones and ashes was an important and elaborate ceremony.
By the Grhya and Puranic periods, however, burial
and post cremation burial are hardly mentioned. Cremation
had become the only orthodox method for the disposal of the
Here is a summary of what
we know about cremation from the Rg-veda:
fire deity, Agni, was invoked to carry the departing
soul to the realm of Yama, the god of death.
the case of a priest his sacrificial implements were
burned along with his body.
were recited to various deities in order to transfer
the departing soul to the world of the pitrs.
cow or goat, known as an anustarani, was burned along with the body of the deceased.
the case of a deceased husband, the wife would lay on the
funeral pyre along side the body of her husband. Before
the fire was lighted, she would be asked to rise from the
side of her husband's body and rejoin the living.
The Atharva-veda (XVIII)
adds the following information:
body was dressed in new garments before cremation.
and sesame seeds were scattered along side the body
- The pitrs were ritually invoked to attend the ceremony and
invited to sit on the southern side of the fire.
of ghee along with prayers were offered to the pitrs during the cremation.
and oblations made of rice cakes, milk, meat, whey,
honey, and water were used in the worship of various
gods in order to ensure long life and prosperity for
the living relatives.
and oblations were offered to three generations of pitrs: the father, the grandfather, and the great grandfather,
during the cremation.
of rice, sesame and other articles of food were buried
along with the cremated bones.
It is evident from the Atharva-veda that
the worship of pitrs had
its origins in the earliest Vedic period.
The cremation process during
the Grhya period may be summarized as follows:
soon as the person died a cremation pit called a smasana was dug. The pit was made in a fertile place inclined
towards the south.
hair, including head and facial hair, was removed from
funeral procession of four parts was organized. The
immediate family members carried the sacred fire and
the sacrificial vessels. Behind them an odd number
of persons carried the dead body. Next, a cow or goat,
preferably black in color, followed. Finally, the relatives
and friends of the dead person followed.
the funeral pyre had been prepared the body was placed
on sacred grass that lined the inside of the cremation
pit along with wood. In the case of a husband who had
died, his wife would lie to the north side of his body.
A brother or some other representative of the deceased
would ask her to rise before the fire was lighted.
The sacrificial implements used by the deceased person
would also be placed alongside the body.
body would be covered with the skin of an anustarani cow
or goat. If there was no animal then cakes of rice
would serve the purpose.
fire was lighted starting at the head.
the entire body had been consumed, the mourners would
circumambulate in a counter-clockwise direction and
then leave without looking back. They would then go
During the Puranic
period the procedures were as follows.
the time of death sacred verses were recited to revive
the dead person. When these had failed the priest would
announce the death. The cremation, if possible, was
to be performed on the day of the death.
mourners would be hired, who would gather around the
deceased with disheveled hair, disordered garments,
and dust covered bodies and begin wailing and sobbing.
body was washed; the hair and nails were cut. The body
was dressed in new garments and adorned with ornaments.
body was carried on the shoulders of relatives, or
pulled in a cart, followed by mourners who would recite
sacred prayers until they reached the cremation site.
arriving at the cremation site the body would be placed
on the funeral pyre with the head facing the south.
chief mourner placed ghee on the body to the accompaniment
of sacred prayers.
jewels and ornaments were removed from the body and
a small mound of cow dung was placed on the stomach
or chest. The chief mourner walked around the body
three times in a counterclockwise direction while sprinkling
water from an earthen vessel. The vessel was then broken
on the ground near the head of the deceased.
chief mourner lighted the fire at the head to the accompaniment
were recited to direct the various parts of the deceased's
body to merge with the universal elements: the voice to
the sky, the eyes to the sun, the vital breath to the wind,
and so forth.
the fire has consumed the body the mourning party returned
home to bathe and purify themselves with prayers for
days after the cremation the chief mourner returned
to the burning area and ceremonially sprinkled the
ashes with water. The ashes were later poured into
the Ganges or other sacred body of water in a ceremony
Current cremation practice
in India generally follows this Puranic model.
Burning in Effigy (kusa-puttalika-daha)
a person had died but the body could not be reclaimed, as
in the case of a person who had drowned or had been killed
in battle, it was still absolutely essential for a cremation
to take place. The reason was simple: without cremation the
departed soul could not begin the transition into a pitr.
In lieu of a body an image could be cremated. The Bhavisya-purana
describes an image made of 360 strands of kusa,
a kind of sacred grass: Forty for the head, twenty for the
neck, one hundred in the two arms, twenty in the chest, twenty
in the belly, thirty in the hips, one hundred in the two thighs,
and thirty in the knees and shanks. Another account uses a
coconut for the head, a bottle gourd for the mouth, five gems
for the teeth, a plantain for the tongue, two shells for the
eyes, clay for the nose, plantain leaves for the ears, the
shoots of the fig tree for the hair, lotus fibers for the
entrails, earth and barley paste for the flesh, honey for
the blood, the skin of an antelope for the skin, a lotus for
the naval, eggplant for the scrotum, and tree bark for garments!
a person became missing, but was not specifically known to
be dead, as in the case of someone who had gone to a foreign
land and not returned, the relatives were advised to wait
12 years before performing the cremation. In the case of a
person who has been cremated in effigy, but who then returned
home, the person needed to be reborn by being passed through
the legs of a female and then, step-by-step, have all the
purificatory ceremonies (samskaras) performed.
This may even including a re-marriage if necessary.
There was also a special
rite called Narayana-bali that
was performed when a person had died under unusual circumstances,
such as through suicide or accidental death. The Narayana-bali was atonement for the situation and made the deceased
fit for receiving the regular funeral process and subsequent
The Anustarani Animal
the Rg and the Atharva Vedas prescribe that the skin and organs of a cow or she-goat, called
animal, be burned along with the body. This was done in order
to lessen the pain inflicted on the departing soul by the
scorching fire. The hide of the animal covered the body. The
vital organs of the animal were placed in the hands and around
the body of the deceased. During the Grhya period
this practice declined and by the Puranic period was
stopped altogether. Instead, rice was spread around the body
in lieu of the skin. During Ravana's funeral
Valmiki describes how an anustarani
animal was used.
is an interesting story in the Aitreya-brahmana
that tells how rice became the substitute for the anustarani
animal. "In the beginning the gods used human beings
for sacrifice. Overtime the sap of life left the human being
and entered the body of the horse. Thereafter, the horse became
the object of sacrifice. In time this sap of life left the
horse and entered the ox. The ox became the object of sacrifice.
Then again when the sap of life left the ox and entered sheep,
a sheep became the object of sacrifice. Soon this sap of life
left the sheep and entered the goat, wherein the goat became
the object of sacrifice. For a long time the goat remained
the object of sacrifice. Eventually, the sap of life left
the goat and entered the earth. Thereupon, the earth became
rice and rice became the fit substitute for the sap of life."
Here we get the history of the sacrificial animal and the
relationship between rice and the sacrificial animal.
Post cremation Burial (Pitr-medha)
the Vedic and early Grhya periods it was common to
bury the incinerated bones of a deceased person in an urn.
This was the pitr-medha ceremony. The Grhya-sutras
of Asvalayana describe how the burned bones
were to be collected on the third lunar day (tithi)
after death. In the case of a man who had died, the bones
were to be collected by elderly men and placed into a male
urn. In the case of a woman, the bones were to be collected
by elderly women and placed into a female urn. Urns were designed
by their shape to be male or female. The performers of this
ceremony were to walk three times in a counterclockwise direction
around the bones while sprinkling milk and water from a particular
kind of twig (sami). The bones were then
placed into the urn as they were picked up individually with
the thumb and fourth finger. First the bones of the feet were
to be gathered and then successively the other bones were
to be gathered working toward the head. After the bones had
been purified and gathered they were sealed and buried in
a secure location.
By the end of the Grhya
period the practice of burying bones in an urn declined.