By Editorial Staff
All religions have traditional ways of dealing with death, and the traditions in Hinduism and Islam reflect each religion’s beliefs.
Hindu and Muslim communities often live side by side, but their religious beliefs and rituals, including funeral customs, are very different.
In Hindu and Muslim traditions, the body of the deceased is washed soon after death. None of the two religions traditionally embalm or preserves the remains of the deceased, so funerals often occur within one to two days of death. For Muslim funerals, the remains are wrapped in a white cotton shroud, while Hindus may put flowers and special beads called malas around the deceased’s neck and place other symbolic items with the body.(1)
Animal dead bodies: A gift to the nature
However, in the animal kingdom a dead body arouses no feelings of fear or repulsion. In most cases, it is looked upon as a generous gift of nature, of which the fullest advantage is to be taken.It is difficult to appreciate how vast a number of birds, beasts and insects inhabit the fields and woods, and we may well ask ourselves the question “What becomes of their dead?” In a day’s search, we may not find among all the teaming wild population a single stiffened body, or one bright eye glazed in death.(2)
There is no problem with the dead bodies of animals and birds on this earth. However, the problem is with the human dead bodies that are thrown in the rivers or half-burnt human dead bodies that are scattered here and there on the banks of Ganges and are devoured by the dogs.
Different nations and disposal of dead bodies
Many ancient nations, however, purposely exposed their dead to the predatory instinct of animals. For instance, the Cyrenians abandoned their dead to wild dogs. The ancient Ethiopians threw their dead into the water to be devoured by aquatic animals. The Parsees (Persians), as far back as 400 B.C. and for an untraced time previously, exposed their deceased friends upon high gratings to feed birds of prey, and such towers of silence are in use up to the present day.
In India, they are accustomed to carrying the body to the top of a hill and place it upon a stone slab, returning for it in order to bury it when the bones are picked clean. Disturbances have frequently taken place recently between the Hindus and Parsees owing to this practice, for the vultures and other birds often let fall portions of the dead body during their flight into the gardens of the Hindus.
Hindus often expose their dead by the banks of their sacred river to the attacks of the river monsters; some of them even, when fuel is scarce, cast the partly burnt body into the Hooghly. Some Indian tribes also remove the dead out of sight to spots in the bush, where they are devoured by wild beasts. (3)
Burning the human dead body in Hinduism
Cremation is preferred in Hinduism, but a minority of Hindus chooses burial instead, and infants are always buried
rather than cremated. In India, Hindu funerals traditionally occur at the cremation site on the banks of the sacred river Ganges. A Hindu priest and the eldest son of the deceased preside over the ceremony, making offerings and saying Vedic prayers before lighting the funeral pyre. In other countries, this service may occur at a crematorium. Historically, Hindu women do not attend cremations, but this is changing in modern times.(4)
Whatever may be said for burial or cremation as a method of disposing of human dead bodies, frequent controversy on the subject has been the means of inducing people to give some thought to the whole matter of funeral reform.
Burning the dead a funeral ritual in Hinduism
However, Hinduism has the tradition of burning the human dead body since the ancient times. There are some references in Hindu scriptures to the issue of cremation. The Yajur Veda says in this regard: “The human body’s relationship with the rest of mankind continues until his dead body is burnt.”(5)
The cremation of dead body of a Hindu became known for the people of the world. As well as, some Hindu writers have written articles on this subject and defended the ritual with references from the ancient Hindu scriptures that show the practice of burning the dead as a unanimous and accepted tradition amongst the Hindus.
In Hinduism, holy men, women, children and the young girl are buried and not burnt as well as a person with leprosy disease or who died from snake bite are also buried.(6)
Throwing the dead body in river in India
Throwing the corpses in river in India is a common practice. This method is popular especially amongst the Hindus who live on the banks of Ganges because they believe that throwing the dead body in the blessed river is a cause of salvation for the soul of the deceased person.(7)
Aghori Ascetics and human dead bodies
It is worth mentioning that some Hindu ascetics called “Aghuri” wait for the arrival of human dead bodies on the banks of the river and when they see any dead body floating immediately they pick it up and carry it to their tent, cut it in pieces and roast them on the fire and eat. There are videos of this kind on YouTube that are really horrible and disgusting.
In addition to that, throwing the dead bodies in the water leads to water pollution across the river, which is harmful to human health and aquatic animals; rather this practice spoils the entire environment. There are pictures and videos on the Internet that show the half-burned human bodies lying on the banks of rivers in different states of India, not only Ganges river. Also Hindus, in general, burn their dead bodies on the banks of the rivers.
Burning a widow alive in India
Additionally, burning a widow alive in India was a common practice before the new era, and this kind of saddening incidents was seen as late as the year 1829, when “suttee” was abolished. Till that time, the Hindu widow voluntarily perished in the flames of the funeral pyre at the death of her husband. Once, a widow was led to where her husband’s body was already being consumed by the fire. Scorched by the fierce heat of the flames, her courage forsook her, and the poor creature ran back and threw herself into a pool of water, from which she was dragged again to meet her fate. Three times she tore herself away and fled.
If there is no mercy for the poor, weak and helpless widowو then how can we expect any honorable treatment for a dead body?
We do not find perfect information on the exact beginning of the burning the dead bodies. However, we find in the divine scriptures some important statements on the beginning of burying the human dead bodies. In the light of the sacred texts, we can conclude that the tradition of burying the human dead body is as old as the existence of humanity itself on the face of this earth.
The first burial in human history
It is interesting to know the concept of burying the dead that was first taught by a crow as was mentioned in the Glorious Qur’an. The first human being according to Islamic and other divine traditions was the Prophet Adam (peace be upon him) and his son Habeel was the first murdered human being on this earth.
Habeel (Abel( the son of Adam fell victim of envy and jealousy of his brother Qabeel (Cain). Before him, human history never knew a problem as to the disposal of human dead body. Perhaps, it is not surprising that human history begins with the death of Habeel. It was an indication that a long conflict between good and evil will continue on this earth for the same reasons of the first crime; envy and jealousy. We heard our elders saying that the root-cause of any corruption or murder on this earth is one of three that begin with Z: Zan (Woman), Zar (money) Zamin (land).
The details of the story of Habeel and Qabeel are well known. It is worth mentioning that when Qabeel killed his brother he became confused and perplexed as how to get rid of the corpse or dead body of his brother. The murder was weird and the first of its kind in the human history; no human dead body was seen on this globe and the first grave was dug for the disposal of human dead body. The divine mercy intended to show him the best way to deal with human dead body. Qabeel was reluctant; will he bury the corpse? Will he burn it? Will he leave it for the beasts to eat it?
The Glorious Qur’an has mentioned the story in brief.
And his soul permitted to him the murder of his brother, so he killed him and became among the losers. Then Allah sent a crow searching in the ground to show him how to hide the dead body of his brother. He said, “O woe to me! Have I failed to be like this crow and hide the body of my brother?” And he became of the regretful. (Al-Ma’idah 5:29-31)
Crow as a teacher of human being
It is said in the interpretation of the above-mentioned verse that Allah (Glory be to Him) sent two crows that began fighting with each other and the fighting ended on the death of one of the two crows, the killer crow dug the earth with its talons and beak pushing the dead body of the crow into the excavation pouring down the dust upon it until the corpse of the dead crow was buried under the soil while Qabeel was seeing the whole scene in order to apply the same on the corpse of his brother.
This is about the first burial in human history as was stated in the Glorious Qur’an and its commentaries and Hadiths.
It is also notable that the Pharaohs of Egypt used to embalm the dead bodies and bury in boxes in the pyramids.
(1) http://people.opposingviews.com/comparison-between-hindu-funeral-islamic-funeral-4148.html (Last accessed on 11/12/2015).
(2) Funeral Customs, Bertram S. Puckle, T.WERNER LAURIE LTD. 30 NEW BRIDGE STREET, EC 4 1926, p.209.
(3) William Eassie, C.E. Cremation of the dead; its history and bearings upon public health, Smith Elder and company, 15 Waterloo Place 1875, p. 25.
(4) http://people.opposingviews.com/comparison-between-hindu-funeral-islamic-funeral-4148.html (Last accessed on 11/12/2015).
(5) Pandit Lekhram, Kulliyat e Arya Musafir, Mufid `Aam, Lahore, 1903, p. 176.
(6) https://scienceurdu.wordpress.com/2014/10/01/taboo-rituals-ممنوعہ-رسومات/ (Last accessed on 11/12/2015).