SHIVA AND DEATH
Through His destruction, Shiva claims and regenerates life,death is His dominion. In a world dominated by a distorted vision of reality the thought of death and its consequences can be extremely disturbing. The direct experience of parting from all that one loves and cherishes and entering a completely different state of consciousness, is confusing and even frightening.
For the Hindu the possibility of a more or less fortunate rebirth is a major concern, due to their deep rooted belief in karma and the ancient caste system. Convinced that their past actions have caused them to be bom into a particular caste, they hope that their good deeds will earn them a rebirth in a higher one, with less suffering in the material world.
The four castes of Indian society are Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra. The highest caste is the Brahmin, the priestly class, who perform all religious ceremonies, are the scholars and are supported by the community. All Brahmins wear a sacred thread, given to them by their guru in a ceremony somewhat like a Christian confirmation.
Second in the social order are the Kshatriya, the warriors, who defend and protect society. They are responsible for the implementation of justice and work as soldiers.
Third on the social ladder are the Vaisya, the business men and shopkeepers, who run the economy.The lowest caste are the Sudra, sometimes called Untouchables, who were named the children of God or Harijan by Mahatma Gandhi. They are the laborers and servants, who perform the lowly jobs such as shoe mending and the handling of corpses.
The death rites of each caste and ethnic group are different, but follow a general pattern to which is added the special ceremonies of their sect.
The dead body is undressed and swaddled in cloth before being laid on a stretcher made of newly cut green bamboo. Wealthier families cover the body with a rich antique brocade cloth, which is kept for this ceremonial purpose by their caste, or extended family group. The male members of the clan then carry the body to the temple. Females very seldom attend cremations on account of their sensitive nature.
While the funeral pyre is prepared the body is laid on the steps, sometimes with its feet in the holy river, symbolizing the last ritual bath. Some people are taken to the temple just before death, so that they pass away with their feet in the river, cleansed of sin. When the pyre is constructed, the corpse is laid on it with the head facing east. Friends and relatives pay last respects to their loved one, while close family members touch their foreheads to the feet of the deceased in a final act of parting.