Stages of Death and the Importance of Death Rituals
We look at the various stages of death according to the yogic system, and explore the significance of shraddh, the death rituals in the Indian way of life.
Questioner: I wanted to know, what is the importance of doing shraddh (rituals for the deceased)?
Sadhguru: In India, if someone close to you dies, you are supposed to sit and watch – no one leaves a dead body alone. If you keep the body for over two to three days, the hair will grow. If it was a man and he used to shave, you can see this from the facial hair. The nails will also grow. Therefore, in countries where they preserve the dead bodies for a longer time, the undertakers clip the nails and shave the beard. This is so because of the way life manifests. For the sake of understanding – there is fundamental life and physical life. Physical life energy, which is generally referred to as prana, has five basic manifestations. These are called samana, prana, udhana, apana, and vyana.
The Stages of Death
Within 21 to 24 minutes from the moment when a doctor would declare a person as dead, samana starts exiting. Samana is in charge of maintaining the temperature in the body. The first thing that happens after death is, the body starts cooling down. The traditional way of checking whether someone is dead or alive is to feel the nose – they would not check the eyeballs and other parameters. If the nose has gone cold, they concluded that he is dead.
Somewhere between 48 to 64 minutes after someone is considered as dead, prana exits. Between six and twelve hours after, udhana exits. There are tantric processes through which we could revive the body before udhana exits. Once udhana has exited, it is practically impossible to revive the body. Then, somewhere between eight to eighteen hours, apana exits. Subsequently, vyana, which is the preservative nature of prana, will start exiting and may continue to do so for up to 11 to 14 days if it is a normal death – that is if someone died of old age, because life became feeble. For that period of time, certain processes will continue in the body; there will still be some element of life. If someone died in an accident, when the life within was still vibrant – unless the body is totally crushed – the reverberations of this life will continue somewhere between 48 and 90 days.
During that time, there are things you can do for that life. Your experience of death is that someone is gone, but the experience of that being is that he or she has exited the body. Once they have exited the body, you have no business with them anymore. You cannot recognize them anymore, and if they came back, you would be terrified. If people you love died and would pop up again, there would be terror – not love, because your relationship is with their body or with their conscious mind and emotion. Once someone dies, those two aspects are left behind.
The mind is just a bunch of information that has natural tendencies which find expression in a certain way. When someone dies, there is no more discernment, no more intellect. If you put one drop of pleasantness into their mind, this pleasantness will multiply a million fold. If you put one drop of unpleasantness, that unpleasantness will multiply a million fold. It is a little like with children – they go out to play until they are exhausted and cannot go on anymore, because they do not have the necessary discernment as to when it is time to stop.
After death, discernment is completely absent, even more than in a child. Then, whatever quality you put into the mind, it will multiply a million fold. This is what is being referred to as heaven and hell. If you go into a pleasant state of existence, it is called heaven. If you go into an unpleasant state of existence, it is called hell. These are not geographical locations - these are experiential realities that a life which has become disembodied is going through.
How well or how ridiculously it is done today is a different matter, but there is a whole science of what to do at different steps. One of the first things people traditionally do if someone dies is, they will tie the big toes of the dead body together. This is very important because it will tighten up the muladhara in such a way that the body cannot be invaded by that life once again. A life that has not lived with the awareness that “this body is not me” will try to enter through any orifice of the body, particularly through the muladhara. The muladhara is where life generates, and it is always the last point of warmth when the body is cooling down.
The reason why traditionally, we always said that if someone dies, you must burn the body within an hour-and-a-half or a maximum of four hours is because life tries to get back. This is also important for the living. If someone very dear to you died, your mind may start playing tricks, thinking that maybe a miracle will happen, maybe God will come and bring them back. It has never happened to anyone, but still the mind plays up because of the emotions that you have for that particular person. Similarly, the life that has exited the body also believes that it can still get back into the body.
If you want to stop the drama, the first thing is to set fire to the body within one-and-a-half hours. Or to be sure the person is dead, they have stretched it to four hours. But the body should be taken away as quickly as possible. In agriculture communities, they used to bury, because they wanted their forefathers’ bodies, which are a piece of soil, to go back to the soil that had nourished them. Today, you buy your food from the store, and do not know where it comes from. Therefore, burial is not advisable anymore. In earlier times, when they buried in their own land, they always put salt and turmeric on the dead body so that it quickly dissipates into the soil. Cremation is good because it closes the chapter. You will see that when there is a death in the family, people will be crying and wailing, but the moment cremation happens, they will become quiet, because suddenly, the truth has sunk in that it is over. This does not only go for the living but also for the disembodied being who has just exited the body. As long as the body is there, he or she is also under the illusion that he can get back.
There are many rituals to see that you can somehow put a drop of sweetness into such a non-discerning mind so that this sweetness will multiply many fold and they will live comfortably in a kind of self-induced heaven. That is the idea behind the rituals – if they are done properly.
I am sure most of you have heard of runanubandha, which indicates a physical relationship. Whenever you touch someone – either because of blood relationship or sexual relationships, or even if you just hold someone’s hand or exchange clothes – these two bodies will generate runanubandha, a certain commonality. When someone dies, traditionally, you are seeing how to completely obliterate the runanubandha. The idea of putting the ashes in the Ganga or in the ocean is to disperse them as widely as possible so that you do not develop runanubandha with one who has departed. For you to continue your life, you must properly break this runanubandha. Otherwise, as it happens in modern societies, it will affect your physical and mental structure. Children up to eight years of age are immune to these things – nature has given them that protection, but adolescents will suffer immensely when we do not take care of the dead properly, because the energies of disembodied beings are always there and the first ones that they go after are adolescents because they are the most vulnerable. You see in the world today how much upheaval people are going through during adolescence.
One of the reasons why adolescence is more of a struggle today than it was in previous generations is that we are not properly taking care of those who have departed and these runanubandhas are all over the place. It is like loose software everywhere, and it always affects adolescent life most.
Questioner: But what to do? How do you grind your emotions into powder and sprinkle it? I don’t think it is possible to cut off your emotions.
Sadhguru: Emotions are a different, secondary aspect to life. It is the physical sameness, the runanubandha with the dead that you want to eliminate, because this can cause sickness and mental derangement, among other things. Emotion by itself is not damaging. If you had a beautiful relationship with someone and now the person is no more, it is healthy to cherish the beauty of that relationship rather than suffer. But if the runanubandha is there, it weakens your body and your mental structure in such a way that instead of cherishing all the beautiful things that happened between two people, you are suffering, and not only that – it will lead to a certain derangement of life. To avoid that, we try to destroy the physical memory alone. It is not only that you cannot forget the emotional and psychological memory, you should not forget it either. Someone who meant so much to you – why should you forget them? You must cherish that relationship forever.
Editor's note: Kayantha Sthanam is Isha’s Cremation Service that revives ancient traditions and death rituals with a powerful energy basis, conducting them in the spirit of service rather than as a commercial venture. We request your support and contributions to help us offer these services to more people. For more info, visit Kayantha Sthanam – Isha’s Cremation Services.