The Indian way of death

Death in Banaras
November 17, 1995

My first reaction on receiving this volume was to wonder what more could be written about Banaras, following the memorable 1983 book by Diana Eck, Banaras: City of Light. However, I could hardly have been more wrong. Much new data is presented and analysed in this book. It demonstrates the densely layered quality of life in Banaras, spiritually and mythologically rich, yet also legendary for displays of venal commercialism. The main subject is the highly developed Hindu mortuary cycle for those who seek to die within the sacred realm of Shiva at Banaras, thus ensuring better rebirth or even liberation.

The book is based on ethnographic data mostly collected between 1976 and 1983. The text is divided into four parts, each subdivided into chapters, except the last which is a fascinating, though in many ways separate study.

Part one is entitled "Death and the city" and contains two chapters. Chapter one deals with the relationship between Banaras, liberation, the gods and cosmology. Jonathan Parry ends this chapter with the assertion that "...since cremation is a sacrifice, since sacrifice regenerates the cosmos (here he refers to the Prajapati myth where the primal man is sacrificed to bring forth creation), and since the funeral pyres burn without interruption throughout the day and night at Manikarnika ghat, creation is here continually replayed." Banaras is thus firmly placed in cosmic time. Chapter 2, in contrast, turns to historic time and concerns itself with the development of Banaras as a mortuary centre, and its history from Mughal to British times - and indeed onwards to independent India. Finally, Parry provides statistics concerning cremations on the two main ghats - the Manikarnika and the Harishchandra - and the distances that bodies have been brought (at least one corpse coming from the UK). Here, the electric crematorium, one of the newcomers to the banks of the Ganges - is discussed. Use of this is certainly cheaper than cremation on the ghats as so few personnel are required; it is also quicker. However, frequent power failures limit its overall effectiveness.

"Death as a living" is the title of part two and is also subdivided into two chapters. Both of them deal with the elaborate division of ritual specialisation which is such a striking feature of death in Banaras. These specialists include the mahabrahmans (priests who represent, and receive gifts on behalf of, the spirit of the unquiet dead), and the doms (untouchables who oversee the cremation of the body). There are also barbers and sellers of the ritual items - including pyre wood - required at the cremation. Finally there are boatmen who carry mourners and pilgrims on the sacred Ganges. Of extraordinary complexity is the system which governs the right of various specialists to offer - and of course receive payment for - service on the ghats on different days; this is the system of pari. Parry then discusses the "gifts" to the specialists and the social standing (almost entirely poor) of the different ritualists. Parry suggests that the extraordinary venality apparent in the dealings of the specialists may actually be a perceived necessity, for without giving there is no salvation either for the dead or the living. He further discusses the morality of giving and receiving in mortuary practice. Although giving is required for the achievement of liberation, the receipt of gifts is morally dangerous and is felt eventually to bring only sorrow. Giving is also performed because sin is thereby cancelled by being passed on to the recipient of the gift. The lot of the Brahman involved in death ritual is therefore doubly morally perilous, as he receives the sin with the gift, and also deals with the inauspiciousness of death. No wonder his prices (aka "gifts") are high!

The third and longest part of the book is "Death into birth", and in the first of its three chapters the author examines the contrasting requirements for the display of grief according to gender. Definitions of "good" and "bad" death are discussed and the ideas of cremation as a sacrifice, both to the advantage of the sacrificer and, in a cosmic sense, to the universe, are developed. Chapter six is mostly ethnographic description of the complicated sequence of rituals which convert the ghost of the dead into an ancestor who is then released from this world. It would not be an Indian ritual if there were not many variations dependent upon caste, status and finance. Divergent views about what happens to the soul at death lead the author to say "The eschatalogical picture is confusing, even contradictory. A theory of rebirth coexists with apparently incompatible ideas about the dead residing in a separate ancestral realm, enjoying the blessings of Vishnu's heaven or suffering the torments of hell." Theories of rebirth, he suggests, are useful to explain the present, while theories about a heaven are more useful in postulating the future. This chapter concludes with information on the extent to which one is polluted by someone else's death. The lower one is in the social scale, the more polluted one is by the death of someone above one; the reverse is also true. Here Parry notes an asymmetry which he also records in other areas of caste theory. The last chapter of part three is concerned with spirit possession and the rites of non-Brahman exorcists. Spirits of those who have died a bad death continue to haunt this world until appeased and sent onwards to the world of the ancestors.

Part four, "The end of death" deals with a subject as huge and as interesting as the whole of the rest of the book. This is the attempt by extreme Shaivite ascetics - the Aghori - to conquer the everlasting round of death followed by rebirth. This they claim to do through practices for which the theoretical background is of great antiquity and authority in India. Their ritual activities revolve around the idea that liberation is a landscape beyond the differentiation of opposites. The Aghori believe that by showing themselves indifferent to all opposites - mere products of illusion, anyway - they will find release. Such ideas, when practised - as opposed to merely internalised - can lead to extraordinary activities, and I was surprised in Parry's discussion of the ritual cannibalism in which Aghoris purport to indulge that he makes no mention of the famous and surely parallel example of the Sheep-eater of Fatehgarh, an ascetic who flourished at the turn of the 19th century. He was renowned for consuming live sheep using only his hands and teeth to rip them apart. The presence of Europeans in this part of northern India means that his story is well documented in the modern sources. Commenting on similar activities, Parry says that "Duality is abolished, polarities are combined, and the Aghori thus recaptures the primordial state of non-differentiation."

The book is generally well produced and has a useful bibliography, as well as notes and glossary. Sadly there are a number of proof-reading mistakes, and the quality of the photographic reproduction is low. Beyond these few criticisms, the book is both extremely interesting and elegantly written.

T. Richard Blurton is assistant keeper, department of Oriental antiquities, British Museum.

Death in Banaras

Author - Jonathan P. Parry
ISBN - 0 521 46074 3 and 0 521 46625 3
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £45.00 and £17.95
Pages - 314

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