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Pastoral Thanatology and Hinduism

Hinduism and Pastoral Thanatology

Pastoral counselors or Thanatologists can come into contact with an array of theologies that are not particular to the West.  Many of the Eastern religions are no exception to this.  It is very important for the counselor to be aware of at least some of the theology of these religions, especially in regards to death.

Hinduism is one of the key Eastern religions.  It surpasses Buddhism in age and many of the tenets of Buddhism derive from Hinduism.  There are slight differences regarding the essence of God, the number of reincarnations, and final enlightenment, but the preparations for death have the same essence and core; death is preparation for the next life or enlightenment.  So 

A picture of Krishna

A picture of Krishna

despite the different rituals and slight theological differences both religions share a common theme in regards to how death is viewed.

Hinduism views death as a portal to the next life and eventual enlightenment or reunion with Brahman.   However, the cycles of reincarnation can be endless until that reunification is finally achieved.  Karma determines not only when the cycle of  rebirth will end, but also the quality of life in the next rebirth.  Hence good living and good dying is critical to a Hindu. 

The purpose of the Hindu rites of the dead is to ensure that death is a smooth transition for the deceased and that he or she may attain enlightenment or a good rebirth.  While these rites can last up to a year, most rites only last ten days after the death of the family member.  Prior to death, the soon to be deceased is surrounded by family and read to from the holy texts of the Veda and Bhagavad Gita.  After the initial death, usually a son then cleanses his parent’s body.  Drops from the Ganges River are sometimes applied at the lips.  Following this, the body is wrapped in white.  Within a day or two, the body is prepared for cremation, so that the body may travel to the next life.  The body is also burned as a sacrifice.

During the ten days, the family offers various prayers and offerings to God and also the Brahmins on behalf of the deceased.  While the karma of the deceased will ultimately decide his or her fate, these prayers can be of some benefit.  Finally after the tenth day, the ghostlike period of the deceased ends and on the eleventh day the soul will find enlightenment or a new rebirth; the quality of that rebirth being dependent upon the karma of that person.   Eventually after the soul learns the value of self sacrifice and love, it can claim its reunification with Brahman.

Knowing these theological beliefs and reading the texts of Hinduism can ensure that one who deals with pastoral issues of death can be of help and comfort to someone with these beliefs.  It is not an issue for Western counselors to change their beliefs but to be well informed and a better global care giver to the many needs of other cultures in addition to the needs of the West.

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