Vidyasankar Sundaresan vsundaresan at HOTMAIL.COM
Sun Jun 18 16:35:01 CDT 2000

I am sometimes amused and sometimes irritated by questions about the
efficacy of Sraaddham.

1. The word is derived from SraddhA, i.e. faith, so if one doesn't have the
faith in it, it would perhaps be better not to do it. Otherwise, it is just
hypocrisy, to be doing something just because your family elders or your
neighbours expect it out of you.

2. In the following, I am going to be very hard-headed about death. If it
offends somebody, please note that it is because of the very nature of the
topic. When people talk of anniversary funeral rituals, they presuppose the
events surrounding death.

Now, there is a person who is alive one moment, dead the next. Why do we
take the care and the trouble to perform a funeral ritual? Is it for the
sake of the dead person or for the sake of the living who are left behind?
You cut your nails and throw away the clippings. Every morning, you empty
your bowels and flush it away. Do you care any further about what was once
an integral part of your material body? Similarly, once the jIva has left
the material body, should it or does it really care what happens to the
material body? If someone dies alone, in an open desert or forest, with
nobody to take care of the funeral, what happens? Material nature or
Prakriti has its own ways of taking back the material and recycling it.
Scavenger animals and birds come and eat the flesh. Micro-organisms take
care of the rest, till only the bones are left. Finally, heat and wind
reduce even that to powder and it becomes part of the soil. The same thing
happens to those who get buried. Amongst those who get cremated, the fire
and the heat simply increases the rate at which the body components return
to nature. Does any of this hurt the jIva that has left?

3. So, can we argue, based on the above, that we have no reason to really
perform the funeral rituals for our near and dear ones when they die? Can
we be heartless about it and just dump corpses in a trash can? The Parsis
(Zoroastrians) leave the dead bodies for vultures, but they perform
necessary rituals before leaving the corpse. It should be obvious that the
funeral rituals are prescribed in religion, only to take care of the
feelings of the living people who are left behind. The anniversary rituals
are part of the same process.

All the Advaita philosophy is well and good, but unless you are prepared to
become a total sannyAsin, and completely transcend action, don't use
Advaita as a supposedly intellectual excuse not to perform the duties that
are meant to help your life. So long as there are the desires for a home, a
family, wife/husband, children, money etc., and so long as you don't think
twice about doing the actions necessary to achieve these desires, also do
the prescribed actions - they are only described to help you. At this
point, one can talk of nishkAmya karma, and view these ritual actions as a
means towards citta-shuddhi.

4. Let us turn to a different issue. Everyday, from the Kedarnath temple in
Himalayas to the Rameswaram temple in Tamil Nadu, Siva receives tons of
food as naivedyam. From the Badrinath temple in the Himalayas to Srirangam
in the south, Vishnu also receives tons of food. Do the gods really need
it? Or do we even ask how the same God can be at so many different places
at once, to accept the offerings? Don't you go to the temple near you and
offer worship and flowers and fruits and milk?

5. Do you believe that there is only one life that the jIva takes, which is
the present one, or do you believe that the jIva takes many births? Even
when living, no act gets done by just thinking about it. The material legs
have to move and walk (or get into a vehicle) if the desire is to go
somewhere. The hands have to move if the desire is to lift something. The
fingers have to move if the desire is to type messages to the mailing list.
Only Yogins are said to have the power to achieve things by merely thinking
of them. The vast majority of human beings have to utilize their senses and
their material bodies to do things. If after death, the jIva has no
material body, how can it enter into another body then? If you believe that
there is rebirth, then you have to agree that the jIva that leaves has what
is called a subtle body. It is this subtle body that one thinks of, during
Sraaddhas. We call upon three generations of ancestors, and consider them
to be equivalent to the eight Vasus, eleven Rudras and twelve Adityas. But
we also invoke a unifying perspective, when we recite "eko vishNur mahad
bhUtaM pRthag bhUtAny anekaSaH", and "annaM ca brahma, ahaM ca brahmA,
bhoktA ca brahma", as part of the Sraaddha mantras.

6. The argument about the purohitas and shastris - if you think a
particular priest is being dishonest, don't patronize him. Approach a
different priest the next time. But don't use the dishonesty of a few as an
excuse or as a philosophical argument against the religion itself. From
time immemorial, there have been religious observances, and from time
immemorial, there have been dishonest priests - from ancient Egypt and
Babylon and India and China to modern India and China and Europe and
America. This says nothing except that human beings are often foolish and
corrupt. That is not news. Our entire purpose for religious rules and
observances is to go beyond our own foolishness and corruption and to
become better human beings and finally to be liberated. That does involve
hardship, but that is life.


bhava shankara deshikame sharaNam

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