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  • Writer's pictureGeetanjali Chakraborty

Witnessing a Transition: Life and Death Through the Lens of Ayurveda


During my four-month stay in India this summer, what was initially intended as a brief visit was extended due to my grandmother's illness and eventual passing. Choosing to stay on to provide care and support for my family, I had the privilege of being present during her final moments. Through this profound experience, I gained invaluable insights from the perspective of Ayurveda.


Roses of Remembrance


In commemorating my grandmother's remarkable 91- year journey, we sought to honor her life in a meaningful way. The funeral became a poignant gathering, uniting family and friends in remembrance. Stepping into the cremation area alongside my daughter, I was struck by the sight of rose petals adorning the pathway leading to her pyre. The gentle fragrance enveloped us, transforming the atmosphere into one of serene tranquility, fostering a deep sense of inner peace. It was as if the presence of roses guided us towards a profound connection with the completion of my grandmother's earthly voyage, as her body returned to the embrace of the earth to begin a new cycle of existence.

In the Ayurvedic tradition, the rose, known as शतपत्री (shatapatri) which translates as "thousand petals", symbolizes serenity.


In Bhavaprakash, Pushpa Varga, we find the following verse that mentions its soothing effects:

शतपत्री हिमा ह्रद्या ग्राहिणी शुक्रला लघु:||२३||


Shloka Translation: Rose (शतपत्री) is cooling (हिमा), soothing to the heart (ह्रद्या), assimilative (ग्राहिणी), spermatogenic (शुक्रल) and light (लघु).

It's not uncommon for rose petals to play a significant role in funeral ceremonies, adding a touch of reverence to the proceedings.

Honoring the Five Elements


The day following my grandmother's passing, we brought her back home. There, she received a ceremonial bath before being placed on a wooden frame destined for the cremation grounds. Guiding us through this sacred ritual was a priest, steeped in the traditions passed down over millennia in our ancient culture. As part of the ceremony, I kindled a ghee lamp, its flame intended to burn for several days. The air was filled with the sweet fragrance of incense, while a delicate garland of flowers adorned her body.


In the solemnity of the moment, I couldn't help but notice the priest's reverence for the five elements, reflected in every aspect of the ceremony. The incense symbolized vayu, or air, while the lamp embodied agni, or fire. The ceremonial bath invoked aapaha, representing water, while the wooden frame signified prithvi, the element of earth. Even the container enclosing the ceremony embodied akasha, or space.

This profound symbolism spoke to the ancient wisdom of our culture, acknowledging our existence as a harmonious fusion of these five elements. Through these ceremonies, we are reminded of our transient human experience, shaped by this amalgamation of elemental forces.

The Space Beyond


Furthermore, the hymns chanted during the ceremony acknowledged death as a process rather than a singular moment, echoing the concept of bardos (or antarbhava) from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. These hymns serve as a guide for the soul in its transition, prompting reflection on life's true essence and the choice of its onward journey.


Among these hymns, the महामृत्युंजय (Mahamrityunjay) mantra holds particular significance, paying homage to Shiva, also known as Adiyogi, and invoking introspection on the nature of freedom. Through metaphors drawn from nature, it highlights the inevitability of separation and the liberation that comes with relinquishing attachment, ultimately guiding the departing soul towards freedom.

ॐत्रयंबकं यजामहे सुगन्धिं पुष्टिवर्धनम|

उर्वारुकमिव बन्धनान् म्ृत्योर मुक्षीय माऽम्ृतात|


Shloka Translation: Om, the three-eyed one's fragrance in meditation increases nourishment.

(Like him), Only the free will separate like the watermelon at the time of death.

The depth of this poetry resonates on multiple levels. While we possess two physical eyes, Yoga, often regarded as Ayurveda's sister science, delves into the concept of the third eye, representing an innate intuition into the intricacies of nature's workings. Engaging in meditation on these inner workings imbues one's life with a symbolic fragrance, enriching the intuition of others and inspiring them to deepen their own connection with nature.


The second line of the poetry holds even greater significance, illustrating the departure of the liberated soul at the moment of death. Recognizing the transient nature of existence, devoid of attachment to material possessions, the departing soul naturally separates, akin to a ripe watermelon gently detaching from the vine. This analogy underscores the seamless transition, where the only change is the dissolution of the connection to earthly ties.


Having experienced the passing of two other grandparents in the past without the influence of Ayurveda, this time I approached the ceremonies with a newfound perspective. Filled with deep reverence for life, I embraced the teachings and wisdom passed down through generations, finding solace in the rituals that honor the journey from life to death.

In a snapshot from our past photo album, my daughter engages in a board game with my grandmother, her great-grandmother, as my infant son relaxes nearby.

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