Lessons from witnessing a passing
Updated: Jan 2, 2020
I was in India for four months this summer when a shorter stay got extended due to my grandmother's illness and subsequent passing. I stayed back to care for her and support my family, and had the privilege to be present during her passing. There were many lessons I received through that experience from an Ayurvedic lens.
Rose and the Mind
My grandmother had lived to be 91, and we wanted to celebrate her life after her passing. The funeral was a grand gathering of the family and friends. As soon as I walked in to the cremation space with my daughter, we both noticed that the entire pathway had been showered with rose petals all the way to her pyre. The beautiful smell of roses created a different sense of space, one that brought inner peace and tranquility and allowed us to connect with the feeling of completeness. My grandmother had completed this particular journey on earth and had now returned her body to be recycled back to the planet.
Rose is known as शतपत्री (shatapatri), which translates to "hundred petals." It is likely that this variety of rose in India had that many petals. In Bhavaprakash, we find the following verse that mentions its soothing effect on the heart.
शतपत्री हिमा ह्रद्या ग्राहिणी शुक्रला लघु:||२३||
--भावप्रकाश, पु्ष्प वर्ग
Rose (शतपत्री) is cooling (हिमा), soothing to the heart (ह्रद्या), assimilative (ग्राहिणी), spermatogenic (शुक्रल) and light (लघु).
It is quite common to see rose petals play a prominent role in departure ceremonies.
Honoring the Five Elements
The day after my grandmother passed, we brought her body home. Then, we gave her a ceremonial bath, after which she was placed on a wooden frame that would eventually be taken to the cremation ground. In this part of the process, a priest conducted a departure ceremony that has passed down over thousands of years in this ancient culture. I lit a ghee lamp as part of the ceremony which would be kept lit through a couple of days. An incense stick filled the space with fragrance. A garland of flowers was placed on her body. As the priest started chanting the hymns for departure, I noticed that he was honoring the five elements. I also noticed the existence of five elements in the ceremony.
Incense represents vayu, or air. The lamp represents agni or fire. The ceremonial bath brought in aapaha or water. The wooden frame on which my grandmother lay represents prithvi or earth. The container in which this ceremony took place represents akasha, or space. It is the ancient wisdom of this culture to recognize our conception as an amalgamation of the five elements, and it is only fitting that our ceremonies constantly remind us that the amalgamation has allowed us to have a temporary human experience.
The space beyond
The hymns being chanted recognize that death is not a specific moment in time but more of a process in which the soul passes through various stages. This perspective is also echoed in the Tibetan Book of the Dead calls bardos (or antarbhava in Sanskrit) as the space between death and rebirth.
It is at this time that hymns remind the spirit of how it came together, and its true essence in order that it may choose its onward journey and not just be brought back to the world on autopilot. The महामृत्युंजय (Mahamrityunjay) mantra is the pinnacle of such hymns, and it is an ode to Shiva, also known as Adiyogi (the first yogi):
ॐत्रयंबकं यजामहे सुगन्धिं पुष्टिवर्धनम|
उर्वारुकमिव बन्धनान् म्ृत्योर मुक्षीय माऽम्ृतात|
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 poetry is remarkable at so many levels. We all have two eyes and Yoga, Ayurveda's sister science, talks of the third eye that refers to a deeper intuition of the inner workings of nature. When one meditates on these inner workings, one's life becomes fragrant and that symbolic fragrance nourishes the intuition of others as they are also inspired to lean in to their own understanding of nature. The next line is even more remarkable, referring to how the free separate at the time of death. Knowing that they were here on borrowed materials, they have no attachment and separate very naturally like a ripe watermelon, which is already resting on the earth. All that happens is the breaking of the connection to the plant.
This hymn reminds us of what freedom looks like using metaphors from the physical world around us. It is claimed in the culture that even a slight reminder of freedom goes a long way in a soul's departure journey.
I had witnessed the passing of two other grandparents first-hand, but Ayurveda wasn't a part of my life then. The way I experienced the ceremonies and processed them this time was totally different, and I am filled with a deep reverence for life.
My daughter with my grandmother (her great-grandmother) playing a board game while my infant son lounges.