A Hindu consecrates his entire life while performing various sacraments at proper stages in life on one hand, and observing multifarious duties that come to his lot on the other. His death is also an event consecrated by his survivors by death, the consolation sought by the survivors, the need of accepting death as the natural end of existence on the earth, the necessity of doing away with the corpse – all these seem to have contributed to the evolution of the Antyeshti Samskara in the Hindu tradition.
The renowned sage Bauddhayana says, “Death is inevitable in the case of a being who is born…. “ a creature comes from the unknown and goes to the unknown, so the wise regard birth and death as equal. Such being the fact, people give their dues to their mother, father, preceptor, wife, son, and disciple ….. and consecrate their cremation with proper sacrament.
( Bauddhayana Pitrimedha – sutras 3.1.4 )
The various observances of the funeral seem to have born out of the conception of life after death, the mixed feeling of dread and love for the departed, desire for an easy and peaceful passage from the world of mortals, ensuring for the departed a fit place in the company of the manes ( forefathers ) and the gods, and motive of securing the final liberation of the soul from the cycle of births and deaths.
Since fire was regarded as messenger between men and gods, the dead bodies were disposed off by cremation. As the whole life of a Hindu is looked upon as a continuous sacrifice, death too is observed as a sacrifice. The dead body is offered to fire as an oblation. Fire is applied to the pyre with the Vedic hymn, ‘ Agni, consume not this body to cinders neither give it pain nor scatter about its skin or limbs. When the body is fairly burnt, convey the spirit to the ancestors. May the five elements be merged with their basic forms.’
The sublime sentiments expressed through the performance of the sacraments make death less painful for the survivors, and help them regain the lost poise.