American popular culture hardly ever showcases Hindu dying and funeral rituals. One notable exception is the 2006 movie The Namesake, primarily based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the identical title. When the primary character, Gogol, learns of his father’s dying, he instantly shaves his head, as is customary for upper-caste Hindu males. He then visits his household house in New York the place relations and mates have gathered to wish and carry out funerary rites. Gogol’s white girlfriend, Maxine, joins him and stumbles in her efforts to console Gogol, first by carrying an all-black outfit when everybody else is wearing white, a colour for mourning in Hindu traditions, and second by inviting herself to scatter his father’s ashes in India, a ceremony often carried out by the speedy household. By way of Maxine, viewers witness a stereotypical white American who is aware of nearly nothing about Hindu customs associated to dying and mourning. Sadly, American journalists writing about pandemic-related deaths in India have demonstrated equally insufficient data about Hindu dying rituals.
In April 2021, on the peak of the pandemic in India, information articles reminiscent of “Complacency and Missteps Deepen a Virus Disaster in India,” and “How Did the Covid-19 Outbreak in India get so bad?” printed in The New York Occasions and The Washington Publish cited massive public gatherings, inhabitants density, authorities missteps, and developing-world healthcare infrastructure as causes for India’s Covid-19 issues. Writing for the New York Occasions, international correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman anxious for the security of himself, his household, and his neighbors, as a whole lot of hundreds contracted Covid-19 and overwhelmed India’s healthcare system. He writes, “As a international correspondent for practically 20 years, I’ve coated fight zones, been kidnapped in Iraq, and been thrown in jail in various locations. That is unsettling differently. There’s no manner of figuring out if my two children, spouse, or I will probably be amongst those that get a light case and bounce again to good well being, or if we are going to get actually sick. And if we do get actually sick, the place will we go? ICUs are full. Gates to so many hospitals are closed.” His tales supply readers in america a glimpse of the ache and anguish that he skilled in India on the peak of Covid-19, fears shared by many Indians all through the nation. Reporters Shefali Anand and Suryatapa Bhattacharya, writing for The Wall Road Journal, clarify how younger adults, reminiscent of Anisha Saigal, 29, “stood in line for 3 ½ hours at Holy Household Hospital in New Delhi to get a session” earlier than being admitted to the pediatric ward since beds weren’t out there. Others, like Priyanka Kumari, 25, who reside in small cities the place healthcare amenities are much more restricted typically died earlier than reaching hospitals with ventilators and drugs.
Alongside these accounts, some information media retailers furthered, albeit tacitly, colonial stereotypes of the area, largely by a poor understanding of India’s non secular traditions. Too typically, journalists failed to supply their primarily white, Christian, American audiences with data to grasp why Hindus interact particularly dying rituals and why others inside India have totally different customs.
Over the previous a number of months, I reviewed 103 articles in American newspapers about Covid-19 in India. Just a few defined the importance of spiritual rites, and so they did so briefly. Most, together with the examples beneath, centered as an alternative on descriptions of mass dying and mass cremations.
Writing for the New York Occasions, Jeffrey Gettleman describes cremation grounds vividly: “Crematories are so stuffed with our bodies it’s as if a struggle simply occurred. Fires burn across the clock. Many locations are holding mass cremations, dozens at a time, and at night time, in sure areas of New Delhi, the sky glows.” He compares cremation grounds to struggle zones, typically characterised by uncertainty, concern, and dysfunction, whereas commenting on the jarring sight of mass cremations occurring all through the night time. The pictures accompanying these articles depict our bodies being ready for, or present process, cremation rites.
A predominantly white Christian viewers that acknowledges burial as probably the most acceptable technique of dealing with the deceased could understand these open-air mass cremations as undignified if they’re unaware why Hindus cremate. With out such an evidence of the historical past, readers are more likely to understand the apply as international and mysterious, particularly since open-air cremations are unlawful in most locations in america.
Of the few articles that did clarify cremation rites in India, most supplied solely a cursory overview of the Hindu customized. One New York Occasions article declares, “Cremations are an essential a part of Hindu burial rituals, seen as a strategy to free the soul from the physique. These working on the burning floor mentioned that they have been totally exhausted and will by no means keep in mind so many individuals dying in such a brief span of time.” The article options visuals of cremations and describes Hindu funerary rites as burials. This declare conflates burial and cremation, elides the area’s non secular range and causes for cremation, and echoes colonial sentiments and misunderstandings.
White colonists in India have lengthy depicted Hindu cremation as a barbaric apply. Alexander Duff (1806-1878), the primary missionary in India from the Church of Scotland, described Hindu cremation as a disgusting spectacle. In one in every of his hottest books, India and Its Missions: Including Sketches of the Gigantic System of Hinduism in Theory and Practice (1839), he writes, “Within the sacred books [for Hindus] it’s required that the physique be burnt to ashes on the funeral pile [pyre] – the method being accompanied by numerous non secular ceremonies. The consecrated locations for burning the lifeless are often on the ghats, or flights of steps on the touchdown locations on the margin of a river. These ghats always current spectacles probably the most disgusting to each feeling thoughts.” For Duff and his contemporaries, public cremation was an uncivilized non secular ritual that didn’t supply the identical dignity as that of the Christian burial.
Duff was not alone in portraying Hindu cremation as primitive. In Burning the Dead: Hindu Nationhood and the Global Construction of Indian Tradition, scholar David Arnold highlights how European colonial officers abhorred cremations, seeing them as repugnant rituals. They denounced cremation and different Hindu traditions to justify British rule for the supposedly uncivilized plenty and to current conversion to Christianity as Hindus’ solely hope for redemption.
Most Hindus are cremated after they die. Exceptions embody infants beneath the age of two, renunciants (sannyāsīs), and a few members of decrease social teams reminiscent of Dalits, who’re buried. Cremation happens quickly after dying, typically inside 24 to 48 hours, and severs any remaining ties or lingering sense of attachment that the self (ātman) could should the physique. The physique is ready for cremation rites by the deceased’s relations, who ceremonially bathe and dress the physique, anoint the brow with vermilion marks, and supply flowers, typically whereas reciting devotional verses and songs. Relations pay their respects to the deceased by garlanding, bowing all the way down to, and circumambulating the physique, that are methods of exhibiting reverence in Hindu traditions. The deceased’s eldest son or a detailed relative ignites the funeral pyre on the cremation grounds. The ashes of the physique are collected and ritually dispersed in a physique of water. In america, Hindus have needed to modify these customs due to legal guidelines that prohibit public cremations. As an alternative, Hindus in America conduct their funerary rites in a closed chamber at an area funeral house earlier than the physique is taken to a crematorium.
These rituals stem from Hindu beliefs that the immortal and imperishable self (ātman) takes on a physique and undergoes a means of reincarnation (punarjanma) till attaining liberation (moksa). The cremation rituals and dispersal of ashes symbolize the physique’s return to the pure parts and signify the cyclicality of life.
Many different non secular teams in India, together with Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs additionally cremate the deceased. By labeling all cremation rites as “Hindu,” reporters erase the nation’s non secular range and fail to respect the lifeless. This erasure echoes eighteenth-century British colonialists, who typically used the time period “Hindoo” to check with everybody on the Indian subcontinent who recognized as neither Muslim nor Christian.
Whereas readers in america would discover stories of cardboard coffins in Ecuador or mass graves at Hart Island, NY, stunning, they nonetheless have the cultural and non secular literacy to grasp burials. When the identical readers have been introduced with uncooked footage of open-air cremations in India the place our bodies have been burned across the clock in 2021, they could have concluded, because the colonialists did within the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, that Hindus deal with the deceased in an inhumane manner. The repeated references to and pictures of cremation in information media exoticize funeral practices and cement variations between the “East” and the “West.” These variations tacitly perpetuate colonial legacies that characterize the “East” as mysterious and backward and the “West” as its reverse – civilized and progressive. A part of mitigating this distance – cultivating understanding and mutual respect for individuals of various cultures, traditions, backgrounds, and races – requires higher non secular literacy.
A Pew Analysis Research on “What Americans Know About Religion” carried out in 2019 reveals that almost all residents of america have background data on Christianity and the Bible, and a few understanding of the which means of key phrases in Islam, reminiscent of Ramadan and Mecca. Far fewer People, nevertheless, may reply primary questions on Jewish, Buddhist, and Hindu traditions. The absence of common literacy on non secular minorities in america offers journalists the added accountability of coupling reporting on the what with the why, that’s, describing present occasions as they unfold whereas additionally offering readers with the instruments to grasp these occasions.
The cultivation and communication of spiritual literacy – that’s, the histories, beliefs, and practices of spiritual traditions – must be paired with an examination of colonial legacies and the way they form up to date attitudes in the direction of race and religion in the United States. As students like Tomoko Masuzawa and Kathryn Gin Lum have proven, classifications of faith, together with the labeling of some as “primitive” and others as “moral,” emerged throughout the age of European colonialism and continued by the enlargement of america’ empire. Such taxonomies have been political acts that hierarchized religions purportedly rooted in rationality like Protestant Christianity and deemed others that included the worship of objects as primitive. By understanding this historical past and its legacies in america, journalists and readers will change into conscious of the unchecked and sometimes refined ways in which colonial thought patterns pervade one’s conception of the self and different.
Bhakti Mamtora is Assistant Professor of Non secular Research on the Faculty of Wooster and a Sacred Writes/Revealer writing fellow. Her analysis examines orality, textuality, and canonization in South Asian and diasporic Hindu traditions.
This text was made doable partly with help from Sacred Writes, a Henry Luce Basis-funded challenge hosted by Northeastern College that promotes public scholarship on faith.