Antyeshti, women & patriarchy: breaking the myths around Hindu funeral rites

Antyeshti is a sacred duty performed by relatives for the departed to ensure a smooth journey once they leave their physical body.

Antyeshti, women & patriarchy: breaking the myths around Hindu funeral rites

In the aftermath of the demise of Raj Kaushal and the performance of his funeral rites by his wife Mandira Bedi rather than their son, many feminists and socialites have hailed the courage of grieving wife for standing up to women’s rights with one columnist describing the act as breaking the shackles of patriarchy.

While what the grieving wife did or did not do is entirely up to her, using this as an opportunity to take a dig at Hinduism and portray Hindu religious practices as patriarchal is problematic not only because it is based on absolute ignorance about Hindu culture and philosophy, but also because it misleads the youth of the country who are further alienated from their own culture and identity.

But, before addressing why Hindu women performing funeral rites cannot be considered as ‘breaking the shackles’ of anything, let us ask some basic questions:

What is Antyeshti (the funeral rites)?

Why is Antyeshti performed?

Antyeshti literally means the ‘last sacrifice’. It refers to the funeral rites wherein the physical body of the dead person is offered to the fire. It is the last of the 16 Samskaras (consecration rites) that a Hindu undergoes in life. While the exact ritual procedure varies depending upon region, community, varṇa, age, and many other factors, it usually lasts for 12 days.

Now, to the question of why Antyeshti is performed, there are three plausible answers:

  1. It is performed merely as a way of getting rid of the body of the departed
  2. It is performed to honour the departed.
  3. It is performed as a religious rite to facilitate the onward journey of the departed.

Now, instinctively we may choose option A or B or both A and B. However, consider this:

Option A is a materialistic explanation which only perceives the funeral as serving the purpose of getting rid of the body which no longer has life in it. So, from this perspective, performance or not of religious rituals accompanied by its rules and mantras is immaterial and unnecessary. Only disposing of the body is what matters. Likewise, option B though noble has nothing ritualistic in it. Honouring the dead simply implies ensuring the body of the deceased person is let go of in a respectful way. So, here also it makes no difference whether one ritualistically does it or not. The choice of both A & B together also does not require that the dead are cremated or buried in a ritualistic manner.

It is only option C that perceives the entire process of a funeral as a sacred act with an Alaukika (otherworldly) purpose of helping the departed and it is only with this goal in mind that the ritual procedure of funeral has been delineated in the Hindu Shastras. Antyeshti as noted before is the ‘Last Sacrifice’, a religious act. Its purpose is to facilitate the journey of the departed individual who has just left the body but still has attachment and self-identification with it to migrate from its status as a preta attached to its old body to the abode of Pitṛs (or the manes). To facilitate this onward journey of the departed and remove any impediments in its path is the primary purpose of Antyeshti, the other two options A & B being already implicit in it.

Now this being the case, the Shastras which speak about what happens to the departed after death, also speaks about how the funeral rites have to be performed and who is the most competent to perform them.

While different texts give different orders of people who are most competent to perform Anteyshti. All of them unambiguously note that it is the son who is most competent to perform the Antyeshti Samskara for the parents. It is among the most important duties of the son and the son has a debt towards the parents (pitr-rina) which is paid only through the performance of Antyeshti. Interestingly, the very Sanskrit name for son, Putra, indicates this as it means ‘one who saves (the parents) from a naraka (hell) called put (where presumably the departed go in the absence of Anteyshti)’. It is only in the absence of a son that the Shastras enumerate which other people are competent to perform Antyeshti. Sankha Smriti, for example, states that in the absence of the son, the wife of the deceased can perform the rites. Markandeya Purana, on the other hand, notes that it is only in the absence of a son, grandson, and other immediate male relatives that the wife becomes entitled to perform the funeral rites (See Kane, PV. History of Dharmashastras, Vol 4).

Mind you, performing Antyeshti is not about making a social statement, it is not about breaking any shackles, and it is definitely not about gender rights. It is only and only about the departed and what is most beneficial to the departed. And wives are entitled to the performance of the Antyeshti for their departed husbands in the absence of sons and other immediate male relatives. However, in the presence of the son, all others are ineligible for performing Antyeshti.

But, what do eligibility and ineligibility mean in this context? Here it means, the ability to successfully complete the ritual such that the departed person can smoothly move on in his/her onward journey without any impediments. Only those who have been designated as eligible for the rituals can ensure that the departed has a smooth onward journey. Thus, if a wife performs the Antyeshti in the absence of the son and other more eligible candidates, she is not at fault and the ritual will benefit the departed. However, if the wife performs the Antyeshti despite the presence of the son, it not only leads to the failure of the funeral rites, thus placing impediments in the onward journey of the departed, it also prevents the son from doing his duty towards the father and paying off the pitr-rina. More importantly, it deprives the son of using the rites as a means to cope with the trauma since these rites by design have a cathartic effect on the performers.

Now let us revisit the question: Do Hindu women performing funeral rites to their departed husbands constitute ‘breaking the shackles of patriarchy’?

When there never was any absolute prohibition on women performing funeral rites as per Hindu Shastras, how can women performing such rites constitute setting any new trend or breaking any old shackles? More importantly, since the ineligibility of wives to perform funeral rites in the presence of sons being a stipulation for the otherworldly benefit of the departed person and not due to socio-economic considerations, the allegation of patriarchy does not stick. If it is argued that the otherworldly reasons are mere superstitions and hence stipulations based on such considerations are to be side-lined, then where is the need to even perform the strenuous funeral rites in the first place? Why not simply dispose of the body of the dead without any rituals?

However you see it, this writer cannot notice the breaking of any shackles. If anything, there is only a celebration of the ignorance and alienation from the culture and dharma of this land.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.