Since initially embarking upon my study of Hinduism and the religion’s highly spiritualised death and burial practices, I have begun to experience many moments of epiphany. Coming into the research, I clearly had very little understanding of Hinduism or religious death and burial ceremonies, yet here I am 3 weeks later completely intrigued by diverse religious practices throughout the Asian continent.
Autoethnography has confused me, excited me and challenged me throughout the semester. However, it was not until I began to immerse myself in Hinduism that I began to realise how powerful autoethnographic communication can be. As Ellis et al. (2011) highlights, autoethnography ‘expands and opens up a wider lens on the world, eschewing rigid definitions of what constitutes meaningful and useful research’. It is this widening of one’s lens that ultimately defines the course of study, in turn representing the diverse nature of cultural interpretation. Thus, it is within the framework of personal description that I must analyse my own experiences, in the form of epiphanies and reflect upon how influential my cultural framework is in defining my research. It has become increasingly apparent that my experience will greatly differ from others. Therefore, it is important to ‘use personal experience to illustrate facets of cultural experience, and, in so doing, make characteristics of a culture familiar for insiders and outsiders’ (Ellis et al. 2011).
As previously touched on in my third blog post, my Western, atheist cultural background has somewhat blinded me in regard to global religious cultural practices in the past. However, through further research and engagement with Hindu death practices, I have begun to really develop an interest in the religions profound understanding of life and death. Upon first engaging with the video in my third blog, I was taken aback by the public spectacle of the burning of the dead, however, as I further delved into the cultural meaning of such practices I began to deeply reflect upon how diverse human nature and understandings of life can be.
Hindus hold the belief that supreme beings watch over a cycle of reincarnation, whereby, their soul becomes eternal and enters a spiritual realm, only to return to the physical realm in a new physical form. Thus, it is the idea of Karma that has continually caught my attention. My mum has extensively travelled India, thus I think it has been her description of the Indian caste system that has ignited this interest. Within Indian Hindu culture they socially stratify society into four categories (plus ‘outcastes’).
Whilst this system acts to hierarchically stratify society and has been outlawed, the conceptualisation of reincarnation within Hindu culture in many ways supports its continued functioning. Throughout the Western world this system is highly criticised, yet within India, society still believes that one’s good or bad fortune (Karma) no matter their caste, will ultimately determine their social status in their next life. This leads me back to the burning of the dead. In Hindu culture, it therefore becomes apparent that the body could in fact be described as ‘the prison and the soul in being held prisoner for the sins of the physical self’, thus when the soul leaves, the physical body merely returns to the elements of earth. This epiphany has proven highly significant, my initial Westernised reaction toward the ‘intense (cultural) situation’ (Ellis et al. 2011), experienced upon first watching the public burning ceremony, has transformed into one of cultural understanding.
As Kalyanamalini Sahoo (2014) describes in his extensive description of Hindu religious practices, the funeral rites are of great significance. However, as I have personally discovered, it is not the physical body, instead the soul that is accorded significance (pg. 32)
Hindu funeral rites are performed at various stages linked to death:
(a) As death approaches; (b) For the disposal of the body; (c) For 12 days following death to transform the departed soul into a preta (i.e., ‘spirit’) body; (d) One-year memorial to assist the departing soul to reach pitru-loka; and (e) Annual Memorial Day in honour of the ancestors.
Also, I have always thought that this system of reincarnation continued forever, however, whilst watching the video below, I realised that this process continues until one’s soul ‘attains perfection and becomes one with the Divine’. This concept is not readily talked about online, thus with further research I aim to delve into it and assess its reliability.
My personal experience thus far has been extensive. Already, I have clearly begun to experience cultural epiphanies and I have thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in one of the most diverse Asian religions. I am yet to personally experience the Sri Venkateswara Hindu Temple in Helensburgh, however, I am still planning on doing so and capturing my experience whilst I’m there. I’m looking forward to communicating my experience with you further and can’t wait to experience many more epiphanies along the way.
Until next time…
Ellis, C., Adams, T.E., and Bochner, A.P, 2011, ‘Autoethnography: An Overview‘, Forum: Qualitative Social Research, Vol. 12, No. 1
Sahoo, K 2014, ‘Rituals of death in Odisha: Hindu religious beliefs and socio-cultural practices’, International Journal of Language Studies, vol. 8, no. 4, pp. 29-48