A recent death of a loved one brought me very close to the sense of loss and void that death leaves behind. A reality which we all know about, but keep avoiding the very thought of it, when it comes to self and near ones. Death makes us turn philosophic when it happens to others, but leaves us numb when it happens to our near and dear ones.
Partaking in the rituals after the death, and listening to the explanations being given for the rituals, got me to explore further. Just how does mythology see death? A matter so sad and disturbing has to have some mythological allusions. Mythology talks of creation and destruction and everything in between, so where does death feature in between?
Eschatology is a part of theology (and mythology) concerned with the final events in the history of the world or the ultimate destiny of human kind, commonly phrased as the end of the world. Though the subject is more macro in nature, i.e. the end of the world, a subset of the subject also deals with end of man, i.e. death of an individual. For the limited objective of my article, I will focus on death and its meaning in mythology.
|Yama with his Yamdoot's|
According to Hindu mythology, Yama is the god of death. With the help of Chitragupta, his accountant, he keeps the accounts of every individual’s deeds on earth and after death decides on the person’s next destination, i.e. heaven or hell. Heaven is for people who have been good and hell is for people who have lived a life of evil. This is something many of us know from our childhood and have also helped us form imageries of what an afterlife is all about. Street side calendars have shown torturous images of hell just to ward off the evil course of life to mere mortals.
|Images of Hell as per Calendar Art|
Let’s take this slightly beyond this childhood imagery. Yama is considered to be the son of the Sun god, Surya and the twin brother of Yami or Yamuna. He is also considered to be the brother of Shani and both together act as judges for mankind – Shani, when one is alive by a set of punishments and rewards (reward by staying away from man!) and Yama judging ones actions in ones afterlife.
According to the Garuda Purana, when a man has lived his life as destined, the Yamadoot’s, i.e. the messengers of Yama come to take life away from man. Life is taken away in the form of the soul to Yama where the next course of his destination is decided upon. However, the soul is soon sent back to earth and it hovers around the place where the man had died for twelve days. While the mortal remains are assigned to fire, the soul remains restless for the next twelve days as it does not have a body to go back to. It is at this point that the soul gets to evaluate his life and the darker his acts, the worse is his restlessness. On the 11th or the 12th day after performing the ceremonies where food and water is offered to the departed, the soul satiates its hunger and thirst and once again the Yamdoot’s come to take the soul to Yamaloka, the land of the dead. Souls which have lived a life of evil (some acts are mentioned in the Purana) have a tough time entering the Yamaloka and undergo many hardships. One keeps attaining new lives after death and the next life depends on ones nature of deeds in the previous life.
This cycle of life after death goes on till man attains salvation by living a life of Dharma, righteousness. It is understood that over so many lives, one would learn to lead a good life, if not by the acts of others then by having read the scriptures. The above is a very simplistic view of life after death.
Yama also finds mention in the Vedic times and the Rig Veda mentions Yama more than 50 times. According to some hymns in the Vedas, Yama was the first mortal to have died and was thus by the virtue of being the first was made the King of Death, while some mention him to be the god of Death. Through some hymns, Yama not only communicates with the dead but also consoles the mourners. Some norms have also been laid down by him, whereby, old would die prior to the young, (if there are exceptions, then they are due to the karma of the young one!). Some verses also mention that there would be no more deaths in a family during the period of mourning. Interestingly, the Vedas urge a widow to reconcile and move on with life after the death of her husband. (This goes on to prove that Sati was not a Vedic practice and did not have religious sanction at least during in the Vedic times). It urges all humans to make efforts to lead a full life and not end it under any condition. The Vedas go on to make death a natural necessity of earth to avoid the dangers of mortal population on earth!
This Vedic simplicity and the obviousness of such a tragedy make one look at the whole thing much more philosophically. I now understand John Dryden’s quote much better when he said – “The world’s an inn, and death is the journey’s end”.
Next we will see how Greek and Egyptian mythologies treat Death.