When, where and who initiated Hinduism

Death is just the beginning - On the relationship between life and death in the Hindu faith

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. What are the characteristics of the Hindu faith?
2.1 Contemporary history
2.2 Problematisation of the term Hinduism

3. The Hindu and his attitude towards life and death
3.1 The symbiotic relationship between life and death
3.2 The 4 stages of life and the incarnation
3.2.1 Conception and birth
3.2.2 Childhood and study time
3.2.3 Marriage and starting a family
3.2.4 Social withdrawal and renunciation
3.3 Karma, rebirth and salvation moksa

4. Service to the dead
4.1 The meaning of the rituals of the dead in Hinduism
4.2 The Brahmanic ritual of the dead and dying
4.3 Ancestor worship and Hindu ancestral rituals

5. Particular types of death
5.1 The "living" dead: Samnyasin
5.2 Forms of asceticism, widow burning and suicide

6. Closing words

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The question of what happens to us after death is as old as humanity itself. The attempt to find a scientifically based answer has so far been unsuccessful: the dead can no longer be questioned - even if parapsychological and spiritual investigative approaches or so-called "necromancers" claim the opposite. At the end of the 70s / beginning of the 80s, a veritable esoteric boom broke out in Germany, and numerous books were devoted to this topic. The work "On death and the afterlife"[1] by the Swiss doctor Elisabeth Kübler-Ross enriched death research with identical statements from the dying and previously clinically declared dead patients. Thorwald Dethlefsen, on the other hand, takes in his book "Life after Life"[2] the medium of hypnosis to help and questions death as the end of personal existence in his “Conversations with the born again”.

As contradictory as the individual reactions appear in relation to the scientific research literature, the struggle of religions that has always been waged for the different positions with regard to the ideas of life and death turns out to be. Despite the interesting subject matter, a comparative presentation of the various religious perspectives on human death would go beyond the scope of this work. Therefore, in the following I would like to deal exclusively with the Hindu faith and its philosophy of life and death. Many aspects of the Hindu faith, such as yoga or tantra, received great interest in the course of the new esoteric and spiritual awareness. Hinduism with its inseparable cyclical concept of life, death and rebirth offers me in this context an impressive range of religious writings, spiritual wisdom and ritual acts, which I shall examine in more detail in the following. It must be mentioned that a complete representation of the rituals of the dead in Hinduism is not possible at this point. Rather, the aim is to gain an insight into Indian culture and religion with the help of central Hindu rituals, in order to, at the end of this work, reflect on the Hindu conception of life and death from the Christian context and - if necessary - critically question it.

2. What are the characteristics of the Hindu faith?

2.1 Contemporary history

Hinduism (unlike Islam or Christianity) does not refer to any founder or founding event. The holy scriptures of the Hindu faith, the Vedas, are anonymous and without any time information, which is why Hinduism is also called "the eternal religion", which in the minds of its believers can be traced back to an "unimaginable past".[3] Hinduism is the most widespread religion in India: According to a study from 1991, around 800 million Hindus and 110 million Muslims live there, while the Christian proportion is 2.5 percent, the Sikhs are two percent and Buddhists and Jainas are less than one percent of the population are represented.[4] This religious multitude in India can be explained by the numerous immigrants from different cultures, which significantly shape the religion of India. The pre-Indian substrate, the indigenous people of India, is believed to be due to immigration from the Mediterranean and southern China. In the 8th century AD, the Muslim invasion (and thus also the religious influence of Islam) followed, in the 13th century the country was stormed by the Mongols by Chinghis Khan, and finally in the 15th century by Vasco da Gama European colonialism moved into India and with it the Christian faith.[5] These many cultural and religious influences mean that Hinduism finds its roots in the Vedic writings of the upper class, but at the same time pursues traditional cults of local (lower) population classes, which leads to a coexistence (and opposition) of the patriarchal religion of the Brahmins and the religious mother cult of the lower class.

Hinduism is now the third largest religion on earth after Christianity and Islam. This is all the more impressive when you consider that Hindu beliefs are linked to ethnicity and presuppose being born into a caste.[6] The conversion to Hinduism is thereby excluded - but this does not mean that this leads to a uniform structure of religious Hinduism - on the contrary.

2.2 Problematisation of the term Hinduism

Hinduism is a polytheistic religion, from whose diversity of gods many Hindu currents arose, which increasingly worship individual deities and raise them above other gods.[7] This variety of religious orientations makes Hinduism inaccessible for a uniform description, which is why in my further investigations I will primarily refer to the dominant Hindu religion, Brahmin Sanskrit-Hinduism, which is based on the Vedic scriptures and the performance of ritual acts.[8] There are also regional tribal and folk religions with oral texts, the worship of which is tied to certain places.[9] The rejection of the missionary thought “nobody is the sole owner of the truth” is connected with polytheism.[10] However, there is also a supreme religious (secular) authority in Hinduism: the Sankaracaryas, who, in seclusion, deal exclusively with religious texts and exert neither influence on legislation nor on political activities.[11] The priestly caste of the Brahmins, as well as a few sect gurus and ascetic groups enjoy a high social reputation.[12] The forms of Hindu religiosity are as numerous as the religious currents: In addition to the ritualism anchored in Brahmanic Hinduism, there are redemption teachings of spiritualism (e.g. esoteric guruism / tantrism), devotionalism, which is mainly represented in tribal and folk religions, and the heroism of the guru Worship and ascetic movement.[13] Despite their differences, they all deal with the core religious topic of death, but have fundamental differences: One could say that in ritualism and devotionalism, the focus is on the appeasement of deities, in which the believers through celebrations in honor of certain gods and through offerings around the Vying for favor from the gods. Spiritualism, on the other hand, is dedicated to the spiritual and physical liberation of the individual with the help of teachings (written by gurus). Whereas heroism, as the most extreme form of religiosity, seeks special death cults (such as widow burning), and heroic death or martyrdom as an idealized way of salvation.

3. The Hindu and his attitude towards life and death

3.1 The symbiotic relationship between life and death

Besides Hinduism, there is hardly a second world religion that is enriched in such abundance with ritual acts at all conceivable stages of a human life. It is astonishing to what extent Hinduism not only initiates and ritualizes life situations that are tangible for us, but also ascribes an existence in a life cycle to those levels of existence that are far removed from the human imagination, e.g. life after death. As the Indian poet Tagore put it, “life (...) finds its standard in a constant relapse into death. Every day is death, even every moment ”and human existence on earth would be“ mute and silent ”without the symbiosis of death and life.[14] For the Hindu, death is not a necessary evil at the end of a life, rather it can be understood as a “necessary instrument of renewal”.[15] Nevertheless, for a western-minded person there is possibly the danger of misunderstanding the philosophy of Hinduism and assuming it has a life-negating and death-affirming tendency.

Although the Hindu belief does not assume an original sin of man, as is the case in Christianity, it also knows this type of human inadequacy. The “suffering person” represents the starting point of the Indian religious philosophy - with a correctly led life in the world he has the possibility to free himself from this suffering and at the same time to point out his duties towards society (and the world) becomes.[16]

In Hinduism, life and death are inextricably linked, so I decided to include not only Hinduism's explicit understanding of death, but also its attitude towards life in this work. In the following points I would like to explain how the above-mentioned liberation of man is to be understood and what duties are imposed on him during his lifetime.


[1] Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth: About death and life after. The Silberschnur GmbH: Melsbach 1988.

[2] Dethlefsen, Thorwald: Life after life. Bertelsmann: Munich 1974/1978.

[3] Gunturu, Vanamali: Hinduism: The Great Religion of India. Hugendubel: Kreuzlingen / Munich 2000, p. 21.

[4] Meising, Konrad: Shiva's dance: Hinduism. Small library of religions, vol. 4, Herder: Freiburg / Basel / Vienna 1996, p. 17.

[5] See ibid, pp. 10-12.

[6] Ibid, p. 13.

[7] Gunturu, Vanamali: Der Hinduismus, loc. Cit., P. 23.

[8] Cf. Michaels, Axel: The Hinduism: Past and Present. Beck: Munich 1998, p. 37.

[9] Ibid, p. 38.

[10] Gunturu, Vanamali: Der Hinduismus, loc. Cit., P. 23.

[11] Ibid, p. 24.

[12] Cf. Mooren, Thomas: The exchanged skulls: death and dying in natural religions, Hinduism and Christianity. Patmos: Düsseldorf 1995, p. 71.

[13] Michaels, Axel: Der Hinduismus, op. Cit., P. 39f.

[14] Mooren, Thomas: The exchanged skulls, op. Cit., P. 104.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Cf. Gunturu, Vanamali: Der Hinduismus, loc. Cit., Pp. 195f.

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