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Symbolism of the Cremation Ground and Celestial Maidens

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 107: The Symbolism of the Cremation Ground and the Celestial Maidens

Some of you know, I think, that I spent in the course of the last few decades quite a number of years in the East, - in several different parts of the East, but especially in India and more especially in north-eastern India, in Kalimpong which is situated at the Eastern end of the Himalayas, within sight of Tibet, within sight not only of Tibet, but of Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal, besides the plains of Bengal. And in the course of those years, as I moved about, as I lived in Kalimpong, as I lived in the Himalayas, as I visited also many other different parts of the country, as I met different people, as I found myself in different situations, I had, as was natural, a number of experiences of different kinds. Some of these experiences were pleasant, some of those experiences were unpleasant, though even the unpleasant ones seemed in retrospect to have their own value. And some experiences again were not only pleasant, but very pleasant indeed, so much so that the recollection of them, even the impression of them remains with me after quite a number of years. But I remember that one of my pleasant experiences, I could almost say, one of my most enjoyable experiences, was in connection with funerals.

Now, in this country we don't usually regard funerals as being particularly pleasant or festive occasions, certainly nothing to look forward to, not your own funeral, anyway. Funerals may be pleasant, even enjoyable, festive occasions in the more outlying parts of these islands, such as Scotland, but certainly not in England, at least. Here, we don't usually regard funerals as pleasant social occasions. But in the East, in the East in general, in India, and especially in the Buddhist East, in Buddhist India, Buddhist Himalaya, this is certainly not the case. There, people do not find funerals, as it were, unpleasant. Of course, when there is a funeral, when you hear that somebody has died, maybe someone known to you, maybe some member of your family, of course, you feel sad, especially if the departed person was at all closely connected with you. But that's, as it were, a thing apart. The funeral itself, the funeral procession, the occasion of the funeral, is almost, one may say, enjoyable, - it isn't sad. Certainly one can say that it isn't in any sense mournful or depressing. In any case, by the time the funeral takes place, which is usually two or three days after the death, or sometimes even a week, mourners, even those who really have lost someone near and dear to them, the mourners have got over the worst of their grief.

They've dried their tears. They've recovered from the initial shock. They've begun to get used to the new state of affairs, they've begun to accept the fact that such and such a person is dead. And by the time, therefore, that the funeral arrives, the general mood is not sad, not grief-stricken, the general mood, one can say, is of a kind of solemnity, but it's a solemnity tinged with a strange kind of exhilaration, a strange kind even of joy. And this is especially the case once the funeral procession has left the home. The deceased person, usually, as it were, lies in state, at his own home. For a couple of days all his friends, relations, well-wishers, acquaintances, business connections etc all come to have a look, just to see him for the last time, - there he is lying on the bier, - and this sometimes takes, in the case of well-known persons two or three days, but at last all that is over, everybody has come, everybody has paid their last respects with a garland of flowers or a ceremonial white scarf, and now the funeral procession is ready to leave the house.

So, four stout men, or maybe eight stout men, they raise the body onto their shoulders, usually on a bier and they carry it forth, from the house, usually feet foremost. And, at such a time, the face is usually kept uncovered. We'd consider this rather indecent in this country, if a dead body was conveyed through the streets with the face uncovered. But, in the East, in India, this is accepted as something perfectly right and natural. And the bier, the dead body is accompanied from the house only by the menfolk. The women are all left at home. The bier with the corpse on it is born through the streets of the town or the village where the person died. And as the funeral procession moves along through the streets, the sort of word spreads, there is a little bit of commotion and people all come from the shops and houses to have a look, to see who it is who is being carried, I won't say to his last resting place, but to the funeral pyre.

So, in this way we see the bier with the corpse on it borne through the streets, through the crowds, - it reaches the outskirts of the town or the village and it's borne in the direction of the cremation ground. And, usually, in India, the cremation ground is situated on the outskirts of the village, or even at some distance from the village. And very often it's situated at a rather beautiful spot on the bank of the river. And the cremation ground is, of course, a quiet place. It's, in any case, remote, people don't usually go there. It's a solitary place, even a lonely place. And if you go there, even during the day, even when the sun is shining, especially if you go on your own, you'll find in the cremation ground, as I've found, a rather strange atmosphere. There's a sort of quivering, there's a sort of vibration in the atmosphere which you can almost see. It's in a way, sort of, alive, in a way that other places do not seem to be alive. And as one looks around, as one looks around at the cremation ground, one sees, here and there, all around, little heaps of charred wood, the charred wood left over from the funeral pyre on which the dead bodies have been burned. And if you look more closely, if you look down at the ground, if you look round about these heaps of charred wood, you may even find a human skull, or portion of a skull, or a thigh-bone, or a finger bone, or just a piece of bone. And if you happen to visit rather late in the day, towards evening time, when it's dusk, when the shades of night are falling, then you see slinking around the shadowy figure of a jackal, who may look at you with glowing green eyes and then just disappear with a short bark.

And it's here, it's in the cremation that the body is brought and committed to the flames. First of all the pyre has to be built, - people usually do this themselves. They bring or they buy on the spot from some vendor, great logs of wood, they dig a trench, they put great stones on either side, then they lay the logs of wood across, then they put more logs on in the opposite direction, there may be more logs still, leaving plenty of room in between, then they put the corpse, after removing most of the clothing, and then, on top, they put some lighter pieces of wood. And finally they usually sprinkle the whole pyre with ghee, that is to say, clarified butter, if they can afford it, or with oil, or at least, nowadays this is what happens, with tins of kerosene. And perhaps also if there is a priest present, a Brahmin or lama or some other such officiant, mantras are chanted, prayers of some kind are said, and when this has been done, the next of kin, usually the son, or the brother, takes a torch and lights the funeral pyre. And within minutes, especially if there's a good wind, it's burning and blazing merrily, sending up showers of sparks into the heavens. And when it's really blazing, and when you can see the body beginning to be consumed, when the body is just a sort of molten mass, bright and glowing, when the cremation is well under way, then you find, everybody starts relaxing. They start talking, they start talking, of course, about the deceased, - about who else? - about his loveable characteristics, his little faults, then they start swapping stories about him, - he said this on such and such an occasion, or did that, a scrape he'd got into, or some little adventure that someone had had with him, - they start talking about him in this way, and eventually they seem to generate a very friendly, very cheerful atmosphere with plenty of goodwill towards the dear departed. So cheerful do they get eventually that the cups of tea start circulating, an (?) vendor appears, as if by magic, complete with teapot and little cups, and they are drinking cups of tea and maybe eating biscuits as well, and sometimes, on some occasions, in some circles they circulate something rather stronger than tea.

And before you know what has happened, everybody is having, as it were, a thoroughly good time, everybody is thoroughly enjoying themselves, - and without the slightest feeling of anything being out of place, without the slightest feeling of guilt and impropriety to them it seems just natural. After all, to die and to be cremated, is just as natural, just as inevitable as to be born, as to live. So life and death, people think, people feel, on occasions like this, life and death are both to be accepted, both ultimately to be reconciled. Life and death are the two sides of one and the same coin. People may not be very philosophical, may not be very metaphysically inclined, but this is what they feel, inarticulately at least, at the time of the cremation when they are enjoying themselves afterwards, - it's all part of life. You've got to accept it all ultimately, cheerfully, or at least, tranquilly, there's no time, no place for grief, or at least, not much time and not many places. So, this is how it goes on, one hour, two hours and then eventually the fire starts dying down, the cremation is nearly over, the corpse is practically consumed. So once people have satisfied themselves that the corpse is going to be completely consumed, they just leave it burning there, they leave it smouldering, and they go home. And even for those who have ...

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