Why do Hindus prefer birth anniversaries to death anniversaries?

Published on 15th July, 2017, on www.dailyo.in

Hindus do prefer birth anniversaries (jayanti) over death anniversaries (punya tithi). However, we can qualify this by saying most Hindu festivals are about the birth of a God (Ram’s birth, Krishna’s birth, Hanuman’s birth, Garuda’s birth) or about the death of a demon (killing of Mahisha by Durga, killing of Ravana by Ram, killing of Naraka by Krishna). Both these events, birth of a god and death of a demon, are seen as evoking positivity.

This is very different from the Christian practice of mourning the death of Jesus Christ (Good Friday), and commemorating the martyrdom of saints, or the Shia Muslim practice of mourning the death of the Prophet’s son-in-law’s family (Muharram).

The reason for this is that birth is seen as auspicious and death as inauspicious in Hindu worldview. Ramayana is more sacred than Mahabharata, because Ramayana describes the birth of Ram, while Mahabharata does not describe the birth of Krishna. More value is placed on Bhagavata Purana where Krishna’s birth is described.

All religions have something like “all soul’s day” where the living remember the dead. In Hinduism, this is the fortnight of “pitr paksha” when rituals are performed for the dead. But there is a difference. The dead in Christianity and Islam are in purgatory, having lived their life in full, waiting for the Final Day of Judgment. The dead in Hinduism are waiting for rebirth. But by and large, association with death is shunned in Hindu traditions, especially when compared with the value placed on death in other religions.

In Islamic and Christian traditions, death is valued and so tombs and graves become monuments. Traditionally, in most Hindu communities, no relic of the dead was kept in or around the house. All things that touch death were seen as polluting and inauspicious. In later Hindu monastic tradition, the body of dead teachers was buried and a Tulsi plant grown above the grave. Though it is not worshipped, the place of burial is thus marked. This practice may have come from Buddhists who would keep relics (tooth, hair, bones) of great teachers, after their cremation.

When Muslim kings started building tombs for themselves, many Hindu kings also demanded that pavilions and “chhattris” be built to mark the spot of their cremation. We find this practice in Rajasthan. This practice continues in modern times, with tombs being built to mark the cremation spot of leaders who were Hindu as in the case of Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi. Burial and so building of monuments to mark the dead is a practice followed by many Hindu communities which reject Brahminism and caste, as in the case of Jayalalithaa, who led one of the Dravida movements.

The mourning of Imam Hussain continues in Shia Islam even after 1,400 years of the event. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is enacted by many communities even after 2,000 years. By contrast, Shiva is called “Smarantaka” and “Yamantaka”, destroyer of memory and death, for that is what liberates us, makes us step out of history, and discover the timeless soul.

In Hinduism, memory of death prevents progress, wisdom and liberation. It holds you down. Fear of death creates all mental modifications that can only be unravelled by yoga. Death and fear of death are seen as entrapping. So after a funeral, one is advised not to turn back and look back at the crematorium. The past has to be forgotten. Hence, Hindus place greater value on mythological narratives than historical narratives as compared to other religions.

Nowadays, as the world craves for vengeance in the name of “justice”, remembering past ills has become a powerful political tool. It helps rally mobs and bind people. For example, by referring to the Holocaust repeatedly, Jewish people gain much moral superiority and political mileage. Likewise, we find Sikhs constantly remembering “Jallianwala Baug” to shame the British government, and “Operation Blue Star” to continuously shame the Indian government. And now the Hindutva lobby keeps speaking of “1,000 years of enslavement” to rally Hindus against Muslims. Thus, memory of the past, of death, is used to shape the present.

Death entraps us, prevents us from moving on, moving ahead. Birth, rebirth, even double birth (via thread ceremony and accepting a guru) is seen as good and glorious. In the traditional Hindu scheme of things, it is better to forget the past (the West often mocks this as Hindu denial), and focus on the future. The auspicious direction is the east (purva) from where the sun rises. The auspicious orientation is the north (uttar) where stands the still and permanent Pole Star. West, linked with sunset, and south, linked with death, is inauspicious. Past is death and death is bondage that denies us liberation (mukti).