The last fortnight of the 2076 BS (ending mid-April) was an unexpected misfortune for me and my family. Loss of father is a big tragedy and it befell upon us suddenly. Early in the morning, my 80-year-old ‘Ba’ left his body and this world, without a chance of a formal goodbye.
Then, the cultural self-quarantine started. I had to live separately, wear white–loin cloth (kaupin, dhoti and mekhala), cook my own food, wash dishes and clothes, take bath in a separate dhunge-dhara (stone spout), sleep on the floor with few radi-pakhis (hand-knitted woolen mats and blankets) and white cover on the bed, head, and all over the body. I was not allowed to touch anyone; everybody would rather run-away from me. A very bitter experience at the time of the irrecoverable loss of the father.
Being a psychiatrist and a mental health student, I had always felt our culture in general, the final rite function in particular, was an indirect method for grief-resolution. Yes, the person who has lost his loved one, near and dear one, will remain in grief. As the psychological theory explains, death-grieving process follows certain emotional defense reactions—denial, anger, bargain, depression, and acceptance. The Hindu cultural practices facilitate the ways to overcome these grieving emotions. We say, after a person dies, the soul leaves the body, so the body is not ours now. The body built up of the five elements of the nature—earth, water, fire, air, and ether—has to be released to the atmosphere. So, as soon as a person dies, we hurry in initiating this process, we cremate the body at a river-bank, and release the ashes left over-or remainder, to the river. Hence, all the five elements of the dead body are liberated to their respective destinations.
Then, we treat the soul which has gone to the atmosphere as preta; i.e., the floating body-less soul. This floating thing does not have its own body and it cannot touch the ground, and may be a nuisance to the family, if not treated properly. It remains as such in the atmosphere unless its nearest relative (mostly the son) provides some ingredients (water, milk, rice ball-pinda etc.) to prepare its miniature body. Such body-building process is completed in 10 days when the son does the departed soul’s aurdhadaihik kriya. These ten days, the son will be in self-quarantine as devised by the culture, as explained above.
Yes, the last 15 days of the bygone year (2076), I had to practice those cultural rites for my late father. When the 10th day function is over, the preta gets its miniscule body, and is able to receive our offerings (water and pinda). On the 11th day, we provide food (rice-balls) and other necessary things (bed, clothes, sandals, umbrella, utensils etc.) for the preta for its divine journey. On the 12th day, we do sapindikaran shraddha so that the preta will join its ancestors and extended families in heaven being as a peetri. Now, the departed soul is no more a trouble-making nuisance (preta), rather our respectable peetri, who will bless us for our peace and prosperity. On the 13th day, we do purification ceremony, purifying our body, our home, and we are accepted by other members of our family and society as touchables.
Yes, these 10-13 days seem to be very troublesome. Being untouched, separated, alone, feels terrifying and stigmatizing indeed. For me, cooking my own food, washing utensils and clothes, eating one meal a day (that too rice and ghee), were extra burdensome, really; as I was never used to these cooking-washing business. But, I feel, it is our culture’s treatment to resolve our grief. The processes of ‘denial, anger, bargain and depression’ will not much effect our mind when we are actively engaged in these processes, and we are able to accept the universal reality of death easily. Our loved ones are not dead; rather they have just changed their clothing, left the old clothes (body) to get the newer ones, as Garuda Purana and Shreemad-Bhagwadgeeta explain. If we do these final rites faithfully and hopefully, the preta becomes peetri, and guides us throughout our life; blesses us and our children with peace, prosperity, and wisdom.
May be these are just our fantasy; based on the hope, faith or belief system, but, I don’t think these are mere superstitions or myths. These death rites will definitely help us overcome our psychological pain and sorrow, and guide us in our journey of life. This will heal our stress-related psychiatric reactions, adjustment issues and protect us from the potential post-traumatic disorders. We know exposure, and releasing, relieving, and revisiting are the only ways to deal with the traumatic-stress associated with the loss (or death in particular). Our culture facilitates these processes. We are exposed to the dead bodies as early as possible, we carry them, worship them and cremate them as soon as possible. Our faith-based theories on rebirth and reincarnation, preta-peetri, are the psychological dogmas that enable us to accept whatever has happened. Our scriptures have well-explained these: death is not an end, birth and death is a cycle, death of anybody who has taken birth is the universal truth.
These two-week self-practice of quarantine will make these beliefs even more strong. Being a mental-health personnel and having self-experienced these practices, I do believe our culture is soothing my pain and sorrow, and have healed my grief, and I am able to fully recover from this anguish. The culture has empowered me to accept the truth as it is.
Apart from these, the process of self-quarantine as I practiced last month, and as it is being followed in our culture for so long, is very much scientific system, I believe. Quarantine, the term we are getting familiar in the last four to five months following the COVID-19 pandemic, has been culturally advised in our part of the world for time immemorial. Why can’t we see its positive aspect? It might have made us disinfected indirectly. The nearest and the dearest ones of the dead person, who might have died following a grave infection, are ultimately quarantined for two weeks during the process of the aurdhadaihik kriya, making sure that the community transmission is curtailed. What a scientific culture? Isn’t it?
Also the two weeks of self-cooking and washing, for me, might have enabled me to live independently after the loss of the father who had taken care of me till date. Yes, this process will make the child’s independent life easier, as our guru had explained me last month.
Thus, the two-weeks cultural-quarantine process I was involved last month enhanced my craving to dwell our cultural heritage and religious scriptures more and more. This will definitely help me achieve my goal of bridging spirituality with psychiatry; which I have started actively probing from this New Year (2077).
(The author is a psychiatrist with Dhulikhel Hospital-Kathmandu University Hospital)