Yama in Hindu mythology is the eschatologist and god of death. And is thus, dreaded. Even in today’s India there is a fearful hesitancy if not conscious avoidance of any talk about him. Yet paradoxically the phenomenon of death does not evoke a similar fear in the Indian psyche accepted as it is natural event a part of life just like poverty sickness and old age.
Here is an insightful at once compelling exposition of the phenomenon of death based on plurimillennial tradition of the Hindus which despite the affirmation of western attitudes in certain elitist sections of the urban society has endured since the times of the Vedas and Indic Civilization Exploring contextually the age old Indian view of mortal existence from the very moment of an individual’s conception to his/her journey to the kingdom of Yama through the major phases of birth growth and ageing Professor Filippi unveils a complex network of sentiments beliefs scriptural references customs, hopes ritualistic practices and much else relevant to the great adventure of death.
Notwithstanding the sentimental undertones of the mrtyu theme, Dr. Filippi work outstands for its rare scientific objectivity. It has grown form years of his rigorous research effort involving not only his extensive studies of Indian literature classical as well as modern but also his interviews with Indian samnyasins Brahmans relatives of the dead and the persons living around the cremation grounds. Together with visual material bibliographic references and a glossary of non-English terms the book holds out as much appeal to the general reader as to the specialist.
Gian Giuseppe Filippi (born 21 June 1947) holds Venice University’s doctorate and international recognition as a specialist in Indological studies. For over three decades he has lectured on Indian art, history and different Indology related subjects at different fora that notably include his stints as visiting Professor at the UK’s Hull University India’s prestigious Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (New Delhi) and the National Museum Institute (New Delhi). His membership of several learned bodies apart he is the vice president of Italy India association and also the director of the Venetian Academy of Indian Studies Venice Italy.
Currently Professor of history of art of India at the University of Venice a position he has held since 1985 Dr. Filippi has already published two books and over sixty papers.
This study is the result of many years of research in India and Europe in universities, Museums, academies, libraries and public and private foundations. Setting aside the impersonal objective tone which a scientific work requires I wish to express my gratitude to all those samnyasins Brahmanas, relatives of dead and dying persons doms and to all those living around cremation grounds whom we cannot of course mention by name. They all revealed a complex network of sentiments, beliefs scriptural references customs hopes and feelings with great generosity just veiled by modesty. Even the most humble manifested great intellectual curiosity in discussing their ideas on the great adventure of death. My gratitude and respect are towards all of those people who have led me to an unpretentious sympathetic tone of exposition. This does not mean that the scholarly content of the research has not been kept under rigorous control. All sentimental contaminations sometimes infection scientific studies have been avoided.
My reverent thoughts go to all those personalities of indological studies and of the Indian cultural tradition whom it is my pleasant duty to mention here first to all Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan heart and mind of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the arts where in the Delhi branch I passed the 1992-93 academic years as visiting Professor. In my memory her personality is associated with that of the serene and erudite Dr. Betina Baumer responsible for the scientific activities of the IGNCA of Varanasi who was always ready to offer intellectual and practical advice to all wandering Indologists in the most sublime city of the world. I am obliged to Dr. M.C. Joshi once Director General of the Archaeological survey of India for generously granting me various permits and advice. Dr. R.C. Sharma former director general National Museum New Delhi and Vice Chancellor of the Delhi University Institute has also been extremely helpful Dr. R.C. Sharma and my friends Prof. Pant of the same University have kindly furnished me with research material. In the same institute Prof. S.P Gupta eminent archaeologist and generous friend was of great help when he was the director of Allahabad Museum. I wish to express my appreciation to Prof. Prem Shankar of the university of sagar a true master who indicated the literary themes underlying my research Moreover it is my pleasure to extend my thanks to pandit Prof. satya Vrat Shastri of the Delhi University true spiritual guide in this tormented field of studies as well as to Prof. Romano Lazzeroni illustrious scholar of Indo European studies at the University of Pisa who furnished me with copies of texts and manuscripts which are nowadays very difficult to find. My gratitude goes to the knowledgeable Prof. M.A Dhaky Scientific director of the American institute of Indian studies Ramnagar at whose Library my research took definite shape and also to the invaluable equipe of the Banaras Hindu University composed of Prof. Kamal Giri Maruti Nandan Tiwari and Das Gupta. In Varanasi I have benefited from the profound insights of H.H Dr. Vibhuti Narain Singh Maharaja of Ramnagar and an important spiritual figure Prof. Romano Mastromattei of the University of Perugia and president of the inter university centre for the research on euro Asiatic Shamanism is also the recipient of my gratitude for the most helpful observations which he shared with me on the experience of death. In this regaled a profound thanks goes to H.H. Bhavani Singh Parmar the ascetic Maharaja of Khajuarho and Chattarpur a sincere friend who opened his heart to me presenting his intimate feelings concerning the experience of death. I also wish to mention Prof. Carlo Della Casa of the University of Milan and former President of the Italy India association of the University of Venice the only Italian who has dealt with this subject in the past. Good friend Prof. Giuliano Boccali of the University of Venice encouraged the honorable Prof. Lokesh Chandra Dr Tivedi director of the Lucknow Museum Profs. Geshe Yeshe Thabkhe and samdhong Rinpoche of the Tibetan institute of Higher Studies of Sarnath and H.H Dr Karan singh eminent and erudite Maharaja of Kashmir profound knower of Kashmir Saivism I also wish to express humble gratitude to Prof. B.N. Saraswati of the IGNCA an anthropologist of great fame who has been a counselor and a friend and to Om Prakash Sharma astonishing keeper of Varanasi’s secrets. I the course of my studies I found strong encouragement from three explanations and directions and shared their experience with me Pandit Vaikunthnath Upadhyaya Pandit Prof. Visvanath Shastri Dattar of Varanasi and pandit Dattatreya Shastri of the Samkaracarya Matha of Gaya. A great share of merit for the success of my research in India also goes to the district magistrate of Varanasi Mr. R.K Sinha who granted me the possibility of taking pictures in places of Varanasi which are usually forbidden and to Mahapandit Devi pRased Jayata Pandey a great ritual expert. A heartfelt appreciation goes to my friends Hazari Mull Banthia K. Rai Mittal and Nikolaj Paklin whose hospitality generosity and attention have always encouraged and supported me besides them I would particular like to thank my young friend and Indologist Dr. Antonio Rigopoulos who translated this book in English not last among those who have helped me with great dedication and enthusiasm are my numerous students who after joining me in India helped me in all possible ways being my secretaries investigators and cataloguers I wish everybody could find such devoted disciples.
Yama is a deity who inspires dread. In India talking about him or simply pronouncing his name is avoided even today paradoxically the phenomenon of death doesn’t cause a similar fear in the soul of Indians. Accepted with what westerners would define an attitude of fatalism it is considered a natural event a part of life just like poverty sickness and old age. On the contrary the god of death is the mysterious principle of transformation not to be taken lightly especially when the physical and metaphysical laws which he governs are unknown. This is probably one of the reasons why the traditional author and the deities of his retinue whereas on the contrary they have devoted themselves to a detailed description of various posthumous destinies.
In the western world the opposite tendency has prevailed death is an abstract philosophical subject of study which is tackled from a speculative point of view and to which no immediate efficacy is attributed. Actually the curious illusion underlying this intellectualistic approach originates from a morbid desire of bodily immortality. If death is undeniably a universal phenomenon then why is it constantly exorcized and shunned in our daily experience. Various interesting studies have been written on death in the west and quite and psychological analyses. These studies confirm what we ascertain in everyday life in which hospitals are viewed as warehouse of the dying. This approach spares westerners form experiencing death in their own homes. Such an aseptic death brings with it the simplification of funeral rites and the abolition of mourning of great importance is the unlimited trust which westerners place in medicine. Medicine is perceived as the instrument of achieving an indefinite prolongation of life in the irrational hope for the discovery of an elixir of eternal youth. This attitude is symptom of the fear of death not to be disjoined from the horror even of and aesthetic kind that the west manifests towards poverty sickness and old age.
We thought it would be interesting to present this study intending to expound and analyze the phenomenon of death from the Indian point of view. In this regard we must make clear on the outset that what has been examined is contemporary Hinduism studied on the basis of its living rituals and beliefs. The brief references to the Buddhism or Jainism have been utilized only as useful explanatory devices. After all both themselves that to study their specific outlook on the subject would have required a separate treatment. The material gathered both written and oral has been read in the light of the plurimillennial living tradition of the Hindus having their roots in the oldest times of Indus valley civilization and in the Vedic texts confided to us by our informants is a contemporary one. In other words the methodology of research incorporated thorough and inquisitive examination of the Phenomenon of death in today’s India registering its influences on the social environment and then searching when possible for its oldest cultural roots. For this reason we have verified the texts and our information from their original Sanskrit. On the other hand we have utilized historical translations of works which were doctrinally less relevant. Our research has been carried out primarily as an indological enterprise rather than an ethnological one although to be sure ethnological considerations have often been employed. This has been done precisely in order to study the origins of the speculations about death. The result of this study has been gratifying and surprising in fact the thought modern Hindus appears to be very close to that of their ancestors of proto historic times. Indeed although in today’s especially in urban centers in rural areas traditional life with its rhythms rituals and beliefs going back to time immemorial has been maintained.
Mrtyu concept of Death cannot of course end here. Our research has taken into consideration not only the moments from conception to the death of the body passing through the phases of birth growth and ageing we have also shortly examined the journey which the soul makes as soon as it leaves the body. It is however evident that the speculations and beliefs concerning the posthumous and the issues of and liberation require further exploration. A lot of work awaits us in the future.
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