Answer by Raakhee V. Menon:
In my community, women do not go anywhere near the cremation site. All the rituals are performed by the sons or sons of sisters or daughters of the deceased. The last time women touch the body of the departed soul is before the ritual bath of the body. After that, all women stay at a distance from the body. Once the body is taken out of the house, the women do not see it again.
When my grandmother passed away a few years ago, I asked my mother why we were kept away like this. I was particularly close to my grandmother and I didn’t think that it was inappropriate for me of all the people to not be there to see her for last time. My mom told me that is exactly why I shouldn’t be there. I didn’t press her to explain more as she was obviously not in a mental state to do so.
This is when I actually took the pains to find out exactly why this custom exists. As per Hindu scriptures, the body or sharira consists of three aspects – the sthula-sharira (gross body), sukshma-sharira (subtle body), and the karana-sharira (causal body).
Let’s look at their definitions as per the Rig Veda…
Sthula sharira is the physical body (, coarse or bulky), the vehicle of all the other principles during life and the means by which man is able to function on earth. The physical body, sthula sharira comprises , the material substance and .
Sukshma sharira (Sanskrit: sukshma, “subtle, unmanifest, dormant”) — is the energy body, the subtle body, the light body of form consists of(mind), (intelligence) and (ego). The (the Self) functions in the (astral plane), the inner world also called . The suksmah sharira includes (the pranic sheath), (the instinctive-intellectual sheath), and (the cognitive sheath) kosha) — with the pranic sheath dropping off at the death of the (physical body). The subtle body is the vehicle of consciousness with which one passes from life to life and to accompany us even after the death of the physical body.
Karana Sharira or Kaarana Sareeram (the vehicle of the consciousness). The intuitive superconscious mind of the(Inner Self). which carries the impressions and tendencies in seed state. It corresponds to the , bliss sheath; the innermost of the five sheaths.
Vasanas or desires/tendencies are predominantly of two types – bandha hetuh (causing bondage) and bhoga hetuh (giving enjoyment). The sthula sharira is associated with all vasanas that come under bhoga hetuh (physical desires, five senses,etc.), and the sukshma sharira is associated with all vasanas that come under bandha hetuh (bonds, relationships, love, affection, care, etc.). The karana sharira is beyond either of these. It is not influenced by any desire.
When the body of the dead person cremated on the funeral pyre, it is believed that each aspect of the sharira exits one after the other – first the sthula sharira, and then the sukshma sharira and the karana sharira. So when that aspect of the body that is associated with emotional bonds and love and all those sentiments leave the earthly plane to higher realms, it is not easy to do so. Severing bonds and ties built up over an entire lifetime has to be cut in their entirety before the atma can proceed to the next world.
Women are (generally) more sentimental and emotional, especially when it comes to family. So it is only natural for them to cry or wail loudly at the cremation. Such acts by people they loved during their life make the severing of ties even more difficult and painful for the departed soul. Most men, on the other hand, are naturally blessed to have the power to keep their emotions under control. I don’t say that there is less love here, but there is lesser expression of grief as compared to women. This is the main reason why women were not traditionally allowed to be anywhere in the vicinity of the cremation. That said, there are many communities in Hinduism that do not have any such restrictions and their women are allowed at cremation sites.
Times are changing now and I have heard that there have been cases of daughters conducting the funeral rites of their parents. I don’t say that this is right or that it is wrong. If a woman is mentally strong enough to send off her loved one with as much ease as possible, then I guess it’s okay. I won’t be able to do it for the life of me. No, I’m too emotionally weak for anything of the sort.
However, people have, over time, associated this prohibition of women with several baseless explanations like ‘women’s tears, like their other body fluids, are impure and hence they should be kept away from cremation sites’…or ‘they are kept away to prevent them from jumping into the fire themselves in a fit of grief’…it’s all nonsensical mumbo-jumbo. Once the reason mentioned in the highest scriptures is understood, then it doesn’t seem wrong or illogical any more. At least to me, it doesn’t feel so any more.
I know that if I had been there at my grandmother’s cremation site, I wouldn’t have been able to take the sheer emotional pressure of seeing someone I loved so dearly like that. I remember that it was drizzling slightly when she was being taken to the pyre. I almost called out to them out of sheer habit to hold an umbrella for her, before realizing the futility of the act and crumbling onto the floor crying my heart out. I don’t know how I would have behaved if I had actually been there. And my open display of grief would have made the final passage so much more difficult for my dear grandmother. And I know I wouldn’t want that at all.
P.S. It’s been a little over five years since she’s gone. I still haven’t been able to come to terms with it and I still miss her like crazy 😥