Hindu attacks British ban on funeral pyres
A devout Hindu fighting for the legal right to be cremated on an open-air funeral pyre told the High Court that laws stopping the religious ceremony were a breach of his human rights.
Davender Ghai described commonly used cremation facilities as “a mechanised humiliation of dignity — a waste disposal process devoid of spiritual significance”.
The 70-year-old spiritual healer said “confining bodies in coffins and concealing the cremation process” did not reflect the philosophy and cultural values he lived by.
Mr Ghai, from Gosforth, Newcastle-upon-Tyne is fighting for the legal right to be cremated on an open-air funeral pyre in “a sacrament of fire”.
If he is successful, the three-day test case in London could provide a precedent for other Hindus and Sikhs.
Hindu Davender Kumar Ghai fights for right to open-air funeral pyre
There may be some justification for the Government’s squeamish belief that its citizens would find the traditional funeral rites of a faith with 900 million worldwide adherents “extremely disturbing”.A group of British Hindus demonstrate their desire to be cremated in the open air on a funeral pyre. Originally broadcast on Channel 4 in 2006.
It speaks, after all, on behalf of a Protestant nation that does not really do death. It discusses it in whispers and specialises in putting a lid on it.
What may seem more surprising is the fierce hostility that the legal action has aroused in some quarters among Britain’s 558,000 Hindus.
The National Council for Hindu Priests, in common with most British Hindu organisations, supports the man’s claim, viewing it as “the single most significant campaign to promote Hindu religious freedom in British history”. But a Hindu academic, Jay Lakhani, has called it an “horrendous idea” that seeks to promote antiquated practices that would make Hinduism “look very outlandish, out of date and completely irrational”.
Aditi Khanna, a reporter on the Eastern Eye newspaper, says that a majority in the Hindu community favour having the choice of an open-air pyre. Yet only “a very small, nostalgic minority” would opt for such a ceremony, she believes, because “the majority believe that any form of cremation falls within the religious requirement”.
The prime concern of Harmander Singh, principal adviser to the social policy think-tank Sikhs in England, is to emphasise that Sikhs are not Hindus and that his religion stipulates no requirement for open-air cremation.
Other Sikhs, including the leaders of several British gurdwaras (Sikh temples), strongly support Mr Ghai’s legal challenge, yet hesitancy and a fear of white majority opinion stalk both faith communities.
Indarjit Singh, director of the Network of Sikh Organisations, worries that the move “would create a lot of anger, hostility and resentment at a sensitive time, when there’s a need for calmness”.
FOR THE SOUL’S PEACE
Belief in reincarnation is a foundation of the Hindu faith. Death is viewed not as the end but a pivotal point in the soul’s journey.
Adherence to the antyeshti, or last rites, is required to ensure the soul’s peace.
At a traditional Hindu funeral in India, the body is carried to an open-air pyre. The site must be one upon which the sun can shine directly at noon, with running water near by.
The chief mourner, usually the eldest son, pours droplets of Ganges water into the mouth. Sandalwood paste, with saffron and musk, is applied to the forehead, the body is garlanded with flowers and a white, unbleached cloth is placed over it.
The son sets the pyre alight in a sacrificial offering to Agni, the sacred fire deity that carries the soul to heaven.
The ashes cool naturally before being cast into the Ganges to unite fire, wind, earth and water.
The fiery Hindu way of death
The Anglo-Asian Friendship Society – founded by Mr Ghai – commissioned an environmental study from a private company, which reported no significant risk to public health from the pyres.
There are more than half a million Hindus living in the UK, and it seems likely many would choose this 4,000-year-old ceremony for their departure.
Some British Hindus send the bodies of their relatives to India to ensure they are burnt in line with traditional practice. A strict interpretation demands the ashes are left to cool naturally for a period of three days. Ideally, they would then be scattered in the sacred River Ganges.
A number of British rivers – including the Soar, the Thames and the Wye – have been “anointed with water from the Ganges”, to make them credible substitutes for the holy river.
Funeral parties frequently travel up the River Soar in Leicestershire, for example, to scatter the ashes of dead relatives.
But it is no substitute for a proper cremation as far as Mr Ghai is concerned.
He is in fragile health, and even after a lifetime in which he says he has attempted to come to terms with mortality, he has described himself as “increasingly consumed with dread” at the prospect of being cremated in the local council crematorium.
Mr Ghai is pinning his hopes on the High Court in the first instance, but if it rules against open-air pyres, he is ready to pursue his case in Europe.