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A book about why death need not be a full stop

Devdutt Pattanaik’s ‘Garuda Purana’ focuses on the ideas of rebirth that keep the circle of life turning

‘Garuda Purana’ focuses on resurgence. Courtesy: Westland Books
‘Garuda Purana’ focuses on resurgence. Courtesy: Westland Books

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You expect a book on death to be dark and morbid. But Devdutt Pattanaik’s Garuda Purana, which presents ideas on death, rebirth and immortality, steers clear of the grim in most parts—focusing on resurgence and reawakening instead. Though the book, published by Westland Books, focuses on Hindu myths, legends and traditions, it might be best to view the stories sans religious hues and glean the spiritual elements, about coping with loss and grief.

Garuda Purana offers insights into how such rituals came to be—giving food and gifts to the dead, for instance, stems from the belief that nothing is permanent, not even death. “Those alive owe their life and privilege to the dead. The dead depend on the living and keep the circle of life turning,” writes Pattanaik. He makes an interesting point about how even gods and goddesses in India are impermanent. For instance, during the festivals of Ganesha and Durga, clay effigies of the deities are cast in water, like ashes of the dead. They depart, returning only a year later, “mimicking the reality of re-death and rebirth as mentioned in the Upanishads”.

Though stories and rituals around death abound in faiths and cultures around the world, most focus on a single life followed by an eternal afterlife. Pattanaik, however, highlights how Hinduism perhaps differs from the rest, believing in rebirth instead of the eternal afterlife.

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As one reads, it becomes apparent that some rituals have stark discriminatory hues, especially when it comes to the ideas of impurity associated with death. The book notes that those whose hereditary occupation was to tend to funeral pyres were deemed untouchables; menstruating women and widows, also seen as touched by death, were isolated. It becomes hard to view the chapter on Women Of The Dead objectively, learning that from the Harappan times, the status of a woman was dependent on whether her husband was alive. The complex relationship with death often unfairly touches the living and alters the course of their lives for the worse. Pattanaik offers no justifications; there are no attempts to sugar-coat practices. As he writes in his introduction, “This is an exploratory enterprise, not an academic one. There are no ‘arguments’ here.”

As the title of the book suggests, the focus is on the Garuda Purana, which describes the journey of the spirit after it leaves the corpse, and why it needs complex rituals. To me, the most interesting story is how Garuda became associated with these rituals. The book describes how the thirst for knowledge took him to Vishnu, and he learnt how half of time is created when day eats night and night eats day, the eagle eats the snake and the snake eats the eagle, when summer eats winter and winter eats summer. “The eaters are eventually eaten. Predator eventually becomes prey and prey eventually becomes predator. Both are necessary for life. All victories are impermanent, all defeats temporary. Everyone gets sanjivani, a chance to regenerate,” writes Pattanaik.

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These learnings are passed on from Garuda to his father, Kashyapa, who passes them on to the sage Bhrigu. This oral transmission continues, and the teachings reach Vyasa, the organiser of the Vedas, who imparts them to Romaharshana. It then reaches the sages in Naimisha forest—this compendium has come to be known as Garuda Purana, which reached its final form in the 10th century. Over time, it has come to include four phases and four destinations of the dead, from naraka to paradise, higher heavens and then rebirth.

There is a section on why one shouldn’t fear the dead—it is only the preta (spirit), who are not able to cross the Vaitarni and become pitr, who end up as ghosts. They are not evil, just lost and trapped. The entire purpose of the Garuda Purana is to facilitate the journey of the preta in the afterlife, nudging them towards rebirth.

Parallels are drawn between tales of the vetala in India with those of the djinns in Arabia, leading experts to believe that such stories spread across trading routes. At the end of the day, stories about death are not so much for those who have departed but for the living to accept the circle of life. “We also need to accept that different cultures have different stories. Conflict takes place when one story is privileged over others, when RIP (Rest in Peace) is assumed to be more real than TIP (Travel in Peace). No scientists, no mystic, no philosopher knows what really happens after we die. But to live enthusiastically, we need a story about death. And to be at peace, we must accept that others may not agree with our story because they have a story of their own,” concludes Pattanaik.

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