Antyesti (अन्त्येष्टिः)

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Antyeshti (Samskrit: अन्त्येष्टिः) is the crematory samskara performed according to the traditions in Sanatana Dharma. It is the last samskara in the life of a person and specifically deals with the conclusive activities of the physical body. It is also an important juncture where a person's survivors consecrate his death facilitating his entry into the next world based on the person's karma. Even though this samskara is not directly concerned with the life aspects (intelligence, food etc) of a person, it is of no less importance, because for a person living the dharmik traditions, who follows the principles of Purusharthas, Karma and Punarjanma meticulously, the value of the next world is higher than that of even the present one.[1]


In modern terms the study of what happens after death of a human being is called Eschatology. However, this term is not an exact translation of Antyeshti, or the crematory rites in the context of Sanatana Dharma.

परिचयः ॥ Introduction

The rites and ceremonies associated with the death of a person constitute the Antyeshti samskara. Ayurveda clearly defines death or Mrutyu, in the context of both biological and spiritual principles, as the dissociation of link between Sharira, Indriyas, Atman and Manas. When the link is permanently broken, the individual can not interact with outside world and thus is called to have lost life. Death has been experienced as an abnormal event shocking the core of the person. Apart from the physical pain experienced by the person at the time of death, the mystery shrouding the events and results it produced for the victim and his relatives is forever shocking and incomprehensible.[1]

People of Vedic tradition believe that the physical body is perishable whereas Ātmā (soul) is eternal / indestructible; there are Svarga (heaven) and Naraka (hell) that are caused by Karma (nemesis), viz. Puṇyam and Pāpam ; there is rebirth and an entity called Īśvara is running the universe.

जातस्य हि ध्रुवो मृत्युः ध्रुवं जन्म मृतस्य च। तस्मादपारिहार्येऽर्थे न त्वं शोचितुमर्हति ॥ भगवद्गीता, २.२७॥ jātasya hi dhruvo mṛtyuḥ dhruvaṃ janma mṛtasya ca। tasmādapārihārye'rthe na tvaṃ śocitumarhati ॥ Bhagavadgītā, 2.27॥

Śrīkṛṣṇa tells Arjuna during the great war of Mahābhārata – whoever is born has to die and one who is dead would be born, i.e. it is an unending cycle of birth and death. Therefore, you are not supposed to weep with regard to a thing that is inevitable.

The samskaras include a number of preliminary considerations and rites and other accompanying observances, all aiming at not only the formal purification of the body but also the entire personality development of the recipient. The famous sutrakaras divide the samskaras mainly into two based on the life of a person, i.e. the Purva (before) and the Apara (after). The Purva Samskaras are performed to an individual for the betterment of his everyday life all while he is alive. They are considered as Sodasa Samskaras. The Apara Samskaras are performed to an individual, who is breathing his last breath. Some scholars do not include this samskara in the Sodasa Samskaras and it starts from Pranotkramana (withdrawl of pranas from the body) and normally ends with Sapindikarana (combining of the Pretaa form with the Pitr form).[2]


Mrtyu or death is easy and happy and not a source of misery and sorrow to some people whose lifestyle includes the following features (mentioned in the Brahmapurana)

येनानृतानि नोक्तानि प्रीतिभेदः कृतो न च। आस्तिकः श्रद्दधानश्च सुखमृत्युं स गच्छति।। २१४.३६ ।। देवब्राह्मणपूजायां निरताश्चानसूयकाः। शुक्ला वदान्या ह्रीमन्तस्ते नराः सुखमृत्यवः।। २१४.३७ ।। (Brah. Pura. 214.36-37)[3]

In brief sukha mrtyu (peaceful death) comes to one

  • who never tells lies
  • who never prove false to affection or friendship
  • who is an astika (believes in Vedas)
  • who is devoted to worship and honors brahmanas
  • who does not bear malice to anyone

From ancient times it was a firmly held belief that those thoughts a dying man entertains at the time of death determine what will happen to his Atma after physical death (this is expressed in the well-known words ("ante matih sa gatih'), that therefore a man should, when death approaches, give up all thoughts of mundane affairs and all earthly attachments, should think of his favourite deity (Hari or Siva), should inaudibly recite such mantras as 'om namo Vaasudevaya'. Several texts insist on making the dying man listen to sacred prescriptions of Vedic texts. Further if the dying man is unable to engage in japa he should revolve in the his mind the benign form of Vishnu or Shiva and should listen to the thousand names of Vishnu or Shiva, the Bhagavadgita, Bhagavata Purana, Ramayana, the Upanishad etc.[4]

Atman Never Dies

Death has been generally looked upon with feelings of awe and terror, as loss of companion at a personal level, loss of a part of the family at the societal level. Though there were those who were philosophically inclined and looked at it as a blessing, a release from the limitations of the body. The mystery surrounding death and the thoughts as to where the Jiva goes after death along with the pain of the survivors are the characteristic points about death.[4] While the physical body is perishable, death did not cause the entire annihilation of man. Sanatana Dharma extols that the process of death involves the separation of the Atman from the body. Many experience a separation of the Atman from the body, as in dreams. The distinction between such a separation and that of death was that the latter was final, a point of no return. Thus, though deceased, disembodied, the Atman continues to be living according to the principles of Sanatana Dharma.[1] Recent researchers mention the records of the "near death experiences", at times of severe sickness when the person "experiences" separation of the Atma from the body. While such records cannot be physically verified nor can the experiences can be observed directly by Pratyaksha pramana, most patients describe the experience as 'leaving the body' and 'close to death' and subsequently they 'return to the body'.

According to Rigveda the dead person’s Atman which is imperishable will go and join the Pitrloka (पितृलोकः). He will reach the specified lokas either through the Devayana or Pitryana margas according to his Karma. The entry of the Jiva into Naraka (नरकम्) loka is not mentioned in Rigveda. Karma (कर्म) and Kala (कालः) play an important role in deciding the course of Jivatma to particular lokas.

It is Time that controls the cycles of birth and death of a person. The time of death is never known to any person. Even if he were to die with him, a relative cannot follow a dead man, all, save his wife, are prohibited from following the paths of Yama.[5]

न कालस्य प्रियः कश्चिद्द्वेष्यश्चास्य न विद्यते । आयुष्ये कर्मणि क्षीणे प्रसह्य हरते जनम् । । २०.४३ । । (Vish. Smrt. 20.43)[6]

No one is a favourite with Kala (Time), nor is it a friend of any one; on the expiration of the effect of his former deeds, producing this life, it forcibly carries away a man.[5]

Again, a man cannot escape the fruits of his karma which surely follows him just like a calf which recognizes its mother among a thousand cows.

यथा धेनुसहस्रेषु वत्सो विन्दति मातरम् । तथा पूर्वकृतं कर्म कर्तारं विन्दते ध्रुवम् । । २०.४७ । ।

गृह्णातीह यथा वस्त्रं त्यक्त्वा पूर्वधृतं नरः । गृह्णात्येवं नवं देही देहं कर्मनिबन्धनम् । । २०.५० । । (Vish. Smrt. 20.47 and 50)[6]

As one renounces an old cloth before he wears a new cloth so also an embodied person puts on a new body according to his karma (deeds).[5]

Bhagavadgita gives the qualities of the Atma as one that cannot be cut by weapons, nor burnt by the fire, nor gets moist by water, and so does the wind not dry it. It is the Upadhi or body that contains the Jivatma and later undergoes the Antyeshti samskara.

Different Kinds of Funerals

The earliest literary mention of the funeral ceremonies is found in the Rigveda and the Atharvaveda. The mode of the disposal of the dead depends on the religious belief of the people concerned and their general culture. The society presented in the Vedic texts is sufficiently advanced, with cremation established as the way to dispose the corpse. Cannibalism or eating away of the dead by the survivors cannot be traced in the Vedas. There are no records of cave burial also in the funeral ceremonies in India. Water burial or flinging the dead body into a sea or river was noted in the case of slaves or common people in various places living close to the water bodies. It is one of the formal ways accorded to small children and to realized medicants, ascetics who have no familial ties. Inhumation or burial is almost absent in the present day Indian funerals except in the case of great saints and very small children. In the Grhyasutras the burial of the dead is not mentioned, though we find it in ancient tradition in the form of burying ashes and bones after cremation.[1]

Preserving the dead body in the house with or without previous desiccation or mummification is not mentioned at all in the ancient Indian texts. However, we find an instance of preserving the body of Dasharatha in a vessel full of oil, after his death, until the arrival of Bharata to perform cremation. Thus the process of preservation was not unknown though it was not widely used. People did not believe in preserving the body once the Atma departed from it.[1]

उद्धृतम् तैल सम्क्लेदात् स तु भूमौ निवेशितम् | आपीत वर्ण वदनम् प्रसुप्तम् इव भूमिपम् || २-७६-४ (Ramayana. 2.76.4)

Raising the body of king Dasaratha, from the vessel where it had been immersed in oil, seeming as it were asleep with face in the color of gold, that son Bharata placed it in a magnificent couch.[7]

Possible Reasons for Adopting Mode of Cremation

According to Dr. Rajbali Pandey, there are many causes which might have operated in bringing the practice into existence.[1]

  1. Tribes without a settled abode may have found it convenient way to dispose their dead and carry the remnants if desired.
  2. Desire to be quit of the ghost was another strong reason for such mode of disposal. The body once destroyed by fire drives away the Preta from its abode.
  3. Agni (fire) which was able to consume the forest, dry leaves and timbers, grass and refuses of animals, might have suggested its utility in burning the dead also.
  4. Agni is the Havyavahaka, the carrier of the oblations offered on earth to the devatas. No material things offered on earth are bodily or directly conveyed/given to the devatas, it has to be consigned to Agni so that it can reach the devatas. This applied to the dead body, which was consigned to the flames such that the gross body is disintegrated leaving the subtler and more resplendent form to reach the higher worlds.
  5. It is believed that the Atman of the deceased, called as Preta (until it joins the Pitrs) lingers around its late habitation (the dead body) and hovers about without consolation in great distress. Hence removing that old habitation will let it ascend to the higher worlds.
  6. Another belief is that the Preta associated with the wicked people who are buried arise to harm the living. To restrict their number in the earthly zone the custom of cremation was adopted, thus sending them to the regions of Yama and Nirruti (a rakshasa) to receive the punishment according to their karma.[1]

Who are not cremated?

Thus the release of the Atman from the bodily material for its onward journey - is the focus of this samskara. And this is associated with the principles of Punarjanma and experiencing after-life based on the Karma of the deceased. Hence children under the age of initiation or puberty are buried, some view this is done to secure their rebirth.

Pitrs and Pitrloka

Antyeshti Samskara

The Saṃskāra to be performed at the end (of life), i.e. at the time of death of a person. The earlier fifteen Saṃskāras are performed while a person is alive. The last one, viz. Antyeṣṭi is performed after death of a person in order to get him a comfortable position.

When a man is sinking and is almost at the point of death it was and even now is the practice in many parts of India to take the dying man down from the bedstead and place him on a bed spread on the earth as per many Smrti granthas. Some texts like Suddhiprakasa further state that a son or relative of the dying person should make him give one or more of the ten gifts - Dasa danas - cows, land, til seeds, gold, ghee, salt, clothes, grains, jaggery, and silver.[4]

Antyeṣṭi is performed by sons of the person who passed away.

After the death of a person, the near relatives would attain Aśaucam (impurity) for ten days. There is a lot of procedure to be followed right from burning the dead body to offering Daśadānāni (ten kinds of donations) among which is Godānam (donation of a milky cow with calf).


Different procedures of Antyeṣṭi are prescribed for different people, i.e. a Brahmacārī (celibate), a Śrotriya (Vedic scholar), a Yati (a Saṃnyāsī), a virgin, a married woman, a widow, a widower etc. Pitṛmedha has to be performed by the son. For the first twelve months, a monthly death ceremony called Māsikam is to be performed. Then yearly death ceremony called Ābdikam has to be performed. At every step there are some exemptions for people who cannot meet the standard procedure for some reason or the other. Such are called Āpaddharma (the Dharma in a hostile situation).


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Pandey, Raj Bali. (1949) Hindu Samskaras, A Socio-religious study of the Hindu Sacraments. Banaras: Vikrama Publications. (Pages 407-455)
  2. Bhat, Ganapathi Parameshwara. (1997) Ph.D Thesis Title: A Critical Study of Antyesti Apara Samskara. Mangalore: Mangalore University.
  3. Brahmapurana (Adhyaya 214)
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Kane, P. V. (1953) History of Dharmasastra, Volume 4 (Pataka, Prayaschitta, Karmavipaka, Antyesti, Asauca, Shuddhi, Sraddha and Tirthayatra). Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute. (Pages 179 -)
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Prof. Pushpendra Kumar. (2011) Hindu Dharma Shastra, Introduction, Text with English Translation and Sanskrit Shloka Index, Volume V. Delhi: Nag Publishers (Page 174-175)
  6. 6.0 6.1 Vishnu Smrti (Adhyaya 20)
  7. Ramayana (Ayodhya Kanda Sarga 76)