By Joan Chittister
‘Let life unfold its wonders through women, let death find its peace through men’—this seems to be the basis behind rituals related to birth and death in India
Open up, Earth; do not crush him.
Be easy for him to enter and to burrow in.
Earth, wrap him up as a mother
Wraps a son in the edge of her skirt.
Rig Vedic Burial Hymn (X.18)
At the time of childbirth, the deepest values, cherished beliefs and body-spirit knowledge of a community is reflected in the way it handles the slippery wet newborn and the exhausted mother.
At the time of death, too, the handling of the now-lifeless body mirrors the religious and cultural understanding of the meaning of life—the notions of how an individual human being fits into the cosmic processes of life, death and renewal or rebirth.
I am an American by birth and upbringing, and have lived within my husband’s Indian family for the past 20 years. I have worked extensively on birth (teaching natural childbirth and researching and writing on traditional midwives and birthtraditions). In the past year and a half I have suffered the loss of three persons dear to me: my father-in-law, my husband’s uncle and a friend who was a French Buddhist nun.
Ten years ago, my own father passed away while I was living in India. My brother handled the cremation, according to my father’s wishes. But we decided to wait until my husband, children and I could join in the ritual of submerging the ashes in the ocean off San Diego, California. Before going to California I had attended a Childbirth Educators’ conference in Toronto, Canada. In this conference the focus was on the midwife’s or doctor’s hands as they ‘catch’ the baby (midwives in the West use the word ‘catch’—suggesting the power of the mother’s body to give birth to the baby rather then the obstetrical word ‘deliver’, which indicates that the doctor is in charge of this female biological process).
I have vivid memories of scattering my father’s ashes into the ocean while looking down at my hands and the fleeting remnants of my father’s body, thinking: ‘Look at this—how we use our hands in birth and in death. Truly, life is not a straight line, but a great circle of birth and death.’ It seemed so similar—catching babies propelled from mothers’ bodies and gifting back ashes to the mother of birth and death. The same intensity of emotion where all mundane concerns fade away and one lives in the existing moment which encompasses all opposites, all duality.
Here in Delhi, India, amidst my Indian family, I have learned much about death recently. Again I am focusing on human hands and the ‘work’ of handling birth and death.
THE FEMININE TOUCH OF LIFE
Traditionally, throughout India (with the exception of a few tribal communities), men are excluded from the place of birth. One young father in my childbirth classes said his mother had informed him: ‘You can take all the classes you want, but you are not going to be anywhere near when this baby is born.’ Another friend was searching for a traditional midwife to help her give birth at home but gave up when the midwife insisted that her husband could not be present.
The Sushruta Samhita, an ancient Indian Ayurvedic text, insists that women, ‘who have children, are good hearted, possessing strong character, are experienced in conducting labor, affectionate in nature, free from grief, with good endurance and able to make the expectant woman happy’, be present at birth. It is women’s hands, which have traditionally done the work of birth.
Household women and midwives prepare a concoction of herbs or milk and ghee (clarified butter) for the would-be mother and help her sip this between labor pains; it is also women’s hands which massage her body, press her back and manipulate the position of the baby. Midwives often know the pressure points (Marma Chikitsa), which are useful for alleviating pain and hastening the birth. They also support the woman’s body while she is pushing the baby out through the birth canal.
Midwives, be it in the East or the West, use their hands, not surgical instruments, to massage the vaginal area, allowing body tissues to slowly stretch and unfold to release the baby. Obstetricians are taught in medical schools to cut the mother’s body while delivering the child—they do not know a midwife’s skills of using hands to massage and support the vaginal area. Midwives learn, in apprenticeship with older, experienced midwives, how to use their hands in the process of birth.
Once when I was trying to locate textual sources on midwives, I wrote to Sukumari Bhattacharjee, a historian and Sanskrit scholar. She wrote back: ‘The midwife’s unique position is equivalent to that of a shaman. She preempts male intervention in a literal rite de passage. She was allowed this privilege, possibly because the whole process is ‘dirty’ (Ashvins, the divine physicians, were deprived of the soma drink in later Vedic epic literature because as physicians they had to touch uncleanness connected with disease). Birth, therefore, is beneath the dignity of a male priest.’
At the time of birth, the primal force, the shakti, surges through the female body and this power of giving birth is utilized to the full in traditional childbirth. Mark the role of the initiating priest in the sacred thread ceremony of Hindus. There is a marked similarity between this ceremony and the process of birth. A close analysis may lead to the theory that the sacred thread is a replica of the umbilical cord in reverse: the midwife removes it, the priest winds it on the ritually newborn.
The birth rite is the only wholly female rite where male presence is precluded: yet it is solemn, awesome and throbbing with tension.
THE MASCULINE TOUCH IN DEATH
But when we come to death, to the lighting of the pyre and the retrieval and submersion of the ashes and bone remnants of the body in the sacred rivers—it is traditionally men’s hands that do that work. Some women are challenging this custom and this challenge is warranted because of the way tradition has been used to justify one’s preference. Still it seems important for us to remember and retrieve the essence of the esoteric wisdom of these teachings—and the complementary gender assigned by tradition.
For almost 20 years I have struggled against the over-medicalization of childbirth by working with women and couples to prepare them for natural childbirth. It is not simply the avoidance of drugs and surgery, which has motivated me, but also the desire to affirm the embodied wisdom and experience gleaned from the encounter with the primal force, the shakti, which surges through the female body during labor and birth.
So, also, I can appreciate men’s work—ghee (clarified butter), sandalwood and logs covering the body; cooling the pyre two days later with milky water; scraping together bones and ashes and placing them in urns; depositing these remains in sacred rivers to float, to sink, to go back into the elements form which they came. The body transits from one watery place to another (from the amniotic fluid of the womb to the earth-waters of the Ganga or Yamuna). Traditionally women handled the beginning of the human life, and men, the end. I’m not sure women were discriminated against in this gender-role assignment.
While the men of the family were discussing who was to go to deposit the ashes, my 16-year-old son was undecided whether to join them or not. Just before sharing his confusion with me he had spoken of a soft drink advertisement on television in which a basketball player dunked a ball—the visual and narrative described thirst, desire and basketball, encouraging the viewer to identify with the manly athlete and buy the soft drink. I suggested that television images of masculinity include a lot of aggressive sports and violence and that my son was fortunate to have the opportunity to join the men of our family in a different masculine rite—the work of handling death. My son decided to go.
THE WISDOM IN LIFE AND DEATH
When people hand over the dead body to the mortician, as we do in the USA, we deprive ourselves of valuable life-deathexperiences and wisdom. When the body doesn’t lie on the floor in the drawing room for hours; when we don’t put garlands on the body; when family and friends don’t wear white and sit hour after hour listening to kirtan (devotional singing) while the women softly sob—the meaning of life and death is diminished.
Something precious is lost while giving up the wonder of birth to the obstetricians, and with it that body based understanding of the cosmic processes is lost too. When we wash our hands off birth and death we lose precious opportunities to learn the lessons of human life and body-spirit connections. We culturally disengage ourselves from participation in the biological life processes.
Management guru Stephen Covey has an exercise in his book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which strikes me as quite tantric in its use of the imagination to confront death. Readers are instructed to visualize themselves after theirdeath, lying in their coffin and then to imagine the testimonials, which family, friends, colleagues and other associates speak at their funeral. This is undoubtedly a very profound personal growth exercise.
However, I cannot help but compare my own experiences with the traditional handling of death in the Indian context. Sitting alongside my uncle’s body, hour after hour, with bereaving family and friends, allowed me to enter a pool of grief. This loss, this death and other sorrows—my anguish mingled with others’—these emotions enveloped us all. Weeping, comforting others and also receiving consolation gave me the privilege of fully experiencing my grief. I respect the cultural forms which allowed me that space.
Covey’s exercise is a simulation, using the imagination. Death rites are real and involve the extended presence of the body of a departing soul. This experience has allowed me to reflect upon birth and death—what it means to have a body, the vehicle in this world, through which all experience is mediated—physical, mental and spiritual.
I would hope that the essential wisdom of the interconnectedness of life and death, of male and female, of body and spirit which are found in Indian customs and rituals, be retained in spite of the onslaught of modernity and westernization.
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