Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
David R. Counts
This thesis is an ethnography of people who travel, at the end of their lives, to die in Kashi, the Hindu holy city. Pilgrims arriving in Kashi to die expect a particular spiritual reward--moksha--which is variably understood as liberation from rebirth or good rebirth. Based on thirteen months of fieldwork I conducted in Kashi and in the institutions there which provide shelter for the dying, I provide descriptions of the experiences of the dying pilgrims and the families that accompany them. I frame these experiences in their social and cultural contexts: the cultural context is the variable systems of meaning which link dying in Kashi to spiritual reward; the social context consists of the families who provide care and the institution's priest-workers whose duty it is to provide ritual services and a religious environment for dying.
The thesis deals with the relationship of ideas of good and bad deaths held by people making the pilgrimage to die in Kashi with (1) the larger spiritual and moral systems of Hinduism, and (2) individual's multifaceted experiences of dying. I contend that the concepts of 'sanskritization' and 'great and little traditions' are not satisfactory ways of resolving the complex issue of the relationship of the Hindu scriptures to lived reality as these concepts are Brahmin centered, force diverse ideas and behaviours into ideal, textual frameworks, and do not deal with the variability in the texts themselves. I demonstrate that particular understandings about dying in Kashi held by people who come there to die can be traced to particular texts and that the texts can be responsible for cultural variation at various levels.
The thesis documents that people tend to die very quickly once they have reached Kashi, and argues that this is because pilgrims are dying by a common physiological process which allows them and their families to accurately predict the timing of death. I argue that individuals operate on the basis of their ideas of what is a good death in order to die a good death and to avoid dying a bad death. I demonstrate how these ideas relate to the physiological process of dying by allowing and encouraging the cessation of eating as the onset of the dying process is recognized.
Justice, Christopher J S, "The Good Death in Kashi: Process and Experience of the Pilgrimage to Die in the Hindu Holy City" (1994). Open Access Dissertations and Theses. Paper 3096.