Death had been a largely abstract concept for me until I had my first close encounter with it at 23. I was quite unprepared when Dadiji, my beloved paternal grandmother with whom we lived, died after a short but painful illness at age 77. From being a healthy and well-loved matriarch, Dadiji sank into agony and delirium in a matter of weeks, becoming a mere shadow of herself.
My father and grandfather barely had a chance to wipe their tears before springing into action to organize the death rituals that our community follows. Indian Sikhs are followers of the religion started by Guru Nanak in the 15th century in North-West India. Sikhs cremate their dead. However, our post-cremation and post-death rituals are quite distinctive from Hindus and Buddhists, and far removed from those followed by ‘of-the-book’ religions like Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
Understanding the Sikh Tradition of Akhand Path: A Ritual for Processing Grief
Sikh Cremation Rituals
The preparation for my grandmother’s cremation was quite elaborate. When her body was brought home from the morgue, the women of the family, of which I was the youngest, gathered to bathe and dress her. Custom dictated that she should be dressed in lively, bright finery to denote that she was married at the time of her death, and we put her in a brand-new salwar-kameez (traditional Indian outfit) gifted to her by my mother on her last birthday. Then it was time to bid her farewell with one last kiss on her cheek.
After being draped in finery, her body was put on display for a few hours for people to pay their last respects. Some visitors draped her body with shawls. That evening, she was cremated on a wooden pyre. As the acrid smoke lifted her soul to heaven, those left behind could begin grieving and healing.
The next day, our family hosted the customary Akhand Path following death. Our living room was transformed into a place for peaceful congregation, with comfortable mattresses covered in pristine white sheets replacing our furniture so people could sit on the floor. The Akhand Path entails an uninterrupted reading of the holy book of the Sikhs, the Guru Granth Sahib, over 48 hours. This ritual is performed for births, deaths, and other momentous occasions. It works on a premise similar to that of sound healing, as a melodic and purposeful reading of our scriptures is meant to send out vibrations of peace and positivity to those listening. It also encourages the listener to emulate the messages and teachings contained in the Guru Granth Sahib.
The Tradition of the Akhand Path
The tenth guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh, started the Akhand Path tradition when he declared the holy book his successor in spirituality before he passed. In it, he had compiled the teachings of all the gurus preceding him, as well as learned leaders of different faiths. When the task was accomplished, it is said that he stood and listened to the book being read by five different Granthis (readers who are usually priests from a Gurdwara, a Sikh temple) without moving from the spot. He was served his meals and water for his bath where he stood.
Years later, while on his deathbed, Guru Gobind Singh declared that instead of mourning his loss, Sikh’s should honor his memory by listening to these holy verses in their entirety. According to All About Sikhs, he is also believed to have said that he would be “spiritually present when the Gurbani was being read.” Sikh’s were a persecuted minority in this period, and the belief that Guru Gobind Singh would remain in spirit provided strength to a community that felt rudderless after his death.
The Guru Granth Sahib was originally written in the Gurmukhi script of the Punjabi language. A number of translations in English and other languages do exist, though in India, reading in Gurmukhi is still preferred by most. In our case, we requested the Granthis from our local Gurdwara to perform the reading, though some people choose to perform this difficult task themselves.
Yet, at their very core, [death rituals] all seek to provide succour to the needy, direction to the lost, and relief to the bereaved.
During an Akhand Path, the priests are assigned two-hour slots before passing the baton to the next reader, which ensures that no breaks are taken. Similarly, family members take turns to listen to the teachings of the book, and to help the priests during their reading. Whether people perform the reading in their homes or at the Gurdwara is a personal choice, but both places remain open for visitors at all hours, so they may listen to the recitation as they please.
The Akhand Path begins with Karah Parshad (a wheat based sweet pudding) being placed as an offering to the Granth Sahib. The Ardas prayer is read out to the congregation, and an edict or Hukam is picked at random from the book as the lesson of the day. Then the reading begins. After 48 hours, the ceremony closes with an hour of singing Kirtan (devotional songs), another Ardaas, and a serving of the sweet Parshad to everyone present. This is usually followed by Langar, where food is served from a community kitchen open to everyone.
Coming to Terms with Grief Through the Akhand Path
At the Akhand Path held for my grandmother, I vividly remember waking up to soothing Kirtan every morning, speaking in muted tones to family members and visitors as the Granthis read in the background, staying up for night duty which entailed listening to the Granthi and serving him tea and snacks before and after his turn, and the constant comings and goings of people. It was three frenetic days of distraction from the grief within and a fitting farewell to my grandmother who had left a mark on so many of us.
A few years later, this process was repeated when both my grandfathers and my husband’s grandmother, left us in turn. Each death was equally painful and heart-wrenching, but these age-old rituals and ceremonies helped to ease the pain. The process that began from the first viewing of the lifeless body to the moment when we wrapped up the last mattress and sheet laid out on our living room floor after the completion of the Akhand Path, allowed me to work through the bereavement process fully. Before I knew it, the last stage of acceptance had begun to creep up on me.
Despite the universal nature of death, the ways in which we grieve are diverse and diffuse. Customary rituals in particular differ tremendously, sometimes even within religions. Yet, at their very core, they all seek to provide succour to the needy, direction to the lost, and relief to the bereaved. For me, and most of my community members, the simple beauty of the Akhand Path does this most admirably.