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In science, death refers to the irreversible cessation of all biological functions of a living organism. In many spiritual cultures, however, it is merely a transitory state in which the physical body dies and the soul transcends to another realm. For centuries, people of faith have been communicating with or paying their respects to the dead for various reasons. For some, it is their duty to help the souls of the deceased transit to a better place; for others, it is for comfort or to seek guidance and protection from ancestors.
Here are five world views on the afterlife and the spiritual practices associated with it. If they interest you, you can catch some of the sacred art forms at A Tapestry of Sacred Music, live and online in Apr 2021.
Origin: Punjab region of the Indian subcontinent
Is there an afterlife? No, after dying a person is reborn into the next life, a process which draws one closer to God.
Sikhism originated with its founder, the poet and composer Guru Nanak (1469–1539), the first of 10 Gurus whose teachings form the cornerstone of the faith. Sikhs believe in one God, in doing good and being spiritually close to their god. They also believe in reincarnation. The cycle of birth, death and rebirth is known as samsara.
Sikhs believe that through one’s actions in life, you accumulate karma which can be good or bad, and determines the quality of one’s next life. Ultimately, the aim of this cycle is to draw closer to God. When a person achieves God-centredness, or gurmukh, they transcend the cycle of rebirth to merge with divinity and achieve indescribable bliss (mukti).
Every important occasion in the Sikh household, including birth, marriage and death, is solemnised with the kirtan—a hymn in praise of the divine. Pairing call-and-response chanting with musical accompaniment, the kirtan has devotional lyrics and a gentle, rhythmic ebb and flow that help Sikhs centre their thoughts, meditate with a clear mind and establish a connection with their god.
Is there an afterlife? Yes, the deceased can become an ancestral spirit if he is welcome back by his living relatives.
According to the Shona, the largest ethnic group in Zimbabwe, when a person passes on, his spirit is left to wander the earth homeless. Only when his relatives “welcome” him back does he become a legitimate family spirit known as vadzimu, to watch over the family from the afterlife as well as impart wisdom and guidance.
Ancestral worship is a huge part of the Shona way of life. They communicate with the spirits regularly for guidance, advice, and protection through ceremonies such as the bira, which calls to a spirit to possess one of the chosen mediums. Central to these ceremonies is mbira (a plucked idiophone pronounced as “mm-bee-ra”) music, which has a long tradition of religious and spiritual function that goes back over a thousand years.
Mbira music is an important extension of Shona folklore, beliefs and culture. The instrument too is believed to be able to connect the living with the ancestral spirits. With just the right notes and pitches, it not only produces music that attracts the spirit into the medium’s body, but also heals those who are present because of its calming musical qualities. The mbira is sometimes called the mbira dzavadzimu, which literally means “mbira of the ancestors”.
Origin: A form of Islamic mysticism from the Middle East
Is there an afterlife? Yes, after death comes a Day of Judgement which not only determines if one is bound for heaven or hell, but also peels back the realities of the universe.
Sufism is known as taṣawwuf in Arabic, literally, “to dress in wool”. The word aptly evokes the turning of one’s gaze inwards, the renouncing of material possessions in search of spiritual closeness to God.
The belief system has had enormous influence on Persian art and literature, and other related literatures such as Turkish, Urdu and Punjabi. It is associated with the poetry of Rumi and other great works of Islamic literature from the eighth to the 13th centuries.
The musical expression of Sufi poetry in South Asia, qawwali is performed by an ensemble of vocalists and musicians. It is characterised by heightened emotions and hand gestures as well rhythmic clapping. In modern concert settings, a qawwali session opens with a hamd, or a song dedicated to Allah. This is usually followed by a naat, praising the Prophet Muhammad. Manqabat, or songs in the name of Sufi saints, are performed with ghazal, or Arabic love songs.
Is there an afterlife? No a person does not have a soul, but his energies reform to begin life as a new being.
One of the biggest religions in the world, Buddhism encompasses different traditions and denominations. In general, the view is that nothing is eternal or permanent; the world is full of physical and metaphysical energies that shift and change due to cause and effect (otherwise known as karma), and will continue to do so because they are part of a never-ending cycle.
Unlike the other belief systems mentioned here, the Buddhists believe that rather than possessing souls (or the concept of an immortal core in all of us), people are made up of five ever-changing components—form, feelings, perceptions, emotions and consciousness—which give the illusion of a fixed identity. Death and rebirth are merely states in which the five components die, disintegrate and reform to begin again as a new being, free from their existing ties to the world.
In the Pali tradition (or the Theravada school; practiced in most parts of Southeast Asia), death is viewed as the end of the life cycle and the start of a major transition. Theravada monks recite, in the ancient Pali language, what is known as paritta (protection chants), which serve a multitude of purposes including protection from evil. At funerals, the chants are recited for the deceased to mark the transition and to bring comfort to family members, oftentimes containing blessings while serving as powerful reminders on the impermanence of life.
Is there an afterlife? Yes, one faces judgement on one’s life before entering the gates of heaven or hell.
In the Christian faith, every person is born sinful and therefore requires salvation by the grace of God. This salvation is available through faith in Jesus Christ, believed to be the son of God. Jesus lived on earth more than 2,000 years ago as a man and religious leader, was crucified by Roman soldiers, died for mankind’s sins, and then rose to heaven three days later to sit at God’s right hand. Christians believe that following Jesus to the end of one’s days makes possible an afterlife in heaven.
Christians mark Good Friday as the day of Christ’s death on the cross, in remembrance of his sacrifices, followed by Easter Sunday in celebration of his resurrection and victory over death and sin.
MUSIC FOR EASTER
There is a long tradition of vocal, instrumental and orchestral music depicting the Passion—as the story of Jesus’ suffering in the run-up to and during his crucifixion is known—as well as his resurrection. This includes music written for the pipe organ—known for its majestic sound, it boasts the largest solo repertoire of any musical instrument written for or inspired by the Christian church. While church leaders initially disapproved of musical instruments during church service, organs began to appear in monasteries, and, from the 13th century, in more and more churches as well.