06/26/2013 10:57 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2013

Dying to Be on a Yatra/Pilgrimage?

Yet another good question that Hindus ought to ask concerns the auspiciousness of dying while on a pilgrimage (yatra). Is it possible to die a "good death" when one is on, or returning from a pilgrimage? Is it possible to die a "good death" when one is a migrant or local worker who is part of the pilgrimage industry?

By asking these and related questions, my intention is not to belittle or trivialize this tragedy. My intention also is not to absolve those who have been responsible for the deforestation of the region, those who have disrupted the delicate balance of the ecosystem. And my intention certainly is not to invite trite responses from atheists or opportunistic proselytizers. Rather, my intention is to ask a difficult question to practicing Hindus about the experience of dying for those who live, or chose to venture to what seems to them to be a ksethra or a tirtha -- both Sanskrit terms that denote a sacred geographical site whose sight (darshan) is beneficial -- and which seems to devotees to be the actual location for events in Hindu mythology.

A "bad death," in contrast to a "good death," is one when an individual dies in an unexpected way or in an inauspicious or impure place. In contrast, a "good death," such as ones that many Hindus pursue in Kashi (Benares), allows the dying and her/ his relatives to prepare methodically and intentionally and to engage in practices believed to be beneficial or even believed to guarantee moksha (release from the cycle of birth and death).

But what happens when one has an unexpected or abrupt death, such as the thousands in Badrinath and elsewhere in the Uttarakhand, India, places which are believed to be the archetypes of auspiciousness? Is such a death a "good death," rather than a "bad" one? What happens if one were to get hit by an autorickshaw in Kashi en route to bathe in the Ganga? Is this a "good" or "bad" death?

Some, of course, may be quick to explain why purportedly bad things happen to good people by employing a karma -- strategy -- namely that the death, "bad" or "good," was predestined, was a result of some previous action, and so on. The satisfactoriness of this answer, as I have explored, is questionable and perhaps inadequate. But the question remains, if the site seems to be a ksethra or a tirtha for the Hindu inhabitant (temporary or permanent, pilgrim or pilgrim worker), then is her/ his death "good" regardless of the circumstances?

What do you think?