A study among pilgrims attending the Ardh Kumbh Mela festival in India found that religiosity and belief in reincarnation were linked to reduced death anxiety. The findings, published in the journal Death Studies, lend support for incorporating spirituality or religion into therapeutic services for older adults.
Religious belief has been suggested to improve psychological well-being in several ways. One of these ways is by helping people cope with thoughts about mortality. Studies suggest that anxiety surrounding death is strongest in later years, as the end of life draws closer. With an aging population, strategies to help assuage death anxiety among older individuals are sorely needed.
Study authors Nishtha Lamba and her team wanted to delve into the specific religious factors that influence death anxiety while focusing on a population of practicing Hindus. Hinduism is an Indian religion whose teachings include belief in reincarnation. It is believed that life continues after death, guided by karma, as the spirit transitions “from one life form to another.”
“There is a large body of work which has explored well-being and death anxiety in the context of Christianity, and there are a few research studies which have explored the same in the context of Islam. However, there is a lack of empirical information on how religious beliefs and practices influence death anxiety in the context of Hinduism, despite being the third largest religion in the world, with approximately 1.1 billion followers,” explained Lamba, a senior lecturer in psychology at Middlesex University Dubai.
“There are around 104 million people above the age of 60 in India and religion tends to play an important role in how Hindus, especially elderly, conceptualize death. Therefore, we studied elderly participants. I recruited them at the Kumbh pilgrimage as it offers a unique setting to study varying levels of religiosity.”
“Personally, I was curious to explore the role of religion in how Hindus understand, perceive, and accept death as an outcome of life,” Lamba said.
In February 2019, the researchers recruited a sample of 105 adults between the ages of 41 and 79 who were attending the Ardh Kumbh Mela, a pilgrimage in Prayagraj, India. The Kumbh is the largest religious gathering in the world, attracting over a hundred million attendees over 55 days in 2019. The Kumbh is known for the Ganga snaan, the ritualistic bathing in the river Ganga to wash away one’s sins.
Short interviews were conducted among the pilgrims, where they were asked about their religious practices, belief in reincarnation, belief in Ganga snaan, and the extent that they felt a sense of meaning in their life. They also answered a 9-item Death Anxiety Scale, which included items like, “I fear dying a painful death.”
The researchers found that those attending the festival for 30 days or more had significantly lower death anxiety compared to those who were staying for less than one week — suggesting that greater religiosity was associated with improved anxiety surrounding death. The authors say this finding is important because it suggests that even within a group of religious individuals, those with stricter practices experience less stress surrounding death.
Belief in the Ganga snaan practice was not significantly linked to death anxiety, while belief in reincarnation was significantly tied to lower death anxiety. Lamba and her team noted that a similar effect has been found among Westerners who believe in the afterlife, although the Christian concept of the afterlife is very different than the Hindu concept. This suggests that the belief that life continues in some way after death helps older populations cope with dying, regardless of their specific faith.
Surprisingly, the extent that the pilgrims practiced religion either at home or within an institution was unrelated to death anxiety, suggesting that frequency of practice does not impact feelings about death among practicing Hindus.
Those who felt greater meaning in their lives had lower death anxiety while those who were on a search for meaning did not. This is in line with previous research suggesting that the link between religiosity and well-being can be partly explained by feeling a sense of meaning in life.
“Being more religious, believing in reincarnation (life after death), and having meaning in life decreases death anxiety in elderly practicing Hinduism. It is also important to note that while the practice of Ganga Snaan (washing away sins/increasing purity) and regularly praying at home or in temples may play an important role, these acts do not have any significant impact on our thoughts related to death,” Lamba told PsyPost.
The study authors warn that as the global population ages, psychological services for older adults will be increasingly important. They say that future studies with larger samples and more extensive interviews would add value to their findings.
“This the first study to examine how a few religious beliefs and practices (such as reincarnation and ritual of daily prayers) affect death related thoughts. Therefore, not only we need more replication studies, but future studies could explore beliefs like karma (which is now used a lot in the West as well), act of going for a pilgrimage, believing in different gods (polytheism vs monotheism), etc., affect death anxiety or death acceptance,” Lamba said.
“Given there are so many individual differences, it is important that we aim for a larger sample size and follow a strong inclusion criteria in this research field.”
Despite the caveats, the new study offers insight into a possible way to improve death anxiety among older adults. “In a religious population, such findings could be included in psychological support services offered to elderly population,” Lamba explained.
The study, “Religious factors affecting death anxiety in older adults practicing Hinduism”, was authored by Nishtha Lamba, Aditi Bhatia, Anita Shrivastava, and Archana Raghavan.