NEW DELHI, India (AP) _ Rajiv Gandhi's body was committed to flames today in an ancient rite that by Hindu tradition freed his soul from earth and from the political violence that scarred his nation and ended his life.

The former prime minister's 20-year-old son, Rahul, lighted the funeral pyre of logs atop a flower-draped brick platform near a memorial to Gandhi's mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who also fell victim to assassins.

More than 150,000 people lined a 10-mile funeral procession through the capital for the funeral for the scion of independent India's most important political family.

The procession ended at a riverside cremation site next to a memorial to Gandhi's mother, whose killing by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984 thrust her son into power for five years.

Gandhi, 46, met the same fate on Tuesday when he was killed by a bomb blast at a campaign stop while trying to make a political comeback in parliamentary elections.

Gandhi was leader of the powerful Congress Party, which was to meet Saturday to discuss its future. Party leaders had selected Gandhi's Italian- born widow, Sonia, to take his place, but she rejected the offer Thursday.

Nearly 60,000 police were deployed as the former prime minister's funeral procession wound through the capital under a searing sun in 104-degree heat. An unknown number of army troops were on full alert.

Helicopters dropped red rose petals on the garland-covered carriage holding the body, which was draped with the saffron, green and white Indian flag.

Mrs. Gandhi, in a break with Hindu tradition, followed the body to the cremation site and participated in the symbolic placement of small logs on the pyre. Pale, her eyes hidden by large sun glasses, she stood beside the couple's 21-year-old daughter, Priyanka.

Rahul, a sophomore at Harvard University, performed the final rites at the cremation ground along the Jamuna River as Hindu priests chanted.

He sprinkled Gandhi's body with clarified butter to speed the flames, then circled the body as priests chanted prayers in the ancient Sanskrit language.

Later, when the logs piled over the body burn down, it was the son's duty to smash his father's skull with a cudgel to release the soul.

But it appeared Rahul would not perform that part of the rite. He took the long wooden stave and inserted it into the burning pyre in what seemed a symbolic gesture. Part of Gandhi's face was blown off by the bomb.

Gandhi was one of 17 people killed in the blast at a campaign rally in Sriperambudur, 25 miles southwest of the coastal city of Madras in Tamil Nadu state.

Press Trust of India said today that the bomb was made of plastic explosives attached to a denim belt worn by a female suicide assassin. The news agency said the unidentified woman pulled the switch on a detonator as she bent over to offer Gandhi flowers.

Crowds watched Gandhi's cremation from the grounds. Some men climbed trees for a better view.

Vice President Dan Quayle and other world leaders flew to the Indian capital to attend the funeral.

In Washington, President Bush paid his respects at the Indian Embassy. He signed a condolence book and told Ambassador Abid Hussain that Gandhi was a good friend.

''You make real friendships from time to time in our business,'' he said. ''This one was real.''

''Rajiv Gandhi is immortal,'' crowds chanted as pallbearers lifted the flag-draped body onto a motorized gun carriage for the journey from Gandhi's childhood home, under a searing sun in 104-degree heat.

''As long as there is a sun and a moon, Rajiv, your name will live,'' chanted a crowd of 7,000 as the procession began. With the drum beat of a slow march, the body of the leader was taken on a winding route past thousands of other mourners.

While 150,000 people lined the funeral route, it was a relatively low turnout for a city of 9 million people. Perhaps it was reflective of the tight security and the end of the political dynasty of Gandhi's family.

The procession began at the house where Gandhi spent his childhood with his grandfather - India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru - and his mother.

About 250 laborers worked through the night Thursday to build the 10-foot- high red brick cremation platform.

Meanwhile, this country of 840 million, plagued by poverty and wracked by ethnic violence that police link to the assassination, sought a new leader to replace outgoing Prime Minister Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar.

Gandhi was killed when he seemed on the verge of regaining the prime ministership he lost in the 1989 elections. His Congress Party had been expected to win the parliamentary elections. After the assassination, the balloting was postponed until June.

The violence that erupted after his death subsided on Thursday. At least 11 people were killed Wednesday and the army was called out in several cities when Gandhi supporters battled police and members of rival parties.

Before the funeral procession, army troops were placed on full alert in New Delhi today. Traffic was thin in much of the city, and government offices and schools were closed.

Gandhi's body had been lying in state at his childhood home since Wednesday. The house is now a museum honoring Jawaharlal Nehru, the first of three generations of his family to rule India for all but six years since independence from Britain in 1947.

Platoons of army, navy and air force troops and bands escorted the body from the house to the cremation grounds. Government television provided live coverage of the start of the procession, then switched to mournful music.

Foreign dignitaries from 20 countries, including Quayle, Prince Charles of Britain and Germany's foreign minister, Hans Dietrich Genscher, were invited to accompany at least parts of the procession. Given a choice of whether to walk or ride to the cremation ground, most if not all of them chose to ride.

Other mourners from abroad included Soviet Vice President Gennady Yanayev, Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, both of Pakistan, and former Japanese Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita.

Official suspicions in the assassination have focused on Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels, who are fighting for a separate homeland in their island nation 25 miles off the coast of Tamil Nadu.

The Tigers, who have used sophisticated bombing tactics in their guerrilla war, fought bitterly against Indian troops for three years after Gandhi ordered them to Sri Lanka in 1987 to enforce a peace pact he'd helped broker.

The Tigers, however, have denied responsibility for the bombing.