By Nithin Sridhar
Pitr-Paksha (alternatively spelled as Pitru-Paksha)- the auspicious fortnight for the worship of ancestors has begun. Every year it begins on the first Poornima (full moon) after Ganesha Chaturti and ends on Mahalaya Amavasya which falls just a day before Navaratri starts. This year the Pitr-Paksha began on September 27 and will end on Oct 12.
The worship of the Devas (gods), Pitrs (Manes or Forefathers), and Rishis (the Seers) is central to the practice of the Hindu religion. When the father dies, the son performs funeral rites for the wellbeing and a safer journey of the departed soul. Similarly, the sons perform yearly rituals for the sake of departed fathers and mothers on the day of their deaths.
Apart from those specific rites that are performed for the sake of departed parents or immediate forefathers, Pitr-Paksha is a fortnight which is considered most auspicious time for worshiping and feeding, not only one’s parents and immediate ancestors, but also to any departed person be it a teacher, a friend or relatives.
Who is the Pitr?
Pitr basically refers to departed forefathers. Hinduism does not accept the theory of permanent heaven or hell. The Hindu scriptures speak about how Karma determines the journey of a particular individual after the death of his body and how the individual will eventually take a re-birth in a new body.
The scriptures speak about three paths a departed soul may take based on its actions when it was alive. Some who have lived life according to dharma and have practiced extensive devotion and meditation, then by the merit of such actions, he or she will attain Devaloka (the realm of the gods) through the northern path.
Some people who have practiced various duties and rites alone without devotion or meditation, may have to take a southern path to “Pitrloka” (the realm of ancestors/manes). On the other hand, those who live life selfishly and perform adharmic actions, may have to enter realms of hells called Naraka and suffer there for their unrighteous actions.
But, ultimately, all of them, according to their actions and its fruits, will again take birth as humans in the physical universe.
Without going into further details, it is suffice to say that, once a person dies, he discards his gross body and travels to Pitrloka in his subtle body and stays there until his karmic fruits that took him there get exhausted.
Manu Smriti (3.192) describes the Pitr as “free from anger, careful of purity, ever chaste, averse from strife, and endowed with great virtues.” Our forefathers who managed to reach there did so based on the merits of their own actions as well as due to the efforts of their offsprings’ who performed proper funeral rituals.
But, Pitrs, similar to humans, have unfulfilled desires. Many people when they die, die in misery and frustration. Most of them have strong, unfulfilled desires. These unfulfilled desires get carried even after one discards the physical body, as the desires belong to the mind, which is associated with the subtle body.
Therefore, Pitrs refer to our immediate parents who have departed, to our forefathers with whom we share a blood relationship, and in general to all ancestors who have come before us.
Why observe Pitr-Paksha?
As noted above, Pitrs refers to our ancestors. No person can take birth in this physical universe without being given birth by his/her parents. Therefore, each person owes to a debt to his parents for giving him/her an opportunity to enter this Universe. Then, the parents support their children, give them education, and help them grow up. Even though all these are done out of love by the parents, a Karmic bond and a debt is formed that the children owe to their parents.
This Karmic debt is called as “Rina” and such a bond of debt between two individuals is called as “Rina Bandha.” Now, it is not just parents who are responsible for the birth of an individual. The parents themselves were given birth by their parents. Hence, a person has a Rina Bandha with the whole family and lineage into which he or she is born.
The famous King Bhagiratha did practice severe Tapasya (austerity) to bring River Ganga on earth so that he could free his ancestors from Sage Kapila’s curse. This was his way of paying the debt to his ancestors.
In modern scientific language, a person derives his genes that are the basis of his existence from his ancestors. Therefore, there is a debt even on that count.
It is said that during the period of Pitr-Paksha, the Pitrs come down from their abodes in Pitrloka and reside near their descendants. If, one were to offer food and water and worship the Pitrs during this time, they will be very pleased and they will in-turn bless the descendants.
Manu Smriti (3.259) says that after performing Shraddha (a ritual to satiate Pitrs), the performer must pray for the blessings of Pitrs thus: “May liberal men abound with us! May (our knowledge of) the Vedas and (our) progeny increase! May faith not forsake us! May we have much to give (to the needy).”
P V R Narasimha who has prepared simple manuals for worshipping Pitrs says: “By thinking of the deceased ancestors with gratitude and trying to give them an emancipation, one is actually trying to free oneself from various Karmic predispositions that one has as a result of the Rina (Karmik debt) with several people. One can view this as an external event of satisfying and emancipating an external entity (a Pitr). Alternatively, one can view this as an internal event of satisfying and releasing an internal Karmik predisposition.”
Thus, the worship of Pitrs during Pitr-Paksha, will not only help a person to pay back his Karmic debts to his ancestors by satiating their desires, but also helps to gain their blessings that will give rise to both material and spiritual welfare. Most importantly, the worship of Pitrs will help one to purify one’s mind by reducing the internal Karmic burden.
How to observe Pitr-Paksha?
Detailed rituals and procedures have been given in the scriptures regarding the worship of Pitrs during this period. Two main rituals that are suggested are: shraddham and Tarpanam.
Shraddham or Shraddha refers to that which is done with faith. This is different from Bhakti which is devotion towards God. Shraddham refers to worship of forefathers in reverence and gratitude. The normal annual Shraddham that is to be performed annually on the day when one’s father and/or mother had died includes Homam (fire ritual), Vastradharanam (gift of cloth), feeding of proper Brahmanas, and Pindapradhanam (balls of rice etc. given to Pitrs) among other things. Some hold that, during Pitr-Paksha, a simpler version of Shraddham called “Hiranya Shraddham” which does not involve fire ritual; gifting of clothes etc. can be performed.
It is suggested that, the most auspicious day for performing this Shraddham during Pitr-Paksha is on Mahalaya Amavasya, the last day.
Tarpanam or Tarpan is another simple ritual that can be ideally practiced on almost any day throughout the year (except few days during which it has been prohibited). The practice of Tarpanam during Pitr-Paksha is especially considered very auspicious.
Tarpanam basically means “satisfying” and as the name denotes its very purpose is to satiate the gods, seers, and the Pitrs by fulfilling the karmic debts we owe them. In case of the Pitrs, the satiation is also through either freeing them from some of their cravings. The ritual includes invoking Pitrs in water, holding that water in one’s palm and then releasing the water from the palm in a specific way using mantras by which the Pitrs are freed and satiated.
These both rituals are very auspicious and will help immensely to the performer. Pitrs who are thus satisfied bless the performer with progeny, wealth, good health, knowledge, and liberation. These blessings will in-turn lighten the burden of Karma and become conductive to the practice of Dharmic lives. Therefore, everyone must remember and worship their ancestors using this auspicious period of Pitr-Paksha.