[Note: This article was first published in IndiaFacts]
Every year during the second fortnight of the lunar month of Bhardrapada, right after the Ganesha puja, a period of 14 days is set aside for offering reverence to ancestors, known as pitrpaksha. During this time, many traditional Hindus perform pitr tarpana, pitr shraddha, and pinda danaeither at home, or preferably near river banks, wherein one pays homage to ones departed ancestors. The word shraaddha (श्राद्ध) indicates that the act is to be performed with sincere faith shraddhā (श्रद्धा). There is of course another lesser known pitrpaksha in the first half of the year, but it is the one during Bhadrapada, which is considered more significant.
According to Hindu tradition, the soul/individuality/Ahaṃkāra – not to be translated into a simplified ego, but more appropriately as the sense of I-ness inside of a person, when separated from his physical existence, often ends up in a realm known as pitrloka which is Lorded by Yama. Propitiating pitrs is considered one of the five fundamental and obligatory yajnas, or sacrificial rites, that a householder must perform. For example the Manu Smriti states categorically (3:69/70):
“In order to successively expiate (the offenses committed) of all these (five) the great sages have prescribed for householders the daily (performance of the five) great sacrifices.
Teaching (and studying) is the sacrifice (offered) to Brahman, the (offerings of water and food called) Tarpana the sacrifice to the manes, the burnt oblation the sacrifice offered to the gods, Bali offering to the Bhutas, and the hospitable reception of guests the offering to men.”
Similar references, extolling the importance of satisfying the pitrs, can also be found in the Garuda Purana as well as stories from the itihāsa. A modern secularized mind may look at this as a way of offering gratitude to ancestors, for without them it is nearly impossible for an individual to take have taken birth in this realm. It is also a way of reminding us that every action we perform is intricately linked to a platform provided by the actions of others, who have come before us. There is nothing that truly stands alone, no tree without a root, devoid of a source and cause.
Types of pitrs
While today we consider pitrs to be our immediate human forefathers, some of the Shastras have a different categorization of these beings. They are in essence a collective of beings, who are both our biological forefathers as well as first human leaders of the Sanatana Dharma, who have shown the path to future generations. The Harivamsa Purana classifies pitrs into 7 different categories: 3 are without specific forms and thus can assume any form they desire; while 4 are corporeal or embodied. The textual legends mention that the first pitrs were sons of gods, who on neglecting the worship of Brahma, were cursed to become devoid of intelligence and thus had to learn the rites of ancestor veneration. The three incorporeal or disembodied class of pitṛs are Vairājas, Agnishwáttas, and Varhishads. While the corporeal or embodied class of pitrs are known as Sukálas, Angirasas, Suswadhas, and Somapás. Vairājas are progenitors of Viraja and belong to the realm of Tapaloka; Agnishwáttas (commentators derive the name from oblations in fire-sacrifice) are sons of Maríchi or Pulastya and fathers to the gods and demigods, while Varhishads are sons of Atri and the father to gods and demons. All of them are said to reside in the Soma-loka. The four embodied class of pitirs are considered ancestors of the chaturvarnas of humanity.
The Manusmriti, further, explains that the wise consider our fathers as Vasus, our paternal grandfather as Rudra and our paternal great grandfathers as Aditya. This line of thought forms the crux of practical shraddha rituals of today, wherein each generation of the last three are accorded this status and propitiated accordingly. As an individual of the next generation in the family dies, the earliest (of the 3 immediate paternal forefathers) is said to shift to a higher realm and are no more offered libations in this ritual.
It has been argued by some, most notably Sri Aurobindo, in his analysis of the verses from the Rig Veda that the original idea of the pitrs referred to “Fathers who have gone before and discovered the supraphysical worlds.” Analyzing the Rig Vedic verses related to Angirasa, he further notes:
“The name Angirasa occurs in the Veda in two different forms, Angira and Angirasa, although the latter is the more common; we have also the patronymic Angirasa applied more than once to the god Brihaspati. In later times Angirasa, like Bhrigu and other seers, was regarded as one of the original sages, progenitors of clans of Rishis who went by their names, the Angirasas, Atris, Bhargavas. Frequently the seven original Angirasa Rishis are described as the human fathers, pitaro manuṣyāḥ, who discovered the Light, made the sun to shine and ascended to the heaven of the Truth. In some of the hymns of the tenth Mandala they are associated as the Pitrs or Manes with Yama, a deity who only comes into prominence in the later Suktas; they take their seats with the gods on the barhis, the sacred grass, and have their share in the sacrifice. [But] the Angirasas are not merely the deified human fathers, they are also brought before us as heavenly seers, sons of the gods, sons of heaven and heroes or powers of the Asura, the mighty Lord, divas putrāso asurasya vīrāḥ (III.53.7), an expression which, their number being seven, reminds us strongly, though perhaps only fortuitously, of the seven Angels of Ahura Mazda in the kindred Iranian mythology.”
But, clearly as the age of the Puranas came into vogue, pitrs became identified with, in popular understanding, our immediate family ancestors. Over time the idea diversified into three important segments – pitr rna, pitr dośa, and pitr śāpa, of which the last two are believed to have a decidedly dangerous effect on the lives of individuals.
Pitr rna – ancestral debt – is a karmic debt to the ancestors, which an individual is obligated to fulfill. The very act of taking birth in a certain specific family creates a debt with the forefathers of the lineage. There is a story in the Mahabharata Astika Parva, where Rishi Jaratkaru, a powerful tapasvi, having performed excellent and complex penances renouncing sleep and food, including strict brahmacharya, was roaming about, when he saw a vision wherein his own ancestors appeared hanging upside down with the heads inside a hole leading to the nether realms, while a rope made of grass that held them was being eaten by a rat! On enquiry, Jaratkratu was informed that his tapasya (austerity) involving celibacy has resulted in the discontinuation of the lineage and brought misery onto his ancestors, who fervently requested him to get married and have children. Eventually, Jaratkratu married Manasa – as per later texts – who was the sister of the great Naga Vasuki, and through that union was produced Astika, who went on to play a vital role in saving the race of Nagas from complete annihilation at the fire-sacrifice of Janmejaya, the grandson of Arjuna.
Spiritually speaking, this example best demonstrates the easiest way to fulfill a pitr rna: by continuing the lineage. An individual can only take birth in an environment and to parents with whom he has a specific kind of karmic debt, rnabandhana. Thus, by bringing forth his progeny, the individual ensures that Nature will allow him an easy rebirth, as also, relatively speaking, an easy channel through which his pitrs can come back into the mortal world to continue their progression – since they already share a karmic link with him – provided other conditions satisfy the necessity for a rebirth. Of course, that does not mean that one, who has not produced offsprings cannot take birth again, for the exact fructification of this mechanical law of balances is too complex for any individual to prejudge in its entirety, but it is assumed with good reason that this enables a smoother reincarnation. The Mahabharata states that the blessings of pitrs accrued by the performance of such rituals bring great prosperity to the living members of the family.
Pitr dośa and Pitr śāpa
Dośa and śāpa are terms that have negative connotations. The former is a defect or a problem arising out of misdeeds performed by one’s ancestors, the effect of which must be borne by his/her descendants; the later indicates a curse from the spirits of dissatisfied forefathers. Both these terms have gained popular currency through the medium of jyotisha, as certain horoscopic configurations are meant to indicate a prevalence of particular kinds of problems that visit an individual or a family, and based on the exact diagnosis appropriate upāya-s are recommended. While these days jyotisha has suffered due to excessive commercialization, the art itself – for it is definitely not a science – has strong and irrefutable scriptural backing, and philosophical grounding in Sanatana Dharma, being one of the six vedāṅga-s, and there are still many dedicated and selfless practitioners of the same. Based on the intensity of the troubles, there are various hierarchies of rituals that are recommended for the family. Traditionally, these rituals are to be performed by the eldest living male member, however if circumstances do not permit, they can be done by anyone, who has a genetic link to the ancestor or ancestors. Every ritual, as any half decent ritualist can confirm, requires a conducive time and place for its success. Gaya, Haridwar, Badrinath, Nasik, Kurukshetra are some of the places considered specially potent for shraddha, tarpana, pinda-dana rituals concerning pitrs, while pitrpaksha, or amavasyas, are those times in a year that are supposed to be best suited for these rituals.
Adhaytma and Pitr puja
Speaking of other cultures, there is a nuanced but an importance difference between the way pitrs are worshiped in some cultures and the way Sanatana Dharma looks at them. While the living are obliged to do all that we can to further the journey of our departed forefathers, we do not, normally, worship them like the way it is, or at least used to be done across Africa before Abrahmisation of the continent. The Gita, arguably one of the oldest and most revered texts of Hindus, makes the ideal amply clear: “Votaries of the gods go to the gods; to the pitrs go the votaries of the pitrs; to the Bhutas go the worshippers of the Bhutas; My worshippers come to Myself”. Thus, pitr rituals may not bring about a change in one’s spiritual condition, or help in leading one to moksha. however its role in bringing certain positive changes in one’s life is undeniable.
It may be argued by secular minded individuals that all this is merely an elaborate way of showing reverence, and is not different from hanging a photo of our dead ancestors in remembrance and talking fondly about them and that associated rituals are merely superstitions. This is, however an incomplete explanation and certainly a rationalized superfice, a malady of our times, where whatever cannot be captured within the current mental framework is relegated to the position of superstition. A dośa and śāpa arising out of pitrs does not vanish by duty-bound remembrance of them, these can only be ameliorated through specific rituals mentioned in texts, performed, it is assumed, by priests, or individuals, who have gained the occult knowledge and power required for it.
In this context, therefore, it may be apt to remember that when a group of people suddenly change their culture, or religion, by choice or otherwise, or generally lose faith in these rituals or positively detest them as a juvenile and brash testimony to some new found religious or intellectual allegiance, the horrors of pitr śāpa are likely to visit the surviving generations with abundant vigor and bring misery onto the living. One may theoretically argue that a transformation of spiritual kind can cause an individual to go beyond the need for these rituals, which is true, but most cases of such hasty or politicized rescinding of ancestor-veneration rituals almost never have any real or true Adhyatmic force in them! For pure spirituality is a complex matter, and frankly, misaligned with the life-goals of general populace. Therefore, pitr-karma remains as relevant to us today as it was to our ancestors.