The Tree of Knowledge
Mahalaya Amavasya: Pitri Paksha
Amavasya is the last day of the dark fortnight of a lunar month, and is considered by Hindus to be a day especially set aside for the performance of religious ceremonies in honour of the spirits of our ancestors. Of all Amavasyas, the one that is universally observed as the main day for the worship of the dead is Mahalaya, the fifteenth or last day of the moonless fortnight of the month of Kuar or Aswin (September-October). The whole of the fortnight preceding Mahalaya is collectively called the Pitri Paksha, or the fortnight sacred to the memory of ancestors. Every day of this fortnight is sacred, and is dedicated to the observance of various ceremonies in honour of the dead. Whatever the actual date of a man’s death, his Sraddha (annual worship of his departed spirit) must be performed on one of the days of this particular fortnight. If a man’s father died, say, on an Ekadashi (the eleventh day of the moon, waxing or waning), the Ekadashi or eleventh day of this holy fortnight is observed as a day of special religious rites in his memory, the general worship of his spirit being, however, continued throughout the fortnight. And since there are only fifteen days of the moon, every day of this fortnight is a day of Sraddha for some individual or other. Sometimes the day of the full moon (Purnamashi) immediately preceding the commencement of the dark fortnight is included in the Pitri Paksha, which is thus extended to sixteen days in order to give a chance of performing Sraddha to those who may have lost one of their ancestors on the day of a full moon.
The ninth day of this ancestral fortnight is set aside for the worship of dead female ancestors, especially the mother – hence the name Matri Navami. The annual oblations to all female ancestors must be offered on that day, irrespective of the tithi of their death.
The first half of the month of Knar, the Pitri Paksha, is considered sacred to the memory of ancestors in accordance with a belief, which finds mention in the Hindu scriptures, that as soon as the sun enters the sign of Kanya or Virgo, the spirits of ancestors leave their abode in the regions of the dead and, coming back to the world of living mortals, occupy the homes of their descendants to receive their homage and worship. This homage and worship is not only ungrudgingly paid and done, but is regarded as the highest of all earthly duties, by high and low alike. The Pitri Paksha is the fortnight immediately preceding the great Navaratra, the nine days during which the goddess Durga, the Universal Mother, is worshipped throughout India and in the Indian diaspora. This order of time is a proof that the worship of ancestors is regarded by the Hindus as a preliminary even to the worship of the gods.
The ceremonies customary in this season are of two kinds: (1) the Sraddha, which is performed on one day of this fortnight, the day corresponding to the tithi of the death ; (2) the Tarpana, or offering of water, which is continued every day throughout the fortnight. The term Sraddha literally signifies a gift offered with faith or simply a pious offering not necessarily to an ancestor, but to any dead relation to whom this honour is due. In all forms of Sraddha the chief act is the offering of pinda or balls of cooked rice and libations of water to the accompaniment of proper prayers.
Sraddha is the name of the ceremonies performed by relatives to help the Jiva (individual soul) who has cast off his physical body in death. A Jiva who has cast off his physical sheath is called a Preta. The part of the Sraddha performed to help him at this stage is called the Preta Kriya. Gifts to deserving Brahmanas for the benefit of the Pitris, in the proper time and place and with faith, are known as Sraddha. Sraddha gives satisfaction to the Pitris. By the offering of the sixteen Sraddhas, the son helps his father to dwell in joy with the Pitris. The son should perform the Sapindikarana rites for his father. Performance of Sraddha and Tarpan relieves the hunger and thirst of the departed soul during its journey to the Pitri Loka.
Immediately after death, the Jiva obtains the Ativahika body which is made up of fire, air and space. Later on, it may have a Yatana Deha for suffering the tortures of hell if it had done great sins on the earth-plane, or a celestial body for enjoying the pleasures of heaven if it had virtuous actions while living in the world. In the Yatana Deha the air-element preponderates: while in the celestial body, the element of fire is dominant. It takes one year for the Jiva to reach the Pitri Loka.
There are two classes of Pitris, viz., the Celestial Pitris who are the lords of the Pitri Loka, and the Human Pitris who go there after death. Brahma is the paternal grandfather of all. Kasyapa and the other Prajapatis are also Pitris, as they are the original progenitors. Pitri Loka or the Abode of the Pitris is also called by the name Bhuvar Loka. The word Pitris primarily means the immediate ancestors, viz., father, mother, etc. Sraddha proper is performed for three generations of Pitris, or to all Pitris. Three cakes are offered to the father, the grandfather and the great grandfather. Two Brahmins are fed first. Seven generations can mutually influence one another by the giving and receiving of food.
Those deceased whose date of death is not known and whose annual Sraddha cannot be done also get these oblations of Pitri Paksha. Souls whose life was cut off by violent accidental or unnatural death and to whom, therefore, offerings cannot reach in the ordinary course, to them too the Pitripaksha offerings reach directly. All these the boon of Lord Yama made possible from the time the great Karna performed the Asvayuja-Paksha rites. The Hindus now observe this Paksha with great faith, with strict regulation, taking bath thrice, with partial fasting, etc. On the new-moon day, Sarvapitri (all ancestors) Amavasya, the full rites are done and plenty of charity given.
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Swami Vivekananda about Mythology and Rituals
The world’s great spiritual giants have all been produced only by those religious sects which have been in possession of very rich mythology and ritual. All those who have attempted to worship God without any form or ceremony have crushed without mercy everything that is beautiful and sublime in religion. Their religion is at best a dry thing. The history of the world is a standing witness to this fact. Therefore do not decry these rituals and mythologies. Let people have them; let those who so desire have them. Do not exhibit that unworthy derisive smile and say, “They are fools; let them have it.” Not so; the greatest men I have seen in my life, the most wonderfully developed in spirituality, have all come through the discipline of the rituals.
Source: ‘Hindu Fasts And Feasts’ and ‘How Sraddha and Tarpan benefit the departed souls’ by Swami Shivananda, Divine Life Society
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