Hindus are bound by their Dharma, or religion, to pray for the souls of their ancestors. It is a debt they must pay to stay happy. During the 16 lunar day period in the Hindu calendar called Pitru Paksha, or Shraadh, people offer prayers, food, and water to their ancestors. It is believed that the departed wander in a realm between heaven and earth (‘Pitru Lok’). Here they are restless and still attached to worldliness (‘Maya’). The prayers and ritual offerings during Pitru Paksha free the souls and help them transition towards ‘Brahmaloka’ or heaven.
Pitru Paksha - History
UNESCO Inscribes The Day of the Dead
Like Pitru Paksha, on the Day of the Dead people pray for their dead too. In 2008, this tradition was inscribed in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
Ancestor worship is signified by a scholar
Herbert Spencer, the English philosopher-scientist, wrote in 'Principles of Sociology' that ancestor worship was the root of every religion.
Gai Jatra, the Nepalese festival that commemorates the death of the people during the year, was started by King Pratap Malla to show his grieving wife that she alone had not lost a son.
6000 - 1000 BCE
Earliest Evidence of Ancestor Worship
Evidence of the earliest form of ancestor worship was found in China in the Yangshao society which existed in the Shaanxi Province area.
The Story Behind Pitru Paksha
When Karna ( a warrior during the times of the Mahabharata) dies, his soul is served foods made of gold and silver. His hungry soul learns that this is due to his karma. While he was alive he had donated gold and silver but no food. His soul prays and returns to earth to donate food for a better afterlife.
How to Observe Pitru Paksha
1. Pray for your ancestors and make offerings
Consult a Hindu priest or a family elder to learn the special rituals. Foods offered consist of rice, black sesame seeds, and barley flour balls (Pindaas) along with water.
2. Feed the homeless or donate at an animal shelter
It is believed that during this 16 day period, feeding and caring for anyone in need generates good karma that helps bring peace to the departed.
3. Teach your children why parents and elders are important
While you explain the significance of Pitru Paksha to your children, tell them that a good Hindu is respectful and loving to their parents, grandparents, and elders.
5 Fascinating Facts About Pitru Paksha
1. This is an inauspicious period
This 16 day period is considered inauspicious and is not a suitable time to begin any new venture, get married, buy a house or a car.
2. You offer to receive
Those who do not offer food and water to their ancestors during Pitru Paksha will receive none in their after life.
3. It washes away sins
Pitru Paksha is also the time a Hindu can wash off the sins inherited from his ancestors by performing the rituals and making offerings.
4. People feed crows
A crow eating the offerings is considered a good sign because crows are believed to be representatives of the God of Death, Yama.
5. It was performed only by men
Traditionally Pitru Paksha was performed only by men, particularly sons, but times have changed. In families where there are no sons, daughters can perform the rituals too.
Why Pitru Paksha is Important
A. Hindus believe it brings peace to their ancestors
According to the Gita and the Vedas, offerings made to the departed during Pitru Paksha bring peace to their souls and helps them reach their divine destination.
B. It reaffirms the Hindu faith in an after-life
Death is not the end — it merely punctuates the cycle of birth, rebirths and marks the end of a physical body. For the soul, what follows is a journey determined by one's karma.
C. It creates a link between past and present generations
The Hindus believe that there are strong karmic ties between previous, current, and future unborn generations. We are indebted to our ancestors and when we honor them by praying for their souls, we earn their blessings.