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Ancestor Reverence/Worship

Every human being is born with three types of debts to be repaid, namely:
  1. the debt to Nature/God (that can be repaid by worshipping gods),
  2. the debt to sages and saints (that can be repaid by reverence and service to saints, sages and gurus) and
  3. the debt to one’s ancestors.

Everyone will like to pay respects to ancestors.


Pithru rituals are not for pithrus, but for our satisfaction or mental peace. We have to thank them or pay respects to them as we owe our ancestors. So, it is called "Pithru kadan"(The Debt to Departed Ancestors).
All connected rituals looks like a take and give account. Some scriptures assume that Soul has retained personality, experiences, actions and so on. They eat, roam, think, and feel bad & happy, like life on earth. So, they can bless or curse.
Pithrus or spirits are beyond physical world. Heaven, Hell and Pithru loga are abstract concepts like happiness, sadness, fear and suffering. They are not physical worlds or entities. Even soul/spirit can be abstract concepts, not physical objects.

Maathru Devo Bhava; Pithru Devo Bhava; Aachaarya Devo Bhava; Athithi Devo Bhava; Worshipping these four is given highest significance and importance in Hindu Dharma. Among the four, Mathru (Mother) and Pithru (Father) Aachaarya (Guru) have attained greater prominence since they are the people who are responsible for our birth, culture and existence. Shraddha (includes Tarpan) is the ritual performed for the departed souls of ancestors, parents and relatives. It is a way of telling them that they are still an important part of the family and they still reside in our memories.

Ancestors are acknowledged and honored in Indian Subcontinent. When a person dies, the family observes a ten or thirteen-day mourning period. Some monthly rituals for another one year. They offer food to priests/brahmins, crows, cows and so on. On Shraddha days, some people pray that the souls of ancestors be appeased, forget any animosity and find peace. Each year, on the particular date (as per their calendar, since there are many calendars in use) when the person had died, the family members perform annual ritual. ne month is one day for departed ancestors and one year is one day for deities (natural forces and great personalities). Every month on new moon, many indian sects do Shraddha/Tarpan.

The veneration of ancestors is known in all cultures/religious communities and have evidence of its popularity even during Neolithic period (6000 BCE). There are Confucianism/Shinto shrines in honor of the ancestors. Ancestor reverence was popular in Greek and Roman homes in antiquity. This is not the same as the worship of a deity or deities, but a way to respect, honor and look after ancestors in their afterlives as well as seek their guidance for their living descendants. In this regard, all cultures and religions have similar practices. In some cultures, the veneration of the dead is related to beliefs, that the dead have a continued existence, and may possess the ability to influence the living. The goal of ancestor veneration is to ensure the ancestors' continued well-being and positive disposition towards the living.

Fortnight of the ancestors

Pitru Paksha (पितृ पक्ष or fortnight of the ancestors") is a 16–lunar day period. It begins on the Pratipada (first day of the fortnight) ending with the no moon day known or Mahalaya amavasya or simply Mahalaya. Most years, september equinox falls within this period, i.e. the Sun transitions from the northern to the southern hemisphere. The souls of three preceding generations of one's ancestor reside in Pitru–loka, governed by Yama, the god of death. When a person of the next generation dies, the first generation shifts to heaven and unites with God, so Shraddha offerings are not given.

Like all other cultures, there is also a fortnight-long duration each year called Pitru or Mahalaya Paksha ("fortnight of ancestors"), when the family remembers all its ancestors and offers "Tarpan" to them. Mahaalaya means great destruction. There might have been a great calamity like great floods and they would have started this ritual after that for the departed souls in calamity. Mahalaya marks the end of the fortnight-long Tarpan to the ancestors. This is similar to day of the dead by other cultures like: Gai Jatra of Nepal; Galungan in Bali; Pchum Ben of Cambodia; Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival; Dia de los Muertos of Aztec/Mexico; Ari Muyang of Mah Meri tribe in Malaysia; Chuseok harvest/ancestor festival for Korean people; Obon of Japan; Guy Fawkes Night/Halloween; and All Saints' Day/All Souls' Day. While in essence, all remains same; procedure, customs and rituals may differ from region to region.

Living is all about belonging to some tribe or community, place, culture. Culture, traditions and value systems are what makes you who you are. Ancestors give us following 3 things, which we should pass on:

  1. Racial, Cultural, tribal or Communal Identity.
  2. Belief and value system
  3. DNA/Genes
Third is automatic. First two are gifts from ancestors.

On the wasteful discussions on life after death, Some wise sages have handled after death question very well.
இறப்புக்கு பின்னர் என்ன ? கண்டவர் விண்டிலர் - விண்டவர் கண்டிலர்.
Dead has not come back to say, what happens after death. (Some believe in returning after temporary death or near death experiences. Still it is not real death, point of no return).

The Japanese Emperor asked the Zen Master, Bosho: "What happens to a man of enlightenment after death?"
Bosho replied: "How should I know?"
The Emperor continued: "But you are a Master!"
Bosho replied: "Yes, Sir. But I am not dead yet."

"NO ONE KNOWS" is the correct and safe answer.

Some notes from scriptures

All civilizations have similar theories and folk tales. Egyptian/mesopotomia folk stories discusses how souls after life, have to travel towards God of death for Judgement and then go to heaven/hell.

In Katha Upanishad, the conversation between Lord Yama and Nachiketa to the questions posed by Nachiketa about the life after death. Lord Yama answers: “All Jeevas originate from the Supreme Reality, like sparks from a fire. They are pure to start with. The Jiva changes due to environment and circumstances, just like pure rain-water is contaminated coming down due to gravity. The Atman, though a passive passenger, gets involved, but still in its essence is pure. It is the contaminants which are carried by it, much as desires and actions contaminate the intellect and ego-enity.”

Garuda Puraana”, deals at a great length on life after death. After death, the soul in its disembodied form hovers about its original and familiar places for ten days. The soul is sustained on its onward march to the judgement seat by the libations (an act of pouring water) offered to it by the son. It starts on its journey to the judgement seat of Lord Yama, the God of death.

Different cultures have different routes and time line to reach the God of death. For example Maori of Newzealand believe souls travel through the beach and go to northern most point of the island.

Some wise men who have traveled towards polar regions has described tough journeys. So, based on these travle notes, priests propagated the idea that souls go to world (like polar region), where one day is one year, six months day and six months night.

Ruling and Priest class develop rituals to ensure society is under their control. In a way some social order is maintained. The spiritually potent mantras that are chanted during these rituals are supposed to have the subtle power of providing momentum to the subtle bodies of deceased ancestors so that they can progress to a higher sub-plane of existence.

Pithru rituals are male oriented. Some of the earlier authors understood that Seed comes from father (male). Contribution by mother is to nourish it for it to grow to full being. Seed has no sex.

There are too many conflicting theories. No one knows what exactly happens after death.

Life after death concept

Creation and destruction are the two sides of the same reality. Creation begins with destruction and in creation there is already a seed of the destruction to come. The same is true in case of destruction. If the birth of an individual is creation, his death is destruction. It is through this repeated process of creation and destruction that the individual being evolves gradually in series and stages.

Souls move, think, and feel like human beings. Their one day is equivalent to our one-year time. That is why anniversary (in our terms) is taken as day for Pithru karyas i.e. Sraadhaas enabling the soul to have food. A soul reincarnates again and again on earth till it becomes perfect and reunites with its Source. During this process the soul enters many bodies, assumes many forms and passes through many births and deaths. Basic principle is “Atma never dies”.

Some thoughts on Rituals

Rituals are not developed or written by scientists but writers or sociology/literature trained people. Like all traditions, over period of time, lot of superstitious practices and local beliefs get included in to the system. Over time, things get misinterpreted, successors understand wrongly and meanings of words change. Since there is no mechanism to correct errors or update with latest findings, these past practices will continue as it is. Most of the priests will not be knowledgeable and comfortable to correct them. Unless a new reformer like Sankara or Ramanuja comes, people are comfortable to follow the same procedures.

Let us keep these controversies aside. These rituals create some meeting opportunities. Some make their living, by conducting these rituals. They also serve as some social event. Let us pay our respects to ancestors, to whom we owe our existence! Let us benefit from good points on these rituals.

The word sraddha itself means performing something with full involvement. As long as one has full respect for one's ancestors, the exact form of performance is not important. The rituals itself has changed a lot in the last few years due the current conditions of our living. Of late due to circumstances the Sraadha has been replaced by many with Annadanam, many supplement a short sraadha procedure with Annadanam.

Important thing is “Shraddh should be performed with a pious mind”. The person who performs the Shraddh should realize that for his birth, body, knowledge, wealth and sanskar he/she is indebted to the ancestors. All that is there was given by the ancestors. So the rituals performed is accepting this fact and is sort of thanksgiving. Both male and female relatives of the dead can perform the rituals. The method of performing the rituals slightly varies from region to region. But the essence of the ritual is the same.

Stories are created based on after death theories. Some are used by ruling class to create fear among subjects and to make community members to behave as per social norms. To motivate people to do these rituals, we are told, "All sins shall be washed or forgiven by God of death,by giving Gift of cow, Gold, Iron, Land, Food, clothes etc. Gift of land is considred best of all". Some publications create fear like deceased person will suffer if you do not do these and they will curse you.

The most important things is feeding fellow living beings (humans preferably the poor and animals/birds) on the day. Some people distribute food and clothes among the poor and do some charity.

Other traditions around the world

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