If there is one strange commonality between religions and cultures around the world, it is the unavoidable existence of death as a force that is as much the opposite of life as it is a part of it. As individuals, we have not yet been able to fully accept the inevitability of death – but religion has. Death is as old as humankind. But for as long as we live unbeknownst to what it holds for us, we must find ways to make a large and indescribable concept small and easy to grasp. For as long as human beings have known death, they have tried to package it as neat and clean as possible, eliminating even the slightest chance of a tear or a spill.
September 2 marks the beginning of a 16–lunar day period that is of great significance to Hindus. Pitru Paksha is observed as a time to pay homage to our ancestors through rites, ceremonies, and offerings. Hindus believe in the existence of a realm between heaven and earth, called the Pitruloka – ruled by Lord Yama, the God of death, and inhabited by the three preceding generations of each living family. Pitru Paksha begins when the sun enters Virgo, and the spirits of these ancestors return to the homes of their descendants in the mortal realm for one month. For the first 16 days, or the ‘dark fortnight’, Hindus perform rituals known as ‘Shraddha’ to ensure spiritual salvation for the ancestors residing in the Pitruloka. They offer food and water so that they are well cared for.
Photo: Aryan Nair
But no tradition is born independent of a legend. The story behind the rituals of Pitru Paksha can be found in one of Hinduism’s greatest epics – the Mahabharata. Karna, the Sun God’s son, dies in the battle at Kurukshetra. He had donated gold his whole life, and never refused to part with anything he owned, thus earning the name ‘Daanveer’ or ‘the great donor’. Yet, when the brave and noble Karna reached heaven, he found himself in a fix. He was offered gold and jewels in plenty, but no food or water. Indra, the Lord of Heaven, explained that this was because Karna had donated only gold and jewels on earth. He had never donated food in memory of his ancestors. So he would not receive any in heaven, either. Indra’s reasoning was right, but rather unjust in Karna’s case – his birth mother, Kunti, had abandoned him, so he had never known of his ancestors. Indra accepted this justification, and sent him back to the realm of the living for 15 days to donate food and water in memory of his ancestors. This period of time is now observed as Pitru Paksha.
Ancestor worship is practiced by cultures world over. What makes traditions like Pitru Paksha fascinating is that they blur the hard line between life and death. The illusion of binaries must be shattered every once in a while to remind us that the nature of our universe is more complex than the living and the dead, the good and the bad, the Devas (Gods) and the Asuras (demons). Every once in a while, we must allow for our ancestors to cross over from their realm to ours, even if just for 16 lunar days.