Mahalaya Paksha is the lunar fortnight in the month of Bhadrapada/Ashwini (September/October) in the Hindu calendar, in which Hindus pay homage to their ancestors or (pitrus). Hence it is also known as Pitru Paksha or the fortnight of the ancestors. This year (2018) it starts on the 24th September and ends on the 9th October which is the day of the new moon or “amavasya”. Remembrance of our ancestors is so important that Hinduism has kept aside a special fortnight to help us remember.
This day is known as the “Mahalaya Paksha Amavasya,” or the new moon that falls during this fortnight which has been reserved for the remembrance of our ancestors.
Most of us do not remember even our parents after a few years of their demise, much less our ancestors and even if we do, it’s only a passing thought but it’s an undeniable fact that we stand on the shoulders of those that have gone before us. Countless generations have come and gone because of whom we are what we are today. It’s because someone in ancient times made the discovery of the wheel that we have motor cars today. This is only a small example to show how much we owe to our ancestors. The examples are too numerous to relate. Our rishis well knew that gratitude was not a strong point with human beings. Therefore they kept not just a special day but a whole fortnight in which to think of our ancestors and show our gratitude to them. Gratitude is a most evolving emotion. It cleanses the mind and brings a sense of peace and well being.
Every Hindu is born with five types of debts (pancha maha yajnas) which have to be repaid by him during his lifetime. These debts are:
1. Rishi Yajna or Veda Yajna
The rishis are the ones who have given us the knowledge of the Vedas and are the ones who are responsible for giving us this great culture, The Sanatana Dharma. The debt to them is repaid by reading the Vedas and Puranas and practicing their teachings.
2. Deva Yajna
This is the debt we owe to the gods, who are nurturing us in many subtle ways and this we can repay by extolling them, chanting mantras, doing pujas etc.
3. Pitru Yajna
Next comes the debt to our ancestors, pitru yajna, and this can be repaid by remembering them and performing the rituals during this special fortnight which is kept for them.
4. Bhuta Yajna
This is the debt we owe to Nature and everything in it — the land, the rivers the plants and so on. We owe a great debt to Nature since our very existence depends on her. This we repay by looking after the land, the trees, the rivers, birds and other animals. One of things in the daily routine of a Hindu is to water a plant, give food and water to the birds and some animal before taking one’s food.
5. Manushya Yajna
Finally comes the debt we owe to humanity. We are part of this social milieu and we are bound to give charity to as many people as we can at all times. Hence in India the guest, especially the uninvited guest, is to be treated like a god and always given food, water or whatever they need.
These debts are incumbent on every human being but in Hinduism, they are made a part of our religion so that we never forget them.
Actually we are supposed to perform a special ritual for our parents every year on the lunar day and month on which they died. But we have poor memories and busy lives, so very few care to remember the day on which their parents died. This fortnight is a boon for such people. By doing this ritual on this special day of Mahalaya Paksha Amavasya, one can compensate for the fault of not doing it on the special day on which they died, so most people choose the easy way out.
Everyone celebrates the great festivals like Navaratri, Diwali etc but very few who go out of their way to remember their ancestors. It is amazing how fast we forget even our beloved parents after a few years.
Three of our preceding generations are said to reside for a short time in the place known as Pitru–loka (the world of the manes), which is a subtle realm between heaven and earth. This realm is governed by Yama, the god of death, who takes the jivatma (embodied soul) from Bhu loka (earth) to Pitru–loka. When a person dies the first of our three generations shifts to heaven and enjoys the benefits of their good actions until they are born again.
As with all Hindu rites and festivals everything is connected with the zodiac and planetary dispositions. At the beginning of Pitru Paksha, the sun enters the zodiac sign of Libra (Tula). Coinciding with this, it is believed that the spirits leave Pitru–loka and reside in their descendants’ homes for a month until the sun enters the next zodiac — Scorpio (Vrichchhika) — on the day of the full moon. Thus we are expected to propitiate the ancestors in the first half, during the dark fortnight. This is the time when they are actually closest to us. After that they will go away to other worlds so they will be especially happy if we do anything for them at this time and we will get their blessings. In Hinduism the blessings of all people, especially our elders and ancestors are considered to bring a lot of good luck for us.
The offerings to the ancestors during this period are known as Shraddh and only the three generations in Pitru–loka benefit from these rites, since others have gone on to other worlds and may even have been born again. Normally the offerings consist of what is known as “pinda”. This is a ball made of cooked rice and til (sesame) seeds. One ball each is made for every one of the ancestors whom we can remember starting with our own parents and going back to three generations. This is important since it connects us to our lineage. A person thus gets to know his three preceding generations. Of course he knows the names of his sons and grandsons. The rituals during the pitru- paksha, thus emphasizes the fact that our ancestors and the current generation and the next unborn generation are connected by blood ties. These rituals are supposed to enhance the possibility of the departed souls to rise to higher realms of existence. The rituals can also satisfy the unfulfilled desires of the departed ones that may be acting as a hindrance to their onward journey to the higher realms.
After keeping “pindas” for all those in our family whose names we know, we can also keep for those whose names we cannot recall. Finally we keep “pindas” for those unfortunate ones who have no kith or kin to remember them or perform any rites for them. Water has to be poured on top of each “pinda.” This is known as “tarpana.” Some people make “kheer” or sweet rice and offer it and some make the food that was particularly liked by the departed soul. But these are all extras. The main things are the rice/til balls and the water and kusa grass (certain type of grass). Normally the departed souls are said to come and peck at the food in the form of crows. However in those places where crows are not to be found, other birds may also come and eat it but it is a strange fact that other birds, however greedy, never seem to have much interest in the food specially kept for the ancestors.
Another important fact which should be kept in mind is that the remembrance of the ancestors and doing the “sraddh” ceremony benefits not only the departed souls but also the ones who are doing the “kriyas” or rituals. By doing this we will be opening up the channel between them and us and paving the way to bring down their blessings on us.
Karna was one of the great warriors in the Mahabharata who was known for his charity. He never refused a gift to whoever came to him. When he died of course his subtle body ascended to heaven where he was offered only gold and jewels in lieu of food. When he questioned Indra, the Lord of the heavens about this, he was told that he had always donated only material things during his life and had never offered food to his ancestors in the Sraddh ceremony. Karna argued that he did not know who his ancestors were. However, since he had been such a generous soul, Indra allowed him to return to earth for a fortnight, so that he could perform the sraddh ceremony and give food and water in their memory. This story is only to enforce the importance of this ritual in the life of a Hindu. If even Karna, the greatest of all charitable people had to come back to earth during this fortnight in order to atone for his sin of omission, what about us who may not have given much charity during our lifetime.
In the course of this fortnight we are also encouraged to give charity in the way of food to as many poor people as possible and especially so on the final day of the new moon. By this we can repay most of the debts we owe to ancestors and other people. Any of the relations of the deceased like son, daughter, grand-son, granddaughter, great grandson, wife, daughter’s son, brothers or anyone in the seven generations can perform sraddh for the departed ancestors.
Auspicious activities like marriages or parties or celebrations should be avoided during this period.
By observing all the rules for this ritual a person is sure to have a good, healthy and peaceful life. Thus it is incumbent on all children to conduct these rites for the sake of their parents and their ancestors and thus forge the link between them.
Hari Aum Tat Sat