Pitri Paksh – The Fortnight of Ancestors
This is in no way meant to be used as instruction for performing Shraadh/Pitri Paksh puja. It is only a small introduction to a vast topic. Please consult with your family pundit or pujari for proper instruction.
Pitri Paksh literally means Fortnight of Ancestors. It is also called Shraadh and is the period in which Hindus pay homage to their ancestors. It occurs during the Hindu month of Ashvin (which falls around September-October) during the dark fortnight. A lunar month in the Hindu calendar is divided into two fortnights. Shukla Paksh is the “bright” half of the month, which is from Amavasya (New Moon) to Purnima (Full Moon). This is also known as the waxing moon. The “dark” half of the month, or the waning moon, is known as Krishna Paksh. The Hindu lunar calendar can be complex and will probably make for a good topic at another time.
During this time, Hindus refrain from making large purchases (home, car, etc.) or conducting large business transactions. They donate clothes and other items to Bramhins. Some observers don’t cut their hair or shave during this time, nor do they purchase new clothes.
The period of Pitri Paksh is an opportunity to perform rites for departed ancestors. The offerings are made for immediate relatives for up to three generations (i.e. parents, grandparents and great grandparents). This is the occasion in which we repay the “debt” that we owe to our ancestors. According to our scriptures, we owe three types of debt.
1. Debt to the Devtas (Devrin)
2. Debt to the Rishis (Rishirin)
3. Debt to our ancestors (Pitririn)
These three debts are like three mortgages on life, but not liabilities. It is an attempt by the scriptures to create an awareness of one’s duties and responsibilities.
It is believed that our ancestors’ souls are given the chance by Yamdev (God of Death) to visit the homes of their families during this time to receive the offerings made for them. Since Hindus believe in reincarnation, there is a chance that the departed relative has already been reborn on Earth. The puja (offerings) are still made in the name of that departed person as it will continue to benefit their soul. The soul is eternal and can still benefit from these rites preformed by the younger generations.
The rites are performed by the eldest son or male member of the household on the paternal side of the family. If there are no sons or male relatives on the maternal side, the daughter’s son can make offerings for the maternal side. The tradition (as noted above) is to offer prayers for three generations, though some castes only offer shraadh for one generation.
After having a bath, the person performing the shraadh puja wears a ring made of kush grass. Facing South, the departed ancestors are then called upon to be seated in the ring. Then the pinda-daan is done. Pinda is made from cooked rice and barley flour with ghee and black sesame seeds (til); then rolled into balls. Water and black sesame seeds (tarpan) are poured from the hand onto some blades of kush grass that have been knotted. The water is poured between the thumb and the forefinger. Then the food offerings are made. The food is traditionally served on banana leaves and consists of kheer (sweet rice), dal, rice, guar (a type of green bean) and pumpkin. Families also prepare dishes that were enjoyed by the departed when they were alive. It is considered to be accepted if a crow comes and eats the food as crows are considered to be messengers from Yama (the God of Death). Cows and dogs are also fed as well as Bramhins. Once the “ancestors” have eaten (crow or other birds) followed by the Bramhins, the other family members can eat.
Every year in India, on the banks of the Falgu River in Gaya, there is a Pitri Paksh Mela (fair). Pilgrims come from all over to offer pindas and tarpan to their ancestors. As many as 75,000 visitors a year have gone to Gaya for the Mela.
Pujas are conducted with discourse from many scriptures, most notably the Garuda Puran and the Bhagavad Gita. Some people say that they do not believe in shraadh puja. You do not have to believe in this unique Hindu ritual because it is purely based on love for God (which is called 'shraddha'). Therefore, another name for annual ancestor worship is 'Shraadh,' taken from the word 'shraddha'. However, I’m sure that most will agree that it is the responsibility of everyone to keep up the pride of their family lineage by performing actions that promote the good of all. The ancestor worship during Pitri Paksh is nothing but a reminder of your lineage and your duties towards it.