Mahalaya Paksha (Pitru Paksha)
The fortnight of the ancestors
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 fortnight comes in the krishna paksha or the waning phase of the lunar month. (A lunar month has twenty-eight days out of which fourteen days are for the waxing moon and fourteen days for the waning.) Remembrance of our ancestors is so important that Hinduism has kept aside a special fortnight to help us recollect. This year (2022), it starts on the 11th of September and ends on the 25th of September which is the day of the new moon or amavasya. This day is known as the “Mahalaya Paksha Amavasya” or the new moon that marks the end of this fortnight which has been reserved for the remembrance of our ancestors.
Pitrus (ancestors) do not come to the earth plane at all times. It is believed that they visit the earth during these fifteen days in subtle bodies and seek our attention. Thus, Mahalaya Paksha is a very important timespan to connect with them and acquire their blessings. So it’s good to keep the house clean during these fifteen days and connect and appease them by performing Shraddham (ritual performed for the departed soul between the 11th and 31st day after he has passed and every year on the same thithi or lunar date) and Tarpanam (an offering of water and cooked rice mixed with black til seeds to the departed soul and to the ancestors in order to get their blessings). This can be done during the death rites and during the Mahalaya Paksha Amavasya.
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. However, 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. They are the ones who have made us what we are today. Even our physical and mental characteristics are decided by our ancestors. 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 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 practising 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 especially 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 soil, 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 the things in the daily routine of a Hindu is to water the plants, give food and water to the birds and feed some animal before taking one’s own 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.
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.
Everyone celebrates the great festivals like Navaratri, Diwali etc. but very few go out of their way to remember their ancestors. It is amazing how fast we forget even our beloved parents after a few years. Actually the great festival of Navaratri, to the Divine Mother begins the day after Mahalaya Paksha Amavasya. This year, it starts on 26th September.
Bathing in holy rivers like Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Kaveri, Narmada or Tungabhadra and giving alms according to one’s capability while remembering one’s ancestors, will bring immense blessings especially during this period.
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, till the sun enters the next zodiac – Scorpio (Vrichchhika) – on the day of the full moon. 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 something 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.
We all know that many of us may not have been able to fulfil all the wishes of our parents and other members of our family while they were in their physical bodies so these jivas are discontented and return to the earthly realm. This period is considered to be a great opportunity for those of us who are still alive to see to it that we satisfy them so that they will be able to continue their journey onwards. These rituals are firstly a method of expiating for any wrong we have done to them and secondly a way in which we can help in furthering their journey to moksha or final liberation.
The offerings to the ancestors during this period are known as shraddh. Only the three generations preceding us who are still in Pitru Loka will 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 mixed with 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. Hence, a bond is created for seven generations including you. The rituals during the Pitru Paksha emphasize 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) on which the pindas are placed.
Normally departed souls are said to come and peck at the food in the form of crows. It is believed that if crows and especially ravens come and peck at the rice, it is a sign that the ancestors are pleased with us and will bless us. It is a curious thing that even though crows are greedy birds and will normally eat anything that is offered to them, sometimes they just look at the offerings and refuse to touch them. I have personally observed this strange fact. This is meant to indicate that for some reason our ancestors are not happy with us.
However, in those places where crows are not to be found, other birds may also come and eat it but again it is to be noted that even 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 “shraddh” 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.
On the day of the Mahalaya New Moon, the pitrus return back to the Pitru Loka. Therefore, on that day they should be specially worshiped, adored and sent on their way.
During this period we should examine ourselves and try to find out if we have caused any displeasure to our parents or any of our close relatives while they were alive. Have we done anything which they disproved of? Did we not take care of them and give them the consideration that was due to them? Is there something that we had promised to do that we have forgotten to do? Have we caused some actual harm to any of our close relatives? Of course the only way to expiate for having done something wrong to them while they were alive is to sincerely beg forgiveness both from God and from them. If we really feel sorry for our sins of omissions and commissions and beg them to forgive us, they will certainly do so and we will find that the crows once again come and peck at our offerings. Of course if we have forgotten to do something they had asked us to do, we should immediately see to it that it is done. So these rituals are an act of repentance which will release us from what is known as “pitru dosha” or the curse of the ancestors.
If we examine ourselves we will find that all of us have been guilty at some time or other, in some way or other of having displeased our parents or uncles or aunts or other close relatives. Whenever we displease or harm anyone or any creature we will obviously incur the effects of bad karma. Evidently all of us in some measure have been guilty of this. Sometimes we get the opportunity to beg their forgiveness while they are still in their body but sometimes it is too late and before we realise the harm we have done, they have left their bodies. Hinduism gives a unique method for expiation of this particular sin of not having done enough for our parents and ancestors.
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 shraddh 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 shraddh 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 any charity during our lifetime.
Therefore, this fortnight is an opportunity for us 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, grand-daughter, great grandson, wife, brothers or anyone in the seven generations can perform shraddh for the departed ancestors. Of all charities, the giving of food during these fifteen days is the greatest.
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.
The modern generation does not realise how far the blessings of our parents and elders can take us. In Hinduism, we have placed great importance on the blessings of our elders.
Of course it is always best to see that we do our duty to our parents and other close relations while they are still alive. Let us hope that this article will help people to understand the importance of being kind to our parents while they are alive and not wait for them to die and then try to expiate for our omissions.
Hari Aum Tat Sat!
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