September 26, 2013
Pitru Paksha Shraddha Puja
Pitru Paksha, also spelt as Pitr paksha or Pitri paksha, (literally "fortnight of the ancestors") is a 16–lunar day period when Hindus pay homage to their ancestors (Pitrs), especially through food offerings. The period is also known as Pitru Pakshya, Pitri Pokkho, Sola Shraddha ("sixteen shraddhas"), Kanagat, Jitiya, Mahalaya Paksha and Apara paksha.
Pitru Paksha is considered by Hindus to be inauspicious, given the death rite performed during the ceremony, known as Shraddha or tarpan. In southern and western India, it falls in the Hindu lunar month of Bhadrapada (September–October), beginning with the full moon day (Purnima) that occurs immediately after the Ganesh festival and ending with the new moon day known as Sarvapitri amavasya, Mahalaya amavasya or simply Mahalaya. The autumnal equinox falls within this period, i.e. the Sun transitions from the northern to the southern hemisphere during this period. In North India and Nepal, this period corresponds to the dark fortnight of the month Ashvin, instead of Bhadrapada.
According to Hindu mythology, the souls of three preceding generations of one's ancestor reside in Pitru–loka, a realm between heaven and earth. This realm is governed by Yama, the god of death, who takes the soul of a dying man from earth to Pitru–loka. When a person of the next generation dies, the first generation shifts to heaven and unites with God, so Shraddha offerings are not given. Thus, only the three generations in Pitru–loka are given Shraddha rites, in which Yama plays a significant role. According to the sacred Hindu epics (Itihasa), at the beginning of Pitru Paksha, the sun enters the zodiac sign of Libra (Thula). Coinciding with this moment, 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)—and there is a full moon. Hindus are expected to propitiate the ancestors in the first half, during the dark fortnight.
When the legendary donor Karna died in the epic Mahabharata war, his soul transcended to heaven, where he was offered gold and jewels as food. However, Karna needed real food to eat and asked Indra, the lord of heaven, the reason for serving gold as food. Indra told Karna that he had donated gold all his life, but had never donated food to his ancestors in Shraddha. Karna said that since he was unaware of his ancestors, he never donated anything in their memory. To make amends, Karna was permitted to return to earth for a 15–day period, so that he could perform Shraddha and donate food and water in their memory. This period is now known as Pitru Paksha. In some legends, Yama replaces Indra.
The shraddha is performed on the specific lunar day during the Pitru Paksha, when the ancestor—usually a parent or paternal grandparent—died. There are exceptions to the lunar day rule; special days are allotted for people who died in a particular manner or had a certain status in life. Chautha Bharani and Bharani Panchami, the fourth and fifth lunar day respectively, are allocated for people deceased in the past year. Avidhava navami ("Unwidowed ninth"), the ninth lunar day, is for married women who died before their husband. Widowers invite Brahmin women as guests for their wife's shraddha. The twelfth lunar day is for children and ascetics who had renounced the worldly pleasures. The fourteenth day is known as Ghata chaturdashi or Ghayala chaturdashi, and is reserved for those people killed by arms, in war or suffered a violent death.
Mahalaya marks the formal beginning of the Durga Puja festival
Sarvapitri amavasya ("all fathers' new moon day") is intended for all ancestors, irrespective of the lunar day they died. It is the most important day of the Pitru Paksha. Those who have forgotten to perform shraddha can do so on this day. A shraddha ritual performed on this day is considered as fruitful as one conducted in the holy city of Gaya, which is seen as a special place to perform the rite, and hosts a fair during the Pitru Paksha period. In Bengal, Mahalaya marks the beginning of Durga Puja festivities. Mahalaya is the day when the goddess Durga is believed to have descended to Earth. Bengali people traditionally wake up early in the morning on Mahalaya to recite hymns from the Devi Mahatmyam (Chandi) scripture. Offerings to the ancestors are made in homes and at puja mandaps (temporary shrines). Matamaha ("Mother's father") or Dauhitra ("Daughter's son") also marks the first day of the month of Ashvin and beginning of the bright fortnight. It is assigned for the grandson of the deceased maternal grandfather.
The ritual is also held on the death anniversary of the ancestor. The shraddha is performed only at noon, usually on the bank of a river or lake or at one's own house. Families may also make a pilgrimage to places like Varanasi and Gaya to perform Shraddha. An annual Pitri Paksha Mela at Gaya on the banks of River Falgu. Pilgrims from all corners of the country visit Gaya for offering Pinda to their Ancestors. According to Bihar Tourism Department estimates, some 5,00,000 to 75,00,000 pilgrims arrive in the Gaya city during the Pitri Paksha Mela every year.
Annadaana or giving food to the hungry is a central part of the rituals during these 16 days. On all these days, offerings are made to the departed, including those whose names or manner of death are not known. On these days tarpan, shraaddha and pinda daan are performed daily according to the procedures under the guidance of a priest. Although these rites are to be carried out daily in this fortnight, it is considered that to perform them on the last day i.e. on Mahalaya Amavasya or Sarva Pitru Amavasya is extremely important and sacred. The performance of Shraddha by a son during Pitru Paksha is regarded as a compulsory by Hindus, to ensure that the soul of the ancestor goes to heaven. In this context, the scripture Garuda Purana says, "there is no salvation for a man without a son". The scriptures preach that a householder should propitiate ancestors (Pitris), along with the gods (devas), ghosts (bhutas) and guests. The scripture Markandeya Purana says that if the ancestors are content with the shraddhas, they will bestow health, wealth, knowledge and longevity, and ultimately heaven and salvation (moksha) upon the performer.