The 16-day ritual of Pitru Paksha (also known as Shraadh Paksha) is an important part of Hindu life. It’s a time for Hindus to break away from everyday life and pay homage to their ancestors. Sacred rituals and offerings take place throughout the two weeks of Pitru Paksha. These traditions each have deep-rooted meanings for people of the Hindu faith.
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If you’re interested to know more about Pitru Paksha, or you like learning about how different cultures view death, continue reading. The holiday of Pitru Paksha is one that’s complex and intricate, but also one that’s worth learning about in detail.
What is Pitru Paksha?
In Hinduism, death is part of the greater cycle of life and rebirth, known as samsara or “flowing around.” As part of this greater life cycle, death practices and rituals are key within the religion of Hinduism.
Hindus traditionally follow traditional death rites that stem from ancient religious principles. Pitru Paksha is just one of those traditional death rituals, but it’s one that takes up more than two weeks of time each year.
Pitru Paksha is a yearly, extended mourning period, during which many unique pujas (acts of worship) take place. These worshipful acts are a way to show respect to departed relatives. They’re also a way in which celebrants hope to help the souls of their deceased loved ones.
Origin and significance
The Hindu scriptures state that every person carries multiple types of spiritual “debt” in life, from the moment they’re born. Throughout his or her life, each individual must find a way to repay those debts.
One debt is known as the “ancestral loan,” or Pitru Runa. Pitru Paksha is the time every year when everyone has the opportunity to make a “payment” towards their ancestral loan debt.
Hindu texts also state that three generations of ancestors from your family tree reside in an in-between realm called Pitriloka after death. For 16 days each year, during Pitru Paksha, the god of death, Yamraja or Yama frees the ancestors to accept gifts from their descendants.
It’s believed that by donating food and water to their ancestors, descendants can help their deceased relatives achieve salvation.
Where it’s celebrated
Pitru Paksha is a religious holiday, which means individuals and families participate in traditional rituals around the world. But Pitru Paksha has the largest impact in primarily Hindu countries like India. In those countries, business and social life shut down for much of the two-week period.
Pitru Paksha is an “inauspicious” time of year. This means people avoid holding important events like marriages. They avoid taking on new business or making large purchases during Pitru Paksha, too.
Many Hindus fast for Pitru Paksha, and much of people’s time is spent practicing ancestral worship or making donations to their local priests.
When is Pitru Paksha This Year?
By the Hindu calendar, Pitru Paksha takes place over 16 lunar days in the month of Bhadrapada. Following the Gregorian, or Christian calendar, the date of Pitru Paksha varies each year.
Below are some of the upcoming dates for Pitru Paksha so you can mark your calendar:
- 2020: September 1 - September 17
- 2021: September 20 - October 6
- 2022: September 10 - September 25
- 2023: September 29 - October 14
- 2024: September 17 - October 2
- 2025: September 7 - September 21
Pitru Paksha Traditions and Rituals
Hinduism features many different religious and spiritual rituals, which Hindus perform in life. What makes Hinduism unique is that there are also rituals that must be performed in death.
The two-week observance of Pitru Paksha is a time for families to gather and help their departed ancestors through those rituals. By performing different traditional rites, listed below, Hindu families help the ancestors achieve peace in the afterlife and continue along the cycle of rebirth.
The Karta is a member of the family who performs the vital rituals of the shradh. Usually, the eldest son or daughter is chosen to fulfill the role of Karta. Traditionally, a son performs the rituals, and if no son is available, a male relative of the paternal branch of the family might fill in as Karta.
An exception to this rule is the matamata, a specific day of the 15-day observance. On this day, a female member of the family--usually the eldest daughter--may perform the necessary rituals.
Any member of the family who will perform Shradh rituals must take a purifying bath beforehand. They’re also expected to wear ceremonial clothing whenever they perform rituals or make offerings to the ancestors or priests.
The purifying bath and traditional clothing help show respect to the ancestors and any priests who are present, and it ensures that the offerings are pure in quality.
In Hinduism, a Brahmin is a type of priest, spiritual teacher, or protector of learning. They’re members of the highest class within the Indian caste system, or varna.
During Pitru Paksha, Hindus offer food and drink to the Brahmins to show honor and garner blessings. The Karta, as described above, might invite the Brahmin to his or her house for food, ceremony, donations, and hospitality.
Another ritual that takes place during Pitru Paksha is the Pind Daan, or post-death ceremony. Pind Daan is a crucial part of Hindu death rites, and it’s considered a mandatory practice when someone dies.
The Pind Daan ritual is based on the Hindu belief that a human’s soul can remain in the material world after death. An attachment to things and people can keep a soul from reaching peace.
For the Pind Daan ritual, family members (usually a son or daughter of the departed) offer sesame seeds mixed with rice and water to the ancestor. The offering represents the family’s sincere wish for the soul to depart from the material plain and find salvation. In this way, the Pind Daan acts as a final goodbye.
While most Hindus perform Pind Daan at the time of cremation, they might also complete the ritual during the holiday of Pitru Paksha.
Worshiping the gods
After offering the Pind Daan, the Karta usually performs a ritual worshiping the gods Vishnu (the preserver) and Yama (the god of death and king of ancestors).
For this ritual, the Karta offers cooked food on the roof of a home or building. If a crow arrives and eats the food, it’s assumed that the gods have accepted the gift.
Cows and dogs also receive offerings of food at this point in the observance period.
Reciting the names
The performance of Sarvapitri amavasya is when the Karta recites the names of all deceased ancestors within three generations. In this way, the person practicing the ritual knows the names of six generations—the three before him and the three after him.
This is an important part of Pitru Paksha since it helps reinforce familial and ancestral ties throughout history.
Tarpan is the “water donation,” and it’s one of the most important parts of Pitru Paksha for Hindus.
For the ritual of Tarpan, individuals and families donate water to the gods, or Rishis, and to their departed ancestors. Water is considered a superior donation or offering, and it’s one that’s very meaningful.
Food and drink
Another part of Pitru Paksha is preparing food and drink that departed loved ones enjoyed in life. The family also prepares additional food offerings that are in line with Hindu tradition.
For those traditional food dishes, Karta usually prepares the offerings in silver or copper pots or pans. He or she then serves them on banana leaves or other dried leaves. Traditional Pitru Paksha foods include Kheer (sweet rice and milk), sweet wheat or grain porridge, lentils, guar beans, rice, and pumpkin.
Family members only eat once a cow, a dog, the Brahmin priests who are present, and a crow (a messenger representing the gods) have eaten first.
Importance of Shraddha
Performing Shraddha, or practicing the rites and traditions of Pitru Paksha, is more than just celebrating a holiday. For people of the Hindu religion, performing the correct death rites in the correct way is essential to helping one’s ancestors achieve moksha (peace) in the afterlife.
Additionally, if a family completes the Shraddha rites well, they can receive blessings from the ancestors that will help them succeed in years to come.
Whether you’re traveling to a primarily Hindu nation, or you’re just interested in the death rites of different cultures, there’s always more to learn about the intricate observance known as Pitru Paksha.
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