Today marks the commencement of Pitru Paksha – the Fortnight of the Ancestors.
This is an ancient Hindu custom whose core elements will be immediately familiar to you. Partially due to the existence of somewhat comparable observances in Western European cultures such as the Celts and the Romans (such as the strikingly similar annual ‘Parentalia’ period of ancient Roman religion, or Samhain) – but also because, in a very real sense, the intrinsic logic of offering respect to one’s ancestors, and connecting with one’s heritage is (or at least *should* be) obvious to all.
To explain in a bit more detail what is going on here, as well as to properly situate the reader in the Indo-European world-view … we must first elucidate what is meant by the Pitris; for it does not simply refer to a “forebear” in the sense that a materialist man might casually talk about a great aunt he’s never met, or some minor skerrick of European royalty that his DNA-test has suggested he may be distantly related to.
Rather, for us, the term’s meaning is much more (perhaps ironically) *alive*.
If we were to attempt to render it *directly* into English, “Forefathers” would be a pretty apt encapsulation. Not only due to the far more emotively and reverentially connotated weighting of the phrase – but also because both “fore” and “father” are very closely etymologically related (as is “Parent” for that matter, (and “first”, “Prince”) … as well as, interestingly enough, “Priest” – via a series of terms that mean “elder’ such as “Presbyter”)” to Pitr. You’ve probably heard the Latinate equivalent that helps to illustrate this – “Pater”. And, if you’ve been following this page and/or taking an active interest in Matters Indo-European … you will *certainly* have heard of Dyaus Pitar. Although perhaps through a cognate name – such as “Jupiter”.
In fact, this handily helps to illustrate the spectrum of beings a ‘Pitr’ can refer to. As not only are we potentially meaning our *direct* forebears – our Parents, and Grandparents, and even Great-Grandparents (the Pitru Paksha rituals, in many parts of India, explicitly are dedicated to the preceding three generations); but also the far-distant ‘progenitors’ of our ancestral line (who are regarded, in many Hindu traditions, as having an almost divine status well above that of simple contributors of genetic material in the long-ago … not least because They may operate with the Gods, and even make the transition between Universes following the end of each Cycle of Creation, dependent upon the myth. As a point of interest, mirroring very closely the Nordic tradition’s regard for Ancestors becoming Alfar – and potentially ‘surviving’ Ragnarok). And even, for that matter, certain of The Gods Themselves! (This, too, is a remarkably common feature of Indo-European mythology – the position of the Indo-European Peoples as ((Great-…)Grand-)Children of the Gods)
As applies Pitru Paksha, however, there is an additional “shade” of meaning.
During this period in particular, it refers to the spirits of our departed ancestors – the idea being that for the present Lunar Month in our calendar, the bounds between Worlds are rendered more ephemeral, meaning that these Ancestors are able to arrive among us rather than remaining in Pitru Loka (the ‘world of the Ancestors’ – “Loka” obviously being rather cognate with “Location” although “Plane [of Existence’] perhaps encapsulates the meaning more easily than “World” for a modern audience).
This is particularly so during the ‘dark’ fortnight (running from the current Full Moon through to the Dark Moon in half a lunar month’s time); wherein the Ancestors are as guests in our houses , and are to be properly treated and honoured as such.
This naturally helps to explain two of the most important observances in Pitru Paksha – the rituals of Shraddha and Tarpana, wherein the Pitrs are offered food and water. After all, They *have* come a long way to be back with us 😀 [It’s probably worth noting at this point that Hindu rituals in the home carried out by a Purohit will often also open in a rather similar manner – that of welcoming the Gods into the home as honoured guests and offering Them sustenance , and even enquiry about how the journey went) . If these rites are being officiated by a Priest, then it is customary to treat the Priest also as one’s Pitr.
Another justification advanced for these practices , is that they are the dutiful reciprocation to one’s Pitrs (particularly one’s own parents and grandparents, potentially also great grandparents) for that which they have given you in earlier life – hence a symbolic and metaphysical ‘balance’ of providing them with food, love, honouring and other forms of nourishment when they come back into this world, just as they did for you from your birth.
This is rendered especially necessary by the somewhat desolate nature of Pitru Loka in some tellings; partially because it is supposed to be something of a ‘transitory’ plane ‘between’ things. Which, of course, necessitates further the provision of sustenance to aid and avail one’s Pitrs upon their ongoing journey.
A tale told about the character of Karna, from the Mahabharat, illustrates this, and also provides one explanation for Pitru Paksha as a whole. According to this tradition, upon Karna’s death and ascension to the afterlife, he found himself asking of the relevant God whose domain it was for food … and being presented, in response, with gold. Karna was surprised by this, and pointed out that he couldn’t eat gold, and asked why it was being offered to him; to which he was told that while he had indeed been conspicuously generous in life in his *monetary* offerings to Temple and the Gods and such … he had never made offerings of food. He was therefore ‘reaping as he had sown’ – as he could only be given in the afterlife what either he himself or his descendents had given.
A slight variation upon this has the explanation as being that Karna had never offered food and water to his Pitrs while he was alive … which, while it may sound egregious, unforgivable, and abominable now, was arguably in fact the result of the circumstances of his birth and abandonment by his mother – meaning he had never known his Pitrs in the first place to be able to make the appropriate offerings.
To make matters worse, due to the death of all of Karna’s sons in the Mahabharat War, there were therefore now no longer any descendents who might ‘fill the void’ and provide for him from the world of the living.
Karna therefore beseeches the God in question – often identified as Lord Yama (which would potentially make Karna His half-brother), although I have also seen it stated as Lord Indra – to be allowed to return to Earth to attempt to make things right.
Depending on which version of the story one reads, this either entails Karna using the two weeks he is given here on Earth to perform the rites for his Pitrs (and therefore also himself) that he should have been doing the last time he was here; or alternatively it involves him spending the time feeding the poor and engaged in other acts of piety. In another (potentially somewhat darker) telling, it is said that upon his (temporary) return from the dead, the king frantically attempts to popularize the concept of providing food and water to the shades of one’s ancestors in order to avert others from experiencing the same deleterious circumstances which he had after death.
However it played out, it should come as no surprise to find that these fourteen days are often regarded as being the same point of the year as Pitru Paksha. Although as a brief note of hope, Lord Yama in His Mercy is stated in some sources to have decreed that on Mahalaya Amavasa (the last day, where there is no moon), the offerings will benefit *all* departed souls; thus in part avoiding the problem encountered by Karna – provided, of course, that offerings continue to be made in the first place!
There are other reasons for our observances during Pitru Paksha, of course – one of which is to attempt to ‘set right’ or at least ameliorate for them some of the mistakes and other transgressions which may have been committed by our Ancestors in life, and whose ‘echoes’ may yet still be haunting their living descendents. And another of which is to attempt to propitiate our Ancestors so they may assist us going forward in life.
Whatever the reasoning, it is not hard to see the virtue in these practices from a ‘metaphysical’ standpoint. However, what might perhaps go unnoticed by the casual observer are the more ‘temporal’ positives which result from it here on Earth, for us still-living, and our children.
By marking the occasion, and learning the names and some details of the lives of our forebears (as is necessary for the proper performance of the rites) – perhaps ‘meeting’ them, as an act of memory, so to speak; irrespective of whether you believe you’re also ‘meeting’ them in a more metaphysical sense at your door today as ‘Guests’ as well – we help our Heritage to stay alive. And remain in contact with our own pasts. Just as, in a most pleasing symmetry, our Ancestors remain ‘in contact’ with their – with our – futures.
After all, if you do not know where you have come from, how can you know where you are and where you are going? If you do not know who and what your Ancestors were (and are) – how can you know , even if ‘just’ in a foundational sense … who and what *you* are?
You would, in a very real – and to my mind, at least, a very sad – sense be “rootless”.
So with all of that in mind, while Pitru Paksha is often regarded as something of a ‘shadowed’ time (with various explanations for the more ‘constrained’ conduct we may engage in ranging from a desire to avoid upsetting the Ancestors, who may ‘feel left out’ , through to the more generalized notions of the cosmological conditions prevalent at this time entailing potentially baleful energies) … I prefer to regard it as a “noble” one.
After all, what can be more integral a consideration, in these atomized latter-days, than the re-connection with one’s heritage?
What practice, what ‘operationalizing’ of that Heritage can be more vital – more necessary in this age – than piety?
And what form of Piety is greater than the protection, veneration, and support of one’s Parents?
(For those unaware, this last is a restatement of a fundamental principle of both Hindu theology and Hindu ethics – as illustrated succinctly by the race of Lord Skanda and Lord Ganesha to circuit the world, won by the latter through running around Their Parents, and explained by Ganesha as being the correct action as to Him, His Parents *are* His World).
Pitru Paksha takes this concept further.
The great English writer, Chesterton, had this to say about the workings of ‘Tradition’ in the context of a democracy:
“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.”
Clearly, it is a maxim most worthy of a far broader attention and applicational ambit than merely that of psephological politics. I cite it here with exactly that spirit – suggesting that as applies our Families, those ‘nearest and dearest’ to us … we ought not disqualify from our positive regard, our greeting, and our remembrance , various members of our families and forebears simply due to the potentially rather temporary (from a number of perspectives) inconvenience of their being dead and us alive.
So this Pitru Paksha … don’t simply press “F” to ‘pay respects’.