Pitripaksha: Every one has a debt to repay
Shraadh (श्राद्ध) is one of the oldest and most meaningful rituals of ancestral worship or tribute to our ancestors in Hinduism. Ancestors or Pitris ( पितृ) hold a significant position in Hinduism. They are integral to one's existence; we derive our identity from them. It is imperative to ensure that we offer sacrifices to able Brahmans and perform rituals to repose their souls. It helps in easy migration from pretloka (प्रेतलोक) to pitriloka (पित्रीलोक).
The soul laden with karmic afflictions of worldly experiences finds it difficult to migrate from pretloka to pitraloka. The Shraardh rituals during pitripaksha are supposed to provide them with a way to move The concept of Pitris, methods to gratify them and consequences of not doing that have found mention in almost all the significant scriptures starting from Rigveda, Upanishads, Ramayana, Mahabharat & Purana.
Rigveda mentions the Pitris (ancestors) and methods to gratify them. One of the shlokas of Rigveda says that fire or Agnidev is the Purohit ( priest) who protects the Pitris, who protects us.
होताजनिष्ट चेतनः पिता पित्र्भ्य ऊतये |
परयक्षञ जेन्यं वसु शकेम वाजिनो यमम || (2:5:1) rigveda
Addressing the Agni. The hymn says Agni Dev is created as a Purohit who acts as a protector of Pitris (ancestors) who protects us. With utmost reverence, we pray to Agni that he may protect us and provide us with wealth.
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad mentions about three loka ( realms of existence)-Prithviloka, Pitri loka and Devlok and Pitri loka can be won by rites.
अथ त्रयो वाव लोकाः—मनुष्यलोकः पितृलोको देवलोक इति; सोऽयं मनुष्यलोकः पुत्रेणैव जय्यः, नान्येनकर्मणा; कर्मणा पितृलोकाः, विद्यया देवलोकः; देवलोको वै लोकानां श्रेष्ठः, तस्माद्विद्यां प्रशंसन्ति।
॥ १६ ॥ Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.5.16
There are three loka(लोक)-Prithvi Lok, Pitri Lok, and Dev Lok. Prithvi Lok is to be won through the son alone and by no other rites, the Pittra Lok through rites, and Devlok through meditation. The world of the Devtas is the best of the worlds. Therefore they praise meditation.
Homage of the ancestors is one of the oldest rituals in almost all religions worldwide. Despite so many changes and different global cultural exposure of religious practices and beliefs, the ritual of Shraddha in the period of pitripaksha still holds a significant position in the life of a practising Hindu. During the process of Shraadh, the Brahman is revered, and food balls called pinda (पिण्ड) are made and offered to crows. As Hinduism is an inclusive region, all living beings have their importance in specific times and rituals. Crows are important during Shraadh. Crows are considered messengers of ancestors, and also some believe them to be representative of the Lord of death (Yama,यमराज).
Shradha is observed in pitripakasha(पितृपक्ष), a sixteen days period in the Hindu lunar calendar in the Hindi month of Bhadrapada (भाद्रपद). Bhadrapada Purnima (पूर्णिमा, full moon) is the first day of pitripaksha, and the last day of pitripaksha is the Amavasya ( अमावस्या, no moon) of succeeding Ashwin (अश्विन) month.
Directions (दिशा) and time ( काल) have particular importance in Hindu religious sacrifices, astronomy, astrology and architecture. The South celestial sphere is considered the place of the ancestors in the Hindu religion. So when the sun is towards the Southern Hemisphere, the period of ancestor worship, i.e. pitripaksha, is observed. Sun starts its southern journey or dakshinanyan (दक्षिनायाण) in June as per the Gregorian calendar.
Most of the Dakshinayan period, particularly pitripaksha, is considered unfavourable for any auspicious work as opposed to the period when the sun is uttarayan (towards the northern hemisphere when Makar Sankranti is observed.
The ritual of Shraaddh also finds its roots in the Vedic philosophy of rin (ऋण) or debt. The tradition of rin (ऋण) or obligation (debt) is firmly embedded in the Hindu way of life. There are various stories about rin (ऋण) and the consequence of non-repayment of rin found in ancient scriptures. The three prominent rin (ऋण) in the Vedic and Upanishadic period was pitri rin (पित्रि ऋण), Deva rin (देव ऋण) and Rishi rin (ऋषि ऋण) . Later, manushya rin (मनुष्य ऋण), and Bhuta rin (भूत ऋण) were added to it. The concept of rin in Hinduism emphasizes that individuals are part of an extensive web of relationships without whom their existence is impossible and therefore owe certain obligations to these entities. It also focuses on the philosophy of coexistence.
Pitri rin, or our debt, obligation towards ancestors is one of the most significant and cannot be ignored as we owe our existence to our parents and ancestors. Two essential practices or duties are considered necessary to repay ancestral rin. The first and non-negotiable duty is the practice of grihastha ashram (गृहस्थाश्रम) and continuation of the lineage. Second, is the annual tribute and worship of the ancestors through offering shraaddh during Pitripaksha. This yearly observance of shraaddh reiterates that we have a debt towards them since we exist in this world because of them. We derive our social identity from them, and their karmas (कर्म ) also affect us. Our ancestors have contributed to making our life easy in this world. So, we must repay by making their transmigration easy into the other world and continuing their lineage.
No one is excused from this rin, and they are obliged to repay it. According to a legend from Mahabharat, even Lord Surya and Princess Kunti's son, Karna, wasn't forgiven for the non-repayment of pitri rin. It is said that he did not observe the shraddha ritual for his ancestors when he was on Prithvi (Earth), so his ancestors were all stuck in pretloka (प्रेतलोक). After his death, Karna reached swarga (स्वर्ग, heaven) as he had accrued merits by his charity. Upon reaching heaven, he felt hungry but could not eat anything since whatever he touched turned to gold. When he enquired about this, Yama informed him that when on Earth, Karna never offered food in the name of his ancestors. However, Karn was known as danaveer ( दानवीर, philanthropist) since he was involved in Dana (charity, दान) every day. He never let any person go empty hand from his doors. Aware that his kavach (कवच) and kundal (कुंडल) made him invincible, he still gifted it to Lord Indra when asked. Being such a prominent philanthropist, he acquired immense merits, but he never offered food in the name of his ancestors and neither performed the Shraadh ritual. His ancestors could not get the merits of his shradh ritual and were stuck up in pret loka, and since his ancestors were not happy, he was experiencing this in swarga (heaven). So, Yama allows Karna to visit the Earth for 15 days and complete the ritual of shraaddh. Many believe that the 15 days period when Karna visited Earth to perform the rituals marked the period of pitripaksha.
Sarvapitri Amavasya (सर्वापित्रि अमावस्या) is the most important day of the pitripaksha, where Shraddh rituals can be offered to all irrespective of the lunar day they left their earthy body for heavenly abode. Sarvapitri Amavasya, also known as Mahalya (महालया) Amavasya, is the last day of pitripaksha.
Gaya in Bihar holds a special significance for the shraddha ritual. One shraddha ritual in Gaya is believed to have enormous benefits to the departed souls. It's suggested that every Hindu must at least once perform the Shraddha of their ancestors in Gaya. It's believed that Lord Ram performed shraaddh of his father Dashrath at Gaya, and it is where Lord Vishnu's footmarks still exist when he trampled the demon Gayasur under his feet (now within the premises of Vishnupad temple). According to another belief, the demon Gayasur had a boon that whoever visits him shall attain salvation (moksha ), and he would be as famous as lord Brahma, lord Vishnu and lord shiva, which made the process of Shraaddh at Gaya significant. Apart from Gaya, there are other places also famous for the shraaddh ritual, like Pushkar ( Rajasthan ), Allahabad and Kashi or Banaras, Mathura (Uttar Pradesh ), Haridwar( Uttarakhand ), Kurukshetra (Haryana ) and Jagannath puri (Orissa).
At the societal and individual levels, religion and rituals provide psychological comfort and are a constant source of hope. Religion and religious practices have an equalizer effect on people. The mass event of the Shraaddh ritual at Gaya and the observance of pitripaksha by almost all the regions of India, irrespective of economic and social status, has a calming effect. It provides a psychological solace to the mourning people and families, that they are not alone in the mourning process and that no person or family is untouched by the truths of life and death.
जातस्य हि ध्रुवो मृत्युर्ध्रुवं जन्म मृतस्य च |
तस्मादपरिहार्येऽर्थे न त्वं शोचितुमर्हसि || 27||BG
Death is certain for one who has been born, and rebirth is inevitable for one who has died. Therefore, you should not grieve over the inevitable.