Pitru Paksha: Gratitude to our Ancestors
Updated: Sep 21, 2021
Glory to our ancestors! We express our gratitude and pay homage to them.
Pitru (ancestors) Paksha (fortnight) is a lunar fortnight dedicated to our ancestors, also known by Apara Paksha, Jitiya, Kanagat, Pitri Pokkho, Pitru Pakshya, or Solah Shraddha.
According to the Bṛhadāraṇyaka and Chāndogya upanishads, for those of us who will eventually be reborn, Pitruloka is the intermediate and impermanent ancestral after-death world. Yama, the god of death, rules over this loka, taking the departed soul from Earth to Pitruloka. According to our scriptures, when the Sun enters Virgo (kanya), the souls of Pitru loka are believed to reside in the home of the descendants for a month until it enters Scorpio (vrischika) and a full moon (purnima) occurs. The expectation is that we propitiate these ancestors by performing Shraddha (ritual offering to ancestors) during the waning phase (dark fortnight or krishna paksha) of this month, and they in turn bless us.
For context, it is important to note that we have just completed our worship of Lord Ganesha during Ganesh Utsav, which falls on the days between Ganesh Chaturthi (4th day) and Anant Chaturdashi (14th day) during shukla paksha (waxing phase) of the lunar month Bhadrapada. Immediately after, we turn our obeisance towards our ancestors during the following krishna paksha (waning phase).
Side note: as will be discussed in a future blog post, krishna paksha generally falls on different months according to the South Indian Amanta calendar (month ends on no moon day) and North Indian Purnimanta calendar (month ends on full moon). The amanta month is Bhadrapada and the purnimanta month is ashwina.
Pitru Paksha either starts on Purnima of the prior shukla paksha or Pratipada (1st day) of krishna paksha, thus being a 15 or 16-day period.
Rituals and Rules
There are many rules associated with observing Pitru Paksha. The shraddha is generally performed on the tithi (lunar day) that the departed soul passed away. Thus, if ones grandfather passed away on ashtami, shraddha for that particular relation is performed on the ashtami tithi of Pitru Paksha. Other exceptions are made for varying forms of death, including children, ascetics, or death in specific circumstances.
The last day of Pitru Paksha is known as Sarvapitri Amavasya or Mahalaya Amavasya and is considered the most important or auspicious of all the 16 days. If one forgets to perform shraddha during Pitru Paksha, they can do so on this last day.
Among the various rituals performed, it is important to invoke divinity, perform a homa (fire ritual), and offer balls of rice (i.e. pinda pradaana). In sum, the idea is that through this divine offering, the homa appeases Lord Agni and Lord Soma to transmit the offerings to the ancestors. This can generally be done for parents, grandparents and great grandparents, although many focus specifically on parents.
Symbolism of Worship
While we may get caught up in the rules of worship, it is important to understand the symbolism of this entire offering to our ancestors. It is rather simple. We are simply offering our gratitude and awareness that our ancestors paved the way for us. Not only our parents and grandparents, but generations of ancestors made it possible for us to exist and contributed to our general advancement as a society. So in order to not take that for granted and show our gratitude, we offer shraddha during Pitru Paksha.
Our summer months start with gratitude to the Guru for imparting knowledge, continue towards worship to Lord Ganesha for the removal of obstacles, and transition towards gratitude to our ancestry and the awareness that we would not exist as we do without them. This provides the mental and spiritual foundation, before we celebrate the varying aspects of the divine Lord in the Fall months through Navratri, Dusserah, Vijay Dashami and Diwali.
In honor of our ancestors, let us pray.