The ritual of ancestral worship

A time when we remember and revere those who have gone before us

September 30, 2019 07:01 pm | Updated 07:01 pm IST

File photo of a mass Sarva Pitru Amavshya Shradh Pooja in Ahmedabad

File photo of a mass Sarva Pitru Amavshya Shradh Pooja in Ahmedabad

This is the time for Pitru PakshaShradh , preceding the autumnal Navratras, when ancestors are worshipped, and prayers offered for the repose of their souls. The ritual is considered even more important than the worship of God, because a person owes his physical birth to his lineage. When Rama observed the Shradh for his illustrious ancestors, one sadhu ate so much that the Lord’s three brothers got tired of feeding him. They sought Ramchandra ji ’s help, who said that he would serve the sadhu himself. While doing so he recognized him as Shiva. The god smiled and vanished.

Pandit Shamboo Shankar, noted priest of Jaipur, used to point out that the Shradh were recommended by the religious text Karam Kand (which emphasizes homage to ancestors), and observed from the autumnal full moon to the following Amavasya (dark night) for 15 days. On Amavasya day, the worship is to unknown ancestors. The period starts with Parwa, Dwitiya, Tritya, Chauth, and so on, for the full fortnight and a day.

Black til (oilseed) for tilanjali, and chawal (rice) are among the main ingredients. Water is offered to the ancestors in front of the rising sun in the morning. Puja , havan , daan (prayers, fire offerings, and charity) mark the period, in which no festive functions are held, and devotees abstain from non-vegetarian food, and even onions and garlic.

During the Shradh , it is believed that ancestors appear in dreams, to warn of impending dangers in the coming year. Each day of the Shradh is equal to a year, and so the multiplication goes on to include all ancestors for 15 generations and beyond. Ancestor worship starts with the father and mother, and includes grandfather, grandmother, great-grandfather. and great-grandmother back to as many generations as one can remember, with reverence paid to both paternal and maternal ancestors. For the unknown ancestors, Rookha or Seedha (raw) food is offered in a thali that includes wheat flour, rice, kheer ( milk pudding) and sabzi (vegetables).

Homage to ancestors is as old as humanity. The belief is found worldwide. The Chinese practised it, so did the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. . The Jews remember them when they observe Passover, the Christians devote the full month of November to departed souls, the Muslims pay homage on Shab-e-Barat . The Buddhists and the Parsis too have ceremonies to honour their ancestors. The Parsi dawn prayer Hosh-Bam recalls the deeds of Iranian heroes of old, the names of whom are recited early in the morning. Tribals worship ancestors confined in the forest tree-trunks, like the spirit Arial in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest .

The South Indians, Bengalis, and North Indians have their own special ways of observing the Shradh . For the Bengalis, the climax is reached at Mahalaya, when the Chandi mantra is recited early in the morning. In the poem Kubla Khan by Coleridge, Kubla, the Mongol warlord, hears the voices of his ancestors at the capital Xanadu, prophesying war. Even a ruthless killer like him believed in mellowing down for ancestral worship.

An interesting story is told about the legendary physician Dhanwantri When he died, his disciples wanted to hold his Shradh . He had told them not to do so, but to eat his flesh so that they could become like him. As the disciples were preparing for that, Yama, the god of death appeared, and, fearing losing their souls, forbade them from eating the body. He cunningly told them to throw away the flesh that they had already cut out.

This, the disciples did, and three other living beings ate it: the ants, the kites, and a woman from the so-called cobbler caste, named Cheta. All three were blessed with longevity. Some say it was not the kites, but the crows. Hence, the practice of feeding crows at Shradh time, when the souls of ancestors are said to visit homes as crows. Incidentally, even today, Vaids begin their prescription with the word “Cheta” to assure long life for their patients.

During the Shradh all directions for travel are considered closed for 15 days because of the influence of Disa Sal , the spirit of the pathways. They are said to open up only after the Amavasya bath. The other days are utilized for offering prayers to ancestors, in which lies Moksha (salvation), both for those performing the rituals, and for the long departed ancestors.

The writer is a veteran chronicler of Delhi

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