by Dr. Madhav Prabhu
Life is all about living, life is the only thing you are running out of, yet you will run to save. This life serves it’s purpose and soon is lost to eternity, but what matters is how you live it and yes what you will be remembered for.
Today we finish a fortnight of remembering our ancestors and tomorrow we will have the God’s coming down to reside with us for nine days, and soon it’s as if the festivals are never-ending. The serious observance of the memory of our ancestors, however, is the Mahalaya fortnight.
Homage and reverence to the ancestors and the dead is not new, the Egyptians did it and so did the Romans, the amazing thing is that all these cultures always thought that we need the same things in the afterlife that we enjoyed in our lifetime in the mortal world, and so if it was a rich man or a king he would be mummified with his favorite things gold, diamonds, women, clothes and so on, but sadly neither the rich, not the kings had any use for it and the wealth often feel in the hands of the tomb raiders.
Somehow the idea of the soul requiring comforts in the afterlife seems alien to me and even more absurd was the fact that it could enjoy the bounty of this life. This, however, comes under the purview of religion, something of which I am not the authority.
Traditions are born out of beliefs and rational thinking cannot be the rider when it comes to beliefs. Every religion has something in reverence of its ancestry, understandably their culture will have its own influence on it.
For starters let’s take Islam, where the pious ask forgiveness for their ancestors on a night called Shab e Barat, the day on which God makes new plans for the living. I however somehow find myself inclined to appreciate and even support a discourse in favor of remembering our ancestors, we are after all because they were.
The Romans revered their dead in February and called it Parentalia, we Indians, however, do it in the fortnight we call PITRU PAKSHA which is between Ganesh and Dasara and is consecrated with a ritual called Shraddha. In mythology, this corresponds to the battle between the God’s and the Demons which led to severe losses to both sides and thus was painful to all.
The day or tithi as we call it is the day of the demise of the father or the ancestor in that lunar cycle, but then there are separate days reserved too, for example if your ancestor died in the last one year you can perform the ceremony on the fourth or fifth day, if a lady dies and is survived by her husband it’s on the ninth say, if a child or a saint dies its on the twelfth and if a person dies violently or in war its the fourteenth day.
Don’t be worried if you are confused, faith always gives you a second chance and if you don’t know on what day there was a death in the family or if you forget to do it in time you can always do it on Amavasya or the no moon day.
I am not certain why different days are picked but it must be difficult for all the ancestors to commute between the two worlds on the same day and it’s also convenient for the pundits who can’t manage all the appointments in a single day. It is also mandatory to feed a Brahmin on that day and with two percent of the population, it’s difficult if everyone called one on the same day.
It’s a solemn affair however and we call upon our ancestors up to at least the last three generations when we invoke them. There is holy grass or Darbha (Kusha grass) which is tied on the fingers, this is said to call the ancestors and keep them there and there is the same Darbha on the waist and in the hair to protect from the ancestors if they get a little impatient. The general proceedings are in the direction of Gaya the most revered religious abode, considered the gateway to moksha and the offerings are mostly with black til or sesame and rice.
The feeling when the mantras are being chanted is electrifying and if you pay attention you can feel the energy surge. The basic idea is to sequentially invoke three generations of your ancestors and seek their blessings from a prosperous life to come and also apologize for the sins you may have committed.
It’s also a time for giving, giving food, giving donations and giving alms to those who are in need. Let me tell you that the philosophy of giving is an essential part of every religion. But giving it in the memory of your ancestors is unique to this fortnight.
There is also the offering of food to the crow, this is one of the most important rituals and the crow is the VIP on that day. The crow or the raven is revered in many religions and has a lot of mysticism attached to it. We believe that the crow will touch the food only if the ancestors are happy with you and have all their wishes fulfilled. There must be good spiritual reasons why the crow is the selected bird and I can’t really explain those, but I suppose certain quantities of the crow are largely responsible for this. The crow is a fast learner, is very observant, can prick you if you make it feel too uncomfortable, can live comfortably amongst humans just like our ancestors. A crow can sense food and never eats alone, once it gets a hint it can gather a crowd. You can see, the crow is the only bird which can adapt to any lifestyle, it does not migrate and can eat with an appetite, this would make it a natural candidate readily available in large numbers, would a sparrow with her poor appetite or a pigeon with attitude fill this vacancy.
The crow becomes the VIP as no one can touch food till the crow does and that’s one day you wish the world was full of crows.
Then comes the part where you eat with your family, its actually very rare that you get an opportunity to eat with your family, with nuclear families and growing differences its again the memory of your ancestors which brings families together at least for a day, something our ancestors would have done if they were alive and amongst us.
To me, this is the most important ritual of the day, families eating together.
The choice of food is rice, dal, potatoes, and kheer somehow ironical because neither my ancestors nor the crow loves so many carbs and at least a few of them were diabetics, but I guess on that day everyone has to behave, it’s a practice in some places in the northeast and the South East Asian countries to offer what the ancestors actually liked and there you can offer alcohol and meat too, I guess the ancestors there are more of the party types, but I love the sweet food once a year.
It’s actually very important to donate food as per our tradition and there is a mythological story which says that if you do not donate food in this life you may not get it in the next, Karna the hero of Mahabharata who was known for his generosity had to come back from the dead and donate food so he could get it in his afterlife. Our ancestors knew that food is more important than gold and diamonds and that’s why these rituals.
All the religiosity apart, remembering our ancestors is in my view very important. It is their hard work, knowledge of living that has guided is in difficult times, sometimes it is the wealth they have earned that supports us in our bad times. It’s important to learn from the ancestors and also from the history so we can follow the right path and avoid the mistakes that can ruin our existence. It is the legacy of our ancestors that we are living and it is their name that we are carrying. God, Teacher, and Parents are the reason for our existence and sustenance, we remember God everyday but its only apt that we remember our ancestors at least once a year.