EXPEDITIONS: Pitru Paksha – The Festival of the Dead.

As Halloween draws closer, the malls have already started to display plastic pumpkins, fake spiders and other faux spooky decorations. While usually associated with fun filled costume themed parties these days, the ancient Celts originally regarded Halloween with far greater solemnity. During this period, the barriers that separated the supernatural world from that of humankind would weaken, allowing spirits to cross over into the mortal plane of existence . 

Similarly, Indian Hindus have their own celebration dedicated to the otherworldly.  Known as Pitru Paksha, it usually falls in either mid-September or mid-October, marking the ascension of the autumnal moon. The festival stretches on for 15 days, lasting until the moon disappears. During this period, when the realm of the dead known as Pitra-Loka draws close to the one inhabited by the living, the eldest son of every family conducts daily prayers for his ancestors.

By partaking of this ritual, the devotee acknowledges the role of his progenitors in bringing about his physical existence. The rites serve to expiate this immense debt owed to one’s forebears while simultaneously boosting their chances of attaining spiritual salvation.  In exchange for this display of piety, the ancestors will bestow good fortune such as prosperity and physical wellbeing upon their descendent while simultaneously ensuring that the latter likewise accrues spiritual merit from the performance of the rite. They may even manifest themselves in the worshiper’s dreams to warn him of any looming threats. 

Pitru Paksha at Banganga Tank, Mumbai, India. (CREDIT: Firoz Shakir)

After having a shower at the start of the day, the person performing the rituals associated with Pitru Paksha  is expected to slip into a sarong while sporting a ring woven from a particular type of grass.  Once the prayer commences, a paste derived from a mixture of flour and water is used to daub representations of footprints that symbolize the presence of the ancestors. As the sun rises above the horizon, the devotee slakes the thirst of his dead kindred by sprinkling water onto the ground.     

Supervised by a priest, the worshiper proceeds to lay out offerings consisting of rice, ghee and oilseeds. Together with the ancestral spirits, prayers are also offered to Yama, the god of death who rules over Pitru Loka.  The rituals are usually carried out along the banks of streams. At the conclusion of the ceremony, lit candles are left to drift on the waters while the food remnants are fed to crows which are believed to harbor the visiting souls of the dead and hence serve as the messengers of Yama.  

The observance of Pitru Paksha is characterized by certain taboos. Most devotees will abstain from eating onions or non-vegetarian food while some may even choose to shave themselves bald. Throughout the festival’s duration, devotees also refrain from traveling due to the belief that a spirit known as Disa Sal will stalk the pathways until the moon finally disappears. Joyous celebrations of any kind are also prohibited.       

A certain myth that is sometimes referenced to explain the origins of Pitru Paksha, states that after the great warrior Karna was slain in battle, his soul tried to assuage its hunger in the world of the dead. But every meal that he touched would immediately transform into gold, leaving him frustrated.  When informed that his failure to regularly feed the souls of his own ancestors was responsible for his current plight, Karna sought permission to temporarily return to the living realm to redress this omission, thus inaugurating the beginning of the Pitru Paksha tradition.    

Another legend claims that when the revered sage Dhanwantri was about to die, he told his disciples that by consuming his flesh, they would imbibe his vitality. But afraid of losing his claim on their souls, Yama ordered these disciples to discard the strips of flesh that they’d hacked from the corpse. The sage’s remains were later devoured by crows, imparting his longevity to them. This narrative is sometimes used as an alternative explanation as to why the food left over from the prayers is given to the crows and other scavengers.    

In recent years, green advocates have started using   Pitra Paksha as an occasion to raise greater awareness about the importance of safeguarding the natural environment. In several states across India, various residents have begun to plant hundreds of seedlings during Pitra Paksa with the intention of appeasing the souls of their ancestors, citing scriptural authority to justify their new interpretation of this ancient tradition. Certain species of trees such as the mango, banyan and peepal are especially favored for this purpose.  

Additionally, celebrants will offer fresh saplings to visiting guests in the hope of similarly encouraging them to embark on a tree planting effort of their own.  Initially started by a man named Sanjeev Pal, this regreening campaign has now resulted in over eight thousand seedlings being planted in different locales spread across the country.  

Unfortunately, the rites associated with Pitru Paksha have also impacted the environment in a negative way. Devotees who flock annually to the Walkeshwar temple in Mumbai to pay homage to their ancestors, inadvertently kill hundreds of fish annually by submerging their food offerings in the waters of the pond situated on the compound’s premises. According to environmental researchers, the subsequent decay of the food depletes the oxygen content of the water, resulting in massive fish die offs.  

Some scholars have noted that sacred Hindu texts such as the Upanishads and Vedas are strongly imbued with a strong sense of environmental ethics as evinced by their injunctions against the pollution of water bodies.  They also prohibit the felling of trees, recognizing their vital role in regulating the ecosystem.  Given this emphasis on ensuring the continued flourishing of the natural ecosystem, future celebrants of Pitru Paksha should follow the example of Sanjeev Pal and venerate their ancestors in a manner that reflects their obligation to act as responsible custodians of the environment.   

WORDS: Shree Raaman.

IMAGE CREDIT: Biswarup Ganguly.

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