(Continued from- why-is-river-ganga-so-scared-to-hindus-part-2)
My father had explained the funeral rituals. But I was still in a contemplative mood. He remarked, “You don’t seem convinced with the concept!” I confessed that the funeral rituals were justified but the Shraddh ceremonies seemed absolutely irrelevant to me. They seemed like stories the priests had built up to ensure they got steady incomes in form of ritual fees.
Papa had lived in this town for all his life and knew much more than me about the malpractices. He said, “If the perpetrators of a tradition misuse it that does not mean the tradition has no efficacy. Just as the corrupt politicians do not mean that democracy should be discarded. Don’t throw the baby with the dirty bath water.” I nodded my head and he elaborated further.
To understand why the system of Shraddh was adopted, one needs to understand the mourner’s grief. You also need to understand it through the transmigration of soul theory as Yama told in the Nachiketa story.
The first year after losing a loved one is the most tough, more so when the death is sudden or unexpected. As in case of young or middle aged people. Family members tend to forget that the person is no more and suddenly things, events or discussions, slap the rude reality in their faces again.
While making a trip to the store, you might pick their favourite eatables, forgetting they are no longer required. There are things they were always a part of, some activities that only they organized- holidays, birthdays or festivals that remind of the void they leave behind them. These occasions bring the haunting memories back. Sudden attacks of grief are felt, that make the person break into tears or wallow in self-pity, guilt, loneliness and depression.
Women are said to suffer more but men suffer no less. Society reinforces underplay of emotions in men so they are not able to vent out their grief. They need to talk it out too. The problems simmer under the facade of routine ‘all is well’. Other people avoid mentioning the lost person, for the fear of upsetting the bereaved. This further aggravates the suffocation. People can feel lack of interest in things they earlier cared about. They have trouble waking up and facing the day.
The more the person is attached, the more physiological symptoms of grief appear. Sleep and appetite patterns get disturbed. Immune system might take a hit. Aches and pains are felt along with exhaustion in normal activities. Mourners slide into mindless state for considerable periods. They get lost in memories while doing important alertness demanding jobs, like operating machines, working with fire, crossing roads or watching over kids in parks. But we have to learn to live with that hole in our heart and drained out feeling in the body. We have to earn our living. The unsuspecting people might remind us. “You are not attentive! Work is suffering”.
There are days when people who have no clue about the demise, come looking for the person and you might say an awkward, “He/she is no more,” A childhood friend of the deceased might want to visit or calls up. A dentist’s receptionist reminds you of their due appointment. You struggle through your tears to inform them it would not be required anymore.
Often relations are not smooth, we have differences of opinions, defiance issues, things we have fought over or embarrassed each other in public. We want to patch up but keep on postponing it. Ego often interferes in the processes of forgiving or asking for forgiveness and a death suddenly snatches all opportunities forever. Pain, regret and guilt are most felt in such cases. The person keeps on going through self-deprecation. He feels he has lost all chances to make up.
The Hindu concept of Shraddh is based on the premise that the soul begins its journey from the land of living, to land of dead from the thirteenth day of demise. And it reaches there in exactly one year from death. It has to cross sixteen cities and a river called Vaitarni to reach there. Though the family cannot see or feel it, it can however help in the journey. It seems this concept that there is a way to help, gives the grieving person, a second chance to mend ties with the lost person.
For one year every month, on the date of death, a shraddh ceremony (Masik Shradha) is held. It gives a prospect for the spiritual teachers to facilitate absolve of guilt and regrets. They hold spiritual discourses and encourage confessions. It detoxifies the mind. With each monthly ritual of Masik Shraddh, episodes of attacks of grief reduce, and tolerance to life without the deceased increases. Mention of his or her name or reminders, rattle the person less and less.
The first year thus gives a person, a forced time to face the reality and reconcile with it. Cry it out, remember or imagine them and speak to them in their thoughts.
My mother added, “Garuda Purana is a Vaishnava Purana and the epic is in form of conversation between Lord Vishnu and Garuda (Great eagle the king of birds), primarily emphasising the reason and meaning of Human Life. It is recited as a part of Antyesti or funeral rites in Hinduism. The epic purana edited by Veda Vyāsa, speaks of the journey of a soul after death”.
I was amazed with the depth of her knowledge on the subject and she surprised me further, “After one year has passed, it is believed that the soul reaches Yama’s abode and becomes one of the ancestors (Pitru Sareera). The varshik shraddh that is performed is recognition of this fact. Every year during Bhadrpad month in South India and Ashwin month in North the Shraddh ceremonies are held. The period is also known as Pitru Pakshya, Pitri Pokkho, Solah Shraddha, Kanagat, Jitiya, Mahalaya Paksha and Apara paksha.In North they are held near River Ganga.
I asked them both what is the origin of the Pitra theory? They replied, “The pitru or pitra theory is based on a story of Agastya Rishi who was one of the seven great sages. He is the originator of Siddha medicine system of Ayurveda. He had immense knowledge and yogic powers. But he had resolved to devote his life to learning, never to wed.
Agastaya was tormented by dreams of old men hanging upside down from beams, their feet tied to the staffs, rats gnawing at the ropes. He saw them hanging over a deep dark pit, so if the ropes were cut they would fall into the pit. In the dream they always asked Agastya for help. Agastya could not sleep and it thought about it during daytime. When the dreams repeated several nights, he went to his teacher and asked him the meaning of this occurrence.
Agastya’s teacher took him into a trance and he was able to talk to the old men, they identified themselves as his ‘Pitr’, a collective term for forefathers. The human form was their soul, the rope was their karma or memories or the causal body, and the staff was the ‘Sansara’ or the world. The rats were day and night that were eating up the causal body.
This place where they hung was ‘Put’ reserved for people who have karma balance in the world and are hoping to be reborn to end it. Since the transactions are with the existing family members, they have to come back to these families to balance them. Rebirth can happen only when an offspring or descendant produces a child. That is why a child is termed ‘putra’ or ‘putri’ since it liberates the ancestors from ‘Put’.
A soul has no gender can be born as a son or a daughter. If the descendants all opted for sanyasa and refused to procreate, the souls would exhaust their opportunity and lie trapped in ‘Put’ till the end of the kalpa cycle. The pitras beseeched, “Begin your family and help us be reborn, by remaining childless, you banish us to this oblivion forever! No chance to enter the living world again means any chance to discover our true identity and seeking liberation from birth cycle. You were born through us and now repay our debt and give us a life again.” After this incident Agastya is said to have begun a family life. It became the basis of the shraddh theory where each year the descendants reaffirm their duty to continue family to their elders.
According to Hinduism, the souls of three preceding generations of one’s ancestor reside in Pitru–loka, when a person of the next generation dies; the first generation shifts to heaven and unites with God, so Shraddh offerings are not given. Thus, only the three generations in Pitru–loka are given Shraddh rites, in which Yama plays a significant role.
Pitru Paksha emphasizes the fact, that the ancestors and the current generation and their next unborn generation are all connected by blood ties. Shraddh involves oblations to three preceding generations—by reciting their names—as well as to the mythical lineage ancestor the Gotra. A person thus gets to know the names of six generations three preceding generation, his own and two succeeding generations—his sons and grandsons in his life, reaffirming lineage ties. The rituals indirectly would mean detaching oneself from the guilt of unfinished task, for our ancestors by detoxifying our mind.
Apart from relieving the mind of the individual, the Shraddh is an opportunity for siblings to come together and connect on the basis of shared grief. A system that ensures that death does not over power and breakdown a person but gives him a lesson in the continuity of life, to keep faith in birth and in his living family.
I finally smiled; it made perfect sense how death had been used to reinforce birth. The adversary tamed to facilitate, what it threatened most. Our ancestors were brilliant to establish these systems. How silly are we to avoid them with disdain, not making an effort to understand them? I returned to my room and slept peacefully, just as my daughter did. By taking care of the next generation, I was doing my duty towards my ancestors well.