How Pitru Pujan is different from ancestor worship

Hindus, the world over, are observing Pitru Paksha (Mahalaya paksham), a fortnight of tithis, which culminates in the Pitru Paksha amavasya or Mahalaya Amavasya.  During this fortnight, we welcome our pitrus or ancestors on specific tithis to pay our respects to them and take their blessings, with the prescribed offerings and rituals– chief of which is the annual shraaddham.

The rituals differ only slightly from region to region and from community to community–perhaps in the austerities and offerings, but the shraddha and reverence with which the observers welcome and feed their pitrus is universal. Since we cannot ‘see’ our pitrus, it might be a symbolic offering but the Universal Consciousness binds us, the descendants, to generations past and the ones to come–in an unbroken chain. Pitru Pujan underlines their importance and presence in our lives.

In the south, Brahmins do pitru tarpanam on every Amavasya (new moon), as also on many other important occasions throughout the year. They also do the annual shraddham on the tithis of the deceased parents. This can be an elaborate affair with havan and pitru bhojanam consisting of special foods which differ from family to family as to what may or may not be included in the ingredients. There is a shorter version called Hiranya Shraddham, which includes the offering of tarpanam and daanam to the priest conducting it. This form is more popular these days, often due to the paucity of time and trained brahmins to conduct them. In the southern states, it is customary to offer tarpanam on Mahalaya Amavasya in addition to doing the shraddhams on the respective tithis during Mahalaya Paksham.

Though tarpanam in general means the offering made to Devas, Rishis and Pitrus, it has come to denote only Pitru tarpanam–the symbolic offering of food and water made to one’s ancestors of at least three generations past, on both father’s and mother’s sides of the family. The method of offering the til and water is different for all three as shown below.

While doing the tarpanam, an offering is also made to known and unknown ancestors and even unrelated pitrus. It is believed that all ancestors descend to the earth from Pitru Loka during the Pitru Paksha fortnight, to accept the offerings made to them by their descendants. In fact, according to the Siddha system in Tamil Nadu, every living being should be offered tarpanam. It is called Karunya Tarpanam, which is done for even the food we eat including grains, vegetables, fruits, herbs and other plant products, the rationale being that these are also living beings., which have died. This tarpanam, therefore, becomes even more important for those who consume non-vegetarian food.

It is the belief that our pitrus hover around teerthas like Kashi, Rameshwaram, Gaya, Haridwar and other places where lakhs of people make these offerings. The reason why offerings are made to unknown pitrus also is because those ancestors, who didn’t have children or who are not getting any offerings from their children or other descendants for whatever reason, gladly accept the offerings made by others. This is so much like one feeding strangers or guests with love along with one’s own family and is such a wonderful and compassionate ritual, isn’t it? These pitrus in return bless the ones feeding them, even if they are not their descendants. In our culture, blessings from elders are much sought after, this is a beautiful way of getting blessings from so many elders!

It might sound a bit surreal, but whenever I have gone to such teerthas for the rituals of pindadaanam and tarpanam, I have actually felt their Presence and it always gives me goosebumps to know that one is part of some large scale ‘pitru-bhoj’ if one may use that term to describe this annual offering.

In many communities, ancestors are not ‘worshipped’ or even placed in the puja along with the Deities, as they are our pitrus, who are venerated but are not considered Gods. Their blessings are constantly sought, our obligation being to give them ‘food’ in the form of black sesame seeds and water among other offerings as anyone would feed one’s elders.

This is not all. Whenever there is some auspicious function in the family, like a wedding, the pitrus are remembered and offerings are to them before commencing the functions. We call it ‘naandi’ when three generations of our ancestors are honoured and their blessings sought for the smooth conduct of the function and well being of the future of the couple. Contrary to belief about widows being ignored, these rituals honour all women ancestors regardless of their status.

The nature and intent of pitru pujan is very distinct from the ancestor worship practised by various religions and cultures across the world, notably in the West and African communities. In that respect, Eastern cultures share many similarities with our Pitru pujan, since there is a civilisational connect. Many cultures are offshoots of Hinduism and Buddhism, both of which believe in a life after death and reincarnation.

Pchum Ben Cambodia

Offering food to the Buddhist monks at the temple during Pchum Ben

Here, I would like to mention the Cambodian custom of Pchum Ben, which is very similar to our Pitru Paksha, as it is also observed over a period of 15 days corresponding to our Pitru Paksha, when the Cambodians honour their ancestors, going back seven generations! They offer food to Buddhist monks in temples, which is usually cooked rice, much like the rice pindas offered by Hindus to the Pitrus. This probably has to do with Cambodia’s Hindu connection.

Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and Vietnamese, among the East Asian and South-east Asian cultures, are traditionally ancestor worshippers. Buddhists have shrines in their homes for their ancestors. The Koreans believe that their ancestors are around them in this world and are looking out for their welfare. They ask for guidance and help in their lives from benign ancestors and appease them in case they get angry with them. Jesa is their form of ancestor worship and is an important part of their culture. The Vietnamese honour their ancestors before weddings to invoke their blessings, somewhat reminiscent of the naandi done by south Indians.

Korean Jesa

In Japan, both Buddhism and Shintoism are followed and the latter revolves around gods or spirits known as kami, which are entities supposedly found everywhere, with the ancestors believed to be a type of kami. Shinto rites are meant to appease the kami.

Though there has been large scale conversion into Christianity in these countries including Japan and Korea and are admonished to refrain from ancestor worship of any nature as it is considered a ‘pagan’ custom or idolatry, many continue the custom in some subtle form or another, especially the among the older generations.

Japanese family honouring Kami

As mentioned earlier, ancestor worship is still common in most parts of the world, especially among Hispanics and Africans. Some pray to their ancestors to intercede on their behalf with God, some beseech them to come to their aid and help them out of a difficult situation, yet some some are afraid of their wrath and appease them so that they wouldn’t harm them or their descendants. The Sub-Saharan cultures of Africa have their own ways of offering worship and propitiating their ancestors. No amount of Evangelisation has been able to put a stop to these practices

Why, even the Roman Catholics have All Souls Day, which falls on Nov. 2, when they pray for the souls of their ancestors that are supposedly in Purgatory for their sins. The Catholics also observe All Saints Day on Nov. 1, when those sainted by the church are remembered. It is certainly a form of ancestral worship, which is still prevalent in Catholicism and several other sects of Christianity.

Then there is the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, on which day the denizens of the ‘other’ world are supposed to mingle with the people of this world and food and drinks are left for them to tide over the ‘dark months’ of winter that would follow and at the same time, protect oneself from the ‘ghosts’ of unfriendly spirits. It is still celebrated in Ireland, Scotland and parts of Wales.

Ireland, Samhain, Scotland

Ancient Celtic festival of Samhain

Mumming or putting on costumes and going from door-to-door and carving of pumpkin lanterns into grotesque forms were also part of this festival in its ancient form, probably meant to scare off the unfriendly spirits. This pagan festival was typically gradually ‘adapted’ and then completely ‘digested’ by Christians by the 20th century. It had metamorphosed into the modern festival of Halloween, complete with disguises, ghost costumes, lanterns, trick-or-treating and pranks.

(I have merely listed the various kinds of ancestor worship just to show how different they are from our pitru pujan and there are many that I have not covered here.)

This year Pitru Paksha Amavasya falls on the 17th of Sept and only restrictions for  Covid-19 might keep away the lakhs of shraddhalus from offering tarpanam and pinda daanam to their ancestors in such teerthas as Haridwar, Gaya, Varanasi, Rameshwaram, Nashik, Gokarna and Prayagraj among others. But every one is sure to do it at their homes to invoke the blessings of their deceased elders and ancestors, with the same fervour and shraddha.

I would like to end this post with an anecdote we all must have heard at some time or the other.

A Buddhist was making an offering for his ancestors by lighting incense, offering food and water at the shrine in his house. When his Christian friend mocked him asking, ‘So when do you expect your ancestors to come and smell the incense and eat the food?’

The Buddhist quipped, ‘When yours come to smell the flowers you have left on their graves!’

We all remember our ancestors in our own ways and it would be a good idea to respect each other’s customs and traditions. To begin with, let us Hindus observe Pitru Paksha with the shraddha that it was meant to be observed with.

Images: Homepage: https://www.patrika.com/ Pinda daan: https://indianewengland.com/

Offering tirtha: https://www.sanatan.org/ Pchum Ben: https://www.tourismcambodia.com/

Samhain https://www.tinggly.com/ Jesa: https://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/

Japanese ancestor worship: https://www.ryukyulife.com/

4 comments

  1. What a great post Zephyr. So much of detailed insight about not only Hindus also other cultures way of performing rituals during this Mahalaya. With fast life, many opted for easy way out of doing ‘Hiranya Shraddam’ than the usual procedure of doing Shraddham. Something is better than nothing. To express our gratitude to our ancestors , we observe Mahalaya Amavasya. This also ensures that we will always have the blessings of our ancestors for a happy and prosperous life.

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    1. Even if they do Hiranya sharddham, it is fine, as long as it is done with shraddha. I saw one video on YouTube, where the whole tarpanam is done with three or four mantras and just with jalam. You know that astrologer Muralidhar Rao, it was his video. There is no excuse not to do it, in fact.

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  2. Vishal Bheeroo · · Reply

    Such a well researched and commendable post on Pitru Paksha and didn’t knew about Cambodian custom of Pchum Ben which is insightful. We observe Pitru paksha at home and on Saturday, we did by ourselves since our priest passed away this year. So, no Pitr made with flour but plain simple water offering and food. Now, you motivating me to do a post.

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    1. Thank you Vishal. I am happy my post motivated to write your own post. That is good! Whatever we offer, if done with sincerity and respect, is accepted by our pitrus.

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