Hindu Funeral Rites

Hindu Funeral Rites and Ancestor Worship

Antyesti, Sraddha and Tarpana

1. Introduction

The following article is a summary of the history of Hindu beliefs and ritual practices regarding death and the worship of ancestors. It includes examples of the final rites for the disposal of the dead, antyesti, and a discussion of the post-mortem rites of sraddha and tarpana, which form the basis of Hindu ancestor worship. According to Hindu belief there are realms of existence and classes of beings that exist throughout this universe. Some of these beings live in regions above this earth and others in regions below this earth. Some are classified as benefic and others are classified as malefic. Among the class of benefic beings are the pitrs, who include the ancient progenitors of mankind as well as the deceased relatives of the living. Hindu rituals for the dead, whether of the most ancient period or of later times serve five purposes: disposal of the body, consolation of those grieving, assistance to the departing soul to reach pitr-loka, sustenance to those pitrs who have reached that destination, and a call by the living for help at special times from the pitrs.

Three Periods

The study of this ancient belief system can be divided into three periods of development: the Vedic period, the Grhya period and the Puranic period. In the Vedic period it was believed that the spirit of a dead person became a pitr immediately after the disposal of the body. As soon as the spirit became a pitr it became a recipient of various Vedic sacrifices known as pitr-yajnas.During the Grhya period it was believed that a soul did not become a pitr immediately after death, but entered an intermediate stage of life called a preta. This preta being could only become a pitr after certain rituals called ekoddista-sraddhas were performed by living relatives. This usually took a year. During the final Puranic period the idea expanded to include a new stage of life called the ativahika stage. As soon as the physical body was cremated the soul did not become a preta, but instead took on an initial ativahika body. In order to release the soul from this stage, a set of even more specialized rites called purakas had to be performed by the living relatives. This ativahika stage generally lasted for ten days after which the soul became a preta wherein the ekoddista-sraddhas would be performed to complete the transition into a pitr after one year. Underlying this process was the belief that without the help of living relatives performing particular rites at specific times, the departing soul was unable to obtain the necessary body by which it could partake in the enjoyments of the pitrs. Therefore, in all stages, the living relatives had to perform some required rites.

While addressing this topic it is important to understand that Hindu religious traditions do not fall within the jurisdiction of any one central authority. Hinduism has no ecclesiastic body that determines its beliefs, ritual practices or social structure. There are, of course, a large number of religious sects (sampradayas), with a great number of prominent teachers (acaryas), but the authority of the religious sect and the individual guru extends only to a relatively small range of followers. Consequently, Hindu beliefs and practices vary widely from one religious sect to another and from one geographic region to another. This creates a highly diffused and multi-layered tradition. Therefore, it is difficult to determine which practices and beliefs are original and which have been added. It is also virtually impossible to assert that any given regional practice is standard. Nevertheless, this article will attempt to chart the middle ground and draw certain conclusions that describe the general Hindu view on this complex topic.

In fact, tradition describes many classes of pitrs. Here is a list of just a few: Agnisvattas (pitrs of the gods), Barhisads (pitrs of demons), Vairajas (pitrs of ascetics), Somapas (pitrs of brahmanas), Havismats (pitrs of ksatriyas), Ajyapas (pitrs of vaisyas), Sukalin (pitrs of sudras), and Vyamas (pitrs of the outcastes).

Pitr-loka is the name of the realm of existance wherein the pitrs dwell.

The word sraddha means an act of faith. The term is not used during the Vedic period. The word first appears during the Grhya period. In the Asvalayana-sutra (IV 7.1) the sraddha is described as an ekoddista rite wherein in the ashes and the bones of the departed soul are collected and placed in an urn. The word ekoddista means “meant for one.” Ekoddistasraddha are those rights designed solely for the benefit of the departed soul and not for the pitrs in general.

2. The Funeral (Antyesti)

In Sanskrit the term antyesti refers to the final sacrifice, the last of the 16 samskaras or life sacraments that mark important events in an individual’s life. The antyesti ceremony is the funeral ceremony. This samskara is performed to dispose of the dead body, to give peace to the departed soul, and to enable it to enter the world of the ancestors (pitrs). From the earliest Vedic times cremation was the most common means of disposing of a body. There is, however, written evidence that burial and post burial ceremonies also occurred during the Vedic period. The Rg and Atharva Vedas mention both burial and cremation as legitimate methods for the disposal of the dead. We find evidence in the Aranyakas that the burial of incinerated bones and ashes was an important and elaborate ceremony. By the Grhya and Puranic periods, however, burial and post cremation burial are hardly mentioned. Cremation had become the only orthodox method for the disposal of the dead.

Here is a summary of what we know about cremation from the Rg-veda:

  1. The fire deity, Agni, was invoked to carry the departing soul to the realm of Yama, the god of death.
  2. In the case of a priest his sacrificial implements were burned along with his body.
  3. Prayers were recited to various deities in order to transfer the departing soul to the world of the pitrs.
  4. A cow or goat, known as an anustarani, was burned along with the body of the deceased.
  5. In the case of a deceased husband, the wife would lay on the funeral pyre along side the body of her husband. Before the fire was lighted, she would be asked to rise from the side of her husband’s body and rejoin the living.

The Atharva-veda (XVIII) adds the following information:

  1. The body was dressed in new garments before cremation.
  2. Grains and sesame seeds were scattered along side the body before cremation.
  3. The pitrs were ritually invoked to attend the ceremony and invited to sit on the southern side of the fire.
  4. Streams of ghee along with prayers were offered to the pitrs during the cremation.
  5. Prayers and oblations made of rice cakes, milk, meat, whey, honey, and water were used in the worship of various gods in order to ensure long life and prosperity for the living relatives.
  6. Prayers and oblations were offered to three generations of pitrs: the father, the grandfather, and the great grandfather, during the cremation.
  7. Cakes of rice, sesame and other articles of food were buried along with the cremated bones.

It is evident from the Atharva-veda that the worship of pitrs had its origins in the earliest Vedic period.

The cremation process during the Grhya period may be summarized as follows:

  1. As soon as the person died a cremation pit called a smasana was dug. The pit was made in a fertile place inclined towards the south.
  2. All hair, including head and facial hair, was removed from the body.
  3. A funeral procession of four parts was organized. The immediate family members carried the sacred fire and the sacrificial vessels. Behind them an odd number of persons carried the dead body. Next, a cow or goat, preferably black in color, followed. Finally, the relatives and friends of the dead person followed.
  4. Once the funeral pyre had been prepared the body was placed on sacred grass that lined the inside of the cremation pit along with wood. In the case of a husband who had died, his wife would lie to the north side of his body. A brother or some other representative of the deceased would ask her to rise before the fire was lighted. The sacrificial implements used by the deceased person would also be placed alongside the body.
  5. The body would be covered with the skin of an anustarani cow or goat. If there was no animal then cakes of  rice would serve the purpose.
  6. The fire was lighted starting at the head.
  7. When the entire body had been consumed, the mourners would circumambulate in a counter-clockwise direction and then leave without looking back. They would then go and bathe.

During the Puranic period the procedures were as follows.

  1. At the time of death sacred verses were recited to revive the dead person. When these had failed the priest would announce the death. The cremation, if possible, was to be performed on the day of the death.
  2. Professional mourners would be hired, who would gather around the deceased with disheveled hair, disordered garments, and dust covered bodies and begin wailing and sobbing.
  3. The body was washed; the hair and nails were cut. The body was dressed in new garments and adorned with ornaments.
  4. The body was carried on the shoulders of relatives, or pulled in a cart, followed by mourners who would recite sacred prayers until they reached the cremation site.
  5. After arriving at the cremation site the body would be placed on the funeral pyre with the head facing the south.
  6. The chief mourner placed ghee on the body to the accompaniment of sacred prayers.
  7. All jewels and ornaments were removed from the body and a small mound of cow dung was placed on the stomach or chest. The chief mourner walked around the body three times in a counterclockwise direction while sprinkling water from an earthen vessel. The vessel was then broken on the ground near the head of the deceased.
  8. The chief mourner lighted the fire at the head to the accompaniment of prayers.
  9. Prayers were recited to direct the various parts of the deceased’s body to merge with the universal elements: the voice to the sky, the eyes to the sun, the vital breath to the wind, and so forth.
  10. After the fire has consumed the body the mourning party returned home to bathe and purify themselves with prayers for peace.
  11. Three days after the cremation the chief mourner returned to the burning area and ceremonially sprinkled the ashes with water. The ashes were later poured into the Ganges or other sacred body of water in a ceremony called visarjanam.

Current cremation practice in India generally follows this Puranic model.

Burning in Effigy (kusa-puttalika-daha)

If a person had died but the body could not be reclaimed, as in the case of a person who had drowned or had been killed in battle, it was still absolutely essential for a cremation to take place. The reason was simple: without cremation the departed soul could not begin the transition into a pitr. In lieu of a body an image could be cremated. The Bhavisya-purana describes an image made of 360 strands of kusa, a kind of sacred grass: Forty for the head, twenty for the neck, one hundred in the two arms, twenty in the chest, twenty in the belly, thirty in the hips, one hundred in the two thighs, and thirty in the knees and shanks. Another account uses a coconut for the head, a bottle gourd for the mouth, five gems for the teeth, a plantain for the tongue, two shells for the eyes, clay for the nose, plantain leaves for the ears, the shoots of the fig tree for the hair, lotus fibers for the entrails, earth and barley paste for the flesh, honey for the blood, the skin of an antelope for the skin, a lotus for the naval, eggplant for the scrotum, and tree bark for garments!

If a person became missing, but was not specifically known to be dead, as in the case of someone who had gone to a foreign land and not returned, the relatives were advised to wait 12 years before performing the cremation. In the case of a person who has been cremated in effigy, but who then returned home, the person needed to be reborn by being passed through the legs of a female and then, step-by-step, have all the purificatory ceremonies (samskaras) performed. This may even include a re-marriage if necessary.

There was also a special rite called Narayana-bali that was performed when a person had died under unusual circumstances, such as through suicide or accidental death. The Narayana-bali was atonement for the situation and made the deceased fit for receiving the regular funeral process and subsequent rites.

The Anustarani Animal

Both the Rg and the Atharva Vedas prescribe that the skin and organs of a cow or she-goat, called an anustarani animal, be burned along with the body. This was done in order to lessen the pain inflicted on the departing soul by the scorching fire. The hide of the animal covered the body. The vital organs of the animal were placed in the hands and around the body of the deceased. During the Grhya period this practice declined and by the Puranic period was stopped altogether. Instead, rice was spread around the body in lieu of the skin. During Ravana’s funeral Valmiki describes how an anustarani animal was used.

There is an interesting story in the Aitreya-brahmana that tells how rice became the substitute for the anustarani animal. “In the beginning the gods used human beings for sacrifice. Overtime the sap of life left the human being and entered the body of the horse. Thereafter, the horse became the object of sacrifice. In time this sap of life left the horse and entered the ox. The ox became the object of sacrifice. Then again when the sap of life left the ox and entered sheep, a sheep became the object of sacrifice. Soon this sap of life left the sheep and entered the goat, wherein the goat became the object of sacrifice. For a long time the goat remained the object of sacrifice. Eventually, the sap of life left the goat and entered the earth. Thereupon, the earth became rice and rice became the fit substitute for the sap of life.” Here we get the history of the sacrificial animal and the relationship between rice and the sacrificial animal.

Post cremation Burial (Pitr-medha)

During the Vedic and early Grhya periods it was common to bury the incinerated bones of a deceased person in an urn. This was the pitr-medha ceremony. The Grhya-sutras of Asvalayana describe how the burned bones were to be collected on the third lunar day (tithi) after death. In the case of a man who had died, the bones were to be collected by elderly men and placed into a male urn. In the case of a woman, the bones were to be collected by elderly women and placed into a female urn. Urns were designed by their shape to be male or female. The performers of this ceremony were to walk three times in a counterclockwise direction around the bones while sprinkling milk and water from a particular kind of twig (sami). The bones were then placed into the urn as they were picked up individually with the thumb and fourth finger. First the bones of the feet were to be gathered and then successively the other bones were to be gathered working toward the head. After the bones had been purified and gathered they were sealed and buried in a secure location.

By the end of the Grhya period the practice of burying bones in an urn declined.

3. The Purakas Rites

As we have noted, the notion of an initial subtle body, known as the ativahika-sarira, was introduced during the Puranic period. As soon as the gross corporal body was burned, the soul came to inhabit this subtle body composed of only three elements: heat (tejas), wind (vayu), and space (akasa). This was the ativahika body.

The offering of the puraka rites, which involve the offering of handful size cakes made with boiled rice, sesame, honey, milk, sugar and dried fruits, served the function of step-by-step dissolving the ativahika body and gradually creating a subtle preta body. The puraka rites usually last 10 days. The order in which the ativahika body is dissolved and the preta body is created is as follows: On the first day a cake is offered and the deceased obtains the head of the preta; on the second day a second cake is offered and he obtains his ears, eyes and nose; on the third day a third cake is offered and he obtains his chest and neck; on the fourth day he obtains his stomach and abdomen; on the fifth day he obtains legs and feet; on the sixth day, he obtains his vital organs; on the seventh day he obtains bones, marrow, veins and arteries; on the eighth day he obtains nails and hair; on the ninth day all the remaining limbs and organs along with vitality are developed. On the tenth day, when the final cake is offered, the sensations of hunger and thirst associated with the ativahika body are removed. The ativahika body is finally dissolved and the preta bodied is fully developed.

In an emergency situation if the mourning period could only last one day then all the ten funeral cakes must be offered on that day. In some communities these rites are performed on the odd numbered days, but in all cases a total of ten cakes were to be offered.

The ativahika stage is said to involve great suffering due to heat, cold and wind. It is said that during this time the departed soul remains in the sky as wind without any support (akasa-stho niralambo vayu-bhuto nirvasrayah) The subsequent preta body is said to be less subtle than the ativahika body, but still more subtle than the physical body and therefore invisible to the eyes of this world.

Here is a brief description of how the puraka cakes were offered. After returning from the cremation, the nearest relatives of the deceased prepare the ground for the puraka cakes by creating a small altar and marking it with lines. Then with some stands of sacred grass (kusa) the performer sweeps the ground while naming the deceased along with the family gotra, “May this offering be acceptable to thee.” Making a cake with three handfuls of boiled rice, etc. he next says, “Let this first puraka cake restore your head. May it be acceptable to thee.” He then puts fragrant flowers, betel leaves and similar things on the funeral cake and offers a lamp and a woolen scarf to the deceased while saying, “May this lamp and woolen cloth be acceptable to thee.” He then places an earthen vessel of water and black sesame near the puraka cake and says, “May this vessel of water and sesame be acceptable to thee.”

Afterwards the puraka cakes and other things are thrown into sacred waters. The ceremony is then concluded by wiping the ground and leaving some food for crows and other such animals.

For ten successive days the puraka cakes were to be offered using a varied address each day to restore the different bodily parts.

There are many lengthy rules which prescribe who was allowed to perform these puraka rites and the other sraddhas. In fact, the right to perform these sraddhas and the rights to inheritance were often inter-related. The general hierarchy, going from eldest to youngest within each group, was as follows: the sons, the grandsons, the great-grandsons, the sons of a daughter, a wife, the brothers, the sons of a brother, the father, the mother, the daughters, the daughter-in-laws, the sisters, the sons of a sister and finally any family relation. If no family members are available then the rites may be performed by anyone of the town or village. In making the decision who will perform the funeral rites the emotional and mental competency of a family member was also an important consideration. At any time one family member could defer his or her rights to the next member.

Sixteen Ekoddista-sraddhas

The period of the ten puraka rites was considered a period of mourning. It was also a time of impurity, which meant that the family members would not travel to temples or other holy places. Nor could any sacred ceremonies take place within the family. Ordinarily this time ended after the tenth day with the final dissolution of the ativahika body and the creation of the preta body. The subsequent preta stage lasted for one year. During this time sixteen ekoddista-sraddhas were to be performed to maintain the preta body of the deceased and elevate the departed soul to the status of a pitrs. The last of these sraddhas was called the sapindi-karana at which time the departed soul finally became a pitr. The timing of these sixteen sraddhas is as follows. The first sraddha is performed on the eleventh day after death. After that twelve sraddhas are performed in each lunar month on the naksatra anniversary of the death.Two further sraddhas are performed on the six-month anniversary of the death. These are usually performed on the day before the regular sixth month and twelfth month naksatra sraddhas. The final sapindi-karana-sraddha was performed on the day after the last naksatra sraddha. In this way a total of 16 ekoddista-sraddhas were performed.

A brief description of an ekoddista-sraddha is as follows. A clean area is selected so that the performer can face the southern direction, the realm of Yama. The area is washed with cow dung and a seat made of sacred grass (kusa) is prepared. The performer wears his sacred thread over the right shoulder (pracinavitin) and performs a series of rituals and prayers that offer water, cloth, rice cakes (pinda) and other articles to the deceased. In his left hand the performer holds a vessel containing black sesame seeds and water, and in his right hand a special brush made of sacred grass (kusa). This was called a kurca. He pours water through the kurca and names the deceased person saying (in Sanskrit), “May this ablution be acceptable to thee.” Afterwards he takes a rice cake (pinda) mixed with clarified butter and presents it saying, “May this cake be acceptable to thee.” He serves out the food with the following prayers, “Ancestors, rejoice. Take your respective shares and become strong.” He walks counterclockwise around the consecrated spot and says, “Ancestors be glad, take your respective shares and be strong.” He returns to the same seat and again pours water on the ground over the kurca while reciting, “May this ablution be acceptable to you.” The whole affair concludes with the feeding of invited brahmanas in a feeding ceremony call brahmana-bhojanam.

The process of pouring water and black sesame through kurca is called tarpana. The food that is mixed into cakes is made of boiled rice mixed with ghee and sesame seeds. These are called pindas and they are similar to the puraka cakes used in the puraka ceremony.

Sapindi-karana the final Sraddha

The sapindi-karana-sraddha is the last of these sixteen sraddhas that are meant to elevate the departed soul to the rank of a pitr. It is performed in a similar manner to the previous sraddha with the following additions. The performer sets out four vessels with water, sesame and fragrance. Three are for the standard hierarchy of pitrs, the father, the grandfather and the great grandfather, and the fourth is for the recently departed soul. The performer then pours the vessel meant for the recently departed soul into the vessels of the three standard pitrs. Similarly, four cakes of rice (pindas) are prepared and the cake belonging to the recently departed soul is broken up and added to the three cakes belonging to three standard pitrs. After the performance of this rite the preta being becomes a pitr and joins the assemblage of fathers in their abode (pitr-loka).

Releasing the bull (Vrsotsarga)

At some point during these sixteen ekoddista-sraddhas a rite involving the release of a bull (vrsotsarga) was also performed. Some commentators suggest that it should be performed on the eleventh day, in other words, during the first ekoddista-sraddhas, and others say that it should be performed on last day during the sapindi-karana-sraddhas. The rite is a remnant of the ancient rite of killing the anustarani animal. If an actual bull was not available then an image made of earth, rice or grass could serve the purpose.

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The term ativahika has its origins in the Upanisads where it refers to those who are deployed to carry the dead to the other world (ativahe iha lokat para-loka-prapane niyuktah).

The period of impurity would vary according to caste. Higher castes had generally shorter periods of impurity. Ordinarily the major period of impurity would last until the eleventh day. After that regular temple going would resume, but major auspicious family ceremonies such as weddings may be postponed for a year until the final sapindi-karana had been performed.

There are 27 naksatras in a lunar month. See —— for details.

The word pinda is derived from the Sanskrit root pind which means “to form into a ball, to mass, or to join together.” A pinda is that food which is usually made of rice mashed together with various things such as meat, sesame, ghee, dried fruits, sugar, and other condiments. More often it is just made of plain rice. According to some authorities the size of the rice cake should be as small as can easily enter into the mouth of a child of two years. According to other sources it should be one handful of size. Some sources describe it as the size of a hen’s egg. Usually three pinda are offered, one for the father, one for the grandfather, and one for the great-grandfather.

4. Pitr-yajna


Upon being established as a pitr the departed soul became fit for receiving the benefits of the numerous pitr-yajnas. The pitr-yajna is a kind of sraddha wherein one’s family ancestors as well as the general class of pitrs are worshiped. Hindu sastra prescribes a variety of such ceremonies.

Like the ekoddista rites these ceremonies involve the offerings of rice cakes (pinda), libations of water (tarpana), and oblations through fire (homa). Three rice cakes, one for each pitr, were generally employed. Some of the ceremonies were performed on specific days of the month and times of the year, namely new moon (amavasya) and during the dark half of the month of bhadrapada (pitr-paksa). For this reason they were sometimes called parvana rites. Other varieties of these ceremonies are called kamya or sometimes vrddhi-sraddhas because they may be performed as desired for some specific purpose.


We have made reference to the offering of libations of water during the sixteen ekoddista-sraddhas. This process is called tarpana and along with the use of fire it is an essential component of the sraddha process. The word tarpana is derived from the Sanskrit root trp which means to please or to gratify. Tarpana is the act of pleasing (trpyanti pitaro yena). Specifically, tarpana is the act of pouring water through the hands with the use of sacred grass called kusa as a symbolic gesture of recognition, thanking and pleasing three classes of beings: gods, sages, and fathers. Usually the sraddha-tarpana is performed in conjunction with other rites. Water mixed with barley is sometimes poured through the hands as an offering to the gods. Water mixed with black sesame is poured through the hands as an offering to the pitrs. Different parts of the hand are used for pouring water when worshiping the different classes of beings. According to Manu, the area in the center of the palm is called the brahma-tirtha, the area below the little finger is called the prajapati-tirtha, the region at the tips of the fingers is called the daiva-tirtha, and the space between the bottom of the thumb and the index finger is called the pitr-tirtha. Devas should be gratified using the daiva-tirtha, rsis using the prajapati-tirtha, and pitrs using the pitr-tirtha.

During the tarpana ceremony, the sacrificial thread is worn in different positions around the shoulders and neck for worshiping the different classes of beings. A twice born is called upavitin when the sacred thread rests across the left shoulder, he is called nivitin when the sacred thread lies down straight from the neck, and he is called pracinavitin when the sacred thread rests across the right shoulder. The devas are to be worshipped in the upavitin position, the sages and exalted human beings in the nivitin position, and the pitrs in the pracinavitin position.

Similarly, different directions correspond to the different classes of beings. When offering libations of water to the gods, one turns the face towards the east, when offering to sages one turns the face towards the north, and when offering to the fathers one turns the face towards the south. These differences in thread, hand and face positions are used simply to distinguish the gods, the sages and the fathers from each other.

The general order in which tarpana is performed is as follows: First the devas are gratified, then the rsi, then the divine pitrs. After that, starting with the most recently deceased, those fathers who belong to the paternal are worshiped followed by those on the maternal side.

Later commentators attempt to explain why water is used during tarpana. Water is said to be a neutral substance, therefore it can most easily be converted into the various foods needed to satisfy the respective pitrs. For those ancestors who have entered heaven, nectar is said to be their food. For those ancestors who have entered into an animal species, grass may be their food. For those ancestors who had returned to this earthly realm, rice may be their food. Water, being a neutral substance, can easily be converted into nectar, grass or rice, etc.

The matter is also explained in another way. When a friend or relative presents food to a lady who is pregnant she eats the food and satisfies herself. At the same time the child within her womb is nourished. The food is converted into a substance suitable for the child. Similarly, when tarpana is offered to the divine fathers, they accept it by first gratifying themselves and then gratifying the fathers over whom they preside. Tarpana is perhaps the most important of the sraddha rites and can even substitute for the rest of the sraddha process.

The word parvana refers to certain times within the lunar cycle, namely new moon, the eighth and fourteenth lunar days (tithis). These are times especially set aside for the pitr-yajna ceremonies.

Vrddhi means increase. Kamya means “according to desire.” One such Vrddhi-sraddha was called the nandi-mukha-sraddha because a certain class of pitrs called nandi-mukhas are evoked and asked to bring prosperity and progeny to a marrying couple.

5. The Feeding of the Brahmanas/Honoring the Pitrs

Along similar lines it was prescribed that during a sraddha ceremony it was also required that brahmanas be fed. The brahmanas were not to be considered as mere human beings, but as representative of the pitrs. The position of the brahmana in a sraddha rite was therefore very high and they were regularly worshiped by the performer of the sraddha. When the brahmanas ate they ate on behalf of the pitrs. Their satisfaction was the satisfaction of the fathers. Although the germ of paying homage to the brahmanas is found in the Rg-Veda, the practice of feeding brahmanas was not in practice. In the Vedic period offerings for the dead were poured directly into the fire, which then carried the food to the fathers. The feeding of brahmanas was a practice that developed from the Grhya period. In the later periods, the brahmanas even came to occupy the position of the sacrificial fire. And so food and other such articles formally offered to the pitrs began to be offered to the brahmanas as their representatives on earth. In a further extension to this idea the brahmana began to represent, not only the pitrs, but even Brahman Itself. Consequently, when a brahmana ate Brahman ate, which meant that the whole world also ate.

The Time for Honoring the Pitrs

It is prescribed that the pitrs be worshiped during the dark times. As such, the new moon (amavasya), the dark side of the lunar month (krsna-paksa), the southern half of the sun’s course (daksayana), the afternoon, during an eclipse, during the night, and so forth, became the times when the pitrs were to be most respected. In fact, any degree of diminution of light has come to be associated with the worship of pitrs.

The Satapathabrahmana explains how darkness and some other details came to be selected for the worship of the dead: The gods once approached Prajapati and said, “Give us a means to live.” Thereupon the gods were properly invested with the sacred thread over the left shoulder and were taught to bend using the right knee. To the gods Prajapati said, “Sacrifice shall be your food, immortality your sap, svah your call and the sun your light.” Then the pitrs approached Prajapati wearing the sacred thread over the right shoulder and bending from the left knee. To them Prajapati said, “Your eating shall be monthly, your call shall be svadha and the moon shall be your light.” In this way the harmony between the gods and the pitrs was maintained. One is worshipped in light and the other is worshipped in darkness.

The operative rule underlying most of Hindu culture is that the light of the sun was used as a symbol for knowledge and consciousness. Vastu-sastra prescribes that temples and homes must open to the rising sun in the east. Temple images should also face the east. Uttarayana, the time of increasing daylight, is considered more auspicious than daksinayana, the time of diminishing daylight. In contrast, death, which is associated with the loss of consciousness, has come to be symbolized by darkness. As the sun is an eternal source of light and so has become a symbol for God and the divine life, so the moon, has become a symbol for the cycle of birth and death. The moon regularly moves between light and darkness. Similarly, the word deva is derived from the Sanskrit root div meaning to shine. The devas are, therefore, “the shining ones.” The pitrs, on the other hand, are bathed in the light of the moon and so in this way are distinguished from the gods.


In the Satapatha-brahmana it is stated that three seasons, the spring, the summer and the rainy season belong to the gods. These three seasons together make the uttarayana or the time when the sun is on the northern course. As noted above, this is the time of increasing light in the northern hemisphere. In contrast, autumn, early winter and late winter belong to the fathers. These three seasons comprise daksinayana, the time when the sun is on the southern course. This of course is the time of failing light in the northern hemisphere. In particular, the dark side of the month of bhadrapada (September October) has been singled out as the best time for the worship of fathers. A sraddha performed in this period was said to produce special merit.

The manner in which the worship of the pitrs are worshiped during the month of bhadrapada is as follows. If one’s father happened to pass away on the 5th lunar day of any month (pancami-tithi) then the 5th tithi during the dark side of the month of bhadrapada would be used for honoring one’s father and the other pitrs of the family. If one’s relative happened to pass away on the 6th tithi then the 6th tithi during the dark side of the month of bhadrapada would be used for honoring one’s father and the other pitrs. In this way, all 16 tithis of the dark side of the month of bhadrapada cover all the possible lunar days on which a family member could expire.

Daksayana occurs when the daylight is shortest in the northern hemisphere.

During a fire sacrifice (yajna) oblations are offered into the fire with two expressions, svah and svadha. Offerings made to devas are made with the sound svah and offering for the pitrs are made using the sound svadha.

SB ii.1.3, 1-3.

Some sastras mention that the dark side of the month of asvina should be set aside for the worship of the fathers, but this works out to be the same time period as the dark side of the month of bhadrapada. This is because in some parts of South India the lunar month is calculated from the first day of the bright fortnight to the new moon, whereas in north India the month is calculated from the first day of the dark fortnight to the full moon. In this way, the dark fortnight after the full moon of the month of bhadrapada is equivalent to the dark side of asvina.

6. Another Form of Sraddha

I will conclude this article by mentioning a final variation to the sraddha process, which is based on the ancient Pancaratra tradition whose influence can be readily seen in the Mahabharata some of the Puranas.

A follower of Visnu is enjoined to perform the sraddha rites with the remnants of food first offered to Visnu. The Padma-purana enjoins that deities other than Visnu and the fathers may be propitiated with food that has been first offered to Visnu. In that same text Narada says, “Following the ordinances of the Sattvata School, the devotees first worshiped Visnu, the God of gods, and with the remnants of such food worshiped the fathers.” In the Brahmanda-purana it is enjoined that the father’s remain gratified for thousands of kalpas with rice cakes mixed with sacred blossoms of tulasi, prepared with the remnants of food offered with devotion to Visnu. In the Skanda-purana, Siva says, “Food should first be offered to Visnu and then the very same food should be distributed to the minor deities and the fathers.” In the Purusottama-khanda of that same text, it is stated, “For avoiding defilement, the remnants of food offered to Visnu should be mixed with the rice cakes to be offered to the fathers. Food is rendered pure when sprinkled with the waters of the tulasi and when mixed with the food offered to Visnu.” In the course of a conversation between Brahma and Narada it has been made clear that the worship of Visnu alone is capable of releasing the fathers from the suffering of hell.” It is even stated that the performance of the sraddha rite is useless in the age of Kali without first worshipping Visnu.

This series of quotations from various Puranas reflects the Pancaratrika idea that through a person’s sole reliance on Visnu all things that a human being would otherwise have to do alone could be accomplished through the grace of God. The successful outcome of the sraddha process was therefore, not dependant on the power of the ritual, the expertise of the priest, precise timing, and availability of the articles, etc. but upon God alone. This approach involved the ‘handing over’ of the fate of the soul to God.

According to this approach, food or water that is offered to the pitrs is first offered to Visnu and thereby transformed into visnu-prasada. The word prasada means “mercy” or “grace.” Thus visnu-prasada is God’s grace. This prasada of Visnu is then offered to the pitrs, who now receive God’s grace instead of mere food or water. In this way, the grace of God has the power to elevate and sustain the pitrs in a manner that no human power can match. In the case of a homa or havan, a ritual performed with fire, the fire is used as the “delivery system” by which Visnu is first offered food. This food offering, which is now God’s grace, is then offered to the pitrs through the fire. It is thus Agnideva, the fire God, who acts as the link between this world and the world of the pitrs.

Psychologically this approach to the sraddha process is very satisfying to grieving family members. The invocation of God’s grace to reach beyond human endeavor is indeed powerful.

Walker, Benjamin. Hindu World, An Encyclopedic Survey of Hinduism. In two volumes. New Delhi: Indus, 1968.

Shastri, Dakshina Ranjan. Origin and Development of the Rituals of Ancestor Worship in India. Bookland Private: Calcutta, 1963.

Saraswati, Swami Dayanand, translation by Vaidyanath Shastri. The Sanskar Vidhi. Sarvadeshik Arya Pratinidhi Sabha: New Delhi, 1985.

The Pancaratra Agamas claim to be based on the üukla-yajur-veda (which is no longer extant) and purports to be of Vedic origin. The Pancaratra Agamas are extremely voluminous. The number of texts is in the hundreds, but the most ancient and authoritative Pancaratra texts are the Sattvata, Pauskara and Jayakhya Samhitas.

7. The Psychological Benefits of Sacrifice

The Satapatha-brahmana, a text of the Vedic period, speaks about the five debts that a human being accrues by living in this world. A person becomes indebted to God, to the gods, to the ancestors, to living persons of this world and to lesser beings. It states that these debts can be repaid through sacrifice. God can be repaid through the sacrifice of studying and teaching the Vedas. The gods can be repaid by the sacrifice of offering oblations into the fire. The ancestors can be repaid through the sacrifice of offering libations of water (tarpana). Elders of this world can be repaid through the sacrifice of showing hospitality to guests, and lesser beings can be repaid by the sacrifice of offering food to animals and other creatures.

In a similar way, the Manu-samhita, a work of the Grhya period, explains how even unknowingly a human being causes suffering and thereby incurs sin while living in this world. Five places are cited: the kitchen, the grinding stone, the broom, the mortar and pestle, and the water pot. Like the Satapatha- brahmana, Manu says that through sacrifice a human being can atone for these sins. In other words, Hindu thinkers from the earliest times recognized that life involved consuming the resource of this world. Both texts recognized that a human being had a debt to settle with the world, and both agreed that it was through sacrifice that a human could settle this debt and establish a just relationship with the world. The pitr-yajna was one such attempt.

The psychological effect of sacrifice was to enlarge one’s individual existence. By performing the worship of the ancestors, one established a relationship with the ancestors. The person no longer lived alone in the universe. The meaning of the opening prayers used in the tarpana ceremony is illustrative, “From the highest point to lowest point, so far as this universe extends, let all divine sages and patriarchs, all deceased fathers, on both the father’s and mother’s side, be worshiped. Let this humble offering of sesame and water go for benefit the whole world, from the highest heaven down to this earth, to benefit the inhabitants of the seven continents belonging to unlimited families in the past.” The rite of pitr-yajna was therefore, an attempt to psychologically harmonize the individual with the larger world outside.

This need for psychological expansion and to establish a just relationship with the universe was also expressed in how the Brahmana texts interpreted the pinda offerings used in the pitr-yajnas.The cakes were not simply food offerings. They represented the pitrs and ultimately the whole of existence. The first cake, for the father, was seen as the image of the earth (bhur) and just as fire enjoys the earth, so the soul of the father was said to enjoy the first cake. The second cake, for the grandfather, was seen as the image of the sky (bhuvar) and just as the wind enjoys the sky, so the grandfather was said to enjoy the second cake. The third cake, for the great grandfather, was seen as the image of the heavens (svar) and just as the sun enjoys the heavens, so the great grandfather was said to enjoy this third cake. In this way, the three pinda cakes were equated with the whole of creation, bhur, bhuvar and svar. Offering the pinda to the pitrs was equal to feeding the universe.

Copyright © Sanskrit Religions Institute 2003.

All rights reserved.

By Dr. Shukavak Dasa

[1] a-brahma stamba-paryantam devarsi pitr-manavah

trpayantu pitarah sarve matr-mata-mahadayah

atita-kula-kotinam sapta-dvipa-nivasinam

a-brahma bhuvanal lokadi-dam astu tilodakam

[2] The combination of words bhur, bhuvas and svar become “the great call to creation” (maha-vyahrti) used at the beginning of the savitr-gayatri mantra and when offerings of ghee and other articles were made into the fire.

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