# Day 133 (Of food for ‘departed souls’ and more…)

Legend has it that when the soul of that renowned warrior and philanthropist Karna (from the epic ‘Mahabharata’) ascended to the realm above after his death, he was offered gold and jewels as food. Karna wanted to eat real food and asked Yama the reason for his being served gold as food. Yama told him that the great charity that had earned him the epithet of ‘Daanveer Karna’ had all been in terms of his wealth and so it was being returned a hundred fold. However he had never offered food as charity specially to his ancestors. Karna replied that the oversight had happened because he had not been aware of who his ancestors were and implored Yama to allow him to return to earth and make amends. In acknowledgement of his legendary status Yama allowed Karna to go back to earth for 16 days to help him fulfil his duties towards his ancestors. And so for that fortnight plus one, Karna came back fed the poor and offered oblations of water (a ritual called ‘tarpan’ or ‘arghaya’) and when he returned he had food in plenty. Pleased with Karna’s piety in performing the ‘Asvayuja-Paksha’ rites Yama gave a boon and so ordained that ‘shraadh‘ rites done during this particular period would acquire a unique merit and food offerings made at this time would directly reach the departed souls of the ancestors and those offered on the last day of ’Sarva-Pitri Amavasya’ (also called Mahalaya) would reach all departed souls, irrespective of whether they were direct kins of the offerer or not. And so was born the annual Hindu tradition of observing the ‘Pitra-Paksh’ which simply translates to ‘fortnight of the ancestors.’ This period which falls in the ‘krishna-paksh’ or ‘dark-fortnight’ of the lunar month of Ashwin in the north and Bhadrapad in the southern region is also known as ‘shraadh’ for this time is dedicated to paying homage to your ancestors through food offerings.(The anomaly of differing lunar month names for the same period was once resolved by my mother-in-law who had explained that the lunar calendar followed in the southern and western parts of the country is “amavasyant” i.e. one where the month ends with the new moon, while in North India the “purnimant” lunar calendar is followed i.e. one where the month ends with the full moon.) Some legends even talk about Yama releasing the souls in his domain to visit their homes at sunrise and to return at sunset during this fortnight and so the belief is that by propitiating them during the ‘pitra-paksha’ one would be bestowed with health, wealth, knowledge, longevity and ultimately ‘moksha’ or salvation by the blessings of the ancestors.
Ever since i can remember, i have memories of first my parents and later my in laws cooking and donating a meal in memory of the ancestor whose shraadh fell on that particular tithi during this fortnight. A note here about “tithi”…in Vedic time-keeping a tithi is like a date in the lunar calendar 1 to 14 in the ‘shukla-paksha’ (the bright fortnight) or the waxing moon-phase which ends with purnima or full moon on the 15th day; and 1 to 14 in the “krishna-paksha” (the dark fortnight) or the waning moon phase which ends with amavasya or new moon. As per custom you have to perform the shraadh rituals for three preceding generations by reciting their names and gotras (the mythical ancestor of your lineage). My mother-in-law did so for one preceding generation, perhaps because she wasn’t aware of the ‘tithis’ for others, and it’s a tradition we have carried forward…offering a meal in my father-in-laws memory on dashmi and in her memoery on chaturdashi, while everyone else is remembered and covered on the last day.
Many such rituals i know will probably die out with our generation for the new breed neither have the time nor the faith for such ceremonial rites and without faith rituals only degenerate to soul-less tedious chores. As a youngster i too often wondered why would you offer food for the soul which is beyond sensory pleasures…after all the Bhagvad Gita enjoins upon us that the ultimate aim of the human soul is to unite with the ‘parmatma’. Over the years after much questioning of priests and elders and reading translations of writings by great seers a vague answer has taken shape…i refer to it as vague for the information i depend upon has its limitations. The primary one being the fact that it is derived from translations which i am convinced can never truly convey the many layers of meaning the word has in the original. Secondly our ancient scriptures have come down to us through the oral tradition and are therefore prone to many subjective embellishments. And above all it is intuitive knowledge of ‘enlightened souls’, not one based on empirical reasoning that can be proved. Nevertheless the quest continues, and i feel compelled to write about it someday…for now it’s still in the ‘coming soon’ stage!!
Meanwhile a new concept has emerged and become popular over the last six-seven years…Joy of Giving Week, celebrated every year in the week including Gandhi Jayanti (Oct 2-8). It seeks to bring together people from all walks of life to participate in events that celebrate ‘giving’. Last year volunteers renamed this philanthropy week as “Daan-Utsav”. As i read posts about young people volunteering to make a hundred sandwiches each, which they then go and distribute among the lesser privileged or about families taking the neighbourhood slum children for an ice-cream treat, i am convinced some ideas are timeless… they just get re-invented and transform from a religious ‘pitra-paksh’ to a new secular ‘daan-utsav’ and the gift of food remains the greatest charity. Life depends on food and any endeavour that seeks to provide nourishment to all needs to be wholeheartedly embraced.

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About sunsur81

A gatherer of thoughts...exploring myths,metaphors and expressions of life...
This entry was posted in 365 Days Blog-roll, Indian Accents and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to # Day 133 (Of food for ‘departed souls’ and more…)

  1. NupurNS says:

    Thanks for this one Ma. You really need to put down such detailed explanations for more of our traditions and rituals 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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