Shraaddha, of Sanskrit origin, which in its literal translation, means the act performed with all sincerity, is a ceremony enjoined upon the Hindu patriarch that one has to perform to pay homage to one’s ancestors, the deceased parents in particular. An intricate and elaborate ceremony with offerings of food and drinks being made, in the Hindu dharma it is believed that the ceremony must be performed to ensure the safe and sound transition of the souls of the loved ones to the next world.
Also referred to as the ‘Pitri Puja’ or ‘worship of the ancestors’, it is celebrated on the anniversary of the deceased, separately for the male and female parent and usually be the male descendant. The ritual is of elevated significance in the societies influenced by the traditions of Hindu dharma, for it is in this tradition acknowledging the favour done to the individual by his ancestors, sages, and God is emphasised along with repaying the four debts; debts to ancestors, society, sages and the God.
The ritual, in contemporary practice, is performed dominantly by the immediate male descendants of the deceased, though the scriptures boast of how in ancient times, this very particular ritual was performed by women too. If one were to speculate the reason behind it, it must be the discontinuity of the thread ceremony by women in all classes of Hinduism; in which a sacred thread is received by a boy and he continues wearing it thereafter.
On the day of the ritual, usually, the anniversary of the deceased, the Karta or the person who performs the Shraaddha invites the Hindu priests or the Brahmanas, a term in the ancient scriptures that connotes those who have knowledge of the ultimate reality, the Brahma. The Karta, for the day, treats the Brahamans as his parent, performs a Sacrificial fire or the Homa, and offers balls of rice, the Pinda to the departed souls. This particular ritual is referred to as “Pinda Pradaana”, which in its literal translation is, offered to the Pitṛs, the ancestral spirits. The Karta serves the priest with sumptuously rich food, treating them with all hospitality, and concludes the ceremony by giving “Dakshina” or materialistic offering (either in kind or cash) to the Brahmans. In the Hindu dharma, also the cows are considered as Pitris or the ancestors and hence, during Shraaddha, the practice of offering rice balls or Pinda to cows is still elegantly observed.
It is also during this ceremony, the Sharaddha, which may last from a single day to several weeks, feasts and gift-giving gatherings occur. Most of these events, although some are of contemporary origin, stems from the Hindu belief that whatever is given away by surviving loved ones will eventually find to the deceased, in the form of Upaadhi, whatever their incarnated forms may be, for the Hindu dharma does not believe in inaction or permanent rest of the soul.
Although the Vedas, the principle text of the Hindu dharma, do not mention of the Sharaddha, and do not impose its necessary observation upon the cessation of the physical being, some Hindu sacred texts, mention of Rishi Atri, one of the 10 sons of Lord Brahma as the first one to decipher the rituals of Shraddha. The ritual, however, was devised by Lord Brahma, who was in deep grief after the sudden death of his Son.
Also in another light, as per the observer stance of Vaishnavism, a major tradition of Hinduism which regard Vishnu as the supreme being, the significance of the ritual is linked with Maya, The Great Illusion, and Brahman, the Creator. Through the bond of debts that need to be repaid and threads of the give and take relationship, we are bound to each other and to the materialistic world. As the philosophies in the Hindu dharma reckon, rather than immediately after the cessation of the physical being, only at the time these threads dissolve, the embodied soul gets liberated and only then it can acquire momentum to progress towards attaining final liberation. It is through the ritual of Shraddha, the deceased can get rid of the materialistic bonding that hold them back and get liberated from that cycle of the birth.
The practice, which has begun to lose its significance in the contemporary society, however according to the scriptures, is a powerful tool in spirituality and clearly is an important pillar supporting the life in the religious world.