Sixteen Days of Ancestor Worship
Worshipping Ancestors is as important as worshipping gods in this country. It’s a part of daily life and one does not begin the morning meal until food and water have been offered to the spirits of the dead.
Sorah Shraddha is a sixteen-days of Ancestor worship right before Dashain, the biggest Hindus festival in Nepal. It is also known as Pitri Paksha, The fortnight of ancestors.
Although the Pitri Paksha is a pious fortnight for remembering ancestors, the time is equally inauspicious for Godly worship. It is the entire dark half of the lunar month which falls in Bhadrapada (September–October). This fortnight immediately precedes to the great Dashain Festival, and often includes the full moon day of Indra Jatra, making a total of sixteen days.
It begins with the full moon day (Purnima) immediately after the Ganesh festival i.e. when according to the astrology, the Sun reaches the place of Kanya (Virgo) and ends on the new moon day known as Sarvapitri Amavasya or Mahalaya Amavasya, when the sun leaves Kanya to Vrischhik (Scorpion). Those are the fifteen days when it is believed that the spirits of the departed ancestors leave Pitriloka, their abodes in the regions of the dead, to come back to the world and occupy the homes of their descendants, seeking their worship and homage.
Hindu Mythology says that ‘each day of this holy fortnight is equal in point of sanctity to a day spent at Gaya’, the holy city in India regarded as the most sacred of all places for performing rites for the dead. Many Nepalese journeys to Gaya or to Kagbeni in Mustang, at least once during their lifetime to honour their dead. He whose father is living is exempt from the obligations of Sorah Shraddha fortnight since all avenues to ancestors lead through the soul of the last deceased paternal kin. As long as the father is living, he himself will perform the obligatory rites to family ancestors. Thus the souls of the dead are perpetually cared for.
Each day during Sorah Shraddha, hundreds of worshippers perform rites at the temples, holy places, sacred rivers and especially at the great shrine to Lord Shiva at Pashupatinath near Kathmandu.
There are 15 days in Malaya Paksha consisting of 15 Tithis namely Pratipat, Dwitiya, Tritiya, Chaturthi, Panchami, Shashti, Saptami, Ashtami, Navami, Dasami, Ekadasi, Dvadasi, Trayodasi, Chaturdashi and Amavasya. A male ancestor’s soul must be worshipped each day during Sorah Shraddha, but his special rites are performed on the day which corresponds to the Tithi of the fortnight in which he died. But for mothers or female ancestors, the special day is Nawami, the 9th day of the fortnight also known as Matri Nawami. The performance during Sarvapitri Amavasya rites can compensate for the forgotten or neglected annual Shraddha ceremony if ideally coincided with the death anniversary of the deceased.
Another exception to the Sarvapitri Amavasya (“all fathers’ new moon day”) is there are special days allotted for people who died typical death or held a certain status in life. Chautha Bharani and Bharani Panchami, the fourth and fifth day orderly are allocated for people deceased in the previous year. Another term for the Matri Nawami as mentioned above is Avidhava Nawami (“Unwidowed ninth”), it’s a day to worship women who died before their husband. Widowers invite Brahmin women as guests for their wife’s shraddha. The twelfth day is for children and ascetics who had renounced the worldly pleasures. The fourteenth day is known as Ghata Chaturdashi or Ghayala Chaturdashi which is for those who suffered a violent death.
Garuda Purana says, “there is no salvation for a man without a son”.
Shraddha is performed by the son, however, on Sarvapitri Amavasya, one’s daughter’s son can offer Shraddha for the maternal side of his family in the absence of a male heir. Prior to performing this rite, the boys of the family must have undergone a sacred thread ceremony call Bratabandhan. It’s a rite of passage to become full members of their patriline and their caste. All the Hindus in Nepal perform these rites but Royals. Royals will have a high-class Brahmin perform this act for their forefathers.
Shraddha means literally ‘gift offered with faith,’ pious offering to any deceased relative to whom honour is due in rites often performed in the home. In all forms of Shraddha the chief act is the offering of pindas, balls of rice or barley flour coated with black sesame seeds, libations of water and the repetition of certain prayers are also essential. Before offering water as refreshment to the souls of the dead, libations are first made to the gods—Brahma, Vishu, Rudra (Shiva) and Prajapati—and thereafter to the Sapta Rishi (seven principal sages of ancient times). Next three-generation ancestors must be mentioned by name —father, grandfather, great-grandfather, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother in the paternal line along with gotra (mythical lineage ancestor). And on to maternal ancestors and others. In many homes, ancestors are worshipped back to the seventh generation and gotra is mentioned to affirm the lineage ties.
At the conclusion of Shraddha rites, the pinda cakes are immersed in the holy rivers or they may be given to a sacred cow as food.
During this Sorah Shraddha fortnight, many men refrain from shaving. Cutting the hair and paring the nails is forbidden on the anniversary of a father’s death, but many abstain from these acts during the entire fortnight, a practice derived from the legend of King Karna.
Karna Raja (King Karna)
He is popularly known as Daanveer Karna who had taken a vow to continue his daily fasting until his accumulated gifts of pure gold to the Brahmin priests had reached certain immense proportions. After his death, he was taken straight to heaven, where he was lodged in a golden palace, and give nothing but gold to eat and drink, since throughout his lifetime his only gift of charity had been this precious metal. Finally, in great hunger and distress, the King asked as a boon to be allowed to return to earth for the fifteen days of Sorah Shraddha. His wish was granted and he spent the entire two weeks giving away large quantities of food to the hungry, a task which so engrossed him that he neglected to bathe, shave or wash his clothing. Thereafter he lived comfortably in Heaven.
Shraddha: The Last Rites of Passage
At death, after the body has been cremated and the ashes strewn into a sacred river, a mourning period of thirteen days is observed, usually by the eldest son for father and the youngest son for mother. He shaves his head, wears white loin drape, sits alone and untouched by anyone while performing the meticulously prescribed rituals. This duty is called antyesti kriya or antim sanskaar, the final act of assistance the living can give to the departed family members. On the eleventh day after death, a priest comes to collects from the bereaved ‘all the items which the deceased used while he lived’—bed, mattress, blanket, cooking and eating utensils, food, jewellery and clothing. For example, If the women die, the gifts might include the clothes and accessories she liked. A new bed is also given, in part as a wish that they sleep well in next life, piled on the gift ben will be pans, pots, and other useful everyday objects
In the Hindu cosmology, the path to the afterlife is an epic journey influenced by the person’s actions during life but is also assisted by relatives in the day’s after the soul’s departure
The forty-fifth-day alive sacred cow must be presented the priest so that the soul may hold its tail eventually reach heaven. The ritual is called gau-daan, a cow donation. These days mourners make a monetary donation and the offering of the cow is symbolic. Specific gifts are made again six and twelve months after death. For the first year, every month special Shraddha ceremonies are performed and food is offered to the dead; also on each anniversary thereafter.
Many can ill afford this outlay, and some resent the acquisitiveness of the priests, but most feel that unless these donations are made the souls of their kinfolk may wander cold, hungry, and resentful. Few could withstand the condemnation of neighbors and kinfolk which would fall upon their heads if they neglected this sacred duty. And there is no doubt that the performance of endless rituals when a beloved one dies does bring solace and comfort to those who grieve.
Markandeya Purana mentions that if the ancestors are content with the shraddhas, they will bestow health, wealth, knowledge and longevity, and ultimately heaven and salvation (moksha) upon the performer.
‘The father is heaven, the father is religious or duty, the father is the highest form of penance, prayer, or meditation.
That is why in many homes, ancestors are deified as household gods who, if given proper care, will protect.
The most important of all earthly duties is ministering to the needs of and worshipping the souls of departed relatives and ancestors in Nepal.
Rites of Shraddha
The male performing Shraddha, purifies himself with a regular bath. Wears loin drape. He puts a ring of Kush (Eragrostis Cynosuroides) on his index finger, then the ancestors are invoked to reside in the ring. The shraddha is performed bare-chested, as the position of the sacred thread worn by him needs to be changed to right and left multiple times during the ceremony. He offers pinda. Makes special food, fruit, and money offerings. Crow is the messenger of Yama, the God of death, so if a crow arrives and devours the food of Shraddha, it is believed that the offerings are accepted by he who has been offered. A cow and a dog are also fed, and Brahmin priests are also offered food. Once the ancestors (crow) and Brahmins have eaten, the family members can also eat their first meal of the day.