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Reflections on Death Rituals, Ancestors, and Therapy

By Mukti Shah


Pitru Paksha or the fortnight of the ancestors is a time for remembrance of departed family members, up to three generations before your own. To pay respect to their memories, actions and to wish them ‘gati’ or speed in their spiritual progress post death. Prayers for them include asking them to break their attachments to family and earthly desires. This lasts an entire lunar cycle- from full moon to the new moon.


I have spent the past two weeks thinking about those who came before me in my family, town, country and the world. A pandemic is especially conducive for such reflections. Part of the contemplation was gratitude for all that they have done for me. The knowledge of generations, the toil and effort of those who came before me to enable me to have this life. The abilities and frailties that I inherited through them. Part of the reflection was on my own mortality. Pitru Paksh is the time for gratitude but also an opportunity to contemplate our own mortality. To think about how our lives impact generations after us. How our actions live on, though our bodies don’t.


As a psychotherapist, I am privy to the ‘karmas or aftermath of dysfunctional patterns handed down through the generations. An unhappy grandmother’s careless words, a grand uncle’s cruelty, a mother’s love, a father’s jealousy towards his sibling all impact directly or subtly the subsequent generations. Beyond interpersonal and personality-based issues research shows that trans-generational impacts of poverty, partition, famine, war, suicides, loss transmit epi-genetically. Often the patterns repeat with astonishing predictability within a family. Conflicts between the spouses is a clash of two unique types of familial patterns (or karmas) that combine over a period of time to present to their children a blended hi-breed of dysfunction as well as positive impacts. Each subsequent generation adds their own strands to this tapestry, and so on. As they say, one generation plants the trees the next generation gets the shade. Sometimes no trees are planted, or the trees don’t grow tall enough to provide shade.


In the general sense Pitr means father who gave his energy in the form of semen to the mother to create a physical body. So, all fathers, grandfathers, great grandfathers are considered Pitr. Prana or life force itself was the first Pitr according to the Prasna Upnisad. The original Pitr or ancestor was the life force offering to a mass of matter. Hence, Life force or Prana is the original Pitr or ancestor. And since there is life force in all of us, we are our own ancestors in a way! (Prasna Upanisad Sa Bha II VII). All inner work is Shraaddha…The symbology of Pinda.


The word Shraaddha signifies an act of faith. The Shraaddha ritual requires the offering of rice balls called pindas made of rice, milk and ghee. A pinda is the symbol of a mass or seed of potency with all its faculties, karmas, knowledge and desires and memories ready to manifest. Similar to the soul ready to manifest in another body and lifetime after death. It’s a way for us to repay our genetic (and epigenetic) debt to our ancestors. Incidentally this ritual is also conducted during garbhadhana the first samskara (a purificatory ceremony or rite marking a major event in one's life.) before conception, where the bride is offered a rice ball but here it is called Caru. The symbology is the same. The rice ball represents potential for lifeforce to animate a mass of matter that would be brought into the world through the bride into this particular lineage.



"We are placing faith in our therapist, healer, elder, shaman, Guru or whoever to help us realise our own innate potential. And over time we learn to have faith in our own ability to do the Shraaddha for our attachments, tendencies and ignorance"


Psychologically, the pinda represents a bundle of entangled tendencies, pain, insecurities, joys, family legends and beliefs and other aspects of identity handed to us over generations. It is a gift because if we are our own ancestors, the life force or Pitrs have gifted us these karmas or patterns to help us grow and become self-actualized. When we sift through our own life experiences and begin the work of undoing the impact of generations of Dysfunction and trauma, we are essentially doing Shraaddha. We are placing faith in our therapist, healer, elder, shaman, Guru or whoever to help us realise our own innate potential. And over time we learn to have faith in our own ability to do the Shraaddha for our attachments, tendencies and ignorance.


In his autobiography, C.G Jung states, "Thus, we remain ignorant of whether our ancestral components find an elementary gratification in our lives, or whether they are repelled. Inner peace and contentment depend in large measure upon whether or not the historical family which is inherent in the individual can be harmonized with the ephemeral conditions of the present” (Jung, 2019, p282). Further he points out that “psychologically this means that the souls of the ancestors (potential factors, qualities, talents, possibilities, and so on, which we have inherited from all the lines of our ancestry) are waiting in the unconscious, and are ready at any time to begin a new growth”. (ETH, Alchemy).


This year has been a year of Shraaddha for many of us who have bravely embarked on the journey of processing the collective family karmas or tendencies that we carry within us. It is also a time to look at our karmas at the planetary level by looking at Earth as a giant pind of possibilities. I continue to meditate deeply on my ancestors and hope that as each one of us carry out our inner shraadha we gain peace and clarity as the human race.




 

References:

  • C.G, Jung. (2019). Tower. In: Aniela Jaffe Memories, Dreams, Reflections. 4th ed. London: William Collins. 282.

  • C.G. Jung ETH Lectures (Unpublished) Volume 8. The Psychology of Alchemy. Winter semester 1940/41 and summer semester 1941.


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