Light Of The Mahalaya


Courtesy - http://www.earthsky.org

As the Pitru Paksha culminates in the Mahalaya Amavasya, I have sombre memories of elders in my family performing the tarpana. In fact, whether we celebrated festivals or not, any rituals that involved ancestors were never trifled with. I’m sure this was, and continues to be the practice in many households.

The practice fascinates me. There were ancient civilizations all over the world who ritualistically worshipped their ancestors. They called upon their ancestors for guidance and blessings during special occasions; and these occasions were usually in tandem with the seasons, and therefore harvests. In times of unforeseen difficulties, the ancestors were called upon to guard the race. Thousands and thousands of years later, even as we have made astounding progress in understanding the world around us, it is humbling to see that millions in India still follow this practice of remembering ancestors, seeking their blessings and guidance. Many consider this practice as superstition. I’m not going to convince otherwise, or try and present an argument – simply because I don’t understand these things well, and I’ve only begun my quest. But I can tell you what I believe in, what I’ve experienced.

Like I said earlier, I’ve grown up watching these rituals. I don’t understand the significance of using sesame seeds, the darbe grass or the specific seating positions of the brahmins performing the ritual. I don’t even understand the specific mantras that are recited. Yes there are several websites that give details, but they preach. They talk in the air, and I choose not to accept their preaching. However, the entire process of invoking the ancestor, giving the offerings, praying for their peace, and seeking blessings in return is so methodical, so orderly that I cannot just dismiss it as an empty ritual. Each and every substance used in the ritual, each and every syllable uttered, each and every nuance has a significance - it symbolically represents some aspect of our connection with our ancestors – not just through the genes, but also at a spiritual level. Perhaps today it has become a matter of routine; but I suspect it was not the case in the past.

I’m talking about the past that existed even before man learnt to discriminate against man (and woman). I’m talking about the past where man was superbly attuned to the nature around him; and he was nature, and nature was him. Where he understood the skies, the clouds, the earth and her yields. In such a synchronous harmony, I’m sure the tarpana rituals were even more powerful – they were not just words uttered, acts performed. I do believe that when such an equilibrium exists, perhaps a channel of communication is opened where one can communicate with the departed. I also believe that this channel exists even today...but we are unable to unlock it. Well, today, even with our five senses intact, we are unable to communicate – so forget opening a channel that does not depend on the physical props.

The Mahabharata gives a simplistic reason for this Pitru Paksha. It is said that when Karna went to heaven after he was killed in the battle; he found only gold and silver and no food. It was explained to him that while on earth, no doubt he did loads of charity – he gave away wealth. In consequence, that wealth was returned to him million-fold in heaven. But he had never given away food; so he did not find food in heaven. So Yama gives him 14 days grace period – to go back to earth and tie up this little detail. In this period, Karna visits earth and does all the anna daana he can. Of course as with everything in the Mahabharata, the meaning of this story is symbolic. One, there is no greater charity than the charity of food. Two – at the very basic level, the body wants food – and nothing, no luxury on earth can replace that. And thirdly – as you sow, so shall you reap.

Anyway, those 14 days of ‘grace period’ is deemed as the pitru paksha. During this period, while giving tarpana at least some charity in the form of anna daana takes place. It also forces us to remember those before us – to understand why we are what we are, and where we are.

The Mahalaya is associated with many other fatalistic things – exorcisms, tantric rituals, black magic, death. The dark skies unfurled by the Mahalaya strikes a strange fear in many hearts. At the end of the day, the Mahalaya is just the moon hiding in a shadow. And just like the moon, there are times our life too slips into the shadows. This is the real Mahalaya: this darkness is inescapable.

The darkness of this Mahalaya is not what it seems. You see we are always taught that it is the Light that reveals the truth. It is the Light that allows us to see and perceive. Ah! Such an enduring myth. No light, not even the Sun, can reveal the truth the way Darkness does. When it descends, switching off all vision, flight is the first instinct. You run blindly to get away from the Darkness – you do everything possible to bring back the light. But the Darkness is pre-destined, and it’s a law of nature. You have to go through it, there are no short-cuts, there are no escape routes. And the more you run, the more it sucks you.

Stand still. Allow the Darkness to flood you. It scalps you, strips you naked. You stand alone devoid of all the crutches you use in the Light – your masks, your conditioning, your prejudice, your support system. In that abject Darkness, you see yourself in a way Light can never reveal. You see your very hidden recesses of the mind, you see your strength which you did not know was there, you see your weakness and the shameful depths to which you can sink...and rise, you see what you are capable of – raw unadulterated emotions be it love or hatred, fury or patience – you see YOU in a way you’ve never seen. Because all the while, in the Light, you saw yourself in how others perceived you. And it is this Darkness that peels your relationships painfully, layer by layer. It is only in the Darkness that you can sift, distil, filter your life – you can see with unflattering clarity those who pollute your life and those who purify it. Yes, Darkness is terrifying simply because it clamps your eyelids open and throws the truth at your face. And when the Darkness lifts; and you walk into the Light – you are much wiser. Bruised, injured but stronger.

As with everything in life, you have the choice. You can continue running. Or you can stop, embrace the Darkness and look truth in the eye.

Wishing you a blessed Mahalaya and Dussera.

© Sumana Khan - 2012

Comments

  1. I never knew about the story of Karna. It was fascinating. Somehow I feel that all the old rituals are dying with our generation. We do not do half the things our parents do in the name of rituals.

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    1. Amit true. I'd give it another generation.

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  2. I recently learnt that we don't have any rituals for young people (children) and some not for women-ancestors - not sure why is that...

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    1. IHM...as far as I know (at least in my home)the ceremonies are performed irrespective of the gender of the departed. In essence, the soul has no gender and qualifying factors such as age, sex whatever.

      I think all these 'rules' of not performing rituals for women and children are once again bad interpretations. And in most cases, when women and children are not treated decently when alive...who will spend money on them when they depart?

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    2. Women are not allowed to do tarpanam. As simple as that. Their parents don't matter, it is their husbands who do it for their wives' parents as well if she doesn't happen to have brothers. It all comes right down to the age old male preference. It's a little difficult to find anything spiritual among such blatant discrimination.

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    3. Yes, women are not 'allowed' to perform any rituals. As with any religion, women are relegated to the background; and that's what happens when patriarchy interprets religion. It's the same - be it Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism whatever.

      You cannot seek spirituality in man-made rituals. IMO spirituality lies elsewhere. I find many of the rituals discriminatory too - but I'd rather focus on the essence than on male-interpretations. Just because some men think I'm no good, does not mean I'm no good and I stop understanding where my beliefs stem from.

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  3. Brilliant thoughts on darkness!

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  4. Loved the post. You have such deep thoughts expressed so beautifully. Did not know about the anecdote about Karna. The story is indeed simplistic yet conveys strong messages.

    Totally off the topic, but the word 'Pitru Paksha' always reminds me of this funny incident which happend with our neighbours when I was a kid. So the neighbours who were a newly married couple were very sincere and religious about doing the 'Pitru Pooja', but had no prior experience in conducting the ritual. So the priest performed the rituals and informed to the couple that they should feed a guest that day and honour him/her with food and gifts. So being new in the city they invited their only close friend they knew of.

    So when the friend arrived the enthusiastic couple decided to 'honour' him with all tasty dishes including the mandatory Vade, payasam, which the guest totally relished. And when it was time to give him some gifts they decided to adopt the only procedure of gifting they knew of, that is based on their prior experience of gifting people during namakarnas, gruhapravesha/upanayana. They applied tilaka to their guest, put rangoli by the sides.. And here comes the killer part! They actually started doing Aarthi to him while ringing the ghante in the background. This friend of who was a Muslim fleed from the scene for his dear life thinking they were trying to offer him to the Gods as a 'bali':D:D and they offered him all the tasty food only to fatten him before the slaughter:D

    Sorry for hogging your comment space, but I am inevitably reminded of this incident whenever I hear about PitruPaksha

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    1. Thank you Anon.

      I can't stop laughing! I'd be freaked out too ..if someone drew rangoli around me and started ringing the ghante...omg its soooo funny! Thanks for sharing this :)

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    2. Comment got posted as Anon, by mistake. Also what followed the incident immediately was hilarious. I still remember the man screaming and coming out yelling BLOODY MURDER with tilaka all over his forehead and garland in his neck. Thank God the neighbors of the Vatara knew the couple well enough to know that they were naive. Else it really did look like they were trying to give the poor man as an offering to God:D:D

      We thought the troubled man would pack his luggage and leave the town for good:D But we were surprised to see him the very next day and later on found out that he had to come as the host was his boss at work and was apparently very kind to him and his family in the past:)

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  5. I have no clue about most rituals and actually quite detest them. I think our kids are even less interested in them.

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    1. LOL! I'm curious about our rituals - I may or may not follow/believe in them. But I do have a very academic interest in them.

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  6. According to Wikipedia, on Mahalaya Amavasya offerings can be made to all ancestors. I am assuming, ALL includes children and the female gender. I wouldn't be surprised if it doesn't though. Most Hindu rituals don't apply to women, surprise, surprise.

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    1. Only the body has gender. The soul has none. The departed souls have none.

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  7. we have different traditions but all are there just to connect us to our family and culture and to make us responsible for our actions.

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  8. Here is your award my dear fellow blogger...

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    Congrats!!

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    ReplyDelete
  9. Here is your award my dear fellow blogger...

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    Congrats!!

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    ReplyDelete
  10. This is a very powerful reflection on darkness. I do understand what you are saying - without darkness there will be no light!

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Corinne :)

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  11. Rituals IMHO may have been made as a step towards spirituality. Not everyone might be capable of recognizing or even embracing spirituality or philosophy of life at the very first contact. So, with constant repetition of these rituals, at least a spark of interest as to what these might mean and why the rituals are existing, etc, might be ignited leading to higher things. However, as time passed, the very meaning of these rituals have taken on a different turn. they are being executed very mechanically or being done away with altogether. I agree with one of the comments above, that this is a post touching on various profound topics; topics which are beyond the human realm. Also, many of the rituals or the Do's and Don'ts preached by our elders might not hold much water in this age. For eg: the elders always used to scold us if we try to cut our nails in the evenings & ask us not to do it. It was sound advice when people used to have "seeme yeNNe buDDi" for lights in the evening which used to throw very little light & with only knives or scissors to cut, there were chances of the finger or toe being cut, but now we have such powerful lights that even surgeries are performed let alone cut a little finger nail !! Like you, I find the rituals very fascinating & I try my best to understand the rationale behind them and often times have rebelled too against some of them. Sorry to hog the space! Good read. Thanks.

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    1. I agree with every thing you've said Hima. And thanks for your reading marathon of my blog! Love to read your comments!

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  12. The note on darkness is so true. I completely agree with that one. :)

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