|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