Immortalizing, Through Pitru Paksha


“‘Some people say you achieve immortality through your children,’ said the minstrel.
‘Yeah?’ said Cohen. ‘Name one of your great-granddads, then.'”
– Terry Pratchett

Sunday marked the start of Pitru Paksha – the Fortnight of the Ancestors, wherein the borders between worlds are regarded as being thinner and more insubstantial than usual; and the Pitrs – the Forebears – return to be amongst Their yet-still-living descended kin.

Arya Akasha published an article last year discussing in some greater depth the meaning of this observance, and I am not seeking to reduplicate that work here. But I happened across that Pratchett quote yesterday, the same day that the Fortnight began, and something in it resonated within me.

See, there’s a grand truth in there, concealed behind an irreverent witticism. Often, the best thoughts and insights are. For while on one level, Pitru Paksha is about the provision of sustenance to the Shades of the Ancestors – and I’ll briefly detail two Puranic tales on exactly that in a moment – it’s *also* about the recognition, the *remembrance* of Those Who Have Gone Before.

Because even leaving aside the rather resonant meta-narrativistic concept that a man is only truly dead when his name is spoken for the last time, his deeds no longer recounted and having faded from all overtly acknowledged salience and therefore significance … looking at it from the perspective of the Dead, one of the more painful things about a post-mortem existence must surely be the sense that everybody has forgotten you. That, even despite having left your genetic fingerprint upon the enduring descendants of your community, that in some ways it is almost as if you never were.

This is partially why we have developed the concept of gravestones – and, in rather more grand and sweeping (indeed, downright *archaeological*) format, Runestones. Which are far better for actually telling something of a *story* with. And it is also why we have often had quite some enthusiasm for the building of mausoleums, sepulchers [there’s a Pericles quote in there somewhere], and increasingly elaborate tombs. Because despite what the quip might seek to tell you about how no matter how grand your life, everybody is equal in death by virtue of having the same sized grave … this is abjectly incorrect. And your refutations may be found in Pyramid, Taj Mahal, or Ship-Burial format, just to name a few.

Speaking of Pericles, his deservedly famous Funerary Oration contains something of a counterpoint to the above, that nevertheless considerably strengthens and elucidates my overall point:

“The whole Earth is the Sepulchre of famous men; and their story is not graven only on Stone over their native earth, but lives on far away, without visible symbol, woven into the stuff of other men’s lives.” Another translation renders the last portion as “For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb; and in lands far from their own, where the column with its epitaph declares it, there is enshrined in every breast a record unwritten with no tablet to preserve it, except that of the heart.” And while it might seem a matter of mere semantics, I do think that there is a quite important shade of difference between the notion of one’s memory, one’s legacy, one’s glory being “woven into the stuff of other men’s lives” as compared to it lacking preservation “except that [contained within] the heart” of those who come later. Because one of these things is much more “immanent” than the other – and it is the latter that is eminently more “erasable”, obviatable, through lack of direct recollection on our part. You have heard the saying that the body is a temple? Well, the Heart is its sanctum. It is both prudent and proper to take proper care of it, lest it be relegated to the status of a ruin and its contents to detritus or archaeological curios akin to pottery fragments in place of properly cared-for and still vital relics, heirlooms, treasures.

Part of this process of Honouring, of Remembrance is again eloquently elucidated by Pericles, in the course of the same address and immediately prior: “They gave her their lives, to her and to all of us, and for their own selves they won praises that never grow old, the most splendid of sepulchers — not the sepulchre in which their bodies are laid, but where their glory remains eternal in men’s minds, always there on the right occasion to stir others to speech or to action.”

In a sense, this recalls Eliade’s concept of the Eternal Return. And justly so; for it is functioning off the very similar if not outright the same metaphysical and meta-narrativistic notion of re-immanentizing the great and glorious actions of the past into our ever-less-impressive and increasingly-disenchanted present. This is additionally the case, in its own way, when we consider the recurrent phenomenon within particular portions of the Indo-European world of the actual and outright *deification* of the ancestors of certain worthies. Or, going the other way around, some bloodlines having been oft-regarded as directly *descended* from Divinities Whose examples had to be lived up to. But I digress, somewhat.

The Act of Remembrance is one which is not simply positive, desirable, nor beneficial for the Ancestor(s) in question; as Pericles’ quote in translation so amply shows, it is also there for the benefit of us, ourselves, the still-living. The reconnection with heritage, the striving to live up to ancient standards, and keep our Ancestors alive not simply with word, but through deed as well – these are commemorations whose positive impacts radiate out through our lives and our communities. And demonstrate great respect to the contributions of the Pitrs by continuing to uphold them – to carry on and transmit the Flame. Show most directly what we are not ingrateful for.

Yet in the form of the Traditions that have grown up around Pitru Paksha, this “enlightened self interest” can also manifest directly. As can be seen in these pair of Hindu tales which illustrate just what happens when the proper rites and conduct are *not* upheld, and that Epitaph inscribed upon the Heart is left to be worn down via the grinding wheel of time to obviation.

The first concerns the sage Jaratkaru, a revered and well-regarded wise man who practiced a life of the most stringent asceticism. Which, perhaps unsurprisingly, included celibacy. He is steadfast in his approach to life, and persists with it even unto old age, evidently untroubled by the fact that he has become a solitary figure divorced from the more conventional norms of family or community. Until one day, in the course of his Wanderings, he encounters some of the Shades of his Ancestors – Who vitriolically upbraid him for having failed in his dual duties to his forebears. First, to have performed the appropriate rites for his Pitrs so that they may be looked after in the afterlife; and second, to have married and produced at least one heir so that his bloodline would not be snuffed out entirely when he himself died eventually. The second point also circles back into the first, as without an heir, it would have been impossible for these rites to be *kept* going subsequent to Jaratkaru’s death anyway, and the problem would have simply repeated itself with more dire elements.

The story of Jaratkaru’s ill-fated marriage to Manasa, a female serpent deific, is beyond the scope of this piece; but suffice to say that while it did not go well in many particulars, it *did* produce the requisite heir – the renowned sage Astika.

In some ways, this is a better illustration all-up of the duty and the benefit accruing to the Forebears rather than to one’s self – after all, Jaratkaru’s carrying out of his Ancestors’ wishes did not exactly make him a happier man in the immediate scheme of things. But it should also be remembered that had Jaratkaru *not* addressed his issue (that is to say, in part, his lack of one), not only would he have been increasingly burdened with the guilt of having been confronted with the results of his failings towards his Ancestors – but that, as an older man by this point, he would himself have been next in line to find himself in the same situation they were hanging in had the matter continued to remain unresolved. In this way, self-interest was *also* served by doing the ‘rite’ thing by one’s Pitrs.

The second story, I shall simply quote from my previous work (rude to do in public, I know, but I am unsure that I would be able to better it in its execution at this precise moment in time):

“A tale told about the character of Karna, from the Mahabharat, illustrates this, and also provides one explanation for Pitru Paksha as a whole. According to this tradition, upon Karna’s death and ascension to the afterlife, he found himself asking of the relevant God whose domain it was for food … and being presented, in response, with gold. Karna was surprised by this, and pointed out that he couldn’t eat gold, and asked why it was being offered to him; to which he was told that while he had indeed been conspicuously generous in life in his *monetary* offerings to Temple and the Gods and such … he had never made offerings of food. He was therefore ‘reaping as he had sown’ – as he could only be given in the afterlife what either he himself or his descendents had given.

A slight variation upon this has the explanation as being that Karna had never offered food and water to his Pitrs while he was alive … which, while it may sound egregious, unforgivable, and abominable now, was arguably in fact the result of the circumstances of his birth and abandonment by his mother – meaning he had never known his Pitrs in the first place to be able to make the appropriate offerings.

To make matters worse, due to the death of all of Karna’s sons in the Mahabharat War, there were therefore now no longer any descendents who might ‘fill the void’ and provide for him from the world of the living.

Karna therefore beseeches the God in question – often identified as Lord Yama (which would potentially make Karna His half-brother), although I have also seen it stated as Lord Indra – to be allowed to return to Earth to attempt to make things right.

Depending on which version of the story one reads, this either entails Karna using the two weeks he is given here on Earth to perform the rites for his Pitrs (and therefore also himself) that he should have been doing the last time he was here; or alternatively it involves him spending the time feeding the poor and engaged in other acts of piety. In another (potentially somewhat darker) telling, it is said that upon his (temporary) return from the dead, the king frantically attempts to popularize the concept of providing food and water to the shades of one’s ancestors in order to avert others from experiencing the same deleterious circumstances which he had after death.

However it played out, it should come as no surprise to find that these fourteen days are often regarded as being the same point of the year as Pitru Paksha. Although as a brief note of hope, Lord Yama in His Mercy is stated in some sources to have decreed that on Mahalaya Amavasa (the last day, where there is no moon), the offerings will benefit *all* departed souls; thus in part avoiding the problem encountered by Karna – provided, of course, that offerings continue to be made in the first place!”

As you can see, we once again have the needs of the individual met also through the needs of his Ancestors – and the descendant in question having been placed in quite a perilous position via their ongoing (even if unintended) neglect. It is also important to note the broader scale benefit that accrues as a result of Karna’s endeavours in the field of Pitru-piety. Not just to his *own* ancestors or self, but thanks to the successful pleas to his kinsman (sort-of – it’s … complicated), Lord Yama, to the Shades of the Dead, the Ancestors of the Hindu eth(n)os all up, potentially. Both directly, through the Mahalaya Amavasa custom aforementioned, and indirectly through the promulgation and highlighting of the proper custom upon these two-weeks when the Veils [Proto-Indo-European “Kel” particle veer-y much in mind] between the largely illusory present and the Past-Eternity are seriously thin and permeable.

To return to the Pratchett quote with which we began this brief piece, it is not exactly the case that “immortality” or ‘survival’ post-mortem (odd choice of phrasing, I know) is something that can only be achieved through the possession of heirs. Local metaphysics and eschatology shall understandably differ upon this score, but generally speaking it appears that the expectation is that one shall often “keep on going” (in some direction, and with some degree of substantiability, at least) after death almost regardless of that fact. But just as the point of life is not “dying”, but may occasionally be thought of as “dying well” [therefore turning the baseline of the relevant inevitability into something that can be built upon to turn it into a *superior* telos-and-outcome] , so too is it the situation that there are better and there are worse forms of metempsychosis and after-living.

In a certain sense, then, the “immortality” angle is already taken care of. It is rather rare and rather hard (although neither unheard of nor axiomatically impossible) to die *again* after death (at least, without having reincarnated again first … ‘walking it off’ on a long hard road out of Hel, perhaps, notwithstanding). Which means that it is the dual-thread of both the quality of (after-)life, and the boon to those still yet living of the Ancestral immanence (‘Heritage’, you might say, via way of partial explanation), which must instead be focused on and attended more directly to.

It is therefore not our merest existences that render our Ancestors ‘immortal’, still much less ‘Immortalized’. But our continuous, *active* efforts at keeping Them in our hearts and minds, and providing such assistance to Their circumstances as we can from all the way over here in the land of the living (occasional efforts at Katabasis and amateur psychopompery perhaps not necessarily withstanding) that is the important conduct, the proper conduct, the righteous conduct, and the pious conduct.

After all, even leaving aside the ‘golden thread’ of “it’s what I’d want done if I were in their position” [and there really is no “if” about it – “as you are, we once were; as we are, you shall be”] … it’s just the compassionate, the caring, the courageous (in some small way) thing to do.

“Immortalization”, is an Act of Remembering.

Ensure your memory – and that of your line – runs long.

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