From the other side

Sep 18, 2011, 03:28 IST | Devdutt Pattanaik

They hang upside down like bats.

They hang upside down like bats. This is how ancient Hindus visualised the ancestors, the Pitris, literally translated the forefathers. They were all visualised in male form in narratives -- not because we are patriarchal --but because even though souls are without gender, they were gendered as male for narrative simplicity.

The flesh was female; the Pitris yearned for flesh so that they could be reborn. Once reborn, they would once again sense the world through eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin. Without it, they sensed nothing. They were trapped with memories of past lives. So through the cawing of crows they communicated to the children left behind on earth to produce children, and help them be reborn.

This is the fundamental thought governing the 'fortnight of ancestors' celebrated between the Ganesha and Durga festivals. During this time, rice balls made by smashing boiled rice to pulp are offered to crows. Each grain of rice is smashed, deprived of identity, for such is the state of the flesh-less ancestors. Also, without flesh, the ancestors have no teeth. How then will they chew? Food is critical during Shraadh, as without food there can be no flesh.

The soul hanging upside down is trapped on the other side of the mythical river Vaitarni. It cannot return to the land of the living, as there is no flesh and it is weighed down by memories, hence has not attained liberation from the cycle of rebirths. It's the Hindu version of purgatory. The fortnight is spent by the living reassuring the dead that they will eventually be reborn.

Belief in rebirth is the cornerstone of Shraadh; and it distinguishes the Hindu worship of ancestors from similar worship found in other cultures. In cultures where you live only once, the narrative of rebirth does not exist. The children have no obligation to reproduce. But in China, for example, the children were expected according to the Confucian ideal to be good citizens and not shame their forefathers watching over them from the ancestor world. In rituals, they are offered paper effigies of things they liked on Earth, which are ritually burned, anything from fish to cell phones and homes.

In Islam and Christianity, which also believes in one life, there is the All Souls Day, when one prays to the dead waiting in the purgatory, for the day of Final Judgment. One scholar rather imaginatively described purgatory as the security lounge after the check-in at the airport; you cannot go back. You just have to wait for the flight that will take everybody to heaven, or hell.

Ancient Egyptians put the bodies of the dead in tombs and pyramids, and believed that as long as the body was intact in this world, the dead were safe in the afterlife, the land of Osiris. Ancient Greeks cremated the dead with a coin in their mouth, and believed the spirit was ferried across the River Styx by a boatman called Charon who charged a copper coin as fee.

On the other side, there were three judges, who decided if a man went to Tartarus, the early version of hell, or to Asphodel, meant for people who lived boring lives, or to Elysium, meant for people who lived extraordinary lives. Funeral rites thus reveal how we see the world. Different funeral practices around the world reveal that different peoples saw life, and death, differently.

The author is Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group, and can be reached at

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper.

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