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From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

By Swami Harshananda

Birth and death have always remained a great mystery to man. If birth has been hailed, death has been abhorred and feared. For one who believes that death is the end of life and of one’s personality, it is an ogre that devours him and decimates him. However, the one who trusts God, feels that He is with him during his life here and hereafter.

While most of the religions of the world believe in some sort of life after death, people consider death as a transition from one life to another. According to them, the disembodied soul badly needs help and succor from its descendants, not only during the period following the death of the physical body but also during its journey to the other worlds. Various rites are performed immediately after death. Some rites are repeated every month for a year or even every year. These rites are generally called as śrāddha.

It appears that the worship of one’s ancestors, by the means of post-death ceremonies like antyeṣṭi and śrāddha, was a very ancient institution. In several passages of the Ṛgveda, the pitṛs or forefathers have been mentioned and sometimes have been identified with ‘sapta ṛṣayah’[1] like the Navagvas or Daśagvas. Occasionally, they have also been divided into several groups such as ‘pitarah somavantah’[2] or ‘pitarah barhiṣadah’.[3] Sometimes they have been described as inhabiting a separate world of their own, the Pitṛloka. Rites such as piṇḍapitṛyajña and mahāpitṛyajña have been ordained compulsorily for the āhitāgnis.[4] These seem to be the precursors of the latter-day rites of śrāddha.

Theory of Karma and Punarjanma versus Śrāddha[edit]

According to the theory of karma and punarjanma, which is widely believed and propagated, anyone who dies takes rebirth[5] either in this world or in other abodes of existence, depending on his karma or actions which goes on until he attains mokṣa or freedom from transmigration by spiritual wisdom.

Hence, when a person offers the piṇḍas or rice-balls in the śrāddha rites, what certainty is there that their essence reaches and sustains the ancestor for whom it is meant? This question has been discussed and debated even in the smṛtis and allied works. The principal reply is that the scriptures being the final authority regarding the things beyond the ken of the sense-organs, one has just to trust them and do as they direct.

According to them, the offerings are received by the special classes of deities called Vasus, Rudras and Ādityas, the guardians of the pitṛs, who transmit their essence to the concerned ones in a form that suits their level of existence, in heaven or hell, in human or subhuman bodies. They may also reward the living descendants who have performed the śrāddha in an appropriate manner.

Literature on Śrāddha[edit]

The literature on śrāddha is legion. Apart from the hoary Vedic Samhitās, the subject has found a place in the ancient Smṛtis of Manu and Yājñavalkya and also the Gṛhyasutras of Āpastamba and Āśvalāyana. The Dharmasutras of Baudhāyana also deal with this subject.

Purāṇas on Śrāddha[edit]

Some of the purāṇas too have presented the subject of śrāddha fairly extensively. They are:

  1. Agnipurāṇa
  2. Brahmapurāṇa
  3. Garudapurāṇa
  4. Kurmapurāṇa
  5. Mārkandeyapurāṇa
  6. Matsyapurāṇa
  7. Viṣṇudharmottara-purāṇa
  8. Viṣṇupurāṇa

Compendiums on Śrāddha[edit]

Apart from these, there are several compendiums describing exhaustively the same subject. A few of them are listed below:

  1. Krtyakalpataru of Lakṣmidhara Smrticandrikā of Sukadevamitra
  2. Smrtyarthasāra of Nīlakaṇthācārya
  3. Śrāddhacandrikā of Rudradhara
  4. Śrāddhakalpalatā of Nandapaṇḍita
  5. Śrāddhakriyākaumudi of Govindānanda
  6. Śrāddhamayukha of Nīlakaṇṭha
  7. Śrāddhatattva of Raghunandana
  8. Śrāddhaviveka of Sulapāṇi

Approximate Dates of the Authors[edit]

The approximate dates of some of these authors are as follows:

  1. Āpastamba - He lived in 450 B.C.
  2. Baudhāyana - He lived in 500 B.C.
  3. Govindānanda - He lived in A. D. 1500-1540.
  4. Manu or the extant Manusmrti - He lived in 200 B.C.
  5. Raghunandana - He lived in A. D. 1510-1580.
  6. Rudradhara - He lived in A. D. 1360-1400.
  7. Śulapāṇi - He lived in A. D. 1365-1445.
  8. Yājñavalkya - He lived in 100 B. C.

The periods of the others are not known even approximately.

Meaning of the Word Śrāddha[edit]

The term ‘śrāddha’ is derived from the root-word ‘śraddhā’ or faith. Hence, whatever is offered with śraddhā becomes a śrāddha. However, the term has been widely used in a strictly technical sense as related to after-death rites and subsequent ceremonies. Putting all the various definitions of the word together, their contents can be summarized as follows:

  1. It is performed by a competent descendant of the dead ancestors, with śraddhā or faith.
  2. It is done for the benefit of three generations of ancestors, viz., father, grandfather and great-grandfather.
  3. It has to be executed at the appropriate time and place as determined by the śāstras or scriptures and family traditions.
  4. It may be accomplished by giving either cooked food or uncooked articles of food or gold[6] to worthy brāhmaṇas.
  5. A śrāddha is said to have been accomplished by the followers of the Rgveda if they honor the worthy brāhmaṇas.
  6. For the followers of the Yajurveda, piṇḍadāna[7] is more important. However, the followers of the Sāmaveda are expected to do both.

The Performer of Śrāddha[edit]

When a person dies, his antyeṣṭi[8] and śrāddha are to be done by his eldest son. If he has more than one son and if they are all living separately, then each of them is entitled to and expected to perform the śrāddha ceremony. In case the deceased person has no sons, then any of the near (male) relatives like a brother, an adopted son, son-in-law or a grandson can do it. If the son is too young and had not had his upanayāna then the wife of the dead person can get it done through a priest.

For Whom Śrāddha Should be Done[edit]

The dharmaśastras permits the śudras also to perform śraddha but through brahmana priests.The most-widely accepted general rule is that śrāddha must be performed for the benefit of dead father, paternal grandfather and paternal great-grandfather. It can be done for others also in case they are near relatives with no male issues. When a woman dies, her śrāddha can be done by her eldest son. If she has no male issues, the grandson can do it. If there is no grandson, the daughter can get it done through the brāhmaṇa priests.

When an unmarried woman dies, her śrāddha can be done by her father or the eldest of the brothers or the nearest male relative. In the case of persons dying an unnatural death like suicide or by an accident and so on, nārāyaṇabali is to be offered first. The śrāddha can be performed one year after this. No śrāddha is performed for sanyāsins[9] since they have already done it for themselves, at the time of taking sanyāsa.

Time and Place Appropriate for Śrāddha[edit]

The most common day for the performance of the śrāddha of a dead person is the day of his death as per the lunar calendar. For instance, if a person dies on the Māghaśukla-aṣṭamī day[10] the śrāddha has to be done on that day only.

The āhitāgnis[11] perform the śrāddhas for others only on the darśa[12] days. It is interesting to note that every householder of the first three varṇas or castes was expected to perform pañca-mahā-yajñas or five sacrifices everyday, in which pitṛyajña or tarpaṇa[13] comprising offering of food or water or milk or fruits, was an integral part.

Śrāddhas may also be performed on certain days considered good or auspicious. For instance:

  • Amāvāsyā - new-moon day
  • Aṣṭakā days - eighth day in the dark fortnight of the months Mārgaśira, November-December; Pauṣa, December- January; Māgha and Phālguna, January- March;
  • Dark half of any month
  • The two ayanas or solstices in June and January
  • The saṅkrānti days[14]
  • On any joyous occasions like the birth of a son and other periods like eclipse days considered auspicious by the scriptures

Certain days classified as yugādi or manvantāra by the lunar calendars are stated to be extremely auspicious for the performance of śrāddhas. Monthly śrāddhas are generally performed during the first year after death only. As for the time, aparāhṇa or afternoon is prescribed, rather than forenoon. Coming to the topic of a suitable spot for the performance of śrāddha, a clean spot sloping towards the south is recommended. If it is not frequented by people and if it can be covered on all sides, it becomes an ideal place. However, performing it in one’s own house is very common and also convenient. Performing śrāddhas in holy places and places of pilgrimage is highly commended. The following places are frequently mentioned and even recommended:

  1. Gayā - It is in Bihar.
  2. Prabhāsa - It is in Gujarat
  3. Puṣkara - It is in Rajasthan.
  4. Prayāga - It is in Uttar Pradesh
  5. On the banks of Gañgā and Yamunā
  6. Amarakaṇṭaka - It is in Madhya Pradesh
  7. On the bank of Narmadā
  8. Vārāṇasī - It is in Banaras or Kāśī
  9. Kurukṣetra - It is in Haryana

Śrāddhas should not be done in Mleccha countries.[15]

Classification of Śrāddhas[edit]

Śrāddha have been variously classified:

  1. Nitya - Nityaśrāddhas are to be compulsorily performed on a certain or fixed occasion such as everyday, on an amāvāsya day or on aṣṭakā days.
  2. Naimittika - The naimittika śrāddhas are to be done when there is a special nimitta or a cause such as the birth of a son.
  3. Kāmya - The kāmyaśrāddhas are done for the fulfillment of certain desires.
  4. Ekoddista, Pārvaṇa and Vṛddhiśrāddha - Some writers of dharmaśāstras have increased the number to twelve, by adding some more to these lists, such as goṣṭhīśrāddha, śuddhiśrāddha, yātrā- śrāddha, Puṣṭiśrāddha and so on. Out of these, ekoddiṣṭa, pārvaṇa, sapiṇḍana or sapiṇḍīkaraṇa and vṛddhi śrāddhas are considered as the principal ones. In the ekoddiṣṭa rite, the śrāddha is performed with respect to only one, the dead person.[16] Only one piṇḍa is offered. The vṛddhiśrāddha, also called nāndīmukhaśrāddha, is performed on all auspicious occasions like marriages of sons and daughters, entering a new house and so on. In this śrāddha, the three paternal ancestors beyond the great-grandfather, they are called nāndīmukhapitṛs, are satiated by appropriate rites.
  5. Pārvaṇa - In the pārvaṇa rite, three piṇdas are offered to father, grandfather and great-grandfather.
  6. Sapiṇḍīkarana - The sapiṇḍana rite is done on the twelfth day after death, and signifies the union of the spirit of the dead person with those of his ancestors.
  7. Aharahaśśrāddha

The Pārvana Śrāddha[edit]

During the Vedic days, every āhitāgni was obliged to perform the piṇḍapitṛyajña on amāvāsyā days. The annual śrāddha prevalent now is a replica of this yajña. This is called pārvaṇaśrāddha. It is also, sometimes, designated as mṛtāha-anna- śrāddha. This rite involves a number of steps which may be described very briefly. At the outset, the performer of the śrāddha[17] has to invite competent brāhmaṇas on the previous day itself to attend the śrāddha and to receive the honors and also food. Only those brāhmaṇas who do not belong to the same gotra or lineage, learned, married, healthy and have a blameless character are to be invited. This process of invitation is called kṣaṇa.

Though two brāhmaṇas are to be invited to represent the Viśvedevas and three to represent the pitṛs, in practice, only one each is requested. Yatis or sarhnyāsins are considered to be ideal invitees. But they do not accept such invitations. From the moment the invitation is extended, both the kartā and the bhoktās (invitees) have to observe celibacy and other codes of conduct like speaking truth, not getting angry and so on, strictly.

For wearing the religious marks on the forehead[18] on this occasion, it is left to the traditions existing in the family of the kartā. The following materials are expected to be used during the śrāddha both in the cooked and in the uncooked form:

  • Milk, Gaṅgā water, honey, sesame, wheat, māṣa[19] green gram, and things cooked in oil.
  • Friends of the same lineage, cousins and those who have been benefactors and of the same caste can be invited to cook the food for śrāddha.
  • Daughters-in-law of the kartā are to be preferred to serve the food to the brāhmaṇas.
  • Saṅkalpa or religious resolve by the kartā, as per the details given in the concerned scriptures, stating the procedure of the rite, will be the first act.
  • Establishing a kalaśa[20] and sprinkling its water all over the place connected with the śrāddha comes next.
  • To receive the invitee-brāhmaṇas, two maṇḍalas or diagrams[21] are to be drawn on the floor of the house at a suitable place.
  • The former is for the brāhmaṇa representing the Viśvedevas and the latter for the one representing the pitṛs.
  • The kartā washes their feet on these maṇḍalas.
  • Next comes the casting of the sesame with appropriate mantras over the place of the śrāddha to drive away the demons, devils and other evil spirits.
  • This is followed by the worship of the Viśvedevas through the first brāhmaṇa and the pitṛs through the second brāhmaṇa.
  • Arghyapātras, vessels containing water mixed with sesame and darbha grass, are very important in this ritual.
  • Then comes pāṇihoma or offering a small quantity of cooked rice into the right hand of the brāhmaṇa who represents the pitṛs.
  • This is followed by brāhmaṇa-bhojana or feeding the invitees. They should be served delicious food to their satisfaction. When they are eating, other brāhmaṇas are requested to chant some mantras like the Rāksoghnamantras, Pavamāna- mantras or Upaniṣads. This is called abhiśravaṇa and it creates a spiritual mood in the minds of the brāhmaṇas who are eating. Since it is believed that the pitṛs have entered into these brāhmaṇas with their ethereal bodies, it is they who will enjoy the food and feel uplifted.
  • Piṇdapradāna comes next. Piṇḍas are rice-balls prepared by mixing the cooked rice and other cooked articles of food, left over in the vessels.[22] Three such balls are kept on the ground covered with darbha and offered to the three generations of pitṛs.
  • According to one practice[23] the piṇḍas are to be placed in such a place where crows can come and eat them.
  • The pitṛs are believed to enter their bodies in a subtle form and be satisfied by those piṇḍas.
  • The brāhmaṇas then disperse after blessing the kartā and his family.
  • The kartā is expected to follow them over some distance as a mark of respect.
  • The entire rite is then offered to Lord Vāsudeva[24] with a prayer for forgiveness for the faults that may have crept into it.


For centuries, performing śrāddha for one’s ancestors at Gayā has been considered not only extremely auspicious but also obligatory on the part of the eldest son or anyone of the sons. It is supposed to bestow infinite results. Gayāśrāddha has three stages.

  1. First, the kartā has to take bath in the river Phalgu and offer tarpaṇa[25] with water and piṇḍas into the river.
  2. Then he should offer piṇḍa at the feet of Viṣṇu in the temple dedicated to Lord Viṣṇu.
  3. Later he must offer the piṇḍa at the foot of the well-known Akṣayavaṭa.[26]

This completes the rite. Gayāśraddha can be performed by anyone for himself also.


Observance of the śrāddha ceremonies is still in vogue in the society in some form or the other. Though doubts have been cast over the need to observe them or their efficacy, the spirit behind them, viz.; showing our love, affection and respect to our dead ancestors or at least the immediately preceding forefathers. This is the way of appreciation by one and all.

Apart from the rites to be observed immediately after the death of the person and also the śrāddhas performed every month for the first one year, only the annual śrāddha is being observed by persons belonging to the first three castes. The procedure is more or less the same as described in the pārvaṇa-śrāddha section. For those whose has faith in these rites has been shaken due to the onrush of modern ideas and English education, Dr. P. V. Kane has suggested the following via media:

It is a good practice to set apart at least one day in a year for the remembrance of one’s near and dear relatives that are no more, to invite relatives, friends and learned people to a dinner in memory of the dead and to bestow monetary gifts on poor but learned persons of character and devoted to the practice of plain living and high thinking. This will be in keeping with our past traditions and will also give a new orientation to and infuse new life into practices that have become lifeless and meaningless to many people.

To this may be added the following religious P. V. Kane, History of Dharmaśastra, Vol. IV, Pune, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1953, p. 550. observances and disciplines also:

  • Fasting[27]
  • Worship of the family deity
  • Meditation and japa and earnest prayer to God for the peace and bliss of the departed ones

It is thus seen that the performance of śrāddha, though an ancient practice, deserves to be kept up even now, at least in a modified form.


  1. Sapta ṛṣayah means ‘seven sages’.
  2. Pitarah somavantah literally means ‘those who performed Somayāgas’.
  3. Pitarah barhiṣadah literally means ‘those that did pākayajñas, with cooked offerings’.
  4. Āhitāgnis literally means those who have duly consecrated the Vedic fires.
  5. Punarjanma literally means rebirth.
  6. Here gold is referred as money.
  7. Piṇḍadāna means offering cooked rice-balls to the pitṛs.
  8. Antyeṣṭi means last rites.
  9. Sanyāsins means ascetics or monks.
  10. Māghaśukla-aṣṭamī means the eighth day of the bright fortnight in the month of Māgha, January-February.
  11. Āhitāgnis means those who have ceremonially established the Vedic fires.
  12. Darśa means amāvāsyā or new-moon days.
  13. Tarpaṇa means satiating the ancestors.
  14. They are the days of Sun’s apparent entrance into the twelve zodiacal signs like Aries.
  15. These are the countries inhabited by people who do not observe the varṇaāśrama system.
  16. Eka means one, Uddiṣṭa means concerning.
  17. Śrāddha are called kartā or śrāddhakartā.
  18. It is like vibhuti or tripuṇḍra.
  19. Māṣa means a kind of pulse, Phaseolus mungo.
  20. Kalaśa means pot of consecrated water.
  21. Diagrams means one a square and the other, a circle.
  22. It is done after the brāhmaṇas have been fed.
  23. It is recommended by Baudhāyana.
  24. Vāsudeva means Nārāyaṇa or Kṛṣṇa.
  25. Tarpaṇa means satiatory rite.
  26. Akṣayavaṭa means the banyan tree.
  27. It can be either partial or complete.
  • The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore

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