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Significance of rituals in memory of one's ancestors

Introduction
The growth, over the years, of the greeting cards industry clearly reveals man's increasing trend of remembering important occasions.
Whether it is a birthday or wedding anniversary, an exam success or an inauguration, or any other event worthy of recall, a card is promptly sent. Failure to remember and send an appropriate message has soured many relationships and friendships. Such failure is viewed negatively and invites negative consequences.
Occasions worthy of recall are of varying importance to different individuals, communities and nations. Events are remembered and commemorated for personal, social, cultural and spiritual reasons. And the very act of remembering reveals the love, reverence and values one harbours for that occasion.
Every culture and religion has its unique and special way of remembering the dead. Each November, the soldiers who died in the World Wars are remembered on Remembrance Day (Veterans Day in America). People the world over wear Flanders Poppies in honour of those who lost their lives in the World Wars.
In Belgium, people visit the graves of their dead relatives and friends on a specially designated day.
In France, the entire family gathers at church to pray for the dead.
In Japan, people believe that the souls of their dead return home once every year. Thus, they light their path with candles as a welcome gesture.
Red Indians observe a special fast in February in honour of the dead.
Thus, remembering the dead takes varied forms in different parts of the world.
In India, Hindus offer shraaddh in honour of the dead.

What is Shraaddh?
Food and prayers offered with faith in the name of deceased forefathers for their benefit is shraaddh (Manu Smriti 3.284). In the Satsangijivan it is said that food and gifts offered in the memory of ancestors to earn their blessings is called shraaddh.
In fact, scriptures reveal that one who offers shraaddh with full scriptural rites earns merits equivalent to having satisfied all of creation.
Conversely, in the Vidurniti it is stated that one who does not offer shraaddh in the name of his ancestors is foolish.

Stages of Shraaddh
After the death of a person and following the completion of his cremation, three stages of shraaddh rites are described.

  1. Purva Vidhi (Rites for the deceased upto 12 days.)These are the rites offered from the time of cremation upto the twelfth day. They include dashgatra vidhi, nav shraaddh, pret shraaddh and others.These rites provide the soul of the deceased with the body of a pret. The soul, having been housed in a sthul (physical) body, finds itself with only its karan (causal) and sukhshma (subtle) bodies. The loss of the physical body weakens the subtle body, which becomes inactive. Thus the elements of the subtle body- the five gnan indriyas, five karma indriyas, five prans and four antahkarans (see footnote)- need to be revived. By offering pinds (balls) of flour and grains, this is gradually achieved. The Pind Upanishad of the Atharva Veda describes, figuratively, the 10 stages by which the subtle body is revived through the offering of a daily ball. With the first, there is partial revival of the subtle body; the second bestows blood, flesh and skin; the third creates buddhi; the fourth, bones and fat; the fifth, hands, fingers and head; the sixth, heart, throat and tongue; the seventh, designates lifespan; the eighth, speech; the ninth, all indriyas; and the tenth, emotions.
  2. Madhyam Vidhi (Monthly rites for the deceased.)Offerings made every month to the deceased souls of ancestors (pitrus) are called monthly shraaddh. Offerings made in the name of one's father, grandfather and great-grandfather are called ekoddishta shraaddh. Together, these two shraaddhs form the madhyam vidhi. With these rites, the pret body of the deceased evolves into the pitru body.The pret body is the developing subtle body of the deceased and has no fixed residence. Once the pitru body is attained, the deceased enters pitru loka and attains powers comparable to demi-gods. The offerings in shraaddh invoke the blessings of these pitru.
  3. Uttar Vidhi (Annual rites for the deceased.)Offerings made annually during the month of Bhadrapad (Bhadarvo) are called mahalay shraaddh. What is offered reaches the deceased soul through the gods.Many local variations and traditions exist in the manner in which shraaddh is offered. However, the underlying purpose is common - to ensure the happiness of the deceased soul.

Shraaddh in the Swaminarayan Sampraday
The rites described above are a general outline of how shraaddh is offered. However, for satsangis, they vary and are described as follows:
In the Bhaktachintamani (68/9), Shriji Maharaj says,
Mãrã janne antakãle jarur tedavã ãvavu;
Birud mãru na badale te sarve janne janãvavu.
i.e. At the time of death, I will come to redeem my devotees. This promise of mine will never change.
Shriji Maharaj has promised that He will Himself come to redeem the souls of His devotees and take them to His divine abode, Akshardham. These devotees attain a divine body and stay eternally in the service of Maharaj. In this way they forever experience the bliss of Supreme God. (Vachanamruts Gadhada-I-1, 21, 71; Sarangpur-1; Gadhada II-1.)
Thus, devotees do not require the pret or pitru bodies. Hence, the dashgatra vidhi is not necessary. Also, since devotees reach Akshardham, the highest of all abodes, directly, there is no need to perform the rites of the other stages of shraaddh either. In cases where a devotee may have had true faith in and total surrender to Maharaj but may have harboured worldly desires, the devotee would be given a birth in a virtuous family.
If, due to worldly attachments, the soul of a deceased devotee roams as a spirit, consecrated water from the Akshar Deri in Gondal or water consecrated by Pramukh Swami Maharaj in his morning puja (water which has been used to bathe the murti of Harikrishna Maharaj), is sprinkled around the home. Together with sincere prayers, this will release the deceased from its bondage.
Therefore, for such a devotee, the various rites of shraaddh described above are also not necessary.

A tru devotee redeems many generations
A question may arise as to what should be done if only one person in the family is a Swaminarayan devotee and the others are not.
In the Shrimad Bhagvat, Prahlad asks Bhagwan Nrusinh whether his slain father, the devil king Hiranyakashipu, will attain heaven. In reply, Nrusinh Bhagwan says, "Along with your father, 21 generations have been redeemed, because through your virtues they have been purified." (Shrimad Bhagvat 6/10/18.)
So, even the evil Hiranyakashipu, who was of a wicked nature and totally opposed and obstructive to devotion of God, attained heaven by his association with his virtuous son, Prahlad.
Through this example, we learn that 101 generations related to a true devotee of God attain redemption. Thus, it is not necessary to perform the rites of the three stages of shraaddh to ensure their happiness.
Shriji Maharaj has also said that if relatives believe it is their good fortune that a true devotee of God has been born in their family and understanding his glory, are attached to him, then they, too, will be redeemed. Even those forefathers who are deceased, if they believe it to be their good fortune that a devotee of God has been born in their family, they too will be redeemed (Vachanamrut Gadhada I-77).
Thus, although for satsangis and their family, the rites of the stages of shraaddh are not necessary, according to community customs, the family should sponsor a meal in memory of the deceased on the tenth or twelfth day after death.
Also, so that other relatives may benefit from the contact of satsang and progress spiritually, the family of the deceased should sponsor a parayan and meal on his behalf in the mandir.
In addition, following the scattering of the ashes at holy places like Gadhada, Gondal and others, a meal to Thakorji should be sponsored at the mandir. Thereafter, every year, in memory of the virtues of the deceased, during the period of shraaddh in the second half of the month of Bhadrapad (August or September), or on the anniversary date, a meal to Thakorji should be sponsored. During this period of shraaddh, meals are served to Brahmins and food is also laid out for crows (kaag-vaas). The living, through this rite, believe that their ancestors are appeased.
Amongst the annual celebrations of the Swaminarayan Sampraday, the shraaddh occasions of Bhagwan Swaminarayan and the gurus are celebrated. On these occasions their virtues are remembered and prayers are offered to enable us to imbibe those virtues in our lives.
Shraaddh, therefore, is a time to recall and sing the virtues of those who have passed away and make offerings to them to ensure their future happiness and earn their blessings.

Footnote:

  • 5 gnan indriyas: Cognitive sense organs, through which one knows: shrotra (ears), tvak (skin), chakshu (eyes), rasna (tongue) and ghran (nose).
  • 5 karma indriyas: Conative sense organs, through which one can perform actions: vak (voice), pani (hands), paad (feet), payu (arms) and upastha (genitals).
  • 4 antahkarans: inner faculty, the complete mind comprising of four aspects, each characterised by its individual function: man (generates thoughts and desires), buddhi (consolidates thoughts), chitta (repeated contemplation) and ahamkar (sense of being).
  • 5 prans: Vital energies which control crucial bodily functions: pran (vocal and respiratory functions), apan (excretory functions), saman (digestive functions), udan (automatic functions above the larynx) and vyan (voluntary and involuntary muscular movements).
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