The following article is a summary of the history of Hindu beliefs and ritual practices regarding death and the worship of ancestors. It includes examples of the final rites for the disposal of the dead, antyesti, and a discussion of the post-mortem rites of sraddha and tarpana, which form the basis of Hindu ancestor worship.According to Hindu belief there are realms of existence and classes of beings that exist throughout this universe. Some of these beings live in regions above this earth and others in regions below this earth. Some are classified as benefic and others are classified as malefic. Among the class of benefic beings are the pitrs, who include the ancient progenitors of mankind as well as the deceased relatives of the living.Hindu rituals for the dead, whether of the most ancient period or of later times serve five purposes: disposal of the body, consolation of those grieving, assistance to the departing soul to reach pitr-loka, sustenance to those pitrs who have reached that destination, and a call by the living for help at special times from the pitrs.
The study of this ancient belief system can be divided into three periods of development: the Vedic period, the Grhya period and the Puranic period. In the Vedic period it was believed that the spirit of a dead person became a pitrimmediately after the disposal of the body. As soon as the spirit became a pitr it became a recipient of various Vedic sacrifices known as pitr-yajnas.During the Grhya period it was believed that a soul did not become a pitr immediately after death, but entered an intermediate stage of life called a preta. This preta being could only become a pitr after certain rituals called ekoddista-sraddhas were performed by living relatives. This usually took a year.During the final Puranic period the idea expanded to include a new stage of life called the ativahikastage. As soon as the physical body was cremated the soul did not become apreta, but instead took on an initial ativahika body. In order to release the soul from this stage, a set of even more specialized rites called purakas had to be performed by the living relatives. This ativahika stage generally lasted for ten days after which the soul became a preta wherein the ekoddista-sraddhaswould be performed to complete the transition into a pitr after one year.Underlying this process was the belief that without the help of living relatives performing particular rites at specific times, the departing soul was unable to obtain the necessary body by which it could partake in the enjoyments of the pitrs. Therefore, in all stages, the living relatives had to perform some required rites.
 While addressing this topic it is important to understand that Hindu religious traditions do not fall within the jurisdiction of any one central authority. Hinduism has no ecclesiastic body that determines its beliefs, ritual practices or social structure. There are, of course, a large number of religious sects (sampradayas), with a great number of prominent teachers (acaryas), but the authority of the religious sect and the individual guru extends only to a relatively small range of followers. Consequently, Hindu beliefs and practices vary widely from one religious sect to another and from one geographic region to another. This creates a highly diffused and multi-layered tradition. Therefore, it is difficult to determine which practices and beliefs are original and which have been added. It is also virtually impossible to assert that any given regional practice is standard. Nevertheless, this article will attempt to chart the middle ground and draw certain conclusions that describe the general Hindu view on this complex topic.
 In fact, tradition describes many classes of pitrs. Here is a list of just a few: Agnisvattas (pitrs of the gods), Barhisads (pitrs of demons), Vairajas (pitrs of ascetics), Somapas (pitrs of brahmanas), Havismats (pitrs of ksatriyas), Ajyapas (pitrs of vaisyas), Sukalin (pitrs of sudras), and Vyamas (pitrsof the outcastes).
 Pitr–loka is the name of the realm of existance wherein the pitrs dwell.
 The word sraddha means an act of faith. The term is not used during the Vedic period. The word first appears during the Grhya period. In the Asvalayana-sutra (IV 7.1) the sraddha is described as anekoddista rite wherein in the ashes and the bones of the departed soul are collected and placed in an urn. The word ekoddista means “meant for one.” Ekoddista–sraddha are those rights designed solely for the benefit of the departed soul and not for the pitrs in general.
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