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.
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
to those pitrs who have reached that destination,
and a call by the living for help at special times from the
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 pitr immediately
after the disposal of the body. As soon as the spirit became
a pitr it became a recipient of various Vedic sacrifices known
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 ativahika stage. As soon as the physical body was cremated the soul did not become
a preta, 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-sraddhas would be performed to complete the transition into
a pitr after
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.
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 (pitrs
of the outcastes).