(Based on the teachings of Gurudev Swami Divyachetnanadji Maharaj)
Mahalaya Paksha or Pitru Paksha is the 16 day period that falls in the second fortnight of the Hindu month of Bhadrapada. It ends with Amavasya. Mahalaya Amavasya is also called Sarva Pitri Amavasya. Pitru or Pitris are our ancestors and these days are of paramount importance in offering prayers and food to them.
Our scriptures say we are all born with three kinds of debts:
1. The debt we owe to the Gods – this is repaid by performing Yagyas
2. The debt we owe to the Rishis (Seers/Sages) – this is repaid by study of the scriptures
3. The debt we owe to our ancestors – this is repaid by performing Shraddha and Tarpan for the deceased
Karna, the great warrior, of the Mahabharata was the son of Suryadev and known for his charity. When he died and went to heaven he found he was only able to get food made of gold which was of no use in satiating his hunger. When he asked the Gods why, Indra told him that this was because throughout his mortal life Karna had only donated gold and gems to the poor but never food and water to them or to his ancestors. Karna realized his mistake and the Gods agreed to let him go back to Earth for a short period to make amends. He fed the poor and needy during this time and this period came to be known as pitru paksha. It is worth noting that in the divine system only pitrus are given 16 days – even Divine Mother gets 9 nights and Lord Ganesh gets 10 days.
During Pitru paksha we make offerings for the satisfaction (tushti), strength (pushti) and liberation (mukti) of our pitrus. Tarpan of water, milk etc, feeds them, recitation of powerful mantras, like any of the Mahavidya mantras, Durga saptashati etc, strengthens them and recitation of Bhagwat Katha, Bhagavat Gita, Guru Gita etc. helps liberate them. Additionally acts of charity in their name like feeding others, giving clothes etc. adds to their good karma.
Our elders and especially our parents have made immense sacrifices in bringing us up. Without the generations of ancestors that came before us, we would not exist here and without their contribution we would not have all the things that we have today. It is a known fact that the thoughts and beliefs of a mother influences the thoughts and beliefs of the child while it is in her womb. In fact the good and bad deeds of the family lineage influences all born in the lineage and we take on some of the negative karma of the mistakes of past generations in this life, causing us to experience suffering too.
After leaving the physical body many souls still have a lot of unfulfilled desires and suffer due to this. Pitra Dosh (problems in life due to unhappy ancestors) is indicated by the placement of planets in specific houses in the natal horoscope. This arises when pitrus in the lineage had died due to unnatural causes like snake bite, drowning, in an accident etc., or because they have been wronged by acts like wrongful appropriation of property, injustice meted out towards parents, siblings or others in the family, neglect, abuse or killing of members in the family etc. In these instances the pitrus are not able to move to higher planes and remain here or in lower planes undergoing a lot of suffering. They look towards their offspring lineage to do spiritual work that helps them. There can never be any happiness or progress in families when pitra dosha is present. Dreaming of snakes or of drowning, facing repeated miscarriages, continuous fights and arguments amongst family members, broken marriages, incurable diseases affecting family members, or illness that cannot be diagnosed are all symptoms of pitru dosha impacting the family lineage.
Pitra Dosha can be alleviated to an extent by regularly performing shraadha, tarpan, daan etc. for the pitrus throughout the year on all appropriate occasions. Additionally special prayog’s (spiritual practices) using mantra, yantra and tantra on special days in special teertha (holy) places can be very fruitful in addressing pitra dosha. One off the most effective methods of addressing pitra dosha is the prayog of Ma Bagalamukhi (the eighth Mahavidya) with her mantras on an Amavasya that falls on Saturday.
Our pitrus in various subtle astral bodies reside in the world called Bhuva and enjoy or suffer based on the karma they have incurred from deeds in past lifetimes. Offerings made to them reach them in whatever subtle body they exist through the pitru devas and help alleviate any sufferings they may be undergoing as well as help them ascend to higher worlds. They in turn bless us and we progress and prosper.
During Mahalaya paksha we honor individual ancestors with special offerings and rites performed to each ancestor depending on the thithi (date) when they died. The Shraddha ceremony can be performed to all pitrus on the Mahalaya Amavasya day irrespective on when they died and also to compensate if we could not perform the rites on their annual death day.