Pitru Paksha, known as the “fortnight of the ancestors,” is a fifteen-day observance that takes place during the Indian lunar month of Bhadrapada, which usually corresponds to the Gregorian calendar months of September and October. In 2021, this observance takes place from Tuesday, September 21, to Tuesday, October 5.
In the Sanskrit language, pitru means “ancestors”and paksha means a “fortnight” or a “side” of a lunar month. According to the Vedic lunar calendar, a paksha comprises fifteen tithis or lunar days. There are two pakshas in a lunar month, which are at the two sides of the full moon day, that is, the fortnight before and the ensuing fortnight. Shukla Paksha, the bright fortnight, comprises the fifteen days after amavasya, or the new moon, which is when the moon waxes, increasing its brightness each day to culminate in the full moon, or purnima. Krishna Paksha, the dark fortnight, begins after the full moon when the moon wanes day by day until it becomes completely dark. The bright fortnight is associated with growth and expansion, while the dark fortnight is associated with introspection, contemplation, purification, and transformation.
The observance of Pitru Paksha starts on the pratipada, or first day, after the full moon that concludes Ganesh Utsava, the festival in honor of Lord Ganesh. This means that Pitru Paksha takes place during the dark fortnight of the moon, Krishna Paksha, and comes to a close with Sarvapitru Amavasya, “the new moon of all the ancestors.” In most years, the autumn equinox falls within this period, which is when the sun transitions from the northern to the southern hemisphere. The scriptural texts of the Vedic tradition consider the southern direction as the place where the ancestors live. Thus, Pitru Paksha is in alignment with the course of nature and the traditional significance ascribed to the various astral movements during this period of time.
The observance of Pitru Paksha has its origins in the ancient Vedic tradition of India. Pitru Paksha is described in scriptural texts such as the Garuda and the Vishnu Puranas as a powerful time in which to honor and express gratitude to those who have come before us and left for us a legacy of their wisdom, protection, love, or material wealth. By Vedic tradition, “ancestors” refers specifically to parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. In practice, on Pitru Paksha many people also honor departed spouses, children, siblings, aunts and uncles, and parents-in-law as well as friends, neighbors, teachers, mentors, and even beloved animals that have left this world.
By reflecting on the influence that ancestors, friends, mentors, and benefactors have had on you, you will recognize the profound significance they have had as role models and sources of learning. They were your guiding light and instrumental in who you are and who you have become. They laid a path for you to follow in your life.
The Siddha Yoga teachings impart the knowledge that the connection we have with those we love—and in fact with everything in this universe—is one that transcends the physical realm. When the body ceases its activity on this planet, the eternal Self, the atman, continues to exist. In the same way, the imprint our loved ones have left on the world is eternal. It is the eternal Self, and the everlasting contribution that our loved ones have made, that we recognize and celebrate on the Siddha Yoga path during Pitru Paksha.
Observances of Pitru Paksha
According to the scriptures of India, it is the dharma, the duty, of those who are living to offer their prayers, blessings, and the fruits of their spiritual practices for the benefit of those who have passed on. In this way, we honor those whose souls have departed this earth and support them on their journey.
During Pitru Paksha, we as Siddha Yogis may choose to dedicate our spiritual practices—our prayers, meditation, chanting, mantra repetition, and svadhyaya, such as the recitation of Shri Guru Gita—to those who have departed. As well, there are beautiful prayers from the Upanishads and Shri Bhagavad Gita that one can recite to honor the eternal Self, the soul of our loved ones, which transcends the physical body.
A traditional observance during Pitru Paksha is performing charitable works on behalf of our ancestors. These can be done by giving food to people in need, by honoring the sannyasis, or monks, by giving money to support the education of children and young people in need, and also by carrying forward or giving to the charitable works our ancestors performed. Some people may even plant a tree, a symbol of life, to honor dear ones who have departed. And another way of honoring the ancestors is by reflecting on their great qualities and virtues that we wish to cultivate.
To support people to focus on honoring their departed ancestors and loved ones during this time, it is traditionally recommended to refrain from beginning a new project, a major undertaking, or a marriage and from traveling long distances. Travel considered auspicious during Pitru Paksha is that which is undertaken as a pilgrimage or a spiritual practice.