The Pitri Paksha starts from the first day of the Krishna paksha or the dark phase of the moon of the Bhadrapada month and lasts for fifteen days till the new moon of the Bhadrapada month.
It has been generally observed that after this phase is over the Navaratri or the Devi paksha begins. The new moon day of the Bhadrapada month is known to the Hindus world wide as the Mahalaya Amavasya or the Ashwin Amavasya or the Sarvapitri Darsha Amavasya.
It is that auspicious day amongst the 15 days of Pitri Paksha when we as human beings commemorate our ancestors and thank them for the legacy that they have left behind.
In 2017, the Mahalaya Amavasya or the Sarvapitri Darsha Amavasya will be observed in the month of September on the 20th, Wednesday.
Paying homage to the departed ancestors
To the Hindus worldwide this 15 day period of Pitri Paksha is the best time and sacred to pay homage to the departed ancestors by offering them food in terms of performing shraddha and tarpan. This is considered to be an ideal time because the sun during this phase in the Kanya rashi and at the moment of entrance , all the souls of the departed ancestors leave the Yamalaya or the house of Yama, king of death and some down to earth to visit their descendants and to take their offerings.
Generally the last rites or shraddha is performed after the death of a person on a stipulated day. However the Mahalaya Amavasya or the Sarvapitri Darsha Amavasya or the Sarva Pitru Amavasya is so auspicious that it is considered to be the most important day to perform these rites and also to offer tarpan. It is also considered auspicious to donate in charity through a Brahmin.
What is shraddha and how is it performed on the Sarva Pitru Amavasya ?
Shraddha is an important part of Hindu lineage. It consists of paying homage and oblations to the three preceding generations. This is done by reciting their names as well as their Gotra . The dead are referred to Preta or ghosts. Due homage and oblations by the succeeding generations elevate them to the status of Pitri or forefathers. Due offering of food and water are made to them till these souls are not reborn in their next birth. Thus it is a repayment for all that they have done for the successors.
Lord Yama was the first to die and is considered to be the guide to the dead in Yamalok.
Why is it important to give food to the departed ancestors?
The importance of offering food to the dead souls springs from the Mahabharata. Karna, the hero of Mahabharata. When Karna reached the Yamalok,all the charity that he had performed in the Martya on his earthly abode returned manifold to him. However, all that he received was in gold and silver as that is what he had always given in charity. Karna had never given anyone any food in charity. Desperate, Karna prayed to Yama to give him 14 days time and send him back to Martya so that he can do dan of food as well.
For a period of 14 days, Karna was sent back to Martya lok where he fed Brahmins and the poor and offered oblation with water, after a period of 14 days, when Karna reached Yamalok once again, he was met with sumptuous and delicious food. These 14 days are what is known as the Pitri Paksha and thus it is mandatory for the well being of our deceased ancestors to be offered food during the Mahalaya and pitri tarpan.
The Mahalaya or the Sarva Pitru Amavasya Shraddha
The Mahalaya is so auspicious that if the date of the deceased is not known, then also shraddha can be performed on this auspicious day, as all negativity is taken away on this day. This is the reason why the Mahalaya Amavasya or the Sarva Pitru Amavasya is also known as the Sarvapitra Moksha Amavasya. Also those who passed away on Purnima tithi or during full moon, their shraddha is not done on the Bhadrapada Purnima. But rather that too is performed on the Mahalaya Amavasya Shraddha. Tarpan is done at the end of the shraddha.
In West Bengal, the Mahalaya or the Sarva Pitru Amavasya marks the beginning of Navaratri. It marks the end of the Pitri paksha and the beginning of Matri Paksha or the Devi Paksha. It is believed that Ma Durga came down to Martya lok on this day and marks the countdown for the Durga Puja.