First Published in Sunday Midday April 26, 2009

For several days and nights, the Rishi Jaratkaru was tormented by visions of old men hanging precariously upside down from a ledge extending across a dark bottomless pit. “Save us, save us,” they cried. “Who are you?” asked the sage. The old men replied, “We are Pitrs, your ancestors. Save us. Save yourself.” “How?” asked Jaratkaru. “Here is how,” said the ancestors, “get a wife and beget upon her children. If you don’t we will forever be trapped in Pitr-loka (the land of ancestors), hanging upside down, and you will be trapped forever in the hell known as Put.”

This story recurs several times in the Puranas. Rishi Agastya had a similar vision. Following this vision, Jaratkaru and Agastya get married and produce children. A male offspring was called Putra and a female offspring was called Putri because by their birth they saved their parents from the hell known as Put reserved for men and women who refuse to produce children. Pitrs are typically portrayed in art in male form because in the language of symbols, the male form is used to represent the soul while the female form is used to represent the flesh.

Traditional Hindus believe that every living man and woman is obliged to his ancestors, the Pitr, to reproduce. This is called Pitr-rin or debt to the ancestors. This debt is repaid by producing children and enabling the dead to be reborn in the land of the living. During the Shraddh rituals performed by Hindus, mashed rice balls are offered to ‘toothless’ Pitrs with the promise that the Pitr-rin will be repaid. The rice balls represent food which is the raw material of the human body.

Of course, like all things Hindu, there was always Upaay, or a way out, for childless couples. One could adopt a child. One could perform Shraddh for oneself thereby liberating future generations from Pitr-rin on account of oneself. One could by prayers to God or a journey to a particular pilgrimage, or by acts of charity, break the karmic cycle and liberate oneself from all debts.

In the Mahabharta when the prince Devavrata takes a vow never to marry, or father a child, the gods call him Bhisma, the one who took the terrible vow. What was this terrible vow?  To understand this vow, one must appreciate the mythological framework of Pitr-rin. Out of love for his father who wanted to marry a fisherwoman, Devavrata took the vow of celibacy and thereby publicly declared he would not repay his Pitr-rin. By doing so, he doomed himself to an eternity in Put, with no hope of being reborn. Traditionally, Pitr-lok is closest to Bhu-lok (land of the living) when the sun is on its southerly course (from June to December). Perhaps Bhisma did not want to face his disapproving ancestors which is why he chose to die only in January, after Makar Sankranti, when the sun began its northerly course. Even today, around later winter and early spring there is a holy day called Bhisma-ashtami when in temples across India Shraddh rituals are performed for Bheeshma – for the obedient son still stands toothless in Put, for the sake of his father.

Hindus believe that the immortal soul is enclosed in three mortal bodies. The first body is the flesh, that we can touch and feel. The second body is the nervous energy that animates the flesh. The third body is the spirit body which cannot be seen.  The spirit body is the container of karmic debts and equities. Until this body is free of debts and equities, accumulated in past lives, the soul is obliged to return to the land of the living and experience circumstances resulting from past karma.

When a person dies, the first and second body dies but the third body does not die. Through various funeral rituals, the spirit body is encouraged and assisted to make its journey out of Bhu-loka across the river Vaitarni to Pitr-loka, the land of ancestors. While the journey to Pitr-loka is through the crematorium, the journey back to Bhu-loka is through the mother’s womb. While passing over the river Vaitarni, or while passing out of the mother’s womb, the spirit body loses all memory of previous lifetimes.

Some souls are unable to make their journey from the land of living to the land of dead.  As a result they do not turn into Pitr; they remain here as Pisachas or ghosts.  Another word for Pisacha is Vetal.  Both Pisacha and Vetal  are visualized hanging upside down, usually from a Banyan tree in the crematorium, perhaps because they do not possess the human body and hence are not affected by the natural law of gravity. Since they are upside down, they have a topsy-turvy view of all things. They are known to torment the living by questioning them all that happens in Bhu-loka. Thus, they are seen as the voice of conscience as well as the source of nightmares who have to be appeased or warded off. Many people believe that if a person or a house is tormented by ghosts, funeral rituals must be performed because in all probability no one performed these rites for them causing them to be trapped on the wrong side of Vaitarni, transforming them into angry poltergeists.