Escape from Put

Indian Mythology 11 Comments

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.

  • santosh

    amazingly explained DEVDUTT… but a query ….you explain the following —“While passing over the river Vaitarni, or while passing out of the mother’s womb, the spirit body loses all memory of previous lifetimes””. but then when going to pitrlok.if one loses al memory then how come the need to get rid of the the Spirit body and the question of karmic debts..cause if one does not remember..after passing through vaitarni…there should be no awareness of the karmic cycle…please explain..

    thanks and regards

    • Conscious memory associated with ego is lost….not the karmic imprints which have nothing to do with the ego…..

  • Anand

    The Western Mythology (Greek, Roman I don’t know which) also speaks of souls crossing a river. For this reason, in the older days, the dead were burned or buried (the former as shown in the Troy) with two gold coins over their eyes which was fee for the boatman to ferry their souls across the river. The crossing of river is also shown in Pirates of Carribean (Governor Swann in The Worlds End).
    I have a question on the point of Pitr-Rin. Going by the story of Bheeshma, it seems that all the sons of a man have to bear children i.e. repay the Pitr-Rin. But why would this be so, especially when only 1 shraddh per man is performed? So, in Shantanu’s case, one of Vichitraveer and Chitrangada would have helped Shantanu escape the Pitr-Loka. Was it possibly because only the eldest has to repay this debt?
    ‘Myth=Mithya’ also explains the concept of Pitr-Lok and Shraddh well.

    • In Western mythology, you cross the river of death once and it is only one way….not so in Indian mythology…..every living person is bound by pitr-rin…it was a way of enforcing marriage and explaining the cycle of rebirths

  • santosh

    Thanks you guys… thanks dev…

  • I would like to know, what are your thoughts on gay lifestyle according to Hindu mythology?

    • The gay construct is very 20th century. But male-to-male sex is alluded to Hindu mythology. The scriptures acknowledge its existence as a valid expression of the material world. But because social structure is based on heterosexuality, gay constructs are typically marginalized. Thus there is a conflict between spiritual acknowledgment and social acceptance. Do follow this link to know more

  • MJ

    When we talk about pitr, is it just the males of the family who want to get rid of pitr-rin?

    • The scriptures are directed at men. But logically, it applies to both men and women.

  • Indranath


    As you said the “spirit body” does not die and as a result of its karmic imprints repeats the cycle of dying and taking re-birth, is there a measure of ” by how much” or “when” the balance sheet of “karmic deeds” is reconciled ?

    OR does this balance sheet should get reconciled ever ?…

    unless this “spirit body” repeats or have an imprint of sacrificial instances like / equivalent of Bhisma and get dumped to “Put”…and is finally freed from the cycle?

  • shirish

    By reading all your articles I felt, the concept of hinduism is in layers.. A sandwich.. First outer layer consists of devas, asuras, suras, ghosts, trinity gods, trinity godesses, sun god, moon god, water, air, fire, plants, animals, insects, everything that cud be seen and unseen are given a finite form looking humanly, this first layer has the wisdom of the second layer beneath, but in the form of stories and mystic fables, which cud be understood by the commons.. May be because, The wise, The sages worried if the wisdom is given to the common directly widout fables, they may have not any intrest in gaining that knowledge, so they made it intresting, and at the same time encoded plausible message in the story, and not only in the stories, but also in the rituals and the dogma. Simple concept of darshan cud be seen through by both of the first or the second layer.

    Second layer, isn’t presented to the common directly untill the concept of vedant came into being..
    Going Through your articles, somewhere I realised that the pre-Buddhist era of hinduism was more focussed on keeping people’s life on track, they may get married in right time, they must produce children (fear of pitr rin) and other things. Where as at the time of shankaracharya when Buddhism and maybe Jainism was at peak in India.. And may be it was observed by the wise that the knowledge of the second layer of hinduism cud be given to the common, as then, the intellectual level of ppl might have grown up and the mimansa cud b given directly in the form of vedant..

    I felt somewhere along the legacy, hinduism is/was promoting the concept of One Life wrapped in the concept of multiple lives through many rituals.. Just like in this article the concept of pitr-rin is promoted because people may not deny to produce children.. It is said that sins of the fathers are paid by the sons (diseases cud be transmitted genetically frm fathers to sons).. It is also said your karma will get you the next life, you have to pay for sins in the next life.. If we add both- doesn’t hinduism promoting that You could only live again only through your sons and daughters, the next generation.. Next generation is your next birth.. also becoz ppl not having any child does there own shraddha, expecting Moksha..??

    Plz correct me, if I’m Wrong