Every year, during the dark fortnight of Bhadrapada month, Hindus venerate their ancestors by performing Shraaddha pooja. It is believed that an offering of pind (rice) and tarpan (water) is received and accepted by the ancestors. The rituals usually involve feeding Brahmins as also making an offering to animals such as crow, cow, dog etc.
However, it appears (though I have no empirical basis for this), that the performance of Shraaddha among educated Hindus is declining. My guess is that increasing atheism, disbelief in caste, disbelief in ritualism, intangibility of the receipt of offerings, lack of knowledge pertaining to Shraaddha etc. are the reasons for the decline. I am not going to venture into the legitimacy of these reasons.
My concern is the total and complete abandonment of the practice. To my understanding, every ritual/practice has two aspects - the physical and the mental. The physical aspect is the physical act of actually carrying out the practice/ritual. The mental aspect is the thought that one must have/cultivate when performing the physical act.
To give an example, lets take the offering of water to idols. The act of bringing the vessel, collecting the water, offering the water etc. are the physical aspects. The thought that I am offering water to god and s/he is accepting water, like a mother accepts anything from the toddler, is the governing mental thought during the performance of the physical aspect. Please note, that the mental thoughts may change with the change in the gunas of the individual; however, the physical aspect remains the same.
Now back to Shraaddha. My hunch is that the abandonment of Shraaddha is primarily driven by objections to its physical aspects i.e.: alleged waste of food, the inability of food reaching ancestors through the pooja/mouths of Brahmins etc. Rarely, have I come across an objection to the mental aspect i.e.: veneration of ancestors. In fact, the concept of veneration of ancestors is common among various cultures/faiths across the world and also across the length of human life. On first principles alone, I believe there is reason for veneration - i.e.: we owe a lot of our present lives to our ancestors, not just in terms of inheritance, but also in terms of the gift of life. I am not aware of any objection to having gratitude towards ancestors.
My fear is the non-fulfilment of the mental aspect of Shraaddha. We have objections to the physical aspect of Shraaddha. As a result, we abandon the practice of Shraaddha. Since there is no longer a physical act wherein the mental aspect can be incorporated, and owing to the rigours of modern life, I fear that the mental aspect of remembering our ancestors remains unfulfilled. The abandonment of the physical aspect, without anchoring onto something else, causes a loss of both - the mental and physical aspects.
My submission is that a physical anchor is necessary for the mental aspect to play. Without a physical anchor, the mental aspect will last only for a few seconds, if at all. At the end of the day, most of us operate at the gross level and hence the presence/absence of gross elements has an impact on the mental processes. Unfortunately, we need triggers to be grateful. It is nice and fluffy to argue that gratefulness is a state of mind. But it is incredibly hard to make the mind constantly grateful. If it were that easy, then we would not have been this selfish and goods hoarding race that we are now.
If a physical aspect is important for the mental aspect to play, there are only two ways to resolve our objections to the physical aspect - (i) understand the ritual of Shraaddha and its significance; or (ii) find an alternate physical aspect.
I am not competent to explain (i). For this, I would recommend reading Chapter IX of Vol. IV of History of Dharamsastras by PV Kane. The book is freely available online. The book extensively deals with all the texts pertaining to Shraaddha. The book is an authority on the subject of Dharamsastras. The author is Bharat Ratna awardee.
However, I can recommend on (ii). If you do not believe that ancestors are fulfilled by the performance of Shraaddha, then simply donate food to the hungry/poor. It may not still fulfil the ancestors, but at least by the act of donating, you would have remembered them and felt grateful for whatever they have done for you.
While (i) is purely religious, (ii) is completely secular. One can believe in (ii), even if one is an atheist. There can hardly be any objection to donating food to the hungry, in remembrance of one's ancestors. The only religious aspect in (ii) will be the timing of the donation i.e.: the period of Shraaddha. If, however, you are able to formulate a new time period/occasion for making the donation, then from a secular point of view, that is okay.
Therefore, in summary, my conclusions/unasked for advice is as follows:
If you believe in Hinduism, start with (i). If you are not satisfied with (i), definitely do (ii).
If you do not believe in Hinduism, or do not want to go through the enquiry of (i), definitely do (ii).
Don't abandon the veneration of ancestors. Your entire life is not just your own making.
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