This is part 2 of the series Vedas and Ancestors.
In Atharva Veda there is an exclusive chapter, known as kāṇḍa about ancestors. Atharva Veda is considered as a later addition to Vedic triads, Rig, Yajur and Sāma Vedas. But many of the verses from Atharva Veda are used during a number of rituals. Atharva Veda is named after Atharva, the eldest son of Brahmā, to whom his father Brahmā, revealed Brahma vidyā (Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad I.i.1). It is also said that Atharva is the first disciple of Brahmā and not his son. Atharva Veda contains a lot of vital and secretive information. Apart from the secretive information, it contains many mantras that are used in several auspicious ceremonies such as marriage, sīmanta, etc. There are 20 Upaniṣad-s related to Atharva Veda. There are many verses in Chapter 18 of Atharva Veda relating to appeasing the ancestors and funeral rites. There are 20 kāṇḍa-s (chapters) in Atharva Veda and each kāṇḍa has many sūkta-s and each sūkta has many couplets. Most of the verses in this Veda are found in Rig Veda.
Kāṇḍa 18 has four sūkta-s and they are known as pitṛmedha sūkta-s (पितृमेध सूक्त). Pitṛmedha means oblations made to pitṛ -s. This kāṇḍa begins by offering prayers to Yama, the god of death and his sister Yamī (Yama’s sister is so called in this kāṇḍa – verse 13). The first reference to the ancestors appears in sūkta I.41. It is said in this verse that ancestors from southern side (where pitṛ-s live) invoke Sarasvatī. In pitṛmedha ceremonies, offerings are always made to Sarasvatī too. Then the performer prays to Sarasvatī to join with his pitṛ-s (forefathers) and bestow wealth on them. He pleads to Sarasvatī to send the ancestors back to the heaven and those who are reborn should not be made to suffer. He also makes a plea to Sarasvatī to make his forefathers respond to his invocation, whenever they are invoked. (Vedas consider pitṛ-s as one of the gods and they are invoked even during auspicious ceremonies and such ceremonies are called nāndī.) Later, in verses 51 and 52, the performer appeals to his forefathers, “Please be seated on this kuśa grass (darbha). We have prepared offerings for you. Please eat these offerings and bless us with disease free life and wealth. If we have committed any mistakes that are common to humanity, please forgive us.” Later the invoked ancestors are given a send off.
In Hindu tradition, the day of death of a departed soul is observed every year, based on lunar calendar. This is observed in almost all the religions. This is called appeasing ceremony or śrāddha. During this annual ritual, ancestors are invoked and oblations are offered in the sacrificial fire in their favour. Apart from the fire ritual, food is prepared at home with great reverence and two priests are invited and offered with the food thus prepared, considering one of them as ancestors and another as different gods (viśveśāṁ devānāṁ). The one representing ancestors is addressed as Vasu, Rudra, Āditya representing one’s father (only if father is not alive), grandfather and great grandfather. It is believed that the food offered to him goes to the performer’s forefathers. Vasu, Rudra and Āditya represent three higher planes and Āditya is considered as the highest plane.
Verses 54 to 57 are addressed to the departed soul; “Go though the path that are followed by ancestors (the path in which ancestors have reached heaven). You will be able to meet the many kings (known for dharma), Yama and Varuṇa. Ancestors have made this world (the place where ancestors are believed to live, like heaven, etc). Let him live happily there. We enkindle you (probably referring to the funeral fire; but the verse appears as Yama’s speech). Please bring in other ancestors (referring to forefathers) to take these oblations. We will make you merge with light and when you become one with that light, please bring other ancestors to take these oblations (Based on the principle that he reaches he reaches heaven, which is referred as light).”
These verses talk about the funeral pyre. At that time prayers are made to the concerned soul to go to the world of light, possibly indicating either the heaven or the world of gods such as Indra’s (from spiritual point of view, soul is only the reflection of Brahman and one cannot pray to Brahman to go to the world of light as He Himself is Light). Prayer is also made for the peaceful sojourn of the departed soul, where there is enough light, food and happiness. The first sūkta containing 61 verses ends, by appealing to Yama by praising him through various mantras to take the departed soul to the heaven, where great Āṅgirasa-s exist as pitṛ-s. Āṅgirasa means descendents of sage Āṅgirasa. Every person comes under the scion of a sage.
Second sūkta of kāṇḍa 18 has 60 verses and many of these verses are addressed to Agni (god of fire, who is the carrier of all oblations to the respective gods) after lighting the funeral pyre. After requesting the priest to please Yama through the first three verses, subsequent verses are addressed to Agni who is the carrier of oblations to various gods and goddesses. In this ritual honey, ghee and milk are offered as oblations. The performer (yajamāna) prays to Agni thus: “Do not burn this body with extreme heat. Do not twist and turn this body. After making this body into ashes, take him go to the world of ancestors. In case he takes another birth, please make him an opulent personality. Please illuminate the path he traverses. Let him be born as an offspring in our family.”
These verses are addressed to Yama. “Free him from his diseases and give him comforts. Give us long life (Performer and his family, possibly with intent to feed his ancestors by performing annual ceremonies). Take him to great sages, great warriors, great composers and poets (in the ancestral world).” (Spiritually speaking, only the causal body of the dead travels to heaven or earth accompanied by soul. Without soul the causal body cannot move. But at the same time, soul remains only as witness not partaking in any of the activities of the causal body. Impressions of the subconscious mind also known as karma is embedded in the causal body. It is believed that the causal body either takes a sojourn or merges with the Brahman. This depends upon one’s karmic account. A causal body is believed to take sojourn in different types of worlds placed between heaven and hell.)
The performer then addresses the Earth. “Be good to him. Make his living place comfortable (in case he is reborn in the earth). Then he directly addresses the departed one. “Live on this huge surface of the Earth. Whatever good things you have done during your life will protect you (This is the most important aspect of one’s life. Good thoughts and good actions lead to emancipation). I unfeignedly invite you. Happily come to our house. Join with Yama and other ancestors. Let the gentle breeze be your companion. Watery herbs will cool you through rain (rain from clouds containing herbal properties). Don’t leave your mind, life, body parts and your essence (referring to tejas) here. (He prays to the dead to get himself freed from all his desires and attachments in the material world where he lived.) Go to the world of ancestors. Let our forefathers bring together your body, your prāṇa and apāna. (This could be referring to the making of his subtle body. This subtle body is not related to the subtle body during one’s life. The subtle body of the dead is known as pitṛ body. During annual ceremonies, these subtle bodies are supposed to arrive at the place where annual ceremonial rites are performed. Since these bodies cannot directly take food, the food is given to them as oblations in the fire. There are certain texts which say that they can eat only through the smell of the food. Hence tasty dishes are prepared during śrāddha-s. It is also said that when sesame seeds are fried, pitṛ-s descend from upper worlds and come to the place where sesame seeds are roasted and they have the capacity to satiate their hunger by inhaling this smell. This is said to be main reason for using sesame seeds in ancestral rites. When they arrive for the smell of sesame seeds, they also bless the family members of the yajamāna) With the help of the gifts I give on your behalf, like cow, rice, milk, boat, etc (the gifts have already been discussed in Garuda Purāṇa series) reach the world of Yama. When you come, bring with you those ancestors who are buried and whose bodies are preserved (could be referring to cadaver for medical purpose).”
“O! Agni! I release him, who was born as my relative (like father or mother). I had been to heaven (possibly referring to his previous births) and let me live for hundred years (the purpose is to perform ancestral rites). Take him to pitṛ-s through the right path (journey to the ancestral world depends upon one’s karma). There are three types of worlds. The lower one is full of water, mid world is full of stars and the upper one is that of ancestors, probably referring to heaven. We pay of obeisance to our grandparents and great-grandparents.”
He then addresses the departed soul. “To enable you to take rebirth I invoke Pūṣan (Vedic deity who is in charge of journeys to the next world) and Savita (giver of new life). With them you go to the world of Yama. Your old body has gone and this is your new body. Protect yourself from the wrath of fire and cover yourself with fat and marrow. Comeback to this world with more riches (meaning rebirth).”
With this, the first two sūkta-s of kāṇḍa 18 of Atharva Veda is completed. There are more sūkta-s in this kāṇḍa.
(to be continued)