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Pitri Puja: Honoring Our Ancestors

No living being exists in complete isolation. No one is an island. We share the cosmos with a multitude of other beings with whom we live in interdependence. This interdependent myriad of beings exists in a vertical, hierarchical relationship with one another, from the lowest amoeba to the highest demigod. Living beings also exist in temporal, historical and genetic relationship with one another. While the past may be gone from our immediate vision, those who affected past historical events, both great and small, are the creators of our present day reality. We are because they were. Each of us, and our families, owe the blessings that we enjoy today at least as much to our direct ancestors as we do to our own hard work and initiative. Knowing this, we must always be thankful to our ancestors. Our ancestors are as much a living presence in our world now as they were when they inhabited physical forms in the past. Their lives have a very real influence upon us today.
All pre-Abrahamic cultures understood the tremendous importance of remaining closely connected to the past if the present was to be invested with any spiritually significant meaning. They also understood that the most personally relevant and accessible portal to the empowering wisdom and goodness of the past was through their own direct, familial ancestors - those who shared their particular bloodline and DNA. Indeed, to honor and respect our specific family’s ancestors was considered to be as sacred a duty, and as much a part of being a spiritual person, as worshiping the gods, the guru, or the Supreme Absolute.
It was for this reason that all traditional cultures engaged in what is often called ancestor worship (pitri-puja). There is no pre-Abrahamic culture on Earth that did not take great care to honor its ancestors in one form or another, often with each household maintaining a family altar in the home specifically meant to honor the family’s ancestors, and even the nation as a whole maintaining public altars to honor the greatness of the nation’s progenitors, the volksgeist of the entire people of the nation. This is a very important spiritual responsibility and tradition that used to be practiced universally by individuals, families and nations in the ancient past. The process of ancestor worship now needs to be revived in the modern world if we are to retain our sacred connection with our own cultural-spiritual heritage.
All followers of Sanatana Dharma should regularly engage in pitri-puja. Ancestor worship must again become a regular, household practice in modern times if we are to maintain a healthy connection with the hereditary current of power and blessings that our ancestors wish to deliver unto us. If you have not yet instituted the practice of ancestor worship in your own home, please consider doing so. The following brief section describes how to begin performing ancestor worship (pitri-puja) right away.

Performing Ancestor Puja

The easiest way to begin performing pitri-puja is to first establish an ancestor altar in your home. This sacred space does not need to be large in size, and can be as simple as a bookshelf, the top of a short piece of furniture, or a mantelpiece. It can be the natural place in which you keep photos of your departed relatives. The altar should be no higher than eye level, and ideally around waist level in height. Place a clean and pleasant cloth on the surface area, along with either photos and/or mementos on top of the cloth of any deceased relatives who you feel especially close to. You can have anywhere from one to dozens of such photos and items on your ancestor altar, depending on the room you have on the altar and the guidance of your own inspiration.
Each day, perform a simple puja ceremony in which you offer a stick of incense and a small cup of water for your ancestors to drink. Then recite the following mantras:
Aum Namo Vah Pitrah Saumyah Svaha
("Oh Dear Ancestors, I offer you my obeisances. Please accept this offerring.")
Aum Sarva Pitrah Svaha
(“I make this offering to all my ancestors”)
In addition, you may recite the Pitri Gayatri mantra:
Aum Pitr Ganaya Vidmahe
Jagat Dharine Dhimahi
Tanno Pitro Prachodayat (Aum)
After reciting the above mantras with devotion, sit and commune with the spirits of your ancestors, asking them to share their wisdom with you, to keep you strong and faithful to Dharma, and to empower and bless you and your family in every way.
* You should especially recite the Pitri Gayatri mantra if you have had brahmana initiation. Otherwise, even if you have not had brahmana initiation, it is acceptable to recite the Pitri Gayatri mantra if you are living a sattvic lifestyle. You must be living a sattvic lifestyle in order to recite any gayatri mantra. See The Sanatana Dharma Study Guide for more information on living a sattvic life.
About the Author
Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya
Sri Acharyaji has been practicing and teaching Dharma for over 40 years. With a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he is the Founder-Acharya of the International Sanatana Dharma Society and the Director of the Center for Dharma Studies.
Sri Acharyaji is currently recognized as one of the world's foremost scholars on the Yoga tradition, Dharma and meditation, as well as being a truly authentic spiritual teacher.
With a very large international following, Sri Acharyaji is especially renowned for his highly authentic approach to spirituality, his authoritative and scholarly method of teaching, and his clear emphasis on serious spiritual practice and direct experience of self-realization. He has lectured on Dharma at dozens of top universities, such as Harvard, Columbia, Rutgers, Cornell, and Northwestern. He has also served as a consultant for such Fortune 500 companies as Ford Motor Corporation and Lucent Technology.
Sri Acharyaji's teachings stress the achievement of enlightenment through the practice of meditation, Yoga, and directly experiencing the presence of the Divine. Another overarching aspect of Sri Acharyaji's teachings focuses on the importance of love, compassion and service toward all living beings.
Whether speaking to an audience of thousands, or having a heart-felt discussion with only one person, Sri Acharyaji vividly conveys a deeply moving sense of compassion, peace, humility, and spiritual insight that has endeared him to thousands of students and admirers throughout the world.
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