Sraddha: Death Rituals and Ancestral Rites

Sraddha is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘faith’ and can be perceived as a state of mind employed when performing Vedic rituals (Cush, Robinson and York 822).  There are in fact two different meanings for the term sraddha, which differentiate themselves by the position of the long vowel on the ‘a’. To best understand the term sraddha, it is essential to highlight the associations between the two words, as they are to an extent intertwined. Sraddha, without intonation of the ‘a’ has been found in many Vedic writings, including a Vedic hymn where sraddha is referred to as a “goddess whom fire is kindled and offerings made, who is invoked at morning, noon, and sunset” (Cush, Robinson and York 822). It can be noted, that sraddha in this instance is referred to as a goddess, to whom ritual offerings are expected to be made morning, noon, and sunset. The Sanskrit commentator Ramanuja in the Bhagavagita describes sraddha as “zeal in a course of action, based on confidence that it will produce a desired result.” (Cush, Robinson and York 822). This is a reference to ‘faith’ in a desired ‘result’, alluding to the second meaning of sraddha as an ‘action’ with the same result. As mentioned in the Mahabharata and Visnu Purana, sraddha is the daughter of daksa and wife of dharma, who represents generosity to brahmanas. This example emphasizes the representation of sraddha as the giving of gifts or offerings to the brahmana who symbolize the dead. These periodical offerings to the dead occur twelve days after a death and annually on the anniversary of the death. This meaning of sraddha that is the topic of this article, the first given with the intonation on ‘a’,is translated to ‘belonging to sraddha’ refering to the ritual offerings to the deceased but also intertwined with ‘faith’ in the goddess sraddha, who can be understood as the source of these rituals (Cush, Robinson and York 822).

Furthermore, sraddha can be understood as rites for the dead or ancestral worship, consisting of texts, prayers and food offerings, and oblation of pindas (rice balls) to the deceased and their forefathers (Krishan 97). Sraddha rituals can thus be perceived as comparable to the last of the samskaras or life-cycle rituals, akin to antiyesti or the ‘final sacrifice’ of a ‘twice-born’ Hindu male.  Sraddha is regarded as inauspicious, meaning a certain level of impurity surrounds a deceased person. Impurity is thought to develop through direct contact with the body,that connects the living family members to the spirit of the deceased as they are buried (Nicholas 374). Impurity, pollution, and release from these apprehensions are the questions that surround the sraddha rites.

To fully understand sraddha one must first investigate the significance behind death and what it symbolizes in the Hindu religion. Belief in bhutas and pretas, meaning spirit and soul respectively, is the base of the sraddha rite. It is believed that after death, the soul wanders the earth aimlessly, unable to attain rebirth or reach the realm of the ancestors (pitr-loka) until the prescribed rites are performed (Krishan 97). Death is understood as one of the single most polluting actions that will affect the deceased and their relatives. Sraddha is used to amend this, as it prescribes the appropriate purifications of the corpse, cremation as an offering to the sacred fire, and the appropriate ritual actions to be performed after death. Rodrigues states that “in a world view that sees existence as cyclical, death marks a transition to another state of existence, and as such needs to be commemorated and guided through ritual action” (Rodrigues 87). This emphasizes the importance of sraddha in death, guiding ritual action.

Certain restrictions surround sraddha rites, including who may perform and receive them. The rites may only performed for those who have died a natural death, yet even then women and children are not as likely to be honored as are adult males. Through sraddha, the natural dead become ancestors sustained through annual rituals and sacrifice until they are reborn. Some Hindu cults ‘deify’ those who were victims of violent deaths, died prematurely, or who sacrificed themselves which qualifies as dying a ‘hero’s death’. This differs slightly from classical sraddha ceremony, but is still similarly intertwined, as the family moves from worship of an ancestor to worshipping the deceased as though they are god-like. In this case, ancestral shrines evolve into cult centers for clan gods. Sraddha rituals are often deemed more complicated than the details of ritual god worship (Crooke 265). Deification offers insight into the interpretations that people of different regions and backgrounds may take towards ancestral worship, similar to the fine lines and restrictions that surround the sraddha practice itself.

To further expand upon the specific details and goals of the sraddha ritual, the decacesed person or preta, is in need of a bodily vehicle to continue its transcendence into the realm of the ancestors. The rites themselves are thought to be auspicious, as sraddha is performed for the benefit of the deceased. The pinda (food offering) is fed to the spirit or preta, giving it strength for its upcoming journey to the ‘next’ realm. If the spirit is not properly fed, then it will linger in the human realm, reminding the living of their presence (Nicholas 374). This body or vehicle known as pinda, made of barley or wheat flower, symbolizes the various body parts or bodily needs of the preta, ranging from finger nails to legs, and hunger to thirst. The sraddha ritual is meant to span a year but has since been condensed to twelve days. It is prescribed that the pinda be prepared for each of the twelve days after cremation, but often the ritual offering is performed only on the tenth day. Many symbolic actions ensue, including the release of a bull or cow that symbolizes the freeing of the preta to cross over to the next realm. Priests of particular jatis are often invited to these rites and asked to eat part of a pinda containing some of the diseased relatives ground up ashes and bones to aid in removing the sinfulness or impurity of the deceased spirit (Rodrigues 88). In doing so, it symbolizes that the priest takes on and transmutes any of the sinfulness that remained in the dead person.

There are three principal types of sraddhas. Parvana sraddha or anvaharya sraddha is the first model of sraddha in which Brahmins are given the food offerings made monthly by male descendants of the deceased. Ekoddista sraddha differs from parvana: the ritual is perfomed monthly for a full year after the death of the individual, Brahmins are not invited and the ceremonies can be performed by women. Finally, sapindikarana is a mix of parvana and ekoddista sraddha (Krishan 97).

The sapindikarana rite, which takes place on the twelfth day after death, has been highlighted by multiple scholars. This sraddha can be described as the blending of the deceased with his forefathers (Knipe 111). The symbolization of sapindikarana has been emphasized as elevating the preta from disembodied spirit to member of the ancestral realm. By elevating the newly deceased spirit, the father, grandfather, and great-grandfather are each moved up, pushing the latter beyond the ancestral realm. Each ancestor, aforementioned, receives a pinda, including the newly deceased which symbolizes the bodily vehicle of the ancestor. These pindas are divided into three and joined equally, symbolizing the preta being joined or merged with the other three ancestral spirits, acknowledging the newly received preta with ancestral status. Once this status is received through sapindikarana, the ancestor is no longer at risk to wander the world of the living, to haunt the living, or to fall into a demonic realm or an unfortunate rebirth. The ancestor is eligible to receive worship regularly, typically at the anniversary of their death and specified days during the year, including Pitr-Paska which occurs September and October (Rodrigues 88). The cycle begins with death and cremation, and ends with the deceased release.

Impurity and pollution are apprehensions that surround death rituals and ancestral rites and have been considerably investigated by scholars. In the family, births and deaths are both impure actions. Impurity does not always affect all the members of a family, sometimes only a select few. Birth mainly affects the mother, while death can follow all the relatives of a family wherever they may be, thus providing a reason for the cleansing rituals and worship that embody sraddha. Like most samskara or life-cycle rituals, rites vary regionally, by caste, socially, and linguistically. The impurity (asauca) that surrounds sraddha rites is not an exception.  Duration for birth-impurity and death-impurity vary between castes or varnas. For the Brahmins, impurity lasts ten days, in the Kshatriya caste twelve days, in Vaishya caste fifteen days and in Shudra caste thirty days (Nicholas 368). These time periods would qualify as full-impurity, where partial-impurity can also occur in shorter durations. Special cases of impurity durations ensue in accordance with different kinds of deaths. If a women miscarries a baby, it is only the mother that is affected by impurity for the duration of the time of her pregnancy. For the death of a child, impurity varies on caste and time of death of the child. If the child dies shortly after birth during the birth-impurity time then the parents have only one day of impurity. Differences in impurity due to sex are also noted. A girl is considered less closely related to her relatives and ancestors than a boy would be, so the rituals would incorporate less of her kinsman (Nicholas 372). As exemplified, impurity can touch all members of a family for variable amounts of time due to death but the appropriate performance of sraddha rites cleanses the deceased of impurity and, therefore, the relatives of the deceased.

Overall, the sraddha rituals are rich in tradition and unmask the Hindu conceptions towards death, impurity, and what realms lie outside of the living. Sraddha rituals are an establishment of the relationship between the living and the deceased. With death comes initial shock, quick preparations of the body, followed by cremation, and resolved finally with sraddha rituals the following day. The rituals begin with symbolic assembly of the deceased body as vehicle for travel into the ‘next’ realm, followed by the appropriate prayers and ritual offerings for the prescribed amount of time. The sraddha rituals provide the family with a means and a sanctioned period of time to mourn their loss. They provide assurance that the deceased will successfully transition into the realm of the ancestors, where they will continue to be remembered and appropriately worshipped for generations to come.

References and Further Recommended Readings:

Crooke, William (1909) Death; Death Rites; Methods of Disposal of the Dead among the Dravidian and other Non-Aryan Tribes of India. Sankt Augustin: Anthropos Institute.

Cush, Denise, Catherine Robinson and Michael York (2008) “Sraddha (Faith)” Encyclopedia of Hinduism (p. 822). New York: Routledge.

Knipe, David M. (1977) “Sapindikarana: The Hindu Rite of Entry into HeavenIn Frank E. Reynolds, and Earle H. Waugh eds., Religious Encounters with Death (p.111). London: Pennslyvania State University Press.

Krishan, Y. (1985) The Doctrine of Karma and Sraddhas. Pune: Bhandakar Oriental Research.

Ralph, W. Nicholas (1982) “Sraddha, Impurity and relations between the living and the dead” In: Way of Life: King, Householder, Renouncer: Essays in Honour of Louis Dumont (p.368-374). New Delhi: Montilal Bonarsidass.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York: Routledge.

Noteworthy Websites of Related Topics:


Related Topics for Further Investigation:



Sapindikarana Sraddha




Parvana Sraddha

Ekodistana Sraddha

Article written by Elisha Hunter (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.