The Time of the Ancestors


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Lesson 5

Pitṛpakṣa Practice Day 4: Perform Spiritual Austerities

Today’s practice is the quintessential Pitṛ Pakṣa practice – performing ritual worship and spiritual austerities on behalf of your ancestors. When most people think of ancestor practice, this is what first comes to mind.

According to traditional teachings, there are three energetic/spiritual debts that must be paid before a soul can be totally free. These debts are:

1) debt to the guru (for the gift of wisdom and teachings that lead to liberation)

2) debt to the divine (for the gift of the entire universe)

3) debt to the ancestors (for the gift of human life)

Unfortunately, debt is perhaps not the best term to explain this concept. It isn’t a debt like with money, where if you borrow a $100 you can just return $100. It’s more like, the debt you would feel if somebody saves your life. It isn’t something you can repay in a material way, but you would keep feeling inspired to show your gratitude for the rest of your life.

In fact, the only way you can even start to pay it back is to make the most of what you’ve been given, and give thanks over and over again.

The scriptures teach that the debt owed to the guru is repaid through awakening and following the guru’s teachings. The debt owed to the divine is repaid by fulfilling our worldly and spiritual purpose, and also by serving all creation to the best of our ability. Lastly, the debt owed to the ancestors is repaid by having children, and/or by performing sacred practices on their behalf.

So the practice for this time is to perform spiritual practices and austerities. The word for spiritual practice or is the same as the word for the spiritual journey itself – sādhana. When you do sādhana for your ancestors, the difference is that you offer the blessings of those practices to them.

One way to structure your sādhana is to by doing a vrata – literally, a vow – where you commit to doing certain austerities for a period of time. The vrata can be to do a certain practice on a committed schedule (“mantra recitation each day for 7 days”; “meditation for each day of Pitṛpakṣa”; “practice silence one day a week”, etc).

There are a number of options for what you can do, and as always let your instincts and heart help you pick. If you get stuck, this is where we recommend just asking your ancestors directly (inside your heart) what practices they would like for you to do. You’ll know it’s the right choice because you will either feel very quiet, very spacious, and/or very tender.

Here are some suggestions:

-You can ask a brāhmin priest to perform a pūjā, traditional ritual worship, specifically for your ancestors. This is a very specific shamanic practice by which offerings can be made (represented by rice balls with black sesame seeds) to nourish their souls and heal their unresolved karmas.

-Do your own pūjā at your ancestor altar. Honor your ancestors by making offerings of flame and incense, singing sacred hymns, and meditating.

-Recite holy scriptures. Along with texts of the Indic tradition, you can also recite from any widely revered scripture that you have an ancestral link to, including the Bible, Q’uran, or Torah.

-Repeat your mantra (mantra-japa) for an extended period of time. You can do it for multiples of 108 or even a 1008 repetitions. This can also be physicalized by combining it with a prostration practice (more common in northern and also Buddhist traditions, and very powerful).

-Fast & pray. Fasts can be as challenging as you are inspired to do – water only; fruit and nuts only; one simple meal a day without grains or proteins, etc. Fasting should ideally also be accompanied by a mental fast of limiting media, entertainment, and internet use. The point is to release attachment to the senses, rest the mind-body, and turn inwards.

-Perform dāna, charitable giving of food, money, clothes, medicine, or any other resources to those in need or to those who are committed solely to serving the sacred (e.g. monks, temples, etc).

-Perform seva – selfless charitable action, same as dāna except it’s hands-on offering of your time, energy, and physical presence.

-Meditate as much as you are able.


At the end of your practice, you can repeat in your heart a dedication. It’s best to find your own words for this, but ideally something along the lines of:

I humbly dedicate the fruits of my practices to my ancestors. May they be nourished and freed from the cycles of suffering. I offer my bows and gratitude to them, and to the divine, for the gift of life and for the ability to practice.

May I be a pure instrument of the dharma, the sacred and natural way. May my actions always uplift and serve my ancestors and future generations of my family, which includes all beings.

If you have any questions, or want to share your experience, you can do so by emailing us at

Teacher: Shivani Hawkins

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