A time for ancestors

When Karna, the most generous man in Mahabharata, died, he went straight to heaven. There he found his fellow warriors all surrounded by untold luxuries, enjoying exotic food. Karna got all the other luxuries but did not get any food. Perplexed, and of course hungry, he wanted to know why. They said that when on earth he had not given food to anybody.

This perplexed Karna even more. He had never ever denied anything to anyone who asked. To the mother Kunti who had abandoned him he had given his word that he would not kill more than one son of hers. To the treacherous Indra who came disguised as a Brahmin he had given the diamond earrings which were his protection and armour. He had given gold, silver and cattle. His name came with the prefix "one who gave".

In heaven, they knew all this but wanted to know while on earth how many people he had fed. The alms, the gifts and the treasures he had given away weighed nothing in comparison to food. Food, which nourished and sustained life. He realised the truth of the message and was filled with remorse. In his arrogance, he had valued gold and silver more than food. Not knowing his true origin he had never made oblations to his ancestors. He begged to be given another chance to redeem himself. Pleased with his humility, the gods granted him his wish.

He was sent back to earth for a fortnight to feed people, which he did and then went back to heaven. Even today, this fortnight is observed as "Paksha" time to remember ancestors, feed people and give grains and cloth to the poor as part of the observance.

Ritualistic and gendered as it may seem it has its own liberal elements. Oblations to ancestors can be made on any day in the fortnight. It can be done once a year without consulting the almanac. The most auspicious day is, however, the last day of the dark fortnight, the ‘Amavasya’ called the Mahalaya. Remembering ancestors keeps the link between the past, present and future and remembering that food served with respect and honour is more valuable than all that generous Karna gave is a lesson in humility.


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