Vaisnava Sraddha

Shyamasundara Dasa: In view of the recent passing of several senior Vaisnavas with more expected in coming years we thought it appropriate to post this text regarding how to properly observe Sraddha according to Gaudiya Vaisnava Siddhanta.

Vaisnava Sraddha
Excerpted from Sri Bhaktisiddhanta Vaibhava by H.H. Bhakti Vikasa Svami

According to pan-India smarta belief, departed souls were prone to becomepretas unless their descendants performed the elaborate series of observances constituting sraddha, the central feature of which was to offer food to one’s progenitors. These rites were to be observed each month for a year following a person’s departure, a fixed number (specific to one’s caste) of days after the death, and thereafter annually, with the aim of elevating deceased forefathers to Pitrloka, a higher planet suitable for material enjoyment. From the time of death until the performance of sraddha, members of the family were deemed asauca, ritually impure. During this period they were prohibited from all religious acts such as entering temples or even performing arcana at home. They would exhibit signs of mourning, such as males shaving their heads and keeping their sikhas untied, and women opening their tresses.
Within Bengal, sraddha undertaken according to Raghunandana’s smarta edicts included offering flesh to the ancestors and conductingsraddha on Ekadasi, in contravention to sastriya injunctions forbidding consumption of grains, even Visnu prasada, on that day. Hence all who participated in such sraddhas simply created a hellish destination both for themselves and the previous generations they intended to benefit. Eager to be invited to sraddhas to be well fed and to collect the stipulated monetary offerings thereat, smarta-brahmanas had so successfully propagated the necessity of such sraddha that even persons considering themselves orthodox Vaisnavas were under the impression that they were bound to perform it.

Belief in preta-sraddha was so deep that even certain claimed descendants of Sri Advaita Acarya would annually burn a straw effigy of Him, as if He, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, had to be delivered from ghostly birth. Fully committed to and contaminated by smarta-vada, these professed descendants of Sri Advaita Acarya were mindlessly perpetrating such an appalling offense—all the more ironic because Sri Advaita Acarya was famed for having demonstrated the glory of Vaisnavas over mundane brahmanas by having given the sraddha-patra (food offered to the forefathers) to Srila Haridasa Thakura.634

Considering observance of sraddha and other rituals according to the materialistic outlook of smartas a major aberration in Vaisnava society and a blockage to suddhabhakti, Srila Sarasvati Thakura felt keenly obliged to reestablish the original Vaisnava observances in conformance with directions given in Sat-kriya-sara-dipika and Hari-bhakti-vilasa, which gave extensive sastriya references probative that all other forms of worship are automatically effected by worship of Visnu, that obligations to the forebears, demigods, and the rest are absolved for persons who have taken shelter of Visnu, and that if not first offered to Visnu, anything offered to one’s predecessors or anyone else cannot even slightly benefit them. In addition, he gave sastriya evidence delineating performance of obsequies by the Vaisnava system, insisting that particularly those initiated as Vaisnavas should simply concentrate on Visnu worship and not deviate to demigod worship, karmakandiya sraddha, or any other activity not primarily focused on satisfying Lord Visnu. He reminded devotees that their supposed bodily relationships with their supposed bodily relations were temporary and meaningless, being based on the illusory conception of identifying the body as the self, and that by the Lord’s mercy devotees’ ancestors do not become ghosts, nor are Vaisnavas interested in dispatching their ancestors or anyone else to Pitrloka, as their only goal is the spiritual world, the abode of Visnu.

Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati asserted that for all these reasons sraddha is unnecessary for Vaisnavas, who after the death of a relative need not maintain signs of mourning or observe a period of asauca. Yet he allowed grhastha disciples to perform obsequies according to the Vaisnava system, as a token ceremony to pacify their relatives and neighbors who lacked faith that Krsna protects His devotees. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati explained:
“Whether a grhastha or a renunciant, a Vaisnava does not observe a period of asauca. Devotees should not independently perform rituals such as sraddha and oblations to the forefathers, for they are automatically effected by performing Hari-seva. Nonetheless, in accordance with general usages, grhastha devotees, who by chanting harinama are anyway pure, may on the eleventh day after the relative’s death, or on any other day, perform sraddha with maha-prasada. This is called Vaisnava sraddha.”

Vaisnava sraddha as ordained by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati was devoid of smarta procedures, being much simplified observances comprised of core devotional activities: kirtana followed by Hari-katha appropriate to the occasion (i.e., elucidating the philosophical understanding of a Vaisnava’s passing, and glorifiying the devotional activities of the departed devotee), offering a portion of maha-prasada to benefit that soul, and finally distributing maha-prasada (of the presiding deity of either the household or the local Gaudiya Matha) to invited devotees rather than feeding smarta-brahmanas as per the social norm. That esurient smarta-brahmanas should not be fed at sraddhas was upheld by the proscription in Visnu Purana (3.6.67) against calling professional brahmanas—for instance, those who receive a fixed salary for teaching or worshiping deities or who make a point to get themselves invited to religious feasts. dcclxii Thus Vaisnava sraddha differed significantly, both conceptually and in manner of performance, from the karma-kandiya version.
Prior to setting up base in Calcutta, Srila Sarasvati Thakura had but a few disciples, most of whom were youthful brahmacaris. So not until November 1918, when under his direction the required rituals for the departed father of Sri Vanamali dasa Adhikari, a householder disciple of Srila Sarasvati Thakura, was performed by another disciple, did he have an opportunity to introduce Vaisnava sraddha. In the home of the deceased, he gave a potent speech stressing the need for devotees to observe such formalities by employing the transcendental system meant for satisfying Lord Visnu, as described in Hari-bhakti-vilasa and Sat-kriya-sara-dipika, and not according to the mundane usages of the smartas. Thereafter, sraddhas according to the Vaisnava system, performed either in the local Matha or in homes of disciples whose relatives had deceased, became the standard among Srila Sarasvati Thakura’s followers. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati delineated the process for performing sraddha in a manner befitting Vaisnavas:

“Your father has attained the eternal Jagannatha Puri. Jagannatha Puri is directly Vaikuntha. Whoever quits the body while chanting the holy names attains the eternal abode of the Lord. Anything done according to mundane considerations results in rebirth in the material world. The various Vedic rites award material sense objects as karmic results. But devotees dedicated to chanting the holy names should offer oblations to their deceased ancestors with the Lord’s prasada. To make oblations with any other kind of foodstuff is not indicative of intelligence.

“Fruitive rituals are an invitation to entanglement in the consequences of action. Persons who chant harinama do not consider enjoying such results. Yet their relatives are obliged to offer bhoga to the Lord and then make an oblation with the prasada for the wellbeing of the departed soul. As part of the same procedure, they should invite Vaisnavas and satisfy them with prasada, and a harinamayajïa (sacrifice of chanting the holy name) should be held. Our judgment is approved by the pure devotional scriptures. Those who deem mixed devotion best may have a different understanding according to their state of advancement, yet we cannot respect that.

“An initiated devotee who has taken shelter of the holy name should offer oblations of maha-prasada to his forefathers on the eleventh day after his forefather’s death. Thereafter he should feed pure devotee brahmanas with maha-prasada. It is good if this is done in the Matha. Those who are not initiated devotees and do not chant harinama, or who are unable to tolerate the arrowlike words of society, can offer oblations to their forefathers according to the prescribed smarta method. Nondevotees should, according to the prescriptions for sudras, for thirty days exhibit the signs of mourning and eat only havisyanna once daily.635 But devotees in the shelter of the holy name need not worry about smarta-vidhi, and should honor maha-prasada every day. Please rid yourself of the superstition that a Vaisnava becomes a ghost after death and that his sraddha should be performed with foods not first offered to the Lord.

“The arrangements provided in the smartasystem are established according to one’s position in society. Performing smarta sraddha causes one to again enter a mother’s womb. The Lord’s devotees never accede to such a system, knowing it to be opposed to sastra. And smartas cannot comprehend the understanding of liberated souls.”

Reintroducing Vaisnava sraddha would prove to be a protracted fray. It required great fealty for people to acknowledge the authority of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati and break away from family customs and social norms. To follow him meant to join in defying the entire current of materialistic society and hence invite criticism, slander, even ostracism. Nevertheless, by his conviction, sincerity, persistence, and robust arguments based on scriptural statements, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati was able to convince many to accept him in contradiction to the rest of the world. But this particular point of observing sraddha with Vaisnava procedures was a watershed test for his followers. Those lacking full faith worried about the future of their departed relatives and their own fate should they fail to execute conventional practices. However, each sraddha and marriage performed according to the rites of Sat-kriyasara- dipika added credence to Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati’s stance and helped others to gain confidence in this system, while undermining both the influence of the smarta priests and one of their traditional sources of income. Indeed, each sraddha and marriage so executed was reported in the Gaudiya as a victory for Vaisnava smrti.

[Note to view all the footnotes please see the original book.]