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The great digital divide: To do or not to do an online pind daan

india Updated: Sep 18, 2016 19:46 IST
Poulomi Banerjee
Poulomi Banerjee
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

People perform tarpan in the Phalgu river during the pitrapaksha mela in Gaya (Saumya Khandelwal/HT PHOTO)

In Gaya, every lane, river, pond, tree and even stone has a story – often dating back to the mythological era. But the story that has been circulating in the streets of Gaya for the past year or two has been that of online pind daan. Perhaps it is because of the recent origin of this particular tale, that there is as yet little consensus on the narrative.

Legend has it that a demon named Gayasur – after whom the town of Gaya is named - received a boon from Vishnu that the souls of the ancestors of a person who performs pind daan (a ritualistic offering) here, will attain mukti. In the eras that followed, Rama is believed to have performed pind daan for his father emperor Dasharath in Gaya. Yudhishthir, the eldest Pandava brother from Mahabharata is also said to have performed Pind Daan here. The practice continues. And especially during pitrapaksha mela, an 18-day period before Navratri - an auspicious period to offer pind daan – Gaya draws lakhs of people eager to do their duty towards their ancestors. A few years back, with the growth in technology, some innovative priest must have thought of expanding his reach beyond those travelling to Gaya for pind daan and thus on social media and websites listing the importance of Gaya pind daan, appeared a small line in the list of services offered – that of online pind daan.

Mahesh Lal Gupt, a member of the Gayawal Panda community at his office in Gaya. (Saumya Khandelwal/HT PHOTO)

“Online pind daan is against our culture. According to the practice in Hindu culture, people remember their forefathers and pay respect to them through this system of offering pind daan. It helps nurture the bond between generations. Online pind daan is a blow to this bond,” says Mahesh Lal Gupt, a member of the Gayawal Panda community, that claims sole right over helping people offer pind daan in Gaya. Members of the community maintain detailed ledgers where each is assigned clients of a certain region from the country. The system of online pind daan, may, they fear, take away this control over pind daan, giving access to any priest or company to solicit clients desirous of having pind daan performed in Gaya. “It might affect our income too in the long run,” concedes Gupt.

The Great Divide

Govind Lal Gupt a Gayawal Panda (Saumya Khandelwal/HT PHOTO)

The community is divided on the very nature of online pind daan. “From what I understand, in online pind daan, a priest in Gaya connects with the client via Internet. The priest makes the arrangements for the pind daan here and says the mantras, which his client repeats after him and makes the offering sitting at home or at a place of his convenience. There is no benefit from such a pind daan, because you are negating the importance of the place. It does not have the sanction of the scriptures” says Govind Lal Gupt, a Gayawal panda. But Hiranath Dariwale another member of the community who admits to offering the facility says, “Technology has not made such huge advancement. When we talk of online pind daan, we mean a system where the client sends us details such as the name of the person, his gotra and time of death via email or social media message and makes payments through online cash transfer to our account. We then find a Brahmin to represent him and perform the procedure in Gaya. Photos and videos of the ritual are mailed to the client.” The system described by Hiranath is similar to a traditional system described by Mahesh Lal Gupt as representative pind daan, in which a member of the family, a friend or a Brahmin is authorised to perform the pind daan, if the interested party is unable to come to Gaya. Hiranath himself concedes that the system is old and Internet has only made it easier to establish contact and thus made more people avail of the facility. Wherein lies the problem for some. “Representative pind daan was done in extremely rare cases and we will not want it to become the norm,” says Mahesh Lal Gupt. Most priests who agree to have performed online pind daan, however, say that it is not done during the pitrapaksha period when they are busy attending to the lakhs who visit the city to perform the procedure in person.

Watch: https://youtu.be/_u9fhoOX5d4

Protest by the Gayawal Pandas against online pind daan last year and again this year – the 2016 pitrapaksha period started from September 15 and will continue till September 30 – has given the system of online pind daan the character of a guilty secret. A day before the start of the pitrapaksha period in Gaya, local media, tasked by their headquarters to find more about the system shuttled between priests and authorities, trying to find a panda who offers the service. Pandas blame the buzz around the practice on media, and the state tourism authorities, who they insist have been propagating online pind daan. But KK Yadav,senior deputy collector-cum-officer in-charge, tourism, denies the charge. “We have not given anyone the authority or permission to practice online pind daan. The online service we offer is online booking of hotels etc. Some of the pandas themselves are doing it,” says Yadav.

People performing pind daan at the Sri Vishupad temple in Gaya (Saumya Khandelwal/HT PHOTO)

On the Sly

At the Phalgu river on September 16, Dilip Pandey, a priest, surreptitiously hands out a card with his details for clients interested in online pind daan, after being assured that the information was being sought for personal use and not for publication. He is busy supervising the pind daan rituals being done by a client, a mother-son duo who have come all the way from Bhutan. As early as six in the morning, thousands are gathered at the river to take a dip before sitting in a row on the bank or the bed of the Phalgu to offer pind daan. Others are gathered inside the Sri Vishnupad temple, another revered spot to perform the pind daan puja. Inside the sanctum sanctorum of the temple is a foot imprint on a stone believed to be of Lord Vishnu’s. “Just message me the name, gotra and date and time of death of the person for whom you want the pind daan to be done on Facebook, and I will do the pind daan during this pitrapaksha,” says Pandey. “Don’t worry I do one or two such cases every month,” he adds, in an attempt to reassure and clinch the deal.

Most pandits who offer the service of online pin daan need some cajoling before agreeing to talk about it. “If I offer you lassi online, will it quench your thirst? Then how can one offer online pind daan to his forefathers,” questions Hiranath Dariwale, with an amused smile, before conceding that he does offer the service. “It is mostly availed of by Indians living abroad. They also want to offer pind daan, but are not always able to come to Gaya to do it,” he says, adding that he gets about 50 such requests in a year. His brother-in-law Amarnath Gupt is attached with a company with offices in Delhi and Varanasi, that offers the facility of online pind daan. He agrees to show photos and videos of online pind daans done by him in the past few months, but later backs out saying he can’t find them. Another Panda Munna Pathak says he has been doing online pind daan for several years and gets about 200-250 such requests in a year, but not during the pitrapaksha period.

Us and Them

People pray at the imprint of Lord Vishu’s feet at the Sri Vishnupad temple in Gaya. (Saumya Khandelwal/HT PHOTO)

The divide over online pind daan and the reluctance of the major section of the Gayawal Panda community to allow it, may reflect a deep-rooted reluctance to accept change. At the entrance to the Sri Vishnupad temple is a notice denying admission to non-Hindus. “Non-Hindus have not been allowed to enter this temple from the time that it was rebuilt by queen Ahilya Bai Holkar in the 1700s,” says Gajadhar Lal Pathak, secretary of the Sri Vishnupad Temple Management Committee. At a time when the issue of entry to women and other marginalised groups to places of worship is being debated across the country, the management of the Vishnupad temple, however, seems to be unaware of the possible need to change their own policies. “We don’t bar entry to Dalits or women. All Hindus may enter the temple. But non-Hindus are not allowed because this is mainly a seat to offer pind daan and non-Hindus do not have that practice,” Pathak reasons, adding, “We, however, do not deny anyone the right to view the Vishnupad. There is place outside the temple from where they may view it and many foreigners do come to see it,” he says. Behind him on a glass panel is a sticker that reads “Gai bachegi, duniya bachegi!”, or if the cow lives, so will the world.

Pathak, a member of the Gayawal Panda community, is unapologetically frank about his support to the cause of protecting the cow. “The cow is our mother. It should not be killed,” he says emphatically, adding, “violence over cow slaughter happens only because people are not enlightened. The government needs to handle the situation properly. People need to be made aware of the importance of the cow. If banning cow slaughter affects anyone’s livelihood, the government can give them money to start something else,” he says. Though a supporter of the RSS’s and to an extent the BJP’s stance in favour of protecting Hindu culture and the issue of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, Pathak comes across as no fan of the BJP. “They raise these issues only to get Hindu votes. What have they done on the Ram Mandir issue yet? In Gaya for 30 years the elected representatives have been BJP members. But they have done little to develop this place. There are many temples in Gaya where there is no one to even light a diya before the idols,” he rues.

It was in this prevalent mood of mostly staunch Hinduism that a resident of Gaya, Chandan Kumar Singh, dared to perform a pind daan for Mohammad Ikhlaq during pitrapaksha last year. A Dadri resident, Ikhlaq had been lynched by people in his village over suspicion of having cow meat in his house. “My father, Suresh Narayan, had started the practice of performing pind daan for unknown people in 2001, when many people had died in an earthquake in Gujarat. Since the scriptures allow one to offer pind daan for strangers, he started the practice, which I have been following since his death in 2014,” says Singh, a social activist and member of Janta Dal Union. His decision to offer pind daan for Ikhlaq was inspired by his desire to send a message of religious tolerance and unity, he says, where if some Hindus had killed Ikhlaq, another was praying for his soul. While Singh feels many had appreciated his move, Gajadhar Lal Pathak says the Panda community had raised questions over which panda had agreed to perform this Pind Daan. “Since my father’s time Swami Raghavendracharya Maharaj, head of the Ramanuj Math in Gaya, had been performing these pind daans for us. He also did the pind daan for Ikhlaq. This year, after his death, his successor has agreed to do it for me,” says Singh, who is considering offering pind daan for the Pathankot terror attack victims and the victims of the Hindu Kush earthquake this year. The rituals will be performed on September 24.

Read:Gaya man performs pind daan for Delhi gang rape victim, Sarabjeet

Women perform pind daan on the bank of the Phalgu river in Gaya on the first day of Pitrapaksha. (Saumya Khandelwal/HT PHOTO)

What men can, women can

If there is, however, one area in which the Gayawal Pandas have been unable to stem the tide of change, it is in the area of women performing pind daan. While the Pandas are quick to point out that in Gaya women are allowed to perform pind daan, ever since Dashrath asked Sita to perform his pind daan here, one feels a subtle, underlying reluctance among the priests in letting a woman do so. “If a couple doesn’t have any male children, then an unmarried daughter may perform pind daan. If the woman is married, her husband or her son can perform pind daan for her parents. If such a woman is performing pind daan herself, either for her parents or her in-laws, she needs permission from her husband to do so,” says Govind Lal Gupt. In recent years though, many women have been claiming the right to offer pind daan for their ancestors, or husbands, even when there is a male relative to do it. Shankaro Devi, 66, has come all the way from Jammu to perform pind daan for husband who died in 1979. “She has two sons, one in the CRPF and another working in the electricity department. Their jobs didn’t allow them to come. So she decided to perform the task herself,” says her sister-in-law Kamala, speaking on her behalf.

Santana Jana, 42, a resident of East Midnapore in West Bengal was in Gaya on September 16 to perform pind daan for her parents-in-law and her mother. “The priest did try to convince me initially that it was my husband’s right to do it, but when I told him that my husband has no time and has given me permission, he agreed,” says the mother of two – a son and a daughter. Jana, who also have brothers, whose right it is according to the Pandas to perform pind dan for their mother, says, “She was my mother too. How do I know whether they will perform her pind daan in Gaya. As daughter, I wanted to do it so that her soul may rest in peace.”

By and large though, most of those who come to offer pind daan are still men, say the Pandas. On the bed and bank of the Phalgu, on the first day of pitrapaksha pind daan on September 16, the view is very traditional, very male. Sporting shaved heads and dhotis, the men pray for the souls of their ancestors. Most of the women present are accompanying their husbands or sons. As in most Indian households, their role here continues to be secondary, making the little balls of flour, that the men will then offer for the peace of their ancestors’ souls.

The ritualistic bath and shaving off of one’s hair before performing pind daan in Gaya. (Saumya Khandelwal/HT PHOTO)

According to Hindu belief, pind daan is a process through which one can give ultimate relief to the soul of his ancestors and help them attain lasting peace. Offerings are made with wheat and oat flour mixed with dried milk, or symbolically with mud balls. There are three rituals – a symbolic bath, pind daan and tarpan – or offering water to ancestors.

What is pitrapaksha?
Pind daan can be done through the year, but pitrapaksha or an 18-day period before Navratri is believed to be especially auspicious. An estimated 10 to 15 lakh pilgrims visit Gaya during pitrapaksha every year to perform pind daan. Some of the main places to perform pind daan in Gaya are the Phalgu river, the Vishnupad temple, Akshay Vat, Ramkund, Sitakund and Pretshila.

Why pind daan in Gaya?
Legend has it that a demon named Gayasur – after whom the town of Gaya is named - received a boon from Vishnu that the ancestors of a person who performs pind daan here, will attain lasting peace. In the eras that followed, Rama is believed to have performed pind daan for his father emperor Dasharath in Gaya. In Gaya women have traditionally been allowed to perform pind daan because Sita was asked by Dasharath to perform his pind daan here. Also, while elsewhere, one can perform pind daan for a particular person, in Gaya, one can do it for seven gotras, one’s own, for one’s in-laws, maternal grandparents and aunts and uncles.

Source: gayajipinddaan.com and pinddaangaya.in

Read: Winds of change: Pind daan priests of Gaya take tentative steps towards modernity