Deceased Ancestors and Anti-Gurmat Rituals

The Wisdom of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS) rejects and debunks ALL sorts of Karamkaand (rituals, formalities). including the Karamkaand related to the veneration of the dead or departed ancestors — Karamkaand at cremations ceremonies and death anniversaries etc.

Before reading rest of this post, please consider reading the related post entitled ‘Death‘.

A brief background: The pre-1469 belief system

The deceased ancestors are called (‘Pitar-ਪਿਤਰ’) in Sanskrit, and the Gurbani uses the same term when critiquing this trickery concocted by the self-serving Pujaaree (clergy).

Briefly, the pre-Baabaa Nanak (pre-1469) belief system claims that (1) our ancestors (Pitar) reside in a location called Pitar Lok, up there somewhere; (2) and it is our duty to provide for their needs in Pitar Lok, and (3) in turn, the calculation is that the departed ancestors (Pitar) will protect the family and ensure the family’s well being from up there (i.e. from Pitar Lok)!!!

This Karamkaand related to the deceased ancestors is called ‘Shraadh-ਸਰਾਧ

The family performing the Shraadh (1) invites Pujaaree (clergy), (2) Pujaaree are fed, (3) offerings made to them in the name of the departed souls (Pitar), (4) the Pujaaree perform rituals appeasing all sorts of gods, (5) food is also offered to the departed ancestors (Pitar), and (6) food consisting of rice balls is fed to animals and birds (dogs, crows etc.).

Anti-Gurmat rituals

Baabaa Nanak debunked this trickery of useless rituals concocted by the Pujaaree (clergy) for the purpose of securing their livelihood and freeloading lifestyle.

Yet, sadly, a majority of the Sikh Pujaaree (clergy – Granthis, Ragis, Parchaaraks, Kirtanias, Deraadaars) not only defend such concocted Karamkaand but also propagate it.

As a result, while paying homage to the dead ancestors, many Sikhs in the Sikh community make offerings of beddings, food, feast, utensils etc. to the Granthis or the Gurdwaras.

To justify their claims, the Pujaaree (clergy) misquotes verses from Gurbani that use the term ‘Pitar‘. For example the following are probably the most misquoted verses:

  • ਜਿਸੁ ਸਿਮਰਤ ਸਭਿ ਕਿਲਵਿਖ ਨਾਸਹਿ ਪਿਤਰੀ ਹੋਇ ਉਧਾਰੋ ॥ ਸੋ ਹਰਿ ਹਰਿ ਤੁਮ੍ਹ੍ਹ ਸਦ ਹੀ ਜਾਪਹੁ ਜਾ ਕਾ ਅੰਤੁ ਨ ਪਾਰੋ ॥੧॥ : The remembrance of whom (Omnipresent Creator) eliminates all spiritual obstacles; just like it did for our ancestors (i.e. Gurus and Sikhs). Realize that Unfathomable Omnipresent Creator (whose Realization saved our ancestors and whose realization will save you and me). ॥1॥ (sggs 496).

Literal meaning of these verses available on the Internet contradicts the basic principles of the Gurmat Wisdom of the SGGS or its Unique and Revolutionary Message.

In fact, all of instances where this word ‘Pitar’ (or ‘Pitaree-ਪਿਤਰੀ’ etc.) is used, all and any ritual relating to the dead ancestors is critiqued and debunked by the writers of those verses.

All the 35 composers of the Gurbani (SGGS) walked the path that they speak of, and expected the rest of us walk that path as well. To impart the Truth (ਸਚ) and Awaken our Conscience from the slumber of pre-1469 concocted nonsense by the Pujaaree, all 35 composers of the Gurbani have used terms that were already within the use and within the psyche of people of their time. However, those terms have been used in the SGGS as examples (ਹਵਾਲਾ), but explicitly with new meanings and understanding to fit the new spiritual paradigms of Sikhi or Gurmat Wisdom of the SGGS.

The Gurbani (SGGS) reminds each Sikh (learner, seeker) of the basic Gurmat principle as follows:

  • ਆਪਣ ਹਥੀ ਆਪਣਾ ਆਪੇ ਹੀ ਕਾਜੁ ਸਵਾਰੀਐ ॥੨੦॥: (So long there is breathPraan) accomplish the task (of God Realization) yourself ( i.e. with self-efforts: Shabad-Vichaar …). ||20|| (sggs 474).
  • ਕਰਿ ਕਰਿ ਕਰਣਾ ਲਿਖਿ ਲੈ ਜਾਹੁ ॥ ਆਪੇ ਬੀਜਿ ਆਪੇ ਹੀ ਖਾਹੁ ॥ ਨਾਨਕ ਹੁਕਮੀ ਆਵਹੁ ਜਾਹੁ ॥੨੦॥ : (The Internal cleansing is by a spirituality of) Internalizing (the Naam: Shabad, Hukam, Virtues, Giaan-Wisdom) through sustained deeds. Whatever you sow, you will reap. Nanak, (to reap as one saw) is the Hukam of the Creator pertaining to my cycle (of spirituality – at the mind’s level). ॥20॥ (sggs 4).
  • ਜੇਹਾ ਬੀਜੈ ਸੋ ਲੁਣੈ ਕਰਮਾ ਸੰਦੜਾ ਖੇਤੁ ॥: (Life is the) field (of man’s actions); whatever (he) sows or does in life so does (he) reap the consequences. (sggs 134).

Extremity of hypocrisy

Consider the following verses:

  • ਜੀਵਤ ਪਿਤਰ ਨ ਮਾਨੈ ਕੋਊ ਮੂਏਂ ਸਿਰਾਧ ਕਰਾਹੀ ॥ ਪਿਤਰ ਭੀ ਬਪੁਰੇ ਕਹੁ ਕਿਉ ਪਾਵਹਿ ਕਊਆ ਕੂਕਰ ਖਾਹੀ ॥੧॥ ਮੋ ਕਉ ਕੁਸਲੁ ਬਤਾਵਹੁ ਕੋਈ ॥ ਕੁਸਲੁ ਕੁਸਲੁ ਕਰਤੇ ਜਗੁ ਬਿਨਸੈ ਕੁਸਲੁ ਭੀ ਕੈਸੇ ਹੋਈ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥ : (People) do not honor their ancestors (mother, father, etc.) while they are alive. (But) once dead we send them all sorts of goods (food, cloths etc.) through the ritual of Shraadh. Tell me, how can poor ancestors receive that goods? The food is eaten up by Crows and dogs (i.e. nothing reaches anywhere other than crows and dogs). ||1|| (Bhagat Kabeer asks) someone tell me what well-being comes of this ritual. The whole world of ancestor worship claims the ancestor (Pitar) will ensure our well-being and happiness but how could one get such from a ritual? ||1||Pause|| (sggs 332).

Let’s consider the term ‘Siraadh-ਸਿਰਾਧ’ in the forgoing verse. It came from the Sanskrit ‘Shraadh‘, meaning ‘faithful’. Therefore, we should be ‘faithful’, caring and grateful to our loved ones or elders when they are alive, not after they are dead!

False display of faithfulness through useless Karamkaand is of no avail to the dead or the survivors!

The foregoing verses expose our hypocrisy and ignorance of the Message of the Shabad (SGGS).

That is, although people perform all sort of nonsense Karamkaand (rituals or formalities) after family members are dead, but many don’t take care of them when they are alive!

But after they are dead, people arrange special feasts for priests, friends, relatives, animals, birds, etc., believing that the benefit of all that nonsense would reach their dead ancestors.

Now consider the following Shabad of Baabaa Nanak:

  • ਜੇ ਮੋਹਾਕਾ ਘਰੁ ਮੁਹੈ ਘਰੁ ਮੁਹਿ ਪਿਤਰੀ ਦੇਇ ॥ ਅਗੈ ਵਸਤੁ ਸਿਞਾਣੀਐ ਪਿਤਰੀ ਚੋਰ ਕਰੇਇ ॥ ਵਢੀਅਹਿ ਹਥ ਦਲਾਲ ਕੇ ਮੁਸਫੀ ਏਹ ਕਰੇਇ ॥ ਨਾਨਕ ਅਗੈ ਸੋ ਮਿਲੈ ਜਿ ਖਟੇ ਘਾਲੇ ਦੇਇ ॥੧॥: If a thief raids a home, and makes an offering of his Loot to his deceased ancestors. In the ancestor world (i.e. in Pitar Lok claimed by the clergy), the donated items get recognized; the ancestors are thus made thieves because they are in possession of Looted items. The middleman Agent (i.e. Clergy) will have his hands chopped off; this is the Justice meted out to thieves. Nanak what I obtain as my Spiritual outcome is what I earn and accumulate with my own diligence. ॥1॥ (sggs 472).

Since there seems to be a much deeper message than the worldly or dictionary sense translation available on the Internet, let’s briefly try reflecting on each verse separately:

ਜੇ ਮੋਹਾਕਾ ਘਰੁ ਮੁਹੈ ਘਰੁ ਮੁਹਿ ਪਿਤਰੀ ਦੇਇ ॥: Je mohaakaa gharu muhai gharu muhi pitaree daei: Owing to our selfishness, greed, Trishnaa (desires) etc. many of us don’t hesitate to steal, plunder or take what rightfully belongs to another. After amassing wealth with dishonest means then — in a futile bid to sanctify it — we may utilize some of the ill-gotten wealth in making offerings in the name of dead family members to the Pujaaree (clergy), religious institutions, building Gurdwaras, building hospitals, Langar distribution (free common kitchen); and so on. Bigger the offering or donation, bigger the corruption behind it! In this mode of ignorance, whatever one does is neither good for him nor for his ancestors, etc. So, if someone so acts it would constitute acting contrary to the the Gurmat Wisdom of the SGGS.

ਅਗੈ ਵਸਤੁ ਸਿਞਾਣੀਐ ਪਿਤਰੀ ਚੋਰ ਕਰੇਇ ॥: Agai vasatu sinjaaneeai pitaree chor karaei: The Gurbani indicates in the foregoing verse that when – in a futile bid to sanctify his corruption – one offers plunder and theft to ancestors, he unnecessarily drag them in this corruption as well. As an English idiom goes, it’s like ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’! The Gurmat does not approve such fraudulent Soch (thinking).

ਵਢੀਅਹਿ ਹਥ ਦਲਾਲ ਕੇ ਮੁਸਫੀ ਏਹ ਕਰੇਇ ॥: Vadheeahi hath dalaal kae musafee eh karaei: The dictionary meaning of this verse available on the internet is: ‘The hands of the go-between are cut off; this is the Lord’s justice.’ That sort of superficial translation does not bring out the gist or deeper meaning of this verse. To the contrary, it gives rise to the delusion or doubt that the Divine is having a strong desire for revenge! The very first line of the SGGS indicates that the Creator is Nirvair — without animosity or vengeance. Here Baabaa Nanak is strongly condemning the Pujaaree that acts like a ‘Dalaal‘ (go-between, broker, middleman, etc.) who mislead people by acting as he has the exclusive access to deliver the goods in Pitar Lok, heaven, Sach Khand’ / ‘Sachkhand etc.! In the strongest terms, here Baabaa Nanak is saying that the hands of Pujaaree ‘Dalaal’ (go-between, broker, middleman, intermediaries, ਵਿਚੋਲਾ etc.) should be chopped off as this is the Justice meted out to thieves.

ਨਾਨਕ ਅਗੈ ਸੋ ਮਿਲੈ ਜਿ ਖਟੇ ਘਾਲੇ ਦੇਇ ॥੧॥: Nanak agai so milai ji khatte ghaale daei ||1||: This verse highlights the importance of Truthful Living (Gurmukh Mindset), following a strict code of ethics to earn an honest living, and sharing from an honest earning…! Sikhi is a Way of life based upon the Wisdom of the SGGS.

That said, consider the following Shabad of Baabaa Nanak:

  • ਦੀਵਾ ਮੇਰਾ ਏਕੁ ਨਾਮੁ ਦੁਖੁ ਵਿਚਿ ਪਾਇਆ ਤੇਲੁ ॥ ਉਨਿ ਚਾਨਣਿ ਓਹੁ ਸੋਖਿਆ ਚੂਕਾ ਜਮ ਸਿਉ ਮੇਲੁ ॥੧॥ ਲੋਕਾ ਮਤ ਕੋ ਫਕੜਿ ਪਾਇ ॥ ਲਖ ਮੜਿਆ ਕਰਿ ਏਕਠੇ ਏਕ ਰਤੀ ਲੇ ਭਾਹਿ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥ ਪਿੰਡੁ ਪਤਲਿ ਮੇਰੀ ਕੇਸਉ ਕਿਰਿਆ ਸਚੁ ਨਾਮੁ ਕਰਤਾਰੁ ॥ ਐਥੈ ਓਥੈ ਆਗੈ ਪਾਛੈ ਏਹੁ ਮੇਰਾ ਆਧਾਰੁ ॥੨॥ ਗੰਗ ਬਨਾਰਸਿ ਸਿਫਤਿ ਤੁਮਾਰੀ ਨਾਵੈ ਆਤਮ ਰਾਉ ॥ ਸਚਾ ਨਾਵਣੁ ਤਾਂ ਥੀਐ ਜਾਂ ਅਹਿਨਿਸਿ ਲਾਗੈ ਭਾਉ ॥੩॥ ਇਕ ਲੋਕੀ ਹੋਰੁ ਛਮਿਛਰੀ ਬ੍ਰਾਹਮਣੁ ਵਟਿ ਪਿੰਡੁ ਖਾਇ ॥ ਨਾਨਕ ਪਿੰਡੁ ਬਖਸੀਸ ਕਾ ਕਬਹੂੰ ਨਿਖੂਟਸਿ ਨਾਹਿ ॥੪॥੨॥੩੨॥: God’s Naam alone is the Lamp which provides the Spiritual Enlightenment in my life and I have put the oil of worldly suffering in this Lamp. The light of God’s Naam has dried up the oil of suffering and I have escaped meeting with the (concocted or mythical) Jum (i.e. Bikaar or vices). ||1|| O people! Don’t make fun of what I am saying. (If you) collect millions of piles of wood and heap them together, merely a particle of fire can burn them. The Divine (Naam: Wisdom, Virtues…) is my offering of rice balls on leafy plates (i.e. feast which is offered to dead), and the Creator’s Naam is for me the ceremonies performed for the dead. At the present, and in the future, this (i.e. Naam) is my support. ||2|| (O Creator!) Your Praise (i.e. living a daily life according to Your Naam) for me is ‘Gang Banaaras‘ (i.e. according to the concocted rituals, collected ashes from pyre are taken and thrown in Ganga river at Banaras, and ritually bathe there afterward). Bathing for my mind is to constantly love Your Naam. ||3|| Pandits (Pujaaree) offers rice balls to dead ancestors and gods, BUT it is the Pandit who eats them himself! Nanak, (how long can this food given by a Brahmin to dead ancestors and gods last? But) the rice balls (Gift) of the Divine Grace never run out. ||4||2||32|| (sggs 358).

Here, the Gurbani is telling us that all Karamkaand carried out during cremations ceremonies or death anniversaries is a sign of Manmukh-Saakat-Mayadhaaree thinking (Soch), ignorance (Baavar Gaavar) and lack of understanding of the Gurbani, thus anti-Gurmat.

The Gurmat Wisdom of the SGGS tells us it would not make any difference to the dead if we offer feasts in their name or if we celebrate their death anniversaries!

  • ਜੇ ਮਿਰਤਕ ਕਉ ਚੰਦਨੁ ਚੜਾਵੈ ॥ ਉਸ ਤੇ ਕਹਹੁ ਕਵਨ ਫਲ ਪਾਵੈ॥ ਜੇ ਮਿਰਤਕ ਕਉ ਬਿਸਟਾ ਮਾਹਿ ਰੁਲਾਈ ॥ ਤਾਂ ਮਿਰਤਕ ਕਾ ਕਿਆ ਘਟਿ ਜਾਈ ॥੩॥ ਕਹਤ ਕਬੀਰ ਹਉ ਕਹਉ ਪੁਕਾਰਿ ॥ ਸਮਝਿ ਦੇਖੁ ਸਾਕਤ ਗਾਵਾਰ ॥ ਦੂਜੈ ਭਾਇ ਬਹੁਤੁ ਘਰ ਗਾਲੇ ॥ ਰਾਮ ਭਗਤ ਹੈ ਸਦਾ ਸੁਖਾਲੇ ॥੪॥੪॥੧੨॥ : If a corpse is anointed with sandalwood perfume, what good does it do to the corpse? (Or) if a dead person is smeared in manure, even then the corpse doesn’t lose anything. ||3|| Says Kabeer, I proclaim this out loud behold and understand, you ignorant Saakat (one separated from the Creator), the love of duality has ruined countless human beings, but God’s devotees (Bhagats) are forever in Bliss. ||4||4||12|| (sggs 1160).

But many who call themselves Sikh still do it –Dekhaa Dekhee (imitating others), as sheep follow sheep!

The practice of these Karamkaand (rituals, formalities…) is the concocted concept adopted from the Karamkaand of the pre-1469 practices, which have been strongly rejected by the Gurmat.

Many Sikhs not only observe or celebrate death anniversaries of the dead members of our families, but also our Guru! The Gurbani asks: ‘Who can say the Guru is dead?’.

Gurmat’s counsel

In a nutshell the Gurmat of Baabaa Nanak or Sikhi is:

  • is a spirituality of Here and Now, NOT after afterlife or after death,
  • it is the Spirituality of the Self, for the self, by the self,
  • there is no place for Spirituality on behalf of others in Sikhi
  • the Spirituality of the Shabad is never specific to location, occasion, person, or incident,
  • the Gurbani is universal, unique, timeless, wholesome etc.

That being said, the Gurbani (SGGS) makes it very clear that:

  • Sikhs (learners, seekers) must stay clear from any rituals relating to ancestors for they are worthless,
  • there is nothing we can do for our departed ancestors,
  • there is nothing our departed ancestors can do for us,
  • this whole practice of sending goods to dead ancestors is illogical, hence rejected by the Gurmat-SGGS-Sikhi.
  • stay clear from the middleman clergy (Pujaaree) who advocates these rituals for his own benefit,
  • the Pujaaree asks things that he himself needs under the pretext of sending them to the ancestors,
  • in a nutshell, the Pujaree propagates this concocted narrative of ‘Pitar‘ to ensure his freeloading lifestyle and livelihood is secure etc.

Thus, the Gurbani liberates us from the debilitating and crippling entanglement, fear and anxiety of the clergy concocted concepts of ‘Pitar‘ etc.

The Gurbani urges us to bring about a storm of Spiritual Wisdom in life, which will destroy the ignorance. With this Enlightened Mindset (i.e., Gurmukh Mindset) based on the Wisdom of the SGGS, we would be able to truly love, care, and respect everybody including our elders when they are alive, instead of waiting to do something after they are dead!

In other words, since a life can end anytime, we should spend as much time as we can, loving and caring people and enjoy each moment with them before they are dead. Appreciate them NOW, laugh or cry with them NOW, forgive their shortcomings NOW — NOT after they are dead!

If we offer feasts after their demise, then all we are doing is feeding the crafty priests along with animals, birds etc. Nothing will ever never reach the dead.

Understandably, the Gurmat’s Counsel is NOT to practice all this Pujaaree concocted Karamkaand related to death, ‘Shraadh‘ or death-anniversaries. Instead, the Gurbani’s counsel is to churn the Gurbani through Shabad-Vichaar and then live the Wisdom of the SGGS in daily life (Amal-ਅਮਲ). Such is the Gurmukh Mindset — free of Karamkaand (‘ਗੁਰਮੁਖਿ ਕਰਣੀ ਸਬਦੁ ਵੀਚਾਰੁ ॥’ sggs 841).

  • ਨਾਨਕ ਮਨੁ ਸਮਝਾਈਐ ਗੁਰ ਕੈ ਸਬਦਿ ਸਾਲਾਹ ॥: O Nanak! Instruct the mind through the Gur-Shabad’s Counsel (or Advice, Wisdom…). (sggs 23).
  • ਘਰ ਕੇ ਦੇਵ ਪਿਤਰ ਕੀ ਛੋਡੀ ਗੁਰ ਕੋ ਸਬਦੁ ਲਇਓ ॥: I have renounced the gods and ancestors of my house, and taken to the Shabad (Gur-Giaan, Wisdom, Upadesh…). (sggs 856).

Bhagat Kabeer Jee has similar Message for those who offer feasts and goods to lifeless idols:

  • ਭਾਤੁ ਪਹਿਤਿ ਅਰੁ ਲਾਪਸੀ ਕਰਕਰਾ ਕਾਸਾਰੁ ॥ ਭੋਗਨਹਾਰੇ ਭੋਗਿਆ ਇਸੁ ਮੂਰਤਿ ਕੇ ਮੁਖ ਛਾਰੁ ॥੪॥: Rice, pulse, semi liquid sweets, pancakes, pudding — the (priest) enjoys these, nothing goes in the mouth of idol (because a lifeless image or object cannot eat!). ||4|| (sggs 475).

I’ll conclude this post with a poem by a Nobel prize winner poet, Rabindra Nath Tagore:

When I’m dead.
Your tears will flow
But I won’t know
Cry with me now instead.

You will send flowers,
But I won’t see
Send them now instead.

You’ll say words of praise
But I won’t hear.
Praise me now instead.

You’ll forgive my faults,
But I won’t know…..
So forget them now instead.

You’ll miss me then,
But I won’t feel.
Meet me now, instead.

You’ll wish you could have
spent more time with me,
Spend it now instead

When you hear I’m gone,
you’ll find your way to my house to pay condolence
but we haven’t even spoken in years.
Look, listen and reply to me now.

Spend time with every person around you,
and help them with whatever you can to make them happy, your families, friends and acquaintances.
Make them feel special because you never know when the time will take them away from you forever.

Alone I can ‘Say’ but together we can ‘Talk’.
Alone I can ‘Enjoy’ but together we can ‘Celebrate’
Alone I can ‘Smile’ but together we can ‘Laugh’


  1. Gurinder Pal Singh Ji, I believe that Gurbani is implying that using ill gotten gains/gains earned through the sweat of the brow for the deceased affects their legacy rather than their status (if any) in the hereafter.

  2. Dear Prof. Harbans Lal Ji,
    If there is no after life or soul, then how does one interpret the Gurbani lines “ਜੇ ਮੁਹਾਕਾ ਘਰੁ ਮੁਹੈ ਘਰੁ ਮੁਹਿ ਪਿਤਰੀ ਦੇਇ ॥ ਅਗੈ ਵਸਤੁ ਸਿਞਾਣੀਐ ਪਿਤਰੀ ਚੋਰ ਕਰੇਇ ॥ ” ? in my view and many translations “ਅਗੈ” refers to the next world or afterlife and “ਪਿਤਰੀ” refers to ancestors.

  3. There is no evidence that there is left any specific soul of any person after death. So, there is no benefit to anyone except to clergy who often put money in their pocket.

  4. This blog though largely correct seems confused about its key point. Key Question is can any of our acts help our loved ones after they have passed away? It agrees that if we donate the ill gotten wealth in name of our ancestors, they also become partners in crime. We are thereby harming them. By same logic, Why will then they not become beneficiaries if we donate honestly earned money or materials in their
    name? We are not talking of benefit or harm to their physical body, but to their soul.

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