Hindu Ancestor Rituals

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HINDU ANCESTOR RITUALS Among contemporary world religions, Hinduism has the oldest and most elaborate complex of ancestor rituals. The Rig Veda and Atharva Veda (c. 1200–1000 b.c.) include hymns for both inhumation burial and cremation, with verses indicating construction of a mound or marker of earth or stone, and rituals performed by mourners on behalf of both the living and the deceased. Two or three centuries later, Brāhman a texts describe a citi (mound) to be erected on the shmashāna (burning and burial ground) as replica of the agnicayana Shrauta sacrifice, a cosmic soma ritual that the deceased had performed with a thousand bricks to create an altar of fire and regenerate the world. Such commemoration entitled this elite householder, who had maintained the requisite three ritual fires in his home until he was cremated by them, to enter svarga (heaven) with a new tanu (body), hopefully to remain immortal. In the course of time, during the first millennium b.c., the Shrauta, Grihya, and Pitrimedha Sūtras detailed a full-fledged cult of ancestors known as shrāddha (from sraddhā "faith"), a ritual system still in place today, reinforced by post-Vedic texts such as Dharma Shāstras, Purān. as, and manuals compiled by ritual authorities over many centuries of changing doctrines.

These manuals on death and the nurture of ancestors are concerned first with the disposition of the body in antyeshṭi, the "final sacrifice." Second, because the belief that a new body awaited the deceased in heaven no longer prevailed, there had to be ritual construction of a temporary body for the disembodied "spirit" (preta) in its brief passage into the status of "ancestor" (pitri, literally, "father," whether male or female). Third, after the deceased had become a pitri, located in an otherworldly realm of ancestors, a systematic program of rituals was necessary to nurture that ancestor during all stages of advancement toward another rebirth. All of this proceeds from the doctrines of karma and sam. sāra that emerged with a new worldview in the early Upanishads. These late Vedic texts distinguish between the pitriyāna (path of ancestors), which leads to the moon, an abode from which the departed return to earth and a new existence, and the devayāna (path of gods), which goes to the sun without return or rebirth. The moon retains an important cosmic role in ancestor rites today, as do the moral implications regarding the effect of action (karma) upon the fate of the deceased in rebirth (sam. sāra).

The first feature of these manuals regarding death and ancestors is disposal of the now useless old body, ordinarily by cremation on the day of death or the following one. Some communities always bury their dead, however, and suicides, victims of accidents, snakebites, or epidemic disease, as well as small children—all the untimely dead—may either be buried or given to a river, the same disposal being true also for certain ascetics and saints.

The second concern of ritual handbooks turns to shrāddha and the assembly of an invisible body by means of piṇḍas, balls of cooked rice or barley, offered along with water and sesame for ten successive days (often abbreviated today). Parallel to ten lunar months of human gestation and ten days of a special fire in the birth room after delivery of a child, these rituals create a transitional body, beginning with the head and ending with digestive powers. On the eleventh day a set of sixteen shrāddhas may be done to satisfy the deceased for one year. Sapiṇḍīkaraṇa, the moment of blending a piṇḍa of the deceased with those representing ancestors, is a dramatic twelfth-day event. Presentations of cooking utensils, clothing, a bed, personal items, money, and enough raw food for a year to a priestly surrogate, a Brahman of degraded status due to the pollution of death, is all for the satisfaction of the still-watchful deceased. It is essential that the surrogate and his relatives are seen to eat cooked food meant for the deceased. The same Brahmans will prepare and eat the supply of raw food during the presumed year-long journey of the deceased to the other world. Several Purāṇas describe this emigration to the kingdom of Yama, lord of the dead, as arduous. To cross the dread river Vaitarani the deceased must hold onto the tail of a gracious cow, formerly sacrificed, but in modern times simply rented for a ritual moment.

The third feature of shrāddha takes over following the twelfth day (a symbolic year), with the vulnerable preta safely transformed by rituals into a secure pitri. The danger of a troublesome, dissatisfied ghost has been overcome. Although not all will be so dutiful, kinfolk may now perform offerings (tarpaṇa) as one of five daily sacrifices (mahāyajñas) and special monthly rites (māsika) on newmoon day (amāvāsyā). Certainly all will observe the death anniversary (pratyābdika). The recently deceased has joined a company of three generations of ancestors, often understood as dwelling in three hierarchical companies of deities, Vasus, Rudras, and Ādityas, located respectively on earth, in midspace, and in heaven. Men are assumed into the lineage of a deceased father, father's father, and father's paternal grandfather. Ritual authorities vary regarding a married woman, with advocates for the maternal lineage of her father or her husband being two alternatives. In any case, three generations of ancestors require gratification in the form of rice, sesame, water, and mantras or shlokas in return for favors in health, prosperity, and longevity of descendants. Beyond the three nearest generations are remote ancestors, dwelling with the Vishvedevas (All-gods). They require little in the way of food, only rice that sticks to the fingers after piṇḍas are offered to the closer kin. It could be said that ancestors of the fourth generation and beyond need only minimal sustenance as they dissolve toward rebirth.

Once a year, in a dark lunar fortnight, pitris are invited collectively for Mahālayā in Bhādrapada (August–September) and Pitripaksha in Āshvina (September–October), festivals not unlike All Hallows' Eve (Halloween), the night before All Saints' Day (November 1 in the Christian calendar). The mid-January solstice festival of San . krānti is another time to honor ancestors. A personal or family choice may be to travel to a pilgrimage center on a sacred river—Varanasi on the Ganges, for example, or Nasik on the Godavari, Shrirangam or Thanjavur on the Kaveri—to immerse bone and tooth fragments preserved from ashes of the cremation pyre, if not already dispersed in a local river. Deposition in a sacred river is meritful to the deceased and may determine a more positive status in the next life.

As with other long-standing religions with multiple choices for religious expression, Hinduism displays considerable variation regarding the actual location of a person after death. Doctrines and practices shift, particularly with regard to sectarian, regional and textual differences, and modern life has diluted attention to rituals. Yet there is astonishing consistency in rituals of death and veneration of ancestors over the past twenty-five or more centuries, and Hindus—not only the most ritually dedicated families—are remarkably devoted to and dependent upon the generations who have gone before.

David M. Knipe

See alsoAgni ; Bhūta ; Hinduism (Dharma) ; Saṃskāra


Kane, Pandurang Vaman. History of Dharmaśāstra, vol. 4. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1953. Pages 179–551 provide a scattered but indispensable overview of antyeshṭi and shrāddha in Vedic and Sanskrit texts.

Knipe, David M. "Sapiṇḍīkaraṇa: The Hindu Rite of Entry into Heaven." In Religious Encounters with Death: Insights from the History and Anthropology of Religions, edited by Frank E. Reynolds and Earle H. Waugh. University Park and London: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977. Analysis and interpretation based on textual and field studies of the crucial transition from preta to pitri.

O'Flaherty, Wendy Doniger, ed. Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions. Berkeley: University of California, 1980. Essays by leading indologists on Vedas, epics, Purāṇas, Dharma Shāstras, philosophical systems, Āyurveda.

Pandey, Raj Bali. Hindu Saṃskāras. 2nd ed. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1969. Chapter 9 outlines antyeshṭi for twelve days (later shrāddhas not pursued), with reliable attention to texts and rituals but frequently misguided interpretation.

Parry, Jonathan. Death in Banaras. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University, 1994. Anthropological field study of contemporary beliefs and practices in the sacred city; good sections on funerary specialists and spirit possession.

Shastri, Dakshina Ranjan. Origin and Development of the Rituals of AncestorWorship in India. Kolkata: Bookland, 1963. Extensive survey of all aspects of death and ancestors according to medieval ritual manuals of Hemādri, Raghunandana, and others.