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Remembering the Ancestors across Cultures

by Master Surendran

There are quite a few commonalities between practices and beliefs in existence both in India and China since many years. Hinduism from India spread to China thousands of years ago and archaeological evidence suggests the presence of Hinduism in different provinces of medieval China. Hindu influences were also absorbed in the country through the spread of Buddhism over its history and adapting practices originating in the Vedic tradition of ancient India.

The Hinduism and the Hindu community, particularly through Southern Indian Tamil merchant guilds from deep down small villages like Ayyavole and Manigramam, once thrived in medieval south China. Evidence of Hindu motifs and temples, such as in the Kaiyuan temple, continue to be discovered in Guangzhou, Fujian province of southeast China. Apart from the close similarities ranging from food, practices, rituals and beliefs there are quite a few metaphysical sciences in common.

The science of astrology, Vastu, Yoga, Ayurveda has its equivalent in the form of Chinese astrology, Feng shui, Taichi and Traditional Chinese Medicines. One interesting similarity between the two cultures is the worship of the ancestors. Praying and appeasing the ancestors is followed till date in both the cultures and each of the cultures has their own uniqueness. The Month of Aug and Sept is of importance both for the Hindus and the Chinese alike. For the Hindus the month of Sept signifies the month to remember and offer respects to the ancestors. In the Chinese custom the 7th Month of the Chinese calendar is for ancestor worship and is called as the “Month of the hungry Ghosts”

As per the Hindu lunar calendar the month of September (Gregorian) known as “Bhadrapada” is very special as a fortnight is dedicated for offering respects and rituals to the ancestors. Most years, the autumnal equinox (An equinox is the moment in which the plane of Earth’s equator passes through the centre of the Sun’s disk, which occurs twice each year, around 20 March and 23 September, On an equinox, day and night are of approximately equal duration all over the planet) falls within this period, i.e. the Sun transitions from the northern to the southern hemisphere during this period. The entire month is important to offer food and rituals to the ancestors and the new moon (Known as Amavasya) in the month is considered as the most important day and is referred to as “Mahalya Amavasya”.

This fortnight period is also known as “Pitri or Pitru Paksha” (Pitri means ancestors and paksha is fortnight). This 16 day lunar period involves remembering the ancestors, offering respects, conducting rituals which involve elaborate process. Primarily the remembrance of the ancestors involves wearing ring made of a blade of grass from the Kush grass or known as “Darbham” in Sanskrit.

The English Botanical name for this plant is Desmostachya bipinnata and has long been used in various traditions as a sacred plant. According to early Buddhist accounts, it was the material used by Buddha for his meditation seat when he attained enlightenment. The plant was mentioned in the Rig Veda for use in sacred ceremonies and also as a seat for priests and the gods. Kusha grass is specifically recommended in the Hindu Holy Scriptures as a part of the ideal seat for meditation. Wearing this blade of grass ring on the ring finger of the right hand the person offers water sanctified along with black sesame seeds remembering the 3 generations of the ancestors.

After the rituals and ceremonies, it is followed by offering of food specially made and clothes to the needy and the priests performing the ceremony. In addition some perform elaborate ceremonies known as “Shrardham “( remembrance ceremony for the departed soul) and the person in addition also makes an offering to the ancestors specially cooked rice balls known as pindas” (cooked rice and barley flour balls mixed with ghee and black sesame seeds). This is left behind on a banana leaf as offering to the departed souls.

The food cooked for the occasion is also special which is again offered to the departed souls and primarily would consist of vegetarian dishes usually cooked in silver or copper vessels and placed on a banana leaf or cups made of dried leaves. The food must including sweet called
“Payasam or Kheer” (a type of sweet rice and milk), dal (lentils), the vegetable of spring bean and a yellow gourd (pumpkin).Those affluent also make donations in memory of the ancestors, help the needy, offer clothes and food too. The entire month is dedicated to the ancestors and the fortnight of the month concluding on the new moon is the culmination. During this month, commencing anything new, business ventures, buying vehicles and weddings are avoided and considered inauspicious.

In the Chinese culture, the fifteenth day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar is called Ghost Day and the seventh month in general is regarded as the Ghost Month in which ghosts and spirits, including those of the deceased ancestors, come out from the lower realm.

According to traditional Chinese belief, the seventh month in the lunar calendar is when restless spirits roam the earth. Often, efforts are made to appease these transient ghosts, while ‘feeding’ their own ancestors particularly on the 15th day, which is the Yu Lan or Hungry Ghost Festival. The Ghost Festival, also known as the Hungry Ghost Festival, Zhongyuan Festival or Yulan Festival is a traditional Buddhist and Taoist festival held in Asian countries. 

It is believed that on the fifteenth day the realms of Heaven and Hell and the realm of the living are open and both Taoists and Buddhists would perform rituals to transmute and absolve the sufferings of the deceased. The month is filled with activities such as food offerings, burning of incense, and burning joss paper, a papier-mâché form of material items such as clothes, gold and other fine goods for the visiting spirits of the ancestors. The meal most often vegetarian would be served with empty seats for each of the deceased in the family treating the deceased as if they were still around. Apart from this the festivities include releasing miniature paper boats and lanterns on water, which signifies giving directions to the lost ghosts and spirits of the ancestors.Every day during this month in the evening, incense is burnt in front of the home or places of common gathering. The Incense signifies prosperity in Chinese culture and it is believed that this would usher in more prosperity. In most parts of the cities you may find in the middle of each street an altar of incense with fresh fruit and sacrifices displayed on it to primarily appease the wandering spirits.

After Fourteen days of the festival, water lanterns are floated and placed outside homes to show wandering spirits their way back to their abode. These lanterns are made by setting a lotus flower-shaped lantern on a paper boat. When the lanterns extinguish, it symbolizes that the spirits have found their way back.

To alleviate the suffering of these restless spirits and help them in the afterlife, Buddhist and Taoist pray and perform various rituals. The most elaborate one culminating on the fifteenth day when the realm of Heaven, Hell and the living opens in unison.

Some of the basic precautions during this month are

  • Try to be home before dark and avoid late night outings for an entire month.
  • Not ideal for new things or weddings and relocating homes
  • Those in Businesses will avoid new ventures and launches
  • Do not step or kick the offerings left on the roadside or peek under the table of an altar.
  • Do not wear Red or Black as it is told you could attract a hungry spirit.

Geographically they may be apart but culturally there seems to be lot of commonalities between some of the Hindu and Chinese Practices.

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