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Feeding The Dead (Ancestor Worship in Ancient India)

Feeding The Dead (Ancestor Worship in Ancient India)
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Item Code: NAF746
Author: Matthew R. Sayers
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Language: English
Edition: 2013
ISBN: 9780199896431
Pages: 201
Cover: Paperback
Other Details: 9.0 inch x 6.0 inch
Back of The Book

“This compact volume makes a notable contribution to our understanding of doctrinal and institutional shifts in India in the last centuries before the Common Era. Sayers is one of just a handful of recent scholars to call attention to the importance of the Vedic domestic ritual codes in the creation of what has come to be known as ‘classical Hindusim’. He is to be congratulated for setting the complex ritual particulars within a clearly limned overview of the competing religious ideologies being ‘marketed’ by rival grops of professional ‘religious experts’. He manages to do this without trivializing the ideas at stake, and without glibly reifying categories such as ‘popular’ and ‘elite’ or ‘Brahmanical’ and ‘non-Brahmanical.’

Feeding the Dead outlines the history of ancestor worship in South Asia from the earliest sources available, the Vedas, up to the descriptions found in the Dharma-shastra tradition. Most works on ancestor worship have done little to address the question of how shraddha, the paradigmatic ritual of ancestor worship up to the present day, came to be. Matthew R. Sayers argues that the development of shraddha is key to understanding the shift from Vedic to Classical Hindu modes of religious behavior. Central to this transition is the discursive construction of the role of the religious expert in mediating between the divine and the human actor. Sayers argues that the definition of a religious expert that informs religiosity in the Common Era is grounded in the redefinition of ancestral rites in the Grihyasutras. Beyond clarifying the much misunderstood history of ancestor worship in India, this book addresses the question of how and why religion in India changed so radically in the last half of the first millennium BCE. The redefinition of the role of religious expert is hugely significant for understanding that change.



THE CENTRALITY OF reincarnation to the contemporary conception of Hinduism in particular and South Asian religions more generally belies a long and rich history of ancestor worship in South Asia. The funerary offerings made to one's deceased parents in contemporary India are the survivals of a tradition that stretches back to the Vedas, a tradition that revolves around the ritual translation of the deceased to the next world. David Knipe calls this "one of the great spiritual dramas of man," yet laments that "it is one of the least studied aspects of Hinduism" (Knipe 1977,112). The veneration of the Ancestors (pit?, literally "father") is one half of the soteriological dichotomy at the heart of classical Hinduism. What is the ultimate goal of the individual in Hinduism? Liberation from rebirth? An eternal place in heaven? The tension between the ascetically oriented soteriology of liberation and that of the ritualist tradition that aims at heaven is at the core of Hindu practices relevant to the ultimate end of the religious life. This tension arises from the contestation between the Brahmins, who advocate the tradition of sacrifice that goes back to the Rg Veda, and the Brahmanical advocates of renunciation of ritual and worldly life for the attainment of salvation. The ritualists endorse ritual activity as the way to the ultimate goal, an eternal stay in heaven. The renunciates promote the abandonment of worldly attachments with the aim of liberation from rebirth. This book aims to shed some light on the less-examined side of this soteriological debate: the long tradition of ancestor worship.

Despite the ubiquitous nature of the doctrine of transmigration in contemporary Hinduism there still exists the widespread practice of rituals that purport to transport the deceased to the world of the Ancestors (pitfloka), that is, a heavenly realm where the Ancestors live on the food offered to them in ritual. Not only has the ritual performed to sustain the Ancestors' stay in heaven persisted for more than two thousand years after the development of the concept of transmigration, it has also thrived and grown considerably from its description in the domestic ritual manuals as one of the sacred ceremonies (samskaras), rituals that themselves have older Vedic precedents. The fully elaborated, complex ritual process described by Knipe (1977) and Kane (HoD 4:334ff.) is the product of centuries of religious discourse about the practice of ancestor worship, discourse that thrives alongside, perhaps in spite of, the assumption that one's Self (atman) transmigrates according to the law of karma, the immutable process of retributive justice that determines one's rebirth.

The tradition is not ignorant of the tension between the two soterio-logical ends envisioned for the religious actor, that is, the world of the Ancestors and liberation from rebirth (moksa). In the Upanisads, early philosophical texts, we find evidence of a prolonged debate about the ultimate end of man, which Bodewitz (1996a) has described in detail. Ultimately, this led to the fully developed notion of reincarnation with liberation from rebirth as the desired end to the cycle of repeated birth. For the most part the ritual literature ignores or rejects the idea of rebirth for at least a few centuries (Bronkhorst 2007,137-159), but the tension does appear in the literature concerned with dharma. The Baudhayana Dharmasutra, for example, combines the notion of rebirth with the understanding that one's Ancestors are sustained in heaven by ritual performance of the sraddha-rite, the classical form of ancestor worship in Hinduism. The author says that a man who misuses sesame will be reborn as a worm and "plunge into a pile of dog shit together with his ancestors" (BDhS 2.2.26, Olivelle 2000, 249). More explicitly, the Brahmanda Purana asks how Ancestors can bestow the benefits of performing the ancestral rites if they have been reincarnated, specifically in hell (BrP 2.9.10).

How then does this rich tradition of ancestor worship develop and thrive alongside a contradictory ideology? There is not a switch-over moment when the tradition makes an either-or choice, nor is there a gradual shift from one soteriology to the other. Advocates of each ideology assert the superiority of their understanding, producing texts that describe the way to the specific soteriological end they champion. The Mahabharata, the great Indian Epic poem, and the Puranas, encyclopedic compendia of religious lore, draw equally upon both of these ideologies to construct classical Hinduism, and after many centuries there arose efforts to synthesize the two soteriologies, the heaven-oriented soteriology of those Brahmins that advocated ritual as the primary expression of the proper religious life and the liberation-oriented soteriology of the renouncer tradition. This book describes the historical development of the rituals of ancestor worship, which rests on the heaven-oriented soteriology.

Vedic Ritual and Religion
A brief review of the Vedic religion will help contextualize the following discussion of ancestor worship in ancient India. The Vedic religious tradition developed in the culture of the Indo-European speaking peoples that migrated into the subcontinent around the middle of the second millennium before the Common Era. Their world is available to us only through the extant texts, described in the section entitled "The Sources," and those texts come from a culture primarily concerned with the practice of sacrifice (yajha). The rituals described in these texts are called the solemn rites (srauta). The term srauta (related to sruti, that is, related to revelation) refers primarily to the practice of large-scale, public ritual sacrifice.

The ritual inherited from the older tradition that composed the Rg Veda is "the ideally portable religion" (Jamison 1991, 17) in that the liturgy is memorized by those who enact it and the materials used in the ritual are implements used in everyday life or created for that particular instance, such as the ritual space and the fire. Specific places are not recognized as sacred; rather the ritual space in which the ritual will occur is created through a meticulous demarcation of sacred space.

At the center of Vedic ritual are the ritual fire and the offerings made into the fire. From the simplest ritual—the Fire Offering (agnihotra), offerings of milk and similar products into a single fire and involving only a single priest—to the most complex, involving many offerings and numerous priests, the central action of the ritual is offering food or drinks into the fire. In these rituals all other actions are subordinate to, leading up to or from, the offerings made into the fire.

The conceptual basis of these offerings is the Vedic emphasis on hospitality. The gods (deva) are invited into the ritual space and invited to sit on the seat of honor. Priests praise the gods with hymns (re) and songs (saman) and offer them food. The sacrificial fire (agni)—both the physical fire itself and the deified god of fire Agni—transfers the offering to the particular god of this ritual and the priests invite him or her to partake of it. More praise is heaped upon the divine guests and they are ceremoniously asked to withdraw. The hospitality of the sacrifice engenders the qualities of generosity and benevolence in the gods, and they in turn provide the benefits of sacrifice: long life, worldly wealth, prosperity, sons, protection, success, and so forth.

The human focus of the sacrifice is the patron of the ritual, the Sacrifiqer (yajamana), who derives all the benefits won through the ritual. The title yajamana—literally meaning sacrificing on his own behalf—as well as the translation Sacrifice are somewhat misleading, because he is responsible for very little work of the actual ritual. While he is the patron of the sacrifice and all the benefit of its performance goes to him, the priests perform the ritual, that is, chant, sing, make offerings, and so forth. In return for their work in the ritual, the priests receive compensation, the sacrificial gift (daksina). Usually this gift takes the form of livestock or gold, but the appropriate gift is designated by the ritual.

The primary requirement for being a Sacrificer, in addition to being married and a member of the top three classes (varna), is that he must be someone who has established the fires (ahitagni), that is, he must have performed a ritual that establishes the three ritual fires, allowing him to maintain them in his household. This qualifies him to perform the solemn rites, which require three sacred fires. The three fires are the householder's fire (garhapatya), the offertorial fire (dhavaniya, literally "to be offered into"), and the southern fire (daksinagni). It is unlikely that any but a small percentage of those eligible to maintain all three sacrificial fires did so, because maintaining the fires and performing the larger solemn rites involved considerable expense. Most households probably maintained only the householder's fire, which is required for domestic rituals.

The three fires are central to the ritual space created for ritual. The ritual is oriented toward the east, where the gods dwell, so the offertorial fire—which is square—is in the east of the ritual space. On the east-west axis behind the offertorial fire is the altar (vedi), a shallow, hourglass shape space dug out of the ground. Further west is the householder's fire, which is round. The southern fire, in the shape of a half-moon, lies to the south of the central axis created by the two fires, closer to the householder's fire. In the ritual, the altar is strewn with barhis grass as a seat for the gods who are to be invited. The altar also serves as the resting place of implements and offerings. This ritual space is created by the priests commissioned by the Sacrificer to perform the sacrifice.

The four classes of priests employed correspond to the four Vedas. The Hotr and his followers recite the verses from the Rg Veda. The Adhvaryu and his assistants recite the ritual formulas from the Yajur Veda and are responsible for most of the ritual actions undertaken during the sacrifice. The Brahman, the priest of the Atharva Veda, was added to the older, original Vedic sacrifice later in the Vedic period (Oldenberg 1894, 395; Jamison 1991, 21). His role is to oversee the ritual and silently recite mantras (a sacred verse or formula) to correct any mistakes. In the Soma rituals, the Udgatr sings the songs of praise (stotra) set to melodies from the Sama Veda.

There are several classifications of ritual, and rituals in different cat-egories share characteristics with those in others, but the rituals are often divided into two classes, the Soma Sacrifices (somayajna) and those rites called the haviryajna (literally "a sacrifice with an oblation") (Keith 1925, 316). The former differ from the latter in the offering of Soma and the inclusion of the Udgatr and his songs. The Haviryajna most often employs oblations of dairy products (for example, clarified butter, milk, different varieties of curds) and vegetables (gruels and cakes made from different grains), but animal sacrifices (most often a goat, but including cows) are classed in this group as well. The Soma Sacrifices center on the offering of the divine substance, soma, which, according to tradition, imbues the drinker with incredible strength and poetic inspiration (Jamison 1991, 22). These classifications, however, belie commonalities in the basic structure and patterns of Vedic ritual. Certain rituals serve as models for other rituals and rituals can be "nested or embedded in other rituals, building larger and increasingly intricate ritual structures" (Jamison 1991, 23). Looking at the basic types within the two-fold classification just described, there are seven fundamental forms, from which other rituals derive. The first is the Establishment of the Fires (agnyadheya), in which the Sacrificer qualifies himself to perform sacrifice.

The next five are periodic rituals that follow the rhythm of the calendar. The Agnihotra consists of twice-daily offerings made into the fire. The New and Full Moon Sacrifices (darsapurnamasa) occur, as is clear from the name, on the new and full moons. They also serve as the model for the class of rituals called the isti, which are undertaken to achieve a particular end. The Four-Monthly Sacrifices (caturmasya), also called the Seasonal Sacrifices, occur at the beginning of the three main seasons: the Vaisvadevas are offered in the spring, the Varunapraghasas are offered in the rainy season, and the Sakamedhas are offered in the autumn. The First-Fruits Sacrifices (agrayana isti) are those offerings made before partaking of the crops. The normal offerings include rice in the spring and barley in the fall. A man who has established the sacrificial fires should offer the Animal Sacrifice (pasubandhu) before he eats meat. Thereafter he performs the rite annually or every six months, depending on the authority. The rite is modeled on the New Moon Sacrifice and involves tying the sacrificial victim to a ritually prepared post and killing it in such a way as to avoid bringing into the ritual the negative connotations of the necessary violence (Keith 1925, 325) The fact that there is an Animal Sacrifice in the Soma rite is but one example of the imperfect nature of the classification of ritual.

The final type is the Soma Sacrifice, the central ritual cycle of the Rg Veda. The Agnistoma, the one-day Soma sacrifice, serves as the model for this sacrifice. In this ritual Soma is offered in the morning, at midday, and in the evening. All the multiday sacrifices involving Soma are variants of this model. Keith outlines several other types of sacrifice, some subtypes of those here outlined, others defying the two classification systems used here (Keith 1925, 332-357). Significant for their place in the later tradition are the Consecration of the King (rajasuya), the Horse Sacrifice {asvamedha), and the Piling of the Fire Altar (agnicayana). The first two incorporate Soma Sacrifices and draw upon that ritual as a model; additionally, they are held up as standards of Vedic sacrifice by the later tradition. The Piling of the Fire Altar, Keith tells us, "is regarded as being always available for performance along with the Soma sacrifice" (1925, 354) but was infrequently performed because of the elaborate procedures involved.

This general picture of Vedic sacrifice is drawn from the liturgy of the Vedic Samhitas, the ritual exegesis of the Brahmanas, and the detailed instructions of the Sutra literature, texts complied roughly in that chronological order over almost a millennium. This tradition, however, does not remain fixed over this period. While much of the technical terminology appears in the oldest layers of texts (Jamison 1991, 25) some change over the period of composition of these disparate texts is evident (Keith 1925, 252). The exact nature of the changes is difficult to determine given the sparse evidence available to us.

One feature central to the Vedic religious imagination, at least by the time of the Brahmanas, is the tendency to understand the human realm as linked to the cosmic realm through homologies established in the ritual realm. Ritual exegetes of the Vedic tradition emphasize the establishment and recognition of certain equivalences (bandhu), which establish an identity between the ritual elements and their corollaries in the human and cosmic spheres (Smith 1989, 31-34). "Participants and objects in the ritual stand for, embody, and indeed actually become participants and objects in the larger sphere of human life and in the cosmos..." (Jamison 1991, 25). Through the manipulation of participants and objects in the ritual realm, the ritual manipulates their equivalents in the human and cosmic realm.

Control of the microcosm, the ritual space, enables control of the macrocosm, the human and divine realms. Sacrifice confers upon the performer the ability to transform and transcend the human world.

It should be clear from this brief review that two features of later Indian religious practice are conspicuously absent, namely, temples—or other permanent ritual places—and images that represent the divine. The primary mode of religious behavior was sacrifice; these other features commonly associated with Hinduism arise much later. Much of the liturgy of the $g Veda and the commentary of the Brahmanas relate mythic accounts of the divine, the former through allusion and reference, the latter in somewhat more fulsome fashion. Although none of these texts outlines the cosmos in great detail, the central gods and their major exploits are well-known.

Indra—the hard-drinking, relentless warrior god—occupies the minds of the poets more than any other deity in the hymns of the §g Veda. This is fitting for the nomadic, cattle-herding culture of the Aryans. He is the deification of the ideal Aryan warrior and his main activity is smashing foes with his mighty weapon, the vajra. Often hymns speak of him as exhilarated by Soma and call upon him to inspire similar heroic deeds in his followers. His most famous exploit is the destruction of the Vrtra (literally "obstacle"), the great snake that trapped the primordial waters. He often engages in cattle raids, the most well-known of which against Vala, who hid his stolen cattle in a cave.

Second only to Indra, is Agni, fire personified. While he is praised less frequently in the Rg Veda than Indra, he is far more central to the practice of sacrifice. He is fire in all its manifestations, the most important of which is the sacrificial fire. Agni is the priest of the gods, the eater of the oblations, and the mediator between this world and the world of the gods; in the ritual he is the divine counterpart to the human priests. He conveys the oblations to the gods worshiped in the ritual and brings the gods to the ritual space to sit and enjoy the hospitality of the Sacrificer. It is through Agni that the householder is able to make offerings to both the gods and his Ancestors.

Like the deified fire, the primary offering of the Soma Sacrifice is divinized. Soma is the personification of the Soma drunk in the ritual and the plant from which the sacrificial drink is pressed. Soma most often appears in pairs with Indra, Agni, and other gods. He is sometimes described as swift and compared to a fast steed. The central Soma myth revolves around its theft from heaven.

These three gods, Indra, Agni, and Soma, are the most important gods in the Rg Veda and are central to both myth and ritual activity. Indra is invoked most often and a substantial mythic cycle is available to us. Agni is the primary divine ritual actor and is involved in every ritual in at least his role as mediator. Soma is central to both the myth and ritual of the Rg Veda, because the majority of the liturgy of that text is concerned with the Soma Sacrifice. Many other gods populate the Vedic pantheon, and occupy a rich storehouse of myth.

Particularly relevant for this work are the Vedic conceptions of life-after-death and the Ancestors. References to life-after-death in the Rg Veda are scarce, as are references to the Ancestors. Bodewitz (1994) has shown that the earliest layers of the Rg Veda, the Family Books, make little mention of man's destiny after death at all. The highest goal attainable by ritual performance throughout most of the older hymns is a longer life here on earth, not the immortality that the gods in heaven possess (1994, 27). The most common reference to the afterlife mentions a dark underworld. The latest layers of the text, books nine and ten, increasingly consider life in heaven the ideal for the Sacrificers, and that is promised them by the poets. Bodewitz suspects that the promise of an eternal life in heaven came to replace the older goal of continuing life here on earth, though he points out that this development was probably not linear (1994, 36). However it developed, the notion of a heavenly realm promised by the poets in the Vedic period influences the conception of the world of the Ancestors mentioned in the funerary rites and sought in ancestral rites.

This summary describes the key aspects of the Vedic religion described by Brahmins; it is the culmination of the Vedic culture of the Brahmins that moved into northwest India during the second millennium B.C.E. (Witzel 1997). This culture thrived and composed religious texts for the next millennium. Toward the end of the Vedic period—from the middle of the first millennium up to the last few centuries before the Common Era— Brahmins called their sphere of influence the land of the Aryas (aryavarta), and it is in this area that the texts of Classical Hinduism were composed (Bronkhorst 2007,1-3; HoD 2[i]:n-i8). Beyond their self-defined boundaries—to the east of confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna rivers—was an area outside the influence of the Brahmanical culture. Bronkhorst (2007) calls this area Greater Magadha and argues that the acceptance of rebirth and karmic retribution, the use of round funerary mounts, and certain forms of ascetic practice were manifestations of the religious culture of that area. It is in this context that Buddhism developed.




  List of Tables ix
  Acknowledgements xi
  Abbreviations xiii
  Introduction 1
1 Ancestral Rites in the Early Vedas 25
2 The Solemn Ancestral Rites 40
3 The Domestic Rice-Ball Sacrifice to the Ancestors 56
4 The Sraddha-Rite 70
5 Ancestral Rites in the Buddhist Literature 86
6 Soteriology 100
7 Mediation 117
  Conclusion 138
  Appendix 143
  Notes 145
  Glossary of Sanskrit Terms 165
  Bibliography 169
  Index 185

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