On my way back from Cardiff yesterday I read Matthew Sayers’ book Feeding the Dead: Ancestor Worship in Ancient India (OUP 2013). [Yes, the journey was long enough to read a whole book, admittedly a fairly short book written in a concise and clear style!] I was interested in it because of the relationship between Brahmanical Hindu ancestor rites and the Buddhist rebirth state of the preta (Pāli peta), a ‘departed one’ or ghost. As I noted in my own recent book, the pretas are a unique rebirth state in Buddhist terms, in that they cannot seem to benefit themselves, but they can benefit greatly from merit transferred to them by humans. It has long been recognized that this is linked to their association with the liminal state between death and the ritual feeding of the dead in the Brahmanical Hindu calendar; the latter ritual, which involves the offering of rice-balls to the deceased, allows the departed one to go onwards to the realm of the ancestors.
Sayers’ book provides a wonderfully clear outline of the development of ancestor rites within Vedic and post-Vedic literature, and the emergence of the household śrāddha rite as the most prominent way of honouring the ancestors. In this rite, brahmins play an important role in mediating the offerings of the householder to his ancestors. As Sayers points out, when this same basic ritual structure appears in early Buddhist sources, the meditator is the Buddha or his saṅgha; gifts ceremonially made to the Buddha or one of his followers can be transferred to the departed, allowing the departed to move on to a better rebirth.
Chapter 5 of Sayers’ book gives some attention to the Petavatthu of the Pāli scriptures, in which we find stories of pretas in various predicaments and the efforts of their relations to ease their suffering, through a gift to the Buddha or saṅgha. Clearly the idea that one has a certain responsibility towards one’s ancestors is maintained, for the pretas in this text (and in others like it in Sanskrit avadāna collections – for a discussion see Appleton 2014: 54-8) often appeal specifically to former family members for help. Also carried over from the śrāddha rite is the notion of ritual feeding, and indeed the ritual feeding of the hungry ghosts remains an important part of the Buddhist calendar in parts of Southeast Asia. (See, for example, Patrice Ladwig’s excellent film Caring for the Beyond, which explores Laotian rituals.) The links are clear, and Sayers’ book is immensely helpful in placing these Buddhist developments in the wider context of developments occurring within the “Hindu” fold.
As Sayers points out in the final chapter of his book, the Brahmin discussants of the śrāddha rite insisted on keeping the world of ritual responsibility, with its promise of eternal heaven, separate from the renunciatory and karmicly-driven discourses that were emerging in tension with it. Buddhists, on the other hand, integrated the ritual into their soteriology, though I would argue that they did this with questionable success. The pretas remain a curious anomaly in the Buddhist cosmological system: a realm into which only the bad are born, but from which every dead relative needs release; a karmic destiny but not one in which one can take responsibility for one’s actions.