Sunday, April 18, 2010

Ancestor Worship : A Surviving Link

Though not a religion per se, the tradition of worship of ancestors, legendary heroes and local guardian deities is a common practice in many Asiatic societies and African communities. These practices which are as old as the respective civilizations themselves have inseparable links with the people who live with these traditions. To those people who believe in ancestor worship, these traditions are perpetuated in the form of a religion. Sometimes, these traditions are all pervasive, over-arching more organised and universal religions and faiths. So closely woven are these societies with the tradition of ancestor worship that it is still retained in the technology-driven 21st century.
The fundamental concept of ancestor worship lies in the belief that death is not the end of man’s life. This is often justified with the conviction that those who have departed from this world after death assumes supernatural character and form. Another associated understanding is that the dead possess limitless potentialities, which they can exploit for the benefit or for the detriment of those who still live on Earth, depending on the moral behaviour of the people left behind. The underlying concept is that man perishes with death only physically, but the soul lives on perpetually. In another word, the dead are the ‘living dead’. African scholar Mbiti described them as bilingual. They speak the language of men and women they lived with until death, and they speak the language of spirits and of god, to whom they are drawing nearer ontologically.
The concept of ancestor worship has socio-religious, spiritual, ethical as well as political aspects. Morality and conduct of the would be ancestor is another basic criterion to be venerated and revered by descendents later. The morality and conduct of the would be ancestor must be ideal and par excellence. There is another theory which says that the would be ancestors are the ones who are fairly successful in upholding and safeguarding societal norms and ethical guidelines for the people they left behind. Another thesis runs like this. An ancestor is a person who died a good death after having faithfully practised and transmitted to this descendents the societal norms left to him by his ancestors; who contributed to the continuity of the line by leaving many descendents; who as a peacemaker serves as a link that fostered communion between the living and the dead, through sacrifices and prayers, and who can maintain the generation a long genealogy.
Personality of the would be ancestor is central to the tradition of ancestor worship, generally perceived as one palpable link between physical world and the spiritual world. Shown by their ideal morality and conduct while alive on earth, ancestors left behind an impression that they are essentially benevolent spirits who return to their human families from time to time to oversee their conduct and, of course, welfare. Guided by this understanding, ancestor veneration is manifested in adoration of the dead, holding them at high esteem, honouring, idolizing, looking up to them, treating them with reverence and paying homage to them, hero worshipping with rituals and sacrifices.
A critical analysis of these practices revealed that ancestors are worshipped at the levels of family, clan, community and the nation. In the context of Manipur, ancestor worship starts more prominently at the level of clans, though it exists at family level too. Each of the seven clans who together constitute today’s Meitei community have their own progenitors just as the hill people have their clans in much the same fashion. These progenitors are worshipped by their descendents even today as demi-gods or sons of god. Elaborate rites and rituals are performed for days during Lai Haraoba in the name, veneration and celebration of the demi-gods or the gods.
It is not the tradition of ancestor worship or Lai Haraoba itself that commands enormous academic interests but the underlying essence, implications, practical relevancy and significance. The fact that the so called systematised, universal religions and faiths based on codified, ‘sacred texts’ and doctrines cannot subdue these primitive traditions testifies its practical relevancy to the lives of the indigenous people. In fact, unlike adopted foreign faiths, these traditions by virtue of their sheer originality, are not losing any of their practical relevancy even up to this so called cyber age.
Ancestor worship, associated rites and rituals, and Lai Haraoba performed at the community or clan level is the bedrock of the indigenous culture, traditions and customs. The distinctive identity of the Manipuri nation has its foundation in these traditions for no foreign element or practice is given any place in the whole rituals of ancestor worship or Lai Haraoba. Both the hill people and plain people, although majority of them have adopted Christianity and Hinduism, are retaining the tradition of ancestor worship, and this speaks volumes about how deep rooted these traditions are to the lives of the indigenous people.
Ancestor worship is the most ancient, viable means of teaching and imbibing cultural ethos, morality, social ethics and traditional values to the younger generations. By worshipping or venerating our ancestors, we look up to them for their guidance in our conduct, morality, ethics, ways of life and what not.
Evoking the ancestors and revering them could also serve the purpose of enshrining selfless commitment, dedication to duty and community or national services. Some scholars described the whole practice and concept of ancestor worship as the manifest of civil religion in national polity. Jonathan Smith broadly defines civil religion as a set of religious or quasi-religious beliefs, myths, symbols and ceremonies that unite a political community and that mobilize its members in pursuit of common goals. This form of civil religion, as broadly defined by Jonathan Smith, is quite operative in the Manipuri society too. While the opposites of Christianity and Hinduism have been acting as a centrifugal force between the hill people and the valley people, the age-old practice of ancestor worship has been acting as a balancing centripetal force. Even as there is no converging point between Hinduism and Christianity, the plain people and the hill people share common values, beliefs and myths as exemplified by the similar practices and concepts of ancestor worship.
These indigenous practices and nativism, as removed from imported and adopted customs and faiths, play a crucial role in forging a common nationhood among the indigenous people who are other otherwise being pulled apart by myriad factors, mainly emanating from divergence in political aspirations and religious faiths.
By extension, ancestor worship evolved into another level in the form of hero worshipping. Though it may not fit perfectly to the literary meaning of the word ‘worship’, we are certainly venerating our heroes like Khagemba, Gambhir Singh, Narsingh, Paona Brajabashi, Thangal General, Haipou Jadonang, Hijam Irabot et al. We are immortalising their names for their deeds, exploits, dedication and contribution to national or social causes. Yenning is of the firm opinion that immortalization is an aspect of ancestor veneration, which manifests in several ways. By building memorial tombs/complexes and statues of the hero ancestors, and naming roads and parks in their names, each of the community they belong to can be brought to the national level, inspiring a sense of common nationhood among the indigenous communities.
The values inherent in ancestor veneration also has capacity to raise morality of individuals as well as social ethics. By showing appreciation or gratitude to the works done by an ancestor, say for instance, an act of patriotism, there is every possibility this could inspire the living generation to be upright, social-minded and patriotic like their ancestors, and even excel them. Here, Yenning sincerely wishes we venerate our heroic, selfless ancestors all the more and follow in their dedicated footsteps, if we must pull out the nation from the abyss into which it is fast slipping.
Putting in front that one basic criterion to become an ancestor worthy of veneration is good deeds at the minimum, if not exceptional achievements or extra-ordinary contribution to the community or nation, we would like to call upon each and every individual of the land to ask ourselves the following three questions:
1. What would people be saying about me if I had died yesterday ?
2. What kind of reputation am I making for myself ?
3. How would I like to be remembered by the nation, society or at least by those who have known me ?

Remember, we can be ancestors of our future generations, not simply biologically but in terms of idealism and deeds, worthy of veneration and emulation.

This article was posted on The Sangai Express, on Sunday, April 18, 2010

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