Research Paper On Ancestor Veneration In Religious Traditions

Type of paper: Research Paper

Topic: Ancestor, Death, Japan, Family, China, Human, Life, Religion

Pages: 7

Words: 1925

Published: 2020/11/10


Ancestor veneration is an age old custom in several existing societies which involves the veneration of the deceased ancestors who are considered a part of the family or whose spirits are believed to have the power to intervene in the affairs of the living. These people are believed to have continued their existence. While some tribes venerate close family members, others venerate the holy saints; who they believe are intercessors with God.


This practice stems from two basic beliefs. The first being the continued existence of the dead and the second is the fear of the dead. The worship is not a religion in itself but it highlights the element that is beyond human control and is also another aspect of religious expression. Such religious practices have been traced down to the ancient Egyptians and Romans.
It is a common practice around the globe. Even in modern times, it remains a very important religious practice. In various cultures, like that of Asia, Oceania, Africa, Afro-Diaspora and Europe, the purpose of ancestor veneration is to symbolize the continuation of ancestor’s wellbeing and positive disposition towards those who are still alive. They sometimes also ask their dead for favors and assistance with their day to day matters and believe that if they pray to them, they will definitely answer because of the strong association between them.
Ancestors are also believed to help the living to acquire inner peace and provide them with the required spiritual guidance. For becoming an ancestor, death is not the only condition. Only those ancestors are venerated who have led a very meaningful and pious life.
There are several non-religious aspects to ancestor veneration as well. Practices like these enhance the kinship values within a community, which includes the continuation of the family lineage and also loyalty to the family.
Several anthropological theorists have tried to study the history of this practice and have come up with various explanation. They also point out that the attitudes towards such a practice vary from region to region. [1]
The two traditional societies that I will be discussing are the Chinese and Japanese societies, who have a history of ancestor veneration being practiced.

The Chinese Belief System:

In the Chinese belief system, the ancestor worship cult holds great importance and value. The dead, in these societies, are said to bring good fortune and prosperity for those who are alive. It is believed that if they fail to acknowledge the dead, there are consequences one must face then. It is very likely that the ancestor will become a “hungry ghost”. The “hungry ghost” then roams free and offers nobody any guidance or prosperity and may as well sometimes become vengeful and bring a lot of suffering within the society, to make everyone realize the mistake they have made.
In the Shang dynasty, people believed that several Gods ruled over them and they had all the power to bring them good fortune, prosperity and a variety of other gifts. They obviously could not contact their Gods directly and hence, they believed that their ancestors could become the connecting link between them and their Gods. The ancestors were believed to ask the Gods to give the living ones what they require and all that was necessary for existence. In order to convince their ancestors to ask their Gods for gifts, large scale sacrifices were made every other day to honor the dead kings and queens. Several animals, including the oxen, dogs, sheep and pigs were slaughtered on a large scale. What was also very common in these societies were human sacrifices. At their ritual ceremonies, the dead ancestors would be offered food and drinks that were served in bronze vessels. When a member of the royal family passed away, sacrifice was a very common feature. The royal coffin would be placed above a central pit in which a dog had been sacrificed. Till the tomb, from the access ramps, several soldiers were sacrificed. Usually the servant of the royal person would be sacrificed to be buried in the tomb. Human sacrifices were also common for the consecration of the new buildings. On the domestic ancestral altar, families would burn incense. The king would find days appropriate to carry out all these acts. [2]

The Japanese Belief System:

Most of the practices in the Japanese ancestor worship are, more or less, the adaptations of customs of the Chinese. [3] Japanese Buddhism eventually began to give more importance to the death rites and ceremonies that remembered the dead, because of the influence and the coexistence with the Shinto religion. These rituals are practiced, like the Chinese, at homes, gravesites and temples and often include funerals. In many Japanese homes, a Butsudan is present; the names of all the ancestors are inscribed on it. Bon, an annual ceremony, takes place in July and August, along with the celebration of the New Year. When Bon takes place, all the family members return to their homes to honor their dead and they believe that the dead return home at that time. Adults and children dance to the Japanese folk music to celebrate this event. In the family altar, fresh fruits, rice and flowers are distributed. In attempt to meet their ancestors, several go to the cemetery or to the temple. After seven days, forty-nine days and hundred days of a family member, purification rituals also take place. However, with time, the ancestors have also lost their importance. [4]
Ancestor Veneration: An Anthropological Perspective. Ancestor veneration observed in China and Japan has been observed across all cultures throughout the world at one point or another. Therefore, in order to understand the ideology and analyze it in its proper context, a historical perspective is imperative. It is well understood that religion began with the primitive man’s cognitive bias of personification. Primitive societies imbued objects, by way of analogy, with a spirit. The inability to attain proper explanations for natural phenomenon caused humans to assign objects a will of their own. This idea, Animism, later took the form of totems and magic, with the human desire for control being the primary motivation. It was believed that precious human life and goals could be protected by sacrificing for the spirits that dwelled within those objects. Such sacrifices were offered to the earth to ensure a fertile soil, the sun for plentiful light and the rivers to prevent floods. Phallic festivals celebrated throughout Egypt in the past are an example in this regard. Furthermore, American Indians sacrificed slaves and other criminals during harvest time to ensure that the gods were pleased, thereby ensuring a good crop yield. The worship of animals and objects, with time, adopted a more anthropomorphic tone. It has been observed that many cultures had deities that were half-human and half-animal. The relationship between Cow, Lion, peacock and the Greek goddess Hera is an example in this regard. The sphinx, with the body of a lion and head of a human is another interesting example. Other possible examples include the Mermaid (Half-human and half-fish), Centaurs (Half-human and Half-Horse), Faun (Half-Human and Half Goat), and Minotaur (Head of a bull on a human body.) It is at this stage of human history that ancestor worship developed, of which ancestor veneration is an extension. The core precept on which ancestor worship, including ancestor veneration is based is the belief in spirits. Furthermore, the belief that the dead could influence the living and daily events necessitated the construction of an ideology that could ensure their good will towards the living, thereby providing assistance in a variety of tasks. This idea was solidified by another important social reality i.e. the worship of the living. Some individuals were considered to possess powerful spirits and imbued with supernatural powers that they were worshiped both during and after their lives. Examples in this regard include Horus and Nekhbet in Egypt, Romulus and Remus in Rome, Hephiaston in Macedonia, Guan Yu and Zheng He in China, El-Hakem b'Amr Allah by the Druze, Tokugawa Ieyasu in Japan and Jesus. Modern Religions and their various strands also exhibit similar concepts that rest on the idea that the dead can influence daily events; only in this case, the individual itself is not worshipped but treated as an intermediary between the living and the deity. Veneration of saints in Christianity, Anito in the Philippines, and Pirs in Sufism, the Islamic Mystical tradition, are contemporary examples.
Filial Piety: Xiao, as it is known in China and kō, as it is known in Japan, is one of the core principles on which Confucian ethics rests and can be defined as the admiration, reverence, and devotion to the family, especially the parents. In contrast to the Virtue Ethics formulated by Aristotle in Europe, Confucius devised a system of ethics that emphasized the individual as part of a greater society. The defining criteria of Role Ethics are the proper fulfillment of the roles they are allotted in a society, especially those within the family, for example, a parent or a child. Role Ethics emphasize good treatment of parents, the fulfillment of obligations towards them, kindness, admiration, physical and emotional support, a loving attitude, persuade them against immoral acts, express grief at their deaths and perform sacrifices to ensure the happiness of their souls. Other aspects of Confucian Philosophy directly relevant include his perception of both the family structure itself and how it acts as a role model for the state it is a part of. The organization of the state as a mirror image of the family with strict power hierarchies is therefore widely interpreted as support for monarchical a government system. Confucius believed that since the family is a highly structured and stable social institution, the organization of the state in a similar manner would introduce order in society and ensure positive results. This is one of the reasons why the concept of Filial piety assumed such strong admiration as it was directly supported by successive governments in China.Another interesting perspective that merits attention is the very nature of Chinese and Japanese society. Standing in clear contrast to the individualistic tendencies in Europe, Japan and China developed a much more collectivistic culture for a variety of reasons, especially the reliance on agriculture. It has been speculated, interestingly, that the fact that rice cultivation was very common in both the states; it may have had an influence on the development of Collectivism. The political and social organization of both Japan and China therefore played an important role in the development and sustenance of Role Ethics and consequently, Filial Piety.Conclusion: To Summarize, the aforementioned perspective highlights how the Ancestor Veneration practiced in China and Japan is an extension of basic religious beliefs, rituals and sentiments that can be observed in a variety of cultures. What distinguishes China and Japan, however, is the extent to which it is practiced. But it can be argued that different cultures throughout the world have retained some elements from their socially driven traditions and incorporated them in their belief systems, be them religious or social. The political and social reality of both the states necessitated the construction of an ethical system that ensured stability and the family was thus used as an analogy for the sustenance of the social and political system. One explanation, as highlighted above, is that philosophers such as Confucius held considerable sway over the opinions of the common man and the consideration of filial piety as morally and socially healthy, reinforced the preexisting beliefs and solidified Ancestor Veneration in both the cultures.

End Notes:

[1] While some anthologists believe that these rituals were practiced due to the fear and the general lack of understanding of the dead, others, have pointed out that they were familiar with the dead and hence, practiced all these rituals.
[2] As the centuries progressed, some rituals lost meanings and new ones were adopted within the ancestor veneration. For example, the Western Zhou, stopped the use of oracle bones and instead, what gained popularity were the cast yarrow sticks. The Eastern Zhou period was again quite different. It relied more upon following the rules and strictures of the society.
[3] Although the Japanese follow this religious practice, they do not profess to any particular religion.
[4] Gradually the importance of these rituals declined in Japan. Bon became more of a resting holiday than commemorating the dead ones.


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Durant, Will. 1953. The Pleasures Of Philosophy. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Encyclopedia Britannica,. 2015. 'Xiao | Confucianism'.,. 2015. 'Japanese Ancestor Veneration In Comparative Perspective'.
Luhrmann, T. 2015. 'Why Are Some Cultures More Individualistic Than Others?'. Nytimes.Com.

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