More or less, ancestor worship is prevalent in all societies of the world. But it is more acute and sincere in simple societies, peasant societies and oriental societies. Simple societies are the earliest primitive societies where life is very simple and spontaneous. Peasant societies are agricultural communities and oriental societies are non-western societies.
Family and kinship are present everywhere. So family generations continue from generation to generation by death of elderly persons and birth of new ones. Man is mortal. So man dies. After death he/she becomes ancestor of the family. The present generation worship them thinking that their spirits would help them to lead a happy, peaceful and prosperous life. They think that the ancestors are not dead; but only fantastically transferred to a remoteness of greater power. Ancestors go to the spiritual world. British anthropologists have also said that there are two worlds – one is physical and another is spiritual. Ancestors belong to the spiritual world. From above, they help their descendants for a better life to lead. So ancestor worship is done to propitiate them. Very often ancestors come in dreams.
Historically western part of Odisha is an ancient land since the time of primitive societies. It was full of jungles where people were lead a simple life in the lap of nature. So it is naturalfor them to seek the help of spirits for their survival. And ancestors are the embodiment of spirits.
Actually, ancestors should be worshipped daily. Some people do it while worshipping their family deities daily. But there are occasions when ancestors are worshipped with sincerity and reverence. These occasions are – Nuakhai, Gunikhai and Asadha Dasami. On the day of Nuakhai, new foods of new crops is offered to family deities (Ista-deva-devis) and to the ancestors. On the day of Gunikhai (Phalguna – Purnima) ancestors are worshipped in every family of western Odisha. And then on the day of Bahuda Yatra of Lord Jagannath (Asadha Dasami) ancestors are worshipped in this part of Odisha.I remember, before fifteen days of these special days, ancestors come to me in dreams perhaps to remind that the day is coming for their worship.
Apart from these specific days, people remember their ancestors daily. When we sit down to have meals everyday, we first offer portions of it. This portion goes to the ancestors. When the month of Dussehera comes, its first fortnight is called Pitrupakshya, meant for the ancestors. People give anna-danato at least five brahmins. It is believed – when we feed brahmins, the ancestors recieve. And on the day of Deepavali, when we light lamps of earthen pots, in fact we show path to our ancestors to return to the pitrulok from which they have come to earth during the Pitrupaksha of Dussehera.
This is how we worship our ancestors. On the occasions of marriage also ancestors, family deities and gramadevis are worshipped. This worship precedes the ritual of marriage.
There is always the relation of the ancestors with the descendants (the present family). Ancestors are guardian spirits. They observe their family from above and help the present generation in many ways. Ancestors express joy, when things are going well. And weep when things are falling apart. I will cite one example which I have got from first-hand information.
There is a village called – Kulsar in the Meghpal forest of Sambalpur district. There is a family of Keuta (Kaivarta caste). When a daughter of the family was married off and when the married daughter was departing (bidai) from the house along with the groom, many people heard someone crying in the house (in the puja room). The crying lasted for a longer duration. Only after request, it stopped.
On enquiry, the householders saidthat on many occasions we have heard such crying. This is the crying of our ancestors and family istadevis. When the daughter was going from the house, the ancestors expressed their sorrows. Ancestors are very sympathetic indeed.
Ancestors guide the descendants to improve morality in the way of life. Even crops cultivation, relation with relatives, observation of rituals, harmonious relation in the milieu, bringing up of children etc. are all guided by ancestors.
Ancestors come through dreams. At timestheyeven appear in reality and communicate ideas. In the Ramayana, King Dasaratha, appeared before his son Ramachandra and blessed him along with certain instructions. Sita worshipped Dasaratha in the river bed with balls of sand instead of balls of rice. This was due to exigency of the moment.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet also the ghost of Hamlet’s father appeared before Hamlet and directed Hamlet to avenge his father’s murder.
In both Great tradition and Little tradition of India, ancestor worship is there. Great tradition refers to all India tradition and culture. And Little tradition refers to local and regional culture.
Accordingly, in the little tradition of western Odisha, ancestor worship is widely prevalent. They are not dead; rather they continue to exist. And they assist the present generation in myriad ways – both in mirth and mire. Ancestors are our friends, philosophers and guides.
(The views expressed are the writer’s own.)
Radhakanta Seth is an Income tax officer in Sambalpur. He is a Freelance writer and his articles have been published in some Oriya dailies like Sambad, Samaj, Dharitri and English dailies like The Telegraph and in a sociological journal ‘Folklore’ published from Kolkata.
He can be reached at [email protected]