Feeding the ancestors: ancestor worship in ancient Hinduism and Buddhism

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Sayers, Matthew R.

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This dissertation seeks to provide an insight into the ritual life of the everyday religious actor of ancient India and the intellectual context of the contestation between the Brahmin and Buddhist religious experts over the construction of the householder ideal through a careful examination of the discourse on ancestor worship. The historical context of this dissertation is an important turning point in the religious history of South Asia: the transition from the Vedic religion to the formative stages of Hinduism, coincident with the rise of Buddhism. The theological construction of the ideal householder is the focal point of this cultural transformation in both traditions, and this study focuses on this everyday religious actor instead of the religious experts, exceptional religious figures, who usually occupy the spotlight in similar studies. The householder is the center of gravity around which both Brahmanical and Buddhist scholastic traditions revolve; they shape and construct their ideologies in response to the needs and desires of the householder, while advancing their own moral and social ideals. Both the Brahmanical and Buddhist scholars react to a broader religious tradition, Householder Religion, and this dissertation demonstrates two key characteristics of this response: 1. Brahmin and Buddhist experts occupy the same discursive space in their efforts to construct their notion of the ‘proper householder’ and 2. both traditions construct the ritual obligations of the householder in such a way as to secure for themselves, among other things, the role of mediator between the householder and various supernatural entities. This thesis focuses on the ancestral rites for three reasons. First, ancestral rites is given a central place throughout the period under discussion. Second, the family, the primary context for the householder, is defined by its lineage, thus the ancestors are central to the householder’s self-definition in both social and religious terms. Third, the texts that describe the rituals of ancestor worship demonstrate the characteristics above more fully in both traditions than do texts that address the householder’s other ritual obligations. Additionally, this allows me to briefly outline the historical development of ancestor worship in ancient India, a task long overdue.