It’s interesting that in Hinduism we find steadfast traditions of ancestor reverence existing peacefully alongside a deeply embedded belief in reincarnation. To some, it may seem that these two ideas are irreconcilable. Yet, it is rather the case that they coexist within a framework of beliefs that include conceptions of time and space that are flexible enough to accommodate both.
That is certainly the case from the perspective of Tantrics, who find it absurd to question the validity or moreover, the importance of their veneration of those who have come before. And that is not to say the practice of ancestor worship is unquestioned. Rather, the very roots of Tantric sadhana (spiritual discipline) take practitioners into a state of awareness in which the veracity of other realms where ancestors abound becomes undeniably clear. This is the basis upon which ancestor worship is carried out—from a place of direct experience of them and with them.
True, not every practitioner attains the ability to do this first-hand work, but those who do affirm both the ancestral abode and the importance of engaging with it. Given this, Tantrics hold fast to their rituals and practices involving ancestors. Notable, however, is the revelation of what instigates the performance of rituals in which—as is true within many of the world’s religious traditions—ancestors are offered tangible products of the Earthly plane.
To deepen understanding of what significance these offerings have, it may be helpful to say that the lineage traditions of Tantra affirm the conference of knowledge from the unseen world to the present reality we inhabit. Departed teachers have been known to instruct disciples through dreams and visions, for example; and living practitioners have been known to receive communications during ceremonies and meditations that propel their awareness to new heights. The boundary between worlds is therefore understood to be—and experienced as—permeable. This is important because a key to the mystery of ancestor worship is an understanding that the energies of each plane may be conferred to the other, whether through intentional or even accidental means.
Those trained in the rites will often seek out ancestors using their awareness of other worlds and some degree of proficiency with the techniques needed to reach them. They may choose to make requests of ancestors during special ceremonies, share gratitudes and remembrances, or even seek to access secret knowledge. Some may also work on mending relationships not fixable during a lifetime. For all of these reasons and more, the practice of ancestor worship continues. People may also find psychological and spiritual healing—and often a greater sense of well-being—because of direct practices and traditions of ancestor veneration.
With all this in mind, let us return to the powerful insight from which Tantrics draw their inspiration for the offerings of real world items, such as food, liquor, jewelry, and other artifacts of the deceased’s enjoyment of living. Many on the outside might think it laughable to give plates of food and offerings of drink to the dead. And while some may applaud the ways in which the practices can have psychological benefits for the grieving friends and relatives of those recently deceased, the true power of physical offerings isn’t in any silly notion of eating or drinking akin to when a child might leave cookies for Santa.
Nor is it exactly in the gloss given by some to the importance of remembering to feed ancestor spirits (with their emphasis on how the departed will weaken without food) because of the journey they must make before being reincarnated. In this, the key point is often lost, with the more esoteric nature of the rites neglected or subsumed within a larger, mythopoetic narrative.
No, in the offering of food, Tantrics are not performing a foolish or mindless act. The secret that they hold is a simple one, yet one easily forgotten. It is a secret that potentiates evolution and choice, a conveyance of energy for fortification powered by the most pure form of all energy: love.
As an energy that can disrupt all obstacles, love is carried through the energy-form of matter (food or otherwise), in the same way that shakti (energy) is carried on prana (breath). As expressed through the offerings, but more importantly, as embodied by them within the stuff of life, love is birthed and carried into the beyond where ancestors dwell. Whether those who have gone before are there for a short time or stuck for an eternity, the departed souls receive the benefits of love as a nourishment, a healing, and a potential for activation back into the world of the living through reincarnation.
So, make your offerings. Do so knowing that yours is not a meaningless ritual. Do so knowing that what you pour into your gifts for the dead is most definitely important and most definitely taken and transformed. Finally, let love be your gateway in this work to a more deeply personal and more fulfilling connection to your beliefs about what lies beyond.
Offered in Her Service Chandra Alexandre