In Hinduism, Shradh is a ritual performed in honour of one’s ancestors. The word Shradh comes from Sanskrit and refers to anything or any act that is performed with all sincerity and absolute faith. Whilst there are different ideas and beliefs regarding what Shradh is and how it should be practised–in my mind, it is a period when we contemplate and honour the connection we continue to have to those who have passed on.
The belief in an immortal soul that continues to live on after death is not unique to Hinduism. This time last year, I found myself mulling over the topic extensively as I found myself performing the rituals for the very first time. I’ve written chapters of my own personal journey with the Hindu practise of Shradh in my novel The Merchant of Stories.
Through that journey, I grew curious about how people from other cultures pay their respect to their ancestors. With time, I’ve come to realise that we humans are more alike than we are different. There is an eternal soul that ties us all together in this impermanent world.
I have chat with my friend Azamat about the beliefs and practises in his home country of Kyrgyzstan.
Dipa: In our last interview, we spoke about ancestral veneration. You mentioned that people in Kyrgyzstan believe that their ancestors are around them. Do they exist in a parallel realm? If so, how does that realm work?
Azamat: In my village, and in my understanding from my childhood, people think that our ancestors exist close by. I don’t know which parallel universe that is, but they exist close by. Graveyards and cemeteries are considered sacred places. They’re all gathered in that one place and that place is considered sacred. Relatives—grandparents, their children and grandchildren—are buried close together. We need to pray several times a year.
My grandma used to believe that our ancestors look after us. If there are difficulties in life, huge changes in society, people believe that the souls of our ancestors are there to protect us. We should respect and pray for them. People strongly believe that we still share a connection. After that person has passed away, we still have that connection in us.
People have seen dreams of their ancestors. If they appear to us, it means they are suffering or their soul is in pain. If let’s say a person’s father passed away—and they saw that person in their dreams. Through these dreams, ancestors ask real people to help out other people. That means in real life, something needs to be fixed. Ancestors’ souls keep people connected. The person who saw that dream needs to help out.
In our culture, we perform sacrifices. We dedicate food to them and after that we eat. We believe that they are beings that need food, salt and water.
Dipa: In cultures all over the world, it was believed that there were people who were a bridge between the material world and the spiritual world. In Central Asia, Shamans were considered sacred. What was their role in ancestral veneration?
Azamat: In our culture, Shamanism was mixed and fused with Islam. People pray in Arabic—which is based on Islamic prayers. Some of them may get into trance mode where they recite prayers and sing. The prayers can last 30 minutes to an hour. They read the Quran and we finish the ritual.
In my village, mullahs acted as the bridge between our ancestors and us. For example, I’ve seen families asking questions to their parents who have passed away. The mullah would lead a long prayer and then after the prayer there would be answer.
Dipa: People like you and me live in a globalised society where these practises are slowly fading away–especially in the cities. What happens if we don’t honour these rituals that have come down to us through the generations?
Azamat: I live in Japan. The society and culture is completely different from Kyrgyzstan. You adapt to the culture that you live in. At the same time, since I grew up in my previous culture—I am still the same person.
If I go back, I will go back to being the same way I was before. Let’s say if I have kids in Japan, the second generation after me may not believe. But because I experienced both, I think I still have that way of my life in me—how our people used to live to their lives.
Humans being in general are quite adaptable. If we had a similar way of living for a few hundreds years—this rapid technological change, this new transition—will take several hundreds years. The people who live through this period will find it difficult—as they are transitioning. After a few generations, this will become stable.
During the Soviet Era, people tried to modernise and suppress the older cultures. But it didn’t work. So they went back to their original identity.
Dipa: Recently, I was reading Richard Powers The Overstory by Richard Powers. He wrote, “The trees have vanished and the town forgets. But not the land.” What is the relationship we have to the lands of our ancestors?
Azamat: If you look at the dances at different nations—for example the Hawaiian dance—it’s related to the ocean. Their culture is formed around the location where these people lived for so long.
For us, we’re mountain people. Kyrgyz people moved to this territory over 2000 years ago. The geography and location remembers you. Our culture is based on the mountain and the sky. That forms the character of people as well. Technology is changing—urbanisation is happening. In Kyrgyzstan, we’re still 60% farmers—so our beliefs and rituals are formed alongside nature.
If you put this person in Papua New Guinea in the jungle, he would be lost. Nature defines us in many ways. Nature forms us. We give natural places spiritual significance.