Ancestor Worship and Ancestor Veneration

1. Introduction to ancestor veneration and ancestor worship

Ancestor veneration or ancestor worship is practiced in some form or another throughout the world. The types of customs and rituals are varied; in some cultures, ancestors are worshiped as deities. In this two part series on ancestor veneration and ancestor worship, we provide spiritual perspectives for various beliefs and customs, from simple respect and veneration to ancestor worship, so that people can make informed decisions about how they should treat their departed ancestors, both from their own perspective and that of the departed ancestors.

The first ritual for departed ancestors is the funeral rite and we have given a spiritual perspective to some of the more popular funeral rites in our article cremation versus burial.

2. Some popular belief systems that drive ancestor veneration and ancestor worship

  • Protection: Departed ancestors are believed to wield great authority, having special powers to influence the course of events or to control the well-being of their living relatives. They provide protection to the family; keeping it together is one of the departed ancestors' main concerns. The living may regard the departed ancestors as ‘guardian angels’; protecting them from serious accidents, or guiding their path in life.

  • Intervention: Sometimes departed ancestors are considered intermediaries between God (and/or Deities) and the family they have left behind. It is believed that they intercede with God, Saints and Deities for the benefit of the family.

  • Fear and reverence: In some cultures the attitude of descendants towards departed ancestors is one of mixed fear and reverence. It is believed that if neglected, and not venerated or worshiped after their death, the departed ancestors may cause disease and other misfortunes.

  • Communication from the afterlife: Departed ancestors have the ability to communicate with the living through dreams and by possessing their descendants.

  • Help in life’s decisions: The descendants sometimes turn to the ancestors for guidance through seances and mediums or Ouija boards to help them in making important decisions.

The following sections explain some spiritual research in relation to the above beliefs that fuel ancestor worship:

3. Departed ancestors’ ability to protect and look out for their descendants: 

The ability of a subtle-body in the subtle-regions of the Universe to protect someone on the Earth region (Bhūlok) is directly related to the subtle-body's spiritual strength or spiritual capacity. The following table provides an overview of the proportion of people going to the various subtle-regions after death.

Region type

Proportion of people going to these regions after death

Relative spiritual strength

Main aim

Higher positive regions of the Universe (i.e. Maharlok and beyond)

Less than 0.1%

+ 100 to Infinity

Spiritual growth

Heaven (Swarga)

Less than 1%

+ 5

Enjoying the fruit of their merits

The Nether region (Bhuvarlok)

85%

+ 1

Survival

1st and 2nd Region of Hell (Pātāl)

10%

-10 to -20

Survival and troubling others

3rd region of Hell and lower

5%

-30 to slightly before negative infinity

Troubling others

Note: The negative figures for spiritual strength show the spiritual energy that is demonic spiritual energy.  It is also commonly known as black energy.

On average a departed ancestor will take about one to three generations to lose attachment to his previous life on Earth. One generation can be taken as roughly 30 years. In other words, people are most affected by the generations that pertain to their parents to great-grandparents. One aspect that decides this time period is the suffering that one has to undergo in the subtle-regions due to incorrect actions and deeds when on the Earth plane. When undergoing these sufferings, departed ancestors are aware of which part of their Earthly existence is responsible for the suffering. In that time their attachment to their previous worldly life also exists and is bound to influence the lives of their descendants.

[en-Samashti spiritual level]
  • The subtle-bodies that can effect real change on the Earth plane for their descendants are subtle-bodies that are spiritually evolved and reside in the higher regions of the Universe such as Maharlok, Janolok, etc. These subtle-bodies are above the 60% (samashṭi) or 70% (vyashṭi) spiritual level. However, in practice people do not receive material help from these highly evolved beings. This is for two reasons:

    • Firstly, less than 0.1% of our departed ancestors go to these higher regions of the Universe because one’s spiritual level needs to be above 60% ( samashti) or 70% ( vyashti). 

    • Secondly, even if our departed ancestor was to be of a high spiritual level, material help would not be something that he would indulge in. As a person evolves their only focus is to grow spiritually. So all their help to others is also given from the perspective of helping them grow spiritually. Moreover they begin to loose their attachment to family members. This is because they get more expansive in their perspective which is to help all of humanity grow spiritually.
  • Subtle-bodies in Lower and Higher Heaven are fairly evolved spiritually. However, while in the subtle-region of Heaven, they are mostly involved in enjoying and experiencing the fruits of the merits gained when they were on the Earth region. This is why they rarely help their descendants on the Earth region. Moreover, they have less spiritual strength and if they do help their descendants it is in the more easily manageable worldly matters. Less than 1% of all departed ancestors go to the subtle-region of Heaven.

  • Most of our ancestors go to the subtle-regions of Nether region and the 1st and 2nd regions of Hell. Here the environment is quite oppressive. Due to a lack of spiritual practice and various attachments/unfulfilled desires, subtle-bodies of departed ancestors in these regions mainly experience unhappiness. Most of the time these departed ancestors want to trouble their descendants. The following are the two main reasons as to why ancestors trouble their descendants.

    • Due to unfulfilled desires

    • Due to the inability to move on in the after life and attain a higher positive region or sub-region.

    Please refer to the article – Why would my departed loved ones and my other ancestors want to give me pain?  If help is provided by the ancestors, then it is because of intense desire to help. It is generally for small things such as getting a job, etc. However if a descendant on Earth is to undergo some event because of medium to severe destiny, it is impossible to change that event without the descendant themselves doing spiritual practice.

  • Ancestors that go to the lower regions of Hell generally only trouble their descendants and never help.

Mechanism of how subtle bodies of departed ancestors help

In almost all cases, ancestors have very little ability to influence events on a sustained basis in another plane of existence such as the Earth region. Sometimes the strength to accomplish the wishes of departed ancestors is given by higher level ghosts (demons, devils, negative energies, etc). Higher level ghosts provide energy so as to create a give-and-take account with these subtle-bodies that they help and thereby get them under their control.

4. Can departed ancestors intercede for us with God or Deities?

This is rarely the case. In some cases a subtle-body in the region of Heaven or the Nether region can intercede on behalf of their descendants with lower level Deities in the region of Heaven. This happens by exchanging some merits they have earned, to get something on Earth. However, lower level Deities also have a limited amount of power and can only help out in smaller things. In most cases, lower level deities expect something in return for the favours they give out. If someone has done a lot of spiritual practice then he can also ask for boons from Higher level Deities. However in this the spiritual energy gained by their spiritual practice is used up.

5. If neglected or not worshiped can ancestors cause us problems?

From a spiritual perspective, neglected means not doing the requisite rituals or spiritual practice to help ancestors in the afterlife. If the correct rituals are not done departed ancestors can trouble their descendants.

In the next article we will examine some of the popular rituals and customs worldwide and their efficacy in providing protection from problems caused by departed ancestors.

Refer to the article – Why would my departed loved ones and my other ancestors want to give me pain?

6. Can departed ancestors communicate with their descendants?

           Yes, it is possible. They do this through a number of ways:

  • Communication by creating problems in the descendant's life: Departed ancestors, most of the time, communicate by causing problems in their descendant's life. Departed ancestors use spiritual energy to create distress in their descendant’s lives so that the descendants take notice of their needs. The distress perpetrated by the ancestors is thus basically a means to communicate their pain. When the descendant finds that problems are not going away, despite their best efforts, they sometimes seek spiritual guidance.

    Refer to case study on eczema caused by ancestral problems

  • Mediums and Ouija boards: Sometimes descendants on Earth, or departed ancestors in the afterlife, try to communicate through mediums or Ouija boards. In most cases it is not the ancestor who is communicating. Please refer to the article – What is the spiritual perspective on contacting my departed relatives through a medium or an Ouija board?  Accordingly, it is best not to ask ancestors for advise about one's life decisions through these mediums because in all probability one would be speaking to another ghost or negative energy. And while initially the advice may be okay, it can be interspersed with wrong advice to lead people astray or in harm's way.

  • Dreams:  Sometimes ancestors communicate through dreams. Departed ancestors live in a world that is more subtle than the very tangible Earth region that we live in. When we dream, we go to a more subtle-plane and hence it is easier for departed ancestors to contact us. Most dreams are psychological in nature. However, there are instances when dreams are spiritual in nature. As a rule of thumb, a dream can be considered spiritual in nature if a dream recurs three times in a row.  If what appeared in the dream also occurs in the waking state, it is to be understood that this, too, is spiritual in nature. Some dreams are typical of ancestors trying to communicate. For example, continuously seeing ancestors in your dreams or seeing snakes. Seeing cobra snakes are generally indicative of ancestors that mean well, whereas any other variety of snakes is considered to represent ancestors that mean harm.

6.1 Mechanism of the action for communication

All actions have to be done using one of the Absolute Cosmic Principles (Panchatattva). Depending on the spiritual strength of the ancestor they are able to access higher and higher Absolute Cosmic Principles to establish communication

Absolute Cosmic Element

How it manifests

Earth (Pruthvī)

Generally a bad odour in the environment without any physical cause for it. For example, urine smell in the house. It could also be a perfume associated with the departed ancestor.

Water (Āpa)

Leaving some kind of taste in the mouth.

Fire (Tēj)

Taking the form of the ancestor in the dream state, ability to see the departed ancestor or a vision of the departed ancestor.

Air (Vāyu)

Feeling as if someone is touching one without anyone being there, moving things around the house.

Ether (Ākāsh)

Hearing voices, sounds.

In almost all cases where an ancestor tries to communicate with his descendants, it is most likely that the ancestor has unfulfilled desires and the descendants should do their best to help the departed ancestor to move on.