Ancestor Veneration, Worship, Reincarnation, and Idolatry

In the event of death or “passing on” (knock on wood (or paper proxy)), it seems reasonable that “spirits” would make every effort possible to help, and assist their loved ones left behind. Unfortunately experience has shown that this is less of an investment providing tangible economic results and more an exercise in developing individual spirituality. In collecting tribal african art one is sure to find the crossroads of ancestor based historical, and colonial religious values.  The main issues surrounding ancestor veneration stem from the fact that there are overlapping elements included in the concepts of “worship” and “idolatry”, and continued fallout based on historical characterizations, fueled by the unadulterated demonization (necromancy, zombies) of “other religions” by proponents of major religions.

Mahongwe Reliquary

Understanding Veneration

“I do not ask for their intervention … I ask and challenge myself that I can meet the standard or benchmark of their love and sacrifice, revealed to me in my own life.

I do not ask that they go before me in my journeys, yet I continue to learn from the lessons they taught me. Teachings I may never totally grasp, yet with different circumstances I continue to find similarities in strengths, and weaknesses. As time passes, we mature, and face similar challenges. I have the benefit of witnessing the fights and struggles of my ancestors, and believe I benefit from lessons they took to heart from earlier ancestors, who learned and shared from their elders. I believe in the knowledge that is unique to those raised in my family.

I may or may not build shrines to my ancestors, for I represent them physically, and to my loved ones I represent a portion of their spiritual essence as well.”

“African ancestral veneration is a religious piety that centres in honouring, loving and remembering the dead, while at the same time asking for their mediatory help. It is still widely and popularly practiced in modern African ethnic groups. In early Christianity, the same practice of religious piety was slowly developed and transformed into a new form that is called devotions to the angels and saints. In addition, African ancestral veneration is never a religion in itself but an aspect of a complex religious systems.”[1]

 

Ancestor veneration remains among many Africans, sometimes practiced alongside the later adopted religions of Christianity (as in Nigeria among the Igala) and Islam (among the different Mandé peoples and the Bamum) in much of the continent.[2]

Kota Reliquary

Idolatry

 

This seems like the easiest concept to refute since an idolater is defined as a “worshiper of idols”. The “burden of proof” in refuting the issue of worship however lies not in the base definition of worship, but rather in the typical understanding of what constitutes a reasonable act of worship. Worship by definition is “an expression of reverence”, or “extravagant respect or devotion”. Using this low standard would pretty much cover any acknowledgement of an intermediary figure to a supreme being. The representation of this intermediary would itself constitute an act of idolatry and by extension members of every “other religion” would be categorized as idolaters. It would seem therefore that the act of idolatry can be more clearly, simply reduced to the worship of a manmade image, carving, or representative structure, which is thought to possess Godlike attributes, and powers. In the Catholic church for example, statues representing saints serve many functional purposes, but the substance and roles of intermediaries are arguably similar to the roles of Orisha used in the Yoruba spiritual system. Few if any African Tribal religions therefore can be seriously considered based, or rooted in idolatry.

E1: Shango Dance Staff of a Standing Mother Carrying a Child. c. 1900.

African ancestral veneration is not idolatrous because of the following three major reasons.

 

1) African ancestral veneration does not consist of the worshiping of lifeless images or eidōlon or idols of emptiness. Instead, it primarily consists of venerating, honouring and loving human life – the spirits of the dead – that still survive after its corporal death and continue to live and engage an enduring communion with their living relatives. This belief is also very fundamental in the Christian faith (cf. the dogma of communion of Saints).

2) African ancestral veneration is not of worshipping demons hiding in images – statues, paintings or sculptures – as often claimed by the early fathers of the Church when talking about the danger of idolatry.  Instead, it is of veneration of the living spirits of the dead. They are not demons or evil spirits and are distinctly different from demons and evil spirits.  The carved images of ancestors – found in some traditional societies of Africa are not intended to be representational or abstract but conceptual and evocative. By means of stylized form and symbolic details, the ancestral carved image conveys the characteristics of the ancestors and  helps to make the spiritual reality of the ancestors present among the living. Thus, the carved ancestral icon enables the world of the living community and the world of the ancestors to come together for the benefit of human life.

3) African ancestral veneration is not of the worshipping of creatures in place of God, since the living souls of the dead are never viewed, approached or treated as God.[3]

 

Fang Tribe, Bieri sculpture

Aspects of Reincarnation

“it is in India and Greece that the doctrine of rebirth has been most elaborately developed. This belief is shared by all the other major religions of India, Hinduism, Buddhism, Gains, Sikhs and Sufis. [In ancient Greece, belief in rebirth formed part of the philosophical teachings of Pythagorean, Empodocles, Plato, and Plotinus. In modern times, religious teachers like Ramakrishna, Aurobindo or schools of thought, like Theosophy or various new "esoteric" "occultist" religious movements, like New Age or humanistic psychology: thinkers like C. G. Jung and Fritz Perls, hold onto belief in reincarnation.]”[4]

While several tribes believe in certain aspects of reincarnation there are various “flavors” and distinctions :

“According to the Chewa people in Kenya, for instance, ancestors after death reincarnate into their descendants’ offspring. It is generally believed that the Chewa ancestors come back to the living community on earth through the infant naming ceremony. Thus naming a child after a particular ancestor symbolizes the mystical union between the ancestor and the living community. According to the BaManianga people in Kongo, a living person consists of three elements: nitu – the physical, visible, mortal body;   kini – the invisible body,   a shade or reflection of nitu; and mwela – soul which has no form. A Manianga scholar, named Fukiau-kia-Bunseki, states that mwela separates itself from nitu and kini at death and looks for a chance to reincarnate into an about-to-born-baby. The BaManianga people (plural of Manianga), indeed, believe in reincarnation of mwela, yet some of them say that this reincarnation is true to the extent of physical resemblance.  Thus a son may look, smile, talk or walk like his father or grandfather without having his father’s mwela.  Since this kind of reincarnation has to do only with physical resemblance, it is traditionally believed that the spirit of a dead person may continue to reincarnate in several generations to come. Thus, the reincarnation of a mwela is not seen as an event that occurs just one time but is a continuing trend. In other words, it can be understood as the process of ceaseless duplication of the soul – mwela. The Akan people in Ghana also widely believe in the possibility of the reincarnation of the human soul. According to their traditional belief, all people, especially ancestors reincarnate themselves into the world – mostly into their own clan or descendants – in order to complete their purpose of being, called nkrabeaNkrabea, they say, is a reason and a purpose for every person to be born.  It is a duty and mission given by Nana Nyame – God – that must be accomplished in the mundane life of every person. Two of these missions are to live an ethical life and to produce offspring.  If the person fails to fulfil this mission, he/she must be reincarnated as many times as necessary in order to achieve what was mandated by Nana Nyame in the beginning.”[5]

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3 Responses to Ancestor Veneration, Worship, Reincarnation, and Idolatry

  1. Anirudh Kumar Satsangi says:

    SCIENTIFIC AWARENESS OF REINCARNATION : BASES FOR A NEW UNIVERSAL RELIGION

    According to Dr. Granville Dharmawardena of Colombo University reincarnation may be defined as the re-embodiment of an immaterial part of a person after a short or a long interval after death, in a new body whence it proceeds to lead a new life in the new body more or less unconscious of its past existences, but containing within itself the “essence” of the results of its past lives, which experience goes to make up its new character or personality.
    In the seventeenth century Rene Descartes divided everything in the universe into two realms as “Res Extensa” (matter) and “Res Cogitans” (mind). Gathering knowledge within the realm of Res Extensa was called Science and the phenomenon of reincarnation got pushed into the other realm Res Cogitans which was not considered suitable for scientific probing. Science developed in the framework of Res Estensa is known as “Classical Science”. Classical science had tremendous material achievements because it helped all round growth of technology which brought about prosperity to mankind. The air of frame work of Classical Science was blown out by Henry Becquerel in 1896 by the discovery of Radioactivity. The discovery of Theory of Relativity by Albert Einstein in early 20th Century gave it further blow. The advent of Quantum Theory and the Uncertainty Principle did the rest. It is significant to note that Einstein’s discovery fall entirely within the frame work of Res Cogitans as it did not involve any experiments or measurements. Gravitation Force Theory of Newton is also an example of such observation and intuition work involving no experiments and measurements.

    Modern Science enhanced man’s knowledge surpassing the restrictions imposed by the five senses and took us to hidden areas of nature and profound changes had been introduced in procedures of science. Our ability to understand everything by way of perceptible mental pictures is reduced and it became necessary to imagine models with components which behaved in ways that had no counterparts at all in the world familiar to us. In most cases mechanisms involved in these models not only are imperceptible but also consist of elements that operate in ways never known in the world that we actually experience through sensory inputs.
    Modern science tied up the two realms, Res Extensa and Res Cogitans and made us to understand that they are not independent and cannot be completely studied independently. Within the establishment of modern science some of the aspects of nature that did not strictly adhere to the realm of Res Extensa, which were therefore earlier condemned as unbecoming of scientists to talk about have become respectable. Reincarnation falls into this category
    Reincarnation is a very old belief and a large fraction of the world population believes it. For example Rene Descartes’ statement “What I have said is sufficient to show clearly enough that the extinction of the mind does not follow from the corruption of the body and also to give men the hope of another life after death” in 1641 confirms his belief in reincarnation. About 20 percent of those in the Western World whose religions shun reincarnation nevertheless believe it. According to opinion polls this percentage is rising.
    Lisa Miller, Religion Editor of Newsweek says that Americans are becoming more Hindus. According to 2008 Harris Poll 24% of Americans say they believe in reincarnation
    Steven J Rosen writes in The Reincarnation Controversy, Uncovering the Truth in World Religions (New Age Books) that belief in reincarnation allows us to see ourselves as architects of our own future. Rosen raises certain queries,‘ what is it that reincarnates from one body to another? Is it the soul? the mind? the intellect? To understand this we should suggest answer to these questions. We all know that there are four fundamental forces in the universe viz., gravitation force, electromagnetic force, weak nuclear force and strong nuclear force. I have written a paper entitled ‘Gravitation Force is the Ultimate Creator’ and presented it at the 1st International Conference on Revival of Traditional Yoga held in Lonavla Yoga Institute, Lonavla in January 2006. In this paper I have defined soul (individual consciousness), mind and body. According to this every point of action of Gravitational Force Field is individual consciousness or soul, electromagnetic force as the force of mind and weak and strong nuclear force as the gross material force which constitute physical frame of body.
    Consciousness is All Intelligent and pervades everywhere. Although all other remaining three forces are also intelligent but they are subordinate to Gravitational Force. THIS DESCRIPTION WILL HELP TO UNDERSTAND ‘WHAT IS IT THAT REINCARNATES FROM ONE BODY TO ANOTHER.
    According to Buddhism this is not the supreme atman or soul that ties one life to another, instead it talks about past lives as evolvement of consciousness, emergence of a new personality from the same stream of consciousness.
    Reincarnation is not an exclusively Eastern precept. It is contained in some form in almost every major religion and mystical philosophy. Research indicates that it was an accepted doctrine, at least in some quarters, at the time of Christ, and is still an integral part of some sects of the Jewish tradition. The Bible contain no condemnation of the principle of reincarnation, and in fact, when Christ was asked when Elijah would return, he answered that Elijah had returned, referring to John the Baptist.
    Sakina Yusuf Khan writes in an article A Night Of Forgiveness published in The Speaking Tree: “It (Shab-e-Barat) is also a festival associated with the dead. It is believed that the souls of the dead are set free on this night to visit their relatives.” What this indicates? This is a belief in reincarnation, of course in subtle body. Sadia Dehlvi also writes in her article Jesus In Islam published in The Speaking Tree (August 29, 2010) that both Islam and Christianity believe that Christ will return to destroy the Antichrist. This is affirmation to reincarnation although in some restricted sense.
    It is clear from the above descriptions that both Islam and Christianity appear not to opposed to reincarnation. Of course, they don’t believe reincarnation in broader sense as Hindus do.
    Unaccomplished activities of past lives are also one of the causes for reincarnation. Some of us reincarnate to complete the unfinished tasks of previous birth. The is evident from my own story of reincarnation:
    “My most Revered Guru of my previous life His Holiness Maharaj Sahab, 3rd Spiritual Head of Radhasoami Faith had revealed this secret to me during trance like state of mine. This was sort of REVELATION.
    HE told me, “Tum Sarkar Sahab Ho” (You are Sarkar Sahab). Sarkar Sahab was one of the most beloved disciple of His Holiness Maharj Sahab. Sarkar Sahab later on became Fourth of Spiritual Head Radhasoami Faith.
    Since I don’t have any direct realization of it so I can not claim the extent of its correctness. But it seems to be correct. During my previous birth I wanted to sing the song of ‘Infinite’ (Agam Geet yeh gawan chahoon tumhri mauj nihara, mauj hoi to satguru soami karoon supanth vichara) but I could not do so then since I had to leave the mortal frame at a very early age. But through the unbounded Grace and Mercy of my most Revered Guru that desire of my past birth is being fulfilled now.”
    I am one the chief expounder and supporter of Gravitation Force Theory of God. This is most scientific and secular theory of God. This is the Theory of Universal Religion. I have given Higher Theory of Everything. Sometimes back I posted this as comments to a blog on:
    ‘Fighting of the Cause of Allah by Governing a Smart Mathematics Based on Islamic Teology’
    By Rohedi of Rohedi Laboratories, Indonesia. Rohedi termed my higher theory of everything more wonderful than which has been developed by Stephen Hawking. Some details are quoted below:
    rohedi
    @anirudh kumar satsangi
    Congratulation you have develop the higher theory of everything more wonderful than which has been developed by Stephen Hawking. Hopefully your some views for being considered for Unified Field Theory are recognized by International Science Community, hence I soon read the fundamental aspect proposed by you.
    I have posted my comments to the Blog of Syed K. Mirza on Evolutionary Science vs. Creation Theory, and Intellectual Hypocrisy. Syed Mirza seems to be a very liberal muslim. He responded to my comments as mentioned below.
    “Many thanks for your very high thought explanations of God.
    You said:
    “Hence it can be assumed that the Current of Chaitanya (Consciousness) and Gravitational Wave are the two names of the same Supreme Essence (Seed) which has brought forth the entire creation. Hence it can be assumed that the source of current of consciousness and gravitational wave is the same i.e. God or ultimate creator.
    (i) Gravitation Force is the Ultimate Creator, Source of Gravitational Wave is God”
    Whatever you call it, God is no living God of any religion. Yes, when I call it “Mother Nature” is the God generated from all Natural forces and Gravitational force is the nucleus of all forces or we can presume that Gravitation is the ultimate guiding principle of this Mother Nature we call it non-living God unlike living personal God of religions. I can not believe any personal God would do so much misery created for its creation. Hence, only non-living natural God can explain everything in the Universe. When we think of any living personal God, things do not ad up!”
    I have also discovered the mathematical expression for emotional quotient (E.Q.) and for spiritual quotient (S.Q.).
    Austrian Scientist Rudolf Steiner says,
    “Just as an age was once ready to receive the Copernican theory of the universe, so is our age ready for the idea of reincarnation to be brought into the general consciousness of humanity”.
    Reply

  2. Eghe Favour Osunde says:

    If as you said that Africans believe in reincarnation, why do they still venerate their dead (Ancestor), since they may possibly reincarnate?

    • That’s a very interesting question but this is also a complex topic. First not all Africans believe in reincarnation, and there are many flavors to the appreciation of one’s ancestors. Yet at the crux of your question the answer is that every instance of a possible reincarnation is one that can be learned from and appreciated. These learnings and teachings are vital to keeping one’s sense of self and culture for some people.
      Hope this helps.

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