Feeding the Dead: Ancestor Worship in Ancient India. By Matthew R. Sayers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xvi + 187. $29.95 (paper).
In this concise monograph, Matthew R. Sayers describes the history of ancestor worship in ancient India over a period of more than a thousand years, from the first millennium B.c.E. through the early centuries of the Common Era. Taking as his point of departure the tension between the competing soteriologies of ritual and renunciation, Sayers focuses on ritual action, exploring the development of the paradigmatic rite of ancestor worship (sraddha) on the basis of a wide array of Sanskritic texts. His book makes two broad claims: first, that rites of ancestor worship and discourses about them were fundamental to the development of new modes of religiosity based on Vedic antecedents; and second, that the establishment of a new role for the "religious expert" (p. 69) was decisive in fostering these developments. Sayers' argument has important implications for our understanding of the history of South Asian religions and deserves careful consideration.
Central to the argument is a dynamic "process of integration and synthesis" (p. 55) playing out across textual strata, whereby extra-textual traditions of ancestor worship are gradually incorporated into Brahmanical and Buddhist discourses. In this way, Sayers argues, "both Brahmanical and Buddhist thinkers participate in the transformational construction of a new form of religiosity, often in direct competition with each other" (p. 22). This new religiosity emphasizes religious giving, most notably the act alluded to in the book's title: "feeding the dead." But the dead are not the only recipients of these acts of giving: human specialists vie to earn their livelihood from mediating between the householder and his ancestors. Sayers takes a particular interest in this competition for patronage, reconstructing a "marketplace" (p. 69) of religious expertise that drives the developments in the textual record. Among the most significant outcomes of these developments are the emergence of the sraddha rite as a ritual paradigm in its own right and the construction of a new role for human mediators in the performance of ancestral rites.
After a brief but thorough introduction to Vedic and Buddhist religious cultures and sources, the main argument proceeds according to the relative chronology of the texts. Sayers demonstrates that early Vedic poetic texts (Rgveda and Atharvaveda), though lacking detailed accounts of...