Tradition Clashes With Zoom Over How to Properly Honor Your Ancestors

By Krishna Pokharel

With the monsoon rains ending, the season for the ritual appreciation of ancestors is under way in Nepal.

The ceremonies usually involve a priest and a crowd of relatives, and are considered critical to ease ancestors’ journey in the afterlife. With coronavirus cases in the country still growing, tech-savvy priests are offering to help families pay their respects over video calls.

Traditional priests aren’t pleased, decrying the online versions as crass commercialization. They say family ancestors won’t be happy either.

“These money-hungry online priests don’t know how to pronounce Sanskrit mantras well,” says Ram Krishna Upadhyaya, a 45-year-old priest and preacher in Kathmandu. “They don’t care a hoot about culture and tradition.”

The ritual, called Sorha Shraddha, usually involves the eldest male of the family gathering extended relatives at some point during the 16 days of the Hindu lunar calendar at the end of the rainy season. The priest helps with offerings including various objects, food, water and prayers from families to their deceased loved ones.

Families could theoretically perform the rite themselves. Yet one of the main Hindu texts holds that the spirits of ancestors come to the home of offspring and reside on the body of the priests during the Shraddha. The obligations of the rite aren’t fully satisfied until the priest is received, fed and paid a donation of the family’s choosing.

Sanu Babu Acharya, 30 years old, followed in his father’s footsteps by studying Sanskrit and becoming a priest. He trained in web design as well, and has been working with some families to make routine offerings to ancestors over Zoom since Nepal went into lockdown in March.

As the Sorha Shraddha season approached, he decided to expand the practice so he could oversee multiple ceremonies online over Zoom simultaneously.

“An average priest depends on a busy season like this to earn and support his family,” says Mr. Acharya, who lives with his parents in Bhaktapur. “Unlike other times of the year, there is work for almost all of the 16 days.”

He posted detailed instructions on Facebook for families who might want to work with him, including what was needed for the offering—10 special sacred threads and six cooked rice balls, among other things. He filmed a video tutorial running through things a priest would normally do, such as making figures out of dry straw from a particular kind of grass.

So far, eight families have signed up for his group Zooms. Mr. Acharya tells people to pay what they wish; they have been giving him $4 to $16.

“Let’s preserve our religion and culture using technology. Let’s protect ourselves and others from corona,” reads his online booklet.

Ram Chandra Gautam, the 75-year-old chairman of a government-appointed committee of astrologers, religious experts and cultural advisers that sets the annual Hindu calendar used in Nepal, says the rite requires more preparation and precision than can be performed by laypeople.

“It’s futile,” he says. “Instead of becoming happy, the ancestors will become angry, sad and curse the performers of such rites.”

Mr. Gautam says families should reduce the number of members who participate to reduce the risk of spreading the virus but still have the ceremony overseen by a priest in person. Scriptures also allow the rite to be delayed a few months in extreme cases.

Even before the pandemic, some priests had already offered online services for shorter rituals like baby-naming ceremonies to Nepali families living abroad. Several digital startups are now offering online Shraddha packages, pairing families with priests. Prices start around $12 to $17.

Priests and companies offering online Shraddha were encouraged by a few municipalities that asked residents to consider performing Sorha Shraddha using the “virtual medium” to avoid coronavirus infections. Some local officials have warned the usual parade of priests traveling from house to house for the ceremonies could spread the virus.

Mr. Upadhyaya, the priest in Kathmandu, heads a Hindu activist group claiming some 4,000 members across Nepal, many of them priests. He and some members have been calling priests and companies offering online Shraddha services to ask them to stop. Company executives say some priests who work with them online have received such calls, with traditional priests threatening to shun them if they continue.

Pradip Shrestha says he was happy he could offer specially cooked rice balls, sanctified water and prayers to his late father and ancestors with the help of Mr. Acharya.

Mr. Shrestha, a 45-year-old teacher in Bhaktapur, had already missed doing a homage with a priest on his father’s death anniversary in late March due to the lockdown. He decided to perform an online ceremony with Mr. Acharya during the Sorha Shraddha.

“I worried I might not be able to fulfill my duty to the departed soul of my father,” he says.

For the ritual, Mr. Shrestha’s wife assisted him and his two daughters were present as he sat on the floor with all the necessary paraphernalia. The laptop was placed where the priest would normally sit, and Mr. Acharya recited hymns over Zoom. Two other families performed their rites on the same Zoom call, with one switching off their camera for privacy.

Apart from a few brief internet disconnections, all went smoothly. Mr. Shrestha plans to invite his regular family priest over to his house for a hearty meal once the pandemic starts slowing down.


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