According to Indian lunar calendar we have recently started with the Pitru Paksha (Sanskrit: पितृ पक्ष). Pitru Paksha also spelt as Pitri paksha, (literally “fortnight of the ancestors”) is a 15–lunar day period when Hindus pay homage to their ancestor (Pitrs), especially through food offerings. The period is also known as Pitru Pakshya, Pitri Pokkho, Sola Shraddha (“sixteen shraddhas”), Kanagat, Jitiya, Mahalaya Paksha and Apara paksha.
A very similar tradition exists in Chinese Culture. In Chinese culture, according to the lunar calendar the seventh month in general is regarded as the Ghost Month (鬼月- guǐ yuè). The Ghost Festival falls on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month. In Gregorian calendar, it usually falls on August or September.
This year the Ghost Month was celebrated from August 14th to September 12th. The Ghost Festival, also known as The Hungry Ghost Festival, is one of several traditional festivals in China to worship ancestors.
Just like Pitra Paksha, this month is considered to be an inauspicious month. Most will not get married and avoid having children around this time (ironically, the Qixi 七夕 festival, a traditional lover’s day in Chinese culture, occurs during the month).
There are three important days during Ghost Month.
The First Day of Ghost Month
On the first day of the month, people burn Joss paper (Simplified Chinese 金纸; traditional Chinese: 金紙; pinyin: jīnzhǐ; literally: “gold paper“), also known as ghost money; outside their homes or businesses, along the sides of roads, or in fields.
Sometimes, they go to temples to perform this ritual. Living decedents want to give the money to their deceased ancestors needed during their special month. People also light incense and make sacrifices of food to worship the hungry ancestors. People trust that the spirits won’t do something terrible to them or curse them after eating their sacrifices and while holding their money. They put up red painted paper lanterns everywhere including business and residential areas.
There are street ceremonies, market ceremonies, and temple ceremonies. During street and market ceremonies, people gather at the streets and markets to celebrate the festival. At temple ceremonies, monks in temples organize festive activities. Many believe it is important to appease the spirits to avoid spiritual attack. As we are getting more and more advanced in technology we do not want our ancestors to be left out. There are many other interesting offerings done by living decedents such as houses, cars, I-phone, beer, cigarettes, clothes, shoes, jewelry and many more, all made of joss paper.
The Fifteenth day of Hungry Ghost Month
This day is also known as the Ghost Festival Day. This day is apparently the most important day of Ghost Month. The Mandarin name of this festival is zhōng yuán jié (中元節 / 中元节).
This is the day when the spirits are in high gear. The living decedents perform special ceremonies to avoid the wrath of the spirits such as putting the family’s ancestral tablets on a table, burning incense, and preparing a sumptuous food three times that day.
The main ceremony is usually held at dusk. People put the family’s ancestral tablets and old paintings and photographs on a table and then burn incense near them. These Elaborate meals (often vegetarian meals) would be served with empty seats for each of the deceased in the family treating the deceased as if they are still living. People may kowtow in front of the memorial tablets and report their behavior to their ancestors to receive a blessing or punishment. People also feast on this night, and they might leave a place open at the table for a lost ancestor. They want to feed the hungry spirits who have been wandering the land since the beginning of Hungry Ghost Month. It is thought that after two weeks of activity, they must be very hungry.
The last day of Hungry Ghost Month
The last day of the seventh lunar month is marked with a special festival too. This is the day that the gates of heaven and hell are closed up again. People celebrate and observe this day in various ways. Many people burn more paper money and clothing so that the deceased ancestors can use these things in their hell or heaven society. The pictures and tablets of ancestors may be put away back on the shelves or hung back on the walls where they were before.
Some people make lanterns and float them on the river to help their relatives find their way back. The lanterns are usually lotus flower-shaped with light or candles. Some people also write their ancestors’ name on the lanterns.
In order to drive the spirits away, Taoist monks chant to make them leave. The spirits are thought to hate the sound, and therefore scream and wail.
As the Chinese culture is one of the ancient cultures in the world, the origin of the Hungry Ghost Festival and the Ghost Month (鬼月) in China is uncertain. Cultures in Asia from India to Cambodia to Japan share similar beliefs about the month.
One theory is that its origins are in Buddhism. The Buddhist theory goes like this: In (Mahayana) Buddhism, the seventh month is actually an auspicious and joyful month. Legend has it that Buddha’s disciples would meditate through the summer season in the forests and return to villages on this day and congregate. Legend has it that many would attain enlightenment during their meditation and the Buddha himself would be pleased on this day of gathering, known as Ullambana (盂兰盆 yú lán fén in Chinese Buddhism). In particular, there was one particular disciple (目連) whose mother had committed sins throughout her life and was reborn as a Preta (餓鬼 or “Hungry Spirit”) in the underworld, and through his extraordinary meditation powers, combined with the meditation of all, they would be able to reach to the underworld and save his mother. As such, for Buddhism in its most traditional Mahayana form, it’s an auspicious and joyful month, and most of all a time to think about filial piety and compassion.
It’s possible that the entire story came from Ullambana and slowly underwent changes and became misunderstood over time and journeys, and people came to start trying to fear and appease the spirits rather than think in the same way the legends first had it.
The other theory (and if you ask me, I think more plausible for multiple reasons) is that it first originated from Chinese folk religion, predates the introduction of Buddhism and coincided with Buddhist Ullambana. Chinese folk religion goes so far back that there isn’t too much known for sure about its origins. I haven’t heard any more detail on this theory, but I find it more plausible.
It’s also entirely possible that it’s some mix of these theories. Cultural traditions melted into each other especially during the Tang Dynasty. Tang Dynasty China was at its time a real melting pot of Asian cultures. So in short, nobody has a good historically-evidenced version of the story; it’s all legend that from place to place.
As the times are changing, people are moving from superstitions to practical modes of celebrating this festival. Watch the below video: Master Cheng Yen, founder of the Taiwan-based Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation which focuses almost completely on disaster relief and community service talks a little bit about the Buddhist theory and urges everyone to put away the old traditions surrounding the “Ghost Festival” and rather focus on compassion, recycling and good deeds during this month.