The Hungry Ghost Festival – known as the Ghost Month – is upon us now.
It is the month where the gates of Hell are thrown wide open and ghosts will steam out to visit the living realm. Generally, it is a month of caution, where believers walk with their mouth shut and their heads appropriately lowered, so as not to offend any passing ghosts.
Besides being afraid, let us show you some interesting facts about the Hungry Ghost Festival.
The Hungry Ghost Festival is actually only one day
Most of us assume that the Hungry Ghost Festival is a celebration lasting one whole month. However, it is in actual fact, only one day. The traditional celebration is held either on the 14th or 15th day of the lunar seventh month and is known as the Ghost Day. This day falls on the 15th of August this year.
The Hungry Ghost Festival does not originate from China
Surprised? Yes, the Hungry Ghost Festival is not a Chinese belief that is originated from China. In India, Japan and other places like Taiwan, Cambodia, Thailand and even Vietnam, the Hungry Ghost Festival is celebrated in their own ways and according to their own beliefs.
The Hungry Ghost Festival has part of its roots in Taoism
It is believed that parts of the belief in the Hungry Ghost Festival has its roots in Taoism. On the first day of the seventh month, hungry ghosts are released from the gates of Hell to roam the living realm for exactly a month to look for food or to take revenge on those who have behaved badly.
Due to such belief, people take precaution during the seventh month by burning paper money and joss incense, offering food to the “wandering ghosts” as well as pray to their ancestors for blessings.
The Buddhist sees the Hungry Ghost Festival in a different light
According to the Buddhist, the seventh month of the lunar year is not a month to be afraid of. In fact, they see it as a month of joy. This origin was found in various Buddhist texts. The month of joy had its roots in the behaviours of the monks in Buddha’s days.
When Buddha was alive, his disciples departed into the forest of India to mediate during the rainy season of summer and would emerge on the 15th day of the seventh month to celebrate the completion of their mediation and report to the Buddha. Hence, the Hungry Ghost Festival is seen as a day of joy by the Buddhists.
The Hungry Ghost Festival is about filial piety
In another version of the Buddhist origin of the Hungry Ghost Festival, it is also finial piety. The story is rooted in a Buddhist sutra whereby a monk, upon becoming an arhat, came to know that his mother had been reborn as a hungry ghost due to her unkind deeds as a human.
In order to save her, the monk sought the Buddha for help. With the Buddha’s advice, the monk began to offer food and robes to 500 bhikkhus (monks) every year during the 14th day of the seventh month. Though his merits, his mother was finally reborn as a human again. Therefore, Buddhists prayed to their ancestors during the Hungry Ghost Festival as a way to show their filial piety.
Believers offers food, drinks and paper money to unknown ghosts for a reason
You might wonder why believers burn paper money and offer food to unknown ghosts during the seventh month. They do so in order to seek the pleasure of these homeless souls so that they will not be disturbed. By offering whatever they can, they appease the wandering ghosts and prevent them from intruding into the lives of the believers.
Getais are only unique to Singapore and Malaysia
We are familiar with the countless getais that will pop up everywhere during the seventh lunar month. Performed by groups of singers (some of them are famous as getai performers), these getais are always held in temporary stages. These are local celebratory events, as they are not popular elsewhere in the world. In fact, China has mostly Chinese opera instead. While Singapore still have some Chinese opera performances, most of them have been replaced by the getai.
Indonesia celebrates the Hungry Ghost Festival too
Another surprise is the fact that Indonesia has such celebration during the lunar seventh month as well. They called it Cioko, or Sembahyang Rebutan (scrambling prayer). People will gather in temples, bringing with them an offering to a spirit which had died in an unlucky way. After the prayers, the offerings are distributed to the poor as a form of charity.
Taiwan celebrates the Hungry Ghost Festival in a different way
Taiwan has a special way of celebrating the Hungry Ghost Festival. It is traditionally believed that wandering ghosts haunt the island of Taiwan for the entire Ghost Month and Taiwanese do rituals to protect themselves from the wandering ghosts. On the first day of the month, they open the gates of a temple, symbolising the gates of Hell being open.
Thereafter, on the 12th day, they lit the lamps on the main altar. The next day, a procession of lanterns is held as a way to guide the spirits to the “right place” for a parade and a feast that will be held on the 14th day. The parade releases water lanterns, a symbol to guide the wandering ghosts in the right directions. Food and drinks are offered on this day to the spirits so that they will not visit homes and disturb the peace within.
The Hungry Ghost Festival is celebrated as a family reunion holiday
In Japan, things are very different. They celebrated the Hungry Ghost Festival the same way Singaporeans do during Chinese New Year. As they do not celebrate Chinese New Year, it holds meaning to the Japanese to go home during the Hungry Ghost Festival to reunite with their families and then proceed to visit and clean the resting places of their ancestors.