Recalling them is enough to send our mind into deep emotional flavour. One may not agree with the idea that the past is dead, because we ourselves are the living examples of those bygone days. The present is said to last 2 to 3 seconds, so we are perpetually stepping out of the past — though the morbid habit of dwelling into that past is psychologically unhealthy.
In some primitive cultures ancestor worship is common; maybe in lieu of an abstract being, the people find it easier to worship the dead — and his spirit — which is always a puzzle to the living. In some Papua New Guinea tribes, they even eat the brain of the departed — just to keep the link with the past. However, in more developed communities there is another nuance: the ancestor veneration. Here, the ancestors are not elevated to the pedestal of a deity, but rather there is profound respect and love for them, with the feeling that they have been the progenitor of the present generation.
Now and then we do realize that everything around us necessarily has its origin in the past, and it has been perfected, generation after generation. Along with this reckoning, there descends upon us the illumination that we would be nothing without those bygone generations, hence our humbleness towards the ancestors. Each of them has contributed to the evolution of culture and civilization, which they have left behind for us to enjoy. In our country, which we could look upon as a small crucible, we are acutely aware about various traditions of people of different religions, in attire, rituals, food, and language. It is wonderful to note the various expressions that we have lent to these practices.
However, some of us may wonder — whom are we to call ancestors? As from what time or period in our history do our ancestors come from? Where is the demarcation line? No doubt, coming from the same geographical region is a potent conviction; speaking the same language is another; and the physical appearance, colour of skin, hair, eyes may be secondary markers to claim a certain ancestral descent. The concept of race has played a major role in defining our ancestors’ origin, and this combined with certain religious beliefs and languages has generated larger tribes. Tribal feelings are strong motivations to cling together.
Because geography and history, being different in different parts of the world, have also played a major role into demarcating people into different clans, not all of us will claim a common ancestor. If at the time when fire was tamed, or when our ancestors started consuming meat (and high protein), there were some scribes who had sat down and written about those experiments, accompanied by detailed accounts of the rituals practiced, many of us might have, today, laid claim to be their descendents.
Similarly, had those shamans or painters at Lascaux, France, or from the South African caves recorded the why of their frescos in their caves, we might have learned more about those people, and they might have set some tradition rolling to influence our sense of belonging. And most probably many of us would have had researched intensively to ‘prove’ that we are their only logical descendents. Unfortunately, the script will appear in our culture only thousands of years later; those far away ancestors left no direct descendents.
But somehow or other, there is prehistory and history. We tend to belittle our ancestors of prehistory, looking upon them as too far in the past to deserve our loyalty; they were more savages and less developed than our ancestors of 3000 years ago. And we would be careful to avoid treading into that deep past lest we discover some bitter truth about our ancestors or ourselves (like their cannibalism). We would be too glad to forgo that past — where each tribe were butchering their neighbours; after all we would like to ‘forget’ and bypass those episodes — rightly so, because we have to protect our psychological well-being.
However, it would be a bit of intellectual dishonesty to forget prehistory completely.
And then come the evolutionists who would not hesitate to refer happily to the bonobo or the chimpanzee as our ancestors. It is said that they share about 97% of our genes. Even the mice or rats share some 60 to 70% of our genes! Some would even see in the first fish leaving the salty ocean for dry land the precursor to the amphibians and thus as a direct ancestor of ours.
Pushing our curiosity still further, we would inevitably ask: where do we come from? How did life start? Did it start in the thermal hydrovent in the ocean floor some billion years ago? Did it blossom from a primeval soup in the sea? Or did it come from outer space by the process of panspermia — carried on the wings of some meteors or comets? Or did some intelligent ET come to seed our planets with their progeny? We are still looking for the origin of our first ancestor.
All along we have been concerned with the living. But within us are all sorts of chemical elements. Most important to us is iron, which forms an essential part of our haemoglobin that is necessary to carry our oxygen to our tissues. And the story of that iron is being written. When two stars die and become two white dwarfs, they may coalesce and explode into fantastic supernova, whereby the process of nuclear fusion of simple elements like hydrogen and helium takes place, forming all the elements constituting our organisms, from carbon and phosphorus to calcium and iron. Somehow or other, some millions of years ago, our sea or land ancestors have learned to include them in their body, so much so that today we are being told that we are pieces of stars walking around! We are literally as star as those on the Hollywood boulevard.
Perhaps we have no way of expressing our tributes to our faraway inanimate ancestors, but at least we can pay homage to those creatures who had been like us, and who had kickstarted all sorts of traditions that would slowly evolve towards more complicated and refined expressions of everyday life. It is possible that down the ages we have been trained mentally to like what resemble us most, while giving all other different creatures or things a miss.
Yet the more we look around the more we discover that we are totally part and parcel of our environment, inanimate or animate. We are intimately related. That should remind us of our present predicament; in our endeavour to seek more comfort we are sadly being confronted to the present ecological disaster of our planet. We discover, to our dismay, that our ancestors are more than human beings. Some people, in their everyday prayers, do pay tribute to all the universe, all its energy and matter and all the living creatures that are manifest in it. Will we ever have a broadminded conception of our ancestors?