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On the 1st day of the 10th month of the Khmer calendar, Lord Yama, the God of Death opens the gates of hell that will remain open for the next 15 days. It’s Pchum Ben in Cambodia, also known in English as All Souls Day or Festival of the Dead. It is the most important festival on the Khmer religious calendar. This year, Pchum Ben falls September 6 to 20 on the Gregorian calendar. (I’m a bit late with this post.)
When the Lord of Death opens the gates, he allows trapped souls to find their living relative to receive merit and karma transferring. Trapped souls are suffering souls. Khmers believe in the Hindu concept of reincarnation. We believe that souls do not reborn right away. Some souls are trapped in hell (the spirit realm), some are still wondering in the human realm. If a deceased did not receive a proper cremation, his/her soul might linger on earth. We also believe if a person died a violent death, died a tragic death or died an unjust death, his/her soul becomes a restless soul, and a restless soul cannot move on. Also, there are those who accumulated bad karma (action has consequences) in their previous lives which resulted in their souls being trapped in hell. In order to release suffering souls, merit and karma transferring ritual is performed.
Though Pchum Ben was born out of Hindu and animistic beliefs, merit and karma transferring ritual had been morphed into a Buddhist ritual over the centuries after Theravada Buddhism replaced Hinduism as the dominant religion in Cambodia in the 16th century. Merit and karma transferring is a process that is centered on the belief of taking refuge in the dhamma (Buddha’s teaching) and the sangha (ordained monks and nuns). Merit is viewed as a mode of transferring karmic power from one relative to another. Merit is morally generated; therefore, it has the power to morally regenerate in turn. Merit is morally generated because it comes from selfless acts. Gifts made by laymen to virtuous monks, nuns, and elders are viewed as gifts with no strings attached, meaning gifts that are not offered to generate merit for oneself. They are offered for the benefit of others who need the ensuing merit. The ability to give and receive in intrinsic moral goodness allows relatives the means to provide care and devotion for their departed, and help lessen their suffering, so these souls can garner karmic support and finally move on.
The first 14 days of the festival are called Kan Ben. Kan means to hold. Ben is an offering; it is derived from the Sanskrit pinda, a ball of rice to be offered to the souls of the dead. During these 14 days, Khmers offer food and gifts to monks, nuns, and various elders at monasteries. The last day of the festival is called Pchum Ben. Pchum means gathering. On this last and the most important day of the festival, at every monastery, mass collections of bens are gathered around the five mounds constructed from rice or sand representing Mount Meru, home of the Gods. Those bens are then dedicated to the souls of the dead who have no living relatives or whose living relatives, for whatever reason, couldn’t participate in the 15-day event.
Pchum Ben is considered to be such an important part of Khmer traditional and cultural beliefs that even the converts still participate. My maternal grandfather’s mother, who converted to Catholicism when she married my great-grandfather, still attended Pchum Ben. Considering the bloodshed in recent Khmer history, the festival has become the single most important event in every Khmer life. With the killings during the Khmer Rouge era, whether victims or killers had their souls condemned to trap and wander; their souls are doomed to never reincarnate unless the living provide reliefs in a proper ritual and that ritual is Pchum Ben.Published in