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Ullambana festival dates back to the Buddha reign. Explore the article to know the origin and historical background of the Ghost Festival.

Ullambana History

Ullambana is a popular festival celebrated by the Buddhists residing in various countries, such as China, Japan, Malaysia, India and other countries where Buddhism is practiced. Ullambana is a Sanskrit word which means ‘rescuing those who are hanging upside down’. The festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar followed by Buddhists. The date usually falls in the month of August as per the Gregorian calendar. It is celebrated to honor the deceased ancestors, as it is believed that they pay a visit on this day to the living. Celebrations last for around fifteen days. The origin of Ullambana can be taken back to the times of the Buddha and his disciple Maudgalyayana. Read on further to know the historical background of celebrating the Ullambana festival and Maudgalyayana.

Historical Background Of The Ghost Festival

The origin of Ullambana revolves around the mythological tale of Maudgalyayana who saves his mother from hunger and thus, obtaining liberation for her. The story is traced back to India where a young Brahmin boy named Maudgalyayana left home to become a disciple of Brahma and later one of the chief disciples of Buddha. He had successfully attained enlightenment and was also known for having clairvoyant powers, a trait usually uncommon in monks. After attaining arhatship, he remembered his parents and went out in search of them. Using his clairvoyance, he found his father reborn in the heavenly realms, i.e., the realm of the gods.

However, his mother had been reborn in a lower realm, known as the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts. She had taken the form of a hungry ghost who could not eat due to its highly thin and fragile throat, but always felt hungry as her belly was fat and distended. This was because his mother felt greedy with the money left to her by his father. His father had instructed her to welcome any Buddhist monks and host them with kindness. However, she held back her money and kindness. Hence, she was reborn into the realm of hungry ghosts. Maudgalyayana had once tried to feed her with rice and water. But, the food caught fire in her belly.

Helpless, Maudgalyayana went to Buddha to seek his advice. Lord Buddha asked him to place some pieces of food in a clean plate, recite a mantra seven times to bless the food, snap his fingers to invite the deceased and then lay the food on a clean ground. By doing, Buddha said that the preta’s hunger would be relieved. By following these said instructions, Maudgalyayana’s mother was then reborn as a dog that was cared under a noble family. Nonetheless, Maudgalyayana wanted his mother to be reborn as a human. He gain went to the Buddha for his advice. The Buddha mentioned a date on which Maudgalyayana had to offer food and drinks to five hundred Buddhist monks.

The date specified was on the 15th day of the 7th month in the lunar calendar. Maudgalyayana created the merits and hence, his mother was liberated and reborn as a human. These aspects of the terrifying and the occasion of being reunited on fulfilling one’s filial duty are celebrated in the form of Ullambana. Known as the festival of the Hungry Ghosts, people offer food to the ghosts, float paper boats and lanterns guiding them to their way. The 7th month, known as the Ghost Month, is considered to be the most ill-fated time of the year by the Buddhists.