The Vedic shraddha (faith or trust) funerary rite occurs after the cremation of the body and after the skull has been cracked open to release the soul. Cremating the body, I should add, is very important as compared with just burying the body in the earth. Owing to the degree of attachment, the soul lingers by its former earthly body if it is not cremated, which is quite troubling. During the shraddha rite, itself, the soul or consciousness of the deceased journeys to the “far shore” to meet its ancestors which takes about 12 days. Primarily, the shraddha rite insures a limited sort of emancipation for the deceased—though not nirvana.
While the aforesaid is just a brief look at the shraddha rite, it is noteworthy that Bodhgaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment (i.e., became the Awakened One) has always been the sacred center for the shraddha rites and still, to this day, remains such.
In his book, Haunting the Buddha, author Robert DeCaroli is keen to observe that when the future Buddha, in need a robe, used the hemp shroud from the corpse of Radha, an unmarried, childless village girl, this may have been an important clue to explain what was to follow which involves the ancient Vedic shraddha rite. Here is what DeCaroli has to say on this subject which, I inject, proves to be quite a fascinating and ingenious explanation.
“The dead girl [Radha] is specifically mentioned as being the recently deceased servant of Sujâtâ. Although it is not explicitly stated, the inclusion of this detail may imply that Sujâtâ's offering to Shâkyamuni does in fact have funerary overtones. As the examples from previous chapters have demonstrated, the spirits of both servants and unmarried women are among the most dangerous of the malcontent dead. A possible implication is that Sujâtâ’s offering to Shâkyamuni and the rewards this action earned were performed on behalf of her young and unmarried servant. Likewise, the text states that the Buddha left the village and entered the forests east of the city before partaking of Sujâtâ's gift. This passage is significant because it reinforces the funerary implications by taking the action outside the village setting and into the forests between Uruvelia and Gayâ.
These implications take on a greater significance when we look to other accounts of Sujâtâ's offering. In the version of this tale found in the Nidânakathâ, a veiled reference is made that links the Buddha’s action to those performed by brahmans during the shrâddha funerary rites. This reference is revealed in the manner by which Shâkyamuni accepts and eats the food brought to him by Sujâtâ....In the Nidanâkathâ, the young woman, Sujâtâ, places the food she intends to feed Shâkyamuni in a golden bowl and brings it to him while he is seated under a nyagrodha tree. Not only does the Manusmrti recommended the making of shrâddha offerings in bowls made of precious metals but it also prescribes that shrâddha be performed under trees and in secluded places that are sloping to nearby rivers. The presence of a river is vital for the ritual bathing that the brahmans have to perform before eating, as well as for disposing the leftover offering after the ritual. Significantly, Shâkyamuni, as recorded in the text, is seated near the river when he is offered the food. He places the food on the bank of the river and proceeds to bathe prior to eating. After eating he tosses the bowl, and any food that remains in it, into the river.
Before eating, the brahmans were instructed to rise their mouths with water and then pour some out of their bowls as an offering, and the Nidanâkathâ distinctly states that Shâkyamuni accepted perfumed water from Sujâtâ before he accepted any of the food. Likewise, it is stated that the Buddha ate 'without any water,' which implies hat Sujâtâ's gift of scented water was use for purposes other than drinking. This assumption find support in the Mahâvastu version of the enlightenment tale, which states that "the Bodhisattva took the golden vessel...and then the Seer rinsed (his mouth)."
Likewise, in both modern shrâddha rites and in those described by the Manusmrti, one of the primary items offered to the ancestors are balls of cooked rice called pindas, which are made by the brahmans out of the ritual offerings. Tarapada Bhattacharyya has pointed out that the milk rice offering given to Shâkyamuni by Sujâtâ is remarkably similar to the food traditionally offered in modern shrâddha rites, thereby suggesting an additional link between these actions and customary funerary practices. In the Nidanâkathâ, Shâkyamuni takes this milk-rice offered by Sujâtâ and makes forty-nine pindas, which he sets out and eats one by one.
The number forty-nine can have several possible meanings. According to the Nidanâkathâ, it refers to the number of days the Buddha sat in meditation after his enlightenment. In both modern Hindu rites and in the Manusmrti, however, each of the pindas is offered to specific generations of ancestors, and from three to seven generations can be attended in this manner. Therefore, the number forty-nine, which geometrically raises the maximum number of generations aided by the brahmanical shrâddha, may be an esoteric statement of the Buddhist power in appeasing the dead” (p. 108–110).
Although somewhat brief in its scope but, nevertheless, fascinating coming from such an unusual perspective, the author sheds light on Shâkyamuni’s role in the shrâddha rite this way:
"The Nidanâkathâ enlightenment tale features Shâkymuni, a mendicant ksatriya [warrior caste] renouncer, assuming the role of the brahman officiate and undertaking the rites for a low-caste woman, thereby intentionally transgressing many of the restrictions expressed in the brahmanical codes. At least symbolically, the implication is made that this ritual is far more effective than the traditional shrâddha rites. The authors of the Nidanâkathâ are making a statement of authority in no uncertain terms. This ritual is represented as being simultaneously more inclusive and more effective than brahmanical rites, and it pointedly established the Buddhist efficacy in addressing the needs of the dead. In the Sutta Nipâta, a similar situation arises in which the Buddha tells a brahman that nay person with proper conduct is qualified to eat the sacrificial cakes at his offering” (p. 111).
Whatever might be the exact meaning underlying this story found the the Lalitavistara Sutra, the Nidanâkathâ and other such works in the Buddhist canon, it is clear there are different levels of meaning going on in the legend of the Buddha, the shrâddha rite or at least a hybridization of it, being one such example.
There is, however, more we can draw from this, that the Buddha appears to be a reformer of Brahmanism, who is bringing great wisdom to the gods and even to the chthonic powers that dwell in the world, lastly that he engages Mara the Evil One in battle for the souls of all beings and becomes victorious. In the aftermath of this great battle that took place between the future Buddha and Mara, the triple-gem samgha of holy persons (arya-svravaka) is eventually established which creates, in a word, new brahmans, both men and women, who will help shape and establish the necessary conditions for the effective release of all beings from samsara.