Rituals, in their most simplistic form, are characterized by a series of actions or types of behavior regularly and invariably followed by individuals or by groups. Rituals are part of human social existence and as such they highlight some of the most integral, emotive, and elaborative practices of human life. However, the rituals of the followers of Hindu faith are considered by many, including many Hindus themselves, irrational and unnecessary. There isn’t a day goes by when one can’t find someone railing and outraging in media as well as in academic circles against Hindu rituals, be it Karwa Chauth, Yagyopavit, or something else.
When we think of rituals we usually associate them with some ‘primitive’ or ‘mystic’ activities. We also associate rituals mostly with religion. Rituals, however, are associated with all aspects of human experience – from secular to religious and from sacred to profane. Most basketball players, for example, have a ‘free-throw ritual’ where they perform specific patterned act(s) prior to attempting their ‘free-throw’ shot. Most of us perform rituals on a daily basis without even realizing it. For example, picking up one’s car keys prior to leaving the house is one such mundane ritual but ritual nonetheless. Rituals also provide an insight into various facets of society such as religion, politics, and economy.
Religious rituals are considered sacred. In most cultures, they also provide a way of connecting to the divine. Most cultures have rituals of birth, marriage, death and many other stages of human life. Eucharist is an important ritual of the Catholics. Eucharist, as a mass, can take place at any time of the year. However, all the acts in Eucharist must follow specific order. Each section of this order has specific meaning. The introductory section, for example, is where people tell God they are sorry for times when they had not loved, as they should have.
In Islam, the observance of the ritual of prayer throughout the day forms the basic framework of a Muslim’s day. All adult Muslims are to perform these ritual prayers five times a day. These ritual prayers have a several obligations and conditions of observance.
Similarly, rituals command a central stage in Judaism. Combined with religious observance, rituals form the foundation of Jewish law (halakhah, lit. “the path one walks”). This in turn governs not only the religious life, but also the day-to-day life of a common follower of Jewish faith.
The Vedic system, as the foundation of Sanatan Dharma and the modern Hindu society, also has numerous rituals just like any other system. The Vedic Rishis (or scholars) believed in the primacy of speech. They believed that a universe of objective realities exists because it can be expressed through language. Rooted in this worldview, Vedic mantras are recited by the priests at the altar during rituals and ceremonies to produce desired results. The great grammarian Panini, while providing justification for writing his Vyakarana of Sanskrit, claims (Paniniya Shiksha 41, 42) that the study of language was essential for the understanding of the Vedic texts, religious practices, religious beliefs, and for accomplishing religious goals. Without the study of language, Panini claimed, it was not possible to understand religious beliefs. In claiming so, Panini admits the role of rituals in the contemporary society. In Paniniya Shiksha 52, it is mentioned that a Vedic mantra pronounced with a wrong accent or a wrong sound does not convey the proper meaning during Yajnas. Not just that, such deviations may even destroy the Yajamanas, the performer of the Yajnas.
Brahamanas are the collection of texts with commentaries on the Vedic hymns. They are digests of multiple views and opinions on sacrificial rituals and rites. They describe and explain the origin, meaning, and rationale of rituals. According to the Brahmanas, sacrificial (not to be confused with killing) rituals are the methods of controlling the natural as well as supernatural powers of the universe. Two important tenets of these rituals are language and action where what a language says is what an action does. These rituals, in the end, give supermundane power(s) to the Yajamana. These powers help the performer of the rituals fulfill their desires. These desires may include, for example, gaining an offspring (ashvamedha yajna), or political power (rajasuya/vajapeya yajna), etc. Rituals, as Karma, are also considered essential for the path to attaining the Truth.
According to the Hindu Shastras, the spiritual effort Sadhana, is made up of rituals of Japa, Homam, Bhajan, Swadhyaya, and Dhyana. In addition, Hindu Shastras define two kinds of rituals – external and internal rituals which are complementary in nature. “The external ritual will stimulate the internal ritual and eventually leads a practitioner to involve himself wholly in internal Sadhana discarding the external ones.” writes Nithin Sridhar (Musings o Hinduism, RARE Publications, 2017). The ritual of fire, the Homa, is supposed to purify the internal fire element.
Despite the preeminence of rituals since the Vedic period, it is quite interesting to note that in modern day context Hindu rituals are labeled ‘irrational’, ‘superstitious’, etc. Hindu rituals are, by-and-large, discarded as ‘backward’ and ‘regressive’. Those who follow rituals are declared ‘illiterate’ and ‘blind followers’. This attitude is a result of variety of factors. While much of it is due to prejudice, ignorance towards it’s own traditions and knowledge systems is also a factor for this attitude.
Most modern biases against Hindu rituals (and other aspects of Hinduism) are, among other reasons, a direct product of outsiders describing and defining them from their own lenses. With the rise of the West, to quote Arvind Sharma, “… the West became familiar with the religions of the Americas, Africa, and Asia and main mode of transmission about these religions became one from outsider to outsider …” (Dharma and the Academy: A Hindu Academic’s View, American Journal of Indic Studies Vol 1 Num 1). As a result, the insider view has been discarded as inferior and not worthy of consideration.
Additionally, years of suppression & subjugation due to foreign invasion and colonization have also rendered insider views almost extinct from academic as well as popular discourse. Relentless onslaught of faux secularist propaganda has also added to the demise of any visible insider view in recent times.
Noted philosophers Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee, in their path-breaking work ‘The Nay Science: A History of German Indology” (Oxford University Press, 2014) show how the discipline of Indology, as the fountainhead of modern academic study of India, was rooted in the troubling philosophical assumptions that provided inaccurate readings of the culture it was studying. The authors claim that the work of the Indologists is an outcome of Protestant debates over scriptures. Over time, but consciously, Protestant prejudice was injected and then established in the study of India. Some of the prejudices towards Hindu rituals may also be attributed to this factor.
Similar to the German Indologists, the evangelists and Christian missionaries in India have also played a significant role in creating a negative attitude towards Hindu rituals. It is a known fact that Hindu rituals are considered pagan and heresy and were looked down upon by the missionaries. Meenakshi Jain in her book ‘Sati: Evangelicals, Baptist Missionaries, and the Changing Colonial Discourse’ (Aryan Books International, 2016) points out how these missionaries used a false narrative of Sati to interfere with the religious beliefs and practices of the Hindus.
Contact with European powers, spread of Western thoughts and ideas, and the establishment of English language education system gave rise to what is called the ‘Socio-Religious Reform Movement’ of the 19th century. Many of the ‘reformers’ were English educated elites. They rejected many elements of the Hindu religious and cultural identity. For example, Raja Ram Mohan Roy was opposed to moorti pooja. He also opposed rituals and ceremonies and questioned its use. Such attitudes continue even today in the garb of secularism, progressivism, and liberalism.
Beyond prejudices, Hindus were persecuted for their religious beliefs and rituals. Many Hindus were tortured and murdered for their religious practices during the long period of Islamic rule. Similarly, the Church unleashed a reign of terror during Goal Inquisition. It is well documented how Hindus in Goa were punished and tortured by the Church for following their religious practices and rituals.
A deeper study of the Hindu rituals reveals that they are not arbitrary but have justification of the Shastras. Rituals are very important for the understanding of the Dharmic, or the righteous life. It can also be argued that Hindu rituals have more of a universal application in modern day society. They provide a template for the ordering of the world not only for Hindus but also for the entire humanity. While there is no need to ‘force’ anyone to perform rituals, there is certainly a need to change our attitude towards those who believe in the sanctity of rituals.
Picture Credits: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yajna1.jpg