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Are rituals still important?

Professor Rajeev Bhargava, CSDS and Institute for Social Justice

This article was originally published in The Hindu

They are the most economical way of reducing the fragility of social life. But they must pass the ethical and aesthetic tests

For many contemporary Indians, religious ritual is simply a part of daily life. On the other hand, many won’t want to be caught performing a ritual; they feel uneasy. An impression that rituals are entirely redundant, optional extras at best, is a pervasive feature of modernist consciousness that treats them as vestiges of a premodern, archaic past, to be left behind as we become more educated and rational. This is partly because of the association of rituals with religion, but also because of the belief that they can’t survive the test of reason — they are meaningless, empty of content, needlessly repetitive and time-consuming. They sprout superstition, involve nonsensical mumbo jumbo. Moreover, they seem to reinforce a collectivist mentality that gives little room for individual freedom and innovation. This critique of ritual is not without precedents. Indeed, it has a long history.

In ancient India, even dissenting Brahmins questioned rituals when they became elaborate and expensive; the loss of simplicity and economy derailed them from their original purpose. Later, Upanishadic thinkers indicted them for their inanity; they were vacuous unless they related to knowledge hidden from common sense, i.e. the deeper relationship between Brahman and Atman. An even more radical critique of Vedic ritual was launched by Jains and Buddhists who questioned the materialist motivations behind them. What use are rituals performed in order to procure this or that worldly good? Two of India’s greatest sons – Gautam Buddha and Ashoka – shifted the moral axis away from rituals to kindness and compassion towards all living beings. Proponents of bhakti challenged the ethical centrality of rituals and even social reformers such as Dayanand rejected the excessive ritualism in Hinduism.

The significance of rituals

Two things follow from this. First, if a rational critique of ritual was already present in the ancient world, then we can no longer divide our social universe as being ritual-oriented in the past and reason-oriented in the present. Second, this long history of critique shows that rituals survive criticism. No matter how hard we try, they can’t be jettisoned. Why, then, despite rational criticism, do rituals continue to play an important role in human life?

Consider this: We are not satisfied with receiving our university degree certificates by post or by simply an SMS. We voluntarily take part in a highly theatrical ceremony with differently codified dress for those who bestow university degrees and those who receive them. We reiterate our resolve to keep our country independent by unfurling the national flag every August 15, celebrate our Constitution through the Republic Day parade. We have memorials to not forget our loved ones when they are no longer with us. We continue to have rituals of healing, rituals to mark rites of passage such as attaining puberty or getting married, death rituals, rituals to mark the entry into the country’s Test team, as when a cap is handed over by a senior cricketer to one making the debut. We even have simple rituals of ordinary social interaction such as rituals of greeting.

It is because we are not mere machines or biological organisms but expressive creatures, and because we do not express ourselves only in oral and written speech but directly in bodily performances, that we continue to abide by existing rituals — the Hindu wedding ritual of going around the fire has been prevalent virtually uninterrupted for over 3,000 years — or invent or adopt new ones.

All these formal acts and utterances are reiterated and performed publicly, theatrically, so that all relevant people can participate in them. Many rituals break away from the routine of daily life to emphasise that certain events are special. But most of all, it is because rituals are the most economical way of reducing the fragility of social life (nothing in social life is permanent!), of establishing and consolidating social facts that we continue to have them. Neither words nor rational argumentation can do this job as efficiently as rituals can.

Furthermore, even skills learned with meticulous attention to rules soon assume the form of ritual-resembling habits. By virtue of reduplicative practices — consider how tennis strokes are perfected by constant repetition — they become unavailable to consciousness, and precisely for that reason become far more efficient. It is their very thoughtlessness that helps achieve this. Ironically, we ignore the importance of rituals only when we shut our eyes to our daily life. We can throw out one ritual for good reason, but soon enough, for a different and equally good reason, another one occupies the space left vacant by its departure.

Two filters

So rituals and ceremonies, involving skills and modes of action learnt painstakingly by our ancestors and transmitted inter-generationally to become part of collective memory and cultural repertoire, are necessary. The question then is not whether or not to have rituals but what kind of rituals to have. I suggest all rituals must meet two criteria: ethical and aesthetic. The aesthetic requires us to align our rituals as close as possible to other forms of memetic activities — dance, music, drama. I won’t say much else here except by pointing to the vast difference between V.V.S. Laxman’s wristy stroke play and the stodginess of Geoffrey Boycott or the ugly heaves of a tailender. The ethical is even more important. It first compelled us to abandon human and animal sacrifice and continues to demand that we jettison any ritual that legitimises domination. So, reason must question wedding rituals that reinforce hierarchies between men and women but will never succeed if it questions the very idea of ritual.

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