Question: What is the need of rituals? Is it not enough to just think of God in the mind?
Answer: Rituals are the essential external means to think of God internally.
Rituals are not restricted to religion; they pervade all fields of life. Let’s consider two worldly examples:
1. When we meet a stranger, the ritual of extending our hand and saying “I’m pleased to meet you” gives tangible, recognizable and appreciable form to our desire to express cordiality and warmth.
2. On a birthday, the ritual of blowing a candle and cutting a cake brings structure and verve to the celebration.
Many people would still find a birthday celebration jarringly incomplete without candle-blowing, although candle-blowing has no intrinsic connection with a birthday. If the ritual were intrinsically connected with the essence of an occasion, then how much more would it be necessary on that occasion? For example, bowing down or kneeling down in a holy place is a ritual to express our humility in the presence of the divine. Could we experience the same profound humility if we were to sit cross-legged, leaning backwards on an easy-chair with the head resting on the palms of the hand? Arguably not.
Let’s analyze: what is the precise connection of the outer ritual with the inner essence? There’s a dual connection: rituals are the means to both expressing the essence and experiencing the essence. The handshake helps express the essence of cordiality, the candle-blowing helps experience the essence of happiness, and the bowing down helps both express and experience the essence of humility.
Let’s now consider another ritual: the repeated chanting of the names of God. The theistic wisdom-traditions of the world declare that God extends his presence to us through his holy names. For those with devotion for God, chanting his names is the ritual to express their devotion for him. And for those who don’t yet have that devotion, chanting is the ritual to experience that devotion. Those who do away with the external ritual of chanting run the risk of making their attempts to internally think of God self-congratulatory and hallucinatory.
Why do some people want to do away with rituals altogether? Often they are disillusioned with rituals due to seeing them enacted heartlessly and perfunctorily. However, their blanket rejection of rituals generally backfires on them; it minimizes their access to the essence to a merely conceptual or superficial level.
How then can we reach the essence? By education about:
1. What the essence exactly is,
2. What the connection between the ritual and the essence is and
3. What the principles and techniques for connecting the ritual with the essence are.
By such systematic education, we will soon experience that the ritual of chanting is synonymous and synchronous with the essence of heartfelt devotion.