What is the role of ritualistic activities in bhakti – should we continue the rituals from our family traditions?
Transcriber: Keshavgopal Das
Question: What is the role of ritualistic activities in bhakti – should we continue the rituals from our family traditions?
Answer: In general, devotees try to spiritualize the rituals. In todays world the word “ritual” has a negative connotation. However, rituals themselves are not negative. It is just a structured form of action done to symbolize something. There are rituals in every walk of life. When we meet people, we shake hands. On birthdays, we blow candles. In a cricket match, when a batsman gets out, the umpire raises a finger. When students graduate, they put a gown, put a special type of cap.
Devotees also perform rituals at various milestones in their lives, e.g. marriage, name giving ceremony of a child. Devotees try to spiritualize the rituals. Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura and before that Gopal Bhatta Goswami have written books to describe how we can perform rituals in a more Krishna centred way. For example, when various devataas are invoked, various forms of the Lord or various associates of the Lord can be invoked.
Rituals are not essential, but they are not necessarily rejected. The essence is to remember Krishna. Srila Prabhupada when inaugurated Vrindavan temple, he got a priest from Vrindavan to perform the rituals of inauguration. However, he said that the real inauguration is the chanting of the holy names to glorify the Lord. Rituals have their importance, but they should not be made all-important.
Which ritual to practice, which ones not? Srila Prabhupada did not emphasize much on any one particular aspect. Some devotees may want to follow rituals more serious than others. Some devotees may not want to follow these too seriously. Both ways are valid.
Following parampara does not necessarily mean following one line. It’s a circumference, and different devotees may take different positions within the circumference. If they are in harmony with a broad direction of the tradition, then that is fine.
As far as family rituals are concerned, the primary consideration for devotees is to maintain social harmony. As mentioned in BG 3.26, na buddhi-bhedam janayed, agyanaam karma-sanginaam (do not disturb the mind of unintelligent people), a devotee should not create a unpleasant situation on such issues.
Bhaktivinod Thakur in his commentary to Chaitanya Shikshamrita says that a Vaishnava can participate in three different kind of festivals (i) Krishna-centred festivals (ii) Festival meant for glorifying devataas (iii) Local festivals.
Krishna centred festivals such as Janmashtami, Gaura Purnima, Rama Navami etc. are those where the devotee’s heart is. A devotee delights in celebrating such festivals. For festivals pertaining to worship of devataas, a devotee can go there as part of social custom. Devotee goes there with an understanding the devataas are also devotees of Krishna. They are parts of the body of Krishna. In fourth canto of Srimad Bhagavatam it is described that Prithu Maharaja was part of sacrifices where different mantras for devataas were chanted. He was doing this as part of social custom. However, internally he was remembering Krishna. For local festivals such as Independence Day, Republic Day a devotee need not need defy them. If such occasions are part of local customs, devotee can still honour them.
Sometimes, we are part of a community or family where certain traditions are considered very important. If we defy those traditions, it may cause a lot of agitation within the community. It may even cause disturbance in our own bhakti due to clash in understanding. In such circumstances, we do not need to take a hard-lined position. Take part in the ceremony, do whatever is functional and move along.
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