Are rituals needed in religion?

by January 13, 2014

Rituals are integral not just to religion, but also to every part of life. For example, during a birthday celebration, we blow candles. What is this if not a ritual? Most people who blow candles on birthdays don’t even know what its purpose is. They just do it because it feels good or because that’s how they have seen birthdays celebrated. Similarly, in a spectator sport, clapping is a ritual for expressing applause. In daily life, shaking hands with friends is a ritual for greeting.

In general, rituals provide a template to guide our emotions and actions according to situations. Thereby, they bring a sense of familiarity and order in our life.

Rituals serve a similar purpose in religion. They provide us with time-honored means for expressing and experiencing appropriate devotional emotions. Lighting incense, singing sacred songs, ringing bells, playing musical instruments, chanting the holy names of God – such rituals help make our experience of God tangible and real.

Imagine a cricket match in which no one claps, no matter how brilliantly a batsman hits a sixer. The game may go on, but cricket lovers would feel something significant missing, wouldn’t they?

Wouldn’t the devotees of God feel the same way if devotional festivals were to be done without religious rituals? Aren’t they entitled to their rituals just as cricket lovers are entitled to their ritual of clapping in a match?

Additionally, many religious rituals are far more deeply and meaningfully connected with their corresponding occasions than are secular rituals. For example, no intrinsic connection exists between a birthday and the blowing of candles. If we feel happy while blowing candles on our birthday, that’s not because the blowing of a candle has the intrinsic capacity to produce happiness. We feel happy due to an external convention that associates the blowing of candles with the birthday celebration which is considered to be an occasion for happiness.

But when we go to a temple and bow down before God, that bodily ritual intrinsically promotes the appropriate emotion of humility. To understand how, I suggest you try out this simple experiment.

Sit relaxed on an easy chair, put one leg across the other, place your arms behind your head and lean backwards. Now try to feel humble.

Difficult, isn’t it? The very posture induces the feeling of bossiness. The same principle applies conversely to how the bodily posture of bowing down fosters humility.

This psychophysical or body-mind correlation is a subtle science. Based on this science, the Vedic wisdom-tradition prescribes various rituals that help us relish divine emotions. All such rituals have significance, that is, they signify something deeper and greater. And they all have a purpose, that is, they awaken the corresponding devotional emotion.

To understand the significance and purpose of various rituals, we need education. If we perform the rituals without knowing their  significance and purpose, we may still get some benefit. But if we do them with proper understanding and sincere devotion, then we get the full benefit. A ritual imbued with the right spirit is spi-ritual.

Of course, this is not to imply that all rituals are spiritual. Many unscrupulous people have exploited the widespread ignorance about the purpose of rituals. Such people have concocted many rituals that are not rooted in the scriptural tradition and don’t serve any spiritual purpose. One common example of concocted rituals is the repeated recitation of the names of some self-styled spiritual teacher as if those names were as potent as the names of God. The prevalence of such concocted rituals again highlight the need for education.

By proper education we can avoid the two extremes of rejecting all religious rituals as blind faith and accepting all rituals as if they were spiritual.

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