Fundamental Rites

A typical dictionary definition of ritual runs thus: ‘…a series of actions that are always performed in the same way, especially as part of a religious ceremony’. or ‘… something that is done regularly and always in the same way’. In the context of sociology, ritual gains a bigger ambit as ‘…an often-repeated pattern of behaviour which is performed at appropriate times, and which may involve the use of symbols … religion is one of the main social fields in which rituals operate, but the scope of ritual extends into secular and everyday life as well’. In its widest sense, therefore, ritual can be taken to include any act done regularly or as a routine, by rote or as a rite or even as a writ of God or virtually anything that repeats!

Religious rituals have always evoked my curiosity. My reactions have varied from unquestioning obeisance to indignant opposition. But I must confess that those reactions were not always intellectual or objective but often been determined by subjective factors like courtesy, convenience and my own changing views. What raised my hackles in the teens do not do so now, while I feel shortchanged on certain diktats that I had obeyed without a murmur in the past. And one realises that blissful ignorance is as much a part of the rites of passage as painful enlightenment is. But whatever the mental state or attitude, the karmic show must go on, nevertheless. So, a shared experience of all can be summarised thus: Once born, life’s leash may offer some leeway, but there is no escaping rituals. Indeed, it looks humans are programmed to act and think, not vice versa. The sixth sense is always an afterthought and post facto, like the police in Indian films!

But one need not regress into regret for being condemned to an almost robotic reflex to repeat. For one, night follows day and if that cosmic ritual is a fact, can the common man be any different? On the contrary, rituals, secular and religious, actually add to the spice of life. For an individual, B-days, D-days, W-days or sundry other anniversaries though ritualistic, do hold much nostalgic significance, pleasant or sad. Or take the case of Bharath this time of the year. In a nation of many traditions but all resting on a common platform called Sanatana Dharma, rituals are a round-the-calendar phenomenon. Still the period from August to January, starting with Pillayar Chathurthi and ending with Sankranthi is packed with festivals and hence rituals. Navarathiri, having a run-length of nine days, is easily the mother of all festivals, in a very literal sense too. The daily rituals that accompany the celebration of Shakti in all her manifestations are at once fascinating as they are profound. Deepavali, the high point of the festive season, too is a ritualistic delight but has unfortunately been overwhelmed by the sound of crackers earlier and the din of satellite TV now.

All religions of the world lay much store by rituals, but I do not feel qualified to talk of faiths other than my own. Bharath’s vedic and upanishadic tradition with its profuse puranic lore and a perennial pantheon of lords is a veritable gallery of rituals. While the religious environment might have changed down the ages, the rituals themselves retain their umbilical cords to the obscure past and have survived the test of time. Transmitted predominantly by word of mouth, many of these rituals, even as practised today, display a stunning compliance to scriptures of yore like for eg., Rig Veda, thus lending credence to their antiquity as well as eternal relevance in the Hindu scheme of things. If Hinduism in a nutshell is all about the journey of Jivatmas to meet and merge with the Paramatma through a cycle of births, rituals are the vehicles. To put it in modern parlance, they are the softwares that help individual PCs to link up with www! But while moksha is the ultimate goal and since one does not know when that spiritual connection will, er, materialise, facing trials and doing time on the earthy plane becomes obligatory. And it is the tone and tenor of actions here that actually determine the tenure of your worldly sojourns. Rituals, therefore are also guides to legitimate material pursuits in a purposeful life as long as they are not a diversion from the divine; that’s when karma syncs with dharma. There are a surfeit of literature on Hindu rituals and even a cursory reading of any such book would be insightful and lend meaning to what we anyway do by compulsion or injunction. The afterthought, on second thoughts, can afterall be a virtue, post facto.

There are theories outside the religious box too on the origins of rituals. Historians and social scientists trace the rise of rituals to man’s evolutionary process. As hunters became harvestors and wanderers turned settlers, the need to organise one’s daily chores was deemed paramount. Added to that were the challenges of nature and the vagaries of the unknown. Rules and routines, with varying rigour were a natural fallout. Rituals were also ‘catalysts of social solidarity and determined the pattern of relationships in a society’. In short, academecians explain rituals as the offshoot of mankind’s yearning/necessity to discipline and civilise itself. Ironically, however, many, in the name of modernity or reform, instinctively dismiss rituals, which were also actually attempts at creating a civic culture, as obscurantist, superstitious or even barbaric! Such a sweeping mindset also ignores the possibilities of the sacred holding secrets that can be of much value to science.

And that brings us to the realms of the rationalist, a hypocritic tribe that revels in the oblivion between the faithful and the scientist. It is this crowd that is most vocal in the summary rejection of all rituals, primarily as a political ploy. I would any day prefer the religious label to a rationalist tag. As a believer I can retain my scientific temper without any contradiction and still have the safety net of my scriptures and sampradayas, just in case. But walking around with a rationalist halo is a tough act. And let’s be sure, it is an act, for we know what they do on the sly! First, no man can be rational all the time. Given the uncertainties of life, human limitations and one’s mood swings, cent percent rationalism is a statistical impossibility. Rationalism can come in fits, I concede, though. And second, with the foreclosure of the Almighty option and under perennial pressure to keep head above heart, the rationalist actually ends up more ritualist than the religious. He condemns the divine gods, yet worships the demigods. He breaks idols and idolises the breakers. He lampoons prayer, but is an ardent votary of flattery. He mocks at symbols of faith, but faithfully flocks to his own symbols of reverence like statues and samadhis. He riles against religion, yet favours a religious adherence to political fads and fancies. The proof of this rationalist pudding lies littered all over TN. Count the ‘festivals’ celebrating Dravidian demagoguery and the associated rituals, rallies and revelry and you can bet, even the paramatma would get an inferiority complex!

And with that I complete my weekly ritual, the rite of writing.

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Jawahar T R