The act of ritual is a common thread that has linked humanity throughout the ages, regardless of ethnicity, culture or religion. Through ritual we build families and community, we make transitions and mark important events in our lives, we express ourselves in joy and sorrow, and perhaps, most importantly, we create and sustain identity. Our ancient ancestors used the bond of ritual to create ties of kinship necessary for survival in a world rife with dangers.
There was a discussion today within our friend group and one of my friends, Aranjit asked me the significance of rituals. I told him that I would respond to him later, as I was busy then. I put my views and opinions on rituals in this post.
What is a ritual?
A ritual is a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects performed according to a set sequence. Ritual is natural to human beings and plays an essential role in building a personal and cultural identity. Ordinary family rituals are often given added meaning by overlaying them with forms of religious ritual, so placing the large and small events of life within a cosmic framework.
Rituals are fascinating because they reflect the diversity of the human experience. What seems quite normal to one culture is utterly bizarre to the next. There is such a wide variety of known mourning rituals that they can even be contradictory: crying near the dying is viewed as disruptive by Tibetan Buddhists but as a sign of respect by Catholic Latinos; Hindu rituals encourage the removal of hair during mourning, while growing hair (in the form of a beard) is the preferred ritual for Jewish males.
According to Robert Bellah, essentially shared attention directed through repetitive and stereotyped actions is the essence of ritual, and that it is also at the root of all human learning, including the transactions between a mother and her baby. This makes a lot of sense when you consider the extraordinarily ritualised proto-language that we use when communicating with babies. When practised between two people, ritual and play give rise to love, whether sexual, parental or simply between friends. When practised in larger groups, ritual and play give us religion and language.
The oldest record of a ritual
Our ancient ancestors used the bond of ritual to create ties of kinship necessary for survival in a world rife with dangers. A new archaeological find in Botswana shows that our ancestors in Africa engaged in ritual 70,000 years ago. The discovery of carvings on a python snake-shaped rock along with 70,000-year-old, in a small cave in Tsodilo Hills of Botswana, spearheads nearby has dramatically pushed back the earliest evidence for ritual behavior, or what could be called religion.
According to their creation myth, mankind descended from the python and the ancient, arid streambeds around the hills are said to have been created by the python as it circled the hills in its ceaseless search for water. The python is one of the San’s most important animals. The Tsodilo Hills in the Kalahari Desert is still a sacred place for the San, who call them the “Mountains of the Gods” and the “Rock that Whispers”. According to the mythology of the Juc’hoansi people, the Tsodilo hills were the sacred place chosen by God as a point where he would create men and animals. Tsodilo is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Ritual formed structure and hierarchy and helped define their place in the world. Ritual gives shape to emotions and helps humans come to terms with the major events of life. As modern religions emerged, ancient rituals were absorbed into new forms. A religious ritual is a standardised, repetitive sequence of activities. It involves the manipulation of religious symbols such as prayers, offerings, and readings of sacred literature. Rituals usually hold traditions prescribed by religion and may be performed at regular intervals, or on specific occasions, or at the discretion of individuals or communities.
Religious ritual has generally been seen as indispensable in deepening spiritual insight. The repetition of rituals instils religious values and attitudes in the lives of the worshippers. Ritual also expresses and emphasises the things that bind a faith community together, and through ritual, both individuals and communities make visible their most basic religious needs, values, and aspirations.
In all religions, the major events marking the cycle of life are given prominence and marked through ritual: birth, growth to adulthood, marriage, and death. Seasons of the year are also marked through harvest thanksgiving or rituals related to planetary motions, winter and summer solstice.
Anthropologists have found rituals performed across the globe, in every conceivable culture. In its most basic elements ritual is one of many cultural universals, yet cross-cultural variation in form, content and social function is often great. For example, during the Hindu ritual of puja (daily worship) at the temple, a simple routine is repeated at the same time each night before the gods are put to sleep: there was hymn singing, bells were rung, incense burnt and ritual music played, then sharing in the charanamrita or the divine banquet-water and prasad.
The significance of rituals
Talking about the importance of ritual in this way is frequently attacked as a way to defend the relevance of religion in a world where it is (or merely ought to be) irrelevant. Ritual and narrative are the basic ways by which we learn what it is to be human, and I don’t think it’s irrational to regard arguments about which rituals and narratives are truly religious ones — whether or not their conclusions are atheistic. In increasingly secular times, we may no longer need a ritual for our physical survival, but what of our mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing?
Ceremonies are often joyous occasions — who doesn’t love a big birthday party or a wedding? Others, such as funerals, see us deal with a deep sense of loss, yet a ceremonial farewell allows us to share our grief. Many young people feel they are on their own, they don’t belong, they are not supported. The reason? That the community has never told them that they belong — in the serious way known as a ceremony.
Recent research suggests that rituals may be more rational than they appear. Why? Because even simple rituals can be extremely effective. Rituals performed after experiencing losses – from loved ones to lotteries – do alleviate grief, and rituals performed before high-pressure tasks – like singing in public – do in fact reduce anxiety and increase people’s confidence. What’s more, rituals appear to benefit even people who claim not to believe that rituals work.
While communal rituals give us the comfort of familiarity, solidarity and shared experience, personal rituals can also create a feeling of connection in the grand scheme of things. Not all rituals are religious. Brushing your teeth every morning in the same place and in the same way is a non-religious ritual. Like religious rituals, it also can make you “feel good”, which reinforces your continuance of the practice. We can customise our own rituals according to our needs, whether it’s finding inner peace, getting a good night’s sleep, attracting a soul mate or achieving important career goals.
Top sports players are well known for pre-match rituals. Serena Williams always bounces the ball five times on her first serve and twice on her second. She wears the same pair of socks for the duration of a tournament. She has even blamed losing on not following her ritual. Some may say it’s her superstition.
Is Robot Priest the Future?
The availability of knowledgeable, learned and expert priests are getting scarce for conducting religious rituals. Maybe artificial intelligence has a solution. I said that maybe Robohits (Robot purohit) will replace our purohits (Hindu priests) in coming days. I coined the word RoboHit, a portmanteau of Robot and Purohit, on the lines of RoboCop. I searched Google and found that people are already working on this concept across the globe!
Developers in Japan are offering a robot “priest” to conduct Buddhist funeral rites complete with chanted sutras and drum tapping — all at a fraction of the cost of a human priest. Five hundred years after revolutionary printing presses spread the news of Martin Luther’s radical call for church reform across Europe, technology is again challenging religious tradition in the small German town of Wittenberg. A robot priest that delivers blessings in five languages and beams light from its hands has been unveiled as part of an exhibition to mark the anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation.
Also, there are a few websites that arrange e-puja. You can pay them online. They will mention the date and time and also send you a link for live streaming of the puja process. The prasad and vibhuti are sent to the devotee via courier. Rituals are getting high tech nowadays!
Religions are adopting tools and concepts of technology to improve the cult. From the electronic writings, e-rituals to the robotic clerics, are using digital advances like any other field or activity in the world. However, these innovations do not have to affect the essential beliefs and liturgy associated with it.
Despite the absence of a direct causal connection between the ritual and the desired outcome, performing rituals with the intention of producing a certain result appears to be sufficient for that result to come true. While some rituals are unlikely to be effective – knocking on wood will not bring rain – many everyday rituals make a lot of sense and are surprisingly effective.