Saturday, December 14, 2013



In her blog post at ‘Think and Question’ Varsha has raised certain issues with regard to rituals. She says –

‘We all have grown up with a lot of beliefs ingrained in us. Most of us blindly follow what our parents tell us”.

She says that the gullible amongst us are being exploited in the name of superstition and rituals. She ends by asking us ‘For once please think and question these rituals’.

Yes, we have grown up with a lot of beliefs and values which have been passed on to us by our parents. We have retained some and shed some of them in course of time when we find that these are not really relevant   and acceptable in our lives. We start living our lives with new beliefs and newer values and try to pass it on to our children who in turn may accept or reject them. Beliefs are an integral part of our living. We cannot do without beliefs. Whether what you believe is right or wrong is always judged by the next generation as you pass the mantle to them. But despite all this the one reality that has not changed and continues to occupy our thinking is our end.

It is man’s innate fear of termination that has given rise to a belief in after life, superstitions and rituals. That death is the final frontier and there is nothing beyond is something that is not acceptable to most of us. The existentialists believe that there is nothing beyond this life but they do seek redemption in their own way.

So when someone comes along and says ‘I shall show you the way to immortality and redemption’ you willingly follow. I believe that’s how religion was born. It is when you are shown the path that, rituals come into existence. By definition, rituals are ‘a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions according to a prescribed order’. The problem arises with ‘prescribed order’. This by itself would mean subjugation of the individual ego and following a path without protestations in accordance with the prescription. The next question is who is the prescriber? We have seen that blind acceptance has led to exploitation and discrimination down the ages. This still happens in some form or the other and will continue as long as man’s desire to dominate and possess is present. Exploitation can never end till human greed is completely wiped out and which does not seem a possibility, for I do not believe that an ideal world can ever exist. Old rituals in course of time get replaced by new ones.

I have myself undergone some harrowing experiences in the name of beliefs and rituals. I consider myself as a rational person who does not accept without questioning. Still I have allowed myself to be consumed in the vortex of certain situations despite my efforts to avoid them, whether it was in Varanasi or the Kali temple in Kolkata, the Jagannath temple in Puri or some of the temples in the south. I am sure that this is a universal situation.

Whether religious ceremonies and rituals have any relevance at all is something that we should ask ourselves and find the answers. We cannot be dismissive of people who do follow and believe in them. The ultimate yardstick is whether they are good people. We find good and bad in all spheres of life. I can talk for myself and say that I am totally a non religious person under the value system in which I have been brought up but I am an extremely religious person as per the value system I have created for myself. We will always find exploiters and discriminators whether in the places of religious worship or outside them.

I remember when my father passed away fifty years ago, I sat alongside my elder brother who was performing the thirteen day ceremonies as per our beliefs. At that time as I listened to the chanting of the mantras and the explanations regarding the soul’s journey to the other world, I found great strength and solace in overcoming my grief. As a rational person now, having seen and experienced life in its entirety, whether I believe in a God or not, or in those ceremonies, or in a life after death, I have to accept that those religious ceremonies did serve their purpose and helped me back to normalcy. I am sure that despite the exploitations of ‘Guardians of God’ they still continue to serve their purpose to the multitudes. Sometime ago I had posted in my blog ‘Letters to God - 3’ where I talked about the ‘Guardians of God’, which I think relevant to reproduce here –

“Your Guardians have made you into a commodity and sell you and you keep watching. Of course you can be sold because there are buyers. The number of people wanting to see touch and ask you for favours is ever increasing. So you see the demand is far outstripping the supply and maybe that’s why you have these Guardians. But how many come for your sake, to understand you and be with you?”

I am a very religious person when it comes to my meditation. But I do observe certain rituals before I start. I chant the Gayathri mantra while doing the pranayama. It not only keeps time regulating the entire exercise, but also creates an inner vibration.

It is the individual’s angst and anger against these ‘Guardians of God’ that has produced religious and social reformers from time to time through the centuries and I am sure that they will be appearing again and again. Though they have been successful to a certain extent in bringing about a change in the thinking process and uplifting the exploited, we find that rituals and beliefs in some form or the other will continue to exist. 


vaikuntam said...

A ritual is a form of behaviour. What is ultimately required is an attitude of worship, humility and a spiritual bent of mind. The rituals seem silly and an imposition on one's choice. Can we not reach the attitude that is desired through an effort of will? Many seers bypassed the rituals and attained enlightenment. So, it is possible. But not probable. It is more likely that attitudinal changes will come from behavioural changes rather than that behavioural changes will come from attitudinal changes. Some one says he will give up smoking, his heart says that, his head says that but the hand does not obey. On the other hand, if smoking is banned at office and at home, you chaff at being treated like a school boy, but unable to smoke for 23 hours in a day, you give up smoking. A silly rule changes attitude. Our ancestors though this way. Seemingly pointless rituals but done repeatedly puts the right attitude to aspire to higher things. In other words, you can't do your doctoral research unless you write an imposition 1000 times. Where it slipped was people started enjoying the imposition and thought that was learning. They were told you can't get your MA unless you complete your Std 8 but people got stuck in Std 8 for ever.

Varsha Nagpal said...

Rituals that are performed after the death of a family member in fact act as a catharsis, because the family is asked to become busy and not sit alone and bereave. This must have developed over a period of time. What I feel bad about is when rebirth or providing food, clothes to the departed person is promised. For this purpose the Pandits take daan, dakshina and offerings.Providing solace is different, but extracting money and offerings I consider as exploitation.
In our day to day life too we follow a lot of practices which could be called a ritual. The rituals need to be questioned and followed after the explanation is understood. A small example is brushing the teeth. If we explain to a child the correct procedure and purpose then the cleaning will be better and not just brushing and running away without cleaning the teeth.
Belief often becomes a stumbling block. A girls place is in the home and she has to depend upon father, husband and son is a belief which we have overcome to some extent. We need to question a belief, and break free from that belief if it is outdated.
My understanding is that one needs to question, rationalize and understand a ritual and belief and not give in to outdated practices which hinder progress.
Belief gives rise to superstition and blind faith, I simply say "ask", and do not follow blindly what is told to you.

vaikuntam said...

Criticisms of rituals are as old as the rituals themselves. One reason Buddhism and Jainism took roots was excessive brahminic rituals. Sikhism and the latter day Vaishnava sects such as the Vallabhacharya, Swami Narayan in Gujarat could also be seen as prompted by this. More recently, one only has to read the very strong language reformers like Jyotiba Phule and Periyar use against the brhamin rituals. But somehow the rituals they have survived all this. Since the Brahmin was not supposed to earn a living out of his learning, the gifts and endowments were supposed to support him and keep him out of greed. Much as US waitresses survive on tips with a minimal salary. It is quite another matter that the brahmins have moved away from their learning and even for those still in practice it has become just another vocation

Suprabhat Ganguly said...

A fine piece of writing. Rituals have existed in all ages,all countries,all societies though they keep on changing with the passage of time. There is a close relationship between faith and rituals although all rituals that we follow are not necessarily out of our faith in them but many have been thrust on us.We practice many rituals even we do not like them or faith in them as we do not have the courage and strength to swim against the tide.This however does not mean that all rituals are not good. As a mundane ritual like daily brushing of teeth as mentioned in one of the comments posted helps to inculcate a healthy habit in us from childhood, a more sublime ritual like invoking the blessing of God when we set on a journey or embark on an important mission or work or when we get up from the bed in the morning helps the believer to have more courage and confidence in himself.It is difficult to tag some rituals as bad and some rituals as good. It is difficult to differentiate between superstitions and one's own conviction.Whether a specific ritual is good or bad depends on our perception of good and bad which is again relative to time age and place.That is why probably some rituals of the past have been rejected by today's society and some new rituals and beliefs will be added in the future. Whatever it may be it is difficult to imagine a society without any rituals or faith.

Ram said...

Perhaps, there are not many today, who can give the correct rationale behind these rituals. It is like travelling by a road. Just because some are not able to guide you to your destination does not mean that the goal does not exist! It also does not preclude the travel that you have embarked on.