Aditya, Thursday, May 3, 2018 2:45 am

The purpose of rituals

Dharma consists of 3 aspects:

  1. Values – e.g. truth, love, compassion, humility
  2. Attitudes – e.g. respect for parents, teachers, society, environment
  3. Rituals

Values and attitudes are what exactly? Are they physical things? Is ‘truth’ an object, like a tree or a spoon? No…the value of ‘truth’ is not physical. It’s a subtle value we hold in our mind. Therefore, we say it’s ‘abstract’. In fact, all values and attitudes (such as compassion, respect, humility) are abstract. None of them have a physical concrete existence.

Therefore, to make values and attitudes into a physical form – we have ‘rituals’. A ritual is the physical/verbal expression of an abstract value/attitude. For example:

Value/Attitude (Abstract)

Ritual (Physical Action)

Respect

  • Shake hands when you meet someone
  • Stand up when the national anthem is played
  • Layout your best cutlery, red carpet, etc…for respected guests
  • Puja expressing your gratitude to the Universe (Ritual Worship)

Compassion

  • Charitable work
  • Helping those in need
  • Watering plants, feeding animals
  • Helping a trapped fly out of your room window
  • Puja for the sake of other beings who are suffering (manushya, deva, pitr, bhuta, etc)

Truth

  • Put your hand on your holy book when in a court of law and verbally vow: ‘I promise to tell the truth’

Togetherness

  • Deliberately sit around the dinner table with your family every evening to eat together

As you can see from the above, many daily actions we do are actually just rituals (i.e. physical manifestations of a value we hold). Even shaking hands is a ritual! If it weren’t symbolising respect, then why do people bother shaking hands? It’s a very strange action when you think about it, but it symbolises the noble value of respect. So simple etiquette is actually very important in the sense that it physicalizes a dharmic value. Ritual can be anything – not necessarily worship in the traditional Vedic form as most think, although that is also a beautiful and powerful form of ritual, no doubt.

Benefits of rituals:

– Makes abstract value concrete

– Helps communicate abstract values to young children (who learn via actions, not lectures)

– Brings people together (social and psychological benefit)

– Generates Punya (unseen result of an action – especially if the ritual is mentioned in Veda)

Now, this point about rituals is very critical when looking at different religions and sects… What is the difference between a Hindu, Christian, Atheist, Sikh, etc.? All teach about truth, compassion and respect. Right? So we can assume all the values and attitudes are broadly the same for all religions and traditions (leaving aside philosophy, just looking at values). Then what is it that differentiates religions/traditions if all the values are similar? Rituals! It is how these values physically manifest in each religion which differ. All have different manifestations – Hindus light a lamp to celebrate, other traditions will blow it out. Some traditions symbolise their devotion through drinking wine, whereas others will abstain from alcohol for that same devotion.

Because of this, Arjuna in Bhagavad Gita Chapter 1 (v.41+) argues that rituals are very important for the survival of Dharma in society.  Rituals define a culture, which is simply a manifestation of values or Dharma. Rituals actually reinforce the values they physicalize – they help maintain values such as truth and compassion. Without rituals, without any physical actions to back up a value like compassion, values simply become abstract and meaningless. Beautiful religious traditions will be lost. Values will be lost. Dharma will be lost. The value of compassion will be lost if not practiced. Compassion cannot simply exist as an intellectual subtle concept in our mind – we must act upon it. This acting upon it is a ‘ritual’. Hence, Arjuna argues that if we give up rituals which we have been taught by our forefathers, our religion, our culture; Dharma will be destroyed in society. People will lose the value for Dharma and Spirituality, and replace this with a value for money. Money is great, but it is not the ultimate goal of life, but without Dharma it becomes the ultimate goal and people spend their entire lives chasing after money, and once we have it we spend all our effort protecting and worrying about it. The value for Dharma and Spirituality is forgotten if no rituals (manners, etiquette, charity, puja, worship) are practiced. Therefore, rituals are important for the survival of Dharma and culture in society.

Om,

Aditya


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