by John Schlenck
Many thinking people in modern times dislike ritual because it seems to promote conformity and mechanicalness. But is it possible to eliminate ritual from human life? Rituals are symbols of thoughts, expressed through actions. Our whole thinking process is symbolic; words themselves are symbols, and we organize our thoughts and actions by repeating and arranging them. In our daily activities we follow personal rituals related to bathing, dressing, eating, going to work, etc. These save us time and energy and give shape to our lives. Social rituals help us to interact peacefully and purposefully with others. National rituals promote group cohesion and loyalty.
But what about religious rituals? Granting that they are often performed perfunctorily, mechanically, without conviction, even without understanding what they signify, does this mean they are useless?
Swami Vivekananda says in Bhakti-Yoga:
Throughout the history of the world, we find that man is trying to grasp the abstract through thought-forms, or symbols. All the external manifestations of religion — bells, music, rituals, books, and images — come under that head. Anything that appeals to the senses, anything that helps man to form a concrete image of the abstract, is taken hold of, and worshiped. . .
. . .so long as man will remain as he is, the vast majority will always want something concrete to hold on to, something around which, as it were, to place their ideas, something which will be the center of all the thought-forms in their minds. . .
It is vain to preach against the use of symbols, and why should we preach against them? There is no reason why man should not use symbols. They have them in order to represent the ideas signified behind them.
For the spiritual aspirant the question then becomes: how can I use symbols and rituals to further my spiritual development? What kind of ritual works for me? If I don’t relate to traditional rituals, can I find out something I do relate to?
Before either accepting or rejecting traditional forms, it is good to know what they signify and how they can help us to grow. About the meaning of Hindu ritual worship, or puja, Swami Atmarupananda explains (American Vedantist, Vol. 4, No. 4):
Puja is a way of developing a sense of connection with the divine. It’s not that when we offer flowers and food we think that God is hungry or that God is sitting there wishing, “I wish somebody would give me a flower.” The idea is that we need to give something to God: we can give our heart’s love through some offering like a flower, one of the beautiful products of the earth. We can think of that flower as the love of our heart that we’re giving to God. The food we’re giving, it’s something we need to do, not something God needs to receive. But as Krishna says in the Bhagavad-Gita, speaking from his standpoint as God, not from his human personality, “I accept with great joy the offerings of my devotee, whether it be a leaf, a flower, fruit or water. Whatever is given with devotion, that I accept.” (Gita: IX: 26) It is not that God is waiting for us to perform a ritual. But we feel a desire to connect ourselves to God. And one way to do it is through these symbolic actions. The rituals of all sacred traditions are like that.
The philosophy behind ritual worship in Vedanta is non-dual. That which I worship is actually the inner reality of my own being. For the purpose of worship I imagine that I am taking that reality out from my heart and putting it in front of me so that I can offer myself to it.
For the modern Vedantist, so far, so good. But there are aspects of puja that are culture specific: references and offerings to traditional Hindu deities, the deities of the door, presiding deities of the home, rites for the removal of psychic obstacles, purification of the seat, purification of flowers, worship of the guru, awakening of the kundalini, etc. Those who are attracted to Vedanta by the rational approach of Swami Vivekananda, or by the lives and compassion of Ramakrishna, Holy Mother and Swamiji may wonder, “What am I getting into?” “Is this for me?”
In reply, one can say, “You needn’t accept all the details. These rituals, when performed with grace and devotion, can create a peaceful, meditative atmosphere. Sit, observe, and think your own thoughts.”
But one may think, “If I can’t fully participate and identify with the ritual, if I am put off by its cultural foreignness, what do I gain from it?”
One solution is to create one’s own ritual in the privacy of one’s personal meditation space, drawing on whatever appeals to one from Hindu or other traditions. Experiment and find out what works for oneself. Indeed, this is what Ramakrishna and Vivekananda seem to advocate when they say that each person must follow his/her own path.
But what about the benefit that can be derived from participating in shared ritual, in communal worship? Do we need to forgo that? Isn’t it easier to participate in an already created spiritual atmosphere than to create everything from scratch? Don’t we gain strength from the support of the group through the sharing of rites and responsibilities? Let us look briefly at various religious traditions to see how they have answered that question.
Hindu ritual by its very nature is individual. The ritual is performed by one individual (the pujari) sometimes with the assistance of a prompter (tantra-dharika.) Others may or may not be present. Truly communal worship is almost non-existent. This reflects the Hindu emphasis on individual spiritual practice, which in turn allows each person to approach the divine in her/his own way. There are communal gatherings for scriptural discourses, satsang (holy company), or devotional singing, but these are non-ritualistic. And so the sense of being a member of a congregation has not developed. Traditional temples are designed for the ritual to be done in a small, segregated space (garbha griha, literally womb-chamber) and only the priests are allowed inside. A priest has to come outside the garbha griha to receive offerings from devotees, and to give them prasad (food and other items that have been sanctified through the ritual). The devotees line up in a queue and wait their turn. There is little or no nearby space for devotees to sit down and meditate. In more recent temples there is sometimes a separate structure (natmandir) for this purpose. From the natmandirone cannot usually see the image on the altar clearly or at all.
Most Ramakrishna temples have combined the garbha-griha and the natmandir into one structure, in which the altar is clearly visible to the devotees. Unlike traditional temples, quiet is maintained so that devotees can meditate. During the evening ritual worship devotees join in the singing of the aarati hymns. Thus the Ramakrishna tradition has moved some distance toward communal worship. But there is still not the sense of a congregation with shared participation and responsibility. Significantly, most temples were, and often still are, built by wealthy individuals to earn religious merit, e.g., the large temples built by the Birla family all over India.
Ritual in the Abrahamic religions and in most indigenous cultures is much more likely to be congregational, and this fosters a sense of community among worshippers. One sees almost daily in the media pictures of thousands of Muslims performing their 5-times-a-day ritual in unison. Emphasis is on the umma, the world-wide community of Muslims. Jewish synagogues and temples are actually named “Congregation such-and-such.” No doubt some Jewish rituals are performed in the home, but the important thing is the Sabbath, on which the devotee is expected to gather with other members of the congregation. This strong sense of belongingness and mutual support enabled Jews to survive centuries of persecution.
Protestant churches also emphasize communal participation and responsibility. In some denominations, ministers are chosen by the congregation, not appointed by a church hierarchy. Ministers are expected to take an interest in the individual lives of their congregants, performing marriages and funerals, visiting the sick (as Jesus encouraged), etc. Ramakrishna Vedanta Swamis in the West do take an interest in the spiritual lives of their disciples, but like all Hindu monks, do not normally perform marriages and may not feel it to be their responsibility to visit the sick or inquire about their devotees’ careers.
Ritual in Catholic churches is performed by a priest and not always in the presence of a congregation. But attendance at Mass is obligatory for the lay devotee and taking communion is done in a group setting. The same is true of Episcopalian churches. Sometimes those receiving communion even drink wine out of a common chalice. Like Protestant ministers, priests are expected to take an interest in the lives of their parishioners.
Eastern Orthodox churches (at least those I visited in Russia) are more like Hindu temples than churches in the West, in that the priest is hidden behind a screen most of the time, devotees come and go pretty much at their own time, services mostly consist of liturgy—alternating between priest and choir—and there is little sermonizing. I did not see any congregational singing. Still, the church has a much more central and communal role in religious life than does the orthodox Hindu temple in Hindu life.
In the Hindu tradition, those taking spiritual life seriously are expected to do daily spiritual practice by themselves. They may never attend group religious gatherings. The image of a spiritual person is of a monk meditating alone or a householder finding time and space to do his/her own practice independent of the family. This has been the pattern from ancient times. The quest was for individual enlightenment. Ritual may or may not be a part of one’s spiritual life; and if it is a part, it is performed by the individual. This has important advantages. It allows for a large variety of paths to the divine. It stresses individual freedom and effort in spiritual life. The downside is that it tends to ignore social responsibility. The seeker for moksha (spiritual liberation) is thought of as above and beyond society.
Swami Vivekananda challenged this traditional viewpoint and revolutionized Hindu monasticism. Monks should render service to society as a form of worship. Every religious order founded since Vivekananda undertakes social service. Still, the concept of congregational worship remains mostly foreign. On the other hand, religions stressing communal worship tend to suppress individual freedom and to foster a “one size shoe fits all” mentality.
So the question becomes, how can Vedantists in the West combine the individual freedom of Hindu spirituality with the sense of community characteristic of Abrahamic and indigenous spirituality? Can we evolve a form of shared ritual that fosters group support and responsibility while preserving and encouraging individual striving for spiritual realization? I believe it is worth a try.
At some Vedanta centers there has already been a movement in this direction. There is some congregational singing, and social service projects are beginning to happen. I suggest that the time has come to try consciously to develop new forms of ritual, new worship services that foster a sense of community among Vedantists.
A group of Vedanta devotees recently engaged in one such attempt in Pecos, New Mexico. See the article “Vedanta Group Worship Service: An Experiment.”
JOHN SCHLENCK, composer of music, is a resident member and Secretary of the Vedanta Society of New York. He is Coordinating Editor of American Vedantist and Secretary-Treasurer of Vedanta West Communications.