From Ritual to Spiritual
By Vraja Bihari Das
Twenty-five-year old Nitin Sawant, a software engineer, explains why he’s disillusioned with religious rituals…
“I was at a friend’s wedding recently. The priest called upon the bride and the groom to perform holy rites, while the guests watched smoke rise from the sacrificial fire. The hall reverberated with the loud chanting of Sanskrit mantras (hymns) by the priest sanctifying the marriage. Suddenly there was a protest; one of the guests- a Sanskrit scholar himself- heard carefully the chanting of the mantras, and was upset at the insensitivity of the priest who’d been blabbering hymns not connected to a marriage ceremony; he even offered rapid mantras meant for a funeral service! A bigger shock for me was the callousness of the marriage party; they politely quietened the complaining guest and let the function go on unchanged. I left disappointed at the sham of a sacred wedding where no one understood or cared for significance of the rituals.”
Nitin has reasons for being cynical. He has seen since childhood increasing religious intolerance, global terrorism (justified in the name of God), and corruption by the clergy of different faiths. In India, during the annual festivals glorifying Lord Ganesha (a popular Indian demigod), although pompous ceremonies are performed, no one explains the rationale behind them.
Why the disillusionment?
Rituals are certain practices- unique to each religious tradition- that prescribe procedures for worshipping God. A religious person, through a set pattern of behaviour, regularly performs these ceremonies. However, today these customs have earned a negative connotation and have been misunderstood by many. This is due to the rituals being used to serve different purposes (other than service to God); they often help a person express his loyalty to a religion, or helps gain acceptance within a community. These practices-obliging a person from birth to death- also consume substantial time, money and energy of the practitioner. Thus the rituals which are in essence positive facilitators to remember and serve God, get diluted, and are reduced to mechanical, repetitive acts. Not surprisingly young and intelligent people like Nitin are put off by these blind rituals.
Purpose of rituals-reawakening the divine love
The purpose of rituals is to reawaken the divine love of God that’s within every living entity. This love, although natural, is presently covered by the thick layer of material consciousness. A set of rituals are thus offered by the founders and teachers of each faith, to help the followers gradually purify their consciousness of material contamination. For example, in the Vedic culture, we perform the aarati ceremony where a devotee offers fragrant incense, fire lamp, and water to God, Krishna. These rituals are intended to help the devotee realize that God is the source of fragrance (corresponds to the incense offered), heat (connected to the fire lamp), and all other elements in this material creation. A devotee acknowledges God?s proprietorship and our dependence on Him for basic amenities. Through the aarati ceremony, we offer the elements back to Krishna, reciprocating with His kindness and expressing our intention to love Him.
When we forget this divine purpose of rituals- connecting our consciousness with the Supreme consciousness, God- and instead get distracted by the loud and grandiose externals, the rituals become an end in themselves. The traffic laws have a purpose; to help the driver reach his destination smoothly. If a motorist is unsure of his destination, he’s eventually lost despite his strict following of the traffic rules. Similarly, if the follower of a religious faith is unaware of the goal of going back home, back to Godhead, he’s lost in the material world, even in the garb of a religious conviction. Then the rituals have the opposite effect of what they?re supposed to achieve-they keep a person bound in material consciousness.
Can we do without rituals?
Some however drift to the other extreme and denounce rituals of any kind, while pursuing a spiritual life. They claim that since God ultimately sees our ‘divine’ intention, rituals aren’t necessary at all, and any spontaneous outpouring of the heart is ‘spiritual’. Thus they reject profound and sacred practices that have helped devotees connect to God, over centuries.
Rituals are essential and even indispensable to a person commonly distracted by worldly affairs. Physical actions and rituals create favourable ambience-gorgeous temples, beautiful deity dresses, congregational singing and dancing, and clean devotee attire, stimulates devotees to go deeper and internally connect to God. An unclean place, whimsical and aggressive behaviour, and irregular habits create negative energy, and distract a devotee from his spiritual quest. Although the internal mood is critical in our communion with God, the external formulas, as presented through the rituals, do influence the internals. While substance is ultimately important, it is the form that helps to carry and preserve the substance. The ‘spirit’- added to a ritual makes it ‘spiritual’.
Converting a ritual to ‘spiritual’
As our consciousness gets purified by practising these rituals, the rituals become more meaningful, and appear fresh each time we perform them. Although externally they appear repetitive, these rituals become spiritually nourishing. To experience this transformational power of rituals, one has to add the element of ‘remembrance’ of God to them. “Krishna should always be remembered and never forgotten at any time. All the rules and prohibitions mentioned in the scriptures should be the servants of these two principles.” (Padma purana; quoted in Chaitanya Charitamrita Madhya.22.113). In the spiritual world, devotees serve Lord Krishna through a beautiful variety of rituals and services-aarati ceremony, making garlands, singing of songs and dancing in joy for the Lord?s pleasure- and each of them is soaked with rich spiritual love for Krishna.
In this material world, by cultivating a desire to serve Krishna, while practising the rituals, a practitioner?s heart gets reformed – selfish passions give way to the spirit of selfless service; arrogance transforms to humility; and envy to appreciation of others.
No compromise on the spiritual
A devotee may sometimes adjust the rituals according to time, place and circumstances, but he doesn’t compromise on the essence. For example, Rupa goswami, a sixteenth century Vaishnava saint, lists gorgeous deity worship as one of the rules for practising devotional service. However when Srila Prabhupada installed deities of Lord Jagganath, Baladeva and Subhadra (Krishna with His brother and sister) at San Francisco in 1967, ISKCON had meagre facilities. In a small but devotionally potent programme consisting of chanting, prayers, offering of lamp, and happy feasting of Lord?s prasadam (food offered to Krishna first), Srila Prabhupada had adjusted the details without compromising on the spiritual essence. If one can afford, one should offer the best to Krishna. If one has no feasible means, he can still offer Krishna, with love and devotion, a simple leaf, flower, fruit or water. (Bhagavad Gita 9.26)
Krishna is known as bhava-grahi-one who doesn’t accept the thing we offer but the love with which it’s offered. The eagerness to please Krishna is more effective in earning the Lord?s favour than strict compliance with rituals. This was taught by Lord Krishna personally while performing His pastimes as a simple cowherd boy, 5000 years ago.
Simplicity v/s blind rituals
Once Krishna asked His hungry boyfriends to beg for food from the brahmanas (ritualistic priests), who lived nearby. They were busy performing sacrifices and had arranged variety of foodstuffs as a part of the programme. When the boys appealed to these men on behalf of Krishna, the priests ignored the request, and instead busied themselves with their sacrificial executions. Krishna is the goal of all Vedic knowledge and sacrifices (Bhagavad Gita; 15.15), but the vastly learned priests missed this point due to their absorption on the form of worship rather than the substance of Krishna. It’s like a man working overtime at office; when it’s finally time to collect the pay check, he says he?s busy working hard, and has no time to collect the remuneration. The desired result of all endeavours and sacrifices is Krishna?s pleasure and His acceptance of our oblations. Here Krishna was willing to reward the brahmanas by receiving their offerings and giving them benedictions; but they were busy working- their vision of Krishna blurred by the false pride of material expertise.
The boys were disappointed but Krishna encouraged His friends to now approach the wives of the brahmanas, who were simple-hearted, and not well-versed in Vedic rituals. In contrast to the cold response of their husbands, these women were overjoyed to hear the requests of Krishna, and rushed to Him with all of the offerings. Although they were prevented from going to Krishna by their husbands, fathers, and sons-all vastly erudite in Vedic rituals-the women were unstoppable. Their example proves that simple acceptance of Krishna, and an eagerness to please Him attracts the Lord?s attention more than ostentatious rituals. Later the men realizing their folly glorified the wives, and condemned their own learning, for it blinded them to the loving service of Krishna.
Religious rituals aren?t necessarily bad. By humbling the learned brahmanas, Lord Krishna teaches us that rituals lose their spiritual potency when they are mechanically performed without understanding their meaning and purpose. Such a practitioner?s devout and lofty practises are like an attractive but hollow wrapper, devoid of the gift of love of God.
Krishna is our eternal loving father, waiting for us to return to Him. Spiritual joy eludes one who ignores reviving this relationship with Him.
Spiritual practise for the modern age
Lord Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the incarnation of Supreme Lord for the modern age, presented chanting of Hare Krishna as the easy method to revive our relationship with Krishna. As the very first effect of chanting, the heart gets cleansed of material contamination, and gradually pure love of Krishna awakens. Although there are no hard and fast rules (Sikshastakam, verses 1&2), a mechanical, parrot like repetition of the mantras will not award the fruit of love of God. Srila Prabhupada taught devotees to chant Krishna?s Holy names in the mood of a helpless child calling for his mother, for the call of a child in danger is never a blind ritual; rather it’s imbued with conscious emotion. ?…..there is a quality to such utterances also. It depends on the quality of feeling. A helpless man can feelingly utter the holy name of the Lord, whereas a man who utters the same holy name in great material satisfaction cannot be so sincere.? (Srila Prabhupada in Teachings of Queen Kunti)
A need for Spiritual Education
The scriptures are filled with the prayers of great souls- Prahalad Maharaj, Gajendra and Kunti devi, to name a few. A devotee repeats these prayers, not as a stereotype ritual but with a desire to understand the content and feelings of the pure devotees offering these prayers. With an enthusiasm to access the Lord?s mercy, a Krishna conscious devotee invests his feelings into these prayers, and simultaneously offers his own personal prayers to Krishna. A contemplative study of scriptures and prayerful connection to God helps a devotee see all living entities as children of his compassionate Lord (Bhagavad Gita: 5.18). This vision dissolves the false ego, softens the heart, and fills it with love and kindness towards all beings.
If Nitin studies the Krishna conscious philosophy and meets practising devotees, his doubts and misgivings of Indian spirituality will be allayed. Even as religious fervour dominates the social scene, Nitin will realize that there is no need to discredit rituals altogether; in fact he will learn to offer his heart to Krishna through rituals.
The author is a celibate teacher at ISKCON ashram at Chowpatty, Mumbai
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