To believe, or not to believe
To do, or not to do
To fear, or not to fear
There comes a time in the lives of some Hindus when he or she gets to contemplate the deeper meaning, purpose and implications of various Vedic rituals.
Some are born into rituals, some take to them along the way, some have rituals thrust upon them.
Any ritual, modern or ancient, has a purpose. Its inculcates habit & discipline to achieve a goal, like daily running is a good habit or ritual for an aspiring marathoner.
Over time, however, rituals have the tendency to gather ‘bells & whistles’ which, though decorous and interesting, have to be stripped away to get to the real purpose behind them. Many modern exercise regimens, accessories & gadgets have made running so complicated, expensive & daunting that the simple exhilarating pleasures of freestyle running are largely forgotten.
Vedic rituals, over time, have become so complex, mysterious and voluminous that we need a guru or guide to help us navigate them. However, most gurus just show the path without shedding much light on what lies ahead on the path. They tell us what rituals to do and how to perform them, without saying much about why we need to do them at all.
The result is fear, uncertainty and doubt.
Rituals are designed to serve our needs. We don’t need rituals for the sake of having rituals. Our ancestors who originally designed the Vedic rituals would have had a purpose or goal. Some of those purposes may not be valid in today’s world where we (hopefully) have a better understanding of nature and how it works. It’s safe to assume our ancestors would not have fashioned the rituals to create fear, panic or uncertainty in our minds.
It’s useful to cut through the weeds and get to the heart of the rituals. Lets look at just two common rituals.
- Marriage rituals
At the core, these rituals are vows and promises the couple make to each other in the presence of various witnesses – celestial, terrestrial and in-between. It’s quite natural for these rituals to have acquired, over time, various elements of celebration, education, entertainment, and prayers to invoke blessings of Gods & ancestors. A tinge of Godly fear and respect also prevails over the rituals to caution the couple in case they venture beyond the boundaries of the wedding vows and promises. This fear perhaps serves a useful purpose for the couple, their families and societies to be organized and disciplined. But when the fear and other ‘bells & whistles’ dominate, the original purpose and the meanings of the vows & promises are lost.
2. Death rituals
These are more complex and tedious which have, over time, acquired various elements of fear to enforce rigor and discipline. We need respect & curiosity to understand these rituals, not fear. Our ancestors would have fashioned the original rituals, without the attending frills, to serve a purpose which is more important to understand. Would our ancestors, having died and gone to wherever they go to, be dependent on us for food & water or curse us if we don’t perform various rituals? Fundamentally, these rituals are a way to offer our respects & gratefulness to our ancestors – both human & non-human (like trees, animals & insects). They provide an occasion to think about and learn from our ancestors, how they lived their lives, their success and failures, lessons they taught us directly or indirectly, and so on.
When we remove layers of modern technological marvels and conveniences which dominate our times today, our lives are little different from those of our ancestors’. They probably went through similar lifetimes of ups & downs, childhood and adulthood, faced similar fears & pains, joys & happiness, wondered similarly about birth & death. Are our experiences & circumstances in life vastly different? Probably not. If we want to know how to live life well, find a satisfying job, get married, make friends, wage war or even die well, we just need to turn the pages of history. It’s all been done before. We can learn much from past masters, and our ancestors.
Most death rituals provide an opportunity to contemplate our ancestors, their lives and past times. There is much to learn from them, not fear them.
Such a rational approach to understanding rituals can be labelled speculative, preposterous, atheistic….
But, perhaps, it is better than blindly performing the rituals out of fear or compulsion.
So what do we gain by performing “mere” rituals? We will acquire one-pointedness of mind, discipline, non-attachment, will power, humility. On the whole it will help us to live a moral life. Without moral conduct there can never be Atmic inquiry and Atmic experience.
There are many benefits that flow from rituals, puja, etc. One of them is that they help to make us good. They are also of value in taking us to the path of workless yoga and the inward quest.
Rituals are indeed not necessary for one who has realized the Self. But we must put the question to ourselves whether we have truly realized It, whether we are mature enough for realization, whether we have become inwardly pure.
- PUJYASRI CHANDRASEKHARENDRA SARASWATI SWAMI