By Anisha Anilraj
Rituals form a framework of meaning and continuity in our lives, but they can also become, in time, iron cages that fetter and bind. Can we renew these rituals and restore their significance or even create new ones?
|Gathering flowers for a pooja is an intricate process involving many rules and observances|
Some stories are so old that no one can remember when they were first told. One such story is that of a village where people lived in complete harmony. They believed that their amity was the consequence of a weekly prayer ritual the entire village performed together. This prayer ceremony was conducted in a field and had been practised for generations, which was a matter of pride amongst the villagers.
Thus, once a week, every man, woman, and child united to pray. It was always a day of gaiety and everyone went about gathering fruits, vegetables and flowers to serve as offerings to God. Part of their rituals also included leashing a black cat to a tree. The villagers believed that the presence of the cat was necessary to beseech the Almighty’s attention. The cat was released after the ceremony, and needless to say, black cats flourished in this village, enjoying the status of mediums to connect with God.
One week, as the village went about preparing for their prayer, they realised there was no black cat in sight! With the time for commencement of their rituals drawing close, they started to worry. Finally, they went to the village patriarch, a wizened old man who had seen many seasons. “We cannot find a black cat to tie to the tree!” they said, “What will we do? Will the gods ever pardon us this transgression?”
The old man looked on in silence.
|A red flower in general and a hibiscus in particular, channelise Lord Ganesh’s energies best.|
The village chief asked him, “Do you suppose it would be acceptable to the gods if we tie a cat of another colour to the tree instead?” The entire village held their breath waiting for the old man to speak. When he finally spoke, he said, “When I was a young boy, there was a black cat that came to all our prayer gatherings. We tried to drive it away, but it was hungry and kept trying to get to the offerings of food. Finally, someone tied the cat to a tree so it wouldn’t bother us. Once the prayers were over, we set it free and gave it food.”
In many ways, rituals are like old stories. We cannot be entirely certain when they started or how much they have changed over time. What we do know is that like stories that have morals, rituals too are filled with wisdom.
Since there were rituals in existence, scholars have contemplated their origins and role in society. Philosophers, sociologists, historians and biologists all have compiled theories on the need for rituals and their persistence despite the passage of time. While all theories are based on different sets of facts, they converge to one simple truth: rituals make people feel good. In a life fraught with uncertainty, it is very comforting to have rituals; acts we can control, which guarantee us a sense of fulfillment. Performing rituals invoke in us feelings of grace, achievement, reassurance, comfort, or even modest pride; thus giving us the strength to tackle the unexpected.
|Lighting a traditional lamp, an important part of poojas in a Hindu home|
Rituals of faith
The evolution of rituals is almost always spoken of in relation to religions. These, in turn, are believed to be a byproduct of a person’s developing ideals of ethics and morality. When a common idea could only go so far to unite a group of genetically unrelated people, rituals were introduced into religions because they wielded the power to draw the masses with a common sense of purpose. Thus perhaps, religious rituals are amongst the most important in the world because they bring together people from different walks of life.
Despite their age and significance, ritualistic religious practices are on the decline. Many people no longer practice rituals because they find no place for them in modern society. Others believe they are merely superstitious, unscientific, and baseless. Also, in a world where everything is geared towards convenience, rituals have not been immune to the trend. Often times, the modern ritual is comprised of improvisations, skipped steps, and people going through the motions just for the sake of having done them. While none of us would intentionally let a good thing get away, our lack of awareness could make us potentially throw the baby out with the bath water.
Knowing the purpose behind rituals makes it easier to follow them. They cease to feel like a series of steps, and instead become realised actions with purpose. As a case in point, let us consider the simple act of gathering flowers for a Hindu pooja. Some of the rules governing this ritual include, collecting specific flowers for specific deities, at a certain time during the day and only after having bathed oneself. Each of these has reasoning behind them. It is believed that the colour of the flower attracts the principle frequencies of the Divine. Hence if you are praying to Lord Ganesh, you would choose a red flower, preferably hibiscus because its structure channelises Lord Ganesh’s energies best. In offering this particular flower, you are creating a situation where His energy is drawn towards you. Many simplify this belief and say that the hibiscus is Lord Ganesh’s favourite flower and in giving it to him, we please him, thus invoking his blessings. This too, is a way of telling the accepted spiritual truth, but the details regarding light, colour, and energy frequencies might make a more compelling case for those who believe that the gods don’t play favourites.
While there are many nuances to the act of gathering flowers, all of which evoke devotion and connection with God, there are two aspects that are relevant to all mankind. The first is to be grateful to the plant from which we pluck the flowers for giving us its bounty; the second, to only take what we need and no more. The ritual of flower picking would thus remind us of two important virtues: gratitude and thrift. In a world where things are increasingly becoming disposable, it is imperative to respect every living thing and take only what we need.
|A weekly board game is an excellent family ritual|
Rituals or regulations
Recently, when visiting with a close friend on the eve of a religious holiday, her seven-year-old daughter received me at the door. My offerings of chocolate were accepted politely, with a quiet ‘thank you,’ but I couldn’t get her to crack a smile, which was terribly uncharacteristic of this little girl’s personality. Shortly after, in an exchange between mother and daughter, I learned the little girl’s cause for distress. She did not wish to partake in the religious celebrations slated for the next day. “It’s boring!” she complained, “I want to go to T’s house to play.” The daughter was belligerent, and the mother at the end of her tether. “You have to come, the whole family is going to be there,” my friend said, adding “Don’t argue with me!”
Despite the anxiety the two of them were going through, I couldn’t help but smile and feel nostalgic of my own childhood. I remember dozing through poojas that started in the wee hours of the morning, and painful reprimands from my mother for attempting to sneak books into others. A religious ritual could be boring for the young and the uninitiated, simply because they didn’t see the point of it. As an adult, I now also understand the mother’s intentions and salute her noble charge. My friend was trying desperately to give her daughter a sense of belonging, not just to a faith, but also to a family. She was trying to give her traditions and values to identify with and rely upon. However, in my friend’s gallant efforts to give her daughter a legacy, she was received with much resistance. Yet she will persist, like my own mother did, and some day be rewarded.
Children are never intentionally irreverent. That being said, children also do not see the point in doing something when they don’t understand its significance. For that matter, neither do most adults. We could call it open-faced honesty, but most certainly not the lack of godliness.
To speak from personal experience, I can admit that I started appreciating the rituals of my Hindu home when during the course of a long pooja, I was handed a prayer book that included translations. Once I could understand it, I could appreciate it; but until that point, I only attended because I feared my mother’s wrath, or worse, her disappointment.
Rachel Rodriguez, a recent university graduate and HR consultant, narrates memories from her own childhood, “I grew up in a Roman Catholic family. Every Sunday my mother would take us to church. My brothers and I didn’t really want to go, but we went because we were supposed to.” Rachel recollects, “When we got to high school, we just stopped. Our mother was extremely disappointed, but no amount of cajoling or threatening worked.” Today, five years after she left her home to go to college and find a job, Rachel stops by church every day on her way to work. “I don’t attend mass every day, just on special occasions, but I do stop by almost every day for a few minutes just to centre myself.” Rachel finds her peace in her daily church visits, which have become her ritual. “Sometimes, I don’t even pray. I just come in and sit quietly.” When asked if she would call herself a Roman Catholic, she laughed and said, “I suppose. I mean, there is no other religion that I can relate to, but I don’t think I could call myself a ‘good Catholic,’ could I?” Rachel’s mother is thrilled that her daughter has found her way back into a church and feels that one day when she has children of her own she will follow in the steps of her own mother.
The dictionary defines a ritual simply as, a detailed act or series of acts carried out by an individual to relieve anxiety or to forestall the development of anxiety. A ritual shouldn’t feel forced because in doing so one goes against the very purpose it serves in our lives. If the practice of rituals in a religion is supposed to help us along on our path to salvation, every individual should be allowed to set their own pace along this journey.
|A mother bathes a baby, one of the many rituals that knit together a family|
Rituals outside religion
We almost always think of rituals in relation to a religion. Possibly because at the very heart of the word, is a sense of sanctity. When we express that a certain act is ‘like a ritual to us’ we state that we do the deed diligently, and with devotion. Polina Popova, a scholar of religious studies who lives in Chicago says, “I grew up in communist Russia. Although I was baptised as a child in the Russian Orthodox Church, I did not grow up in a very religious environment. That is not to say that I do not believe in God, but I am not a big believer in the rituals that go with the faith.” When asked if there were any rituals she did practice Polina speaks of those she shares with her 15-month-old daughter, “I have many rituals with my daughter. We have breakfast together every morning, I take her for walks at the same time each day, and in the evenings I give her a bath and sing to her. I make it a point to do these things with her every day and not only because routines are good for babies, but because I realise that these activities calm both of us and help bond with each other. I know they are all simple things, but I feel like there is God in all of it.” While these activities may seem like regimens more than rituals, their sanctity lies in the intent of the performer. Polina says, “I am very careful with these rituals, almost to a point where if I do anything differently I worry if I have upset the gods that watch over my baby. If she doesn’t sleep well that night, I always wonder if it was because I did not do her bedtime ritual right.”
In a world fraught with uncertainty, the rituals one shares with their families are extremely important. It is a way of reassuring one another and expressing our love. They could be simple acts like sitting down to dinner together, or playing a board game at the same time every week. Given the rushed pace of our lives rituals can slow us down to smell the proverbial roses that life showers upon us.
Creating new rituals
In recent times, we have seen many inter-faith marriages with ceremonies that are a fusion of the customs from both the bride’s and groom’s religions. The thought and care that go into planning these events often help the new couple to bring into each other’s lives the best and most meaningful customs from their own faiths.
Sharon and Anand (names changed on request) who were married in 2007 share their story. “Even though we were always accepting of each other’s faith, our families have had a hard time accepting each other,” says Sharon. “Both of us come from very religious families, so when we expressed our plans to be married the parents on both sides were very upset,” says Anand. “Eventually, we had a court marriage in the presence of close friends and over time, our families have grown to accept each other.” At the birth of their son in 2009, there was once again cause for dissent. “Each of our parents insisted that he be brought up in the ways of their own faith,” says Anand. “We anticipated this would happen, and had promised each other that we would teach our children the ways of both our religions.”
Today Sharon and Anand celebrate all festivals with their son. Their home altar has pictures of deities of both faiths and they good-naturedly say there is room for more. “We both believe that there is only one God, but coming from such devout families, we love the rituals of our respective religions and want our son to have them both too.”
“Last Christmas our Nativity scene had Lord Krishna in attendance, and for Diwali, we also went for mass at church.” Both Sharon and Anand believe that rituals are extremely important, “We don’t want to create a new religion for him by creating new rituals. Instead we are trying to teach him that there is one God, but many ways of celebrating him.”
Blessed by the elements
When Farzeen Shroff, a Parsi reiki teacher and Somit Doshi, a keen reiki practitioner and a mountaineer, belonging to a Marwadi family, decided to overcome family opposition to bond in matrimony, they created their own marriage ceremony.
“We wanted a special, meaningful ceremony with just close friends and family, not with 500 guests whom we could not relate to. We were clear we wanted to capture the essence of it all, stay connected with nature and simply enjoy the whole process.”
The result was a beautiful setting on a virgin beach at Alibag, with the sun setting, and the sea waves lapping the shore. The bride and groom took their vows under a white canopy decorated with white orchids. To complete the picture of white, pristine beauty, both of them wore white, complete with white orchid garlands. Only the guests provided the colourful element dressed as they were in floral shirts.
Emotions welled up in all those present when they uttered their unique wedding vows, in which each expressed their love for the other and their commitment to the marriage.
The beach provided the water element, the setting sun the fire element, the sand the earth element, while the ether and the air element were represented by the open space.
After the simple, profound experience attended by 75-odd guests, the guests danced with abandon. They were not left nursing aching feet, though, for masseurs thoughtfully provided a foot massage. The food was cooked on the beach, with a live barbeque table, provided by a caterer uncle.
So perfect and blessed was the day that both the guests and the villagers were unsurprised that there was no high tide that day, unlike the days before or after the ceremony.
|Farzeen and Somit designed their wedding around their beliefs, with their guru’s help|
Renew and recreate
Over centuries in a civilisation’s lifetime many rituals are created and many more may have been cast aside depending on the prevalent beliefs and needs of the time.
Today, when the ecology of the world is in dire straits, we could unite in our efforts and adopt, alter, or create rituals to save our environment. We could revert to using idols of clay and other natural material during Ganesh Utsav, like it was in the days when the custom was first conceived. We could even light more lamps and candles as opposed to using electricity wastefully during festivities. In our own simple ways, we could all create rituals individually and with our families, ones that will empower us to live our lives in harmony with nature. And just as we bring in the new, it is important that we take time to reflect on the old, and remind ourselves of the significance of every action we perform.
Whether they are ancient, modern, or ones of your own devising, it is important that we all have rituals that deepen our faith, nourish our lives, and bear us on our journey towards the Divine. I like to believe the people in that village I wrote about in the beginning continue with their weekly prayers and rituals, live in peace, and feel connected to God through their cats. I also like to believe, that like them, we too can commune with higher powers through nature and through rituals that foster kindness and kinship.
Inputs by Vijaylakshmi Nadar
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