When Rituals Transcend Religion
Importance of Rituals in the Enrichment of Human Experiences
The complexities of various religions have isolated them as institutions far superior to the intellectual acuity of people in general. The religious psychobabble alienates people from the mysticism of religion. God seems inaccessible. God is but a suspended paraphernalia of consecrated objects employed on occasions by holy men to display the might of the institution to which they pledge their loyalty, almost like countries flaunting their nuclear warheads. God is unrelatable, and so are his holy men. So, we, the people from whom God is so distant, devise our mechanisms to travel close to him. Now God becomes a celebrity to orbit around and fixate on as an escape from our repetitive lives. God is a cultural image to blame for the deficiencies of our ego, to surrender our sorrow, and to seek pity for our circumstances. A place for absolution, a place where every sin is dissolved, and we are freed from the consequences of our actions (karma). An idol to imitate, the powerful authoritative figure, the master of the world, the all-father, and his myriad sons worshipped in his image. This is the God most of us seek, want to believe in, want to surrender to, in anticipation of deliverance from our sordid intentions and well-defined selfish dreams. We assemble in masses to form religions around this God, build nations around him, we gather to pray around him. This image of a man in his bearded glory, sitting in his high cloud castle pondering gravely upon our puny lives of insignificant deliberations. What if the God we love doesn’t love us back? What if our unassuming faith and epiphanies are all but mere fragments of his reckless dreams? I sometimes wonder if our lives are playing out as they should, out of a cosmic book of lores, like a well-rehearsed drama. My existential angst deepens at this realization. When I started seeking the spiritual truth, I did not anticipate that I would hurl myself into this knowledge, and yet here I am, turning the unforgiving wheel of truth, questioning the existence of this indifferent master. I am not the first one to turn this wheel, and shall not be the last. A slight peek through the curtain of time shows me Camus, Tagore, Epicurus, Beauvoir, and many more giants who have turned the wheel before me. I am certain that I am in good company.
First, lose God
Not the essence, but the institution
We stifle against our predestination while screaming sacred hymns, prayers, mantras, and chants in face of existence. Our prayers shield us from the dread of this world and its cruel masters. It aligns us with our community, which mirrors our sense of well-being. It elevates us from the pits of hopelessness and propels us into a deep space of belonging. Rituals create shared spaces for communities to surrender their fears. The reason why pantheists won’t be able to transform the world with their idea of ‘God as the world’, (a derivative of Spinoza’s God), is because their philosophy lacks traditions and rituals essential to sustain community space. Ideally, intellectuals can still gather with their favorite tea and argue about God, but they won’t move behemoth masses on cold winter midnight to celebrate the birth of a messiah. Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of Spinoza’s take on mysticism and the pragmatic model of God that he suggests. All I am saying is that philosophies alone can’t drive change. Practices, routines, and rituals are essential to solidify the foundation of ideologies. Rituals exist to set intention into motion. A stagnant intention is a stale one, useless to humans and nature alike. In this sense, rituals are the foundation of every religion. It offers the community a sense of solidarity in the path of faith because everyone is united under common actionable paradigms.
Disentangling religion from the crude political affiliations of the institutions makes it a ritualistic celebration of ideas that keeps the whole community together. Rituals help in translating love for the divine into an actionable love for the community. They transcend the stringent structures of religious ideologies and allow one to embody more radical forms of spiritual expression. Rituals awaken a sense of responsibility for one’s role in the society they inhabit, especially now as the world is becoming more isolated. They stir within our hollow religious ideologies, a whirling vortex of virtues. It awakens the spiritual side that often rests in slumber to act through the philosophies of one’s religion. I wonder if Christmas Eve awakened some Christian Germans to find courage in helping Jews during Hilter’s reign. Because innately, rituals are seeded with the necessity to expand beyond the idea of us against them. For example, the overarching Christian esoteric teaching was indicative of the need for unity, before religious and political extremists deliberately polluted it. People quickly shifted their focus from the message of love, tolerance, and charity to the messenger. Ironically, wars were waged in the name of the messenger who preached love. The purpose was to make one aspect of religion (tolerance and freedom) in harmony with another (doctrine). This event is not an isolated instance in history, it has repeated itself time and again through human caprice and deceit. This truth applies to every religion which exists and is yet to exist in this world. When rituals are taken out of religion, the entire institution seems like a vile show of vanity and vagueness clinging to the immodest models of society like politics to satisfy its vampiric lust for power. Thus my hypothesis stands true - Rituals can and should survive without religion and not vice versa.
Then, lose yourself
And find the others
I, specifically, am interested in the power of rituals because of their innate ability to challenge the very power structure that they serve. Like the defiant dervishes who participated in ritualistic Sema ceremonies even when they were seen as heretics by the Islamic fundamentalists, or the Sikh communities fulfilling the Dharma path of Seva (service) in midst of dire humanitarian crises. Ceremonies and rituals have created enlightened spaces of embodied compassion even in the face of atrocities. In that manner, rituals are signs of subversion and moments of rebellion against the devised tools of control. The master’s tool can only dismantle the master’s house if used from within. I am certain that if rituals can be repurposed and introduced into our lifestyle from a more community-inclined perspective, we will essentially be able to act more from the center of our being rather than the paranoid isolation of our monkey mind.
No matter what culture I explore here at Berakna, be it the Wahine Maori with their marks of Mana or be it the Buddhist nuns of the Drukpa Lineage, I have discovered at the foundation of every culture the uniting force of rituals. Culturally unique traditions promise a kind of clarity that is unparalleled. It is an opportunity to confront the importance of one’s existence and the impact that one wants to leave on the world. It alleviates us from our ego's trickery we so fiercely protect and allows us to merge into that aspect of our culture where duties are well-shouldered without complaints or boasts. I believe that we do it better when we do it together. But, some rituals are best if reserved for an intimate space, like the mysterious witch reconciling with the divine at her altar. However, the immense power of rituals that can eventually bend traditional institutions and create waves of change, is hidden within their social embodiments. One extreme example that comes to mind, is that of the monk Thich Quang Duc who self-immolated on 11 June 1963, as an act of putting compassion into action, to protest against the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. Rituals enable individuals to form a deeper sense of belonging within the community, which in turn helps them to harness empathy and forgiveness. This is necessary to establish a well-functional society that works harmoniously with tolerance.
From the perspective of this new theory, rituals are contemplative pauses that encourage connection by removing a distraction from the external dynamics of social relationships imposed by society. Instead, it takes us a layer deeper into our community or group identity. In that sense, any activity that stimulates a feeling of belonging practiced together or in solitude is a ritual. Modern rituals manifest in millions of nuanced activities, ranging from young YouTubers diligently making bohemian resin jewelry or scented candles and soaps, to substack writers participating in collaborative spaces every week. In the modern world, rituals are specifically important because they propel us into a space of reflection guarded against the noise and hustle of every day. So, whether you are brewing your morning chamomile tea or getting ready for your weekly book club meeting, you are essentially leveraging one of the oldest tools available to humans to form meaningful connections. You are creating yet another fascinating ritual to be indexed within the collective human consciousness.