Rituals: A Common Theme Across All Religions

Rituals are religious or solemn ceremonies consisting of a set of actions performed in a specific order. We all follow rituals — the ritual of celebrating a birthday or a wedding; the rituals that come with death… it is part of a prescriptive code of human social behavior that helps us make some meaning out of life. When it comes to religious ritual, the prescribed codes attempt to bridge the space between our quotidian life and the grander sacred universe, using elaborate action and a sense of purpose.

The rituals can range from a simple act like lighting an incense stick in front of an altar to an elaborate set of prayers and sacrifices. Seder meals and other evocative rituals during Passover are believed to be a symbolic reminder of the hardships and triumphs faced by the Jews. As pointed out by the historian Jeffrey Kripal, “Getting a billion people to bow down five times a day facing a small city in Saudi Arabia is an extraordinary ritual accomplishment, which unites peoples across radically different cultures and backgrounds.”

Hinduism perhaps has more rituals than any other religion owing to the vast diversity of the Hindu sects. Rituals are not just daily routine actions, they instill positive change in one’s character allowing us to ponder on what matters most in life. The Hindu saint Sri Ramakrishna has a beautiful analogy for summing this up: “When the fruit appears the blossom drops off. Love of God is the fruit, and rituals are the blossom.” According to Buddist teachings, rituals act as a medicine, once cured, one can toss aside the medicine.

The effect of participating in a religious ritual is generally a positive one across belief systems. “Ritual sights, smells, and actions arrest our attention and lure us into seeking deeper connection with that causal presence or power that somehow lies ‘beyond’ the physical universe,” says scholar of religion Robert C. Fuller.

Anthropologist Saba Mahmood commented about the rituals of Islam — “The issue is not whether people perform rituals and acts of worship [ibaadat] either to get recompense or reward [sawaab], or out of fear of God, or the desire to show off in front of other people. The issue instead is how rituals [tuqus] and worship [ibaadat] prepare for the creation of a type of person who thinks freely, is capable [mu’ahhal] of enlightened criticism on important daily issues, of distinguishing between form and essence, between means and ends, between secondary and basic issues.”

The core of Confucianism is an adherence to prescribed rituals which were meant to cultivate certain virtues of character, with the highest virtue being “benevolence,” the capacity to behave generously and selflessly, recognizing the oneness of humanity. The Abrahamic religions, which believe in a transcendent God, rely heavily upon strong rituals that draw upon religious scriptures and stories, attempting to reenact or consecrate them.

Perhaps rituals were invented to help us alleviate grief, increase self-confidence and assist a sense of discipline and self-control. For example, if we were told to fast for our general health, we may not be easily persuaded, but if we were told that fasting is part of our faith, the message comes with far greater potency.

As with every aspect of religion, we should approach all rituals with a fluid mind and be flexible both in thought and practice. All rituals are man-made, but when ritual gets stultified, and accompanied by dogma, there can be a problem.

Émile Durkheim, the famous social scientist, argued that rituals help individuals transcend their individuality and feel ‘collective effervescence’ by participating in community’s rituals which is the essence of every religion and society. Hopefully more evolved forms of rituals will arise from within, driven by the sense of meaning and purpose, acting as an integrative effort to better serve humanity.

Christianity

Islam

— Qur’an (22:67–69), Islamic text

Judaism

— Jeffrey J. Kripal, Historian of Religion

Baha’i

— Shoghi Effendi, Baha’i leader

Confucianism

— The Analects (3:4), Confucian text

“To return to the observance of the rites through overcoming the self constitutes benevolence. If for a single day a man could return to the observance of the rites through overcoming himself, then the whole Empire would consider benevolence to be his. However, the practice of benevolence depends on oneself alone, and not on others.”

— The Analects (12:1), Confucian text

Hinduism

Buddhism

— The Buddha,

Daoism

Virtue cannot be sought after.

However, benevolence can be undertaken,

Righteousness can be striven for,

Rituals can be adhered to…

Rituals are just the frills on the hem of the Tao, and are signs of

impending disorder.”

— The Book of Chuang Tzu, Taoist text

“Virtue appears when the Way is lost

Kindness appears when virtue is lost

Justice appears when kindness is lost

Ritual appears when justice is lost

Ritual marks the waning of belief

And the onset of confusion”

— Tao Te Ching, Daoist text

Modern Science, Psychology, Philosophy

— Erik H. Erikson, developmental psychologist

“From a narrowly rational or utilitarian point of view, ritual is a waste of time and money, yet it serves functions that nothing can replace[…]Ritual scripts our actions and directs our responses.”

— Huston Smith, scholar of religion

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