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.
“This new life is spread not only by purely mental acts like belief, but by bodily acts like baptism and Holy Communion. It is not merely the spreading of an idea; it is more like evolution — a biological or super-biological fact.”
— C.S. Lewis, writer, and Christian theologian
“We have appointed acts of devotion for every community to observe, so do not let them argue with you [Prophet] about this matter. Call them to your Lord– you are on the right path–and if they argue with you, say, ‘God is well aware of what you are doing.’ On the Day of Resurrection, God will judge between you regarding your differences.”
— Qur’an (22:67–69), Islamic text
“At the center of the Passover rituals is the seder meal, during which Jewish families and communities remember, through a series of scripted questions, answers, prayers, and pious acts, their ancient ancestors’ dramatic escape from Egypt.”
— Jeffrey J. Kripal, Historian of Religion
“We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life molds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it.”
— Shoghi Effendi, Baha’i leader
“With the rites, it is better to err on the side of frugality than on the side of extravagance.”
— 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
“Actions based upon sacrifice, charity, and penance should never be abandoned; they must certainly be performed. Indeed, acts of sacrifice, charity, and penance are purifying even for those who are wise. These activities must be performed without attachment and expectation for rewards. This is My definite and supreme verdict, O Arjuna.”
— The Bhagavad Gita (18:5–6), Hindu text
“Not by rituals, and resolutions, nor by much learning, nor by celibacy, nor even by meditation can you find the supreme, immortal joy of nirvana until you extinguish your self-will.”
— The Buddha,
“The Tao cannot be made to occur,
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
— 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
“Religion restores, at regular intervals and through rituals significantly connected with the important crises of the life cycle and the turning points of the yearly cycle, a new sense of wholeness, of things rebound.”
— 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