More Thoughts on Ritual

Ramanuja TwotoneI want to continue the conversation about ritual with Michael and Kaustubha (link 1, link 2). The basic idea which is being discussed seems to be that in bhakti, the purpose of religious ritual is fully realized. Without the spirit of devotion and, as Michael stressed, the proper mindfulness about the purpose of ritual, it seems to degenerate into a kind of mere cultural language; a way people who identify with this or that meta-narrative tend to act in certain circumstances. I don’t want to severely disparage that function of ritual and ritual culture—it’s nice to have traditional ways of being which embody and capture cultural memory. But from a more yogic perspective, it’s not enough. Recently, I have been thinking about the Gita’s criticism of the ritual and sacrificial culture of the Veda, and I think that it may be relevant here. For now, I will just mention some ideas, though I hope to later unite them into something more coherent. I always thought it pretty interesting that in some of the earliest passages of the Gita, there are a number of attacks on the religious culture of the Veda. Though it is not a criticism of ritual per se, it is a criticism of a style of religion that sees ritual performance as central. In this case, the rituals are part of a sacrificial culture aimed at the generation of good karma. Gita 2.41-5 criticizes its adherents unfit for yoga.

In those persons, attached to pleasure and power, bewildered by (enticing descriptions of future pleasures born of good karma), the determination to achieve sustained contemplation (samadhi) does not arise. (2.44)

A yogi, on the other hand, is esteemed as being above such concern; the generation of good or bad karma is not his concern. Indeed, he tries to do the right thing, but not out of a calculation like “the gods will give me x if I do y” or “I will be face punishment z if I do q.” Rather, all things are done for one single purpose—achieving communion with Brahman.

That mentality (buddhi) which is characterized by determination (vyavasaya-atmika) has one purpose, Arjuna. The mentality (buddhi) of the irresolute is sprawled and limitless. (2.41)

(Buddhi is commonly considered a component of the psychological body which ensheaths a self, sometimes called the antahkarana (inner-organ) or sukshma-sharira (subtle body). For simplicity’s sake, I am translating it as “mentality” though it is better thought of as an apparatus which governs concentration, the placement of attention, and the configuration of one’s basic orientation toward the world.) Ramanuja’s comments on Gita 2.41 center on the appropriate relationship one should have toward ritual.

Here, in every ritual sanctioned by the scriptures, the buddhi, or mentality characterized by determination, is single. The buddhi marked by determination is the buddhi concerned with acts which must be performed by one desirous of liberation. The term vyavasaya means “unshakable conviction”. This buddhi is due to one’s prior determination about the true nature of the self. But the buddhi concerning the performance of rituals to fulfill certain desires is marked by irresolution. . .The buddhi characterized by determination has a single aim, since it relates to the attainment of a single result. For, as far as one desiring liberation is concerned, all acts (karmas) are enjoined solely for the accomplishment of that single result.(1)

Ramanuja does not, therefore, suggest the abandonment of the ritual trappings of religion, but that it merely be adopted as a means for liberation. The difference between the yogi and the persons criticized above is that the former does not aspire to achieve this or that karmic boon (Ramanuja lists things like attaining to the celestial realms, gaining sons, cattle, food, and a long life.) A yogi’s aim is single.

The meaning is that while performing rituals, both regular and occasional, all results, primary and secondary, which are promised in the Veda, should be abandoned and one should maintain the mentality that liberation is the only purpose of all scripture-ordained rituals.(2)

Anyway, like I said, these are a few passages that I thought were relevant. How one performs ritual in a yogic way is later described by Ramanuja. In short, one does them in the spirit of honoring God in all one’s acts, in a mood of bhakti. But more on that later.


(1) In this and the next passage, I am adapting the translation of Swami Adidevananda in the Ramakrishna Math (Mysore) edition of the Gita Bhasya.

(2) I should note that elsewhere, Ramanuja described liberation (moksha) as communion with God in a deep spirit of devotion. He describes the non-devotional conception of liberation (kaivalya) held by others as something else entirely. So, in this passage, liberation is the culmination of bhakti, not something opposed to it.

2 replies on “More Thoughts on Ritual”

  1. That was very nice. You made it really clear how people can do the same thing yet still be in actuality doing something completely different. It’s the consciousness, the purpose and understating, that makes the difference. It’s essential to understand this for every practitioner of yoga. Thought precedes physical – or shall I say in this case, metaphysical manifestation.

    The scriptures say that the type of perfection one attains depends on the thoughts one has while engaged in spiritual practice: yadrishi bhavana yasya siddhir bhavati tadrishi – “A person attains the grades of perfection proportionate to his thoughts (or mental conception).” (Quoted in Jaiva Dharma 31: Madhurya-rasa, Part One)

    Proper perception is everything. Without it you can go through the motions without ever getting the desired result – that is, if you have a transcendent goal in mind. Good theology makes good practice, which in turn makes good perfection.

    Yoga, yea – that’s truly a study of a lifetime, trying to ever refine our understanding and consequent practice. Anyhow I appreciate the seriousness with which you dealt with the subject. Thanks!

Comments are closed.