Rituals and their meaninglessness—S.N.Balagangadhara

1. Consider, say, a ritual like sandhyaavandanam. Here are two extremes, when it comes to saying what it is: (a) one goes very deeply into what Mudras mean, which of the mudras occur in this daily ritual; analyses the praanayaama as it is taught; goes into what the Gaayathri mantra really means; and so on. (b) The other extreme is an ordinary Brahmin who performs all the prescribed actions without knowing what any of them mean.

1.1. When asked, they both give their answers: the one tells us of the results of his research and the other simply says: “I do not know what any of these mean. I perform them because I have been taught that way.” Question: which one of these claims is TRUE? Further, unless you make a meta-assumption about the whether or not rituals ought to have a meaning, you cannot even privilege one story above the other.

1.2. Consider a third person, who says: none of these actions mean anything. And when all three perform the ritual, is it possible to say of any one person’s performance that he is not doing sandhyaavandanam?

1.3. The three have a debate. The third says of the first interpretation, the following: “I do not deny that you can interpret the ritual that way, or another way. But that is how you interpret it. That need not be the only true interpretation. In fact, my Guru told me the following: the truly enlightened man does all these ritual actions without ascribing any meaning to them. The enlightened man knows that he is not performing any of these actions, does it without any goal or purpose in his mind; is completely indifferent to what these actions mean or whether they mean anything at all… One can learn to become enlightened by doing the ritual the way the enlightened man does it: that is, by being totally indifferent to what these actions are, what they mean, etc. Therefore, the `real’ meaning of this ritual is what it is to the enlightened man: it means nothing.” Would our traditions allow us to say that this claim is FALSE?

1.4. We have then, three claims: the ritual is pregnant with meaning; the performer is not aware of it; the performer denies meaning. Our traditions allow us to say that each of these claims is TRUE. (Here is one way of how one would make all three claims come out true: the ritual is meaningless to the enlightened; since not everyone is enlightened, one needs to know what they mean; but because not everyone can find out all these meanings, one can continue to do perform the ritual even if one does not know what it means … That is the `truth’ of the claim is `relativized’ to the person performing the ritual.)

1.5. Logically speaking, we have the following situation: something has meaning (true); there is no awareness of any meaning; the same thing has no meaning (true). Yet all three perform the same thing. The logical conclusion? That thing is indifferent to meaning-ascription. The `truth value’ of the ritual does not change as the `meaning’ of that ritual changes.

1.6. At the first level of abstraction, this is what it means to say that rituals are meaningless: one can provide multiple meanings; one need not know any meanings; one can deny all meanings. And yet,one can perform and be seen as performing the same ritual. (Consider the chanting of mantras, for instance.) In some senses, our (Indian) common-sense preserves this insight thus: mantras and rituals are provided with efficacy, whether the performer is aware or ignorant of the `meaning’ of these rituals and mantras. This insight does not mean that rituals or mantras have some magical potency (though this is how common-sense puts it), but that they are indifferent to meanings. They just work (says our common-sense) because they are rituals and mantras.

2. Consider the Catholic mass (assuming, for a moment, that it too is a ritual) as an example. There are rigid limits to interpretation. You might or might not believe that `transubstantiation’ really occurs, where the bread becomes Christ’s body and the wine his blood. In fact, you can even be agnostic about this doctrine. But the limits of what they `mean’ are prescribed by the Catholic theology. You are not eating the `naiveedyam’ you prepared in your kitchen, or the bread you bought at the baker’s shop. Nor are you celebrating Ganesha Chathurthi. Some variation is allowed in interpretation of the `meaning’ of the Catholic Mass; but the variations are circumscribed in such a way that of each interpretation it can be said unambiguously that it either `true’ or `false’. I do not, for instance, consider the Catholic Mass as a ritual; it is a liturgical event.

3. X says that it is his gut-level feeling that rituals are not meaningless. My riposte is this: it is not his gut-level feeling at all; but his westernized consciousness that speaks here. This consciousness makes meta-level assumptions about human actions, what it means to speak of their meaning, and the kind of beings humans become when they perform meaningless actions.

4. Of course, we need to develop a good theory of rituals. That is a task for the future. But there is nothing silly or stupid about the claim that providing symbolic (or other) interpretations of rituals are typical of the western culture because it does not know of rituals. A flag-hoisting ceremony is not a ritual, any more than scratching your skin because it itches is a rite.

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