Rituals in the Modern World

Swami Veda Bharati took his Mahasamadhi July 14, 2015. He holds the prestigious title of Mahamandaleshwara in the Swami order of monks.  Swami Veda was also the Chancellor of HIHT University, Dehradun, which was established by Master Swami Rama. He authored approximately 18 books on Indian spirituality including a 1500 page comprehensive commentary on two of the four chapters of Patanjali’s Yoga-sutras. Before taking the vows of Swamihood in 1992, Swami Veda Bharati was known as Dr. Usharbudh Arya.

In today’s India, and in modern western society, rituals seem to be going out of fashion, particularly rituals of a spiritual culture. People go to the church or the temple, watch someone at an altar, move his hands in a particular way, say some words in a strange tongue and gain little or no feeling for establishing a relationship with the divine. The primary cause is that knowledge of what the ritual is has been lost. My children attend a Catholic school where they have to go to mass every week. They come back to report how much they enjoy it as they relate to rituals we practice at home. Sometimes their friends who are bored because they do not understand what is going on, interrupt them with whispers and giggles, and my kids wonder why they are not interested in following it.

People do not understand how to use it and how it can be beneficial to them and so it all seems like so much useless habit. The problem arises when they simply discard the habit in their search for divine contact without trying to discover what connection it really does have with the greater powers. Because the Hindu rituals evolved from the practice of yoga, or actual union with these powers, the meanings were always there to be found, but for many reasons, some of them economic and political, the Western church gradually lost contact with the sources of its faith in direct revelations to Christ and his disciples.

Many people today feel a troubling sense of separation from others in the world and from themselves. Men feel powerless to change the shape of their society or even their own minds.  Ritual can become a way for a man to close the gaps between himself and the world and thereby reduce his feelings of impotence and separation. I could say very frankly that all cultures use rituals as ways of overcoming separation from one another. They are an integrative force in a society, and no society can do without them. Even in the Soviet Union, which discouraged religious practice, they built special wedding halls where at one time the bride and bridegroom used to march to the music of the revolution. They took their vows before a photograph of Lenin. Rituals are the formal ways a society seeks to overcome individual separation.

meditation ritualHere we will attempt to give those interested in meditational rituals ways of relating at least intellectually to their meaning and function. The rest of the motivation must come from within, from the feelings generated in meditation.

In what ways does a person who is deeply involved in ritual see it? The most important point in cultivating a meditative life is mindfulness of the divinity in all things. When everything is seen as a physical projection of the divine, animated and motivated by divinity, every action in one’s daily life becomes ritual worship of the divine force which is the source of all things.

In Sanskrit, the word karma is not only the world for action, but also signifies a ritual act. It originates from the same root (kr) as the word samskara, which in addition to serving as a technical term in yoga philosophy – meaning mental impressions, also means a ritual performance. From the yogic perspective, every action is a ritual worship, a means of attaining union with divinity. In the Bhagavad Gita Lord Krishna says, “Arjuna, perform your actions (karma) dwelling in yoga and indifferent to success or failure; equanimity is called yoga”. Every action is a potential ritual.

To me (and this is the classical Indian view) ritual is an art form. Like other arts it is the expression in a concrete form of something abstract and intangible, something felt. It attempts to communicate relationship between the artist (or priest) and something outside of himself, an object or a force.  Vast rituals are performed. Every week in your music halls somebody raises a baton at eight p.m. each Friday night and at each stroke of the stick certain musicians play out certain thoughts and it becomes a symphony. When I perform a ritual it is to me as if I were reciting poetry with my whole mind, my words and my body, expressing the harmony of my whole being. As one intensifies his meditation, the feeling for these relationships grows and so also his need to express the feeling in the best possible way.

 - Swami Veda Bharati in Raising Spiritual Families 

Randall Krause

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