On Ritual

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A reflection on the Chandogya Upanishad

Ritual is an important aspect of the human condition. Everyone has their rituals, secular and religious, and rituals at a societal level dictate the ebb and flow of everyday life. However, the relevance and worthiness of most peoples rituals usually passes unchallenged throughout their lives – often flowing from one generation to the next unexamined. Thus, in this reflection, I will seek to examine ritual, see how it can be used to benefit our lives, and how it threatens our development.

To begin with, we should examine ritual as a concept. To me, ritual is any activity which is conducted repetitively with a particular end state in mind. In this sense, ritual is not a plan involving leaping from one activity to another in search of a goal, nor an activity done repetitively but with no greater purpose – an act of procrastination. In contrast to these two, habit is more the steady grind of the millstone as we seek to better or maintain ourselves: a morning jog, a meditation session, brushing your teeth before bed or a religious service once a week.

With the term defined we should ask the question: what purpose does ritual serve in our lives? I would posit that ritual is an excellent way of breaking down an immeasurable task into a manageable workload. Maintaining physical hygiene? Shower, brush your teeth and deodorise twice a day. Writing a book? Every night sits down and write five hundred words. Overcome existential dread? Read a mind opening text and meditate on the framework of the universe for thirty minutes a day. Although these actions could ultimately prove futile – the body may become ill, no-one could buy your book, and you might never understand the universe – just the mere act of undergoing a ritual helps you form a framework which allows you to chip away at otherwise impossible goals.

Take for instance learning a language: I contribute half an hour a day, minimum, to learning several languages. Regardless of the method I use or the success I feel on any individual practice session, I ensure that I put in the effort day in and day out. Eventually, it becomes a routine; you barely notice the missing time from your daily calendar. Suddenly, several months later, you find yourself having your first halting conversation in a new tongue – one of the most satisfying and enjoyable experiences of my life so far. However, there is a darker side to this seemingly useful tool.

If we allow ritual to become the purpose unto itself,  the aim of the ritual becoming its fulfilment we are in danger of intellectual myopia – calcification of the mind. Just like any tool, a ritual should be open to the same analytic functions of mind as any other human activity. Every time you participate in a ritual, you should ask: am I doing this because it is helping reach my goal, or am I doing this because this is the way it is done? If you find yourself scrambling for answers, perhaps you have stumbled across another internal idol.

Original text

The Chandogya Upanishad


S. H. Raza, Kundalini, 2002

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