Following rituals

ByM Ali Siddiqi

writer who contributes to leading periodicals


November 13, 2022

Following rituals

M Ali Siddiqi talks about an important aspect of human existence

Human existence cannot be separated from Following rituals that form its essential part. Even the most detached human being cannot dissociate himself from some sort of ritualistic behaviour. Interestingly, ritualistic behaviour mostly is unconscious in nature and a majority of people do not even realise that they are engaged in it. Ritual, like verbal communication, requires interpretation and like the spoken word, is subject to ambiguities, misunderstandings, and deceptions. Whatever the context and interpretation, rituals are part of human existence and their beauty is that they are universal in practice. Human life is virtually incomplete without being part of some form of taking part in a ritual and most people feel pleasure in participating in multifarious rituals. Human existence is actually synonymous with association with some kind of a ritual and the result is that many rituals have attained global acceptability and they are widely followed.

A constant of human life is ritual that is all-pervasive and envelops all shades of human behaviour. Ritual is almost second nature to human race and it appears to be fascinated with it and is deeply committed to follow it. Ritual has been present in the annals of human evolution and though it has varied in content but its essentiality is well known. Ritual has proved to be a faculty that has made deep inroads in human sub-consciousness and is deeply entrenched in it. Ritual is a virtual part of human behaviour like language, symbolism and music and is one of the constituent elements in the mix of what it means to be human. The history of human cultural record reveals the persistence and pervasiveness of ritual and it is one of those aspects of human existence that has not mellowed with time.

This fact is borne out by the archaeological record that suggests that ritual was present at the dawn of humanity. The biological record shows that ritualization is a fundamental feature of animal behavior and contributes to evolutionary processes. To think about ritual, then, is to reflect on human nature, sociality and culture. It has been established beyond doubt that ritual is something humans cannot avoid and do not want to either. Particular rituals may be more or less important to certain people or to certain societies or groups and such groups are recognised by following such rituals. People openly and discreetly invest enormous amounts of time, money, and energy in ritual activity throughout the year. Even if humans do not consider themselves ritual beings or human society ritually based but an encounter with ritual in the course of a lifetime is as sure as the rising and setting of the sun.

Human race is addicted to rituals as is evident by their vast arena encompassing weddings, funerals, birthdays, inaugurations, graduations, festivals, parades, liturgies, exchange of gifts, all ritual permeates human social and personal life worlds. Ritual is formative of who the humans are and brings to fore variously experiences related to the rites and ceremonies that cross paths as uplifting or boring, exploitive or empowering, creative or moribund. To think about ritual is to explore its place, power and potential in human lives and society. For people raised in the modern and postmodern world ritual has been significantly marginalized from cultural and intellectual landscapes.

Like everything else with human life, ritual was also open to multifarious interpretations. Compared with science, reason and the market, ritual has often been derided as a relatively ineffectual way of engaging the world. On the other hand, ritual is seen making something of a comeback and there is a newfound popular interest in the creative, critical, transformative potential of ritual. To think about ritual is to reflect on attitudes and assumptions informing the narrative arc of modernity. Speaking of it in a broader sense ritual is not a particular kind of discrete action but rather a quality of action potentially available across a spectrum of behaviour. Ritual includes both religious and nonreligious rites, the traditional and the new, the prescribed and the improvised and the human and nonhuman. It is rated side by side with a number of other cultural domains, such as play, games, performance, and theater. If ritual is action, it is also an idea, something compelling to think and its exploration moves back and forth between these two dimensions.

It is pointed out frequently that ritual is first and foremost a doing and it resembles something like politics and it is through doing that ritual is to materialise yet an outstanding quality of ritual enactment is that people also step back to think, write and read about ritual. This is not to polarize action and thinking, an all-too-common move in the study of ritual because ritual is a way of thinking and knowing. The point is simply that human ideas and feelings about ritual are shaped not only within ritual itself but also through texts and other media. Most ancient examples of ritualistic behaviour include prescriptive ritual texts, detailing and codifying how to worship and perform sacrifice. Such texts not only contain critical reflection but also dwell on the social and moral value of those very rites. Many texts also explain the relationship between ritual and social harmony and emphasise this crucial relationship.

Rituals were described by travelers’ tales, soldiers’ journals, scholarly histories and such description is full of fascination. Such tales also reflect confusion in the story-teller who is exposed to alien rituals and are the source of entertainment to the reader and through him the wider audience. All historical annals are full of the sense of exploration highly influenced by fascination and they were accepted by many cultures as they also realised that such rituals did exist amidst them as well. Most ritual scenes are drawn from daily life and some literary genres even take on ritual forms. The concept of ritualization is one of the cornerstones of ritual studies, though the term has different meanings and uses. In this context it is often pointed out that ritual is often associated with religion and therefore with the sacred,matters heavenly, transcendent and of ultimate importance. Culturally speaking, there has been a tendency to identify ritual as among those activities and capacities that distinguishes and separates human beings from rest of the living beings.

The most interesting factor is that ritual is not only something that people engage in but it is also a way of regarding things as ritual encompasses both action and idea and this fact can make it a slippery fish as it becomes tedious at times to equate both of them. On one hand, in order to think critically and analytically about ritual it must be kept in mind to keep these two dimensions distinct. Ritual as a category is not the same thing as ritual enactment and a great deal of gray matter has been sacrificed on the altar of definitional and conceptual clarity, with some scholars going so far as to claim that the idea or category of ritual is entirely a scholarly construct, loaded with modern assumptions and biases and not at all descriptive of a real phenomenon. Ritual compels human beings to behave conspicuously by virtue of being patterned, stylized, repetitive and surprisingly communicative. TW


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