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The empty rituals of daily lives

Serious religious thinkers have tended to distinguish between ritual and religion. Some, of course, have distinguished between spirituality and religion too, mostly because they have associated religion with rituals.

Now, rituals have their uses, as long as we employ them in the full awareness that they are arbitrary and man-made. This applies to secular matters as well as religious ones: I like my ritual of a morning cup of coffee with a biscuit or two, but I do not assume that this is god-ordained or that my day will not commence unless I have my cup of coffee. So, I am not talking of rituals of this sort. I am talking of rituals that are made ‘essential’ to either religion or secular life.

The matter with religion is clear enough. The reason why religious but nonconforming thinkers, like Kabir, railed against rituals was that they perceived how rituals are used, in the name of religion, to control, influence and exploit people. They also felt that rituals are worldly matters and have nothing to do with the divine. The priestly classes insist on rituals, as if god would care about the colour of your dress, the posture of your prayer, the number of your beads, etc. Rituals proliferate in religions because they allow the priestly classes to control and exploit ordinary believers. Instead of being used as an option, the coffee cup ritual becomes a necessity imposed on the ordinary believer, often at great cost.

Rituals in secular life

This much is clear enough about religion, and explains why so many religious thinkers — apart from the accredited priestly classes, whether mullahs or pandits — tended to criticise rituals or blind observance of rituals. But how, you might be asking, do rituals work in the secular sphere? Because such rituals are not confined to religion. They also exist in secular life, and are used by various ‘priestly classes’ to mislead, control and exploit ordinary people. I suspect that basically religious people, conditioned to associate belief with rituals, are likely to be misled by rituals in secular life too.

A ritual in secular life is like a ritual in religion: it is demanding, obsessive, unavoidable, essential. It is the one thing that you ‘need’ to do in order to have a good life (in this world or the next, or both). Or so the priestly classes claim. Because when you really look at this ‘essential’ ritual, it falls apart. It is not necessary; you can do without it. You can understand the world in other ways, live your life differently. But no, the priestly classes claim, you have to practice this ritual — or you will suffer and probably be damned for all eternity!

Rituals of prosperity

Think of the rituals that we are surrounded by in ordinary secular life. Think, for instance, of all those economic figures trotted out by national economists in all countries to show that the nation is progressing. GNP. Average national income. The rising value of shares in the stock market. These are rituals of prosperity, because if you really look into them, they mean nothing. Or they mean nothing because they have been turned from actual, though limited, indicators into sweeping rituals: empty practices.

A rise in GNP, the average national income, or the share market can indicate some types of prosperity, but these are not enough — and they are misleading when trotted out in ritualistic fashion by politicians. In each case, there is a good chance that some people might be gaining and many more losing. Take the situation of Amazon: the company is thriving, but, at least in the U.S., it is reputed to offer its workers a very meagre wage package and unsatisfactory working conditions. To think that the profits being made by Amazon is percolating down to its workers is to make a mistake. But that is the mistake we make when we simply note the net value of Amazon or the rise in its shares. Such figures play the role of empty rituals.

With countries, the matter is even more complex, as the prosperity of a country depends on factors other than financial ones. Hence, politicians who give us general figures and averages, whether correct or not, are indulging in empty rituals.

Of course, figures are not the only rituals practiced by politicians in power, the apex of the secular priestly classes. For instance, it is a ritual to construct a highway without making a sustained effort to improve the existing highways, to create a super-city without a sustained effort to improve the urban infrastructure in existing cities, to raise the statue of a great leader and ignore the best aspects of his example.

These acts and decisions are rituals because they are empty and misleading. Just as a ritual in religion moves the practitioner away from the endless immensity of faith to a delusive shortcut, a ritual in secular life moves citizens’ attention away from all the real issues and offers a soupçon of misleading satisfaction. I fear that we Indians might or might not be a spiritual people, but we do have a certain tendency to indulge — and let others indulge — in empty rituals in religious as well as secular life.


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Printable version | Oct 17, 2021 8:01:58 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/the-empty-rituals-of-daily-lives/article24604274.ece

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