Ritual and ceremony
The rituals and ceremonies of traditions are often difficult to teach, in part because they are often merely described without much attention to the meaning for participants, and partly because of a somewhat negative attitude to ritual present in those parts of Western culture influenced by the protestant Reformation rather than Catholic tradition. It was noted above (in the section on What is Hinduism?) that some scholars reject the term ‘religion’ for ‘Eastern’ or ‘Dharmic’ traditions because they tend to put more emphasis on ritual practice than truth claims and so are unlike Western, especially protestant, understandings of ‘religion’. The scholar S.N. Balagangadhara calls ritual ‘performative or practical knowledge’, which is central in Hinduism in the way that doctrinal knowledge is in Abrahamic traditions. Indeed, Hinduism is often described as more orthoprax than orthodox, that is, more concerned with right practice than right belief.
Rituals serve many purposes. They can be seen as powerful ways of experiencing the divine beyond anything achievable by intellectual ideas. A book written for teachers by Rasamandala Das from ISKCON Educational Services (see bibliography) quotes a devotee describing the ‘sweet and peaceful experience’ of worship. Rituals can make abstract philosophy accessible at the level of emotion, as when ritual surrounding death can help with grieving. The routines of ritual can be a useful reminder of what one holds to be most important in life. Rituals are also an important way of expressing allegiance and identity, especially where, as in the Hindu tradition, one may be using words and actions that have been passed down from ancient ancestors for thousands of years. As well as connecting with the past, rituals also connect one to the present community. Thus ritual could feature in the sections on ‘words and beyond’ as a form of expression or ‘identity and community’ as a means of enhancing the sense of belonging, but we chose to emphasise the experiential to counteract the idea of ‘meaningless ritual’ and to underline the centrality of ritual in Hinduism.