The Case Against Ritualism

By Rudra Shivananda

shallow focus photography of multicolored floral decor


I have found that rituals can have a positive effect for spiritual practitioners when done properly and for the right reasons. However, it is also true that even something noble when taken to excess or performed blindly or even for wrong reasons can become detrimental. I’m reminded of this during the celebration of the birth of a yogi saint called Nanak who taught in the sixteenth century. One of his teachings was to give up external rituals and focus on the internal state of consciousness.

Of course, ritualism in the middle ages had been taken to an extreme in that the focus was all on material gain. In ancient times, each householder performed the proper prescribed rituals for well-being, health, prosperity and spiritual evolution as handed down through the generations. However, due to five hundred years of foreign invasions and occupation, by the 16th century, much knowledge was lost and even simple rituals required the priestly caste to perform and the rest of the population followed blindly.

Most of the great spiritual philosophies were forgotten and suppressed. It was in this kind of situation that Nanak found himself. Nanak saw how the masses were forgetting the Divine and getting mired in rituals out of desperation. He proclaimed, “If they were to know the nature of the Divine, they will realize that all rites and beliefs are futile,” and also reminded his listeners of their priorities, “Cursed be the ritual that makes us forget the Beloved Divine.”

He advocated a raising of consciousness and mental development instead of following religious prescriptions, “Let compassion be your mosque, faith your prayer carpet and righteousness your holy book. Let modesty be your circumcision and uprightness your fasting. Thus you will become a true devotee of the One God.”

Even as child, he seemed to have displayed a similar attitude as shown from the following story – Nanak was brought up as a Hindu and between seven and ten years old, it was customary for a child to be invested with the sacred thread, a symbols of the “twiceborn” – when the priest was called to perform the ceremony, it is said that Nanak refused and spontaneously sang out the following:

Let mercy be the cotton, contentment the thread,
Continence the knot and truth the twist.
O, priest! If you have such a sacred thread,
Do give it to me – one that doesn’t wear out or get soiled.
Neither burn nor get lost.

Whether the story is true or just symbolic, it is true to Nanak’s message that instead of focusing on external emblems, or rituals performed by others, or even external rituals performed by one-self, it is better to put one’s energy in finding the Divine within oneself. It is better to develop the higher consciousness that encompasses compassion and love for one’s fellow travelers on the road than to lavish our attention on things that are transient. It is what is developed in the temple of our hearts that matter.

%d bloggers like this: