Why and how to go beyond the externals of religion

Twenty-five-year-old Nitin Sawant, a software engineer, explains why he’s disillusioned with religious rituals. “I was at a friend’s wedding recently. The priest called upon the bride and the groom to perform holy rites, while the guests watched smoke rise from the sacrificial fire. The hall reverberated with the loud chanting of Sanskrit mantras by the priest sanctifying the marriage. Suddenly there was a protest. One of the guests, a Sanskrit scholar himself, was carefully hearing the mantras and was upset at the insensitivity of the priest. It seems the priest had been chanting mantras not connected to a marriage ceremony, and even included funeral mantras. A bigger shock for me was the callousness of the marriage party; they politely quieted the complaining guest and let the function go on unchanged. I left disappointed at the sham of a sacred wedding where no one understood or cared for the significance of the rituals.”
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Nitin has reasons to be cynical. Since childhood he has seen increasing religious intolerance, global terrorism in the name of God, and corrupt clergy of various faiths. And even in India no one explains, for example, the rationale behind the pompous ceremonies performed during the annual festivals glorifying the ever-popular demigod Ganesha

Why the Disillusionment? Rituals, or prescribed procedures for worshiping God, are unique to each religious tradition. But these customs are often misunderstood and thus for many have earned a negative connotation. Adding to the problem is the fact that they tend to be used to serve purposes other than service to God. For example, they often help people express loyalty to a religion or gain acceptance within a community. Because rituals may be obligatory at various stages of life, they can consume substantial time, money, and energy. Intended to help us remember and serve God, they get diluted and are reduced to mechanical, repetitive acts. Not surprisingly, these blind rituals put off young, intelligent people like Nitin.

Reawakening Divine Love

The purpose of rituals is to reawaken the divine love of God within every living entity. The thick layer of material consciousness now covers that natural love. The founders and teachers of each faith therefore offer a set of rituals to help the followers gradually purify their consciousness of material contamination. For example, in the Vedic culture we perform the arati ceremony, during which a devotee offers water, a burning wick, fragrant incense, and other items to God, Krishna. This ritual is intended to help the devotee realize that God is the source of fragrance, heat, and all other elements in the material creation. Devotees accept the arati ritual as an opportunity to acknowledge God’s proprietorship and our dependence on Him for our basic needs. Through the arati ceremony, devotees offer the elements back to Krishna, reciprocating with His kindness and expressing the intention to love Him.

When we forget the divine purpose of rituals and get distracted by loud and grandiose externals, the rituals become an end in themselves. Like traffic laws, rituals have a purpose. Traffic laws help drivers reach their destination smoothly. But despite strictly following the traffic laws, a motorist unsure of the destination is eventually lost. Similarly, a performer of religious rituals who is unaware of the goal of going back home, back to Godhead, is lost in the material world. By keeping such a person bound in material consciousness, the rituals have the opposite effect of what they’re supposed to achieve.

Can We Do Without Rituals?

While pursuing a spiritual life, some people drift to the other extreme and denounce rituals of any kind. They claim that since God ultimately sees our divine intention, rituals aren’t necessary at all any spontaneous outpouring of the heart is spiritual. Thus they reject profound sacred practices that over centuries have helped devotees connect to God.

But for most of us, distracted as we are by worldly affairs, rituals are essential. Rituals and other externals gorgeous temples, beautifully decorated deities, congregations engaged in singing and dancing create a favorable ambience and stimulate devotees to go deeper to connect with God. An unclean place, irregular habits, and whimsical, aggressive behavior create negative energy, distracting the devotee from the spiritual quest. Although the internal mood is critical in our communion with God, the external formulas, as presented through the rituals, influence the internals. While substance is ultimately important, the form helps to carry and preserve it. If we blend spirit with ritual, we get spiritual.

The Transformative Element

As properly performed rituals gradually do their work of purifying our consciousness, they become fresher and more meaningful each time we perform them. Although apparently repetitive, they are spiritually nourishing. For rituals to be transformative, they must include the element of remembrance of God. As stated in the Padma Purana, “Krishna should always be remembered and never forgotten at any time. All the rules and prohibitions mentioned in the scriptures should be the servants of these two principles.”

In the spiritual world, devotees serve Lord Krishna through a beautiful variety of rituals and services, such as offering arati, making garlands, and singing and dancing in joy for His pleasure. Rich spiritual love for Krishna soaks each of these offerings. In the material world, by cultivating a desire to serve Krishna while practicing the rituals, a practitioner’s heart gets reformed: Selfish passions give way to the spirit of selfless service, arrogance transforms into humility, and envy becomes appreciation of others.

No Compromise

Devotees may sometimes adjust the rituals according to time, place, and circumstance, but they don’t compromise on the essence. For example, when Srila Prabhupada installed deities in temples during the early days of the Krishna consciousness movement in the West, he didn’t have the priests and paraphernalia necessary to observe all the usual rituals. Instead, he conducted small but devotionally potent programs centered on the chanting of the holy names of the Lord. He adjusted the details without compromising the spiritual essence. If one can afford to, one should offer the best to Krishna. But a person without such means can still offer Krishna, with love and devotion, a simple leaf, flower, fruit, or water. (Bhagavad-gita 9.26)

Krishna is known as bhava-grahi, which means that He accepts the love with which something is offered. Eagerness to please Krishna is more effective in earning His favor than strict compliance with rituals, as shown especially by His Vrndavana pastimes.

Simplicity Versus Blind Rituals
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Once Krishna asked His hungry childhood friends to beg for food from some ritualistic brahmanas who lived nearby. The brahmanas were busy performing sacrifices and had arranged a variety of food as a part of the program. When the boys appealed to these men on behalf of Krishna, they ignored the request. Krishna is the goal of all Vedic knowledge and sacrifices (Bhagavad-gita 15.15), but the vastly learned priests missed this point because of their absorption in the form of worship rather than the substance: Krishna. Krishna was willing to reward the brahmanas by receiving their offerings and giving them benedictions, which are the goal of sacrifices. But the false pride of material expertise blurred the hardworking brahmanas’ vision of Krishna. They were like a man who works so hard that he has no time to collect his paycheck.

The boys were disappointed, but Krishna encouraged them to now approach the brahmanas’ wives, who were simple hearted and not well versed in Vedic rituals. In contrast to the husbands with their cold response, these women were overjoyed to hear Krishna’s request and rushed to Him with all of the food offerings. Although their husbands, fathers, and sons tried to prevent them from going to Krishna, they were unstoppable. Their example proves that simple acceptance of Krishna as the most worthy object of love, along with an eagerness to please Him, attracts His attention more than ostentatious rituals. Later the men realized their folly. They glorified their wives and condemned their own learning, for it had blinded them to the loving service of Krishna.

By humbling the learned brahman as, Lord Krishna teaches us that rituals lose their spiritual potency when performed mechanically, without understanding their meaning and purpose. Mechanical practices are like an attractive but empty wrapper, devoid of the gift of love of God. Krishna is our eternal loving father, waiting for us to return to Him. But spiritual joy eludes those who ignore reviving their relationship with Him.

Spiritual Practice For the Modern Age

Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the incarnation of the Supreme Lord for the modern age, presented the chanting of Hare Krishna as the easy method to revive our relationship with Krishna. As the very first effect, chanting cleanses the heart of material contamination. Thereafter, pure love of Krishna gradually awakens. Unlike rituals, the chanting of Hare Krishna is not constrained by considerations of things like time, place, and circumstance. But mechanical, parrotlike repetition of the mantra will not award the fruit of love of God. Srila Prabhupada taught devotees to chant Krishna’s holy names in the mood of a helpless child calling for its mother, for the call of a child in danger is not a blind ritual but an emotionfilled plea. Srila Prabhupada writes, “There is a quality to such utterances [of the holy name] also. It depends on the quality of feeling. A helpless man can feelingly utter the holy name of the Lord, whereas a man who utters the same holy name in great material satisfaction cannot be so sincere.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.8.26, Purport)

A Need for Spiritual Education

The scriptures are filled with the prayers of great souls Prahlada Maharaja, Gajendra, and Kunti Devi to name a few. A devotee repeats these prayers, not as a stereotype ritual but with a desire to understand the content and feelings of the pure devotees offering them. With an enthusiasm to access the Lord’s mercy, Krishna conscious devotees invest their feelings into the prayers of great devotees, and they also offer their own prayers to Krishna. A contemplative study of scriptures and a prayerful connection to God help devotees see all living entities as children of their compassionate Lord. This vision dissolves their false ego, softens their heart, and fills it with love and kindness toward all beings.

If Nitin studies the philosophy of Krishna consciousness and spends time with practicing devotees, his doubts and misgivings about Indian spirituality will be allayed. Even when ill-informed religious fervor dominates the social scene, Nitin will realize that there is no need to discredit rituals altogether. Rather, through rituals he can learn to offer his heart to Krishna.

Vraja Vihari Dasa, MBA, serves full-time at ISKCON Mumbai and teaches Krishna consciousness to students at various colleges.