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Can one be spiritual without being ritualistic ?

—Usha Akella


The spiritual impulse has existed among human beings since time immemorial. It is intact even today, amidst the technological and scientific developments. Even today rituals have a stronghold as a means to express and develop the innate spiritual seed.

A ritual is the enactment of myth in the view of Jung. His protégé Campbell, equates myths to the underlying archetypes eternally driving human behavior. A Hindu ritual is inseparable from its mythical beliefs. A ritual ranges from the personal expression of daily puja to its larger social expressions as the celebration of festivals.

A yearly replay of rituals and festivals remind us of mankind’s eternal hopes and dreams. At Dassera, the burning of the effigies of Ravana provide a psychological satisfaction. The lighting of lamps is a tireless observance at Diwali to symbolize the victory of good over evil.

Can one be spiritual without being ritualistic? Within the Indian context the question requires a historical perspective of the term ‘ritual’. An insight into the nature and evolution of religion is required as well.

Spirituality in the Vedic Times

The earliest attempt to connect with the divine was the Vedic ritual, Homa—the offering of grains and sanctified liquids into a sacrificial fire. Puja is the personal ceremonial act of expressing reverence to a deity through invocation, mantra and ritual. Essentially, both homa and puja attempt at communion with the Divine. Interestingly, puja, the cornerstone of ritualistic Hinduism, has at its core a mystical-spiritual enactment. The devotee invites the presence of the deity with his or her cosmic energy. The icon or image becomes the deity, whose reality is reaffirmed by the daily ritual of puja—an act of honoring. Through Avahana (invocation) from the core of one’s heart the deity is invited to the ceremony. Through Dhyana (meditation) the deity is invoked in the heart of the devotee. The idol is treated as the deity and through various steps (asana, padya, arghya, abhisheka, vastra) the deity is welcomed. The Brahmin priest identifies himself with the deity when the deity is invited to reside within the heart. There was no ‘split’ between spirituality and ritual in ancient India.

Surprisingly, the notion that spirituality can have a separate existence from ritual is not a recent view. It existed as far back as 5th century CE. The Mīmāmsā thinkers contradicted the Vedic rituals.

We see the thread grow stronger in the Nastika schools of Indian philosophy and intensify their message in the Bhakti movement. During the period, individual inquiry, the notion of the presence of the divine within, self-expression and self-effort without the invocation of a force outside oneself gained momentum.

A ritual is rooted in the symbolic enactment of spiritual processes.

There is no ritual without mystical essence and mysticism seems to allow her arcane secrets to be known through ritual/sadhana (spiritual  practices).

If we broaden the definition of ritual as an observance that is customary, repetitive, and regular, with the goal of attaining nirvana/moksha/Samadhi/union, then dhyana or meditation; japa or chant; yoga or pranayama; and regular prayer can be understood as ritual. It is mostly with this broad definition that I use the term from this point forward.

All established religions in the course of human history seem to have a broad bandwidth covering the tangible and intangible.The ancient Vedic religion that developed gradually into Hinduism is based on the notion of a dichotomy of the Vedic texts into the karmakānda, of sacrificial rites (Samhitas and Brahmanas), and the jñānakānda dealing with the knowledge of Brahman (the Upanishads). The vast and complicated system that is the Hindu religion—a medley of various texts, thoughts, thinkers, commentaries, schools and beliefs—cover a breathtaking spectrum from hardy ritual to doctrine to the most delicate perceptions of the self that the world has ever dared to perceive. 

In a workshop at the Omega Institute, Rhinebeck, New York, in 2002, the late Sufi Master, Pir Vilayat Khan, in response to a question on the relationship between Islam and Sufism said: “Islam” is the cocoon and Sufism is the butterfly. In a breath, he succinctly stated the relationship between tradition and mysticism or the chalice and the chant—the song of the soul. All established religions are a spectrum from the tangible to the intangible; the prescription to perception; foundation to flight. Indeed, it is the mystics from every realm on this earth who have bridged the contradictory dimensions of ritual and spirituality. St. Theresa’s transcendental visions of Christ rose from a routine of prayerful contemplation of holy scripture i.e., Lectio Divina.

St. Juan de la Croix’s life attests to the same phenomenon. The world’s best-selling poet—Rumi, the Sufi mystic—was deeply entrenched in the Koranic teachings; his unbearably beautiful visions and insights transpired within the realm of Islam. Even the most modern Sufi schools prescribe some form of initiation as a needed link to the lineage along with breath and prayer techniques handed down across the centuries. Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Gandhi, Aurobindo—some of the spiritual giants of India—were rooted in a broadly Hindu-Vedantic path. The great seers were poets: Dante, Homer, Valmiki, Vyasa, Meera, Ram Prasad, Kshetrayya, Annamayaa—their outpourings existed within a denomination. Mysticism seems to be anchored to a religious ideology, and paradoxically raises the seeker to the widest and most non-definitive experiences imaginable. Almost always the form gives way to the formless but is that formless completely non-denominational? Can the spiritual truly be accessed without following the rituals in their broadest sense?


Pitfalls of New Age Spirituality

New age spirituality seems to think so and deliberately aims to eradicate, deny or free spirituality from its traditional or ritualistic roots. World teachers such as Eckhart Tolle, considered one of the most spiritually influential personalities of our times, does not align himself with any religion.
J. Krishmamurti’s utterance “Truth is a pathless land” has become heroic legend and U.G. Krishnamurti freed himself of the burden of all influence including Krishnamurti. All claim to have experienced a state of mind surpassing normal consciousness, emphasize a process freed from all conditioning. Tolle says, “The Power of Now” is “a restatement for our time of that one timeless spiritual teaching … religions have become so overlaid with extraneous matter that their spiritual substance has become almost completely obscured.”

Undoubtedly, the phenomenon of a handful of genuine Mystical Masters, unbound by any prescriptive modality, has made its appearance. Inarguably, behind all new age manifestation lies the non-erasable perfume of ancient truths. In the least one must appreciate the attempt to unveil and reinterpret; unearth symbolic and esoteric meanings. Sufis view the Koran through a mystical eye, reading an inner text concealed to the eye. Thus Jihad is the inner battle with the nafs or lower self. In an interpretative light, homa can be viewed ultimately as the sacrifice of the lower self. Myths like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana symbolize the battles of inner forces and the gamut of Indian deities symbolize man’s potential and the network of inner energy within man.

The New age spirituality of our time or the Age of Aquarius symbolizes the dawn of an enlightened mankind breaking away from formal tradition. A proliferation of Spiritual Masters, schools, jargon, cults, methodologies, terminology and theories suffuse the planet. Obsession with extraterrestrial life, occult, UFO sightings, crop circles, doomsday theories has been on the rise. One can positively view this current as a freeing of truth from the restrictive baggage of the past. But how many are capable of authentic spiritual progress without the aid of guidance or practice? Spiritual practices unleash psychic forces and energy systems in the body-mind matrix and require the guidance of authentic masters. New age spirituality may just have unleashed a shadow self, perhaps the biggest mind trick of all times. The New age has spawned a generation of self-deluded individuals who believe they are architects of their destiny without achieving self-realization or true freedom. Often God is dead in these ideologies. A sense of limitless individualism, often drugged out, unable to connect with a center, the ego playing its
tableaux as spiritual awareness, marks many New age adherents. Many believe that they are the architects of their own destiny without an in-depth knowledge of karmic law or responsibility. The New age bazaar is teeming with beguiling stalls, spiritual peddlers, quarter-baked Gurus, hypnotic salves of self- empowerment, quick fixes and Mayic notions of the self as God—the Advaitic truth is proclaimed without attainment or the rigour of sadhana.  The array is dizzying: Spirit guides, angels, crystals, Tarot, spurious healing techniques, alternative medical healing techniques, bio-feedback, magnet therapy, shamanism …

Contemporary spirituality, many a time, is a pop spirituality of fads and phases; a hip marketing of spirituality; a blasé union of the sacred with materialism/consumerism. For many, spiritual preaching has become a career choice. In our times, spirituality has found its manifestation as the corporation, a horrific distortion of its place in human existence. Mainstream Christianity simply regards the entire New age phenomenon as a satanic aberration. The viewpoint, though extreme, may have a cautionary truth to be noted. Proof may lie in the increasing crashing and burning of self-proclaimed Gods and gurus; spiritual careers ending in scandals and tragic demises.

Spirituality is the perception that life is divine, the goal of human life is union with the divine and that consciousness begets matter. There is no short cut to self-realization. Whether through traditional or newer paths, a genuine Master, faith, dedication, perseverance and sincerity are primary requisites. Ritual in its broadest sense as defined in the early stage of the article is the bedrock to authentic spiritual attainment.

About the Author
Usha Akella’s work has appeared in many US based journals such as The Cumberland Review, The Crab Orchard Review, The Maryland Poetry Review, Pearl, Emily Dickinson Journal, Catamaran etc. She has read extensively in the US and India, received awards, and has been interviewed by US- based Indian newspapers.


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