In Search of Wisdom: The Paradox of Rituals

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As a young boy, I grew up amidst traditional Hindu rituals that permeated most aspects of our lives. Year-long mourning of a deceased parent, 13 days mourning of close relatives, homage to ancestors, warding off of scabies or ghosts, periodic fasting, worshiping of deities, daily prayers, harvest ceremonies, greetings, and cleansing of the body are some examples of those rituals. Rituals defined our loyalty, respect, and interrelationships with gods, ancestors and everything that existed around us. Rituals came with magical qualities of communion, self-awareness, awe, solace, and intrigue. They often espoused happy memories in our psyche. On the downside, rituals were also like pests. They carried the burden of orthodoxy, competition of show-off, exposition of social hierarchies, financial burden, fear of ridicule in not-following or improperly-following them, and threat to scholarly freedoms.

I remember a time when my neighbours caught me not wearing my prescribed “sacred thread”. To them it was solid proof of my deviation from my sanctioned duties. This became a matter of big ridicule and laughter in the village. I was relieved for the fact that my parents did not have to face this for they had already passed away. A student of engineering, dissatisfied by the lack of pursuit of science, technology and research in Nepal when some other countries were in the age of space exploration, I was appalled by the shroud of religion worn by the oppressive rulers of Nepal at the time. To me, our rituals looked so outdated, draconian, and superstitious. They did not make sense to me, albeit they did to my villagers for whom they were like fundamental basis of existence. Therefore, contradictions existed between the young and the old, learning and the all-knowing, aspiring and the habituated, and proof and the belief. And I belonged to the rebelling camp that sought justification and proof as the basis of accepting anything and everything.

After spending a quarter century of my life in engineering, I have come to realize one hard fact that engineering is full of rituals where almost everything has to be done as per the codes. Despite being a product of science, freedoms in engineering are few and far between due to this codification. Most of engineering work is done “religiously” although we give our rituals high sounding names like “protocols”, “procedures”, “methods”, “standard practices” and “quality control rules”. Although not the product of religion, ability to exactly reproduce products and services is enormously prized in modern engineering in the same fashion as in the practice of religion. The “six sigma” quality management strategy, which was conceived by a statistician, W.E. Deming, and perfected by engineers, is now borrowed by all kinds of businesses. The essence of this strategy lies in perfecting the processes (rituals) so that the same result can be obtained repeatedly, thereby sustaining operational and service excellence. On the downside, these engineering rituals have given rise to a cottage industry of training and certification. This is similar to Brahmins performing Pooja rituals for the Hindu disciples. While they help us perfect the existing processes, they do not help us invent novel products, ideas and technologies. Therefore, the paradox of rituals is that its upside found in transmitting the best practices of the past to the present and in bringing order and perfection in the present, can be offset by its ability to obstruct future innovations. Consequently, rituals are useful only as long as they do not block our ways to address evolving needs of the society, which required a built-in instrument of evolution in the realm of rituals.

Upon noticing the existence of rituals in engineering and business, my mind has been revisiting those childhood memories to scrutinize the rituals that I had abandoned decades ago. After dismissing the utility of rituals for long, I am finally interested to understand them in retrospection. Because my own profession is severely limited in finding answers to questions pertaining to human systems and society, I have this need to inspect them through the lens of people who are respected as wise.

No other philosopher describes the values of rituals as articulately as Confucius, who sees rituals as integral parts of civility. Confucius sees rituals as tools to cut, file, carve, and polish an individual to make him a cultured, ethical, and worthy member of the society. For him, rituals constitute the basis on which the behaviours of individuals and the society are founded. They make the society governable by cultivating human virtues of reciprocal loyalty and respect. For rituals instil self-discipline on every individual, they bring order in the society without the need of direct command and infliction of punishment on people. Rituals tame the raw impulse of people through ethical boundaries placed on the individual citizens and institutions. In ritual rich systems, each person does his duty according to a well defined pattern, leading to coordinated and harmonious execution of tasks, functions, and ceremonies. Rituals simplify the management of human systems by lowering the degree of chaos in the systems and freeing up the time and resources for the scholars and thinkers to devote on self-cultivation and innovation.

Today, I accept that rituals, although practiced under different names, act as the building blocks of our civilization. Rituals are the best mechanisms for transmitting wisdom and best practices from one generation to another and are the links between successive human generations. Even in a “ritual-free” Canada, I am spending my life between a home and a laboratory, repeating the same fixed pattern for a decade; which in retrospect is nothing but a life where rituals have gone to their extremes. Just it may be that many people would find it undignified to admit the ritualistic nature of our modern living. In fact, there should have been no shame in admitting the rituality of our existence. Personally speaking, I am sometimes frustrated with my inability to adhere to my aspired routines and, for that, I have to do periodic cleanup of my piled up tasks.

Society without rituals would have been chaotic and incapable of governing agreeably and efficiently. Imagine a workplace where everyone worked at hours as they pleased, took up tasks as they liked, and executed them as they preferred! Yet the rituals, which are good for self-cultivation and for heightening our consciousness towards our duties as individuals, also have a tendency to be misused for undermining scholarship. And scholarship is the most important pursuit of an aspiring society, where citizens have a civic duty above and beyond institutional duties. A thoughtful citizen has a responsibility towards the “public use of reason”, which is about expanding knowledge and improving things through the exercise of freedom of thoughts, debate, and discourse. Only a pursuit of the reasons debated within the whole society can ensure that the future generations are left with devices to correct the wrongs of the present generation. Therefore, a citizen has a duty to make public observation on the shortcomings of existing institutions and to propose improvements on them.

All rituals, which are better known as rules, procedures, protocols and processes in secular minds, existing in the world can be grouped in two categories based on the motivation of their origin. And to what extent and by which way a ritual helps us depends on the motivation from which it originated. If the motivation of a ritual is to tame the sinful human, it results into a punishment centric model of governance. If the motivation of a ritual is to bring out the goodness of human soul, it results in a self-cultivation centric model of governance. Although both may give an order and efficiency, they have big qualitative differences on whether they give order-through-subordination, or order-amidst-dignity. The first one is production minded and the second is innovation minded.

The rituals of today’s Western societies are centered on a crime and punishment model so as to achieve orderly governance of society. The aspired “rule of law” is requiring ever increasing number of laws, lawyers, accountants, police, institutions, tools and technologies to mitigate crimes. This mode of thinking, which was originally inspired by Christianity, stems from a widely held concern with the sinful nature of humans and its mitigation through judgment. Perhaps forgiveness had some inconveniences! Similar punishment path was sought by Hindu rulers of latter centuries who used Manu Smriti as the book of law. Manu Smriti reads, “punishment alone governs all creatures, punishment alone protects them, punishment watches over them while they sleep. … Through fear of punishment the whole world duly yields what it owes.” [1]. Punishment is equated with benevolence for it tames the “wild human”.

This punishment approach is thoroughly entrenched in Canada, and other countries also in that matter. Here, even a simple act of forgetfulness could be punishable. Anyone who has paid hefty penalties for parking on city streets and lots in Canadian cities would know how these laws attempt to correct even the natural lack of alertness of citizens through penalties or inability to end meetings in precise time. I question whether pervasive laws and policing can deliver more aspiring societies! In fact, what might be the point of protecting me by means of making me feel cornered for my natural vulnerabilities? In an attempt to protect me, such state-powers and invasive surveillance of citizens are injuring our conscience and giving a sense of a post modern police state. I view this increasing surveillance and punishment of citizens as a harbinger of resentful and disloyal citizenry and erosion of trust on systems and institutions. Already we see the rise in stress and anxiety and decline in people’s sense of wellbeing in punishment heavy societies. Somebody is watching over us and constantly correcting us through external stimulus of punishment, or fear of punishment! Confucius would have found this as a path to mis-governance.

Confucius saw that good virtue can be cultivated through ceremonious behaviour or rites (Li). “Of all things to which the people owe their lives, rites are the most important” [2]. According to him, proper way of governing is through the observance of ritualized protocols and code of behaviour and not through the commands, threats, intervening-regulations, punishments and force [3]. Li works in invisible and subtle manners and reveals its effects in self-cultivation, civility and social harmony. This is in sharp contrast to the visible and tangible nature of the work of punishment. Li works through spontaneous coordination rooted in the aesthetic power of cultivated humanity. Although a product of learning and practice and, therefore, not potent in the absence of accepted conventions, rituals bring harmony and beauty in the social institutions and ultimate civility in human intercourse. Confucian ceremonies were, therefore, aimed at elaborating and cultivating the everyday civilized intercourse. They were meant to express human qualities in the form of performance. And similar line of thought is found in other Eastern philosophies.

Buddhism sees all humans as intrinsically good and prescribes inner-transformation as a means to bring out that goodness to the fore. “Buddhism says that a person’s goodness remains intact deep within even when it is horribly marred at the surface. … the mere fact of its existence always allows for its potential re-emergence. … Revenge is a deviation from justice, since its main intent is not to protect the innocent but to hurt the guilty and to ‘clean’ society from the offensive ‘enemy'” [4]. Therefore, according to Buddhism, retaliation oriented justice does not lead to enlightened living! I wonder what Buddha would have commented on American invasion of Iraq carried with a motive of revenge that also under a false pretence! Hindu philosophy as per Bhagvad Gita also emphasizes on self-cultivation and equanimity as great virtues to be achieved by practice and through detachment from expectation of fruit [5]. Revenge and unforgiving-spirit are considered as weaknesses.

The values of rituals in governance of systems are easy to comprehend because rituals are manifested as built in traits of everything orderly around us in the universe. From galaxies, sun, moon, and earth to subatomic particles, from climate, seasons and days to rhythm of our bodies, hearts and lungs, and from animal and plant to an individual cell, there are rituals that regulate the operation of systems. Our universe is orderly due to rituals followed by all its participants. In a similar manner, rituals play vital role in properly governed societies, be they religious, secular, traditional or modern. Rituals are the moral and political codes of conducts of a society that are understood through precedent and imitation. However, they are of tremendous values only so far as they help us in the proper governance of the society. We know from our own experiences that rituals can also hold us back. When I was little, so called upper cast villagers followed rituals of purifying people and utensils touched by the so called Dalits. They dipped gold objects on water and sprinkled the water on the persons or objects that had lost their “purity” for being touched by the “untouchables”. Today, I understand that this ritual and the belief upon which it was founded were nothing but the rituals gone wrong for it took a path of injustice and ignorance. We followed many other rituals that did not make sense, no matter how sympathetically I try to look at them.

Today, I have come to conclude that rituals founded on the principle of benevolence (and not on the principles of punishment) are necessary components of a properly governed society. They take us in the direction of self-cultivation, civility, mutual-respect, and progress. Sustained positive contribution of rituals on society depends on the degree to which they are accompanied by (1) freedom for public debate on the merit and relevance of existing rituals, (2) pursuit of knowledge, education and learning in the whole population, (3) pursuit of science, technology, and innovation, and (4) sensitivity to the contemporary needs of the society including secular governance. Lastly scholars should practice rituals for their intrinsic values in cultivating civility and harmony in society, and ordinary people should practice them for they bring positive outcomes in their own lives.


[1] Manu Smriti, Verses 7.18 to 7.22;
[2] Confucius, Raymond Dawson, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1971, pp. 32.
[3] Confucius – the Secular and Sacred, Herbert Fingarette, Harper and Row, New York, 1972, pp. 8.
[4] Happiness, Matthiew Richard, Little Brown and Company, New York, 2006, pp.247.
[5] Bhagbad Gita, Verse 18:02;

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