Re­claim In­dia’s pride through the science of rit­u­al­ism

Rit­u­als have played a role in keep­ing our col­lec­tive civil­i­sa­tional iden­tity alive.

The Sunday Guardian - - & Comment Analysis -

Sripu­ran­than is your av­er­age In­dian vil­lage in Tamil Nadu. Short thatched houses, lush green fields, street ven­dors and road­side eater­ies. But res­i­dents said the vil­lage lacked its soul. The main de­ity from the vil­lage tem­ple, an age-old Nataraja was stolen, smug­gled and sold. The glue that held the vil­lage to­gether was lost.

Fast for­ward to 2014. The Aus­tralian govern­ment re­turned the Nataraja to In­dia; and it was brought back to the tem­ple (al­beit for a short while). This small town got its zeal back. The home­com­ing of their De­vata filled a deep void felt by its com­mu­nity for all these years. The tem­ple sprang back to life and the com­mu­nity was vi­brant again. Hu­man be­ings have thrived in struc­tures, sto­ries and archetypes that bind com­mu­ni­ties to­gether. Struc­tures con­sist of dif­fer­ent meme­plexes shared by a set of peo­ple. In these meme­plexes, faith or re­li­gion (for a lack of a bet­ter word in English) has prob­a­bly been the most pow­er­ful and sta­ble one. Re­li­gion in the In­dian con­text is es­sen­tially a shared set of ideas, be­liefs and rit­u­als sur­round­ing them. In In­dia, rit­u­als have played a very vi­tal role in keep­ing our col­lec­tive civil­i­sa­tional iden­tity alive. Rit­u­als are scoffed upon and laughed at a lot of times and right­fully so. But are all rit­u­als equally bad? Over the last few years so­cial sci­en­tists have con­ducted in-depth re­search into analysing the value of rit­u­als. Think about this sce­nario, you are about to go on the stage and ad­dress a large au­di­ence. You try to calm your nerves by in­dulging in some type of ac­tiv­ity to take your mind off the im­mense task up ahead. It could in­volve an inane task such as tap­ping your feet on the ground, or tak­ing a deep breath, or mo­men­tar­ily shut­ting your eyes. There may not be a purely sci­en­tific ba­sis for the rit­ual you choose; but that doesn’t make it less im­por­tant.

Rit­u­als are like a set of repet­i­tive ac­tions (some­times not even repet­i­tive) that are con­ducted by hu­mans in dif­fer­ent set­tings. Rit­u­als can be of a va­ri­ety of forms, it could be in the form of prayers in the tem­ple or some sort of phys­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties that are per­formed be­fore en­ter­ing a job in­ter­view or a sport­ing com­pe­ti­tion. Looked at from an evo­lu­tion­ary lens, the sole pur­pose of a rit­ual is ba­si­cally re­duc­ing anx­i­ety to boost con­fi­dence, al­le­vi­a­tion of grief dur­ing the loss of a loved one, or to per­form bet­ter in tense sit­u­a­tions like a sport­ing event.

Re­search seems to sug­gest that rit­u­als can en­hance the out­put of sports­men. Any kind of a pre-per­for­mance rou­tine per­formed be­fore a game helps in a boost of con­fi­dence and fo­cus of the in­di­vid­ual who is about to go and per­form in the sport­ing arena. Rit­u­als seem to have a great sooth­ing ef­fect on hu­mans. As per the work of Bro­nis­law Mali­nowski, ob­served in the prac­tices of fish­er­men in the South Pa­cific Ocean. Safety and pro­tec­tion rit­u­als would be a reg­u­lar fea­ture be­fore fish­ing in tur­bu­lent shark- in­fested wa­ters while none when fish­ing in calm wa­ters.

A study in Brazil dis­cov­ered that rit­u­als help in solv­ing prob­lems like smok­ing and asthma. One could ar­gue that there is an ab­sence of a di­rect re­la­tion be­tween rit­ual and the de­sired out­come, but what can­not be de­nied is that the per­for­mance of rit­u­als i.e. repet­i­tive ac­tions, does have the power of ef­fec­tu­a­tion in in­di­vid­u­als. If you think rit­u­al­ism is re­stricted to con­ser­va­tives or tra­di­tional, then I in­vite you to the ex­am­ple of the most pro­gres­sive fes­ti­val in the world—Burn­ing Man. Thou­sands of peo­ple gather and camp in des- ert in Ne­vada, and in­volve them­selves in a wide range of “ac­tiv­i­ties”. The event ends with a gi­ant mas­sive struc­ture of the “Burn­ing Man” be­ing set ablaze. Ev­ery year, post the event, the or­gan­is­ers re­lease an “After­burn Re­port”, which gives the de­mo­graph­ics of the at­ten­dees of the fes­ti­val. Nearly 40% of the at­ten­dees are athe­ists and ag­nos­tics. And here you thought rit­u­al­ism was a “re­li­gion” thing.

The lat­est Pew Poll sug­gests that re­li­giously un­af­fil­i­ated Amer­i­cans ( i.e. athe­ist, ag­nos­tic & un­af­fil­i­ated) are equally likely as Chris­tians, to hold New Age be­liefs.

To sum­marise: 1. The power in rit­u­als is real. 2. This power is com­pounded in shared, com­mu­nity-rit­u­als. 3. Many peo­ple who do not be­lieve in re­li­gion, be­lieve in rit­u­als. 4. Rit­u­al­ism is a hu­man-be­hav­iour (not just re­stricted to re­li­gious be­lief-sys­tems).

What op­por­tu­nity does this present from a states­man or pub­lic-pol­icy point of view?

Re­place the Burn­ing Man with Ra­vana and a few hun­dred Amer­i­cans with mil­lions of In­di­ans cel­e­brat­ing Ram Lila. Mul­ti­ply this by hun­dreds of rit­u­als/ fes­ti­vals, across thou­sands of vil­lages in In­dia. The force-mul­ti­plier is in­fi­nite.

When I first came across the In­dia Pride Project (and their very suc­cess­ful ef­forts to bring back In­dia’s stolen her­itage) it seemed like a purely cul­tural ini­tia­tive. Over time, en­gag­ing with its founder, I have come to re­alise its mul­ti­di­men­sional po­ten­tial to quite lit­er­ally stitch back the tears in our civil­i­sa­tion fab­ric.

This is pre­cisely why we need to bring all our cul­tural an­tiq­ui­ties and her­itage back. A sin­gle Nataraja murti in Sripu­ran­than changed the men­tal makeup of that small town/vil­lage. Imag­ine the pos­i­tive ef­fect one can achieve so­ci­etally if we brought back all the 200 mur­tis that the Amer­i­can govern­ment of­fered In­dia in 2016. “Bring Our Gods Home” as a clar­ion call, is sound. Not just cul­tur­ally, but sci­en­tif­i­cally. It can play a sig­nif­i­cant role in lift­ing the spir­its of a so­ci­ety that could do with a bit of heal­ing; es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing the pain our ne­tas cause us on a daily ba­sis. Kushal Mehra is an en­tre­pre­neur, science & phi­los­o­phy en­thu­si­ast, pod­caster, and is a Dharmic skep­tic. He tweets at @kushal_mehra

Ganga aarti on the banks of the river, in Varanasi.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from India

© PressReader. All rights reserved.