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Article – Rituals

Rituals are religious or solemn ceremonies consisting of a set of actions performed in a specific order. We all follow rituals – the ritual of celebrating a birthday or a wedding; the rituals that come with death… it is part of a prescriptive code of human social behavior that helps us make some meaning out of life and creates a sense of belonging.

When it comes to religious ritual, the prescribed codes attempt to bridge the space between our quotidian life and the grander sacred universe, using elaborate action and a sense of purpose. The rituals can range from a simple act like lighting an incense stick in front of an altar to an elaborate set of prayers and sacrifices. Seder meals and other evocative rituals during Passover are believed to be a symbolic reminder of the hardships and triumphs faced by the Jews. According to historian Jeffrey Kripal, “Getting a billion people to bow down five times a day facing a small city in Saudi Arabia is an extraordinary ritual accomplishment.”

The core of Confucianism is an adherence to prescribed rituals which were meant to cultivate certain virtues of character, with the highest virtue being “benevolence.” Hinduism perhaps has more rituals than any other religion owing to the vast diversity of the Hindu sects. Rituals are not just daily routine actions, they instill positive change in one’s character allowing us to ponder on what matters most in life. The Hindu saint Sri Ramakrishna has a beautiful analogy for summing this up: “When the fruit appears the blossom drops off. Love of God is the fruit, and rituals are the blossom.” According to Buddist teachings, rituals act as a medicine, once cured, one can toss aside the medicine.

As with every aspect of religion, we should approach all rituals with a fluid mind and be flexible both in thought and practice. All rituals are man-made, but when they get stultified, and accompanied by dogma, there can be a problem.

Émile Durkheim, the famous social scientist, argued that rituals help individuals transcend their individuality and feel ‘collective effervescence’ by participating in community’s rituals which is the essence of every religion and society. Hopefully more evolved forms of rituals will arise from within, driven by the sense of meaning and purpose, acting as an integrative effort to better serve all humanity going beyond confines of specific religion, and community.


“This new life is spread not only by purely mental acts like belief, but by bodily acts like baptism and Holy Communion. It is not merely the spreading of an idea; it is more like evolution — a biological or super-biological fact.”
—C.S. Lewis, writer and Christian theologian


“We have appointed acts of devotion for every community to observe.”
—Qur’an (22:67-69), Islamic text


“To return to the observance of the rites through overcoming the self constitutes benevolence.”
—The Analects (12:1), Confucian text


“Actions based upon sacrifice, charity, and penance should never be abandoned; they must certainly be performed. Indeed, acts of sacrifice, charity, and penance are purifying even for those who are wise.”
—The Bhagavad Gita (18:5-6), Hindu text


“Not by rituals, and resolutions, nor by much learning, nor by celibacy, nor even by meditation can you find the supreme, immortal joy of nirvana until you extinguish your self-will.”
—The Buddha


“Higher ritual involves effort
And should it meet with no response
Then it threatens and compels”
—Tao Te Ching, Daoist text

See All Commonalities Across Religions