As I understand it, a ritual is the formulaic doing of something, the performance of an act, which might have religious, social, or cultural significance. It is usually nested within a larger tradition that is linked with the life of a community, and in many Asian contexts would have been sustained over centuries, through direct transmission from one generation to the next. The rituals that cluster within the collective memory of a community might be for them crucial markers of their identity. They are signifiers of their ‘way of life’, and might also become ‘the way things are’. Incidentally, to my ears, ‘ritual’ carries an echo of the Sanskrit term rta – ‘that which is’.
India’s ancient culture continues to inform our present. I should say many ancient cultures, with their rituals, memories and nuances, which have thrived on a common civilisational bedrock. Those born into Sanatan Dharma – ‘the eternal way’ – can trace not just rituals and rites of passage, but also social practices, attitudes and perspectives, across the ocean of time to circa 1500 BCE, when the Vedas were being composed in the Himalayas and along the banks of the sacred rivers of the subcontinent.
Ancient cultures often make the mistake of ignoring the spirit of a ritual while clinging to its form, thinking that it is what is important in terms of preserving their culture. In reality, this hollows out the culture by taking away its most important aspect – the wisdom, the realisation of a truth, which was what led to the formation of the ritual to commemorate or remember it.
Remembering the spirit of tradition can help us innovate with the form and transform it into something that is meaningful for us today. For instance, ancient rituals that considered the relationship between human beings and nature sacred meant that nature was not exploited. This would be one area where one would wish to revive the memory of sacredness, where rivers were goddesses, and forests and mountains were abodes of spirits and deities. One needs to rediscover the attitude that saw the sacred in stones and animals, in rocks and rivers, where every particle, every being, had the spark of the divine.
At a time when India is rushing headlong into a culture of consumerist materialism, there is also a need to revisit our traditional lifestyles that had inbuilt in them a low carbon footprint, consumption that was need-based and not greed-based, and an ethic of taking only as much as was needed. It took its core from spiritual values, where frugality and simplicity were encouraged and actively cultivated. In the spirit of innovating with tradition, there is much inIndiathat needs to be rejuvenated today.