Rituals play an important role in the cultural and religious lives of the people of India.The rituals in Sanatan Dharma date back to antiquity and they have been responsible for the moulding, elevation and happiness of its followers.
Rituals form an integral part of many life forms on earth, including man. They play important roles in the cultural and religious lives of people worldwide. In Sanatan Dharma, rites date back to antiquity. They are cited in the Vedas and in the Agam shastras. The seers of these and later texts, such as, the Purans and Dharma Shastras, ordained rituals to fulfil man’s mundane desires to help him live in harmony with his physical environment, to pay homage to his departed ancestors, to please the devas and finally, to aid his spiritual ascent. These observances included daily rituals of purity, offering three prayers (trikal sandhya), worship in the home shrine, mantra japa, meditation, studying shastras, performing the five daily yagnas, seva, donation, austerity, penance pilgrimage and so forth. These maintained an equilibrium between his body, mind and atma, as well as with his family and society.
In today’s increasingly urbanized, technological, intellectual and materialistic world, there is a correspondingly increasing trend to consider these rituals old-fashioned, unscientific and unnecessary. In this first of two articles, we consider the sound mind of the rishis who ordained the rites and rituals of Sanatan Dharma, by examining the research findings of modern scientists and sociologists regarding rituals in general and Hindu rituals in particular.
Purpose of Rituals
Man being a social animal, needs people to survive, to live a healthy life. No man is an island. This was confirmed by the renowned French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, who published his classic study of suicide in 1897. He reported that whatever the reasons for committing suicide, the suicide rates remained relatively constant over time within each group he studied. This was true whether they were Christians of the two main denominations or married or single individuals. Durkheim reported that the critical factor in determining suicide was the degree of social cohesion of the groups and the way the group affected the individual. In their book The Healing Brain (1988), the authors, Drs. Ornstein and Sobel, cite other studies which report that the greater the social disorganization of a group, the higher the incidences of death from heart disease and high blood pressure (1988:121).
Thus, correlating the above findings of Durkheim and the medical researchers, one can at least affirm that for a person to live a long, healthy life, he needs to have a strong bond with his social group. One of the key factors that contributes towards strengthening social cohesion is rituals. Rituals bring individuals together in one way or another for a mutually beneficial purpose. To consider a simple example, having a meal together in a group has several positive advantages compared to eating alone, such as creating unity, discussing issues concerning the group, strengthening personal friendships, etc. Other group rituals and their effects will be discussed in detail later. The point to note here is that, living a hermit’s life is not healthy for the majority of people. Ornstein reveals that the brain needs an optimal flow of input to maintain its health. He adds, “absence of change results in boredom, which can be as stressful as information overload” (1988:207). The role of the brain is critical in maintaining balance. It determines whether an individual breaks down in the face of stressful demands while another seems to thrive with similar challenges. This is where rituals attain significance. Moreover, neuroscientists have been able to record and ‘see’ the interesting events that occur in the brain during certain rituals.
In their book Why God Won’t Go Away, (2001), the neuroscientists Dr Eugene and Andrew Newburg reveal results of their state-of-the-art research conducted over many years. In an experiment on Robert, an expert practitioner of Tibetan meditation, the researchers injected a radioactive dye through a long tube into his vein at the precise moment that he indicated having reached his “peak moment of meditation”. After that, they took SPECT (Single Photo Emission Computed Tomography) scans of his brain. The dye that flowed into his brain remained there for hours. The SPECT scans freeze-framed the brain’s activity before and during Robert’s peak moment. The results showed that in the usually active area known as the orientation area (OA) there was decreased neurological activity during Robert’s peak. This was also the finding in seven other meditators. The researchers reasoned that although the OA was as active as normal, the inflow of information had been blocked. This explained the decreased activity in the area. They further proposed that without information flowing in from the senses, the brain would fail to find the boundary between the self and the external world. As such, the brain would perceive the self as limitless and interwoven with everyone and everything the mind sensed, and this experience would feel undoubtedly real.
In reality, this is how Hindu mystics have described their peak meditative or mystical moments.
According to Newberg, this “mystical experience is biologically, observably and scientifically real” (2001:7). Other researchers have studied the Hindu meditation known as Transcendental Meditation (TM). One of them is Dr. Vernon Barnes, from the University of Georgia. He reports of its benefits, that long term practitioners of TM have significantly lower blood pressure than those who do not practice TM.
Another ritual that scientists have investigated is mantra chanting. A team of researchers in India, at the Vivekananda Kendra Yoga Research Foundation in Bangalore, reported in the Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, that chanting the mantra ‘OM’ mentally, achieved a significant reduction in heart rate, which led to a deep form of relaxation, with increased alertness (Telles 1995:418-420). In 1998, the same team also reported that chanting a meaningful syllable such as ‘OM’, caused a decrease in heart and breath rate, compared to a neutral syllable such as ‘ONE’, which did not produce a similar effect (Telles 1998:57-63).
Such research clearly indicates that mantras are not just empty syllables or meaningless phrases. They are latent with mystical power, which manifests during chanting as stipulated by the rishis or the guru. This power of a mantra creates some form of vibration in the body and brain, triggering beneficial health effects in the body. More important is their effect on the atma, which experiences peace.
Prayer is another ritual investigated by many Western researchers. Dr. Herbert Benson, Dr. Larry Dossey, Dr. Bernie Siegal and Dr. Randy Byrd are just a few among the well-known, whose findings lend credence to the practice of prayer being good for health, and that prayer has led to ‘inexplicable’ healings. Not surprisingly, the rishis of yore incorporated prayer in the trikal sandhya, a puja ritual to be performed three times a day by an individual who invokes the Supreme Reality.
The Hindu ritual of seva is selfless service to mankind and Bhagwan. However the word seva can be loosely translated as altruism – helping others. The effects of altruism have been studied and reported widely. Besides praying for oneself, one can pray for others. This can be called a form of mental seva. However seva more appropriately means selfless service for mankind and Bhagwan. It is a bhakti ritual (padsevanam) advocated in the Shrimad Bhagvat, and is one component of navdha bhakti – the nine forms of devotion. However for our purposes here, we consider seva for man, as altruism. This means to do good to others. In his book, The Healing Power of Doing Good (1993), the author, Allan Luks surveyed thousands of volunteers across the US, after which he concluded, that people who help other people consistently report better health than peers in their age group who don’t. After serving people, these volunteers reported specific sensations such as a sudden warmth, increased energy, a sense of euphoria, greater calm and relaxation. Such health benefits returned when the volunteers later remembered the acts of helping. The Hindu word for such ‘remembering’ is smruti, which we shall discuss in the next article.
An important group of rites observed by Hindus is the 16 samskars (rites of passage). Samskar means to refine, to elevate. From before birth to death, the 16 samskars of Hindus are as scientific as they are socially sound. For our purposes here, we consider only one; Simantonayan samskar. This is a set of rituals performed by a woman during the 7th, 8th or 9th month of her first pregnancy. The rituals involve other married women who have given birth normally. It involves Ganesh pujan, followed by several other rites. Known as khodo bharvo (literally to fill the lap of the woman with auspicious substances and dried foods), it imparts immense samskaras to the foetus. This is evident from the well-known stories of Prahlad, who, while in the womb, listened to Bhagwan Vishnu’s glory as sage Narad recited the katha to Prahlad’s mother. Similarly, Arjun’s son, Abhimanyu, while in the womb, learnt the secrets of penetrating six of the seven battle formations, as Shri Krishna revealed them to Arjun’s wife, Subhadra. In the Sushrut Samhita, Shushrut rishi, the world’s first cosmetic surgeon, has given detailed cautionary advice for a pregnant woman to ensure a child of good samskaras. That such a phenomenon existed, may sound unbelievable today. However in the early 1950s, a French researcher, Alfred Tomatis MD, declared that the foetus was capable of hearing. Later researchers offered advice, similar to Sushrut’s, for pregnant women to avoid smoking, drinking, etc. In short, when the ancient law-givers ordained the 16 samskars, they were fully aware of their importance in the total nurture of an individual and his healthy, socially, and spiritually sound passage through life, that would lead to fulfilling the four endeavours of life, namely, dharma, arth, kam and moksha.
Finally, we consider rituals performed in a large group or congregation compared to the meditative ritual which is performed individually. In a religious context, the elements of repetition and rhythm play a crucial role in group rituals. To make such a ritual more powerful the rishis included factors such as drums and other musical instruments, singing together (chorus) in a particular raag, incense, divas, clapping, various mudras, conch blowing, bells, fasting, hyperventilation (increased breathing rate), repetitive muscle tensing and relaxing, etc. All these affect the brain to produce emotional responses, intensely pleasurable, ineffable experiences and even momentary states of altered consciousness, which researchers term ‘a mild degree of transcendence’ or in Newberg’s words ‘religious awe’ (2001:89). A Hindu ritual which amply incorporates many of the above factors is arti – waving lighted divas (diyas) in front of deities several times a day. Such an arti performed in a mandir in the presence of hundreds of participants, who sing the appropriate lyrics, with the repetitive rhythm, with sentiments of invocation and supplication, is the most striking example of a ritual performed in a group. The most important of all the contributing factors is the divinity and darshan of the deity, adorned with exquisite garments, ornaments, flower garlands, etc. This multi-sensory ritual triggers ‘religious awe’ more effectively and faster for the layman than the meditator. There is less effort in sadhana needed by the layman.
Despite this, Dr. Newberg offers a cautionary observation, “While ritual can provide a taste of spiritual union, it is unlikely to carry us to the ultimate unitary states.” He reasons, “The limitations of the body stand in the way” (2001:97).
In the next article, Hindu Rituals and Bhagwan Swaminarayan, we correlate Hindu rituals with those enjoined by him. We shall also discuss how his philosophy can be applied easily by a layman to overcome “the limitations of the body,” and so attain a permanent spiritual union.
- Telles, S.R. Nagarathna & H.R. Nagendra (1995). Autonomic changes during ‘OM’ meditation. In Indian Journal of Physiology & Pharmacology, 39*4).
- – (1998). Autonomic changes while mentally repeating two syllables – one meaningful and the other neutral. In Indian Journal of Physiology & Pharmacology, 42(1):57-63.
- Eugene, d’Aquili & Andrew Newberg (2001). Why God Won’t Go Away (Main Science and the Biology of Belief). New York: Ballantine Books.
- Ornstein, Robert & David Sobel (1988). The Healing Brain. New York: Simon and Schuster Inc.
- Luks, Allan (1993). The Healing Power of Doing Good. New York: Ballantine Books.
- Dossey, Larrey (1993). Healing Words. San Francisco: Harper.