Every religion requires its followers to observe a set of rituals, which signifies through sacred symbols, descriptions, narratives, and practices. A Hindu applying ashes on his forehead and reciting mantras at a temple, a Christian wearing a cross, and attending a church, a Muslim wearing a cap, and praying five times a day at a mosque are examples of such symbols and practices. However, the rituals are not just external displays or rote routines. The rituals are intended for disciplining one’s body and mind. For example, the ‘mantras’ (Man refers to the mind, and tra refers to control) recited by a Hindu are designed to help with both physical discipline and control of the mind. Control of the mind, in this context, refers to freeing one’s mind of illusions, attachments, prejudices, and discriminations.

Rituals must be observed with discipline and dedication. When they are performed perfunctorily, the rituals become nothing more than external display. It is like wearing a white coat and a stethoscope and pretending to be a doctor. When one lacks the knowledge of medicine or does not bother to learn it, the white coat and stethoscope alone would not be sufficient to make him a doctor. Likewise, if one performs the rituals but ignores the values on which they are founded, performing the rituals would be a futile exercise. If the goal is to obtain spiritual wisdom, it would not be achieved. Doing the rituals but ignoring the fundamental values is akin to sitting on a stationary bike, peddling vigorously, and expecting to reach a destination. One would remain where one began. As Adi Sankara (Viveka Choodamani) says, “When a man follows the way of the world, or the way of the flesh, or the way of tradition (i.e.the  when he believes in religious rites and the letter of the scriptures, as though they were intrinsically sacred), he will never attain his spiritual goals.

Attaining spiritual wisdom demands more than physical rituals; It demands contemplation and sacrifice. Contemplation, unlike rituals, is inward-focused. Contemplation requires that one take control of one’s mind and dedicate oneself to performing selfless service to others – service is done without expecting rewards or recognition (karma yoga). And, one must do such service without regard to a beneficiary’s caste, creed, religious beliefs, or wealth. In summary, rituals are just getting ready for travel; selfless service is the path that one must travel, and spiritual wisdom is the destination one must reach. As Saint Thyagaraja, the great composer, says, “Bead necklaces, rosaries, triple paint on the forehead, or putting on ashes, pilgrimages, baths in holy rivers, meditation, or image worship do not purify a man as selfless service.”

Dr. Ram S. Sriram