The Culture of Ritual and the Quest for Enlightenment
By David Frawley (Vamadeva Shastri)
Since prehistoric times, ritual has been perhaps the most important
human activity. Throughout the world there has existed an ancient and
ongoing tradition of sacred action performed with the aim of improving
not only our condition in the universe, but the condition of the
Indeed, the further back we look, the more we examine traditional
and indigenous cultures, the more we find that human life has been
primarily a ritual or set of sacred actions. Whether we consider the
aborigines of Australia, the Native Americans, the ancient Hindus and
Egyptians, or our own European ancestors, we find a world-wide
preoccupation with ritual action that cuts across all races,
religions, and cultures. We could even say that human culture is
primarily a culture of ritual.
Yet ritual has been rejected by the modern mind as irrational,
superstitious, or primitive. The church had already stifled and
sterilized ritual, and the Western enlightenments--a materialistic,
not spiritual, enlightenment--has largely stripped our lives of
ritual. The idea that our actions could affect the mental or
spiritual realm, or be linked with cosmic powers like the stars and
planets, appeared contrary to the mechanistic scientific view that all
things are matter, and that what is not evident through the senses
must not exist.
However, twentieth century science has revealed a universe
consisting of interrelated energy fields and transcending ordinary
time/space limitations. This is a world view that runs counter to
ordinary sensory ideas of physical reality, but is not so different
from the ritualistic view of a universe as an organic intelligence in
which human beings play an integral part and purpose.
There is a revival of interest in ritual today that is part of our
culture's reexamination of mythology. In the academic world, ritual is
now viewed as an art form or a means of social bonding, not merely a
curious superstition. But such an intellectual view of ritual does not
consider its spiritual meaning. Academics find ritual interesting,
like an antique or relic, but do not see a need to incorporate ritual
in our daily lives. Nor does this viewpoint regard ritual as necessary
for either personal or collective well-being.
Is ritual just some exotic or superstitious form of action,
requiring strange paraphernalia like fires or feathers, or is it any
action done with conscious purpose, attention, and power?
Any action that is repeatedly energized with thought and intention
gains power, thereby becoming a ritual of sorts. In fact, all our
actions have a ritualistic orientation, because action tends toward
repetition and reinforcement, thereby projecting a particular energy
to link us with certain forces in the world in which we live. In this
regard, even basic vital functions like eating and breathing are
rituals, that is, rhythmic actions drawing into us various cosmic
Yet it is our most meaningful actions that approach ritual. Artists
and scientists project energy and intent in action, performing with a
certain regularity and purposefulness which renders their actions into
a kind of ritual. Indeed, the creative individual experiences his or
her work in a meaningful way that can be called ritualistic. The
highest ritual is meditation, wherein everything we do becomes imbued
with attention and awareness.
RITUAL AND KARMA
The Sanskrit word karma, which usually refers to the effects of our
actions through various lives, originally meant "ritual." Action or
karma is always a ritual; that is, whatever action we do sets in
motion certain forces, not only of a personal but of a collective and
All action, we could say, is like jumping into a stream. We can
choose the stream to jump into, but once in the stream we come under
the stream's forces, which are no longer a matter of choice. Whatever
we do places us in a stream of action which has a momentum that will
carry us in a particular direction. Conscious actions reinforce the
energy of consciousness, which causes us to grow in awareness.
Unconscious actions reinforce habit, inertia, and the energy of
ignorance, which places us under the domination of the external world.
Once we recognize that action is karma, we will approach our
actions with an awareness that makes them sacred. We will then give
even simple and everyday actions an attention so that we do not let
ourselves drift in the stream of unconscious action into greater
darkness and sorrow.
However, most of us seldom recognize the karmic or ritualistic
nature of our actions. This is because effects of our action manifest
only through time. Some of our actions do not bear fruit at all in the
present incarnation. Unless we look at the really long-term
consequences of what we do, it is difficult to take control of our
actions. For example, if we could put our hands in a fire and not get
burned until some months or years later, we might carelessly throw our
whole body into a fire. Yet this is the type of delay that often
exists between destructive mental actions and their outer
RITUAL AND REINTEGRATION
We have eliminated from our lives the rituals that sustain
traditional cultures. This process began with the triumph of
Christianity, which reduced the abundance of pagan rituals that
permeated all of life to but a few rituals, like Mass on Sunday.
Protestant Christianity in turn rejected most Catholic rituals,
tending to view all ritual as idolatrous. science in its crude realism
removed us still further from ritual, questioning the very existence
Stripped of meaningful rituals, our lives have become meaningless,
and our action lacks any real purpose other than personal enjoyment.
Our action is denied any cosmic significance, becoming merely a
personal affair in which we project personal achievement and
gratification as the true meaning of our lives.
However much we may achieve personally, our action will remain
limited and will bring inevitable sorrow. In our emphasis on the
separate self, our actions fail to connect us with the cosmos and the
deeper reality beyond our conditioned life.
To fill the void created by a lack of true ritual, or sacred
action, we have created, perhaps unconsciously, an entire set of false
rituals. These are rituals of entertainment, sports, politics, and
even crime. We have not eliminated ritual from life, but have only
succeeded in removing any dimension of transcendence from our actions.
Our rituals have become mundane and sensate, with no spiritual
goal; they have become a repetition of sensation, and at worst, of
negative emotions. We have invested the heroes of sports events and
violent movies with a kind of sacred reality and given them prestige,
honor, and adoration. It is as if they were not mere mortals, but gods
and goddesses, glamour images of a higher reality.
Even much of our religion, in which ritual survives at a reduced
level, is dominated by false rituals promoting conflict and division
between people, rather than uniting us with the universe. Church
services are largely mechanical, a kind of social duty, or, if lively,
a kind of drama and entertainment. The main messages of religion have
become negative: sin, guilt, the devil, hell, Armageddon, and the need
to convert "unbelievers. Such religion is rarely part of a living and
creative opening to the great powers of the cosmic mind.
Much of our modern malaise, characterized by crime, drugs, and
promiscuity, appears to stem from a lack of meaningful ritual. True
ritual does not consist in reinforcing conditioned patterns of
separate identity (us vs them). Actions which do this are false
rituals, which project a kind of hypnosis that blinds us to the unity
True ritual acts in harmony with the rhythms of the universe,
uniting us with the great current of time and transformation leading
to the eternal. True ritual gives a universal meaning to all that we
do and to all with whom we come in contact, including all of nature.
It requires being cognizant of the divine presence in the world and
the cosmic power and interplay of all the forces in our lives.
Ritual, moreover, is not illogical or unscientific. Ritual is
perhaps the ultimate science of action, with its own logic, structure,
and order. It is often a detailed and precise activity, in which even
minor deviations can distort the ritual, even turning it into a
We have lost our sense of the philosophy behind the science of
ritual. Ritual teaches us that what we do on a personal or
microcosmic level corresponds to what occurs on a universal or
macrocosmic level. It shows the way to achieve harmony in life by
connecting our personal actions with their cosmic equivalents, uniting
the human and the cosmic in the awareness of the cosmic being. Until
we rediscover this inner truth of ritual, our lives are likely to
remain confused and superficial.
RITUAL AND SPIRITUALITY
In the spiritual realm, we also find that ritual has often been
devalued. Many forms of mind-oriented or psychological spirituality
--like the direct awareness paths of Vedanta and Buddhism--appear to
reject ritual. It is frequently stated that no action can lead us to
enlightenment, that only knowledge--not any rite--can dispel the
darkness. Yet the rationale for this spiritual rejection of ritual is
quite different from that of the materialistic mind.
Direct awareness paths ultimately regard ritual as a lower level of
spiritual practice, appropriate to outer or lesser goals of life like
health or mental harmony, but not sufficient for Self-realization.
This is because ritual is bound by time and relies on material
substances, which keeps us in the relative realm. These spiritual
systems regard ritual as maintaining harmony in the relative realm,
and so reject ritual along with the realm of relativity.
Those trained in logical materialism may be inclined to adopt the
logic of mind-oriented spirituality, rejecting ritual without having
ever practiced any, and not grant ritual even the efficacy which mind-
oriented teachings recognize. Mind-oriented teachings may not regard
ritual as the highest path, but this does not mean that they reject
ritual as useless or that the followers of these paths never perform
any rituals. Indeed, many yogis on direct awareness paths do perform
rituals, not for enlightenment as such but for purification,
protection, or the giving of blessings.
OUR PSYCHIC ENVIRONMENT
Ritual provides a meaningful way to deal with our subtle, or
psychic, environment, which consists of the various mental and
emotional forces which energize our lives. Though these forces are not
visible, like the health or disease promoting bacteria found in the
air we breathe, nevertheless they do have specific effects. Like the
physical environment, so too our subtle or psychic environment
requires attention. We clean our house, do the dishes, and clean our
body daily, but how many of us give similar care to our psychic
environment? We may be cautious and drive carefully in the visible
world, but how many of us give the same care to our journeying in the
subtle world? An unclean physical environment breeds diseases, and the
same is true of an unclean psychic environment. If we don't air our
house out, stagnation can breed diseases. A stagnant emotional or
psychological field has the same effect on an inner level.
Most of what have been regarded as demons or ghosts in traditional
cultures are simply negative energy patterns within our subtle
environment or astral field. They are like the molds, bacteria, and
viruses that attack us on a physical level. Just as cleaning our
physical environment helps eliminate such toxins, so clearing our
psychic environment does the same thing on its level. This is the
basis of the work of various yogis, shamans, and psychic healers,
and was also the original role of priests and magicians.
The great yogis and sages have always been aware of the subtle
environment. To those of inner vision, these inner influences are as
evident as the forces of the outer world, like sunshine or rain. To be
unaware of the forces of the subtle environment can be as dangerous as
to be blind to those in the physical world. Yet if we recognize these
subtle forces and adjust to them--like putting on a raincoat to go out
on a rainy day--we will find that most of our difficulties in life are
avoidable, and that a new dimension of spiritual growth will open to
MODALITIES OF PSYCHIC PERCEPTION
There are several ways to read our inner environment. Intuition is
perhaps the best thing. True intuition is a form of perception, not
mere imagination or emotion, nor is it the product of wishful
thinking. Unfortunately, much of what we may think is a real
perception of our psychic field may be imaginary, or may be a true
intuition mixed with false imagination. To develop such a real
intuition requires training in concentration, visualization, mantra,
There are persons who possess degrees of psychic perception. Yet
such psychics may not be truly helpful, even when their knowledge in
some respects is correct. Many psychics possess a light which, like a
flashlight, can illuminate some aspect of our lives. But a limited
light can be misleading. Though a flashlight might reveal something,
one cannot rely upon it for full illumination. One cannot use it, for
example, to drive a car at night. Psychic perception must be
integrated into a full spiritual vision, an openness to enlightenment
or Self-realization as the goal of life.
There are various subtle or occult sciences which help develop and
structure our intuition. Astrology, for example, most specifically
shows the subtle forces in operation in our lives, as transmitted via
the stars and planets. The astrological birth chart shows the subtle
energies which govern our life as a whole. It is like a map of our
subtle environment and its forces through the current incarnation. The
astrological chart done for any particular day and place reveals the
general or collective subtle environment.
Natural healing systems aligned with various yogic and spiritual
practices--like the Ayurvedic medicine of India, or Tibetan medicine
--contain an entire science of diagnosing and treating the subtle
body. Subtle body disorders are mirrored in mental and emotional
conditions, in dreams, and in nervous system and sensory derangements.
Treatments for the subtle body include subtle sensory modalities like
aromas, colors, and gems, the use of breath (pranayama), mantra, and
meditation. Certain foods and herbs also have their benefit. Such
treatments usually occur as part of various rituals.
Meditation, which helps us to observe and understand the workings
of the mind, is central to any clear psychic insight. It removes the
limitations of the ego which tend to distort our perception and cloud
it with desire.
FORMS OF RITUAL
The best way to change our subtle environment is through various
rituals, which produce a subtle energy that can clear or alter the
psychic realm. We can learn to harness the latent subtle forces that
exist within the physical world.
Most rituals involve invoking and offering various essences or
precious items from the world of nature. In typical Hindu puja (ritual
offering), these involve the essences of the five elements and their
corresponding sensory qualities.
Earth--A fragrant oil (like sandalwood)
Water--Sweet food or pure water
Fire--The flame of a ghee lamp
Of these five, incense is perhaps most important as well as easiest
to use. Incense creates a subtle aroma which removes stagnant energy
from our psychic environment.
Different types of incense have their respective properties and can
be used for specific effects. For example, sandalwood is cooling and
calming, and reduces fever, agitation, and anger. Jasmine is
invigorating and purifying to the heart. Fragrant oils can similarly
be used, either for anointing parts of the body (like the third eye)
or for anointing the altar or sacred space that we use.
The use of light or fire is another universal way to affect the
subtle realm of light around us. According to yogic science, it is
best to use a nutritive oil as fuel for the lamp. This helps nourish
the positive energies and entities of our subtle environment. Ghee
(clarified butter) is considered to be the best oil for lamps, but
other vegetable oils also may be used. Candles are helpful but do not
have the same effect as the nutritive oil in a lamp.
Wood fires are still more powerful, but should be limited to
special events. A special Vedic fire offering called Agnilotra, in
which cow dung is burned at precise moments of sunrise and sunset, is
considered the most powerful of Hindu rituals.
Many rituals involve the use of images, which may be the picture or
statue of a guru, avatar, or deity. Such forms help redirect our
mental energy, which in life is usually concentrated on a personal
form (family or friends), toward the forces of the subtle realm and
their benefic influences. Stone or metal statues are particularly
strong for carrying psychic energy. Through them, various Devas or
beings of the subtle world can be brought into our psychic
environment. The images themselves are not worshipped, but used as
conduits for higher forces. We could compare them to a picture of our
spouse that we keep at the work place to maintain a mental harmony.
Ritual generally requires an altar or sacred room. Like any action,
it requires the appropriate field for it to be done properly. A ritual
is a way of maintaining a garden of helpful astral forces, and like
any garden it must be tended on a regular basis. By creating a sacred
space, ritual cleanses and spiritualizes the subtle environment.
The main way of empowering ritual is through the use of mantra or
the repetition of sacred sounds. Mantra helps us to participate
mentally in a ritual, which is necessary to giving the ritual real
power. This is so because ritual is a way of inner action or
knowledge, not merely a mechanical procedure. There are various
mantras which relate to different ritual actions. These may be single
seed syllables like OM, words of praise to the deity words of
offering, or other propitiatory measures. Through mantra alone, which
is the internal ritual or ritual of the mind and does not require any
external substance, we can turn all of our actions into ritual.
RITUAL AND DISEASE
Most physical and psychological disorders begin with a derangement
of our psychic or emotional environment. For a disease to manifest on
the physical plane, it must first take root on the psychic plane.
There must be some stagnation in the aural field or some degree of
psychic vulnerability. Hence, clearing our psychic environment on a
daily basis is an important key to physical and mental health, as well
as an aid to spiritual practice.
Each part of our environment has its special requirements. The
kitchen, as the place where food is prepared and eaten, must be
rendered sacred. This is done primarily by preparing our food with an
attitude of love and respect. The bedroom, where we sleep and leave
our bodies daily to return to our souls, also requires beauty or
sanctification. The rooms of children, whose partially developed minds
and bodies are more vulnerable to negative psychic influences, must
also be protected. Our workplace, where we connect to the external
world with its destructive influences, also requires protection.
While it is best to create an altar or meditation room, we must
consider needs of the various spheres in which we live and perform
appropriate rituals. This does not mean that we must spend our entire
day doing rituals. It is no more necessary to do so than it is to
brush our teeth or sweep the floor all day long. But a certain period
of ritual action, about one hour a day, can be helpful.
Most societies have developed special classes of ritualists, such
as priests, yogis, shamans, or magicians. Even artists and doctors
have been given such roles in some cultures. Such knowers of ritual
are important for primary sacraments or special events such as birth,
death, marriage, or moving into a new house. Society needs such a
class of individuals and should give them proper compensation for
their invaluable service.
That such classes have at times degenerated and promoted
exploitation is no reason to reject them altogether. All fields of
human life can be abused by the human ego, but this does not deny the
value of the action itself. Even in the modern world we invest our
doctors, psychologists, and lawyers with a special religious aura, and
regard their actions with ritualistic awe. This only indicates an
ongoing social need for ritual and for those who are trained in its
From the yogic standpoint, what is important is to learn to master
the subtle forces. It is of little use to analyze them. Modern
psychology often emphasizes analysis of the psyche, especially
relative to personal patterns of a particular incarnation. Yoga
emphasizes changing this energetic pattern by learning how to use the
subtle forces. Yogic practice is a process in which ritual, posture,
breath, mantra, and meditation are used to enable us to recreate our
RITUAL AND SOCIETY
Ritual is of special importance for the collective life, for the
benefit of society as a whole. Collective rituals help clear the
collective mental field of its negative karma, and help create peace
and harmony in society, preventing war and other social disorders.
One of the most simple of all rituals is a collective prayer for
peace. Such prayers should always be directed toward peace for all
beings, for all creation, and should not be prayers on behalf of
particular countries, religions, or groups. The divisive interest
created by "particularist" prayer actually breeds further conflict.
One of the great problems in the modern world is that we no longer
have spiritually meaningful collective rituals. Our collective rituals
have become negative rituals of drama and sensation, sex and violence,
or political action aimed at defeating an enemy. Our mass media
generally projects a negative psychic field because it is the product
of inorganic forces and of commercial and political motivations. TV,
radio, and other media devices also emit vibrations that tend to lower
the energy of our psychic field. Unless we counter these influences
with positive rituals, the state of the world cannot improve.
Rituals are of special importance for young people, who need not
only social bonding but bonding with the world of nature and spiritual
reality in order to discover who they really are. Otherwise, young
people feel alienated and out of harmony with life. Lack of meaningful
ritual is surely a factor in the high rate of crime, depression, and
suicide among the young.
RITUAL AND MEDITATION
Some great spiritual thinkers, notably J. Krishnamurti, have
appeared to object to the use of any ritual. Such critics say that
ritual binds us to the realm of action and that ritual, being an outer
action, is useless for the pursuit of enlightenment or Self-
realization. Though such objections may reflect a lofty state of
awareness, they do not address the real purpose of ritual. Ritual
binds us to the realm of action only if it is done out of personal
desire. If it is done with the same intention that we keep the rest of
our lives in order, then it has its importance for all of us, even
those who may be enlightened.
In the true sense, ritual means right action, and any action done
rightly, with wisdom and compassion, is a ritual. We cannot avoid
action as long as we live. For action not to bind us, it must be a
ritual not in the personal sense but as a means of connecting with
cosmic being and its movement.
In this regard, meditation itself is the highest form of ritual or
right action. Few of us can go into a state of spontaneous meditation
whenever we choose to, but we can carry out rituals that help prepare
the mental field or create the sacred space in which meditation can
occur. As long as we are doing such actions in a preparatory manner,
they cannot harm us. From outer rituals, like fire offerings, we move
to inner rituals, like mantra, to arrive finally at the inmost ritual,
which is meditation. This is the true way of action for human beings.
Ultimately all of our action is a ritual, and each action sets in
motion certain forces which further either enlightenment or ignorance.
There is no neutral action. To become conscious of our actions and to
connect them with the benefit forces of the universe is the essence of
To restore the science of ritual is thus a spiritual and
psychological endeavor of the highest order. It is one of the
challenges of the coming millennia. Ritual creates the structure that
sustains our personal and collective lives.
David Frawley has written a number of books on the spiritual an
healing traditions of India. He can be reached through the American
Institute of Vedic Studies, P.O.Box 8357, Santa Fe, NM 87504-8357
David has given us specific permission to include this article in our
MOUNT KAILAS TEACHING Library as many of our meditational practices
can be interpreted as "ritual".
The Article originally appeared in "The Quest" magazine, Summer 1994
issue. "The Quest" is published quarterly by th Theosophical Society