[Evertype]  The study of ritual as an aspect of human religiosity Home

The study of ritual as an aspect of human religiosity

Michael Everson

This paper was published in The Mankind Quarterly (Volume XXXII, Number 1-2, Fall/Winter 1991). Its intended audience was the community of historians of religions.
    Abstract: Our personal orientation to the world and to the material which we study – in other words, our own religiosity – has a great deal to do with the way in which we approach religious facts, especially those facts which do not allow themselves to be easily reduced to intellectual categories: for instance, the facts of ritual. The proposal of some scholars that ritual is “meaningless” is fruitless, in itself, but it is a good reminder that scholars must beware of their own methodological preconceptions. It is suggested that an adequate methodology for the study of religion will take the subjectivity of the observer and the participant in religious activity into consideration; and perhaps such a chastened subjectivity must be recognized as an integral part of the investigation itself.
Recent centuries have seen the remarkable “secularization” of human religious expression in European and North American civilization. Eliade’s description of nonhomogeneous space, time, and action as the bedrock of human religious expression still serves as a fine starting point for the investigation of such expression in human culture. Within our own cultural tradition, however, the secularization which followed from the elevation of reason and the intellect in the Enlightenment has in many respects obscured some facets of our own religious expression from our recognition of them as religious. We can point far more easily to examples of sacred space and sacred time than we can to sacred action; and ritual, taken as the most elaborate expression of religious action, has been for us the most difficult to discuss.[1] The essence of ritual as a fundamental human expression has not been satisfactorily described. In this essay I would like to suggest, in part, why this might be. It appears to me at once that the simplest reason for the unsatisfactory descriptions of ritual as a fundamental human expression is a pervasive feeling among investigators that we must distance ourselves from our subject; that, as students of religion, we investigate something which is a foreign object of investigation. In fact the subject of our study is not “humans and their expressions of religious experience”, as though we were studying a group of extraterrestrial oxygen-breathing sophonts from 40 Eridani, in much the same way, perhaps, as missionaries studied the extra-European “natives” they encountered not so very long ago.[2] While many of the comments to follow may pertain more generally to the study of religion, I will consider chiefly the study and description of ritual, taking as an initial focus an article which Frits Staal wrote just over a decade ago, and following with a recent work by the iconoclast Jonathan Z. Smith. The thrust of my argument will be to show that our own orientation to the world and to the material which we study – in other words, our own religiosity – has a great deal to do with the way in which we approach religious facts, especially those facts which do not allow themselves to be easily reduced to intellectual categories: the facts of ritual.

Staal’s (1979) article “The meaninglessness of ritual” draws on a number of assumptions about ritual, and about its investigation and our understanding of it, which lead him to a number of disturbing and untenable conclusions. Chief among these assumptions is his concern with absolutes and his tacit distaste for the unclarities which we must come to expect when we endeavor to understand humankind’s religious expressions. If such unclarities are reckoned with, the disturbing intellectual conclusion that ritual is meaningless need not be reached.

I must begin with a methodological question. Professor Staal says that he would not be able to come up with an adequate answer if someone were to ask why he writes about ritual (Staal 1979:3). I do not understand this at all. We may study religion and religious activities because we are concerned with the curious things folk do. We may study it because we find in ourselves a passion for the human condition and a sympathy for questions of Transcendence and its relation to humankind through what is sometimes called Salvation or Enlightenment. We may study it because we are interested in the growth and development of human consciousness and culture. But in any case we have got to have some idea why the study of religion and religious phenomena excites us, or we may find ourselves asking the wrong kinds of questions and getting the kinds of answers which only obfuscate matters.

When Staal suggests that “the science of religion failed to make the transition which would have turned it, like linguistics, from a respectable branch of scholarship into a contemporary scientific discipline as well” (Staal 1986:40-41), he proceeds on the assumption that subjectivity is incompatible with rigorous methodological investigation. I maintain that, especially when we deal with religion, the subjective may not be ignored. It is not the case that religious studies must be denied “the status of a science on the basis of the belief that religion cannot be studied objectively”, nor is it the case that this “implies that it cannot be studied at all” (Staal 1986:35). We must also come to understand the provenance of the subjective, both of the individual or tradition which we study, and of the cultural preconceptions which we have as investigators.[3] To the degree that we understand the matrix of our own conceptual mythology, to that degree can we free ourselves from those bounds and approach a genuine “objectivity” from which we can understand the subjectivity of another tradition in its own terms.[4] We must do this before we can begin to describe religious traditions with the vocabulary of our discipline and thereby come to a greater understanding of our inheritance as a religious species. Even in physics, relativity and recent work in quantum mechanics have demonstrated that the observer cannot be removed from the object of observation.[5] Religion is not the kind of subject which one can study through the dispassionate glass of feigned objectivity. True objectivism, were it possible, would lead to a highly reductionist behaviorism which could not serve to answer the real questions which we seek to answer. Sensitivity, intuition, and an ability to read between the lines enough to get inside and feel in some measure a given tradition, are the tools we must cultivate for our investigations. We recognize first that we too are homines religiosi, and we can move to understand the facts from a more objective distance as our discipline requires only after we have sacrificed a bit on the altar of our own subjectivity.

Staal begins with a critique of the common assumption that ritual is an activity concerned not with itself, but with its goal or end. The performers of ritual, he tells us, are totally absorbed with the correctness of their acts, recitations, or chants. “Their primary concern, if not obsession, is with rules. There are no symbolic meanings going through their minds when they are engaged in performing ritual” (Staal 1979:3). I do not see what Professor Staal is saying. Is ritual about the rules which govern it? Or is it more than that, perhaps a thing greater than the just the sum of the people involved, the involvement, and the rules guiding the two? We might properly consider ritual action to be action truly concerned with action: action done for the meaningfulness of the action itself, with consciousness centered on the action. This is not the same as being concerned with the rules. Does Professor Staal really mean to convince us that there are people who participate in ritual for the sake of the rules which govern the ritual? Who could they be? Perhaps they are members of the preliterate societies whom he says anthropologists have confined themselves to studying (Staal 1979:7). He certainly cannot be talking about (for example) a twentieth-century Anglican priest, who has studied in seminary some sort of history of the liturgy and the symbolism of the Mass. Yet the Mass is a ritual, and, given a certain variability of register (“High Mass”, “Low Mass”, “folk Mass”), the concern with proper performance of the ritual does not take the whole of the priest’s attention. For the priest, it is the meaning of the ritual which is important, and which feeds both faith and intention as the bread and wine are given to the congregation. The ritual is vital, for the meaning of the sacrifice and of the Lord’s Supper is here conveyed powerfully and nondiscursively. It can be conveyed in other ways, but the feel of it is different; that ritual aspect of the Christian religious tradition can only be properly understood ritually. If this seems tautological it is because it is tautological; but that does not alter its fittingness. Staal sees clearest when he sees this fact. He asks why:

    There is only one answer which the best and most reliable among the ritualists give consistently and with more than average frequency: we act according to the rules because this is our tradition.... The effective part of the answer seems to be: look and listen, these are our activities! To performing ritualists, rituals are to a large extent like dance, of which Isadora Duncan said: “If I could tell you what it meant there would be no point in dancing it.” (Staal 1979:4)
And indeed this is true. It is true about most subjects which resist reductionist approaches to their essence. Ursula K. Le Guin, writing about her fiction, said much the same thing, in terms which are, as it turns out, quite relevant to the study of ritual:

    In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it. Finally, when we’re done with it, we may find – if it’s a good novel – that we’re a little bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little, as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before. But it’s very hard to say just what we learned, how we were changed.

    The artist deals with what cannot be said in words.

    The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.... All fiction is metaphor.... A metaphor for what? If I could have said it non-metaphorically, I would not have written all these words, this novel.... (Le Guin 1979:x)

Ritual, like Le Guin’s “good novel”, is a thing which can transform. It may not do so in any way that can be treated effably. I do not mean to suggest that ritual action is nonsense, except in the most reductionist of senses, in which indeed everything is nonsense. We are all familiar with the contrast of sacred with profane, and we all know that anything, from animal dung to human sexuality, has been, can be, and will be either besmirched or ennobled by some person or people somewhere in the world. Sacred space, sacred time, and sacred action comprise some of the things we look at when we are exploring religious expression. I will take it for the time being – though this is by no means the only way the problem can be taken – that ritual action as sacred action is opposed to (or can be distinguished from) profane or ordinary action.[6] Proceeding from here, when we notice the vast multiplicity of human action that exists as potential for sacralization, we will not, as Frits Staal is, be discouraged when we find the interpretations of such action to be (logically) inconsistent within a tradition (Staal 1979:4). For any tradition, the origins of some ritual may have become lost in antiquity, and every tradition will have some sort of “rationalization” which recounts and perhaps “accounts for” the difficulties encountered by the changes which have occurred in the natural dynamics of the growth of the tradition. Such an account may be considered by the tradition to be completely True.[7]

Professor Staal has found that the Hindu tradition offers no “single consistent theory of ritual”, but rather a number of “intolerable” contradictions (Staal 1979:7). I am not convinced that this intolerability is in all cases warranted by the facts, or in any case that native dichotomies in descriptions of ritual should lead to our definition of ritual as meaningless. Staal begins by stating that the Vedic śrauta sūtras characterize ritual as consisting of substance (dravya), deity (devatā), and renunciation (tyāga). “The tyāgā [sic] is a formula pronounced by the Patron at the culmination of each act of oblation” (Staal 1979:6). The formula goes “agnaye idaṁ na mama”, which Staal translates as ‘This is for Agni, not for me’. But agnaye is the dative of agniḥ, and mama a genitive, so we might take this to read: ‘This is for Agni; it is not mine’. The effect of this renunciation of the fruit of the ritual need not be understood as a rejection of it. Where Staal cites the Bhagavadgītā I think he has misunderstood Kṛṣṇa’s intent:

    The notion of tyāga, “renunciation,” has attained an important position in Hinduism through the teachings of the Bhagavad Gītā. Here Śrī Kṛṣṇa advocates as the highest goal of life a mode of activity, in which acts are performed as usual, but the fruit (phala) of action (karman) is always renounced (karma-phala-tyāga). (Staal 1979:7)

A look at the Sanskrit suggests that the renunciation is not so drastic as Staal suggests:

    athaitad apy aśakto ’si
    kartuṁ madyogam āśritaḥ
    tataḥ kuru yatātmavān (Bhagavadgītā 12.11)

    Now if you are unable to do even that,
    take refuge in my discipline,
    in renunciation of the fruits of all action,
    in control of the self.

    kāryam ity eva yat karma
    niyataṁ kriyate ’rjuna
    saṅgaṁ tyaktvā phalaṁ caiva
    sa tyāgaḥ sāttviko mataḥ (Bhagavadgītā 18.9)

    When prescribed ritual is done
    simply because it ‘is to be done’, o Arjuna,
    abandoning attachment and fruits,
    the renunciation is considered true.

    na hi dehabhṛtā śakyaṁ
    tyaktuṁ karmāṇy aśeṣataḥ
    yas tu karmaphalatyāgī
    sa tyāgīty abhidhīyate (Bhagavadgītā 18.11)

    The embodied person is never able
    to abandon action entirely,
    but the one who has renounced the fruit of actions,
    is considered a true renouncer.

What I understand from this (and from other passages in the Bhagavadgītā) is not that the rites are considered inefficacious, but rather that their efficaciousness or inefficaciousness is not at question. It is a question of whether the aspirant is performing the ritual in order that he may attain the results which the ritual is purported to cause, or whether he is performing it for the deity to whom the sacrifice is dedicated regardless of subsequent results. If he sacrifices agnaye, for Agni, he may still reap the benefits of that sacrifice, that is, gain entrance into heaven or the like. I do not agree with Professor Staal that the Mīmāṁsā formula “agniṣṭomena svargakāmo yajeta” ‘he who desires heaven shall sacrifice with the Agniṣṭoma ritual’ and the tyāga-formulae are mutually exclusive. It is illogical to think that, if the complexities of the Agniṣṭoma ritual will get you into heaven, that just “agnaye idaṁ na mama” will keep you out; it seems to me, then, that the intent of all of this is to remind the sacrificer of the importance of the devatā, so that he does not get sidetracked into the magical effects which are said to proceed afterward.[8]

It is important that our understanding of what the fruit of ritual action is remains grounded within the framework of the tradition itself. Let us consider again the notion that “svargakāmo yajeta” ‘one desiring heaven will sacrifice’. One of the things which the Mīmāṁsā tradition does not do, is to ask the question “What is heaven?”. It is taken for granted that heaven is the goal of sacrifice. Paṇḍit Mohan Lal Sandal has taken up the question of sacrifice and its object:

According to the Mīmīṁsā school of philosophy, no act is possible without a motive.... An act performed without a motive is an act of a lunatic. The motive or object in view may be either visible or invisible.

What is the object of a sacrifice? It is to secure heaven; it is said [svarga kāmoyajeta, sic] ‘let one desirous of heaven perform a sacrifice.’ Here an agent is the performer; the heaven is the object and the sacrifice is a means to obtain it. We have therefore three factors; the actor, the object, and the act.

    Any person who is possessed of the desire to secure heaven is entitled to perform a sacrifice. No person can be said to be without such desire. Every human being possessing capacity, has a desire to secure heaven. The animals or birds cannot have such desire or capacity. (Sandal 1974:cv)
Sandal offers no discussion of what heaven is, only that it is ipso facto a fundamental exigency, a fact of human existence which is neither questioned nor questionable. Western popular tradition inherits the view that heaven is a kind of reward for good behavior and obedience to God and his commandments while here on earth. Is this the sort of thing we can understand svarga to mean? Perhaps indeed it is not. It is possible that Jaiminī’s 3rd century B.C. svargam can be properly glossed ‘to Transcendency’, and equated in part with the terms mokṣa and nirvāṇa..[9] Sandal’s “object” is by nature sacred; by performing the sacred act, the actor too is able to experience the Transcendent.

Jaiminī’s Mīmāṁsā Sūtras refer explicitly to the primacy of this desire for heaven in Vedic ritual. Whenever the goal of a specific ritual act is not given in a text, the “default” goal is svarga:

    tat sarvārtham anādeśāt.
    ekaṁ vā codanaikatvāt.
    sa svargaḥ syāt sarvān praty aviśiṣṭatvāt.
    pratyayāc ca. (Jaiminī 1974:231, sūtras 4.3.13-16)

    That [ritual produces] the goal of all, because it is unspecified,
    and one [fruit], because of the rule of singularity.[10]
    This [goal] is heaven, because it is [a desire] common to all,
    and because of [our] experience.

For each ritual, then, the goal is either specified or it is svarga, and the fruit results from the proper performance of the ritual because that is the nature of ritual itself. Tyāga can apply therefore to any type of ritual: though the fruits are renounced, they still accrue from the activity of the ritual, phalārthatvāt karmaṇaḥ ‘because the goal is the fruit of an action’ (Jaiminī 1974:299, sūtra 6.1.4). It would be a mistake to consider this merely a reward for properly carrying out the sacrifice. In this respect one may suggest that svarga had a broader range of meaning than the narrow sense of “otherworld” which we might see at first; it may have had a spaciousness to contain less literal, that is to say more mystical, meaning than is typically attributed to it,[11] and be analogous, in some contexts, to mokṣa and nirvāṇa as suggested above.

We have seen that it is important to take a given tradition in its own terms before we can endeavor to explore it with our own categories, with the language of religious studies or the history of religions.[12] We must remember that we are always translating one set of terms not into equivalents, but into correlates, and we can hope at best that our transmythologizing is innocuous and careful, faithful to our documents: but transmythology it remains. Of paramount importance in this respect is the fact that religio-historical discussion traditionally makes no claim to Truth, in order to remain sober and steer clear of any “nonscientific” subjectivism.[13] But the mythological and ritual events we investigate have no such inhibitions; indeed, they regularly make claims to Truth, which our jargon and categories have not helped us to understand, much. Even where we have the useful category “the Transcendent”, how much work has been done which proceeds as though we didn’t? Our sources are interested in the Transcendent, not in “religion”: recall first that most traditions don’t even have a word for what we call “religion”; and second, that to them, our categories could well appear as mythological as theirs appear to be to us.

Recently, Jonathan Z. Smith endeavored to show that ritual was a complicated but arbitrary system for “the elaboration of relative difference”, which difference has to do with what …mile Durkheim called “two heterogeneous and incompatible worlds”, or what we might call the sacred and the mundane (Smith 1987:112, 39). This thesis is not satisfactory. Ritual, according to Smith, exists in order to classify the world: it “is systemic hierarchy par excellence” (Smith 1987:110). Louis Dumont’s ideas of hierarchy form the foundation for much of this argument.

    Dumont insists on a sharp distinction between systems of status and systems of power. Status is founded on the absolute dichotomy of the pure and the impure, and is expressed as a relative hierarchy of degrees of purity and impurity, with the priest at its summit. It is, essentially, a sacerdotal system. Power is dominance – a hierarchy of degrees of legitimate force, with the king at its summit. It is, essentially, a juridical system. (Smith 1987:54-55)
Dumont’s duality should not have been taken uncritically. In point of fact, systems of status can be built upon the respect one has for the wisdom of one’s elders (as in many traditional societies, and in Confucian China), and power can be a thing not of control, but of empowerment (again, as in many traditional societies, and as it appears to have been in neolithic Europe).[14] The kinds of maps of sacred space which Smith draws for us are utterly intellectual.

We have no choice but to recognize the chasm of difference and similarity between the ways in which we approach things and the ways in which an ancient or traditional culture would do so. As students of religion in the Western academic tradition, both Smith and Staal set out to try to make ritual make sense: intellectual sense. For either of them, sacred word, sacred space, and sacred action all must mean something, and, for them, “mean” means ‘signify to the intellect’. Smith seems unwilling to discuss the Transcendent at all; when Durkheim asks what it is that “[leads] men to see in the world two heterogeneous and incompatible worlds, though nothing in sensible experience seems able to suggest the idea of so radical a duality to them”, the italics are Smith’s (1987:39). He continues with Durkheim’s answer:

    It is, Durkheim argues, the alternation between the repetitiveness of ordinary life and the “effervescence” of celebratory ritual that gives rise to the duality.
      How could such experiences as these fail to leave in him [the aborigine] the conviction that there really exist two heterogeneous and mutually incomparable worlds? One is that where his daily life drags wearily along; but he cannot penetrate into the other [ritual life] without at once entering into relations ... that excite him to the point of frenzy. The first is the profane world, the second, that of sacred things.
    In other words, it is a distinction in the social experience of the quality of time that stands at the origin of the absolute spatial dichotomy of sacred and profane, which, in turn, generates the other cognitive dualities on which intellection rests. (Smith 1987:39-40)
There are a number of difficulties here, not the least of which is the immediate question: Is intellection predicated by cognitive duality?[15] It is the ellipsis in Smith’s citation of Durkheim which betrays his discomfort with the notion of the Transcendent: the sentence reads in full: “but he cannot penetrate into the other without at once entering into relations with extraordinary powers that excite him to the point of frenzy.”[16] Why censor out the Transcendent? The difficulty may stem from Smith’s apparent equation of the substantive “Sacred” with “Transcendent”. Ritual, he says, “is not a response to ‘the Sacred’; rather, something or someone is made sacred by ritual (the primary sense of sacrificium))” (Smith 1987:105). Here, ritual is a purely systemic abstraction, a kind of apology for paradox. Since, according to Smith, dualism is ostensibly inherent in human conceptualization, ritual must be repeated, either to underscore or abolish temporarily that tension between sacred and profane. In his chapter on the temple in Ezekiel 40-48, he sums up his findings:

    Ezekiel, by employing complex and rigorous systems of power and status with their attendant idioms of sacred/profane and pure/impure, established structures of relationships that were capable of being both replicated and rectified within the temple complex. Being systemic, they could also be replicated without. (Smith 1987:73)
The maps of sacred space in Ezekiel, he maintains, are “primarily conceptual” (Smith 1987:49). Now I am not a Biblical scholar, and do not pretend that I have a better answer to what is going on in the labyrinthine workings of Ezekiel’s text. But I am sure that what is not going on is an ancient Israelite concern for “establishing structures of relationships” for endless replication, or for maintaining a status quo authority, political or otherwise. I am not sure that the maps are primarily conceptual, even if they are not meant as architectural blueprints. I am sure that they are symbolic, and I think we will get further along in understanding the symbolism of this text by looking at traditional commentary on it. I should be surprised to discover that Hebrew tradition finds the text to be about status or power or structural hierarchies. The text does differentiate, as Smith points out, between the role of the Zadokite priests and the Levite priests, and offers a kind of hierarchy for other persons and their dealings with the temple (Smith 1987:57-65 passim). But the important thing is not who gets to do what in the temple; it is that YHWH wants it that way.

The thrust of Smith’s argument is ostensibly to treat “the issue of ritual and its relation to place” (Smith 1987:xii). He is interested in a broad, “generic” investigation which may shed light on the problem of ritual as a religious fact. Smith’s discussion of place qua place has many merits: his critique of Eliade’s lococentric model of sacred space (the axis mundi in Tjilpa cosmogony) is most trenchant (Smith 1987:1-17); and his citations of the work of geographers Edward Gibson, Alan Gussow, and especially Yi-Fu Tuan suggest valuable new insights into the meaning of sacred space. But, unfortunately, Smith lets his analysis take him much too far.

The crux of the problem is that Smith exalts place rather too much. “Ritual is, first and foremost, a mode of paying attention”, he says, and “place directs attention” (Smith 1987:103). But he has neglected any reference to whatever else in life and ritual also directs attention. Is place what makes a thing sacred? Professor Smith cites Rabbi Akiva’s passionate exhortation that the Song of Songs not be profaned by making it into a dirty drinking song in order to support his claim that the issue is not the content of religious forms, but the location in which those forms are found (Smith 1987:104). While Smith calls the Song of Songs an “erotic ditty”, the attentive reader can easily guess that Akiva considers it to be sacred. Smith, it seems, will allow the songs their sacredness “sheerly by virtue of their location” (Smith 1987:104). Who is right? My money is on Akiva. What Smith is trying to do is emphasize the fact that sacredness and profanity are not inherent in objects, but attributed to them. This has been observed above as well. But where we cannot agree with him is in his supposition that “[t]he sacra are sacred solely because they are used in a sacred place”. This simply does not follow. To be sure, place has much to do with sacrality and consecration; but it is not the source of the sacred as Professor Smith would have it. Rather, it is the Transcendent toward which place and implement, actions and intention reach which is the source of holiness.

It does not seem that one can rank place over movement, for example. Intention, however, the yearning for the Infinite, is something to which we can attribute priority. It may be seen that the category of intention rescues the researcher from the obligation of relentlessly seeking diachrony in the genesis and development of ritual forms. We may wish to discover such things, but we may be content as well with the valuable task of determining how such forms work with respect to the Transcendent. The analogy between ritual dichotomies and Roman Jakobson’s overstrong notions of phoneme theory, of which Smith makes much, simply doesn’t help us get very far in understanding ritual (Smith 1987:110).[17] Oddly enough, however, it is a point on which Staal and Smith agree: it leads to the conclusion that ritual is without sense in itself. For Smith, the meaninglessness of ritual is derived from the “arbitrarily demarcated boundaries” of purity and impurity; and meaning is predicated on dualism. For Staal, the meaninglessness of ritual is caught in a web of confusion as to how meaning should be sought in the first place.

The source of this confusion in Professor Staal’s argument is that he often uses the words function, meaning, significance, and usefulness interchangeably. His functional approach is apparent: he says that cultural values (gods, myths, kinship systems and the like) “are most readily transmitted by grandmothers and through language, and there is no need for them to be transmitted by other means” (Staal 1979:8). In point of fact I would suggest that much of the heart of a culture can be transmitted through what it does and how it does it, and I refer the reader again to the comments of Duncan and Le Guin above. How “readily” such cultural values as a sense of mystery and play are transmitted is a matter of interpretation and understanding. Several times Staal describes ritual action as “useless” (Staal 1979:10, 11); he distinguishes readily enough between “ritual and ordinary” activity (Staal 1979:10), which we might understand as a distinction between sacred and profane.[18] Sacred activity, such as drilling a fire, might be distinguished from profane activity, such as lighting a match, by its intention. Intention is as hard to measure as sacredness: there is certainly a sufficient number of human cultures in which distinctions of sacred and profane would seem irrelevant or even silly (tautological and self-evident at best), cultures which are less self-conscious than is our own, so constantly concerned with the whys of things. The tradition of Buddhist vipassanā meditation, for example, might be considered to stress the sacredness of all activity in its approach to mindfulness (sampajañña). We may be uncomfortable at times with the applicability of terms like sacred and profane, but it is plain that they are less offensive than useless and useful. Staal cites Huizinga and Caillois as pointing out the similarities between rites and games, and appears to agree that they “are equally unproductive” (Staal 1979:10). Indeed rite and game are in some cultures very much bound together, as Colin Turnbull so poignantly demonstrated for African and English cultures (Turnbull 1983:23-123, esp. 105-08). Neither are unproductive, and both are essential for the survival of a culture.

It is true that a peculiarity of the Vedic tradition is that the exact and precise performance and pronunciation of the ritual and its texts is vital to the efficacy of the ritual. This conservatism is, however, not the hallmark of a dead tradition, but rather a sign of the tradition’s vitality. It is the fact that the rituals were highly respected and valued that they were preserved even when the earliest understanding of their origins and purpose may have been forgotten. It is most emphatically not the case that Vedic mantras were transmitted without change because they had become meaningless (Staal 1979:12). Rather, though meaning in many instances had become obscured, it was in this instance the form which was considered more important. We should not have commentarial texts such as the Brāhmaṇas if Vedic texts had been transmitted by men who possessed no understanding of them.

I do not believe that we can agree with Staal about the uselessness of ritual. The most curious fact about rituals, he says, is that they

    are always guarded jealously and with extreme conservatism. This is directly explained by the theory that ritual has no meaning. A useful institution is open; it may undergo change, because efforts are made to render it more (or less) useful. A useless institution is closed; it is not understood and therefore can only be abandoned or preserved. (Staal 1979:11)
We cannot justify the placing of our own utilitarian framework upon a system alien to it. Nor does usefulness equate to meaningfulness. Intentional action can be useful without being particularly meaningful: carrying a bag of groceries, for example, need not mean anything; it may be just a form of transportation. On the other hand, an action can be meaningful without being useful: we have all tried at one time or another to offer a handshake even while carrying that bag full of groceries. It is very neat to move, as Staal does, from meaning to “‘changing meaning’ to: ‘no intrinsic meaning’ and ‘structural meaning’, and from there to: ‘no meaning’” (Staal 1979:11). But such a linear development toward a definition is not particularly convincing. Perhaps it is a mistake to try to define ritual in the first place (Staal 1979:8). Describing it is another matter; that is science. But ending up with the hypothesis that ritual has no meaning, goal, or aim (Staal 1979:8) is not going to get us very far in our discovery of human religious experience, for clearly if some ritual has a meaning, goal, or aim, even if some other does not, then one of the descriptions we are entitled to give to ritual is that it may have meaning, goal, or aim; and so the hypothesis that it is meaningless is not meaningful. We can safely say that ritual action is distinguished by its intention to deal in some way with what we have called the sacred. What ritual is, is action. It is sound, it is light, it is movement. It need not have intellectual content to have meaning, though this notion may stretch our definition of meaning somewhat. Indeed meaning derives from connection, in its simplest sense (“dark clouds mean rain”); this common usage has no intrinsic “intellectual content” hidden within. Meaning is meaning, in the vague and wonderful sense we use the word when we talk to each other. In philosophy, we may want to make it small and precise; but in the study of religion, that is a mistake. We have to learn that when we ask “What does ritual mean?”, we must immediately qualify our query: “To whom?”, “When?”, “Why?”, and, importantly, “How?”.

Professor Staal’s structural description of ritual (Staal 1979:16-19) is of some interest, especially for exploring structures within a given tradition or in comparison between related traditions, though I would question how far we might go with it, methodologically. I do not see how a typological, structural (“syntactic”) account of ritual in different cultures will tell us any more about ritual as a phenomenon than syntactic analyses of language have taught us about the (to my mind) fictitious “universal deep structure” of human language.[19] Both language and ritual are linear events in time, and as such must manifest themselves sequentially. It seems to me that as a symbol user, early man would have had more luck connecting structured sounds with their meanings if they were ordered rather than random, especially as the system grew more complex. “The ritual origin of syntax” (Staal 1979:20) cannot stand as a description of the origin of syntax for the simple reason that it separates and segmentalizes facets of human activity which were never separated. Action and sound were always connected; if an early hominid simply happened to point to a piece of fruit and cry out *“Nob!” ‘Give!’, and if he or she got the fruit, the connection might have been made. The connection is not ritual, and the addition of an element *yi ‘to me’ does not change this. *“Nobyi” or *“Yinob” may have served equally well at the level at which Professor Staal seems to be discussing the question (Staal 1979:14, 19-20), and, indeed, in many synthetic languages (like Sanskrit), word order is virtually free. Syntax, and semantics, may be thus subsumed into the pragmatics of human action.

Linear events must, as I have said, have some order to them. Why repetition is important to ritual is another matter. Features of transformational, and even of generative grammar, may be of some use as we develop a typology of ritual action. Ritual activity does embed, and it does modify (Staal 1979:18-19); but the derivation of rules for determining (read: “predicting” à la méthode scientifique) that process is doomed to the failure of other behaviorist or determinist approaches to human activity.

Professor Staal says that a syntactic analysis of ritual “demonstrates that the assumption that rituals express meanings like language is not only unnecessary, but inaccurate and misleading” (Staal 1986:43). But meaning and language are not identical. Language (or speech) is but one way of expressing meaning. Meaning, as may be guessed, is a matter of pragmatics and of the subjectivity of human experience. It may be expressed in symbolic representation, simple or complex, such as art, song, speech, poetry, dance, or formal and elaborate ritual. These expressions need not express meaning in all instances.[20] I think that, typically, they do. But it should be said that I myself believe that life is meaningful, or at least meaningful to us, which, subjectively, amounts to the same thing.

I am neither shocked nor depressed that Professor Staal has pronounced ritual to be complex and meaningless. It is complex, and full of significance, since it is a tenacious and vital part of human activity. What meaning ritual has may be intuitive, symbolic, subjective, and ineffable. But meaningful it is. Our business as students of religion is to understand how ritual is meaningful; how it assists us in expressing ourselves and our relation to our world and to the Transcendent; and how its ubiquity reflects the fundamental human need to symbolize and express our relation to what we understand as the Transcendent. It is in the final analysis a matter of human culture, enacted by men and women, sometimes alone, more often in community. It is therefore a question of subjective experience. As we describe it, soberly, and as objectively as we can, we are describing the real experience of a real person or group of people. As we describe, we are expressing our own subjective experience of “the other”. Recognition of this essential fact frees us to step back into a more objective viewpoint, and thus we can begin to make real progress in the study of human ritual expression.[21]

We all of us know times, places, and deeds which are for us sancta sanctorum. The forms of religious festival, architecture, or ritual reflect somehow this basic fact: that the Transcendent and we have something to do with one another. Like it or not, we run into the Transcendent whenever we look at religious matters. I don’t think ritual is arbitrary. I think we might find fruit in looking at ritual in the Light of the Transcendent. Will this endanger our objectivity? It can be argued that the theologian, not the historian of religion, should be interested in the Reality of God. The exegete, not the hermeneut, is in the business of apology and conversion. But don’t we students of religion still have to take a theologian seriously when we look at one? No one requires us to “believe” that in the Transubstantiation the bread becomes flesh, or that in the Darśapūrṇamāseṣṭi the priest becomes God.[22] But we have no choice: we must take our documents seriously or we have no business looking at them.

We cannot afford to think of the people we study as though they were not our brothers and sisters. We cannot allow our conceptual categories to be equated with theirs. We may not gloss over the Transcendent as though it were not there. When we have tried these things before, we have led ourselves to think that ritual is meaningless, or some weird abstract way of creating social power. Common sense tells us that this is not the case. What is a right way of approaching things, then?

We turn back to Eliade on this point. We remember that we act. We live in space. We count time. We notice that some of our spaces are not the same as others, that some times feel differently from others, that our actions too lack homogeneity. We love, we hurt, we touch, we laugh, we nurture, we kill, we cry. When we do these things we are amazed. The feeling for the numinous is not that rare thing which makes some people into homines religiosi. It is what makes us all human. Homo sapiens sapiens is identical with homo sapiens religiosus. If the scholarly study of religions has taught us anything, it has taught us this.

It is time for us open a window and let the breeze clear out the musty halls of positivist objectivism. How else could we properly study the vitality of human religious expression? This is the challenge which we must face as we take our discipline from the nineteenth century into the twenty-first. Our teachers taught us much in the way of better methodologies; but what does not work ought not be passed on. We, after all, are the teachers of the next generation.


[1] “Sacred concepts”, a category which Eliade might well have included in his model, are easier still to point to. Political and social tenets with respect to “Liberty” and “Justice”, for example, form a complex and pervasive mythology which has been given virtual canonical status in the constitutions of most modern nations. Back to text.

[2] It seems a little stupid to have to say this in this way. Of course we are humans. But a recognition of the commonness of our humanity is requisite for the universalities we hope to discover about the fundamental essentials of human religious experience, and as such must form a part of our methodology for religious investigation. If, for example, we wish to talk about ritual masks and costumes, we should first remember that we too from time to time put on masks and costumes for special occasions. It feels a certain way for us to do that. It probably does not feel at all the same way for the Iroquois, when they don ritual costume; indeed if it did we should be surprised. But it still incites certain feelings for them and our investigations must always take that into account. The feeling arises as a part of the nonhomogeneity of action which is ostensibly one of the points of our investigation in the first place. Back to text.

[3] Our role as investigators is key here. If I want to learn Dutch, it helps if I can remember that I know English and German. On reflection, I can see that sometimes those two languages will help me in my attempts, and I can do well to use what I know to make my learning Dutch easier. But I can also see that there are points at which I will be much hindered if I cling to English or German structures: and I am better off if I endeavor to avoid relying on them. Only that way will my Dutch be Dutch. In many respects, an important theme behind this essay and for the student of religion is the axiom γνῷθι σεαυτόν. Back to text.

[4] If, for example, we were to consider the Puruṣa-sūkta to be a creation myth, we might be imposing our own biases on that document. Our tradition has accustomed us to understand the universe to have been created by a Creator: the potter and the pot of Jeremiah 18. But the Puruṣa-sūkta is no creation myth; it is a cosmogonical one. There, the Universe is not Made, It is Emanated: Púruṣa evédáṁ sárvaṁ yád bhūtáṁ yác ca bhávyam.... Táto víṣvaṅ vy akrāmat sāśanānaśané abhí. ‘It is the Man which is all this, that which has been and that which is to be.... Hence he expanded out in all directions into those which eat and those which do not eat’ [that is, into animate and inanimate, or, perhaps, embodied and unembodied beings] (Ṛgveda 10.90.2,4). Back to text.

[5] Staal maintains that the kinds of rules described from the rituals he studies are in fact features abstracted from events. There can only be so great a degree of abstraction. If in fact, “the laws of physics do not correspond to specific events that take place in [his] garden, but to features abstracted from such events” (Staal 1986:41), I for one would like to see that garden. The abstracted laws must still be applicable to the specific horticultural events, or they must be understood as incomplete. Back to text.

[6] In fact the dualistic polarity between sacred and profane ignores an important third category, that of neutral action, space, or time. Deprecation, indifference, and exaltation are three levels upon which we evaluate our world. I take it as given that the specific evaluation of whether a thing, place, or act is sacred, neutral, or profane is subjective with respect to the individual, the tradition, and the individual within the tradition. (On the other hand, even this distinction is not wholly satisfactory: indifference and neutrality are illusory. Since it is probably still best to distrust dualism in this matter, I suggest that the best terms for the continuum along which we humans organize things might be sacred/mundane/profane.) Back to text.

[7] Lori Kenschaft has suggested to me that such accounts might, as well, “be accepted as not true, but meaningful anyway”. Back to text.

[8] Cross-cultural study may show that the “magical” efficacity of ritual is not of necessity a ubiquitous notion. “Magic” may be considered the “supernatural” result of a sacred action, immediately visible in some fashion or other. Vedic ritual leading to heaven would not be considered magical, but rather an “essential” or “spiritual” action. The Transubstantiation in Christian tradition is more difficult; various factions have preferred either to name it “mystery” or to call it simply “symbolic”. In the former sense it is both magical and occult, since no transformation is directly perceptible by the participants in the ritual. It is not my intention to offer a coherent terminology for such things here, merely to point out that as sacred action there is a difference among them with respect to their intention and to the obviousness of their reputed results. Back to text.

[9] I am aware that many Buddhists would balk at a glossing nirvāṇa as ‘the Transcendent’, and I use the term here only to refer to nirvāṇa as “the highest and ultimate goal of all Buddhist aspirations” (Nyanatiloka 1980:128). To the historian of religions, the term “the Transcendent” suffices as well as or better than any other, as a general term appropriate to this, the remarkable feature of human aspiration which is the matter of our subject. Back to text.

[10] When none is specified, the assumption is that only one fruit accrues, and that it is the highest (svarga). Cf. Sūtra 4.3.10 in Jaiminī 1974:229, and Sandal 1974:lxxix. The translation used here is my own. Back to text.

[11] In much the same light as many Christian mystics have taken Jesus’ ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. Cf. Logion 3 from the Coptic Gospel of Thomas: tMn̄tero sm̄petn̄houn` auō sm̄petn̄bal`. Hotan etetn̄šansouōn tēutn̄, tote senasouō̄ tēne auō tetnaeime je n̄tōtn̄ pe n̄šēre m̄pEiōt` etonh. ‘The Kingdom is within you and around you. When you know yourselves, then you will be known and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living Father.’ Back to text.

[12] A distinction which need not be addressed here. Much could be made of it, in the nit-picky way in which the Academy likes to address itself. But getting involved in the hairsplitting of methodological categories is not my intention; I hope only to propose a more sensible and honest way of getting at things than is commonly met with. Perhaps one day we will have a methodology in which the barrier of “I” and “other” will be unimportant except insofar as it is celebrated; in which case we will have become less afraid of “Religion” and more aware of “Ways”. Back to text.

[13] Roger J. Corless has noted that, in the history of the study of religion, it became “more and more regarded as a ‘subjective experience’ (so that it is, perplexingly, implied that there can be something objective which is not experienced), and subjective experience itself became more and more discounted, whilst it was in something that began to be called ‘science’ that practice and theory remained united” (Personal communication, 1988-05-05). This dread of the “subjective” is a significant philosophical and conceptual roadblock which we would do well to bulldoze away. Indeed, if religion is not rooted in experience it is less than nothing. To continue to study religion in this fashion is folly. Sic transit gloria positivistarum. Back to text.

[14] On this last point, Riane Eisler has used Jean Baker Miller’s dichotomy of power for oneself and power over others in her recent work. She suggests that a symbolic system in which the power to inspire others to do is central is a symbolic system both more powerful and more sane than systems based on the dominator-model (Eisler 1987:193, 238 n.46). Back to text.

[15] “Either/or” is a very Western way of looking at things, and has something to do with the win/lose dominator-model of power mentioned above. “Both/and”, a win/win model of power, and a whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts way of looking at things are perfectly good examples of other human orientations which predicate intellection. Back to text.

[16]See Kees Bolle’s review of Smith’s To take place, to appear in History of Religions. {Reference not to hand} Back to text.

[17] My italics here. Back to text.

[18] There are some flaws in the analogy in any case. Let us consider the linguistic category of “voice” on the one hand and the ritual category of “sacred space” on the other. In the first case, we have a distinction between /p/ and /b/ such that /p/ is a bilabial stop [-voice] and /b/ is a bilabial stop [+voice]. In the second case, a distinction between /impurity/ and /purity/ would seem to be determined thus: we would find /impurity/ in blood [-temple] and /purity/ in blood [+temple]. A peculiar way of looking at things. And why Smith thinks that “water is the central agent by which impurity is transmitted” is beyond me; in my experience, at least, water has always been a thing of cleansing, whether in the shrine or in the shower. I grant that another’s subjective experience might differ. Back to text.

[19] Cf. note 6, above. Back to text.

[20] Attempts (which still continue!) at proving whether VSO or SVO or OVS (etc.) is the underlying template for the syntax of human language are based in biological or behavioral determinism. Real speakers always break such rules, and the “transformations” applied to account for this tend to ignore questions of perception (in the sense of the Buddhist viññāṇaṁ) and of diachronic innovation (the intermediate “rules” for the transition from synthetic to analytical verbal structures within languages like Welsh or Hindi are never given). (Cf. Chandola 1977:4-8, 48-50, 96-98.) Back to text.

[21] Consider such expressions as abstract art, syllabic chanting, glossolalia, or Velimir Xlebnikov’s experiments with poetry. Meaningfulness here may be a matter of interpretation. Elaborate, formal ritual still seems to me to convey some meaning (again, a matter of interpretation), even if that meaning cannot be reduced to words. Back to text.

[22] Cf. Śatapathabrāhmaṇa, where the sacrificer with his vow moves from impurity to purity: Satyam eva devā anṛtaṁ manuṣyā. “Idam aham anṛtāt satyam upaimī” ’ti tan manuṣyebhyo devān upaiti. ‘Indeed truth is the gods, untruth humanity. [Saying] “Now I pass from untruth into truth”, he passes from humanity to the gods.’ Back to text.


Chandola, Anoop. 1977. Situation to sentence: an evolutionary method for descriptive linguistics. New York: AMS Press.

Eisler, Riane. 1987. The chalice and the blade: our history, our future. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Geertz, Clifford. 1983. “‘From the native’s point of view’: on the nature of anthropological understanding”, in Local knowledge: further essays in interpretive anthropology. New York: Basic Books, pp. 49-54.

Jaiminī. 1974. The Mīmāmsā sūtras of Jaiminī. Translated by Mohan Lal Sandal. (Sacred Books of the Hindus; 27) New York: AMS Press. Reprinted from the 1923-25 Allahabad edition.

Le Guin, Ursula K. 1976. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Harper and Row.

Nyanatiloka. 1980. Buddhist dictionary: manual of Buddhist terms and doctrines. 4th edition, revised by Nyanaponika. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society.

Sandal, Mohan Lal. 1974. Introduction to the Mīmāmsā sūtras of Jaiminī. (Sacred Books of the Hindus; 28) New York: AMS Press. Reprinted from the 1925 Allahabad edition.

Smith, Jonathan. 1987. To take place: toward a theory of ritual. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Staal, Frits. 1979. “The meaninglessness of ritual”, in Numen 26.1:2-22.

Staal, Frits. 1986. “The sound of religion”, in Numen 33.1:40-41.

Turnbull, Colin. 1983. The human cycle. New York: Simon and Schuster.

From The Mankind Quarterly Volume 32, nos. 1 & 2, Fall/Winter 1991, pp. 57-75.
HTML Michael Everson, Evertype, 73 Woodgrove, Portlaoise, R32 ENP6, Ireland, 2002-10-20

Copyright © 1993-2006 Evertype. All Rights Reserved