The purpose of a ritual

If you remember the last scene of The Da Vinci Code movie, you will remember that the hero Dr Robert Langdon finds himself running with barely-concealed hurry towards the place where Mary of Magdalene, he deduces, must be buried. He is a non-believer, but he is also a historian. He is someone who pursues secrets of the past with great passion.

Langdon finds the spot finally, looks around to confirm his calculations, lines up the stars in the sky, and is finally satisfied that he is standing right over what countless others have died looking for — something that has moved the minds of men since the days of Jesus Christ. He is standing over real, tangible history.

He however, doesn’t know how to react to the moment. What he does know is that he can’t not react. The presence of history is too great for him to ignore. His passion for history and the invisible past is as great (if not more) as someone else’s might be for God and religion.

Perhaps because Langdon feels nothing else would aptly express what he feels, he kneels.

Mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik said at TED India this year, “Culture is a reaction to nature. And this understanding of our ancestors is transmitted generation to generation in the form of stories, symbols and rituals.”

Kneeling or bowing down to a higher power is a ritual meant to express the feeling of humbleness. It happens more often than many of us would admit to, but we are humbled numberless times in our lives. What one man feels in front of a deity, another may feel standing in front of grand canyon, while yet another might feel the same when his life has taken a bad turn and nothing seems to be going right.

Rituals are man’s different symbolic reactions to the different aspects of the world around him. They are man-made constructs designed to express that which cannot (should not?) remain unexpressed.

The idea is not something exclusive to religion either. If you were moved by the movie 3 Idiots, you may find yourself saying, “Aal Iz well” in remembrance of the feeling that the movie evoked in you. That’s a ritual too. Same goes for gestures like “Live long and prosper” and “May the Force be with you”.

Rituals are a part of life and therefore, inevitable, just like superstition or facial hair. It does not do to declare them evil or old-fashioned. Try and see if you can understand where they came from.