Even today, I know several people born and brought up in my hometown Karkala, but currently working elsewhere, who will give anything to attend Karkala Karthikpunnav or Teru. These people plan their leaves for these occasions well in advance. One such person even threatened to resign from his post in the bank if he was not granted leave for these days. The rest of us, who cannot muster the gall to issue such threats end up becoming very distraught when we cannot attend these two festivals. Some of those who couldn’t attend these festivals in person claim that they could feel the sound of the temple bells ringing in their ears. This was particularly true of an uncle of mine who was serving in the army far away up north!
Why was there such a strong pull when it comes to these events ? What was so special about them ? Was it about meeting old friends ? Not really. One can meet them even otherwise. Was it about getting a glimpse of the devatAs? Perhaps not, since one can go to the temple anytime of the year and still find devatA there.
The key attraction in these festivals was the whole community in the town coming out and celebrating in unison. Taking part in elaborate rituals, chanting the Bahuparaaks, wearing the traditional clothes to serve the devAs and the bhaktAs, the fun and frolic that one has on the avabhRita day, singing and dancing while bringing our deva back to the temple from the avabhrita snAna – these are experiences one enjoys when performed communally. The feeling is hard to describe, for it involves transcending the mundane and experiencing the sublime. I am sure, this is the same feeling anyone who attends their Uru jAtre experiences.
Sadly, in the modern times, religion has been shoved into the private quarters. This is mostly a side effect of Reformation, which aggressively made religion a private affair. The modern secular capitalistic world that we live today is an ideological offspring of the Reformation. Hence there is not much surprise that in the modern world, there is a severe reduction (and in some places total elimination) of the traditional communal rituals which have been a part of every civilization so far.
It is not that rituals have died out. In fact rituals won’t die out since they have evolutionary aspect which has helped in the survival of humans in groups. The modern research show that even other primates such as the Chimps have rituals. So, the capacity and the need for rituals is not going away anytime soon. Instead we shall have modern rituals: After all, the flag-hoisting ceremony, the Parades are modern variants of ancient rituals. Except that they don’t seem to have the same kind of effect that the traditional ones, which evolved over centuries, have on the insiders belonging to the tradition.
Thus, to paraphrase a quote from Ashay Naik’s excellent blogpost on the theory of polytheism, the modern Hindu who quotes Tagore and derides rituals in favor of private worship is missing this crucial point that the heart of the primary religions such as Hinduism, Shintoism, Greek, Roman, Norse, Inca, Mayan, Native American Pagan religions, lies not in theology or abstract philosophy, but in the performance of rituals. No amount of “belief” can replace the experience one gets through these rituals. By this, I do not mean to say that theology or abstract philosophy is not important to primary religions, but there is a hierarchy of importance, and in in that hierarchy, rituals have always occupied a higher position. The counter-religions based on Mosaic Distinction understand this extremely very well. This is why when Rome was taken over by the adherents of the counter-religion, i.e Christianity, the first thing these christian ruler banned were the public rituals, including the famed Olympics.
It is in this light that one must view the recent bans passed by the secular government/courts on public events/rituals Jallikattu, Pashu Bali, and the restrictions imposed on public festivals such Dahi-Handi. This is the key reason why the secular government takes over the control of the temples. Let me be clear – I don’t think that the secular govt or the court is doing this out of any conscious hatred towards Hindus. However, since secularism is an offspring of reformation , the metaphysics and the ethics of the secularism will not exhibit any tolerance for public rituals. For a similar reason, this time due another variant of the reformation called cultural Marxism, we saw an agitation that wants to encroach into traditional religious spaces such as Sabarimala in the name of equality for all. Hence modernity’s indoctrination and the derision of rituals as primitive superstitions, or wasteful extravaganzas doesn’t come as a surprise.
The importance of public rituals was not lost on early Hindu nationalists such as the venerable BAlaga~NgAdhara tiLaka. The public Ganeshotsava celebrations which he instated played a crucial part in building communal unity. In the mahArAStra country, this festival is celebrated with great pomp and show like it should be. Public rituals always involved an element of fun, extravagance and mirth in them. They were not sad mechanical affairs like that dreadful modern ritual called the “convocation ceremony” where even the statements uttered on the dias sound more artificial than anything that is made in China. Contrast this with the ancient samAvartana ceremony where the brahmachArins take a ritual bath, anoint their bodies with fragrant sandalwood paste, wear new robes, and pay a visit to a learned assembly in a chariot or an elephant where the brahmachArin is introduced to the vidvad-sabha as a full fledged scholar.
Even the modern people yearn for public rituals. This is the reason why Halloween, the Easter Day parade, the New Year’s Ball attract so many people. After all, the Kiss on the New-year’s eve as the Ball drops, is just another modern ritual.This is the reason why the uprooted modern youth in bhArata’s cities seek to transplant Valentine’s day, which itself is a Christian appropriation of an ancient Pagan Festival, into the Indian ethos. Had we Hindus continued celebrating madanOtsava, there wouldn’t have existed any need for importing an alien festival. And while the modern Hindus mock the celebration of Holi with various reason (waste of water, color harms skin, color harms animals), the fact that they wanted to indulge in the la-tomatina festival shows how deep is the yearning for such public rituals. Their deracination has only resulted in hatred for the traditional rituals, but it hasn’t uprooted the yearning for rituals as such.
And there-in lies a very important lessons for all modern Hindus. By allowing others to encroach into our ritual space, either via legislation or via indoctrination, if we believe that we are helping to usher a superstition-free ritual-free society , we are mistaken. We would have only helped clear the space for some other rituals to take root, thereby voluntarily ceding space for another culture, another civilization. Nature abhors vacuum, and however much we want to imagine that humans are special and apart from the nature, we cannot escape the eternal truth about how embedded within nature humans are. Our elders knew this. Hence, the elders fought tooth and nail to preserve their way of life which is aligned with nature. We modern Hindus owe our existence and our prosperity to our ancestors way of life and their wisdom. And we might hate to admit it, but we do bear the burden of passing on their way of life to the future generation, for we are merely the custodians and not the consumer of the fruits of our elders’ wisdom. Hence, if anything we should be celebrating our festivals, our rituals with greater pomp and seek to please the devAs with more steadfastness instead of whining about extravagance.
Should we fail to understand this lesson and give up our rituals in the name of modernity, our fate and more importantly the fate of our future generations, as the 20th century sage DV Gundappa points out in his immortal words, will be like that of the blind and the lame whose old house is now demolished by modernity. We may not have a perfect vision about life, nor have gone places with these rituals, but at least the rituals provided us with comfort, and gave us the experience in which we could get a glimpse of something more sublime. These rituals made our lives more bearable. By snatching away the only thing which we have, with no suitable alternative to offer, what good does modernity promise to bestow upon us ?
ಹಳೆಯ ಭಕ್ತಿಶ್ರದ್ಧೆಯಳಿಸಿಹೋಗಿವೆ ಮಾಸಿ ।
ಸುಳಿದಿಲ್ಲವಾವ ಹೊಸ ದರ್ಶನದ ಹೊಳಪುಂ ।।
ಪಳಗಿದ್ದ ಮನೆಬಿದ್ದ ಕುಂಟ ಕುರುಡನ ತೆರದಿ ।
ತಳಮಳಿಸುತಿದೆ ಲೋಕ —— ಮಂಕುತಿಮ್ಮ ।।
And thanks to this wonderful video from the School of life which triggered the thought chain leading to this blog-post.
Update 1 : Joseph Campbell on what happens when a civilization loses Mythology and Rituals ?
Update 2: Do read my friend Hariprasad N’s blog where he explains how festivals are the latches that open the door to Moksha