A religious ritual is a prescribed, routinized, and ceremonial action or set of actions, the function of which is symbolic and has specific significance to the performer and the performer’s community. On a very basic level, rituals are an inherent part of living. They can be seen in many forms of animal life, from ants to humans. The importance and power of ritual can be seen in the persistence of rituals in contemporary secular society. These range from greeting rituals to elaborate and highly complex governmental and national rituals. Religious rituals have additional deeply rooted meanings and functions, and they also serve as public or private displays of one’s commitment to and faith in a system of beliefs. Many of the various types of rituals that can be found in cultures and traditions throughout the world share common themes, patterns, and purpose. Ultimately, however, rituals serve as vehicles to create or enhance the proximity of the rituals’ beneficiaries to the realm of the divine, to influence the divine or supernatural, or to facilitate the attainment of power associated with the spirit being who is propitiated. In their enactment, rituals take individuals out of the ordinary realm of everyday mundane experience and create for them an opportunity to undergo something higher, more sublime, and closer to the divine. There are certain aspects and parts of ritual that can be found throughout the religious cultures of the world. The more common elements and themes are discussed below.
Purification and Sanctification
Because of the sacredness associated with most ritual performance, many are preceded by rituals of purification. These typically include physical cleansing of participants, ritual items, and ritual sites. Additionally, fasting, abstinence, solitude, and other similar practices may be performed. These are meant to help prepare the participants physically, emotionally, and spiritually to perform the subsequent rituals, as well as to receive the blessings, forgiveness, or powers that other rituals are meant to confer. Purification rituals may also be done on their own as a preparation for most everyday activities, from eating to working to sleeping.
Personal, Public, and Performer
When the individual who performs a ritual is a commoner or lay person, the ritual is generally a personal one. Rituals of ablution, prayer, meditation, offerings at a home altar, and so on are typically undertaken by lay persons as a part of the daily enactment of their religious beliefs. When the performer is a designated officiant, such as a priest or a shaman, then the ritual is a mediated one, undertaken for the benefit of another (usually a lay person). In such cases, the beneficiary of the ritual will likely pay the officiant, with money or goods, for the rituals performed. Most religious traditions have individuals who are specifically trained and officially authorized to perform such rituals. They are generally referred to in English as “priests,” and their primary function is to oversee both mediated and public rituals. The latter are meant to draw the community into joint participation and expression of acceptance of the beliefs and values being expressed by the ritual. They also function to promote a sense of unity, in which individuals are inspired to support and promote the communal system of behavior. Indigenous cultures often have shamans who perform rituals as well. In these cultures, shamans are called upon for special and individualized rituals, such as performing exorcisms, curing illnesses, warding off curses, and mediating with the world or spirits and ancestors.
Every ritual has a beneficiary, someone or something for which the ritual is undertaken. In a personal ritual, the beneficiary is generally the person who performs it. In a mediated ritual, on the other hand, the beneficiary is the individual for whom it is performed, or the inanimate objects for which or with which the ritual is enacted. An example of the latter is a ritual done to purify or sanctify a place or object. In the process, not only is the place or thing blessed, but the objects used in the ritual may then be seen as similarly sanctified. Typically, the rituals believed to be the most powerful are mediated ones, performed by qualified and authorized officiants.
Representational vs. Presentational
In explaining the role of symbols, Roger Schmidt provides the useful bifurcation of representational and presentational. The former has emblematic value, while the latter “presents” or shares in the essence of that which is symbolized. These categories are useful in application to ritual roles and functions as well. Secular rituals are, for the most part, representational in that they are not believed to cause any fundamental alteration of the participants. Their functions and significances are generally personal, social, symbolic, and not necessarily mandatory. Thus, attendance at one’s graduation ceremony, for example, is not a prerequisite to graduate. A particular type of greeting on meeting someone may be a traditional ritual but is not always required. Most religious rituals, on the other hand, are presentational. They are believed to have the potential to bring about a fundamental change in the rituals’ beneficiaries as per the particular ritual performed, and they are traditionally mandatory. A blessing of food actually alters the spiritual essence of the food. A marriage ceremony actually changes the participants spiritually, as well as legally and socially.
Not all religious rituals are presentational, however. A good example of the difference can be seen in the communion bread and wine preparatory rituals in Christian churches. During the ritual in those Protestant denominations that perform it, the bread and wine used are believed to be affected to a degree but not fundamentally changed by the ritual. Instead, they serve a symbolic, representational function. The Catholic church, on the other hand, believes that the prayers and rituals of the priest actually bring about an alteration of the substance of the bread and wine, so that they come to share in the essence of Christ’s blood and flesh although their outer form remains the same. The more indigenous and traditional a religion, the more its rituals are presentational. The more westernized and liberalized a religion, the more its rituals tend to take on a representational value and function.
A periodic ritual is one that is undertaken at regular intervals, such as daily, weekly, monthly, annually, and so forth. The purpose is to mark time, to establish or maintain a connection between the performers and their cultures or communities, and to inspire active and regular participation of members of a tradition in its beliefs and practices. They thereby help to enhance bonds between members of a religious community and their belief system. Such rituals can be either communal or individual and can be performed by the beneficiary or by an officiant. Examples include daily meditation, prayers before meals, Sunday mass, or full moon services.
Imitative or Sympathetic
Imitative or sympathetic rituals are rituals in which participants ceremonially remember or symbolically reenact special events in a religious tradition’s sacred past. The Christian practices of baptism and communion, the Jewish Seder, and the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca are some examples. Such rituals may be periodic, as those mentioned above, or may be performed for special occasions. An example of the latter is a ritual of healing, in which a shaman reenacts a past event when a healing occurred or imitates the behavior of a particular spirit whose function it is to dispel disease or disease-causing agents. These rituals have often been labeled “magic” by outsiders to the traditions in which they exist.
Penitential or Corrective
Most religious traditions have specific rituals that serve to cleanse a member of consequences of sins committed, bad karma, or other such actions, and to bring the member back into grace with the divine or spirit world, as well as with the community. Common elements in these include a ritual bath, ascetic practices like fasting, repetition of certain prayers, a period of solitude, and sacrificial offerings. They are to be performed with the hope, but not guarantee, that the supernatural being who is propitiated will grant forgiveness. As such, they are to be performed with an attitude of contrition and humility.
Rites of Passage
Rituals called rites of passage mark one’s transition through the various stages in life, from as early as conception throughout life until death, and even afterwards. They mediate and signify changes in individuals’ lives, conferring on them identity and status in their communities, taking them from one state of physical and social being to a greater one. At the same time, these rituals validate the traditions, values, and hierarchy of the culture. Drawing on the work of Arnold van Gennep, Victor Turner developed valuable theories with respect to rites of passage. Significant here is his identification of three stages that can be seen in most such rites: the pre-ritual state, the liminal or transitional state, and the postritual state.
Puberty rituals are typical of rites of passage and are an important part of many cultures’ process of adult identity formation. They function to transition youth from a state of relative freedom and social powerlessness to one of increased power, as well as increased social and familial responsibility. Prior to the puberty ritual, young boys and girls are viewed as children; they generally have few responsibilities or powers and relatively few distinctions. During the liminal state, which can last from a few hours to days or weeks, the youth are separated from the rest of the society and undergo a process whereby they are supposed to let go of their previous state of mind and prepare for their new identity as adults. At the end of the ritual process, the participants emerge with a new identity. Males are often expected to take more responsibility for the support and protection of their families. In many cultures, they now may be ready for marriage, and they can no longer freely mix with nonrelated females. Likewise, females become of marriage age after puberty, must now dress differently, can no longer play with their friends in the same way, must avoid all but necessary contact with nonrelated males, and so on. They are now women and are expected to fulfill whatever role their cultures assign that state. Thus, puberty rites confer more specified identities, roles, and responsibilities.
Another example of a rite of passage ritual is initiation, or ordination, into a renunciant religious order as a monk or a nun. This is a special ritual, since it is only undertaken by certain members of a culture. It essentially removes them from their families and from the society around them. At the same time, it elevates their status within that society. They are given special privileges as well as special restrictions. Their state can be viewed as one of “extended liminality,” in that they always remain as separate, even when living in the midst of the society. By their leaving the traditional social order in this way, they actually help to validate it. This is because they function to serve as protectors and teachers to those who remain in and support the society.
Arts as Ritual
Dancing, singing or chanting, music, and the various forms of visual art all have religious origins and continue to be integral to most religious traditions. The creation and performance of these are seen as ritual enactments. They are often preceded by rituals of purification, and their performances are believed to bring power or blessedness. As an example, Tibetan Buddhist monks ritually create elaborate mandalas, or sacred designs, using colored sand. The ritual is preceded by purification rites over the site and the objects used in creating the mandala. The actual creation can take up to a week. Once completed, it is followed by more rituals, and they conclude by sweeping up all the colored sand into an urn. Some of the sand is given to spectators, who see it as sacred and may keep it on their home altars, while the remaining sand is poured into a flowing body of water. The ritual is typically performed to bring healing to the earth. The dismantling of the mandala and dispersion of the sand reflects the Buddhist view of impermanence.
Vows and Rituals
Most people who do personal rituals do so as part of a regular adherence to religious beliefs. They typically integrate the rituals into their daily lives, along with eating, working, and so forth. On occasion or for special reasons, individuals may also add vows to their rituals. These take the form of promises to fulfill certain duties or abstain from certain acts for a specified period of time. They are generally done in combination with a vow to perform repeatedly a particular ritual for a certain number of times or days. An example of this is a Christian’s vow of abstinence during Lent along with the performance of specific daily prayers, or a Hindu’s vow to fast on Tuesdays and make specific offerings at a Hanuman temple. Thus, vows and rituals go hand in hand. Moreover, it is believed in many cultural traditions that if one undertakes vows in conjunction with rituals, the latter will be more effective.
Rituals embody the religious tradition of which they are a part. On the empirical level, they facilitate individual identity formation while validating and reaffirming the beliefs, values, and social cohesion and stability of the community. On the spiritual level, they serve as vehicles, in one manner or another, to draw beneficiaries closer to the divine, to enhance communication with spirit beings, to provide access to supernatural powers, or to facilitate one’s path to salvation or enlightenment. Some rituals are seen to have little actual power, while others are believed to be highly efficacious. Traditional cultures tend to place far more emphasis on rituals and their powers. As a consequence, the lives of their adherents are much more ritually defined and supported. Moreover, there is an increasing view that many of the problems in urbanized and westernized society are exacerbated by the lack of ritual tools and supports to address them.
- Grimes, R. L. (1982). Beginnings in ritual studies. Washington, DC: University Press of America.
- Schilbrack, K. (Ed.). (2004). Thinking through rituals: Philosophical perspectives. New York: Routledge.