Sunday, October 6, 2013

Rituals without Meaning

Human beings rely on habit and rituals to an extent that they form rituals for everything in life, either big or small. Cutting a birthday cake is a classic example. Why cake and why not a boiled egg? Why does a bride have to be dressed in an expensive outfit and look best on her wedding? Why can't we just get married in normal everyday casual clothes? Rituals have taken over our minds, because we've stopped thinking who we really are and what we really want.

If we look closely, our lives are actually ruled by rituals and tradition since the day we're born. The family  introduces us to religious rituals from the very next day, whether its saying the “Azaan” in the baby's ear, or pouring holy water over the baby’s head. As the child grows older, he notices more and more rituals and subconsciously believes that’s the only way, or the right way and everyone else's way is unacceptable. And as adults it’s hard to let go of the channel we grown up in, and so these traditions we learn in childhood become a part of our everyday life without even questioning them or finding out their importance and what they mean to us.  Now in particular, I don't have any problem with rituals, but what I do have a problem with is their significance and their importance in our lives. It's hard for me to understand that why someone would want to spend their lifetime's saving on their daughter's wedding when they could do a lot of other useful things with that money. Why would someone who doesn't even like cake want to cut cake on their birthday? Why doesn't a bride ever wear black? Why should we get buried wrapped in white cloth and not red? I came across this story which sort of answers some of my perplexities.

As a little girl watches her mom prepare the Easter ham, she wonders why her mother cuts off both ends of the ham before putting it in the pot. So, she asks why, and her mom realizes that she doesn't know. That's the way her mother prepared the Easter ham.
So they call grandmother and pose the question about cutting off the ends of the Easter ham. Grandmother admits to not knowing either. She just prepared the ham the way her mom did it.
Their next call is to great-grandmother. When they ask her about her method of preparing the Easter ham, she laughs. Then she says, "It was the only way I could get the Easter ham to fit the small pot I had!"

So the point being, most of us have no clue as to why we're following a certain custom anyways! And it gets worse. We start arguing like little tots about why “our way” of doing things is better than everyone else. I think that we get lay way too much importance in act of performing the ritual that we forget the deeper meaning behind it. It’s often forgotten that it’s far more important for the  couple to be happy on a wedding , then spend fortunes on the event and costumes. The idea is celebration, and it doesn't necessarily have to be elaborate.  Even when it comes to religious rituals, often the meaning or significance behind the ritual is lost, and the ritual itself becomes the main importance. Comes Eid and everyone here in Pakistan are all set to slaughter their well decorated, ornament wearing,  henna tattooed , goats but if you stop and ask them “Why?”, then most of them would give you confused , half baked , incomplete  answers . Hardly anyone understands the central meaning behind it which is to sacrifice from what you have in order to give to the poor, and also distribute among family friends and neighbors in order to spread love and peace in the society. If we notice, all religions teach these basic values of humanity, but differ in traditions and rituals. So beneath the symbolism, the meaning is the same. So isn't that the same as 2+2, or 1+1+1+1 or 1+1+2?

What it all boils down to is fear. Fear of what the society will say, fear of displeasing the gods and perhaps fear of the much popular ‘life after death’.  So for most people the driving force behind these practices is fear. That’s why they are bound to become slave to the rituals without searching for a deeper meaning, or a convincing reason.  But that’s humans for you in general, show them a picture of hell, and they’ll do anything to avoid it, no matter how stupid or ridiculously senseless it may be.


  1. quite thought provoking. seems to me that humans are hard wired to seek approval/appreciation and following social/cultural rituals, even as ridiculous as they seem, provide validation that what we are doing is "right" :p

  2. the thing you just put on the paper is what my everyday babble(according to conformists) is about. In the office, in the kitchen, on the road everywhere people follow meaningless norms. I question this stuff everywhere e.g separate women Queue, people ordering food by honking while sitting in the car, "you cant try a formal shirt before buying" and "we dont sell less than 250 gms of butter cookies at the bakery ". Everyone just accepts what they are told. And recently i heard this "please all rise as the chancellor is going to enter the auditorium". (Chancellor my a**B-) )

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