The Culture of Ritual and the Quest for Enlightenment
     By David Frawley (Vamadeva Shastri)
    Since prehistoric times, ritual has been perhaps the most important
 human activity.  Throughout the world there has existed an ancient and
 ongoing tradition of sacred action performed with the aim of improving
 not only our condition in the universe, but the condition of the
 universe itself.
    Indeed, the further back we look, the more we examine traditional
 and indigenous cultures, the more we find that human life has been
 primarily a ritual or set of sacred actions.  Whether we consider the
 aborigines of Australia, the Native Americans, the ancient Hindus and
 Egyptians, or our own European ancestors, we find a world-wide
 preoccupation with ritual action that cuts across all races,
 religions, and cultures. We could even say that human culture is
 primarily a culture of ritual.
    Yet ritual has been rejected by the modern mind as irrational,
 superstitious, or primitive.  The church had already stifled and
 sterilized ritual, and the Western enlightenments--a materialistic,
 not spiritual, enlightenment--has largely stripped our lives of
 ritual.  The idea that our actions could affect the mental or
 spiritual realm, or be linked with cosmic powers like the stars and
 planets, appeared contrary to the mechanistic scientific view that all
 things are matter, and that what is not evident through the senses
 must not exist.
    However, twentieth century science has revealed a universe
 consisting of interrelated energy fields and transcending ordinary
 time/space limitations. This is a world view that runs counter to
 ordinary sensory ideas of physical reality, but is not so different
 from the ritualistic view of a universe as an organic intelligence in
 which human beings play an integral part and purpose.
    There is a revival of interest in ritual today that is part of our
 culture's reexamination of mythology. In the academic world, ritual is
 now viewed as an art form or a means of social bonding, not merely a
 curious superstition. But such an intellectual view of ritual does not
 consider its spiritual meaning. Academics find ritual interesting,
 like an antique or relic, but do not see a need to incorporate ritual
 in our daily lives. Nor does this viewpoint regard ritual as necessary
 for either personal or collective well-being.
    Is ritual just some exotic or superstitious form of action,
 requiring strange paraphernalia like fires or feathers, or is it any
 action done with conscious purpose, attention, and power?
    Any action that is repeatedly energized with thought and intention
 gains power, thereby becoming a ritual of sorts. In fact, all our
 actions have a ritualistic orientation, because action tends toward
 repetition and reinforcement, thereby projecting a particular energy
 to link us with certain forces in the world in which we live. In this
 regard, even basic vital functions like eating and breathing are
 rituals, that is, rhythmic actions drawing into us various cosmic
    Yet it is our most meaningful actions that approach ritual. Artists
 and scientists project energy and intent in action, performing with a
 certain regularity and purposefulness which renders their actions into
 a kind of ritual. Indeed, the creative individual experiences his or
 her work in a meaningful way that can be called ritualistic.  The
 highest ritual is meditation, wherein everything we do becomes imbued
 with attention and awareness.
    The Sanskrit word karma, which usually refers to the effects of our
 actions through various lives, originally meant "ritual." Action or
 karma is always a ritual; that is, whatever action we do sets in
 motion certain forces, not only of a personal but of a collective and
 cosmic nature.
    All action, we could say, is like jumping into a stream. We can
 choose the stream to jump into, but once in the stream we come under
 the stream's forces, which are no longer a matter of choice. Whatever
 we do places us in a stream of action which has a momentum that will
 carry us in a particular direction. Conscious actions reinforce the
 energy of consciousness, which causes us to grow in awareness.
 Unconscious actions reinforce habit, inertia, and the energy of
 ignorance, which places us under the domination of the external world.
    Once we recognize that action is karma, we will approach our
 actions with an awareness that makes them sacred. We will then give
 even simple and everyday actions an attention so that we do not let
 ourselves drift in the stream of unconscious action into greater
 darkness and sorrow.
    However, most of us seldom recognize the karmic or ritualistic
 nature of our actions.  This is because effects of our action manifest
 only through time. Some of our actions do not bear fruit at all in the
 present incarnation.  Unless we look at the really long-term
 consequences of what we do, it is difficult to take control of our
 actions.  For example, if we could put our hands in a fire and not get
 burned until some months or years later, we might carelessly throw our
 whole body into a fire. Yet this is the type of delay that often
 exists between destructive mental actions and their outer
    We have eliminated from our lives the rituals that sustain
 traditional cultures. This process began with the triumph of
 Christianity, which reduced the abundance of pagan rituals that
 permeated all of life to but a few rituals, like Mass on Sunday.
 Protestant Christianity in turn rejected most Catholic rituals,
 tending to view all ritual as idolatrous. science in its crude realism
 removed us still further from ritual, questioning the very existence
 of God.
    Stripped of meaningful rituals, our lives have become meaningless,
 and our action lacks any real purpose other than personal enjoyment.
 Our action is denied any cosmic significance, becoming merely a
 personal affair in which we project personal achievement and
 gratification as the true meaning of our lives.
    However much we may achieve personally, our action will remain
 limited and will bring inevitable sorrow. In our emphasis on the
 separate self, our actions fail to connect us with the cosmos and the
 deeper reality beyond our conditioned life.
    To fill the void created by a lack of true ritual, or sacred
 action, we have created, perhaps unconsciously, an entire set of false
 rituals. These are rituals of entertainment, sports, politics, and
 even crime. We have not eliminated ritual from life, but have only
 succeeded in removing any dimension of transcendence from our actions.
    Our rituals have become mundane and sensate, with no spiritual
 goal; they have become a repetition of sensation, and at worst, of
 negative emotions. We have invested the heroes of sports events and
 violent movies with a kind of sacred reality and given them prestige,
 honor, and adoration. It is as if they were not mere mortals, but gods
 and goddesses, glamour images of a higher reality.
    Even much of our religion, in which ritual survives at a reduced
 level, is dominated by false rituals promoting conflict and division
 between people, rather than uniting us with the universe. Church
 services are largely mechanical, a kind of social duty, or, if lively,
 a kind of drama and entertainment. The main messages of religion have
 become negative: sin, guilt, the devil, hell, Armageddon, and the need
 to convert "unbelievers. Such religion is rarely part of a living and
 creative opening to the great powers of the cosmic mind.
    Much of our modern malaise, characterized by crime, drugs, and
 promiscuity, appears to stem from a lack of meaningful ritual. True
 ritual does not consist in reinforcing conditioned patterns of
 separate identity (us vs them). Actions which do this are false
 rituals, which project a kind of hypnosis that blinds us to the unity
 of life.
    True ritual acts in harmony with the rhythms of the universe,
 uniting us with the great current of time and transformation leading
 to the eternal. True ritual gives a universal meaning to all that we
 do and to all with whom we come in contact, including all of nature.
 It requires being cognizant of the divine presence in the world and
 the cosmic power and interplay of all the forces in our lives.
    Ritual, moreover, is not illogical or unscientific. Ritual is
 perhaps the ultimate science of action, with its own logic, structure,
 and order. It is often a detailed and precise activity, in which even
 minor deviations can distort the ritual, even turning it into a
 negative action.
    We have lost our sense of the philosophy behind the science of
 ritual.  Ritual teaches us that what we do on a personal or
 microcosmic level corresponds to what occurs on a universal or
 macrocosmic level. It shows the way to achieve harmony in life by
 connecting our personal actions with their cosmic equivalents, uniting
 the human and the cosmic in the awareness of the cosmic being. Until
 we rediscover this inner truth of ritual, our lives are likely to
 remain confused and superficial.
    In the spiritual realm, we also find that ritual has often been
 devalued. Many forms of mind-oriented or psychological spirituality
 --like the direct awareness paths of Vedanta and Buddhism--appear to
 reject ritual. It is frequently stated that no action can lead us to
 enlightenment, that only knowledge--not any rite--can dispel the
 darkness. Yet the rationale for this spiritual rejection of ritual is
 quite different from that of the materialistic mind.
    Direct awareness paths ultimately regard ritual as a lower level of
 spiritual practice, appropriate to outer or lesser goals of life like
 health or mental harmony, but not sufficient for Self-realization.
 This is because ritual is bound by time and relies on material
 substances, which keeps us in the relative realm. These spiritual
 systems regard ritual as maintaining harmony in the relative realm,
 and so reject ritual along with the realm of relativity.
    Those trained in logical materialism may be inclined to adopt the
 logic of mind-oriented spirituality, rejecting ritual without having
 ever practiced any, and not grant ritual even the efficacy which mind-
 oriented teachings recognize. Mind-oriented teachings may not regard
 ritual as the highest path, but this does not mean that they reject
 ritual as useless or that the followers of these paths never perform
 any rituals. Indeed, many yogis on direct awareness paths do perform
 rituals, not for enlightenment as such but for purification,
 protection, or the giving of blessings.
    Ritual provides a meaningful way to deal with our subtle, or
 psychic, environment, which consists of the various mental and
 emotional forces which energize our lives. Though these forces are not
 visible, like the health or disease promoting bacteria found in the
 air we breathe, nevertheless they do have specific effects. Like the
 physical environment, so too our subtle or psychic environment
 requires attention. We clean our house, do the dishes, and clean our
 body daily, but how many of us give similar care to our psychic
 environment? We may be cautious and drive carefully in the visible
 world, but how many of us give the same care to our journeying in the
 subtle world? An unclean physical environment breeds diseases, and the
 same is true of an unclean psychic environment. If we don't air our
 house out, stagnation can breed diseases. A stagnant emotional or
 psychological field has the same effect on an inner level.
    Most of what have been regarded as demons or ghosts in traditional
 cultures are simply negative energy patterns within our subtle
 environment or astral field. They are like the molds, bacteria, and
 viruses that attack us on a physical level. Just as cleaning our
 physical environment helps eliminate such toxins, so clearing our
 psychic environment does the same thing on its level. This is the
 basis of the work of various yogis, shamans, and psychic healers,
 and was also the original role of priests and magicians.
    The great yogis and sages have always been aware of the subtle
 environment. To those of inner vision, these inner influences are as
 evident as the forces of the outer world, like sunshine or rain. To be
 unaware of the forces of the subtle environment can be as dangerous as
 to be blind to those in the physical world.  Yet if we recognize these
 subtle forces and adjust to them--like putting on a raincoat to go out
 on a rainy day--we will find that most of our difficulties in life are
 avoidable, and that a new dimension of spiritual growth will open to
    There are several ways to read our inner environment. Intuition is
 perhaps the best thing.  True intuition is a form of perception, not
 mere imagination or emotion, nor is it the product of wishful
 thinking. Unfortunately, much of what we may think is a real
 perception of our psychic field may be imaginary, or may be a true
 intuition mixed with false imagination. To develop such a real
 intuition requires training in concentration, visualization, mantra,
 and meditation.
    There are persons who possess degrees of psychic perception. Yet
 such psychics may not be truly helpful, even when their knowledge in
 some respects is correct. Many psychics possess a light which, like a
 flashlight, can illuminate some aspect of our lives. But a limited
 light can be misleading. Though a flashlight might reveal something,
 one cannot rely upon it for full illumination. One cannot use it, for
 example, to drive a car at night. Psychic perception must be
 integrated into a full spiritual vision, an openness to enlightenment
 or Self-realization as the goal of life.
    There are various subtle or occult sciences which help develop and
 structure our intuition. Astrology, for example, most specifically
 shows the subtle forces in operation in our lives, as transmitted via
 the stars and planets.  The astrological birth chart shows the subtle
 energies which govern our life as a whole. It is like a map of our
 subtle environment and its forces through the current incarnation. The
 astrological chart done for any particular day and place reveals the
 general or collective subtle environment.
    Natural healing systems aligned with various yogic and spiritual
 practices--like the Ayurvedic medicine of India, or Tibetan medicine
 --contain an entire science of diagnosing and treating the subtle
 body.  Subtle body disorders are mirrored in mental and emotional
 conditions, in dreams, and in nervous system and sensory derangements.
 Treatments for the subtle body include subtle sensory modalities like
 aromas, colors, and gems, the use of breath (pranayama), mantra, and
 meditation. Certain foods and herbs also have their benefit. Such
 treatments usually occur as part of various rituals.
    Meditation, which helps us to observe and understand the workings
 of the mind, is central to any clear psychic insight. It removes the
 limitations of the ego which tend to distort our perception and cloud
 it with desire.
    The best way to change our subtle environment is through various
 rituals, which produce a subtle energy that can clear or alter the
 psychic realm. We can learn to harness the latent subtle forces that
 exist within the physical world.
    Most rituals involve invoking and offering various essences or
 precious items from the world of nature. In typical Hindu puja (ritual
 offering), these involve the essences of the five elements and their
 corresponding sensory qualities.
 Earth--A fragrant oil (like sandalwood)
 Water--Sweet food or pure water
 Fire--The flame of a ghee lamp
 Ether--A flower
    Of these five, incense is perhaps most important as well as easiest
 to use. Incense creates a subtle aroma which removes stagnant energy
 from our psychic environment.
    Different types of incense have their respective properties and can
 be used for specific effects. For example, sandalwood is cooling and
 calming, and reduces fever, agitation, and anger. Jasmine is
 invigorating and purifying to the heart. Fragrant oils can similarly
 be used, either for anointing parts of the body (like the third eye)
 or for anointing the altar or sacred space that we use.
    The use of light or fire is another universal way to affect the
 subtle realm of light around us. According to yogic science, it is
 best to use a nutritive oil as fuel for the lamp. This helps nourish
 the positive energies and entities of our subtle environment. Ghee
 (clarified butter) is considered to be the best oil for lamps, but
 other vegetable oils also may be used. Candles are helpful but do not
 have the same effect as the nutritive oil in a lamp.
    Wood fires are still more powerful, but should be limited to
 special events. A special Vedic fire offering called Agnilotra, in
 which cow dung is burned at precise moments of sunrise and sunset, is
 considered the most powerful of Hindu rituals.
    Many rituals involve the use of images, which may be the picture or
 statue of a guru, avatar, or deity. Such forms help redirect our
 mental energy, which in life is usually concentrated on a personal
 form (family or friends), toward the forces of the subtle realm and
 their benefic influences.  Stone or metal statues are particularly
 strong for carrying psychic energy.  Through them, various Devas or
 beings of the subtle world can be brought into our psychic
 environment. The images themselves are not worshipped, but used as
 conduits for higher forces. We could compare them to a picture of our
 spouse that we keep at the work place to maintain a mental harmony.
    Ritual generally requires an altar or sacred room. Like any action,
 it requires the appropriate field for it to be done properly. A ritual
 is a way of maintaining a garden of helpful astral forces, and like
 any garden it must be tended on a regular basis. By creating a sacred
 space, ritual cleanses and spiritualizes the subtle environment.
    The main way of empowering ritual is through the use of mantra or
 the repetition of sacred sounds. Mantra helps us to participate
 mentally in a ritual, which is necessary to giving the ritual real
 power. This is so because ritual is a way of inner action or
 knowledge, not merely a mechanical procedure.  There are various
 mantras which relate to different ritual actions. These may be single
 seed syllables like OM, words of praise to the deity words of
 offering, or other propitiatory measures. Through mantra alone, which
 is the internal ritual or ritual of the mind and does not require any
 external substance, we can turn all of our actions into ritual.
    Most physical and psychological disorders begin with a derangement
 of our psychic or emotional environment. For a disease to manifest on
 the physical plane, it must first take root on the psychic plane.
 There must be some stagnation in the aural field or some degree of
 psychic vulnerability. Hence, clearing our psychic environment on a
 daily basis is an important key to physical and mental health, as well
 as an aid to spiritual practice.
    Each part of our environment has its special requirements. The
 kitchen, as the place where food is prepared and eaten, must be
 rendered sacred. This is done primarily by preparing our food with an
 attitude of love and respect. The bedroom, where we sleep and leave
 our bodies daily to return to our souls, also requires beauty or
 sanctification. The rooms of children, whose partially developed minds
 and bodies are more vulnerable to negative psychic influences, must
 also be protected. Our workplace, where we connect to the external
 world with its destructive influences, also requires protection.
    While it is best to create an altar or meditation room, we must
 consider needs of the various spheres in which we live and perform
 appropriate rituals. This does not mean that we must spend our entire
 day doing rituals. It is no more necessary to do so than it is to
 brush our teeth or sweep the floor all day long. But a certain period
 of ritual action, about one hour a day, can be helpful.
    Most societies have developed special classes of ritualists, such
 as priests, yogis, shamans, or magicians.  Even artists and doctors
 have been given such roles in some cultures.  Such knowers of ritual
 are important for primary sacraments or special events such as birth,
 death, marriage, or moving into a new house.  Society needs such a
 class of individuals and should give them proper compensation for
 their invaluable service.
    That such classes have at times degenerated and promoted
 exploitation is no reason to reject them altogether. All fields of
 human life can be abused by the human ego, but this does not deny the
 value of the action itself. Even in the modern world we invest our
 doctors, psychologists, and lawyers with a special religious aura, and
 regard their actions with ritualistic awe. This only indicates an
 ongoing social need for ritual and for those who are trained in its
 proper performance.
    From the yogic standpoint, what is important is to learn to master
 the subtle forces. It is of little use to analyze them. Modern
 psychology often emphasizes analysis of the psyche, especially
 relative to personal patterns of a particular incarnation. Yoga
 emphasizes changing this energetic pattern by learning how to use the
 subtle forces. Yogic practice is a process in which ritual, posture,
 breath, mantra, and meditation are used to enable us to recreate our
 own reality.
    Ritual is of special importance for the collective life, for the
 benefit of society as a whole.  Collective rituals help clear the
 collective mental field of its negative karma, and help create peace
 and harmony in society, preventing war and other social disorders.
    One of the most simple of all rituals is a collective prayer for
 peace. Such prayers should always be directed toward peace for all
 beings, for all creation, and should not be prayers on behalf of
 particular countries, religions, or groups. The divisive interest
 created by "particularist" prayer actually breeds further conflict.
    One of the great problems in the modern world is that we no longer
 have spiritually meaningful collective rituals. Our collective rituals
 have become negative rituals of drama and sensation, sex and violence,
 or political action aimed at defeating an enemy. Our mass media
 generally projects a negative psychic field because it is the product
 of inorganic forces and of commercial and political motivations. TV,
 radio, and other media devices also emit vibrations that tend to lower
 the energy of our psychic field. Unless we counter these influences
 with positive rituals, the state of the world cannot improve.
    Rituals are of special importance for young people, who need not
 only social bonding but bonding with the world of nature and spiritual
 reality in order to discover who they really are.  Otherwise, young
 people feel alienated and out of harmony with life. Lack of meaningful
 ritual is surely a factor in the high rate of crime, depression, and
 suicide among the young.
    Some great spiritual thinkers, notably J.  Krishnamurti, have
 appeared to object to the use of any ritual. Such critics say that
 ritual binds us to the realm of action and that ritual, being an outer
 action, is useless for the pursuit of enlightenment or Self-
 realization. Though such objections may reflect a lofty state of
 awareness, they do not address the real purpose of ritual. Ritual
 binds us to the realm of action only if it is done out of personal
 desire. If it is done with the same intention that we keep the rest of
 our lives in order, then it has its importance for all of us, even
 those who may be enlightened.
    In the true sense, ritual means right action, and any action done
 rightly, with wisdom and compassion, is a ritual.  We cannot avoid
 action as long as we live. For action not to bind us, it must be a
 ritual not in the personal sense but as a means of connecting with
 cosmic being and its movement.
    In this regard, meditation itself is the highest form of ritual or
 right action. Few of us can go into a state of spontaneous meditation
 whenever we choose to, but we can carry out rituals that help prepare
 the mental field or create the sacred space in which meditation can
 occur. As long as we are doing such actions in a preparatory manner,
 they cannot harm us.  From outer rituals, like fire offerings, we move
 to inner rituals, like mantra, to arrive finally at the inmost ritual,
 which is meditation.  This is the true way of action for human beings.
    Ultimately all of our action is a ritual, and each action sets in
 motion certain forces which further either enlightenment or ignorance.
 There is no neutral action. To become conscious of our actions and to
 connect them with the benefit forces of the universe is the essence of
 all ritual.
    To restore the science of ritual is thus a spiritual and
 psychological endeavor of the highest order. It is one of the
 challenges of the coming millennia. Ritual creates the structure that
 sustains our personal and collective lives.
 David Frawley has written a number of books on the spiritual an
 healing traditions of India. He can be reached through the American
 Institute of Vedic Studies, P.O.Box 8357, Santa Fe, NM  87504-8357
 David has given us specific permission to include this article in our
 MOUNT KAILAS TEACHING Library as many of our meditational practices
 can be interpreted as "ritual".
 The Article originally appeared in "The Quest" magazine, Summer 1994
 issue. "The Quest" is published quarterly by th Theosophical Society
 in America.