In the course of studying religions in India since the ’70s, do you find that we look at religion differently than we did before?
Yes, there is considerable change. One is the media aspect. The impact of the internet, television and broadcasting has been considerable. Some large festivals have become larger, while others have become smaller, because people don’t have the time anymore. However, things are pretty much the same in smaller towns and villages. Also, rituals practised in puja rooms in homes are pretty much the same.
Religion has perhaps become more privatised than it was before. There are more individual approaches to it. There is a practical aspect of religiosity which includes many more religious trends that have been more restrictive in the past. For example, people practise life-cycle rituals with a brahmin in the traditional form; they also deal with life with the help of a guru. They approach the Self in a different way; even propitiate local village deities in temples which have non-brahmanical priests and as cricket fans, they might have an almost religious attitude towards cricket.
So if you put it all together, you have a kind of religiosity, which in the past was, perhaps, not possible because communication was very complicated. There weren’t many facilities to experience new forms of religious movements. Earlier it was the wandering sadhus and priests who would bring in new influences, spread new religions, but the modern form of religiosity you see everywhere is something new.
Rigid practice of rituals has led to movements like those of the Arya Samaj. With so much focus on rationality and logic, what purpose do rituals serve today?
Ritual is criticised because it is restrictive and often expensive. You have to put together a lot of things and you need experts to perform them and that limits your direct approach to all that is holy. Still, rituals have a social role to play. They are rarely performed alone, they are done in a family, clan, in the community, and as a result they bind people together, which is why rituals are so strong. But on the other hand, often, people think rituals are not the right approach to God. This happens inwardly, and not so much through action and that is why we have always had these movements against ritualism. Buddhism was the first such movement against Hindu ritualism. In Christianity too, Protestantism rose against Catholicism; it was a critique of church ritualism.
Would you then say that rituals don’t help us evolve spiritually?
Rituals are always changing. People think rituals are obsolete traditions, things to be overcome. Take a closer look and you find that something that’s new today becomes a ritual tomorrow, like the Valentine’s Day ritual, for instance. Rituals are dynamic. The spiritual and religious approaches complement each other and are sometimes against each other, too.
If we do away with ritual, then everything happens inwardly, without outward action. To demonstrate this, people have to come together, and develop a new kind of ritual. Take for instance, Mahima Dharma, a form of asceticism which was founded by Bhima Boi in Orissa, against the spread of Christianity and Vaishnavism. It is said to be derived from Buddhism. Its followers worship the void. Void is nowhere. So they developed temples which have nothing in them, but followers worship the threshold of the temple — this too is a ritual. So, in the process of doing away with rituals, they have come up with another ritual. Anti-ritualism is always turning into a new form of ritualism.
Many people today say they are ‘spiritual but not religious’. The numbers going to churches is falling in the west. Do you spot a similar trend in India?
Yes and no. Yes, there is a trend towards spirituality or a kind of spiritual awareness, but, if you think of life-cycle rituals like those related to marriage, initiation, birth and death, they are consistent, no matter what happens. There are other rituals around ending of final exams for instance. End of school life is celebrated in one form or other by way of farewell parties; these are also rituals. So it is not that rituals will ever disappear. I think we cannot do without them.
If you observe what people mean by being spiritual, you will see that it involves a lot of rituals, too. They have to get together at some place, sit in a certain way on the mattress. There is a guru who tells them what to do and what not to do — it is not only about doing things instinctively. In order to be spiritual, they have to perform some action, and when there is action, it means there is ritual.
Are you saying nothing has changed, after all?
Yes, indeed, people are as ritualistic today as they have always been. Some rituals are the same, others are changing and still others are new.