Monday, January 23, 2012

The inner power of rituals

Why do rituals survive for centuries (or even millennia)? One reason could be that they are just rules without meaning (as suggested by Frits Staal) and that their formality is what preserves them notwithstanding the unavoidable changes in the mentality which initially "invented" (in its literal meaning) them.
A further postilla might be that they are rules without a fixed meaning. They do have a meaning, but this varies with time and according to the one who performs it (or, one might add, attends it).
From a study of Marion Rastelli, published in 2005 in Words and Deeds:
In their study on the Jaina pūjā, Caroline Humphrey and James Laidlaw have shown that ritual acts have no meaning that is intrinsic to them (Humphrey and Laidlay 1994: esp. 5, 35, 41). There is no immediate correlation between the external appearance of a ritual and the meaning that is attributed to it. From the observation of a ritual action one cannot infer the meaning being ascribed to it.

This remark could end many discussions on the interpretation of Vedic rituals (was the Soma-offering initially meant to propitiate rain? Is it a fertility rite? and so on). However, one might suggest that this view only regards rituals as they are observed and that it is indeed possible to speculate about their original meaning in history.
A further consequence of Humphrey and Laidlaw's point is as follows:
If the meanings attributed to a ritual and the intentions being pursued are independent from the outer form of a ritual, the meanings and the performer's intentions can change without transforming the ritual itself.
(Rastelli 2005, p. 115)
In other words, a worshipper of a personal God may perform the same ritual a monist is performing, although attributing to it a very different meaning. One might object, again, that phenomenologically there might be huge differences in the intentions of the performers, but that these differences can be understood historically and that it is not the case that any ritual means everything, but rather that every ritual has an history and, hence, a historical stratification of meanings, partly alternative to each other.

What do you think? And how close are Staal's and Humphrey and Laidlaw's theses?


Jayarava said...

Dear Elisa,

I'm very doubtful about these outsider western interpretations of ritual. Frits Staal especially seems to take a very narrow approach - a purely semantic approach - that produces a meaningless theory which reduces ritual to nothing. It's an intellectual dead end which is not productive of any further insights. Such a theory simply can not account for the enormous value placed on rituals, nor their persistence (often unchanged) for millennia!

We have to assume that rituals mean something to someone, even when that meaning is not apparent to us, and even after detailed study has not enlightened us! Staal is a very clever chap, but kind of dumb at the same time.

If you want a really good approach to this subject then I recommend a book (badly) named The End of Magic by Ariel Glucklich (Oxford University Press, 1997). He takes apart the various Western approaches to magic and shows how they fail to account for the phenomena associated with magical practices - particularly contemporary magic healing by Tantric practitioners in Varanasi. As he says in his introduction:

"Magic is based on a unique type of consciousness: the awareness of the interrelatedness of al things in the world by means of simple but refined sense perception."

In his view:

"Magical actions are no longer interpreted only as symbols. They constitute a direct, ritual way of restoring the experience of relatedness in cases where that experience has been broken by disease, drought, war, or any of a number of events." (p.12)

Glucklich has seen something here that other researchers have missed. We often lack the right hermeneutic key to understand ritual because we refuse to relinquish our point of view - the semantic point of view has unacknowledged limitations! Maybe ritual will never make sense in the rationalist or semantic paradigm, but Glucklich does a pretty good job of showing how one might find meaning (or at least value) in apparently meaningless and/or unrelated actions and events.

Another hermeneutic principle which I got from studying mantra is to let go of the question of "what does it mean?" and ask the more pragmatic question "what does it do?" This is a far more satisfactory way to proceed. Robert Yell and Laurie Patton have done some work in this paradigm wrt Indian ritual and mantra in particular. (There are others but the names are no longer on the tip of my tongue).

A semantic approach to religion seems to close doors, whereas pragmatic approach seems to open them!

Any ritual gives the practitioner an experience, one which they value. That experience is, of course, informed by the ritualist's context: their world view and life experience, their social group, their sense of identity. That's what ritual does. The question of what it means seems completely unrelated and redundant. For Staal, or anyone, to stand outside the ritual, without participating in the context or the action and expect to find meaning in it, is just nonsensical from the beginning.

I wish some of these scholars would examine their assumptions in a bit more depth. I'm bamboozled by people approaching their subject in such a way as to deliberately obscure its value from them. It's worse than reading a boring conference paper, it's ensuring that your research results will be boring and uninteresting in the first place.

If you get around to reading Glucklich's book, let me know what you think.


elisa freschi said...

Thank you Jayarava, this is a very insightful answer, in many respects. I can only add that Staal's approach seems to me syntactic rather than semantic. He is well-known for having claimed that rituals have no meaning, but his point is rather that rituals consist of *rules* and are hence *independent of* their meanings.

The book by Glucklich is not available in Vienna. I will try to get it in some other way, but it may take time… what a pity!

Phillip said...

This idea of the ritual as a kind of transferable unit of meaning (unrooted to its original or any other context, but having the capacity, due to its inner logic and structure, of being infused with a variety of adaptable meanings): this is a very interesting idea, which has always reminded me of what Freud said about the essential conservatism of the neurotic symptom: it is evolved in a certain situation to serve a certain purpose, but tends to remain active even after the original situation has passed, and to subsequently take on other similar meanings that the person tries to contain and explain in the same way. Often the fit of subsequent meanings is poor, leading to more suffering than meaning.

elisa freschi said...

Thank you aśvamitra, interesting point. I am not sure I completely understand your initial claim, though. It seems that rather than being a "transferable unit of meaning" a ritual is the "syntactic structure to which any unit of meaning can be transferred". Or am I missing something in your argument?

Anonymous said...

No no, you have said precisely what I was trying to say. I was not clear.


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