The ritual is a part of the artistic and aesthetic dimension of religion. The Vedic ritual is the extension of the logic behind the concept of Manthra to the most physical plane. What Manthra does or is supposed to do at the psychological level, a ritual can do or supposed to do at the physical level.
The Symbolic Act
A ritual is a symbolic expression, in the physical plane, of a spiritual, cosmic or psychological truth, process, event, mood. The Vedic ritual is a symbolic representation of the inner sacrifice, offering of all our inner and outer activities as oblations into the upward flaming fire of Aspiration, Agni, ignited in the altar of our heart along with the chanting of the sacred Manthra. Not only all the activities but also the fruits of the inner sacrifice, grehta and soma, illumined mind and the delight of being are poured into the inner Agni who carries them to the gods and bring their increasing bounties to man or to use the terminology of the Vedic sages, make them (the gods) “increase” in man. As Sri Aurobindo, explains the inner significance of the vedic ritual:
”The principal features of the sacrifice are the kindling of the divine flame, the offering of the grehta and soma-wine and the chanting of the sacred word. By the hymns and the offering the gods are increased; they are said to be born, created or manifested in man and by their increase and greatness here they increase the earth and heaven, that is to say, the physical and mental existence to their utmost capacity and, exceeding these, create in their turns the higher worlds or planes …the grehta of the sacrifice is the yield of the shining cow; it is the clarity or brightness of the solar light in the human mentality. The soma is the immortal delight of existence secret in the water and plants and pressed out for drinking by the gods and men. The word is the inspired speech expressing the thought-illumination of the Truth which rises out of the soul, formed in the heart, shaped by the mind”. (1)
The outer ritual is primarily intended for the uninitiated masses who live predominantly in their physical being. But this does not mean that ritual is a concession thrown to the laity. The vedic ritual system is based on some psychological truths and aims at giving even to the masses who live in the physical consciousness some opening to the spiritual truth.
The Psychological Significance
A properly designed ritual system, truly and faithfully expressive of a psychological or spiritual truth or idea, along with the chanting of the Manthra can, under right conditions, open even the physical being of man to some intuition or experience of a deeper psychological and spiritual truth. The ancients are well aware that the energies of body, mind and spirit do not function in distinct and isolated compartments but interact with each other. All energies, physical or psychological are expressions of the one indivisible creative energy of the Spirit. Not only the mind influences the body but certain bodily and physical gestures or acts influences the mind and can induce distinct psychological moods. Just like a spiritual state of consciousness can express spontaneously in the psychological plane in the form of an inspired manthra, and the repetition or chanting of the manthra can induce the corresponding spiritual mood, so also a psychological or spiritual state of consciousness can express itself in the physical plane in the form of spontaneous physical gestures and the reproduction of the gesture can induce the corresponding psychological or spiritual mood. For example in the biography of Ramakrishna Paramhamsa we find the Master scolding his famous disciple Swami Vivekananda for sitting in a particular posture because that posture, tells the master, will induce depression and invite dark forces.
The point we are trying to emphasise here is that vedic rituals are neither meaningless superstitions nor mere concessions thrown to the masses. They are based on sound psychological principles and a clear understanding of the law of interaction, interdependence, parallelism and correspondence which govern the energies in man and the universe in the various levels of their interwoven existence.
The Spiritual Direction to Life
The vedic ritual is always accompanied by the chanting of the Manthra. We have already discussed the philosophy behind the Vedic manthra. The creation of the Manthra is primarily a psycho-spiritual process. But the effect of chanting and hearing the manthra is predominantly psycho-physical. The manthric vibrations work in the physical-nervous system of the human being and prepare in his physical consciousness a state of receptivity to the spiritual truth. Thus the vedic ritual system is an attempt to give a spiritual direction to the physical life of man. The purpose of the vedic ritual is to constantly remind man, in every act of his physical life, the existence of some higher invisible cosmic and spiritual forces. This gave a religious stamp to the entire life of the society and implanted in the consciousness of the people a tendency to make every act of life something sacred, a symbolic gesture of prayer, offering and sacrifice to the higher powers. But since the system was based on some psychological truths, it must have been an effective force in the vedic age for the diffusion of the spiritual influence to the masses and probably helped even the common man to have some intuition or glimpse of higher powers.
The Aesthetic Dimensions of Religion
For the bulk of the human mass which lives predominantly within the skin-encapsulated bodily consciousness, the most effective approach for the diffusion of spirituality is to find ways and means to open the physical consciousness of man to the influence of the spirit or in other words to make the physical, the first point of entry into the spirit. Here there is an altogether new world to discover and explore. The modern “psychosomatic” medicine is busy in exploring the effect of Psyche on the body but not sufficient attention is given to discover the effect of bodily movements, rhythmic repetitions and vibrations on the psyche. The wise men of ancient cultures had this intuition that rhythm, harmony and beauty in the organisation of the outer physical environment tend to create harmony in the mind. This is the reason why ancient Greek and Chinese culture culture gave the highest importance to music and the development of aesthetic sense through art.
We must remember here that ritual is always a part of the artistic side or aesthetic dimension of religion. All advanced religions have such a rich aesthetic culture, rich in mythology, rituals and other artistic expressions like architecture etc. Perhaps some form of ritual is needed for the fullness of the religious being in man and its integral self-expression. To express the inner aspiration and adoration spontaneously in an outer symbolic form of beauty is the meaning and significance of a ritual. Like any art, the ritual should also be the expression of the inner truth and beauty of religion. It must be an act or gesture which is a living symbol of an inner truth of the religion expressed in a beautiful, harmonious and rhythmic outer form which is appealing to the aesthetic being in man. For the advanced spiritual seeker it is a potent means for concretising his inner adoration in and through his physical being. And for the ordinary religious man it can be a first point of entry through the physical and aesthetic being to the spiritual.
So the systems of worship and ritual developed in the Indian religious tradition from the Vedic period with its sacrificial altar to the later elaborate, complex and sophisticated systems of worship developed in the Tanthras are not a concession thrown to the inferior category of seekers but answers to some concrete psychological and evolutionary needs of the religious being in man.
1. Sri Aurobindo, “Key to Vedic Symbolism” compilation by Sri M.P. Pandit, p.63-64.