The meaninglessness of ritual


The work of Frits Staal on Indian ritual contains much from which scholars of Daoist ritual (not least I) might benefit, confronting issues that I encounter in working with Li Manshan. Staal’s ideas about orthopraxy seem to go beyond the discussions following those of James Watson for China. There’s a lot more to Staal’s work than that, but this is a start.

In “The meaninglessness of ritual”, [1] Staal eschewed “the dewy-eyed romanticism that is pernicious to any serious study of cultures and people.”

A widespread but erroneous assumption about ritual is that it consists in symbolic activities which refer to something else. It is characteristic of a ritual performance, however, that it is self-contained and self-absorbed. The performers are totally immersed in the proper execution of their complex tasks. Isolated in their sacred enclosure, they concentrate on correctness of act, recitation and chant. Their primary concern, if not obsession, is with rules. There are no symbolic meanings going through their minds when they are engaged in performing ritual.
Such absorption, by itself, does not show that ritual cannot have a symbolic meaning. However, also when we ask a brahmin explicitly why the rituals are performed, we never receive an answer which refers to symbolic activity. There are numerous different answers, such as: we do it because our ancestors did it; because we are eligible to do it; because it is good for society; because it is good; because it is our duty; because it is said to lead to immortality; because it leads to immortality. A visitor will furthermore observe that a person who has performed a Vedic ritual acquires social and religious status, which involves other benefits, some of them economic. Beyond such generalities one gets involved in individual case histories. Some boys have never been given much of a choice, and have been taught recitations and rites as a matter of fact; by the time they have mastered these, there is little else they are competent or motivated to do. Others are inspired by a spirit of competition. The majority would not be able to come up with an adequate answer to the question why they engage in ritual. But neither would I, if someone were to ask me why I am writing about it.
Most questions concerning ritual detail involve numerous complex rules, and no participant could provide an answer or elucidation with which he would himself be satisfied. Outsiders and bystanders may volunteer their ideas about religion and philosophy generally—without reference to any specific question. In most cases such people are Hindus who do not know anything about Vedic ritual. There is only one answer which the best and most reliable among the ritualists themselves give consistently and with more than average frequency: we act according to the rules because this is our tradition (parampara). The effective part of the answer seems to be: look and listen, these are our activities! To performing ritualists, rituals are to a large extent like dance, of which Isadora Duncan said: “If I could tell you what it meant there would be no point in dancing it.”
Ritual, then, is primarily activity. It is an activity governed by explicit rules. The important thing is what you do, not what you think, believe or say.

This echoes Catherine Bell’s comment that I cited in my post on Bach and Daoist ritual—for her masterly surveys of ritual studies, click here, including a trailer for Staal’s 1975 film on the Vedic fire ritual.

Poul Andersen offers caveats to Staal in a review of volumes on Shanghai Daoist ritual (Daniel Overmyer, Ethnography in China today, pp.263–83). He highlights the interpretations of the participants (including the liturgists themselves), which “in many ways influence the actual performance. They are relevant for the way in which performances take shape, develop, and are modified over time.” Such interpretations, while important, rarely offer a detailed critique, so such a view refines rather than refutes Staal’s point.

I pursue the theme under Navajo culture.

[1] Numen 26.1 (1979): 2–22. See also Ritual and mantras: rules without meaning (Motilal Banarsidass, 1996), and (source of my quote here) S.N.Balagangadhara, “Review of Staal’s Rules Without Meaning”, Cultural dynamics 4.1 (1991), pp.98–106.

5 thoughts on “The meaninglessness of ritual

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