The Nature of the True Religious Life
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 11: The Importance of Holy Ritual

A common feature among all the religions is the performance of ritual, which is observable everywhere. The life of man is inseparably connected with various types of ritualistic observances. Even those academic type of intelligentsia who imagine that ritual is outmoded and unnecessary are involved in different types of ritual. A performance of any kind can be regarded as a ritual. It is a general term signifying any kind of outward expression of an inward feeling. Any gesture is a ritual, and whether it is performed within a temple or outside in the street, the ritual remains the same. When you bow down your head before a holy altar, you are performing a ritual, and when you greet your friend and shake hands with him in the marketplace, you are performing another ritual. Any kind of gesture expressing your internal feelings, for the matter of that, can be regarded as a ritual. And who is free from it?

But from the point of view of religion proper, ritual is the homage which the finite man pays to the incomprehensibility of the Infinite. We cannot help offering our obeisance in all ways, with all our heart, with all our mind, with all our soul, to that mighty invisible presence, and this humble gesture of ours is the holy ritual that we perform. We cannot help feeling a need for this performance on our part because our entanglement in finitude is so profound, and consequently the Almighty Being seems to be so far away from us. As a result, we cannot help expressing our littleness before this greatness in a humble gesture of obeisance, which in a traditional epigram in India goes by the name of sashtanga namaskara – prostration with eight parts of the body operating together. Many of us may not be aware of what this sashtanga namaskara means. Ashta means eight, anga means limb, and ashtanga is eight-limbed prostration. You fall flat on the ground with your arms joined together, palms coming together, the whole body prostrate on the ground as a symbol of utter surrender and submission, a gesture of total annihilation of oneself, a surrender which is complete in every way before the great power – primarily the Supreme Being, and secondarily any great towering personality such as your Guru or the deity whom you worship as a symbol before which, and before whom, you express your surrender. When everything fails, surrender takes its place.

Very often we have been told that the finale of religion is self-surrender. The religious life culminates in the surrender of the self to God, which inward sanctified feeling is expressed in worships of various kinds, and entertaining conceptions of various kinds of symbols in the performance of this worship. As the body is supported by the legs, religion can be said to stand on ritual feet. Ritual is not an essential part of religion, in the same way as legs are not an essential part of the body; but ritual is an essential part of religion, even as the legs are an essential part of the body. How they are essential and how they are not essential will be clear to you by this homely analogy of the feet on which the body is supported and planted. Who can say they are unimportant, though you may feel that they are not important.

In Indian theological tradition there is a graduated system of the practice of religious worship, designated as charya, kriya, yoga and jnana. These terms are very reputed and known in circles of the Saiva Siddhanta philosophy and practice, but these correspond almost to what is generally known as karma, bhakti, yoga and jnana, only mentioned in a different system of terms: charya, kriya, yoga, jnana.

A humble service which may take the form of very concrete acts either in a temple or in the form of a service of the Guru is charya. You might have seen a swami in the temple who goes to the jungle, plucks bael leaves, collects flowers from the garden, brings tulsi leaves, sweeps the veranda – the outskirts of the temple – keeps the precincts of the shrine very clean. This is charya that he is performing. The outward form of the service of the great deity of worship is charya.

But you must have seen one or two persons inside the temple. They do not sweep outside, or go to the jungle and collect leaves, etc. They are concerned with the inner apartment, the holy of holies. They also do a little bit of cleaning, but that is an inner service which consists of such acts as keeping the idols and images very clean, dressing them, decorating them, and helping the worshipper with lighting the lamps and such other things, which is part of what is known as kriya. It is a service to the great deity internally related to the shrine, and may be considered as a little superior, and even the actual worship performed by the central figure in the holy of holies is a part of kriya only. I believe this system continues even in Roman Catholic churches. You will find it in the Gurudwaras of the Sikhs, and in the temples of Zen, in Buddhist and Jain circles. I don’t think it is absent anywhere in any form of religious service.

The worship that the swami or the chief priest performs inside the holy of holies with his assistant is the kriya that is performed. The charya and the kriya are the outward forms of worship. They are the external shape ritual takes. The external ritual consists in the feeling that the body and the limbs of the body are essential in the performance of worship. You have to be seated physically in a posture, or you have to be moving in a particular manner. You have to be doing something with your hands and even chanting something with your mouth, with your lips, with your tongue, so that the organs of the body are an essential necessity in the ritual which goes by the name of charya and kriya.

But ritual need not necessarily be connected with the physical body. It can be purely a mental act. Worship in a highly ritualistic and complicated way can be performed even in the mind. Mentally you may go to the jungle and collect bael leaves without moving one inch from your seat. Mentally you clean the precincts of the temple; mentally you do charya and kriya. Even the waving of the holy lamp and all the minutiae of the worship are carried on inwardly in contemplation. This is yoga.

There were four great representatives of this type of performance of religious worship in the field of religious adoration of God known as Saivism, especially in Southern India. These great stalwarts known to us today in these circles are recorded in a book written by Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj called Sixty-three Nyanar Saints. Of these sixty-three, or we may say sixty-four, adding one more who is not included in this traditional list, there are four stalwarts who are regarded as representatives of these four aspects mentioned – charya, kriya, yoga and jnana: Appar, Sundarar, Jnanasambandar and Manickavachagar. These names may be difficult to pronounce yet they are well known, and I mentioned them as specific examples who devoted themselves wholly and entirely, with all their soul, to the performance of divine worship in these ways.

The tradition of ritual in religion has a great inner meaning. It is not a meaningless performance on the part of a devotee. Yesterday I pointed out a peculiar feature that predominates in the human individual: the sense of finitude. We cannot help feeling that we are small, whatever be our learning. Who can help having this feeling in the presence of this mighty Creator of the universe? And you know very well in our daily life we are almost slaves to rituals of various types. Who can gainsay that we can live without gestures of some kind? We do not live like stone statues without movement. Every minute of our daily life is a series, as it were, of symbol, gestures which are rituals of some sort or the other. These gestures, when they are directed to God, go usually by the name of religious ritual. Otherwise, they are secular gestures.

This brings us to a corresponding important point in the practice of religion, namely, worship of a symbol. God cannot be conceived except through some symbol, and we are not in such an elevated mood of the spirit as to be free from this necessity of conceiving God as some symbol or the other. Even the most far-fetched imagination of our reason can catch hold of only some symbol of God, not God as He is, or the thing as it is in itself. Even our idea of universality and omnipresence is a symbol that the mind is catching hold of. What is meant by omnipresence? It has no sense for the human mind. We have only to imagine certain events that occur in this world, certain forms which are visible to the eyes, and certain conceptions that are possible for us. Beyond that, omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience mean nothing to us. They are symbols, and man is not merely a luminous reason; he is also a deep emotion.

We have noted yesterday the role of emotion and feeling in man, which brings to highlight the spirit of submission to which one resorts in one’s obeisance offered to God. The most predominant and prominent way in which God is envisaged by the human mind is of a great emperor, a ruler supreme, a sovereign of the universe. God is defined as the sovereign of the whole creation, and you know what your feelings are towards a sovereign.– Awe, wonder, fear, affection – all these sentiments come together in the presence of a Supreme Sovereign.

The worships in the temples, especially as prevalent in India, are carried on in a way similar to the entertainment of a great king. The deity in a temple is a king, and this king has to be entertained in a royal fashion. You know how you would entertain an emperor if he were to come to your humble cottage. You can imagine what your feelings would be if you were to receive a notice today that the emperor, the king of your country, will pay a visit to your cottage after a month. What those feelings would be, each of you would know for yourself. “The king of the land is coming to my cottage after one month.” For a whole month you will be thinking this. For a whole month you would be making all sorts of preparations, everything conceivable to the mind – neatness, cleanliness, decoration, festoons, beauty, and anything that would please this mighty sovereign.

That is the worship offered in temples. The great God is received as a most honourable guest; and in India especially, there is a great detail involved in the receiving of a guest. It is not just shaking hands: “How do you do? Please sit down.” This is not the way of receiving such a mighty guest. It is a great ritual, it is a great performance, it is an occasion for uncontrollable emotion of joy. People many times weep, cry when the great man comes. They cannot speak a word. The throat is choked. Even the words, “How do you do? Please be seated,” will not come from the throat. No words will come because of the exuberance of joy that the great being has come.

In the Mahabharata we have this instance mentioned of Lord Krishna coming to the humble cottage of Vidura. He was given the information: tomorrow the great Lord Krishna is coming to dine with you. Oh, the man’s heart burst. That he was alive was a great wonder, and he forgot himself completely. When Sri Krishna entered the cottage, he was beside himself, and he had no awareness that he was existing at all. He was no more Vidura, the host. He was nothing at all; he had vanished completely into thin air.

When the joy becomes maximum, it can inundate your personality to such an extent that your whole body and mind will melt. Such a spirit of inward inundation and joy is also the divine feeling of the worshipper in a holy temple, which can be seen in temples like Tirupati, and such great shrines in southern Indian particularly, which are able to maintain this ancient tradition even to this day, to a larger extent than in northern India. The rituals are observed with a greater detail and devotion and scientific punctiliousness in southern shrines than here in the north. If you want to see this detail you must go to the Meenakshi temple in Madurai, or the Tirupati temple. Oh, it is wonderful! You will be simply shocked at the earnestness and the sincerity and the sense of holiness that is surrounding the performers of the worship, and the realistic feeling of the presence of God in that symbol, the idol, the image of Venkaswara or Meenakshi, or whoever the deity be. There is no symbol there. It is not an idol, it is not an image; it is God speaking. There were devotees who could dance to the tunes of Bharatanatyam or any other dance before the Mighty Being which, to the untrained eye, is only a stone image.

It is difficult to perform a ritual unless you are a heightened religious devotee. A person who sees only material things cannot be a devotee of this type. A temple is a representation of the universe. It is not a building of brick and mortar. The structure, the pattern, the arrangement and the layout of the temple is comparable to the Viratswarupa, or the Cosmic Form of God. This is the tantra or the agamic system of laying out a temple; and agama rituals are a very, very essential part of the religious system prevalent in India.

You will be in a state of horripilation and thrill if you are to go deep into these techniques of the construction of a temple. It is not just that thousands of bricks are purchased and some mason builds anything he likes. It is a systematic portrayal of the very structure of the cosmos conceived as the Virat Purusha, the Being that animates the whole creation. You would have seen in temples such as Rameshwaram, etc., and other great shrines, that the layout is specifically characterised by certain details. In most of the temples you would have seen a huge pillar, sometimes with a flag on it, and nobody would know what this is. That is what you see at the outskirts of the temple where grossly conceived sacrifices are performed. To recall to our minds the meaning of sacrifice once again, it is the essence of religion and spirituality. Sacrifice precedes your eligibility to enter into the holy shrine and have a vision, the darshan of the great deity. That particular altar at the gateway symbolises the place where the animal in you is sacrificed. Many people offer actual animals there – cut the goat or the buffalo. That is a crude outward form that ritual may take to signify an inward necessity which is the sacrifice of the animal in man before he becomes truly human in order to gain entry into the divine that is in the holy of holies.

Many of the temples have five corridors, or sometimes seven, representing the inward layers of the body – the five koshas or the seven layers of consciousness. You know what the five koshas are: the annamaya, pranamaya, manomaya, vijnanamaya, anandamaya koshas – the physical, vital, mental, intellectual, causal. Or sometimes there are seven, as I told you, instead of five, representing the seven ascents or the stages of rising above gradually from the material to the deeply religious, holy, divine, spiritual. And you have to cross these gates one after the other, five or seven, and enter the dark holy of holies where a limpid lamp is burning lonely and solely in itself, illuminating the deity with its little brilliance.

In the traditional temples, the holy of holies is not bright with sunlight, and there are not many air vents. Mostly they are dark. You have to simply rub your eyes to see what is inside. It is purposely kept dark, not because the temple builders were primitive, ignorant of ventilation methods. There were very wise people, and they symbolised in this darkness the anandamaya kosha, the inward holy of holies where everything is dark to the senses. God is born in midnight, whether He is Krishna or Christ, when everything is pitch dark to the senses which can see things only in the daylight of the sun. God is born when the senses are asleep. That is the midnight of the senses. In this darkness of the anandamaya kosha where the senses, the mind and the ego are all asleep and nothing is there, there is this little Atman twinkling in this holy of holies, call it the anandamaya kosha of your own individual personality, or the great Ishwara of the cosmic causal condition. The temple represents both the microcosm and the macrocosm.

Thus is the symbol of the temple, and the whole process of worship is a large symbol of a graduated surrender of personality and a symbol of a whole-souled placement of the divine in one’s own self. If any one of you is conversant with the way in which puja or worship is performed in a temple or even in one’s own house, you would have seen that the performer chants some mantras, touches certain parts of the body – the head and the eyes and the ears and the nose and the chest – while saying something which you will not be able to understand. These are called nyasas. Anganyasa, karannyasa, etc., are the words used. Modern youth do not know all these things. They are too sophisticated, and religion is regarded as primitive. This is very unfortunate.

These are nyasas. The word nyasa in Sanskrit means placement, placing. You place the limbs of the divinity in the corresponding limbs of your own body. That is nyasa, done through the hands and through the limbs of the body. When this placement is done through the hands it is called karanyasakara is hand, nyasa is placement. When it is done through the limbs of the body, it is anganyasa. Anga is limb, and nyasa is placement. The particular chants or the mantras recited during this ritual of the placement of the divine in one’s own personality mean that every part of your body is tuned up to every part of the divinity, correspondingly. The microcosm becomes en rapport with the macrocosm, and vice versa. The head of the Virat, the head of God, the head of the Great Being, your deity, is your head. Your head becomes united with the head of the deity so that you think as the deity thinks, and the deity thinks as you think. There are no two thinkings. Thus, His eyes are your eyes, your eyes are His eyes, your nose His nose, your ears, your chest, your hands, your fingers, are His, so that God has entered you and you have entered God.

If you have done this ritual properly, not in a hurry but with a deep feeling and understanding of its meaning and the processes involved there, you will be in a state of thrill. You will weep silently at this time. You will weep silently knowing the glory of God. You will weep over the joy that God has entered you. It is not a puja that you are doing in a temple. You are encountering your great Maker. What can be a greater achievement and a greater benefactory blessing upon you than this? You can imagine what it means. The Great Being’s head is united with your head. The Great Being is united with you. The whole cosmos has entered you. The universe is pulsating through your veins and through every cell of your body. And when the charya and kriya have risen up to yoga, when the whole activity is purely mental, you enter into deep meditation of the union of the microcosmic with the macrocosmic, and then it is that anything can happen to you. What is it? What do you mean by anything can happen to you? You may lose your self-consciousness.

Sincere worshippers like Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, to cite only a recent example, were in ecstasy when they worshipped deities such as Kali. Dance is the form that worship may take to the tune of the music and the chant of the mantras in the holy worships performed in the temples. You may become unconscious. In a state of super-conscious involvement, it may look that you are unconscious. The body may not stand this entry of a superpower.

Ritual, karma kanda as it is usually known in religious circles, is the gateway to the portals of religious practice. There are many details of this performance of worship. Sixteen processes of worship are mentioned – shodasa upachara, as they are called. You invite the guest, and entertain the guest in sixteen ways. You sing his glory: “Great one, I am so happy that you have condescended to pay a visit to my humble cottage.” Don’t you think these are the words that you speak when a great one comes to your house? “How happy I am that after days of longing to see you, you have shown this mercy to me by coming to my humble residence.” You give him holy water. You yourself wash his feet, such is your love, such is your devotion. You put a soft cushion. “Please be seated.” You yourself pat with your own hands the soft cushion that is neatly arranged. “Please be seated.” You take the great person by the hand and seat him. And if the one who has come to you is superbly great, inconceivably superior to you, you may not be able to say anything at that time.

Then the ritual starts, and all the offerings that you are capable of conceiving in your mind are offered to this great deity. There is no need to go into these minor details. You can know it from other sources. It is a grand thing to make the guest seated and then see that he is entertained thoroughly to his utter satisfaction until he gets up and bids goodbye and departs.

This process of the entertainment of a great emperor, the king of the universe, is the performance in the great temples of worship. On a smaller scale these worships are performed by people in their own houses also, with a little corner kept as a sanctified place for worship of their own little deity. Though the process of worship in one’s own house is also similar to the worships performed in temples, in temples it takes a large gorgeous form, like processions etc. If you have witnessed any, you will be surprised to see it, especially in southern India, to repeat once again. You will not see much of it in the north.

So today I was thinking of placing before you these little ideas that occurred to me concerning the importance of holy ritual as a part of religious adoration of God, and you should not be under the impression that you are too big, and beyond the ritualistic level. Not so is the truth; the lower you are, the better for you. It is a great virtue for everyone to realise one’s own position and not overestimate oneself unnecessarily as a jnani or a yogi. Each one should know what one is, and this recognition of one’s own real position is itself a part of the worship.