views updated Jun 27 2018


Historical usage of the concept

Ritual and communication


Citations in the Oxford English Dictionary from the fourteenth century on reveal two distinct trends of common usage for the words rite (ritual), ceremony (ceremonial), and custom (customary). On the one hand, these terms have been used interchangeably to denote any noninstinctive predictable action or series of actions that cannot be justified by a “rational” means-to-ends type of explanation. In this sense the English custom of shaking hands is a ritual, but the act of planting potatoes with a view to a harvest is not. But rationality is not easily defined. A psychiatrist may refer to the repeated hand washing of a compulsive neurotic as a “private ritual” even when, in the actor’s judgment, the washing is a rational means to cleanliness. Likewise, a high-caste Hindu is required by his religion to engage in elaborate washing procedures to ensure his personal purity and cleanliness; the rationality or otherwise of such actions is a matter of cultural viewpoint. In this case, anthropologists who distinguish between ritual cleanliness and actual cleanliness are separating two aspects of a single state rather than two separate states. The distinction between cleanliness and dirt is itself a cultural derivation that presupposes an elaborate hierarchy of ritual values. If “nonrationality” is made a criterion of ritual, it must be remembered that the judge of what is rational is the observer, not the actor.

The other trend of usage has been to distinguish the three categories: ritual, ceremony, and custom. Ritual is then usually set apart as a body of custom specifically associated with religious performance, while ceremony and custom become residual categories for the description of secular activity. Where religion is the specific concern of fully institutionalized churches, as in Europe, a religious delimitation of ritual is unambiguous and easy to apply; in the exotic societies studied by anthropologists this is not the case. Recognizing this problem, some contemporary authors have argued that ambiguity in the data may be overcome by the multiplication of analytic concepts (e.g., Firth 1956, p. 46; Wilson 1954, p. 240; Gluckman 1962, pp. 20–24). Gluckman, in particular, favors an elaborate vocabulary giving clearly distinguishable meanings to ceremony, ceremonious, ritual, ritualism, and ritualization, but the circumstances in which precision might be useful are hard to imagine. Ritual is clearly not a fact of nature but a concept, and definitions of concepts should be operational; the merits of any particular formula will depend upon how the concept is being used.

In short, to understand the word ritual we must take note of the user’s background and prejudices. A clergyman would probably assume that all ritual necessarily takes place inside a church in accordance with formally established rules and rubrics; a psychiatrist may be referring to the private compulsions of individual patients; an anthropologist will probably mean “a category of standardized behavior (custom) in which the relationship between the means and the end is not ‘intrinsic’” (Goody 1961, p. 159), but he will interpret this definition loosely or very precisely according to individual temperament. The associated terms ceremonial and customary are also used in very varied ways, even by professionals from the same discipline.

Historical usage of the concept

The views of Robertson Smith (1889) are of particular relevance in arriving at a definition of terms. As a former professor of divinity, he advocated the study of comparative religion. He assumed that the boundaries between what is religion and what is not religion are self-evident. Modern religion (Christianity) consists of beliefs (dogma) and practices (ritual); “in the antique religions mythology takes the place of dogma.” Myth is merely “an explanation of a religious usage.” Hence, “the study of ancient religion must begin, not with myth, but with ritual and traditional usage.” The thesis that religion consists essentially of beliefs and rituals and that, of the two, ritual is in some sense prior has influenced many later writers in many different fields.

Durkheim ([1912] 1954, p. 47) defined religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices (rites) relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into a single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” Rites, for Durkheim, are “the rules of conduct which prescribe how a man should comport himself in the presence of these sacred objects” (ibid., p. 41). Negative (ascetic) rites are the customs that we commonly label taboo. Positive rites include “imitative rites,” which are in fact the same practices that Frazer called “homeopathic magic”; “representative or commemorative rites,” which are the cults of ancestor worship; sacrifice; and piacular rites, or memorials to misfortune, such as mourning. The overprecision of Durkheim’s classification leads to some difficulties. He asserts dogmatically that “the division of the world into two domains, the one containing all that is sacred, the other all that is profane, is the distinctive trait of religious thought” (ibid., p. 37). In his system, magic belongs to the sphere of the profane, even though “magic, too, is made up of beliefs and rites” (ibid., p. 42).

The same set of rituals may readily be classified in other ways. Thus van Gennep (1908) proposed a category to cover all individual life-crisis ceremonials (e.g., those associated with birth, puberty, marriage, death) and also recurrent calendric ceremonials such as birthdays and New Year’s Day. He called these “rites of passage.” In practice, van Gennep’s schema has proved more useful than Durkheim’s (see Gluckman 1962).

If Durkheim seems to be excessively rigid, Frazer, who was Robertson Smith’s pupil, errs in the opposite direction. In the pages of The Golden Bough (1890) the words custom, ceremonial, rite, and ritual seem to be interchangeable. Belief and rite are assumed to be so closely interdependent that if evidence concerning either is available the author may confidently “conjecture” as to the other, which he does very freely. Employing similar assumptions, later writers have felt entitled to make the most sweeping reconstructions of ancient religious systems on the basis of slender archeological residues of ritual practice (Hooke 1958).

A more profitable development of Robertson Smith’s theme was the inquiry by Jane Harrison (1912; 1913) into the relationship between ritual and art. Harrison noted that the Greek word drama is derived from dromenon (religious ritual, literally: “things done“). She attached special importance to Durkheim’s category of “imitative rites“: “Primitive man …tends to re-enact whatever makes him feel strongly; any one of his manifold occupations, hunting, fighting, later ploughing and sowing, provided it be of sufficient interest and importance, is material for a dromenon or rite.” ([1913] 1951, p. 49). Thus ritual is seen as a magical dramatization of ordinary activities, while in turn the drama is a secular recapitulation of ritual. Although ritual is distinguished from nonritual by the presence or absence of a religious context, the details of this distinction remain imprecise.

Harrison was a classical scholar who profited from the writings of anthropologists; the succeeding generation of anthropologists in turn profited from hers. Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown introduced the concept of functionalism into British social anthropology; they were both indebted to Harrison, though both were also, and quite independently, the propagators of Durkheim’s ideas. The concept of “ritual value,” which Radcliffe-Brown developed in The Andaman Islanders (1922) and later writings, is essentially that espoused by Harrison. Objects to which ritual value attaches are objects that are socially important for secular reasons. Radcliffe-Brown, however, added the proposition that the performance of ritual generates in the actors certain “sentiments” that are advantageous to the society as a whole. In their discussions of this theme both Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski tend to assume that economic value depends upon utility rather than scarcity, and they attempt to distinguish ritual value as something other than economic value. Radcliffe-Brown shows that the Andamanese attached “ritual value” to objects (including foods) that were scarce luxuries, but he makes an unnecessary mystery of this fact. Karl Marx had a much clearer understanding of what is, after all, our common experience. Marx observed that the value of commodities in the market is quite different from the value of the same goods considered as objects of utility. He distinguishes the extra value that goods acquire by becoming market commodities as “fetichistic value” (1867–1879). This concept is closely akin to Radcliffe-Brown’s “ritual value,” though in Marx’s argument the magical element is only an aspect of the commodity value, rather than the value as a whole. Furthermore, where Radcliffe-Brown urged that ritual is to the advantage of society, Marx claimed that it is to the disadvantage of the individual producer. The Marxist thesis is that in the activities of the secular market—where all values are supposed to be measured by the strictest canons of rationality—judgments are in fact influenced by mystical nonrational criteria. A full generation later Mauss (1925), developing his general theory of gift exchange from an entirely different viewpoint, reached an identical conclusion. Exchanges that appear to be grounded in secular, rational, utilitarian needs turn out to be compulsory acts of a ritual kind in which the objects exchanged are the vehicles of mystical power.

Of the authors I have mentioned, Durkheim, Harrison, Radcliffe-Brown, and Mauss all started out with the assumption that every social action belongs unambiguously to one or the other of two readily distinguishable categories: the nonrational, mystical, nonutilitarian, and sacred or the rational, common-sense, utilitarian, and profane. Each author would clearly like to distinguish a specific category, ritual, which could refer unambiguously and exhaustively to behavior relevant to things sacred. Each author ends up by demonstrating that no such discrimination is possible—that all “sacred things” are also, under certain conditions, “profane things,” and vice versa. Malinowski sought to avoid this dilemma. For him, the essential issue was that of rationality rather than religion. Those who followed Frazer in thinking of magic as “a false scientific technique” necessarily classed magic as a profane activity, but according to Malinowski, primitive man has a clear understanding of the difference between a technical act and a magical rite. Magic and religion both belong to a single sphere, the magico-religious; “…every ritual performance, from a piece of primitive Australian magic to a Corpus Christi procession, from an initiation ceremony to the Holy Mass, is a traditionally enacted miracle…. Man needs miracles not because he is benighted through primitive stupidity, [or] through the trickery of a priesthood …but because he realises at every stage of his development that the powers of his body and of his mind are limited” ([1923–1939] 1963, pp. 300–301).

But if ethnography offers little support to Durk-heim, it offers still less to Malinowski. Most people in most societies have only the haziest ideas about the distinction either between sacred and profane or between rational and nonrational; it is a scholastic illusion to suppose that human actions are everywhere ordered to accord with such discriminations. Some authors still hold that a specific category is delimited by the phrase “behavior accounted for by mystical action”: in my view they are mistaken.

Ritual and communication

In this whole discussion two elements are involved which have so far been scarcely mentioned. Human actions can serve to do things, that is, alter the physical state of the world (as in lighting a bonfire), or they can serve to say things. Thus, the Englishman’s handshake makes a complicated statement such as, “I am pleased to meet you and willing to converse.” All speech is a form of customary behavior, but, likewise, all customary behavior is a form of speech, a mode of communicating information. In our dress, in our manners, even in our most trivial gestures we are constantly “making statements” that others can understand. For the most part these statements refer to human relationships and to status.

The actions that “say things” in this way are not as a rule intrinsically different from those that “do things.” If I am cold, I am likely to put on more clothes, and this is a rational action to alter the state of the world; but the kinds of clothes I put on and the way I wear them will serve to “say things” about myself. Almost every human action that takes place in culturally defined surroundings is divisible in this way; it has a technical aspect which does something and an aesthetic, communicative aspect which says something.

In those types of behavior that are labeled ritual by any of the definitions so far discussed, the aesthetic, communicative aspect is particularly prominent, but a technical aspect is never entirely absent. The devout Christian eats and drinks as part of a sacrament, but he also says grace as a preface to an ordinary meal. These are plainly “ritual” matters. But it is equally a matter of “ritual” that whereas an Englishman would ordinarily eat with a knife and fork, a Chinese would use chopsticks, and an Indian his right hand (but not his left, which for complex reasons is deemed polluted).

The meaning of ritual

Whether we use a narrow or a broad definition of ritual, one major problem is that of interpretation. What does ritual mean? If a ritual act be deemed to say something, how do we discover what it says? Clearly the actor’s own view is inadequate. With minor variations the ritual of the Christian Mass is the same throughout Christendom, but each individual Christian will explain the performance by reference to his own sectarian doctrine. Such doctrines vary quite widely; the social scientist who seeks to understand why a particular ritual sequence possesses the content and form that he observes can expect little help from the rationalizations of the devout. But intuition is equally unreliable. Sacrifice, in the sense of the ritual killing of an animal victim, is an institution with a world-wide distribution. How can we explain this? Why should this particular kind of rite be considered an appropriate kind of action in the situations in which it is observed? There is no lack of theory. Some argue that the victim is identified with God and then sacramentally eaten; others that the victim is a gift or a bribe to the gods; others that the victim stands in substitution for the giver of the sacrifice; others that the victim is a symbolic representation of sin; and so on. All these explanations may be true or partly true for particular situations, but they cannot all be true at once, and none of them reach into the heart of the problem, which is, Why should the killing of an animal be endowed with sacramental quality at all?

Some interpretative approaches are more clearly formulated than others and deserve special attention. Radcliffe-Brown (1922) postulated that human beings always manipulate their thought categories consistently. We can discover what a ritual symbol means by observing the diverse uses of that symbol in both ritual and secular contexts. This is a powerful but by no means foolproof interpretative device. For example, the English speak of “high” status versus “low” status. We might then suppose that in ritual drama the person who is “higher” will always be superior. Up to a point this applies. Persons of authority are raised on a dais; a suppliant kneels; an orator stands when his audience sits. But there are also situations where persons of extreme eminence sit (e.g., a king on his throne) when all others stand. The regularities are not simple.

This should not surprise us. In seeking to understand ritual we are, in effect, trying to discover the rules of grammar and syntax of an unknown language, and this is bound to be a very complicated business.

Lévi-Strauss (1962) is inclined to see ritual procedures as integral with processes of thought. The drama of ritual breaks up the continuum of visual experience into sets of categories with distinguishable names and thereby provides us with a conceptual apparatus for intellectual operations at an abstract and metaphysical level. Such an approach implies that we should think of ritual as a language in a quite literal sense. Various theorems of communication engineering and of structural linguistics should thus be applicable. We can, for example, start to investigate the role played by “redundancy” in ritual. Do binary contrasts in ritual correspond to phonemic contrasts in verbal speech forms? Can we discover, in any particular culture, rules concerning the development of a ritual sequence that would be comparable to the rules of generative grammar which Chomsky (1957) suggests must govern the modes by which each individual composes a verbal utterance? This is a field in which exploration has hardly begun.

Ritual as social communication

Most modern anthropologists would agree that culturally defined sets of behaviors can function as a language, but not all will accept my view that the term ritual is best used to denote this communicative aspect of behavior. Although we are still very much in the dark as to how ritual behaviors manage to convey messages, we understand roughly what the messages are about and at least part of what they say. Social anthropologists and sociologists alike claim that their special field is the study of systems of social relationship. This notion of social relationship is a verbal derivation based on inference. We do not observe relationships; we observe individuals behaving toward one another in customary, ritually standardized ways, and whatever we have to say about social relationships is, in the last analysis, an interpretation of these “ritual” acts. All of us in our private daily lives manipulate the symbols of an intricate behavioral code, and we readily decode the behavioral messages of our associates; this we take for granted. Comparable activities on a collective scale in the context of a religious institution are rated mysterious and irrational. Yet their functional utility seems plain enough. Our day-to-day relationships depend upon a mutual knowledge and mutual acceptance of the fact that at any particular time any two individuals occupy different positions in a highly complex network of status relationships; ritual serves to reaffirm what these status differences are. It is characteristic of all kinds of ritual occasion that all participants adopt special forms of dress, which emphasize in an exaggerated way the formal social distinctions that separate one individual from another. Thus, ritual serves to remind the congregation just where each member stands in relation to every other and in relation to a larger system. It is necessary for our day-to-day affairs that we should have these occasional reminders, but it is also reassuring. It is this reassurance perhaps that explains why, in the absence of scientific medicine, ritual forms of therapy are often strikingly successful.

Here the argument seems to have come full circle. For if ritual be that aspect of customary behavior that “says things” rather than “does things” (cf. Parsons’ instrumental-expressive dichotomy), how is it that, in the view of the actors (and even of some analysts), ritual may “do things” as well as “say things.” The most obvious examples are healing rituals which form a vast class and have a world-wide distribution, but here we may also consider role-inversion rituals, which Gluckman (1962) has classed as “rituals of rebellion” and which he perceives as fulfilling a positive cathartic function.

Ritual as power

From the viewpoint of the actor, rites can alter the state of the world because they invoke power. If the power is treated as inherent in the rite itself, the analyst calls the action magic; if the power is believed to be external to the situation—a supernatural agency—the analyst says it is religious. Current argument on this theme is highly contentious, and I must declare my own position: I hold that the rite is prior to the explanatory belief. This will be recognized as essentially the view of Robertson Smith.

The concept of power itself is a derivation. We observe as an empirical fact that an individual A asseris dominance over another individual B; we observe that B submits to A, and we say that “A has power over B.” And then in a ritual context we observe another individual A1 going through a performance that he believes will coerce a fourth individual B1; or alternatively, we observe B1 making a ritual act of submission to an unseen presence C1. The normal classification declares that the acts of A and B are rational but that the acts of A1 and B1 are irrational. To me it seems that they are all actions of the same kind. The “authority” by which A is able to coerce and control the behavior of B in a secular situation is just as abstract and metaphysical as the magical power by which A1 seeks to coerce B1 or the religious power that B1 seeks to draw from C\ Ideas about the relations between supernatural agencies and human beings or about the potency of particular ritual behaviors are modeled on first-hand experience of real-life relationships between real human beings. But conversely, every act by which one individual asserts his authority to curb or alter the behavior of another individual is an invocation of metaphysical force. The submissive response is an ideological reaction, and it is no more surprising that individuals should be influenced by magical performances or religious imprecations than that they should be influenced by the commands of authority. The power of ritual is just as actual as the power of command.

Ritual as belief

Unlike Robertson Smith, Tylor (1871) assumed the priority of belief over ritual. In England a Neo-Tylorian view has a number of contemporary advocates. According to their argument, it is the belief accompanying the behavior, rather than any quality of the behavior itself, that distinguishes ritual. Since the participants in a religious ritual claim that their actions are designed to alter the state of the world by bringing coercive influence upon supernatural agencies, why should we not accept this statement at its face value? Why invoke the proposition that the actions in question are, as Durkheim would have it, “symbolic representations of social relationships.” Goody counterposes the intellectualized interpretation of social behavior made by the observer to the statement of the actor himself. “What happens, then,” writes Goody (1961, p. 157), “is that symbolic acts are defined in opposition to rational acts and constitute a residual category to which ‘meaning’ is assigned by the observer in order to make sense of [the] otherwise irrational….” Ritual acts are to be interpreted in the context of belief: they mean what the actors say they mean. This common-sense approach clearly has its attractions. Yet it may be argued that if culturally-defined behavior can only be interpreted by the actors, all cross-cultural generalization is impossible, and all attempts to make a rational analysis of the irrational must necessarily be fallacious (see Goody 1961, p. 155). In contrast, I, along with other Durkheimians, continue to insist that religious behavior cannot be based upon an illusion.

Jane Harrison’s thesis that “ritual is a dramatisation of myth” was reformulated by Malinowski in the assertion that “myth is a charter for social action.” According to this argument, myth and ritual are not merely interdependent; they jointly provide a model for “correct” moral attitudes in secular life. But although it is easy to cite examples in which rituals enshrine in a quite straightforward way the most strongly felt values of society, there are many striking exceptions. The characters of myth frequently break all the moral conventions of mundane society in the most glaring way, and in many rituals the actors are required to behave in a manner precisely contrary to that which they would be expected to adopt in ordinary life. Two very different types of explanation have been offered for facts of this kind. One sees this role inversion as symbolic; the events of myth and ritual refer to the space-time of “the other world”; they belong to Durkheim’s category of the sacred, and to express this fact their content systematically inverts whatever is appropriate to “this world,” the profane. In contrast, Gluckman, in an argument that has wide application (see Norbeck 1961, pp. 205–211), stresses the agres-sive elements present in role-reversal ceremonies, which he aptly names “rituals of rebellion” (Gluckman 1962). The performers, he suggests, act out in dramatic form hostilities that are deeply felt but may not be expressed in normal secular relationships. This acted aggression serves as a cathartic release mechanism, and by relieving tension these inverted behaviors actually serve to strengthen the moral code they appear to deny. It is an ingenious argument but hard to validate. Once again we are faced with the difficulty that sharply contrasted interpretations seem to afford partial explanations of the same ethnographic facts, so that choice of theory becomes a matter of personal predilection.

Nineteenth-century positivist thinkers made a triadic distinction between reason, magic, and religion. Various authors have attempted to fit ritual to this triad and also to the two dichotomies: sacred-profane, rational-nonrational. Some of the resulting difficulties have been considered. It is argued that no useful distinction may be made between ritual acts and customary acts but that in discussing ritual we are concerned with aspects of behavior that are expressive (aesthetic) rather than instrumental (technical). Ritual action, thus conceived, serves to express the status of the actor vis-a-vis his environment, both physical and social; it may also serve to alter the status of the actor. When ritual functions in this latter sense, it is a manifestation of power; thus, the universal belief in the potency of ritual action is by no means an illusion. No attempt has been made to discuss the forms of ritual. Any form of secular activity, whether practical or recreational, can be stylized into dramatic performance and made the focus of a ritual sequence. Such stylization tends to distort the secular norm in either of two directions: the emphasis may be ascetic, representing the intensification of formal restraint, or ecstatic, signifying the elimination of restraint. Ascetic and ecstatic elements are present in most ceremonial sequences, and the contrast may form part of the communication code (Leach 1961, chapter 6). Finally, it has been stressed that even among those who have specialized in this field there is the widest possible disagreement as to how the word ritual should be used and how the performance of ritual should be understood.

Edmund R. Leach

[Directly related are the entriesCommunication; Interaction, article onDramatism; Myth And Symbol; Pollution; and the biographies ofDurkheim; Frazer; Malinowski; Radcliffe-Brown; Smith, William Robertson.]


Chomsky, Noam (1957) 1964 Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton.

Durkheim, Émile (1912) 1954 The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. London: Allen & Unwin; New York: Macmillan. → First published as Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse, le systÈme totémique en Australie. A paperback edition was published in 1961 by Collier.

Firth, Raymond 1956 Ceremonies for Children and Social Frequency in Tikopia. Oceania 27:12–55.

Frazer, James (1890) 1955 The Golden Bough. 13 vols., 3d ed., rev. & enl. New York: St. Martins; London: Macmillan.

Gennep, Arnold Van (1909) 1960 The Rites of Passage. London: Routledge; Univ. of Chicago Press. → First published in French.

Gluckman, Max 1962 Les rites de passage. Pages 1–52 in Max Gluckman (editor), Essays on the Ritual of Social Relations. Manchester (England) Univ. Press.

Goody, J. R. 1961 Religion and Ritual: The Definitional Problem. British Journal of Sociology 12:142–164.

Harrison, Jane E. (1912) 1937 Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion. 2d ed., rev. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Harrison, Jane E. (1913) 1951 Ancient Art and Ritual. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Hooke, Samuel H. (editor) 1958 Myth, Ritual, and Kingship. Oxford: Clarendon.

Leach, Edmund R. 1961 Rethinking Anthropology. London School of Economics and Political Science, Monographs on Social Anthropology, No. 22. London: Athlone.

LÉvi-Strauss, Claude (1962) 1966 The Savage Mind. Univ. of Chicago Press. → First published in French.

Malinowski, Bronislaw (1913–1941) 1962 Sex, Culture and Myth. New York: Harcourt. → See especially pages 295–336, “The Foundations of Faith and Morals.”

Marx, Karl (1867–1879) 1925–1926 Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. 3 vols. Chicago: Kerr. → Volume 1: The Process of Capitalist Production. Volume 2: The Process of Circulation of Capital. Volume 3: The Process of Capitalist Production as a Whole. The manuscripts of Volumes 2 and 3 were written between 1867 and 1879. They were first published posthumously in German in 1885 and 1894.

Mauss, Marcel (1925) 1954 The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press. → First published as Essai sur le don: Forme et raison de l’échange dans les sociétés archaïques.

Norbeck, Edward 1961 Religion in Primitive Society. New York: Harper.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. (1922) 1948 The Andaman Islanders. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press.

Smith, William Robertson (1889) 1956 The Religion of the Semites. New York: Meridian.

Srinivas, Mysore N. 1952 Religion and Society Among the Coorgs of South India. Oxford: Clarendon.

Tylor, Edward B. (1871) 1958 Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art and Custom. 2 vols. Gloucester, Mass.: Smith. → Volume 1: Origins of Culture. Volume 2: Religion in Primitive Culture.

Wilson, Monica 1954 Nyakyusa Ritual and Symbolism. American Anthropologist New Series 56:228–241.


views updated May 17 2018


Ritual is a term that indicates more or less fixed acts and actions that take place at certain recurrent moments and in which certain bodily gestures, words, music, and material objects may play a role.


In the past, the word ritual referred to religious ritual acts and to the rules regarding these acts. Therefore, the Roman Catholic Rituale Romanum (1614) and the famous Islamic work on Islamic ritual and law, the Mukhtasar of the Malikite scholar Khalil ibn Ishaq al-Jundi (b. c. 1374), are comparable phenomena in the sense that they both prescribe rituals. Early twentieth-century scholars of religion such as Sigmund Freud and the biologist Julian Huxley began to use the word ritual in a much broader meaning. Freud used it to describe compulsive acts and movements of neurotic patients, and Huxley for certain animal acts and behaviors. Since then there has been a tendency to use ritual in a broad sense. Hence, rituals can no longer be associated solely with the domain of religion. They play an important role in many fields of public and private life; for example, in political life, war, festivals, and feasts.

Many nineteenth-century students of religion, particularly those educated in the tradition of liberal, modern theology and later the phenomenologists of religion, tended to view ritual as merely an illustration of religious beliefs and myths. At the other end of the spectrum, scholars such as William Robertson-Smith and Émile Durkheim held the opposite view, namely that ritual is more basic than beliefs. Later scholars have tried to overcome the belief-action dichotomy by formulating notions such as habitus (learned techniques, including such basic activities as running, etc.) and discourse/discursive practice (Talal Asad) which stresses the embodied nature of beliefs or the unity of actions and beliefs. Four brief theoretical observations should be made.

  1. In the course of time, rituals may change. In general, they tend to become more complex. Therefore, in many religions (including Islam) ritual specialists exist. These ritual specialists have different names in different parts of the world and in different religious settings. The pilgrimage to Mecca, a very complex ritual, is guided by specialists as well.
  2. The meaning of rites may be subject to reinterpretation. For example, according to modernist interpretations, purity rules have their background in hygiene, that is, they claim that the original meaning of these regulations has its base in conceptions of clean and dirty, thereby diminishing their religious, symbolic, meaning. For example, in traditional Islam, a menstruating woman is not allowed to perform the salat (ritual prayer) because she is ritually unclean. The modernists argue that it is permitted to her not to do so, on account of her being ill. Such interpretations are for obvious reasons called "medical materialism." They attempt to give a modern, "scientific" explanation.
  3. In many periods of Islamic history, reformists have criticized ritual behavior that deviated from orthodox norms and values. This criticism is especially apparent in the orthodox reform movement of the end of the nineteenth century (Muhammad ˓Abduh [1849–1905], Muhammad Rashid Rida [1865–1935]), but we also come across it in the work of the neo-modernist Fazlur Rahman (1910–1988). He sharply criticizes forms of Sufism for teaching superstitionism, miracle mongering, tomb-worship, mass-hysteria and, of course, charlatanism (Islam, p. 246).
  4. The existence of historical meanings does not mean that all participants in rituals are fully aware of these meanings. Muslims in the Netherlands, when asked about the meaning of shaving one's hair on the occasion of the ˓aqiqa ritual (see below), simply answered that it was part of their religion, or that by doing so, the hair would become thicker (Dessing, p. 30ff). In other words, rituals may drift out of meaning or acquire new meaning in changed circumstances, for example, as a result of "transplantation" to a Western country, or as result of the secularization of rituals.

Catherine Bell distinguishes six major categories of rites: rites of passage or "life crisis" rituals; calendrical or commemorative rites; rites of exchange and communion; rites of affliction; rites of feasting, fasting and festivals; and, finally, political rites. These categories will be applied here to the major Islamic rites. I have added a seventh category, rites of communication.

Rites of Communication

This type of rite mainly serves to communicate with God, jinn and zar spirits, or with deceased humans (saints, prophets). The most important example is the salat, or ritual prayer. According to Islam, it is a human obligation to communicate with God in prayer, or as Sura 51:56 has it: "Jinn and humans are created only to worship God." In the salat, the Qur˒an is to be recited as if it were revealed onto the believer's heart. The performance of the salat includes a number of more or less fixed bodily movements, which express core religious values. According to tradition, during the salat the believer speaks with his Lord. In the salat, there is also space for saying invocations of a personal nature, du˓a˒. Prayer as well as other Islamic rituals, for example those involved in saint veneration, are in one way or the other related to notions of purity. A well-known tradition says, "Purity is half the faith." The overall term for these notions is tahara, which means purity.

Rites of Passage or Life Cycle Rituals

Rites of passage mark the biological and spatial transitions in human life and give them cultural meaning. Sometimes the rites occur at the same time as the biological transition themselves, but they may occur earlier or later. Important steps towards a theory of ritual structures have been made by Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner. Van Gennep noted the threefold structure of rites of passage in the life cycle and territorial passages. Each rite of passage is marked by phases of separation, transition (the so-called liminal phase, from the Latin word limen, threshold), and incorporation or reaggregation.

The most important rites of passage in Muslim religious life are: the naming and birth ritual (subu˓, ˓aqiqa), circumcision, marriage, funerary rites, and the commemorative mourning rites that follow at certain fixed periods.

Depending on the stages in life, these three stages get different values, for example, by the complexity of the rites to be performed. One example is a child's initiation ritual in Islam, which is carried out on the seventh day after birth. The rite involves three interrelated elements: sacrifice of an animal (usually a sheep, ˓aqiqa), the name-giving rite, and shaving the hair of the baby.

An instance of a separation rite preceding these three acts is the bathing of the child, performed in some parts of the world at the beginning of the ritual. The bath symbolizes the separation from the mother (who had kept the child near her until then) and the introduction of the child to the natural world. The naming ritual, which confers an Islamic identity (often in accordance with the Prophet's injunction to the believers to call themselves by graceful names), and expresses its membership in the community, is closely connected to the sacrifice. Shaving and sacrifice may be seen as liminal rites, whereas the festive meal that often concludes the ritual and to which the family is invited, is an aggregation ritual.

Marriage is an important social, juridical event as well as a life cycle ritual with a number of fixed elements. At many ritual occasions, including marriage rituals, a festive meal (walima) is held.

Calendrical Rituals

Calendrical rituals include seasonal (often agricultural) rites and commemorative rites. They are meant to give meaningful social definitions to the passage of time. The first rites are closely connected to the changes in the seasons. The second commemorative rites recall certain important events. As is explained in the article on the ˓ibadat, rituals such as the ˓umra and the hajj are seasonal rites in origin. Because of the abolishment of the intercalation in 31 c.e., Islamic rites are no longer tied to the solar calendar, and hence no longer tied to the changes of the seasons. The determination of the new months, by sighting the new moon, acquired ritual significance, especially in connection with the beginning and end of the fast in the month of Ramadan. In Islam, the narrative component in this ritual cycle is perhaps less present than in some other religions; nevertheless it appears, for example, in a very outspoken way in the poems about the birth and life of the Prophet, which are recited at various occasions.

The ritual cycle opens with ˓Ashura on 10 Muharram. ˓Ashura had been a fasting day before the revelation of the Ramadan fast, and it has remained a voluntary fasting day in Sunnite Islam until the present day. For Shiite Muslims ˓Ashura is the day on which the martyrdom of the grandson of the Prophet, al-Husayn, at Karbala in 680 c.e., is commemorated by emotional and at times violent mourning rituals.

On 12 Rabi˓ I, the third month, the birthday of the Prophet is celebrated. On 27 Rajab, the Laylat al-Mi˓raj, or ascension of the Prophet to the Heavens, is celebrated. The ascension of the Prophet to Heaven via Jerusalem (Isra˒-Mi˓raj) is one of the great symbols of Islam that serves as a (mystical) symbol of the ascension of the believer toward God. This is when the number of daily salats was fixed at five. Elements of the ritual celebration may include recitation of Surat al-isra˒ (Sura 17), followed by commentaries, singing, and the recitation of religious poems.

The popularity of the celebration of the fifteenth middle night of Sha˒ban can be explained by its age-old associations with the Divine which is believed to be made on that night with regard to those who will die the next year.

The month of Ramadan is marked by the fast and by Laylat al-Qadr (27 Ramadan). On 1 Shawwal, the Day of the Breaking of the Fast (˓Id al-Fitr) is celebrated.

On 10 Dhu-l-Hijja, the twelfth month of the Islamic year, ˓Id al-Adha is celebrated. This ritual marks the end of the year, but in fact it does not represent the end of the ritual cycle, since there is a clear connection between the ˓id (feast day) and the ˓Ashura rituals. The pilgrimage itself can also be seen as a rite of passage, in the sense that pilgrims set out for a place "out there," from which they return with a higher religious status, that is to say, as hajjis.

Rites of Exchange and Communion

The central element in these rites is an offering (sacrifice) or a gift. Major Islamic rites that can be mentioned are the ˓aqiqa and the sacrifice at the occasion of ˓Id al-Adha. Moreover, sacrifice can also take place in other settings, such as possession cults (see under rites of affliction). Votive offering may also be included here. Such offerings happen at the graves of the saints.

Rites of Affliction

These rituals heal, exorcise, protect, and purify. In Islam, they occur, for example, in the context of saint veneration, where people seek healing, and in possession cults. Possession cults are marked by public and private gatherings where sacrifice, dance and trance are central elements. Those who suffer from particular mental, social or physical problems seek healing by establishing contact with the spiritual world of the jinn and other meta-empirical beings such as the zar. Other examples of (public) rites of affliction are the special salats to be performed at times of drought, or the recitation of Surat Ya Sin (Sura 36) in times of distress.

Rites of Feasting, Fasting and Festivals

These rites display both the hierarchical prestige social system and the interdependence or unity of human and divine worlds. The two major "canonical" festivals are ˓Id al-Fitr and ˓Id al-Adha (another name for the great feast, al-˓Id al-Kabir). ˓Id al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan fast. Ramadan is the sacred month par excellence. This has to do with the communal aspects of the fast, which expresses a number of basic values of the Muslim community. As various scholars have argued, fasting may extol fundamental distinctions, lauding the power of the spiritual realm, while acknowledging the subordination of the physical realm. According to popular beliefs, the devils (shayatin) and jinn are powerless, while God is nearer then than during other months. This increased religious awareness culminates in Laylat al-Qadr, when, as some people believe, the gates of heaven are opened. After the salat al-˓id, people will pay visits to relatives, which often includes visits to the graves (ziyarat al-qubur).

˓Id al-Adha on 10 Dhu-l-Hijja, commemorating Ibrahim's readiness to sacrifice his son, marks the end of the pilgrimage (the hajj). Another major festival, the Mawlid al-Nabi, grew out of the Fatimid Shiite ritual practice (11th century c.e.). Nowadays, although it is celebrated nearly everywhere (although exceptions, such as Saudi Arabia, exist), its status as a feast has nevertheless remained controversial until the present time.

In Morocco, ˓Ashura is a festival honoring the dead, and during which the participants give alms, eat dried fruit, and buy toys for their children. It is marked by reversal and carnival-like rituals such as masquerades, processions, and theater (Hammoudi 1993).

Political Rituals

These rites construct, display, and promote the power of political institutions. The early history of Islamic rituals has partly been determined by their relationship to politics. For example, the salat al-jum˓a (Friday prayers) originally had political connotations as a medium to convey messages to the body politic. Muhammad's birthday festival also came into being in highly political surroundings, that is, as a palace ritual. It was meant to enhance the position of the Fatimid ruler. It stressed his bond with the prophet Muhammad and his family in particular. By giving presents to his most faithful servants, the ruler stressed the existing hierarchy in the Fatimid state. Later in the Middle East and the Islamic West, the celebration often continued to be a court ceremony, but became a popular festival as well. The Islamic world knows numerous truly political rites, such as, for example, the celebration of the accession to the throne in Morocco, or the anniversary of the death of well-known political figures, such as (again in Morocco) that of King Muhammad V.

See alsoCircumcision ; Death ; ˓Ibadat ; Khutba ; Law ; Marriage ; Pilgrimage: Hajj .


Abu Zaid, Nasr. The Qur˒an: Man and God in Communication. Leiden: Leiden University, 2000.

Antoun, Richard T. "The Social Significance of Ramadan in an Arab Village." The Muslim World 58 (1968): 36–42; 95–104.

Asad, Talal. The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam. Washington: D.C.: Georgetown University Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, 1986.

Bell, Catherine. Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Bowen, John R. Muslims through Discourse: Religion and Ritual in Gayo Society. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Combs-Schilling, M. E. Sacred Performances. Islam, Sexuality, and Sacrifice. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

Denny, Frederick M. "Islamic Ritual. Perspectives and Theories." In Approaches to Islamic Studies. Edited by R. C. Martin. Oxford, U.K.: Oneworld, 2001.

Dessing, Nathal M. Rituals of Birth, Circumcision, Marriage, and Death among Muslims in the Netherlands. Leuven: Peeters, 2001.

Elad, Amikam. Medieval Jerusalem and Islamic Worship: Holy Places, Ceremonies, Pilgrimage. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995.

Goitein, Shlomo Dov. "The Origin and Nature of Muslim Friday Worship." In idem: Studies in Islamic History and Institutions. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1966.

Goitein, Shlomo Dov. "Ramadan, the Muslim Month of Fasting." In idem: Studies in Islamic History and Institutions. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1966.

Grunebaum, Gustav E. von. Muhammadan Festivals (1956). London: Curzon, 1992.

Haarmann, Ulrich. "Islamic Duties in History." The Muslim World 68 (1978): 1–24.

Hammoudi, Abdallah. The Victim and Its Masques: An Essay on Sacrifice and Masquerade in the Maghreb. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Kaptein, Nico J. G. Muhammad's Birthday Festival: Early History in the Central Muslim Lands and Development in the Muslim West until the 10th/16th Century. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1993.

Peters, Francis E. The Hajj: The Muslim Pilgrimage to Mecca and the Holy Places. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Rahman, Fazlur. Islam. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1966.

Shinar, Pesach. "Traditional and Reformist Mawlid Celebrations." In Studies in Memory of Gaston Wiet. Edited by M. Rosen Ayalon. Jerusalem: Institute of Asian and African Studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1977.

Tapper, Nancy, and Tapper, Richard. "The Birth of the Prophet: Ritual and Gender in Turkish Islam." Man, New Series 21 (1987): 69–92.

Westermarck, Edward. Ritual and Belief in Morocco (1926). 2 vols. New York: University Books, 1968.

Gerard Wiegers


views updated May 14 2018


Since the 1960s, Americans have become more self-conscious about the importance of ritual in their lives. This increased awareness has led to new forms of ritual practice as well as to new appreciation of traditional forms.

Rituals are deliberately performed, repeatable acts that give structure to human life. They organize the flow and interactions of daily life. They also define important events, both for individual lives and for the communities and societies in which individuals live. Thus rituals define the growth of social institutions, changes in public leadership, and social responses to natural catastrophe as well as birth, adulthood, marriage, and death. To a significant extent, people express their humanity and define both their personal and their social identities through ritual.

Religious Ritual

Religious rituals engage people in the life of a religious community and its beliefs. Through religious rituals, people learn about the meaning of religious life and come to experience what is sacred for them, both as individuals and as members of a religious community. Religious rituals are deliberately performed, repeatable acts in which people enact and embody the beliefs of their religious communities. As a result of participating in these religious actions, people often find themselves uplifted, cleansed, and healed. Thus religious rituals lead to powerful experiences in which people find deeper meaning in life and find their ordinary lives enlarged and transformed.

Because of the powerful effects that religious rituals can have, some scholars have seen ritual as the foundational element of religion. In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1965; original French, 1912), the French founder of sociology, Émile Durkheim, argued that religion originated in group rituals that established social identity and social cohesion among primitive peoples. In Durkheim's view, priests and other religious leaders created myths about God to explain the exhilarating power that people experienced during these rituals. As Durkheim understood it, God was actually an idealization of society, and the power that people attributed to him was actually the power of the group. By virtue of this relationship between God and society, Durkheim believed, the rituals associated with God served as means of inculcating social identity and enforcing social structure.

While Durkheim's work has contributed to awareness of the power that rituals have to coerce social conformity, the writings of Arnold Van Gennep, Victor Turner, and Mircea Eliade have contributed to awareness of the importance of religious ritual for deepening and savoring the meaningfulness of life. These writings have contributed to greater appreciation of ritual in American popular culture since the 1960s, as well as to many scholarly efforts to understand the nature and effect of ritual in other cultures.

A contemporary and compatriot of Durkheim's, Van Gennep studied ceremonial rites practiced in a variety of different cultures. He argued that initiation, defined as a rite of passage from one social group, emotional state, and religious condition to another, was the most important element of religious ritual and that it was present in other types of ritual, including rites of birth, marriage, and death, as well as in more explicitly initiatory rites defining adulthood and religious responsibility. Since the 1960s, when his work first became available in English, Van Gennep's work has contributed to greater understanding of the universal importance of rites of passage, not only within the fields of sociology, anthropology, and religious studies but also in American culture more generally. In its discussion of the ritual dimensions of the life cycle that many Americans go through, Gail Sheehy's Passages (1976) is one example of the popularization of Van Gennep's work.

Building on Van Gennep's analysis of rites of passage, the British cultural anthropologist Victor Turner focused on the state of liminality, or unstructured in-betweenness, that participants in these rites experience as part of their passage to a new state of life. Turner developed his theories through fieldwork study of the Ndembu tribe in Zambia and, after moving to the United States in the 1960s, applied them to many different forms of ritual process, including those associated with American hippie culture. Turner argued that in the liminal state, initiates were lowly, without any real status, and dependent on guides and mentors for basic instruction. At the same time, they were also perceived as being directly in touch with sacred powers of transformation and thus imbued with a kind of holiness, as a result of a temporary existence outside the structures of society. Turner discovered that people in this state of liminality enjoyed an extraordinary kind of egalitarian fellowship with one another, which he called communitas.

Turner's theories of ritual process, liminality, and communitas have attracted considerable attention, not only among scholars of religion but also among organizational leaders interested in strategies of effective socialization. In the 1990s, for example, in at least one American Catholic university, first-year undergraduates were recruited for weekend retreats based on Turner's theories. During these retreats, students were led through a ritual process in which they bonded with one another, depended on spiritual leaders for guidance, and then returned to the normal routine of college life with greater discipline and an increased sense of both personal and social responsibility.

The Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade taught at the University of Chicago during the 1960s and 1970s and, during those years, exerted as much influence on the growing field of religious studies as anyone. Like Turner, Eliade drew from Van Gennep's work on initiation rites and their importance for religious life. But unlike Turner, Van Gennep, and Durkheim, all of whom focused on the relationship between ritual and social structure, Eliade was primarily interested in the patterns of subjective experience in which participants in initiation rites were immersed. In traditional religious cultures around the world, Eliade believed, initiates reenacted the creation myths of their cultures and found themselves, as he put it, "in illo tempore," at the beginning of time. Through initiation rites that recapitulated the process of world creation, Eliade believed, initiates were swallowed up in sacred time and in the cosmic events described in origin myths.

Eliade was harshly critical of modern life, which he regarded as a deliberate, destructive effort to desacralize the world. At the same time, he believed that opportunities for immersion in the sacred still existed in modern society and encouraged inventive efforts to rediscover it. Largely through his extraordinary influence on the field of religious studies, Eliade helped to inspire many practical efforts to refocus and even reinvent religious life. For example, his influence can be seen in Starhawk's Dreaming the Dark (1982), which offers guidelines that readers can use to create their own Neopagan rituals.

Sacramentalism in American Culture

During the same decades that Americans became interested in ideas about ritual based on the work of Van Gennep, Turner, and Eliade, Catholic attitudes toward ritual came to exert unprecedented influence on American culture. Deep investment in the rituals of the Catholic Church, and especially in the holy sacrament of the Eucharist, characterized most American Catholics who, in many other respects, were often quite different from one another. Unlike many Protestants who rejected the idea that the Eucharist was itself a means of grace, Catholics believed that Christ was present in the sacrament and united himself with participants through it. While American culture before the 1960s was strongly influenced by Protestant tendencies to regard many forms of religious ritual as superstitious practices or merely formalistic shows of faith, as Catholics joined the middle class in increasing numbers after World War II, Catholic tendencies to appreciate ritual as the centerpiece of religious life became an increasing part of mainstream American culture. Catholic reverence for ritual, along with a more general Catholic readiness to perceive God's presence in the world, has contributed to increased appreciation of ritual in the broader culture of the United States.

Catholic influence in American religious life has also increased as a result of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, during which the Catholic Church officially opened its doors to the modern world. Since Vatican II, many American Catholics have expressed enthusiasm for liturgical vitality and innovation and also for better understanding of the ritual practices of other religious groups. Since the 1960s, Catholics have helped to inspire liturgical reform in several Protestant denominations in the United States. They have also led the way in establishing ecumenical dialogues with Hindus and Buddhists that have promoted respect for eastern meditation practices as potential aids to Christian worship. In combination with feminist interest in rituals that celebrate natural life, and feminist rejection of the patriarchal structures of the Catholic Church, innovative forms of Catholic sacramentalism may also have contributed to enthusiasm for alternative religious rituals associated with the Goddess and Mother Earth.

See alsoAnthropology of Religion; Archetype; Eliade, Mircea; Myth; Neopaganism; Psychology of Religion; Religious Studies; Retreat; Rites of Passage; Roman Catholicism; Sociology of Religion; Starhawk.


Eliade, Mircea. Rites and Symbols of Initiation: The Mysteries of Birth and Rebirth. 1958.

Giles, Paul. American Catholic Arts and Fictions: Culture,Ideology, Aesthetics. 1992.

Porterfield, Amanda. The Power of Religion: An Introduction to Comparative Religion. 1997.

Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. 1969.

Van Gennep, Arnold. The Rites of Passage, translated by Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee. 1960; orig. French, 1908.

White, James F. Christian Worship in NorthAmerica, aRetrospective: 1955 –1995. 1997.

Amanda Porterfield


views updated Jun 27 2018


In the Pāli nikāyas there are four stages to final liberation: (1) stream-enterer (sotāpanna), who has glimpsed nirvĀṆa and will attain full liberation in no more than seven rebirths; (2) once-returner (sakadāgāmin), who will be reborn only once more; (3) nonreturner (anāgāmin), who will have at most one more lifetime in a celestial pure abode; and (4) arhat, who is fully liberated in this life. Each of these stages is associated with the elimination of progressively more subtle fetters (saṃyojana). The three lower fetters are removed upon entering into the stream: (1) wrong view in the reality of the self (sakkāyadiṭṭhi); (2) doubt concerning the Buddha and his teaching; and (3) attachment to rules and observances (Pāli, sīlabbataparāmāsa; Sanskrit, śīlavrataparāmarśa), whether ritual or ascetic, in the belief that these themselves are liberative.

During the nineteenth century, modernizing apologists emphasized the rational and ethical qualities of Buddhism and, in keeping with assumptions common to Western religious culture, focused on issues of belief and doctrine. This version of Buddhism interpreted the elimination of the fetter of attachment to rules and observances as a comprehensive rejection of ritual practices. Based on this selective reading of Pāli sources, Buddhism was portrayed as a tradition in which ritual played no role. Claiming that Śākyamuni Buddha rejected all ritual practice, this interpretation of Buddhism gave privileged position to meditation, so much so that today Buddhism is often simply identified with meditation. The distinction of meditation and ritual as mutually exclusive categories, however, is an artificial one that has its roots in Western religious culture rather than in Buddhism.

Rather than rejecting ritual, however, Śākyamuni appears to have rejected animal sacrifice, which forms the core of Vedic ritual and the religious authority of the brahman priests who perform such sacrifices. Historically, many Buddhist activities, such as the prātimokṣa recitation, were ritualized early in the history of the tradition. By the third through sixth centuries c.e. ritual practices were well established among Indian Buddhist practitioners.

While use of the term ritual seems to indicate a specific category, such that there ought to be a clear way in which one can identify what is and what is not a ritual, scholars still do not agree on a general definition of ritual. It is instead more useful to think in terms of ritualization, that is, a process by which certain activities are regularized both in performance and periodicity. Rather than a bounded category, or a simply stipulative definition, ritualization suggests a range of degrees to which activities have been regularized. Over the course of Buddhist history, important activities, including individual religious practices (sādhana), have been ritualized.

Basic model for Buddhist rituals

Elements of what became known as the unexcelled worship (anuttarapūjā) are found as early as the late second century c.e. The other name for this is the seven-limbed pūjā (saptāṅgā pūjā), since rituals of this kind often employed seven elements. This latter name is somewhat misleading in that the number of possible elements was more than seven, and the number of elements in particular rituals might be more or less than seven. The standard elements from which rituals could be constructed include: praise (vandanā), worship (pūjanā), confession of faults (deśana), rejoicing in the merits of others (modanā), requesting the buddhas to teach (adhyeṣaṇā), requesting the buddhas to remain in this world (yācanā), transfer of merit (pariṇāmana), arising of bodhicitta (bodhicittotpāda), taking refuge (śaraṇagamana), making vows (praṇidana), and sacrifice of oneself (ātmatyāga).

Another kind of ritual organization is found in many tantric Buddhist rituals. These rituals are constructed symmetrically around the symbolically central action of ritualized identification between the practitioner and the deity evoked; this is called deity yoga. The five steps of these rituals are:

  • purification —preparation of the practitioner
  • construction —preparation of the ritual site
  • encounter —inviting, greeting, and feasting the deity
  • identification —meditative union, or ritual identification
  • dissociation —recapitulates the first three steps:
  • departure of the deity : corollary of encounter
  • dissolution of the ritual site : corollary of construction
  • departure of the practitioner : corollary of purification

A number of different categories of ritual practice are known. Early eighth-century translations into Chinese by Bodhiruci list three categories: śantika, for protection; pauṣṭika, for increase of benefits; and abhicāraka, for domination. By the end of the ninth century, an additional two categories are evidenced: vaśīkaraṇa, for attraction; and aṅkuśa, for acquisition. These categories inform both the Indo-Tibetan and East Asian traditions. In Tibetan ritual traditions, a set of four appears to have become the standard grouping, while in East Asia the standard grouping comprises all five. These categories establish a complex set of associations for ritual performance: for example,

the time of day for performing the ritual, the color of the practitioner's clothing, and the kind of altar to be employed.

An exemplary ritual: homa

Originating in the Vedic tradition, homa, or fire ritual, is found in both Hindu and Buddhist tantra. Within the Buddhist world homa is found wherever the tantric tradition has taken root, including Mongolia, China, Tibet, Japan, and Bali. The ritual comprises a series of offerings made into a fire built on the altar. The mouth of the altar hearth is homologized to the mouth of the deity and to the practitioner's mouth, while the fire is the deity's digestive fire and the fire of wisdom (prajñā) that purifies defilements (kleśa).

The homa ritual demonstrates the way in which rituals are organized according to a basic metaphor. Homa is a feast for the deities who are evoked in the course of the ritual. This ritual metaphor is found in many tantric Buddhist rituals, and evidences the connection between them and their Vedic sources, which also serve as ritual feasts.

In addition to the ritual metaphor and homa's organization, specific elements within the ritual highlight the continuity of practice across more than three millennia and multiple religious cultures. These include an opening offering to Agni, the Vedic god of fire and sacrifice; implements used (e.g., two ladles for making offerings); and the varieties of materials offered, most emblematically, clarified butter (ghee). The processes of cultural adaptation are reflected in the use of various substitutes, such as sesame oil (Japanese, goma abura) for ghee. The widespread practice of the homa ritual indicates the central place that ritual holds in much of the Buddhist tradition. Rather than being purely rational and ethical, Buddhism has therefore always maintained a crucial role for ritual in its religious culture and practice.

See also:Initiation; Ordination; Ritual Objects; Tantra


Aune, Michael B., and DeMarinis, Valerie, eds. Religious and Social Ritual: Interdisciplinary Explorations. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.

Bell, Catherine. Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Bell, Catherine. Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Bentor, Yael. Consecrations of Images and Stūpas in Indo-Tibetan Tantric Buddhism. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1996.

Bentor, Yael. "Literature on Consecration (Rab gnas)." In Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre, ed. José Ignacio Cabezón and Roger R. Jackson. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1996.

Beyer, Stephan. The Cult of Tara: Magic and Ritual in Tibet. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978.

Cabezón, José Ignacio. "Firm Feet and Long Lives: The Zhabs brtan Literature of Tibetan Buddhism." In Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre, ed. José Ignacio Cabezón and Roger R. Jackson. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1996.

Cozort, Daniel. "Sādhana (sGrub thabs): Means of Achievement for Deity Yoga." In Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre, ed. José Ignacio Cabezón and Roger R. Jackson. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1996.

Egge, James R. Religious Giving and the Invention of Karma in Theravāda Buddhism. Richmond, UK: Routledge Curzon, 2002.

Gombrich, Richard F. How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings. London and Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Athlone, 1996.

Kohn, Richard J. Lord of the Dance: The Mani Rimdu Festival in Tibet and Nepal. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Makransky, John. "Offering (mChod pa) in Tibetan Ritual Literature." In Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre, ed. José Ignacio Cabezón and Roger R. Jackson. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1996.

Payne, Richard K. The Tantric Ritual of Japan: Feeding the Gods, The Shingon Fire Ritual. Delhi: International Academy of Indian Culture, 1991.

Payne, Richard K. "The Tantric Transformation of Pūjā: Interpretation and Structure in the Study of Ritual." In India and Beyond: Aspects of Literature, Meaning, Ritual, and Thought, ed. Dick van der Meij. London and New York: Kegan Paul, 1997.

Payne, Richard K. "Tongues of Flame: Homologies in the Tantric Homa." In The Roots of Tantra, ed. Katherine Anne Harper and Robert L. Brown. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.

Wallis, Glenn. Mediating the Power of Buddhas: Ritual in the Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.

Weber, Claudia. Buddhistische Beichten in Indien und bei den Uiguren: Unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der uigurischen Laienbeichte und ihrer Beziehung zum Manichäismus. Wies-baden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 1999.

Richard K. Payne


views updated May 21 2018


Ritual is normally defined as gestures and, often, linguistic actions that follow a preestablished schedule and have a communicative purpose. Anthropologist Roy Rappaport (19261997) defined ritual as "the performance of more or less invariant sequences of formal acts and utterances not entirely encoded by the performers" (p. 24). According to this minimal definition, rituals occur among animals and human beings. Religious rituals are a subgroup of human rituals. A more specific definition depends on the definition of religion, which normally refers to ultimate values or transempirical beings.

Ritual is related to phenomena such as rite, cult, service, liturgy, ceremony, and feast. Rite often designates a single ritual act, ritual a series of rites. Quasi-synonyms such as cult and service designate a subclass of religious rituals. Liturgy normally means the spoken part of a service. Ceremony designates religious and nonreligious rituals, often with a connotation of something superficial, formal, less important. Feast can designate a class of rituals with a connotation of the uncontrolled, chaotic, and a violation of norms.

Ritual is normally understood as being a collective phenomenon. The Scottish scholar W. Robertson Smith (18461894) regarded religious rituals as more basic than doctrines or individual convictions, rituals being common for a group and relatively durable, while doctrines and convictions may vary individually and are more vulnerable to changes over time. French philosopher and sociologist Émile Durkheim (18581917) regarded rituals as the occasions where the holy is articulated and preserved. Religion, the rational core of which is a society's morals, ideals, and principles, is mediated to the individual participants when they gather together to form a community. The assembly also signifies a rupture with the routines of daily life. Therefore, a certain effervescence, conditioned by group psychological mechanisms, often arises, where the individual participants experience a moment of self-forgetfulness and of collective identity. Hereby the individual's obligation toward common ideals is strengthened; new ideals may also develop more or less spontaneously in such gatherings. All religion, and in fact all social fabric, from the most archaic to the most modern forms, presupposes gatherings with at least a touch of effervescence.

Henri Hubert (18721927), Marcel Mauss (18721950), and Arnold Van Gennep (18731957) described a basic syntagm in three parts for all rituals: first, the participants are drawn out of the profane, daily world; second, the central acts are performed; finally, the participants are reconnected with the profane. Van Gennep pointed out the universal occurrence and significance of rituals of transition and initiation

The effervescence of ritual and its partial violation of norms was elaborated by Roger Caillois (19131978) and Georges Bataille (18971962), who emphasized the extravagant consumption of values in feasts and offerings. Mircea Eliade (19071986) saw ritual as an occasion for the abolition of historical and linear time and for contact with archaic notions of the origin of the world and the regeneration of life. Victor Turner (1920-1983) analyzed the central part of initiation, the phase of liminality, as a state where the structures of normal life are suspended, the normal differences between the participants are replaced with a temporary community and brotherhood or sisterhood (a communitas ), and often the initiates are under strict surveillance of ritual leaders with extensive authority. Typically, the initiates are instructed in the mythic and normative foundation of their society, but alternative understandings of life and norms may also be articulated. Turner has seen tendencies to formations of permanent forms of communitas in, for example, monastic movements and pilgrimages. According to Turner, the fertile chaos of liminality has been the origin of theater and performance.

Walter Burkert (1931) and René Girard (1923) both emphasized bloody sacrifice as a central ritual; here a group of human beings mitigates internal aggression by directing it toward a designated animal, which is slaughtered and sometimes eaten. Inspired by ethological studies, Burkert stressed the origin of rituals in the life of animals; rituals are sequences of actions, where an original pragmatic purpose has been replaced by a communicative content. To Burkert, different rituals can have different origins. Girard assumed that rituals of all types have been "generated" by a common original form, which is the spontaneous expulsion of a common adversary, a scapegoat. The structure "all-against-one," common in many rituals, is such a remnant of the primeval scene.

To Rappaport, who combines a Durkheimian inspiration with phenomenology of religion, semiotics, theory of speech acts, and evolutionary theory, the ritual is the place where linguistically formulated norms and conventions are made obligatory for a group of human beings; ritual is "the basic human act." Purely linguistic meaning is conventional and open for misuse (lies) and misunderstanding (Babel). In order to withstand disintegrating tendencies from without or within, every group of human beings must commit its members to a certain amount of consensus and predictability. By their mere participation in a ritualthat is, by their self-submission under its preestablished rules for acts and linguistic utterancesthe participants signal that they give up a part of their subjectivity and commit themselves to a common universe of norms and significations, in spite of their own "inner" thoughts and feelings. Therefore ritual typically includes performative, self-committing speech acts. The relative "weight" of ritually mediated meaning is reflected in the fact that ritual demands not only the thoughts and feelings of the participants, but also the presence of their bodies.

At least in Protestant-Christian theology, rituals have been problematic since the age of Enlightenment. Already in the early Reformation, the sacraments, which are key examples of rituals, were interpreted as preaching in other forms. Often rituals have been considered external, figurative, affective, and possibly infantile or archaic, and in any case secondary in relationship to rational theology, which necessarily is formulated in symbolic language, spoken and written. Normally the marginalizing of ritual does not assume the shape of a polemic, which aims at abolishing ritual altogether, but rather a disinclination for a proper reflection on it. On the other hand, rituals are often appreciated by those who want to keep a strong emotional dimension in church services.

See also Semiotics


burkert, walter. homo necans: the anthropology of ancient greek sacrificial ritual and myth, trans. peter bing. berkeley: university of california press, 1983.

caillois, roger. man and the sacred, trans. meyer barash. champaign: university of illinois press, 2001.

durkheim, Émile. the elementary forms of religious life, trans. karen e. fields. new york: free press, 1995.

eliade, mircea. the sacred and the profane: the nature of religion, trans. willard trask. san diego, calif.: harvest books, 1968.

gennep, arnold van. the rites of passage, trans. monika b. vizedom and gabrielle l. cafee. chicago: university of chicago press, 1960.

girard, rené. violence and the sacred, trans. patrick gregory. baltimore, md., and london: john hopkins university press, 1979.

hollier, denis, ed. the college of sociology (193739). minneapolis, minn.: university of minnesota press, 1988.

hubert, henri, and mauss, marcel. sacrifice: its nature and function, trans. w. d. halls. london: cohen west, 1964.

rappaport, roy a. ritual and religion in the making of humanity. cambridge, uk: cambridge university press, 1999.

smith, w. robertson. lectures on the religion of the semites. london: a&c black, 1889.

turner, victor witter. the ritual process: structure and anti-structure. ithaca, n.y.: cornell university press, 1969.

hans j. l. jensen


views updated May 11 2018

ritual Generally, an often-repeated pattern of behaviour which is performed at appropriate times, and which may involve the use of symbols. Religion is one of the main social fields in which rituals operate, but the scope of ritual extends into secular and everyday life as well. For example, the dramaturgical sociology of Erving Goffman makes extensive reference to ‘interaction rituals’, the various ritualized codes of everyday behaviour by which actors co-operate in acknowledging a shared reality and preserve each other's sense of self (see his Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behaviour, 1967

The Durkheimian approach (The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, 1912) makes a strong distinction between the sacred and the profane and locates rituals firmly in the former category. For Durkheimians, rituals create social solidarity, which is necessary to hold society together. Durkheim reduced ritual to social structure since he asserted that, through rituals, people correctly represent to themselves the pattern of relations in society. For Durkheim, the unit of significance in ritual is action, since action causes beliefs, not vice versa. Durkheim thus accorded to ritual a primary epistemological role—insisting that the necessary building-blocks of thought are transmitted through the shared ‘effervescence’ of ritual. Christel Lane's The Rites of Rulers: Ritual in Industrial Society (1981) is a fascinating contemporary example of a Durkheimian interpretation of the socialist rituals of the former Soviet Union.

The Marxist approach to ritual, by contrast, proposes that rituals transmit only false consciousness. They mystify their participants by misrepresenting the pattern of social relations in the society (see, for example, M. Bloch , From Blessing to Violence, 1986

A framework for categorizing the general structure of rituals was proposed by the Belgian anthropologist Arnold van Gennep (The Rites of Passage, 1909). Van Gennep wrote that a person is not just born into society, but has to be re-created through rites of passage as a social individual, and accepted into society. He outlined three stages in such rites, which transform the social identity of the initiand: separation, or the detaching of an individual from his or her former status; liminality, where the initiand is in ‘limbo’, having been detached from the old status but not yet attached to the new; and reincorporation, in which the passage from one status to another is consummated symbolically.

A common criticism of sociological interpretations of ritual is that analysts have merely imposed their own meaning on the events. G. Lewis (Day of Shining Red, 1980) argues that the search for meaning in rites outweighs the concern for what people may feel about them; that is, the emotional aspects. Thus rituals become like crossword puzzles—to be decoded in the hands of anthropologists and sociologists. Lewis argues that rituals must be understood in the terms of the participants' own meanings as well as those of the analyst.


views updated May 29 2018

Ritual (Lat., ritus, ‘structure’, ‘ceremony’). Actions repeated in regular and predictable ways, both in religious and secular contexts, serving so many purposes that summary is impossible. Ritual is clearly an integral part of religious life, but it is common and persistent outside the domain of religion: consider the ordered expectations in different kinds of parties, for New Year's Eve, retirements, pre-wedding nights, etc. Religious ritual is usually thought to comprise repetition, commitment, intention, pattern (especially of movements), tradition (often by linkage with myth which is regarded by some as supplying the meaning of the ritual), purpose, and performance. At the very least, public ritual is social drama, which makes unsurprising the origin of theatre in religious ritual, for example in Greece, India (where ritual and drama are still closely linked), and Japan (see NŌ DRAMA). Beyond that elementary point, definitions and explanations of ritual proliferate. A. F. C. Wallace (Religion: An Anthropological View, 1966) suggested five main categories of ritual: (i) technological, including rites of divination, of intensification (to obtain such things as food or alcohol), and of protection; (ii) therapeutic (and anti-therapeutic); (iii) ideological (for the sake of the community as a whole), including rites of passage, of intensification (to ensure adherence to values), of taboos, ceremonies, and courtesies, and of rebellion (leading to catharsis); (iv) soteriological, aimed at repair of communal and individual damage, including rites of possession and exorcism, of new identity, and of ecstasy; and (v) revitalizing. From this it can be seen that ritual is at least the recognition in the midst of time of the ways in which the sequential passage of time affords the possibility of reassertive and significant action.



views updated May 17 2018

rit·u·al / ˈrichoōəl/ • n. a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order: the ancient rituals of Christian worship | the role of ritual in religion. ∎  a prescribed order of performing such a ceremony, esp. one characteristic of a particular religion or church. ∎  a series of actions or type of behavior regularly and invariably followed by someone: her visits to Joy became a ritual.• adj. of, relating to, or done as a religious or solemn rite: ritual burial. ∎  (of an action) arising from convention or habit: the players gathered for the ritual pregame huddle.DERIVATIVES: rit·u·al·ly adv.


views updated May 11 2018


This entry includes two subentries:

Public Ritual