Articles / Philosophy / A little more towards understanding ritual




For the religious studies seminar, University of London, 1988.
Not published.


There can be no doubt that each known ritual may have a meaning unknown to its users and performers, for even ‘the same’ ritual may acquire a different interpretation (never forget that ‘meaning’ belongs to interpretation, not to knowledge) after several generations or at a distance of several hundred miles. And if the ritual in question is regarded by its users and per- formers – or by ourselves, or both – as ‘the same as’ – then we may account for this by the fact that ‘the same-ness’ here is, indeed, grounded in the objectivity of the ritual knowledge which is offered to my understanding by their (i.e., those users’ and performers’)oral-or written tradition. Through that object- ivity I mayor may not be able to proceed towards their own under- standing, i.e., subjective awareness of their ritual and of them- selves as its users and performers, but without that objectivity there is nowhere to proceed.

The immense richness of post-Vedic commentatorial and quasi- commentatorial literature – i.e., literature commenting on rituals or on anything in the sense of, or in relation to, rituals – gives us a lot of examples of ‘the same-ness’ of ritual. The first Brahma~a of B{h. Up. describes the whole cosmos as a sacrificial stallion of the a§vamedha ritual. Another Upanishadic passage says that when a recluse cuts and then burns his nails in spring it is his agnistoma (a long sacrificial ritual performed for several days in spring). In the first case we have a situation where the world (i.e., sacrificial universe) is identified with (or ‘the same as’) only one (though definitely central) element of the ritual of a~vamedha, while in the second the action of cutting and burning the nails is equated with, supposedly at least, the whole agnistoma.

Furthermore, if in the first case we see how a sort of symbolic (?) correspondence is established between A and B, as two aspects of the same universal situation, in the second an ascetic’s ‘individual ritual’ is said to be his ritual of agnistoma. What, however, ‘the cutting and burning nails’ (A) and agnistoma (B) are lacking is ‘the same-ness’. One cannot conclude – on the basis of this situation alone, at least – that there must be a certain ‘third’ ritual, an unknown invariant with respect to which the two could be figuring as its variants, no chance! For A here is described as “thine agnistoma”, and the cutting and burning the nails in A would not lead one to a knowledge of the procedure of agnistoma (B) or of the substances used therein. More than that, one would not be able even to reconstruct the scheme of B on the basis of A which, by the way, is quite possible in cases of so-called ‘inverse’ rituals, such as ‘black mass’ etc.

So, in the case of this situation, the formula ‘A is B’, if understood from the point of view of B, might be read as ‘A is not B’, for it implies the knowledge of B which does not contain A, whereas the knowledge of A does, necessarily, presuppose B. In saying this I only want to stress that it is the knowledge of a ritual that determines its ‘same-ness’, not the other way around, and determines both the sphere of application and direction of Ritual is a self-reporting thing. This is not because it is observable, i.e., visible, audible or imaginable in forms and figures, but because it has an especial knowledge of itself – self-knowledge of the ritual without which the latter can not be counted as ritual. This is the knowledge in which the ‘how’ and ‘what’ of the ritual merge and are in turn merged with some- thing else – the ‘how’ and ‘what’ which are, as yet, not known to themselves.

Without this knowledge a ritual, however meticulously observed by an external observer, cannot, in fact, be known at all, for the observer cannot know which of the things observed are, and which are not relevant to the ritual itself. This, in fact, is a clear, though simplisticldescription of an etic approach to the ritual. Being itself an aspect of ritual, this knowledge must not be regarded as interpreting the ‘rest of a ritual’. It rather figures as a sort of ‘inner analogue’of the last: it knows the ritual, and knows itself as ~ component of the ritual.

Or, one may say, that a ritual ‘knows itself’ and is knowable because of this knowledge. This, however, is not to say that ritual knowledge is in any way reflexive; that is, that it has anything to do with self-awareness of the users or performers of a ritual. By no means! Though it may serve, and in many cases actually serves as an objective basis for their self-awareness. ‘Objective’ in the sense that, though included within the context of a ritual as its subjects, they could not help but know that there are times and places at which they are separated from the ritual and from themselves as its users and performers. For – however con- jectural this might sound – a distinction between what is and what is not ritual (cum its knowledge) is, in one way or another, in the ritual knowledge which is primary in its relation to every individual understanding of the ritual.

Furthermore, the ritual knowledge is not, itself, interpret- ative, though it may serve as the ground for an interpretation of something (A) as, or in the sense of, the ritual (B). This is so only provided that A mayor may not be a ritual, while B is a ritual by definition; that istthat one – be one an external observer of A or a person who identifies himself with A – has already got access to the knowledge of B. In this case one’s approach to B would be, necessarily, emic. So in this case the direction of interpretation will almost always be from A to B on the basis of B. We may suggest, in this connection, ~hat the knowledge of B determines the sphere of its application beyond the limits of which B is not the same, or ‘A is not the same as B’, interpretation of the ritual in question. And it is that very knowledge that renders the situation with agnistoma assymetrical and irreversible, for it draws a clear line between itself and all possible and actual interpretations and re-interpretations of the ritual. Which, of course, is not to say, that it is impossible for a ‘new’ ritual (A) to emerge from an interpretation of the ‘old’ one (B) – but this would not be enough for them to be the same. We might say, in the light of the idea of ‘the same-ness’ of ritual, that the statement – “the Holy Communion is performed in memory of Jesus Christ” is possible as an interpretation of the ritual of Holy Communion only because the last .has already assumed the knowledge on the strength of which it would remain the same in two or more situations marked by different interpretations.

And, not infrequently, it is that knowledge which, when adopted by an external observer of the ritual, induces his interpretation of his own rituals or other complex actions ‘comparable’ to rituals in an etic approach. Using an etic approach only, i.e., without taking into account the knowledge of a ritual with its emically formulated inner ‘postulates’ and rules of their application, would be totally useless in establlshing ‘thesame-ness’. For more often than not when observed etically, a ritual does not reveal its very function. Or in other words, ‘etically the same’ – from the point of view of the external observer – ritual may figure now as a rite de passage or an initiatory ritual, now as a hierophantic ritual, and now as a curative ritual.

Generally speaking, no functional classifica- tion of rituals can be established on the basis of the describable content of a ritual, for the last is, in principle, at least, neutral or indifferent to its function. When the first Russian doctor arrived in a small Tungus village in Eastern Siberia, in 1935, for inoculation, he tried to persuade the weather-beaten Taiga hunters that what he was doing was a kind of shamanistic curative ritual. That is, that both had the same purpose – healing. The young optimist, however, failed in his attempts to convince them: they refused to see them as the same for the reason that, when inoculating them he remained fully conscious, whereas a shaman, if ‘doing the same’, would have been immersed in a deep cataleptic trance.

So in this case, it was the trance, not the purpose (healing), and not even the content of the healer’s transic visions that really mattered. Though, of course, the hunters them- selves (as users of shamanistic ritual) did not possess the full knowledge of the ritual performed by their shaman. So, widely spread (and discussed) phenomena of ‘symboli~ation’ or ‘interiorization’ of ritual might, as it seems to me, be explained only in terms of the knowledge of a ritual to which another ritual is referred as a ‘symbolized’ or ‘interiorized’ version of the first. Or, to put it more precisely, as if the knowledge of ritual B were allowing a part of itself, or even the whole of itself, to be reduced to that which, eventually, may start as a new (or another) ritual kno~ledge of A. Then the last may recognize itself as a reduced B, or may not, in which case it would be up to the external observer to speculate on possible functions, or origins, of the latter.


Cookies help us deliver our services. By using our services, you agree to our use of cookies.