Articles / Philosophy / Some non-methodological remarks on ritual




Unpublished work

“Then I realised for the first time what word-and-gesture-perfect ritual can be brought to mean.”
(Rudyard Kipling)


This seminar to me is a pretext to state, once more, that I do not regard ritual as culturally specific, or linguistically specific, or sociologically specific, or specific in any way other than ritualistic; though of course this is not to say that ritual cannot be (for very often it is) significant in all these respects. The phenomenology of ritual cannot be established through, on the basis of, or as a result of any analysis of, religion. And this is so for at least two reasons. The first reason is that our notion or concept of religion, irrespective of whether we apply it to our owlt or other people’s religion – remains essentially a notion or concept describing a mode of thinking easily reduced or reducible to what we call ‘beliefs’, ‘convictions’ or ‘ideas’.

And it is irrelevant in our use of these or such like terms, whether they are applied to one’s thinking within one’s own religion, or our own thinking about someone else’s religion. You cannot infer from the fact that ‘one worships Krishna’ (an observed, or observable, ritualistic action) the fact that ‘one believes in Krishna’ or that Krishna exists’. Nor can you deduce from the fact that ‘one worships Krishna’ the idea that ‘one worships ,him because one believes in him, or believes in his existence’. Nor, least of all, can you account for the fact of worshipping Krishna by, or in terms of, a postulate that ‘Krishna is (a) ·god ‘. The mere minimum that could be established, or establishable here is a deadly platitudinous idea that there are, in the situation described by the sentence ‘one worships Krishna’ , two orders, or classes of things or beings – th’ose who worship and those who are worshipped, with a possible addition of the third, or ‘intermediary’ class, that of rituals themselves.

The three classes are, strictly speaking, shifters, for a being who in one synchronic context figures as a worshipped may in another figure as a worshipper, as is, indeed,the situation with the Vedic gods who in the heavens perform their own ritual and worship some other gods. However, from this cannot follow that one worships Krishna (even within one synchronically presented situation) because these three orders of things exist as already postulated and implied by the fact of this worship. On the contrary, only on the basis of an analysis of this act of worship, you may then come to see that ‘classification of things’ as an idea resulting from worship, not the other way around. The second reason is, that our own awareness of religion and ourselves as religious, irreligious, or a-religious persons, pre-supposes a conscious dist- inction between religion and non-religion (or ‘the religious’ and ‘the non- religious’).

This dichotomy, problematic as it is, describes not only a tend- ency of our empirical thinking to create the most banal binary oppositions, but also a tendency to think of them as absolutely natural and inherent in the religious thinking of all other people too. However, once aware of the fact that the binary oppositions pertain ‘naturally’ to our thinking, we cannot go on indefinitely, pretending that they are the basis of our methodology (which is unnatural by definition for it is meant to be applied in the investigation of objects, such as a religion, which then figure as natural by definition). The opposition of ‘religion’ to. ‘non-religion’ clearly reflects a classical Protestatic distinction between belief and unbelief. And this again returns us to the idea of (or about) religion as a thinking or a mode of thinking. The phenomenon of ritual, however, always presupposes that something has already been completed, and the fact that something (or something else) is being performed can be explained only by referring to the continuing action or simultaneous completion of the same ritual.

Neither belieIvtould~educed from r~tual, though they may eventually emerge as a result of thinking on a ritual. As, for instance, in the case when the failure to achieve the purpose of a ritual is accounted for by the fact that those who performed it did not believe in its efficacy. But even in this case we do not deal with the question of how or what did they think of ritual itself – for such thinking is beyond the limits of the phenomenology of ritu·al. In other words, the phenomenon of ritual comprises all speech, physical action and thought which are within the space and temporal continuity of the ethos of a ritual. But it does not include a thinking about it in terms or on the basis of anything but that ritual itself. So, it does not include its interpretation, though the latter may give rise to another ritual or to become another ritual, itself.

Ritual, as I understand it, is something which seems to be – speaking entirely empirically, without any theory or methodology – the most religiously marked element of religion. This is so not only because it is visible or reportable (though not in all cases), but first of all because it is only through ritual and its interpretation by those who perform it that we can come to an understanding of the content of religion. In using the term content, we mean, first of all, the elements of religion which are, as it were, narratable, which are able to be put into a kind of sequence of events, for ritual cannot be momentary. It not only takes some time to perform, but also consists of the elements which are significant due first of all to the temporal connections between them. In saying this we do not want to diminish the significance of space in ritual, i.e. the significance of its composition of elements which are present simultaneously, and which form the space of the ritual so to speak. Its temporal sequence is, however, particularly important because a ritual is a continuing action, and this is so irrespective of whether this action is observable or unobservable, physical or mental, visual or audial.

More than that, it can also be said that ritual is a series of actions, together with .their complex configuration, which constitutes speaking metaphorically; the continuation and continuity of religion, or simply time within religion. It can also be said that through ritual religion assumes the status of ‘another’ or ‘parallel’ life for an individual, or a group of individuals, or a society. At the same time religion as a construct of our consciousness cannot acquire its diachronical as well as synchronical (spatial) meaning in any way other than through ritual. This means among other things that when we observe a religion with an extremely reduced ritual, or even devoid of ritual, that is, a religion which can be observed only through its mythology, lore, or beliefs, we should assume that such a religion at one time or other definitely included ritual, and that at one time or other in the future it may acquire it again by means of re-ritualization of its non-ritualistic elements. In other words, we may conclude that it is impossible to define ritual through religion; on the contrary, religion as an empirically observable phenomenon can be defined only through ritual. It is in the light of this slightly paradoxical situation that we may ask ourselves: What are we doing here with religion as such if not making feeble culturally conditioned deductions (particularly if our culture has already had a very ‘reduced’ meaning of religion). For religion as a concept prior to that of ritual can exist only as a secondary culturally-tinted construction. When we say that religion consists of ‘ritual, mythology and doctrine’, we simply mean that we see the phenomenon of religion as that which has already passed through the filter of our own, or somebody else’s, non-religious thinking.

Such formulations can have a meaning only as a sheer convention, a way of speaking. In other words, in the phenomenon of religion ritual is that whi~h is the basic and phenomenologically primary constituent. In our psychologically-oriented age there are a lot of people who claim they are Christians because they lead a Christian life, and a lot of social anthropologists who would not hesitate to agree with such a ‘reduced’ self-definition (and rightly so!). The first are blissfully unaware that their Christianity has already been formed due to the fact of the ritual of the God-sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the continuing ritualistic tradition of its regeneration and reproduction in the whole liturgical complex of Christianity.

And the latter are, usually, consciously unaware of the philogenesis of religion, which is always – ritual. Their religious behaviour is possible only because the ritual is (or was) already there, in the background, and the very ousting of ritual from the sphere of observable actuality of a religion is, itself, a fact having to do with ritual. Another case which seems to run counter to my formulation is that of the ascetic who, at a certain grade of initiation, passes beyond the rituals which become unnecessary for him, but he does not hereby move outside the religious path. Ritual is here viewed as an aide for beginners to attain a certain state of consciousness. However, the attainment of that stage of consciousness as well as the state of consciousness itself is phenomenologically secondary not to the notion of ritual but to ritual itself. We can say that it is the notion of – ritual, not ritual itself, which offers the possibility of its interpretation, and which allows us to go outside it.

This, in fact, is not transcendence of ritual, but rather its extension or broadening. We can say that his leaving of the ritual arises from a secondary interpretation of ritual, as is the case with the upan~ds. Everything can become known as ritual, but only if Ritual is there in the. background. The idea of religion without ritual is, in principle, possible, but that very ‘without’ is a reinterpretation of the notion of ritual. I am deeply in debt to Dr. A. Cantlie, without whose help it would be hardly possible to make these disparate remarks comprehensible, not to speak of the fact that on many points I have used her ideas and formulations.

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