Day 49: Rituals

I think it was Adorno who said something in the lines of what makes a dimwit! Something or someone who is half-understood and half-experienced is not the preliminary stage of education, but its mortal enemy.

Last year when I was travelling in India, there were many who called me derogatory names for being childless at 35. Some proposed rituals that would bring me fortune. Rituals. I could not explain to them the reason for me not to engage in rituals (even though highly fascinating from a point of view of a person studying anthropology) claiming to magically give me a child. I was looking at the aspect of such faith from a psychological perspective. Where rituals promising children can play an important role in providing the performer with access to spiritual “powers” of various sorts. It is an integral part of Polytheism. In particular modern Hinduism, where the practitioner can access powers that both relieve or induce anxieties within a group depending on the circumstances. In this case, childlessness.

I found this utterly annoying. The constant nagging of elderly ladies about why I don’t have children yet. Moreover their constant reference to “in our Indian culture…”. For crying out loud – I can tell you of good many places where you can shove your own understanding of “Indian culture”! That’s when I thought of Adorno – “half-understood and half-experienced is not the preliminary stage of education, but its mortal enemy”.

Most Indians today think of Indian Culture as an ancient practice – but unfortunately Indian Culture today is stained with colonial practices. The aspect of woman’s body being constantly monitored into submission is not Indian Culture but rather the taint of Victorian Era (where women were treated as secondary citizens to men in society) Monotheism/Anglicanism.

This has not only left the every growing Indian society, a society where for thousands of years only Brahmans and Kshatriyas were the ones with access to Veda’s and educational texts (thus access to knowledge about Indian Culture and Traditions), into believing that popular practices tainted with colonial and post-colonial habits of the colonisers – is actual Indian Culture and Tradition. To the point, the ritual of magically bearing child is embedded within the notion of failed womanhood. Hence derogatory name calling, and talk of Indian Culture in context of childbearing as responsibility. There is always a mise-en-scène behind every old “moral” imposed via ancient literature. Taking those out of context only leaves us with a shallow understanding of what a certain text (related to culture) truly means.

Originally, if we look at Western Anthropology looking at the East with Orientalist prejudice, we see that rituals are seen as relieving anxieties or enhancing fears. And religious rituals are often present at times when people face uncertainty and believe that they have an issue with luck! Of course, under this sense rituals provide a basis of psychological stability. One really good example of this is the Trobriand Islanders of New Guinea (1948) study done by Malinowski (Polish-British anthropologist). He noted that while fishing in less risky zones and sheltered coves the islanders hardly ever practiced any ritual. But as soon as they had to venture into open ocean for bigger catches – it involved an elaborate ritual to not only sooth any fear and anxiety of the fishermen but also to evoke chance.

On the other hand, rituals could also be used to create anxieties to keep people in line with established norms – particularly through constant communication of taboos. Where taboos are not just simple designation of objects but are also prohibited acts.

In modern Hinduism these taboos are sacred creates, or citing “Indian Culture and Tradition” as a method of enhancing an aura of fear or anxiety around citizens following Hinduism. Practices such as monitoring a woman’s choice of clothing or linguistic practices are as much an observance of “rituals” in the name of Traditions and the great “Indian Culture” as is used to either prevent the transgression of taboos or to return society to normal after taboos have been transgressed. Failure to observe rituals and societal practices have become a transgression that threatens (in the mind of those who only half-understood and half-experienced Indian Culture and its roots) to unbalance the cosmological order and impact the success of future generations. This failure could only be resolved through further specific rituals integral to “Indian Culture”, where taboo acts as a form of ritualised social control that encourages people to act in ways that benefit the wider society, or the political head of the country.

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