Rituals & Actions in the Veda
Is it possible to influence the natural unfolding of events from performing certain rituals? Can we keep misfortune at bay from offering up prayers in awe of a greater reality than our mundane existence?
The ancient cultures of the world all display similar features in approaching the supernatural for intervention in their lives. Sacrifice and rituals were performed seeking the benediction of the forefathers, gods on high, spirits, ghosts or goblins. Today when for some, science has become God, many of the ritualistic traditions of the world has been brushed aside as mere nonsense and superstition. But although science now gives us their peculiar explanation to the unfolding of event in the world, in times of distress and great turmoil many people still cry out and choose to believe in a higher power. Whether it is inherent within us to pray or the collective genes from our superstitious ancestors is hard to determine, but from the unseen we came into this world and to the unseen we shall once return, so whatever our reason may be, the unseen is a phenomenon open to much speculation. Many religions have tried to explain this uncertain phenomenon, but most of them are unsatisfactory because they rarely ask questions about the first cause. What was there in the beginning? Who created the Gods and what was there prior to this expanded Universe?
The Vedas like no other culture of the world investigates into these principles. The early part of the Vedas are an elaborate ritual tradition, but the later part of the Veda is more philosophical and investigates into the internal principle of being as well as the external forces that move this cosmos. Many of these realizations are written down in the Upanishads and these texts are known as Vedanta because they are suppose to be the culmination of all learning and are also the last part, end (anta) of the Veda.
The two main philosophical schools investigating into the relevance and applicability of the Veda are the two philosophical schools of Purva Mimamsa (Mimamsa) and Uttara Mimamsa (Vedanta). The earlier (purva) school examines the greater chunk of the Veda which elaborates on proper use of mantras, procedure for rituals and how to live a in accordance with Dharma, the unseen governing forces that prompt man to do just acts for the good of the world. The later (uttara) school, Vedanta examines into the nature of God (Brahman) and tries to define what constitutes the essence of a soul here as well as the material essence of the universe.
Lately it has been common to treat the two schools as separate and since the realizations of the later schools seems to embody the quintessential of all philosophy, the later school, namely Vedanta has been given much more preference in study rather than the extensive use of rituals and the archaic procedures referred to in the ritual section of the earlier part of the Veda.
The inevitable question is: 'how does one attain such realizations as referred to in the Upanishads'? If it is all about transcending ones normal patterns of thought and gain access a deeper/higher reality from within, why do we not realize these truths from the mere hearing of it? The mind seems to operate in patterns of its own, and trying to control the subtle patterns of the mind is as difficult to control as the wind. Unless one is extremely receptive to these higher teaching one needs consistent practices that can rein in the wild flights of the mind and dissolve the patterns of delusion, fancy and miss-conceptual thinking it get caught up in. The Vedantins argue Knowledge is enough to break these patterns of delusion, but the Mimamsakas argue certain rituals and procedures are needed to aid the soul in its journey through life and bring about greater clarity to ones inherent nature. They believe an incarnate being will always be caught up in lower tendencies of the corporal nature and it therefore needs help and assistance on its journey through life so it may accumulate merit, avoid suffering and eventually become more receptive to the greater reality of things.
All schools of Indian philosophy, apart from the Charvakas, believe in the law of Karma. Every action instigates a reaction which will facilitate another action. The world is bound by these laws of cause and effect and it operates on all levels from the gross to the subtle. It is believed that our soul carries some subliminal activators (samskaras) or certain fragrances (vasanas), that conditions our behavior patterns, our mental outlook and general perceptivity towards a greater receptivity to these subtle patterns from within. It is not my point to argue the operations of Karma in this article, but merely point to fact that all Indian schools of philosophy generally believe that what you are today is a product of how you were yesterday or in a past life, yet the inner essence of soul is never colored by these karmas, it is only the veil that superimposes itself on the soul and blurs its vision. The soul will always remain pure in nature, but our inherent consciousness filtered thought our body/mind organism which operates in patterns according to our upbringing and conditioning. The Karma theory assumes that each soul has a certain predisposition it is born into this life with. In short if one has accumulated much merit (punya) ones life will be pleasant, if one experiences much sorrow (dukha) it is the general belief that these circumstances are there for a particular reason.
The philosophical schools of India took these theories further and argued that even if one has accumulated the greatest merit and is reborn as an Emperor in the highest heaven, once all merit is exhausted the soul will still have to come back to the normal cycle of birth and death, which ultimately can be only suffering. Each philosophical school therefore argues a proper path to the final release from the wheel of Samsara (world of suffering), but here we are concerned primarily with the Mimamsa view and we shall therefore return to this.
The school of Mimamsa thus argues that action, karma is what binds the soul as well as that which sets it free. Proper activity is therefore needed in order save the soul from degeneration and uplift it to its higher potential. The immediate question is of course: 'What is right activity? And from where comes the authority to state this? There is no discussion on this matter. The Veda is the sole authority. They are supposed to embody eternal truths that are there to help man in his journey back to his/her divine essence.
Now one may argue about the content of the Veda, the meaning of all the Mantras and ask if they have any relevance in the world today? The Mimsakas avoid answering this question by stating the Veda is Apaurushea, not created by any man, but eternal sacred utterances about energies and powers intuited by certain rishis, seers that passed it down to the world of man. The Veda is therefore not to be questioned, but accepted on the basis on its own authority.
There is not much room for argument here; either we accept it or we don't so let us therefore rather turn to the injunctions or the commands listed out in the Vedas that a person is to follow in their daily lives.
There are primarily three types of Karmas, activities listed out in the Vedas. They are:
1. Nitya Karmas, Daily activities, expected to be done without fail. They involve the recitation of the Vedas and personal observances of japa, mantra and pranayama every morning and evening. There are no direct results or benefits to be gained from these rituals apart from preventing the mind to stoop to further levels of ignorance. Nitya Karmas act like soap to clean the dirt of the body/mind so one may be more receptive to ones inherent nature of spirit.
2. Naimittika Karmas are actions done with a particular purpose relating to a cause. The first ritual is performed when the child is in the womb and the last ritual is performed when the soul has departed from the body. These rituals are all rites of passage, they are sixteen in total and consists of rites such as naming ceremony, Upanayana, giving of sacred thread, marriage ceremony etc. No merit or results are expected from these rituals, but they merely act as a proper medium to establish and support the transitions of the soul through the various stages of life.
3. Kamya Karmas are rituals or sacrifices done with the intention of expecting something in return like better crop, more rain, the birth of a son, greater wealth etc. Unfortunately these Kaamya Karmas have been pushed to an extreme in India where people have performed grand rituals for the sake of manipulating the natural unfolding of events. The Vedas give accounts of elaborate sacrifices like the Ashvameda and Rajasuya sacrifices where fortunes were spent and numerous animals were sacrificed. But in India today a 'normal' fire ritual may be performed in various ways depending on what deities are being propitiated and what material for worship being used. What all these rituals have in common is that materials are offered into the fire to be transformed and taken to another realm. The fire is hence the messenger that carries the oblations to the God and if the Gods are satisfied they bestow blessings upon the people associated with the performance of the ritual.
What is interesting to note from the above is that an elevation of man, in his daily activities as well in his journey through life, is supported by certain activities, rituals laid down in the Vedas for the sake of bringing about a greater purity to his inherent nature. One may of course argue about the relevance of these sacrifices today, but what is important to note is that the whole of the Sanskrit tradition originated with the Vedas and the rituals first recorded there. It was later elaborated to an extreme by the priestly elite who became the care takers of this tradition and passed it down orally through the generations. What is further fascinating is that these priests became the very supporters for the Royal rulers and administrators and an alliance was formed between them where the Brahmin priests became the caretakers and executor of this ritual tradition and the rulers of the land became dependent on them for success in all their enterprises. What followed was to become one of the greatest empires every seen, with wealth and riches unheard of in Europe until the colonies came here and exploited it with their gun power. But although the modern machinery and weaponry was enough to control India and send her into centuries of suppression the wheel of karma seem to have come full circle when finally the Indian ideals of Karma, Dharma and Moksha now seem to be conquering the mind of the western youth who now turn to Yoga and aspects of Indian philosophy like never before. While the Indian youth all look towards the west for success and happiness in life.
The Vedas, the first testimony of an ancient tradition stand as the originator for the whole of the Sanskrit tradition to follow. Even today there are much speculation about their relevance and applicability, but if we bring our awareness to the rites and rituals listed out it becomes apparent that they were there to help man in his journey through life. Whether they succeed or not, is not for me to comment upon, but the language of the Vedas bare testimony of a culture who had access to a refine level of thought unheard of in the history of man. We can of course only speculate if it came about from their performance of rituals that would produce certain effects on an internal and external level, or if it was rather brought about from the sheer longing this culture had in understanding the great mysteries of life.
Within our limited reason we will not be able to understand, but we may take to heart the importance of doing good and just work. Right actions, our Karmas are what will refine our mind and personality and eventually contribute to the greater well being of humanity at large. So maybe this enigmatic portion of the Veda has something profound to offer the individual after all; a tool to bring about greater purity of self. For this we can only rely on our own actions, the may lift us up or bring us down, bring us joy or great suffering, the experience is ours to savior.
R. Alexander Medin
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