Are Hindu rituals still relevant today?
It has been often alleged that rituals are nothing but superstitions practiced by illiterates and blind followers of faith. It is even claimed that no rational person will indulge himself in meaningless practices. Most of the rituals as such have died down. Most people don’t even perform the “Nitya Karmas” suggested in the Dharmashastras. The only surviving element of Nitya Karmas seems to be “Sandhyavandana”, that too among very few people. And of most these people are only imitating the act passed down from the past without understanding their essence.
Many modern day ‘Gurus’ speak only of dry philosophy or of blind faith without understanding the significance of Sadhana, the spiritual effort. On being asked by Sutikshana, whether the path of Jnana or Karma would lead to enlightenment, Sage Agastya in “YogaVashishta” lucidly states:
ubhabhyam eva paksabhyam yatah khe paksinam gatih
tathai va jnana karmabhyam jayate paramam padam
(Yoga Vashista 220.127.116.11).
“Just as a bird flies with its two wings, so also an enquirer flies to goal of Self-Realization through the co-ordination of two wings of Jnana and Karma” Hence it becomes very clear that, no path will lead to Truth without the practice of rituals enjoined with them
Generally speaking, Sadhana is any effort that leads to a spiritual goal. It may be any of the Japa, Homam, Bhajan, Sva-adhyay, Dhyana or a combination of some of these rituals or may be any other effort which one undertakes towards Spiritual Emancipation. This is the reason why we find Sadhana in one form or the other in every kula, shakha and samdradaya belonging to Sanatana Dharma.
To the question, “Are Hindu rituals still relevant today?” the answer is “it is more relevant today than it had been any time in recent history. Today, it is relevant not only to Hindus but to whole humanity”. We are currently living in a society where spirituality is declining at a very fast pace. This has not only turned people into materialism and consumerism, but also has resulted in loss of mental peace, tranquility and values (moral, social and spiritual) in the society. This has resulted in a lot of chaos and confusion and conflict throughout the world.
It is through Sadhana alone, one can have his perspectives broadened and develop spiritual intuition required to lead a Dharmic life. Without this, no individual will be able to live a righteous life. One will be lost in the innumerable temptations and miseries without even understanding his/her life’s purpose. For this reason the rituals become very vital. Most people assume rituals to be only external activities. But our Shastras clearly speaks of External as well as Internal rituals. Every external activity is deeply connected with internal change and they complement each other. The external rituals will stimulate the internal rituals and eventually leads a practitioner to involve himself wholly in internal sadhana discarding the external ones. What actually a Sadhana does is to burn away the burden of past karmas that are blocking one’s journey towards the Truth. People in whom Sattva Guna dominate can perform “Manasa Puja” without any use of external objects. But most of the people today are mundane in nature due to the predominance of Tamas Guna and hence need the external rituals not only as symbols for internal activity but also to ignite and strengthen the internal fire. Only then the internal qualities like detachment and stitahprajna can be developed which are very crucial for spiritual progress.
Especially in today’s world when people have very less time to spend on elaborate penances (Tapas), we need faster and easier method by which one can balance the spiritual and the mundane. This is where a simple fire ritual practiced with perseverance comes into play. Agni, that is fire not only speeds up the spiritual progress but also amplifies the effect of any sadhana done in it. Any spiritual progress happens only after the five elements within one’s body are thoroughly purified. For example, the fire element within the body is purified by a Homam which involves the external fire and the air element within the body is purified by Pranayama which involves using the air around us. But today’s environment being highly polluted only fire element remains pure as it burns down everything to ashes. Hence, it is wise to use Fire as a medium for sadhana. Further, any fire ritual not only involves offering oblations in the fire but also Pranayam, Mantra Jap and Dhyana. The fire amplifies the effects of all these actions many folds and hence assisting the sadhaka to make fast progress.
Traditionally, people who were involved in “Mantra Sadhana” used to do a full Purascharana of the mantra. They would select a specific mantra and take a sankalpa to do a jap for fixed number of times for a fixed number of days. One-tenth of the total number of japs was offered to Agni as oblations. One-tenth of the oblations were offered as Tarpana (ritual using water). One tenth were offered as Marjana (with flowers). And finally one tenth (of marjana) number of people were fed. But this procedure being too disciplined and elaborate, most people have abandoned it. Similarly, the Vedic Yajna’s being too elaborate and complicated has faced the same fate.
Instead, in current scenario, people may find it easier to spend around 60 minutes once a week or a month to perform a shorter version of fire-ritual ( Homam) of any deity. Any homam will include a Sankalpa (pledge expressing intensions for doing homam) in the beginning, followed by Agni Pratishtapana ( installation of fire), Prana Pratishtapana (invoking) of main deity in fire, Panchopachara puja which includes serving five items like sandalwood paste, flowers, incense, lamp and food to the deity ( some people may prefer shadopachara- serving 16 items or chatussashtyupachara- 64 items), main offerings of mantra in the fire (may be 4, 8, 12, 108 or 1008 times), additionally any other mantra or stotra can be made as oblations to the fire. This is followed by Punah Puja (serving deity again), Uttarangam (vote of thanks to deities), Bali and Poornahuti. Poornahuti means “complete surrender” and is the most important part of homam. One must meditate (Dhyana) after surrendering completely to the deity. The completion of homam is marked by wishing “good bye” to the main deity and at last the Agni (Udhvasa).
Finally, it will not be an exaggeration to state that in today’s fast moving world where everyone expects quick results, Sadhana, especially the rituals involving Fire are the key to achieve harmony in spiritual and mundane worlds. Everybody must involve themselves in one or the other forms of Sadhana, if not fire ritual, may be atleast a japa or a bhajan. But the key for success is sincerity and surrendering in whatever you do.