Rituals-The good, the bad and the ugly

 ‘We need our rituals’…so the sentiment goes.

  We all have them. Each and every one of us. Wherever we are on this earth, whatever  lives we lead. They may not be  universal in their characteristics but they are universal  in the fact that they appear in every civilisation, every community, every society. Past and present. Small and large.Whether we are aware of them or not our lives are full of these acts that have been defined, identified or categorized as rituals at one time or another. Most have become modified  over time and  now  simply  fall into the category of a routine or a habit. Many continue to exist  ‘disguised’ as a religious or nationalistic practice. There are those that  have evolved into being the foundations of a limitless number of social interactions at all levels, all the way from the individual to global. 


 However trivial, however routine, however consequential, these acts are   undeniably embedded in our lives.  Many a behaviour that makes us the ‘social animals’ that we are, are actually the continuation of or  a remnant of a ritual way back in time. A large number of these have had their origins traced back to  the  the earliest Ancient civilizations which seem to  have  depended and thrived on rituals. Anthropologists and a wide spectrum of academics involved in ritual studies  suggest that some may even go all the way back  to the Stone Age. The artwork discovered in caves that reveal symbols  believed to be depicted  to ward off evil forces, probably shadows  as well as sounds from their surroundings they did not understand and were fearful of, support these views.

  Celebratory or commemorative occasions or proceedings such as a wedding, a funeral, a periodical event such as a religious festival, religious pilgrimage, carnivals, Thanksgiving are all rituals…. Decorating a tree for Christmas, putting on make-up, tattooing, forms of greetings both physical and verbal are also  derivatives of rituals that were once practiced.  A few examples from a limitless list, were it to exist.


  Rituals.. The diversity is overwhelming..There are those that are imposed upon us by the culture we were brought up in or the culture in which we live in, by traditions, by religion or any kind of spiritual  belief.  Those that are  determined and/or dictated, partially or wholly,  by our geographical, social, economical  and political  environment. Those that we choose to adapt into our lives ourselves. Mostly innocent and with good intentions… Some with adverse consequences  (smoking tobacco has its own ritualistic origins). Those that we are convinced bring us happiness, those that  give us the access  ‘to belong’.  There are those that enable us to share, those that we use as ‘tools’ to pass our experiences and our wisdom  to the generations ahead.

        Rituals pass down generations just as our genes do. The mode of transmission is obviously different but  genes transmit data and so do rituals. Evolution process  via natural selection sorts out the good and bad among the genes. The beneficial ‘good’ genes  survive whereas  ‘bad’ ones are weeded out albeit not  completely. Just as many a  ‘bad’ gene failed to survive,  many a ritual have also disappeared. Being beneficial guaranteed continuity for both the gene and the ritual.  Just as a number of  ‘bad’ genes managed to remain on the genome, so did  many a sinister, harmful, cruel and  divisive ritual. ‘The bad’ and ‘the ugly’… Religious sacrifice of animals is one. Female circumcision, so cruel, so horrific is another. Sexual predatory, racial hatred,abuse all in the name of a ritual…the list goes on and on. Cults use rituals as mind control. There are societies in which rituals are used as  a disciplinary social code. There are rituals, thinly veiled  and presented as traditions, which encourage the transfer of prejudices as well as  keeping them alive generation after generation. Extreme views and hatred  flourish. Divisions become more and more marked.

      By all means lets have our routines, rituals, traditions whatever we may choose to call them…They enrich our lives, link the past and the present, contribute to the well-being of the mankind and the environment we live in. At the same time, lets be aware that there are practices that are  nothing more than disguised rituals out there that inflict pain and suffering and are used as means to manipulate and dominate.

Rituals…The good, the bad and the ugly.

No natural selection here.


The ritual of affixing love padlocks to the railings of a bridge.(Paris 2014, from own photo archives)






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Cultural Anthropology

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