Ritual Details

During Diwali, the festival of lights, I took a nighttime boat ride on the Ganges River to watch all the different festive activities on the various ghats. The boat was chartered by a group of Sanskrit scholars of European origin and they brought along local Sanskrit scholars and a dozen European and American graduate students as well as the extended family of the boat owner.  As scholars they wanted to get past the 3 km of presentations done for sake of the tourists and out to the ends of the river where the traditional practices took place. In the chilly evening of moon light, we floated past each ghat, each gaudily strewn in electric lights, each having its own temple and cultural personality. Those in the boat translated for me the songs and chants we heard, letting me know what was Sanskrit, what was Hindi, what was traditional and what was the textual sources.


In the midst of the lights and sights of the shore illuminating the darkness of the river, I turned to one of the local Sanskrit scholars and asked: What happens when they make a mistake in the performance of the ritual? What happens if they make a mistake in the chanting  or one of the lamps go out or if they do not light the correct number of lamps?

The Christian graduate student sitting next to me says: don’t make fun, your ridiculous. However, the Sanskrit scholar said they would have to perform a special ritual to correct the mistake.  They don’t usually make mistakes because they are all well trained, but when they do it would require an offering. However, not a major one since the mistake was unintentional.

Hinduism treats ritual mistakes as needing atonement and distinguishes between types of mistakes and the intention of the mistake.  In contrast, if one makes a mistake in a Catholic Mass, one just repeats or corrects the mistake. Even if one spills the chalice, the concern is desecration of the wine and its retrieval, not with needing atonement for doing the ritual wrong. However, Hinduism and Judaism are concerned with the exact practice of the rituals or else it is considered a mistake.

There is an old joke of a Jewish child visiting Catholic neighbors and upon seeing the Christmas tree got thrown out of the house.  The Catholic father went to complain to Jewish boy’s father saying “He saw our Christmas tree and started making fun.” “Really, what did he say?” continued the Jewish father. The Catholic father replied: “He saw our tree and started asking all sorts of ridiculous questions – which kinds of pine trees can be used for a Christmas tree? What’s the minimum required height?  How close to the window does it need to be?   What if the electricity goes out? Do too many decorations render it unfit?  What if it’s under a neighbor’s balcony?!”

The joke would be lost in Banaras where rituals need to be done in very specific ways. The priest must light either 51 or 101 flames or else the ritual is not valid, the lights have to be of a specific kind, they have to be pure, the area needs to be pure, the chants must be exact and the gestures and motions of waving the lamps must be the exact sequence or else one has not fulfilled the ritual.

Everything used in ritual needs to be consecrated and purified or else it destroys the ritual. Hindu ritual distinguishes between items unusable due to impurity as opposed to those that have a defect, similar to the distinctions in Jewish law between a neveilah and a terefah. An animal that is a nevelah imparts ritual impurity, whereas a defective terefah from an improper slaughtering does not.

One could also have a productive Hindu-Jewish discussion about feces and ritual. The Talmud and the Shastras both bans rituals around human and cat feces, but neither one worries about cow droppings since they do not smell. Neither one influenced the other one; rather the logic of not doing ritual around smells creates a parallel.

Both worry about animals dying or running away between consecration and offering. Both worry about being touched by an impurity while doing a ritual. Both worry about little creepy things running by and creating impurity. The list of impurities from a human body has a great overlap because the human body only produces a finite number of emissions, flows, and liquids. However, Hinduism is much stricter about ordinary salvia.

I am not sure how to account for both seeing leprosy/skin disease as a divine punishment.

Within the karmakanda, there are two types of sins – those done intentional and those done unintentional (kamata or jnana vs akamata or ajnana) (the Hebrew equivalents would be mazid and shogeg). The unintentional sin can be undone with a recitation but intention sinning places the Brahmin outside society and possibly impure until the sin is corrected.

In addition, all Hindu ritual must be done with intention. Similar to a classic Jewish distinction between intention for a command and intention about meaning and the divine, here the intention required is Samkalpa (Also spelled Sankalpa) meaning “resolve” or “intention,” as in the intention to achieve the desired goal.

A person practices Samkalpa where before the performance of a ritual they vow to perform a particular practice- specifying length of time, time of day, place, etc. Although this need to vow in advance of a practice initially referred only to a spiritual practice, this has been extended in contemporary language to any such vow that requires a regular practice, such as a vow to regularly exercise. As in Judaism, vows must be verbalized and formulated precisely to show intention.

In the later Purva-Mimamsa, especially the writings of Jaimini (4th century CE– Talmudic era) the efficacy of a sacrifice depends entirely on the correct performance and not on anything external.  Neither intention for act nor intention for the gods matters. For Jaimini, sacrifice is an end in itself for world-sustaining and needs the needs correct performance of the priest – any ritual lapses are dangerous. If one omits a syllable is making a hole in the cosmos, it sinks the heaven bound ship. Even a mistake in the pronunciation has opposite effect.

And as we know from Synagogue rules, if you recite the verse wrong it invalidates certain prayers and even if you use the wrong pronunciation or accent that change the meaning of a verse it invalidates the ritual.

A major difference between the two faiths is that the karmakanda does not have a word or concept of guilt. The language is one avoiding punishment, or avoiding the vice of dishonorable or the sense of shame. We see the classic distinction between shame cultures and guilt cultures. Hasidic texts are also shame oriented and not guilt oriented.

By the 8th -9th centuries CE Epic Mahabharata, were there is a greater internal sense of sin, which by the 20th century is developed into a range of internal senses of wrong doing.  In the Mahabharata, unlike the Mimamsa, a direct relationship with a theistic  God who watches what you do and knows your heart. “Thy heart is a witness to the truth or falsehood… You think that you alone have knowledge of your action. But you do not know that the Ancient, Omniscient one (Narayana) lives in your heart? He knows all your sins, and you sin in His presence. (Section LXXIV, Sambhava Parva) Juxtapose this to thinking about God’s knowledge of your sins on the Jewish High holy days.

So what do you do for ritual mistakes in Brahmin texts? As stated in the 500 BCE Katyayana Srauta sutra: Rules for the Vedic sacrifices XXV.1.1 “for mishaps in rituals there is ritual atonement.” Prayascitti  is the concept of ritual atonement, a ritual act which has the purpose of removing any mistake.

For a minor mistake, then one needs to recite the purana –sukta or the “bhur, bhuvah, and sveh” or the gayatri mantra. For major ones there is an additional sin offering. In general in contemporary services, there is an extra Aarti (a waving of lamps and chant ritual)  is performed after Hindus finish  prayers or auspicious rituals. It is performed to rectify any mistakes made during the whole process and is seen as a completion of the process.

For ordinary modern householders, if they are doubtful what to do, or think  they have made a mistake, then a theist Vaishnavites is likely to chant Hare Krsna, Hare Rama. The modern theology is less ritualistic in orientation since, like in the Bible one is told not to fear. “Krsna shall deliver you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear” (Bhagavad-gita 18.66)

Other methods used in later era for sins in general include confession, repentance, breath control, austerity, gifts to religious institutions. and pilgrimages.

Pilgrimages to holy places were originally not very prominent but become more popular at a later time. Today it is one of the major religious activities. Compare it to American Orthodox Jews frequently flying to Israel.  Originally one’s role as a householder was more important than going on pilgrimages, and pilgramage was a special case. Today, it becomes a family event with family penances such as hair tonsuring.

If one does decide to donate to a Temple or feed the poor as a penance then one has to do it as an oath (Vratas), similar to the way Judaism considers pledge as oaths, and requires the acceptance of an oath.  Think of a Kol Nidrei appeal.

Adjusting to the times, new penances were made. Already in the BCE era, it was stated that “brahmans who have studied dharmaśāstra should prescribe a penance appropriate to the age, the time and the strength of the sinner; one should not prescribe an observance that will cause great distress to the sinner.” This has continued to this day. Just as Jews this season of repentance do not role in the gravel, or fast according to Hasedei Ashkenaz, or even  go to a ritual bath for purity, so too contemporary penances are updated. Now a vow of money is preferred in both faiths.

As a side point, the same works on sacrifice that deal with ritual mistakes and corrections, the Kalpa Vedanga 5th cent BCE, also contain the geometry of altars along with mathematical deductions for the geometry. Works corresponding to the Rabbinic tractate middot (measurements) with the measurements of building a Temple. However, the India version also contains real mathematical works that through the Arabic because our number system that replaced Roman Numerals. They had all four forms of arithmetic, the zero, geometry including squaring the circle and visa-versa, the Pythagorian theorem and estimations for pi.

Another side point is that ethnographers point out how different families and groups fight over who gets which honors in the ritual and who has what share and which ethnic liturgy is used. A Temple or ghat can be sacred to competing groups with different rules and pronunciations.  Except for the purists, different pronunciations, hymn choices and order of offerings are tolerated as non-mistakes. Yet, the house of worship politics is about who gets to be, or whose priests get to be, in charge for which service or part of service.

By the time the boat made its way back to our starting point after a full night on the river, almost all the boatmen and the tourist trade had ended.  The festivities were over. Concession lights were being closed. I walk from shore to the quiet dark streets punctuated by kids setting off fire-works at a distance. Auto-rickshaws were all home for the night. I coaxed a bicycle rickshaw driver to get me home by first accepting to only go as far the gate of the university and then once there he agreed to take me the extra kilometers home.  Store keepers swept in front of their stores by kerosene lamps and moonlight.

But the required festival electric lights were still burning in homes– since the required amount of time of the lights, according to most Hindu practice was to burn until midnight, some expected the lights to remain lit until day break. In the terms of the kindling of the lamps several hours earlier, most lit their lamps when the stars appeared but it was still considered acceptable to light one’s candles until midnight but not any time afterward. Think of the rules for lighting hannukah lamps.  Two weeks later, I explained to my house maid (who spoke no English) to leave my burning Hannukah candles alone based on this analogy of needed to remain burning from sunset to midnight . She understood the concept.

7 responses to “Ritual Details

  1. Fascinating stuff. What I find especially interesting is the way in which a number of the rituals you describe have an entirely different value assigned to them in Yoga(I am here referring to the classical or Raja yoga of Patanjali) than they do in Mimamsa- and that both are considered valid darshanas of Hinduism. Three rituals you describe were especially striking in this regard-

    1 Sankalpa – In Yoga, generating Sankalpa Shakti is considered absolutely crucial, and spiritual progress is almost unthinkable with out it. Compare this to the Mimamsa you describe, where certain rituals are entirely valid without it.

    2 The Gayatri mantra- I have heard this chanted numerous times in various Yogic settings (usually 108 per session) and I have never heard it referred to as an atonement ritual. This usage is also not obvious from the text itself.

    3 Aarti – Again, I have always heard this described in Yogic circles as imparting blessing energy, without so much as a word about its effects vis a vis atonement. (Additionally, the “waving” of light during Aarti seemed to me to have some strong resonances with certain Jewish rituals).

    Thanks again for sharing this.


    • Howie- I almost included a quote from Diana Eck in this post that the worldview of puja is the opposite of the world of yoga. I didnt because i thought that I would start my Yoga post with it.

  2. 51 flames!?!?! Obviously, he doesn’t hold by the Hazon Ish.

  3. Are there any cross-cultural comparisons of ritual that include Greco Roman, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Egyptian religions? I wonder to what extant Jewish and Hindu commonalities reflect parallel evolution, and how much they might reflect shared roots in ancient, pre-historic religion.

  4. I would presume that the person to ask is Shai Secunda. My understanding is that that this attention to ritual detail exists in Zoroastrianism as well.

  5. The broader project of comparing Jewish and Hindu rituals takes on increased prominence now that India is led by a frum Hindu who is fasting this week. Wikipedia tells me the Navrati fast (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Navratri) is different from Yom Kippur, Tzom Gedalya, or Rammadan in its particulars (which seem to have a wide range of variance.) The details of the Hindu lunar calendar show that it is more like the pre-Hillel ad hoc Jewish calendar than the Muslim calendar (leap months are added to keep holidays in their seasons).

  6. This discussion is fascinating.

    Can we compare the metaphysics or theology underlying the need for correcting ritual mistakes.

    The obvious question that most Christians and non-traditional Jews would ask is does God really care is we make a mistake in a ritual if we more or less get it right.

    One approach, favored by Kabbalists, is that there are metaphysical consequences for the proper and improper performance of ritual. Another, very theistic, approach is that a personal God asked you to perform a ritual this way and to change it would harm your relationship with him.

    There is also the psychological component that having performed a ritual strictly a particular way for one’s whole life, to make a mistake is extremely jarring psychologically.

    For most American Orthodox Jews, I would attribute the second & third reasons.

    What about for the average religious Hindu?

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