Do we Need Rituals?
Rituals tend to make many people uncomfortable, specially in the Western countries. They become embarrassed, some times even contemptuous on observing all these seemingly arcane rituals that apparently form the basis of spiritual advancement with the Hare Krishna's. Why do we, the Hare Krishna's, need to paint our foreheads? shave our heads? jump around and yell? people question.
They contend that religion is private, God is in their hearts to be worshipped in solitude with dignity - not in a loud, public demonstration. Well, to begin with let us examine the meaning of the word 'ritual'. Over time, when applied in the context of religion, it has acquired a connotation that denotes practices emanating from blind faith, or the performance of activities for pomp and show only.
However, the Webster's Dictionary explains the word 'ritual' as 'the prescribed form of conducting a religious ceremony', or a 'detailed method of procedure, faithfully or consistently followed'. It is in this context that the seemingly bewildering activities of the Hare Krishna's are performed. All of them are prescribed by bona fide scriptural injunctions and handed down to us by an unbroken line of disciplic succession, by example and by instructions.
In one of the all times movie classics "The Gods must be crazy", a tribal on witnessing the seemingly inexplicable behavior of western, 'civilized' people, who he thinks are Gods, concludes that they are crazy! Knowledge is what distinguishes a ritual from a practice. For instance, washing hands before eating, taking a bath before cooking, sanitizing the kitchen - all these have been prescribed by Vedic scriptures since time immemorial. At one point they appeared to be rituals, but now that the scientific proof that disease causing bacteria's, germs etc. reside in dirt, has been furnished, they make enormous sense. Lo and behold ! they are now recommended 'best practices' - because they are now supported with authoritative knowledge.
So before we pass judgment, if we are serious and sober, we must inquire. Knowledge that is only acquired by direct observations is limited to our imperfect senses. It could be acquired by deduction, but this is limited to our intelligence. And finally it could be acquired from a trust worthy source, which is the best way. The process of inquiring from an authoritative source in a non challenging manner accompanies all our endeavors in the material aspects. We go to school and listen attentively to the professors, we buy books and read them with conviction about their validity.
The same spirit should also accompany our spiritual endeavors. So let us examine some of our 'seemingly arcane' ritual in this context. Why do we paint our foreheads? The 'paint' on the forehead is called a 'tilak'. It is denotes the footprint of Sri Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Devotees put this tilak on their foreheads, and on their body, to sanctify their body as a temple of the Lord. These auspicious markings indicate the surrender of a devotee to the lotus feet of the Lord.
Why do we yell and jump around? Sri Krishna is the reservoir of 'ananda' or bliss, and as His separated fragments, we have the same tendency to enjoy. The enormous popularity of discotheques, dance parties etc. is a testimonial to this. So why should one suppress this in worshipping the original source of all this enjoyment. Devotees derive enormous pleasure, in worshipping Krishna, and the dancing, singing is a natural manifestation of this bliss.
Caitanya Mahaprabhu , Who is non different from Sri Krishna, recommended that the way to approach God in this age of Kali is by 'sankirtan' or chanting the holy name of the Lord. This can be done congregationally, in sankirtan, or softly in solace, as the japa meditation. In both forms, they are equally portent, since the name of the Lord, is non different from His form, and when we take His name offenselessly, we are actually associating with Him. Why the shaven heads? Shaven heads are a sign of austerity. Male devotees in the brahamcarya (celibate, student) or the sannyasa (renounced) order generally shave their heads as an indication of their detachment from material, bodily concepts.
Also, the shaven heads are clean, promote modesty and require lesser 'maintenance' giving the devotees more time to spend on activities related to spiritual advancements. Why the strange attire? Krishna consciousness stresses that the primary purpose of this life in a human form is to be able to worship the Lord. Everything else is kept simple, functional, clean and conducive to spiritual advancements. There are no feeling of vanity, envy or lust arising from the clothes devotees wear which are very simple, easy to maintain and modest in appearance. The saffron color is generally worn by the brahmacaris and the sannyasis, while the grahasthas (in married life), wear white.
Why the idol worship? Well, we do not worship idols, we worship deities. The Vedic scriptures explain why? It is customary for devotees to offer food to Sri Krishna, before eating it themselves. This is because when eating, we are actually killing the plants, which also have a spirit soul just like us. When we offer food to Krishna, and if it has been prepared and offered with love and devotion, He accepts the food and sanctifies it as prasadam. Of course we can only offer to Krishna what He recommends, which is food in the mode of goodness, not meat etc. Why do we preach so much? The primary quality of a devotee is that of compassion.
When devotees see people totally immersed in sense gratification, leading lives of ignorance, out of natural compassion, they try and bring in their lives the same peace and bliss that they are themselves experiencing. When a person see a blind man heading to the edge of the cliff, he will naturally try and restrain him, even if he were a stranger. Srila Prabhupada came to the United States at an advanced age of seventy, simply to help spread the word of Krishna in a highly materialistic culture, simply out of compassion for them.
It is in this spirit that the spiritual leaders of ISKCON are tirelessly and selflessly preaching, mentoring and guiding. So we see, that there is a very logical explanation for all the activities that are performed in Krishna consciousness. These activities have not been created by the mental concoction of any person, but recommended in the authorized Vedic scriptures by the Supreme Personality of Godhead Himself, or His empowered incarnations. Indeed, His Divine Grace Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada took great pains in writing many books that explain with scientific precision and logic the basis of Krishna consciousness.