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When Rites Go Wrong

havan rite“Addicted to many specific rites aimed at the goal of enjoyment and power.” Bhagavad Gita 2:40

Lord Krishna in the Gita is not speaking only of the people outside India. Throughout the subcontinent right now millions are streaming in and out of temples, paying money for rituals and blessings that are intended to give them whatever they might want, and the three deities of ritualism–Pleasure, Power, and Prosperity–are diligently served by a greedy and material priesthood.

Those of us in the West whose contact with India has been in the form of visiting Indian spiritual teachers and yogis look at all this with a spiritual perspective completely incongruous with the truth. “Look at those vast and beautiful temples!” we enthuse, “all monuments to the spiritual aspiration and devotion of the people.”

Not at all. And almost never. Those temples are monuments to greed and superstition as well as fear–both fear of lacking material things and of incurring the wrath of the skittish deities whose scriptural “biographies” are welterings of lust, anger, jealousy, vengefulness, and ego–just like their devotees.

A living example

Our situation is very much like that of some friends of mine who often went to India to visit the ashram of a renowned spiritual figure. Since they could not understand the saint’s language, every word spoken in the ashram by the saint and the visitors seemed embodiments of spirituality, and the Western devotees felt edified every moment.

But when my friends began picking up some knowledge of the language they found that most of the conversation was mundane and inane–in keeping with the consciousness of the local people who came to the ashram for the same motives they went to temples: “Give Me!” Most “devotees” in India are devoted only to themselves and to the saints as fulfillers of their desires. As one very famous saint said a few years ago to a crowd of several hundred thousand: “When I give you what you want you love me, but when I do not give you what you want you hate me.” This saint, like Jesus, certainly “knew what was in man” (John 2:24, 25).

The Divine vending machine

But back to the ritualists. They do indeed prescribe labyrinthine rites whose complexity demand a trained and competent priesthood–a well-paid priesthood. Sometimes the rituals are very obvious pullings of the Divine Vending Machine’s handle, and sometimes they are masked with sentimentality passed off as devotion.

One such, for example, is the extremely popular Satyanarayan Puja. This takes hours of ritual offerings, singing, and recitation of the glories of Vishnu (Narayana). But the “glories” recited are really accounts of all the amazing worldly advantages that have supposedly been gained through the ritual itself. In other words, God is not gloried at all–the ritual is glorified. It is just a Hindu religious version of the old patent remedy shows so popular in nineteenth and early twentieth century America. Sort of a holy infomercial for the puja. To sponsor or attend such an event is considered a mark of devotion, but of devotion to what? Or whom? Do they worship “the gods” or “the goods”?

Wrong Motives

Such purveyors of worldly goods through worldly gods also teach elaborate modes of behavior as well to gain the goods. These range from long and arduous pilgrimages culminating in more rituals and generous gifts to temples and priests, to avoiding things the gods “don’t like” and always having at hand what they “do like,” to the wearing of emblems honoring the chosen deity, to long recitations of the deity’s praises, to elaborate personal worship of the deity in a home shrine, to fasting or abstaining from work on days specially devoted to or favored by the deity.

Millions of poor Indians fast and worship annually on a day whose observance is guaranteed by the “scriptures” to bring lifelong prosperity by a single observance. No one seems to notice they stay poor year after year. They even assure others that the observance is sure to gain wealth to all who engage in it. The same is true of another day whose observance guarantees the conception and birth of a son (sorry, girls). So barren and sonless couples devoutly observe it year after year with no result–not even a resulting skepticism regarding its efficacy.

The money just keeps rolling in–or out, depending on which side you find yourself. And that is the whole idea, really. For notice that Krishna does not say the rituals convey power and pleasure; only that they are supposed to.

Next: Unhappy Pleasure Seeking and the Antidote

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