The Empty Envelope

From Back to Godhead

By Vraja Bihari Dasa

Making sense of Vedic Rituals

Are traditional rituals mere acts of blind faith, or are there scientific reasons behind following them?

An envelope protects and carries something valuable. It is the inner content of the envelope that’s actually precious. Similarly empty, meaningless rituals are like an empty envelope: devoid of any substance at best or downright offensive at worst.

Going beyond the externals of religion

Twenty five year old Nitin Sawant, a software engineer, explains why he’s skeptical about religious rituals.

“I was at a friend’s wedding recently. The priest called upon the bride and the groom to perform holy rites, while the guests watched smoke rise from the sacrificial fire. The hall reverberated with the loud chanting of Sanskrit mantras (hymns) by the priest sanctifying the marriage. Suddenly there was a protest; one of the guests a Sanskrit scholar himself heard carefully the chanting of the mantras, and was upset at the insensitivity of the priest who’d been blabbering hymns not connected to a marriage ceremony; he even offered rapid mantras meant for a funeral service! A bigger shock for me was the callousness of the marriage party; they politely quietened the complaining guest and let the function go on unchanged. I left disappointed at the sham of a sacred wedding where no one understood or cared for the significance of the rituals.”

Spirituality or religious hodgepodge?

Nitin’s disillusionment with religion and spirituality is not without reason. He has seen since childhood increasing religious intolerance, global terrorism (justified in the name of God), and corruption by the clergy of different faiths. In India, during the annual festivals glorifying Lord Ganesha (a popular Indian demigod), men and women dance passionately to Bollywood numbers while the deity of Ganesha dressed as a popular actor, politician, or a cricketer is worshipped by a lone priest. These ten day festivities centered on vulgar display of wealth, pompous rituals and political sloganeering do not remotely hint at a spiritual experience. Not surprisingly, young and intelligent people like Nitin are put off by these shallow ceremonies.

Goal of rituals reawakening the dormant love

Rituals are performance of certain practices unique to each religious tradition that serves different purposes; they often help a person express his loyalty to a religion, or help gain acceptance within a community. These prescribed procedures, obliging a person from birth to death, consume substantial time, money and energy of the practitioner, who vows allegiance to his respective God through these customs.

However, there’s more to popular religions than the elaborate, external rituals. The goal of a religious system is to awaken the dormant love of God that’s within every living entity. “The supreme occupation for all humanity is that by which men can attain to loving devotional service unto the transcendental Lord. Such devotional service must be unmotivated and uninterrupted to completely satisfy the self.” (Bhag. 1.2.6).

This love, although natural, is presently covered by the thick layer of material consciousness. A set of rituals are thus offered by the founders and teachers of each faith, to help the followers gradually purify their consciousness of material contamination. For example, in the pan Hindu culture, people perform the arati ceremony where a devotee offers fragrant incense, fire lamp, and water to God, Krishna. These rituals are intended to help the devotee realize that God is the source of fragrance (corresponds to the incense offered), heat (connected to the fire lamp), and all other elements in this material creation (Bg. 7.4 & 7.9). A devotee acknowledges God’s proprietorship and our dependence on Him for basic amenities. Through the arati ceremony, we offer the elements back to Krishna, reciprocating with His kindness and expressing our intention to love Him. Thus the rituals’ purpose is akin to an envelope that carries the letter of our spiritual aspirations. The wrapping of a ritual may be attractive, but it remains a hollow giftpack if it is devoid of our loving offering to God.

Can we manage without rituals?

No! They are essential and even indispensable to a person commonly distracted by worldly affairs. Physical actions and rituals create favorable ambience; gorgeous temples, beautiful deity dresses, congregational singing and dancing, and clean devotee attire, stimulate devotees to go deeper and internally connect to God. An unclean place, whimsical and aggressive behavior, and irregular habits create negative energy and distract a devotee from his spiritual quest. Although the internal mood is critical in our communion with God, the externals do influence the internals. While substance is ultimately important, it is the form that helps to carry and preserve the substance. The “spirit” added to a “ritual” makes it “spiritual.”


When we forget this divine purpose of rituals connecting our consciousness with the Supreme consciousness, God and instead get distracted by the loud and grandiose externals, the rituals become an end in themselves. The traffic laws have a purpose: to help the driver reach his destination smoothly. If a motorist is unsure of his destination, he’s eventually lost despite his strict following of the traffic rules. Similarly, if the follower of a religious faith is unaware of the goal of going back home, back to Godhead, he’s lost in the material world, even in the garb of a religious conviction. Then the rituals have the opposite effect of what they’re supposed to achieve: they keep a person bound in material consciousness.

A contemplative and prayerful connection to God helps a devotee see all living entities as children of his all compassionate Lord (Bg. 5.18). This vision dissolves the false ego, softens the heart, and fills it with love and kindness towards all beings. One attached to rituals however is bereft of this experience and instead hovers on the mental platform of sectarian pride. Hence it’s not surprising to see many Hindus, Muslims and Christians fight over superficial differences. Even within a religious sect, rituals get diluted, and each faction claims to understand the letter of the law better, but acutely misses the spirit behind them. As a result, the younger educated lot are disillusioned with these empty and meaningless rituals, and dismiss religion per se as a bane to the society.

Remembering God the essence of all rituals

Srila Rupa Gosvami, a sixteenth century Vaisnava saint has given elaborate rules for practicing devotional service. He sums the essence of these regulations as favorable remembrance of God, Krishna.

smartavyah satata m visnur vismartavyo na jatucit
sarve vidhi nisedhah syur
etayor eva kinkarah

“Krishna should always be remembered and never forgotten at any time. All the rules and prohibitions mentioned in the scriptures should be the servants of these two principles.” (Padma Purana, quoted in Sri Caitanya caritamrta, Madhya 22.113) By cultivating a desire to serve Krishna while practicing the rituals, a practitioner’s heart gets reformed: selfish passions give way to the spirit of selfless service; arrogance transforms to humility; and envy to appreciation of others. If these changes do not take place and love of God doesn’t fructify in the heart, the years of practice of religious rituals are declared to be a mundane waste of time. (Bhag. 1.2.8)

A devotee follows the procedures sincerely but is also willing to adjust according to time, place and circumstances. For example, Rupa Goswami lists gorgeous deity worship as one of the rules for practicing devotional service. However, when Srila Prabhupada installed the deities of Lord Jagannatha, Baladeva and Subhadra (Krishna with His brother and sister) at San Francisco in 1967, ISKCON had meagre facilities. In a small but devotionally potent program consisting of chanting, prayers, offering of lamp, and happy feasting on Lord’s prasada (food offered to Krishna), Srila Prabhupada had adjusted the details without compromising on the essence. If one can afford, one should offer the best to Krishna. If one has no feasible means, he can still offer Krishna, with love and devotion, a simple leaf, flower, fruit or water. (Bg. 9.26)

Krishna is known as bhava grahi one who doesn’t accept the thing we offer but the love with which it’s offered. He accepts the substance of our will, of our consciousness. If we increase this awareness while practicing the rituals, we’ll eventually achieve the goal of satisfying Krishna. (Bhag.1.2.13)

Simplicity is more effective than elaborate rituals

Our eagerness to please Krishna is more effective in earning the Lord’s favor than the strict compliance with rituals. Lord Krishna taught this principle while performing His pastimes as a simple cowherd boy 5000 years ago.

Once Krishna asked His hungry boyfriends to beg for food from the brahmanas (ritualistic priests), who lived nearby. They were busy performing sacrifices and had arranged variety of foodstuffs as a part of the program. When the boys appealed to these men on behalf of Krishna, the priests ignored the request, and instead busied themselves with their sacrificial executions. Krishna is the goal of all Vedic knowledge and sacrifices (Bg. 15.15), but the vastly learned priests missed this point due to their absorption on the form of worship rather than the substance of Krishna. It’s like a man working overtime at office; when it’s finally time to collect the paycheck, he says he’s busy working hard, and has no time to collect the remuneration. The desired result of all endeavors and sacrifices is Krishna’s pleasure and His acceptance of our oblations. Here Krishna was willing to reward the brahmanas by receiving their offerings and giving them benedictions, but they were busy working, their vision of Krishna blurred by the false pride of material expertise.

The boys were disappointed, but Krishna encouraged His friends to now approach the wives of the brahmanas,who were simple hearted and not well versed in Vedic rituals. In contrast to the cold response of their husbands, these women were overjoyed to hear the requests of Krishna, and rushed to Him with all of the offerings. Although they were prevented from going to Krishna by their husbands, fathers, and sons all vastly erudite in Vedic rituals the women were unstoppable. Their example proves that simple acceptance of Krishna and an eagerness to please Him attracts the Lord’s attention more than ostentatious rituals. Later the men, realizing their folly, glorified their wives and condemned their own learning, for it blinded them to the loving service of Krishna.

Krishna is our eternal loving father, waiting for us to return to Him. Spiritual joy eludes one who ignores reviving this relationship with Him. Despite all his devout and lofty practices, such a person licks the bottle of spiritual honey, only from outside.

Spiritual practice for the modern age

Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the incarnation of Supreme Lord for the modern age, presented chanting of Hare Krishna as the easy method to revive our relationship with Krishna. As the very first effect of chanting, the heart gets cleansed of material contamination, and gradually pure love of Krishna awakens. Although there are no hard and fast rules, a mechanical, parrot like repetition of the mantras will not award the fruit of love of God. (Siksashtaka.1.2) Srila Prabhupada taught devotees to chant Krishna’s holy names in the mood of a helpless child calling for his mother, for the call of a child in danger is never a blind ritual; rather it’s imbued with conscious emotion. “ . . . there is a quality to such utterances also. It depends on the quality of feeling. A helpless man can feelingly utter the holy name of the Lord, whereas a man who utters the same holy name in great material satisfaction cannot be so sincere.” (Srila Prabhupada in Teachings of Queen Kunti)

A need for Spiritual Education

The scriptures are filled with the prayers of great souls: Prahlada Maharaja, Gajendra and Kunti devi, to name a few. A devotee repeats these prayers, not as a stereotype ritual but with a desire to understand the content and feelings of the pure devotees offering these prayers. With an enthusiasm to access the Lord’s mercy, a Krishna conscious devotee invests his feelings into these prayers, and simultaneously offers his own personal prayers to Krishna. In an ISKCON centre, knowledge of God and spiritual practices to develop love of God are systematically imparted. Hence Srila Prabhupada compared ISKCON temples to spiritual universities.

If Nitin visits a Hare Krishna temple, his doubts and misgivings of Indian spirituality will be allayed, and even as religious fervor dominates the social scene, he can learn to offer his heart to Krishna through a ritual.