The Meaninglessness of Ritual Author(s): Frits Staal Reviewed work(s): Source: Numen, Vol. 26, Fasc. 1 (Jun., 1979), pp.

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Vol.XXVI, Fasc. I Numen,

THE MEANINGLESSNESS
FRITS STAAL

OF RITUAL
svarge'pipipilikahsanti "even in heaven thereare ants" Sanskrit Proverb

recorded event,which lasted twelvedays, was filmed,photographed, and extensivelydocumented.From twentyhours of rough footage, a 45-minutefilm,"Altar of Fire." Robert Gardner and I producedl Two records are planned with selectionsfrom the eightyhours of recordedrecitationand chant. Photographsof the ceremonieswere with the chief Namtaken by Adelaide de Menil. In collaboration a definiteaccount and otherscholars,I am preparing budiriritualists of the ceremonies,which will appear in two illustratedvolumes entitled:"Agni - The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar." I shall here be concernednot with empiricaldescription, but with theoretical Vedic ritual is not only the oldest surviving implications. ritual of mankind; it also provides the best source material for a of ritual.This is not because it is close to any alleged"original" theory ritual.Vedic ritualis not primitive and not an Ur-ritual. It is sophisand the of it is the a But already product long development. ticated most elaborate and of the account Sanskrit largest, (on manuals) best documented among the ritualsof man. Hubert and Mauss, who noted these factsin I909, used the Vedic animal sacrificeas sourcematerial for the construction of a ritual paradigm ("un scheme abstraitdu 1 sacrifice"). However, theydid not know that these ritualsare still so that many data were inaccessibleto them. I shall use performed, data fromthe 1975 performance and textual materialfrom Sanskrit manuals, in particular the drauta stitras, a literatureexclusively to ritual which dates from the eighththroughfourthcendlevoted turies B.C.
I H. Hubertand M. Mauss, "Essai sur la natureet la fonction du sacrifice," et des religions, Milanges d'histoire I9go9,page 22.

1975 in a village in southwestIndia by Nambudiribrahmins.This

Vedic ritual,was performed in The Agnicayana,a 300ooo-year-old

because we are eligible to do it.There are numerousdifferent answers. The Yajamina. that it is self-contained and however. primary meaningsgoing throughtheirmindswhen theyare engaged in performingritual.However. Some such questions do receive specific answers. on which and scholars generallyagree. The majoritywould not be able to come up with an adequate answer to the question why they engage in ritual.also when we ask a brahmin explicitly the rituals are we never receive an answer which why performed. Others these. if someone were to ask me about it. The performers are totally immersedin the proper executionof their complex tasks.There are no symbolic concern.must keep his hands closed "like a child in the womb of its mother. Isolated in their sacred enclosure.thereis littleelse theyare competent are inspiredby a spirit of competition. by the time theyhave mastered or motivated to do. Such absorption. A visitorwill furthermore observethata person who has performed a Vedic ritualacquires social and religiousstatus. which involvesotherbenefits. were fetchedfromheaven by a bird. self-absorbed.Some boys generalities have neverbeen given muchof a choice. by itself. because it is said to lead to immortality.and have been taughtrecitations and rites as a matterof fact. on correctness of act. It is characteristic of a ritualperformance. because it is our duty. or Patron participants of the ritual. . because it is good for society. such as: we do it because our ancestorsdid it. ready to be reborn.Certain bricksof the altar are consecrated so thatit may rain."The fire altar has the shape of a bird because fire. refers to symbolicactivity.The priestsdo not go southif theycan help it for the southern directionis inauspicious. But neitherwould I.as well as Soma. recitation and chant. because it leads to immortality. because it is good. why I am writing Why ask such personal questions? It mightbe more proper and fruitfulto ask specific questions about the meaning of particular rites. Their they concentrate if not obsession.Beyond such one gets involvedin individualcase histories.does not show that ritual cannot have a symbolic meaning.TheMeaninglessness of Ritual I 3 A widespreadbut erroneousassumption about ritualis that it consists in symbolic whichreferto something activities else.some of themeconomic.is withrules.

of which formingritualists. C. and sometimes to createworlds. times inconsistent with each other.Commentaries someprovideritualswitha greatvarietyof interpretations. is primarilyactivity.we have learned. Chaudhuri. then. and no participant could provide an answer or elucidationwith which he would himselfbe satisfied. It is preciselythis feature which is least understoodby English-writing Indian authorssuch as V. In the earliestVedic literature. expllicit believeor say. not whatyou think.after all. Isadora Duncan said: "If I could tell you what it meanttherewould be no point in d(lancing it."right" and praxis. Before asking anyone else. however. S.or artistsabout the theoryof art.there is an abundanceof material. Naipaul and N.4 FritsStaal Such simpleanswers forma small minority.It is an activitygoverned by rules. The effectivepart of the answer seems to be: look and listen.but to the orthoprax (from Greek orthos.In mostcases suchpeopleare Hindus who do not knowanything about Vedic ritual. so that we should refer. rituals.withoutreference to generally any specificquestion. They are given rarely.we shouldnot confineourselvesto practisingritualists." Ritual. and only in replyto similarlysimple questions.The important thingis whatyou do. gods and demonsare frequently depictedas engaged in ritual. Outsiders and bystandersmay volunteertheir ideas about religionand philosophy .Even prior to speculationwe find suggestive ideas. Since in India ritual has always been a favoritetopic for speculation. "action").Most questions concerningritual detail involve numerouscomplex rules. .these are our activities!To perritualsare to a large extent like dance.Even when the aims are not explicit.let us take a look at what the Indian traditionitselfhas to offer. who have takenon theroleof explainingIndia to Westernintelligentsia.There is only one answerwhichthe best and mostreliableamongthe ritualists themselves give consistently and withmore than average frequency:we act accordingto the rules because this is our tradition(parampara).not to the faithfulor orthodox.along with metresand are used by gods and demonsto fightand conquereach other. In India thishas becomea basic feature of all religion. chants. that it does not pay to ask elephantsabout zoology. recently II If we wish to know the meaningor theoryof ritual.

marriageand death. While the function domesticritesappears to be fairlystraightforward.The Agnicayana. is a traditional ritualwhich seems to have been always "real".traditionalrituals whichlast a thousandyears. offspring.drauta of ritual. Strassburg ." life-cyclerites or sacraments.g. who referred in this con2 On the contrary.The latter. mightseem to be amenableto explanationsalong the lines of.to "mythand fantasy"of the ritualists.which the textsdescribe. Vedische Opfer und Zauber. The traditionalritual. It is certainly visionarieshave claimed. Hillebrandt.One which is often quoted characterizes it as comprising 1897. and the drauta rites.by themunderstanding selves.which g. nection. Many riteshave in factan intermediate status. accompanying such events as birth. victory. development It is thereforemore important construction and creativity. and the like. for the theory of ritualas are concrete ceremotheyare as important nies.we witness a ground. The sitras of the late Vedic periodoffer severaldefinitions . Van Gennep's Rites de passage (1909). as some modern modernman.smackof theory. 2 A. There are.But this trend recededagain into the backof the ritual.power. which was performed in 1975. for the of ritualthan the domesticrites."or traditional and formal differences betweenthesetwo kindsof ritual. with its exhibitsthe unhampered of ritual myriadramifications. as was done by Hillebrandt.whichshows thatsome of the riteswere Such theoretical constructs purelytheoretical. it followsthatall such theories are inappropriate. page 158.For example.. Ritual-Literatur.rhya are "rites de passage.The Meaninglessness of Ritual 5 In due course specificritescame to be prescribed to fulfilspecific desires: for health. the significance of the traditionalrites is not obvious.whereasthe domesticritesrequireonly one fire (the domestic of the fire) and one priest (the domesticpriest). thoughsome of its extensions. (which the grammarian to the infinite uses of language) should not be Patafijali compared brushedaside. moreover. the traditional ritesrequirethreefirealtarsand the servicesof several priests.and domesticand traditional ritesare partlysimilarin structure. heaven."rites solennels. e. But since such explanations are clearlyinapplicableto the traditonal rites. With increasingsystematization codification of two kinds of rites: the or domesticrites.initiation.There are several general rites. The list of wishes and desires is not so very different fromthat of not exclusivelyspiritual.

which is (nitya) and "optional" (kdamnya).unseen." contradiction.on behalfof the Patron. "renunciation of theritualacts)". The Yajamana. devata. The texts reflect such contradictions. pronounced by the Patron at the culmination When theofficiating priest.g.juvimala) observesthatthis does not apply to obligatory acts. "the substance (which is used in oblations)". is not obtained. The Mimamsa basic manualof the Mimamsa.. But this fruit is renouncedwhenever the Patron utters his tydga The effect.but the subcommentary "Straight Spotless" (R.not forme" (agnayeidam na mama). When a ritual is completed.makesthe oblation into the fire for one of the gods.6 Frits Staal three things: dravya.lays dlownthatthe riteslead to Sfitra. therefore. formulaof renunciation. the same as he was before. as the textsput it. So here is a ritualwhichappears to be optional. performit. which becomes inin the ritualistic of the Mimimsa. on whose performance behalf the rites have been performed. happiness. and which moreover in the final resortdoes not bear any fruitbecause its fruitsare abandoned.since it is confinedto those who desire heaven (nobody's duty).The stockexample of the Mimamsa is: "he who desiresheavenshall sacrifice withthe Agniilomaritual"(agniStomenasvargakamo yajeta).he must continue to the morning and evening fire rites (agnihotra) for the rest perform of his life. The resultingpictureis furthercomplicatedby another apparent The ritesare subdividedinto two classes: "obligatory. afterdleath. "the deity (to which oblations are offered)". . thatthe fruitof quite logically. the Patron says: "thisis for Agni. The explicit creasingly philosophy reason for performing a specificritualis statedto be the desire for a particularfruitor effect. The Mimimsa concluded. for example Agni. Unlike the Agnicayana. The tyagJ is a formula (of thefruits of each act of oblation.e. The Mimamsa philosophers faced anotherdifficulty. the a is rite: Agnistoma nitya everybrahmanhas the dutyto kamya.temporarily An elaboratetheory was devised to show only later. Ratherthe opposite: he returns home and is. dloes not raise up and go to heaven. but which is also not optional. It will become apparent ritual activityis . no fruitis seen.because it is a prescribed duty. and tyagd. In particular. At this point a contradiction begins to appear. .

Now let us see what modernscholarshave to offer.But this hypothesis involvesa recitalof the myth cult to supportand createsan unsolvedproblem:why shouldanybody wish to re-enacta myth?The same difficulty applies to severalmore It social structure.TheMeaninglessness of Ritual 7 of karman. the unseenis resorted to only under duress.called was inventedin supportof this theory.But the assumptionis. according is true. "renunciation. activity.. it has been fashionable of the New Year.again. Here Sri Krsna advocatesas thehighest goal of lifea modeof activity. "culturaland social values" societies. thattheories is that ritualsare A relatedtheory.in India. which was partlyinspiredby the Babylonianfestival is diffiof creation. of course. be represented at that? Such unansweredquestions.A special logical theorem.The most is perhaps the term karman itself: Indian contribution interesting used for ritual and similarlypure or ideal originallyand primarily it comes by extensionto denote any kind of humanactivity." has attained an important position in Hinduism throughthe teachingsof the Bhagavad GitA.For a long time This idea to believe that rites re-enactmyths.g. Not societies (it is anthropoloonly are ritualsnot confinedto preliterate to preliterate societies). that thereare some remarkable parallelswhich require explanation. the philosophers Mimams. suggest of this typeare best abandoned. but such gistswho tend to confinethemselves . ritual reflects to which recenttheories.generatedby the theory.to transmit used. but the fruit(phala) of action (karman) is always renounced(karma-phala-tyaga).But the question remains: why should social structures manner and in a very roundabout or enacted ritually. This would explain the informants' emphasis on tradition. in whichacts are performed as usual. The notion of tyaga. of the the were criticized by others (e. is thatthe ritualshave to be performed for theirown sake. thatthis is in accordancewiththe mechanism accordingto which every cause has an effect. unnecessary. III but is does not offerssuggestivespeculations The Indian tradition seem to come up with a single consistent theoryof ritual. What the in fact ended up teaching Mimams. current among anthropologists. For Advaita such whatever Vedinta) postulating our contemporary fads may suggest.The followersof arthapatti. for unseen effects. in preliterate to the youngergeneration.

accordingly. but of such disparate only often contradictory characterthat it is difficult to even compare themwith each other? There is one simplehypothesis whichwould accountforall thesepuzzfacts: the that ritualhas no meaning. On anotherinterpretation.This is circularand uninformative. in termsof ritual.kinship systems) are most readily transmittedby grandmothers and through language. (Instead of "transition" we also meetwith"communication": a weakerversionof the theory.and there is no need for themto be transmitted again by othermeans. ling hypothesis . "sacred" mighthave been shownto be the domainof the gods. IV to definethemeaning. The theory tion fromthe realmof men to that of the gods (or a communication between the two).ritual cannot be defined in termsof sacred and profane.Moreover. The former of the gods. But a satisfactory distinction of thiskind is not easily found.Aa) is said to be the abode of men.For example. the Vedic ritual offers an immediate contradiction. especially outsidethe realmof ritual. thistheory would assumethatthe distinctionbetweensacredand profaneis alreadyestablished and knownfrom elsewhere. The distinction thereforecannot serve as a conceptin termsof whichthe ritualitselfmay be defined.goal or aim." to the "Great Altar" (mahlz(pracinavarm. a transition is effectDuringtheSoma rituals.the termsdo not introduce anywould merelyclaim thatritualeffectsa transithingnew. not between themselves. ed fromthe "Old Hall. and "profane"thatof men. but "sacred" and "profane" certainly do.. myths.g. Anotherwidespreadtheoryis that ritual effectsa transition from the realmof the profaneto thatof the sacred. Thus a transition fromthe domainof men to thatof the gods is effectedwithinthe ritual. and the latterthat vedi).) This is very intriguing and unclear. Either the theoryexpresses a tautology: the distinction betweenprofaneand sacred is the distinction between the statusof a person or object beforeand after a relevantritualis embarked if sacred and profanehave been defined upon. The only cultural values ritualstransmit are rituals.8 FritsStaal values (e. Terms such as "transition"or "communication" do not pose too much of a problem. gods.in the realmof divinity. Why has it provedso difficult goals and aims of ritual?Why are thereso manydifferent answersand theories. As a matterof fact.

g.providedI obtain the desired effect. prescribed a priestleaves the sacred enclosureand lightsa cigarette witha match.. in accordancewithrules. Similar disasters would resultif anyone used the sacred performed.for example. After makingfire for the altar in the ritually mannerby rubbing two pieces of wood together.e. at any time. ritualis for its own sake. Let me brieflydigress for a point of terminology." This is in facta transition fromthe abode of men to thatof the gods. I shall not botherabout these differences. But since my view is that thingsas meaning.the rules count. The two kinds of activity.if I did such a horrible the entireceremony thing. Now contrast thiswithan ordinary I am about to transport activity. but it has only ritualuse and can onlybe reachedin the manner. aim or goal. mysuitcasefrommyhouse to thebus stop. If I were defending the view that ritualis for somesomething it would be to between such other necessary distinguish thingelse. In ordinary it is the other way around. my suitcase to its intendeddestination. Ritual exhibitsits character of pure activity most readilywhen it is contrasted with the applied activitiesof our ordinary. an activity the fire (from important ceremonyis agnipranayana. ritual and ordinary.function. withoutmeaningor goal. without aim or goal.whichis about a mileaway. There are no rules I have to follow. "transporting the Old to the New Altar). can be juxtaposed withoutconflict or contradiction. . or also thatit constitutes its own aim or function. firefor any but a ritualpurpose. It does not followthatis has no value: but whatever is intrinsic value. to heat waterfortea.I could not come in and assist in the proprescribed ritually it ceedingsby pickingup the fire fromthe Old Altar and depositing on the New.Things are eitherfor theirown sake.I may put my suitcaseon a skate board.The Meaninglessness of Ritual 9 This is precisely whatI suspectto be the case. value it has goal.of numerousritesand recitations. would be desecrated. They thinkof neither. In ritual activity. To say that ritualis for its own sake is to say that it is meaningless. everydaylife. or for the sake of else. but not the result. and expiationriteswould have to be interrupted. Ritual is pureactivity. But the priestsdo not firstthinkof men and then meditateon the gods. In Vedic ritual. Or my brother may and thetwo of us use thisvehicleto transport appear on a bicycle. In fact. What is essentialin the ceremony is thepreciseand faultless execution. The result is important.

entireperformance may fail to have the desiredeffect.IO Frits Staal fromArthurRubinstein back home aftera Not so different. the activityitselfis all that counts. he noted that marriageceremonies. very mad and ordinary ways of makingfireare neatlydemarcated. page 600). If we remove the word "implicit" from this sentence the author'sideas about the complementarity (which means forsaking of mythand ritual) we approximate what I believe to be the correct Van to came the idea that ritualis meaningless. and by similarnotions in other traditions. If you give up desire.you willbe happy.in many societies. If a priestwould lighta cigarettefromthe sacrificial fire. This goes a long way to explain the curious fact thatrituals. gramophone putting not be mixed. e. close theory. we are also assured of success. 1971. or the suitcase may be seized by armed robbers.. A distinctive feature of ordinary is thatit runs riskswhich activity ritualactivity avoids. manner. as Huizinga and Caillois have pointed out.This idea and effect. In ordinary the activity.The bicycletogether withits load may fall into a canal. Not only have we established the rules ourselves.g. the teachingsof the Bhagavad Git. If one ritegoes wrong. have detected featuresof meaninglessin Several anthropologists ritual. actually. withoutrecognizingthat these featuresexpress its essence. But the two domainsshould concert.include an aspersion rite which he inter- . or in Kant. Eo ipso it explains that ritual activityhas a pleasant.whichare equally unproductive. on a record. But ritual is one up on most games because you cannot even lose.it would be bad. If he would lighta cigarettefrom fire which two pieces of wood together in the ritual he had producedby rubbing he or would be considered The ritual eccentric. so apparentlymeaninglessand useless. wu-wei. soothing for its own sake are closelyconthe notionthat ritualis performed nected and clearly foreshadowedby the Indian doctrineof tyaga. Gennep After completing his Rites de passage."absence of (effective)action" in Taoism.gestures and of objects whichare independent of the interpretations manipulations whichare properto thesemodesof activity and whichresultnot from the ritual itself but from implicitmythology"(L'homme nu. It also accountsfor the similarity the categoricalimperative betweenritesand games. are at the same time readily engaged in.In ritualactivity. L6vi-Strauss says that ritual "consists of utterances.anothertakes it place.so that we are completely in control.

They explain is recognized. Like Indian commentators. it may undergo change. the ing of the rite can.that ritualcreates a bond between the participants. This is directly explained by the theorythat ritualhas no meaning. English translationin J. Van Gennepgave different interpretations to each of these rites. consequently."and fromthereto: "no meaning.Walter Burkertdealt with the ritualpouringof liquids for markinga territory and observed that this is quite commonin mammals: "we all know the dog's behaviorat the stone.So do many otherinstitutions stitutes and customs. pretedas a fecundity in the same and in different when a slave is acquired. It is obvious. 1911. I. boosts morale and cona link with the ancestors.)." If ritualis useless this does not implythat it may not have useful side-effects..A useful institution is open. because effortsare made to renderit more (or less) useful.structuralmeaning.thoughtheymay help to explain its preservation. page 299. Classical Approachesto the Study of Religion.The Hague-Paris .There are parallelsto this situationfrom 3 "De la mdthode a suivredans l'4tudedes rites et des mythes.He concluded:"the aspersionritedoes not have but it is meanany personalor basic meaningin the stateof isolation. But identicalaspersionritesare employed. it is not understood and therefore can only be abandonedor preserved." Revue de l'universitkde Bruxelles. The meaningfulif seen as a component partof a particular ceremony.to make rain or to expel someone." Aspersion rites are not confinedto humans.for example.when societies. reinforcessolidarity. A useless institution is closed. Waarden1973.In his Sather lectures at Berkeley. Such side-effects cannot be used to explain the origin of ritual. burg (ed.In the of our conceptsand theoriesof ritualit it only a small development step from"changingmeaning"to: "no intrinsic meaning"and . pages 505-23. why ritualsare preservedthoughtheirmeaninglessness like the Jewishritualof the Red Heifer whichbaffledeven Solomon and which was consideredthe classic example of a divine command for whichno rationalexplanationcan be adduced." . only be found by determining 3 relationit has with the other elementsof the whole ceremony.The Meaninglessness of Ritual II rite. These side-effects fail to explain the most curious fact about ritual preservation:ritualsare always guarded jealously and with extreme conservatism. a new ambassadorarrivesin town.

If I detecta mistakein cooking or calthe reason. Nothingis more conduciveto uneasinessthan to be entrappedin absurdity. has located such anxietyin the ritualists' cannotbe put together have cut up ritually. whichthey fear that reality.ritualization modesof actionwhichoriginally had Many ritualdisplaysincorporate a different Such ritual displaysmay acquire function. This can be seen in the realm implythatit mustitselfbe meaningful. as well as in the human domain.. duringthe last 3000 years. are post-nuptial or post-reproductive. of animal ritualization.But if I have I perceivethe resultand understand culating. In India. a new function:they lead to copulationbecause they are sexually for example.and there it.however. Meaningless beredor forgotten.the Vedic language gave way to classical Sanskrit which was in due course replacedby Middle and Modern Indo-Aryan languages. Among anihas changed. Some of the same ritualdisplays. It could notbe otherwise.However. betweenritualand neurosis. e. Our anxietyis greatest when we don't know why we are anxious.12 Frits Staal outside the realmof ritual. stimulating.g. In L'homme nu. I made a mistake reason.Therefore rituals resemble other things.I am not even sure whether or not. But it is apparent that the obsessivenessof ritual is also an immediateconsequenceof its meaninglessness. Why? Because theyhad become meaningless. do used.During without all these changes the Vedic mantraswere orally transmitted Languages any change. I don'tnoticeany difference and don't see any made a ritualmistake.are functional can be rememnot sounds only they change. to similarities Freud has drawnattention whichpervadesritualhas led severalanthropologists The obsessiveness to emphasizethe emotionsand anxiety which sometimesaccompany and whichtheyclaim underlieit. and therefore not clearly func- . Levi-Strauss ritual. again. and constantly change because they express meaning. oftenimpliesthatthegoal of an activity mals. including features of myth and social structure. though a ritual non-ritual this does not activity may resemblea meaningful activity. fighting. Agnicayana performance 1975 was followedby a long seriesof expiationrites. It is like being in a foreignculturewhere is no way to determine one has made a faux strangethingshappen and it is not clear whether of The pas.for mistakes thatmighthave been committed. actual activity. of meanings attachThe meaninglessness of ritualexplainsthevariety Ideal activity cannotfail to resemble ed to it.

g. 5 During the of when fire is from the Old ceremony agnipranayana. and in several existingsocieties. Fires have to be extinguished. The recitation is of an ancient battlehymn. cf. Elaborate techniqueswere devised for the preservationof fire. Biologists find them puzzling (e. destroysthe enemies.Alongof "eternal" fire reflectsfossilized side. Indra is invokedas a victorious warrioror hero." pages 34-36. Human ritualization often follows animal ritualization rather simulated or real.fires have retainedindividuality. A more recentexample comes fromthe Agnicayana.at set timesby ritualexperts. Huxley (ed. 251. Rgveda o10. i966. man learned how to make fire. They should not be mixed. Heesterman. more than 250.4. transported to the New Altar.TheMeaninglessness of Ritual 13 tional. and troups. Series B. man learnedthe use of fire." PhilosophicalTransactions of the Royal Society of London.00ooo years ago. man continuedto carry fire around. "Vritya and Sacrifice.not replace it. J. he sounds less like an officiating than like a leader or a commander-in-chief. When the priest recites: "Comrades. 772. So fire was collectedfromnaturalconflagrations and was carefully kept and carried around.. For insteadof relying on his art of makingfire.75).mankind did not know how to use it.At this pointritualization and the cultof fire came into being. movingfromwest to east and 4 J.6. C.one of the priestsengages in a long recitation.ooo years ago. No.But typicalhuman formsof ritualization seem in general to dissolvemeaning. page 254. To ancientman. 6. chariots slaughter. Subsequently. more than 50.the Vedic Aryans fought theirway into the Indian subcontinent. is still sexuallystimulating closely.and producingit wheneverhe needed it (which is easy at least duringa dry season or in a dry climate). the continuedpreservation habitswhichhad lasted some 2oo00. And what is priest gang ? theoriginof all of this At an earlierperiod.).000ooo years. or newlymade. Vol. Finally.103 and 6. . "A Discussionon Ritualization of Behavior in Animals and Man. 1962. Huxley4). but he could not make it. "fond of disturber of peoples".the Apratiratha or "Song to the Irresistible Warrior" (TaittiriyaSamhita 4.whowiththehelpof his arrows.Fighting. among humans. followin Indra's footsteps !". Indo-Iranian Journal 5 Cf.During mostof its existence. One of the earliestritualsoriginated in connection withthe use of fire. A distinction was made betweensuch "eternal" fire and the "new" fire which could now be made-a distinction we have since abandoned as irrational.

became useful and meritorious.ceremonies. Abandoning a sense of being pushed around.which always stands in need of the mysterious and unexplained. hymnhas not changed. rules of good mannersand properconduct. he cannot theirsatisfaction. have made much of self-consciousness man.when ritualwas contrasted became patent and ordinary. everything contention. I thinkthatman became as an agent. When thereis is without will therewill be disorder.Ritual became deeply involved with religion. which means: rites.e. be destroyed. The function ancestors.When thesedesiresare not satisfied.he aware of himselfprimarily to a was already aware of the outsideworld and could communicate limitedextent with other membersof the species (which does not imply that he possessed language). Philosophers.) explainedthe originof the li as follows: Man at birthhas desires. nor things be used to the breaking shouldnot be stretched pointby things. and so theyestablished The early kings hated this disorder. Like manyotheranimals. Hsiin Tzii (third century B. intrinsically successful and free from such contingencies. but we have to especiallyin Gerspeculateback to the origin of man.It has become ritual.insteadof remaining useless and pure.fire is stillcarriedfromwest carrying the ancient raids of their to east.Rites were attachedto all importantevents. When thisseekingfor satisfaction remain without seeking measureor limit. But the priestsare not celebrating of the of whichtheyneed not even be aware. to satisfy the li and standards in orderthatdesires to thissatisfaction. The Confucianphilosopher etiquette.when thereis disorder.14 Frits Staal fire.i.but we are rarelytold what thismeans.C.It expressed man's awarenessof himself.as we shall see. and paved the way for theory and construction with language.therecan only be contention.In the courseof timerituals. In the agnipranayana rite. of justiceso as to set limits to thisconfusion.its meaninglessness various rationalizationsand explanations were constructed. the Chinese theorized about li. Justas the Indians mused about s'rauta rituals. and give opportunity men's desires.man made the discoverythat he affectedthe outside world by engaging in activity-a pursuit wrought with risk and danger. Throughoutthe historyof man's speculationon ritual we find of its originalfunction as perfect inklings activity.. of the meaninglessness Can the hypothesis of ritual be formulated in termsof evolution or development? Necessarilyso.everydayactivity. Much later. . of as a characteristic many. So he createda world of ritualor ideal activity. disappeared.

H.and who counting have for milleniabeen familiar withsomeof the ruleswhichobtainin their respectivedomains. LeviStrauss.paradigmof the Soma rituals) "Piling of Agni" (agnicayana). I. one soon finds out that there is no literatureat all." Agni. Hubert and Mauss showed littlemore than that riteshave a beginning. a middleand an end.If ritual consists in the precise execution of rules."Sanskritand Indian Studies.6 V Enough of generalities. Essays in Honor of Daniel H.The Meaninglessness of Ritual 15 up by desires. them Willem Caland.it mustbe possible to know what its rules are.we mostly meet with generalities.A Historyof Chinese Philosophy. it is not taken seriously. in L'homme nu (pages 601-603). see Staal. The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar.Derk Bodde.whichI shall referto by capital letters. Among studentsof ritual. fragmentation) and repetition. ton 1952.whetherrelior psychologically giously.amasa) "Praise of Agni" (agnistoma. Even at this earlystage of pre-scientific in whichwe find groping.Four of them. volumeII. anthropologically inspired . This will necessarilyinvolve some detail (for more. Scholars and students of ritual seem to lag behind their colleagues who studythe rules of measurement. Ingalls. transl. Searching for the best literature outside the Vedic. mathematics or grammar. I shall give a ourselves. Thus we do not possess muchin the way of a scienceof ritual. or language.for example. page 297.it is not impossibleto formulate few examples from Vedic ritual. "Ritual Structure. The rules of the drauta ritualhave been formulated with great care in the Srauta and made Sanskrit scholars. not thoughthe subject is certainly unlikephysics. distinguishes two basic ritual operations: "morcellement" (dismemberment. We must start with the observationthat the drauta rituals constitute a hierarchy. 6 Fung Yu-lan. This is how the li originated. 7 "Ritual Syntax. that both these two should mutually supportone another and so continue to exist. foremostamong accessible by satras. are listed in the following order: D: P: A. forthcoming 7).The reason for this neglect is rooted in the natureof ritualitself: if a thingis useless.even amenable to precise investigation. C: "Full and New Moon ceremonies" "Animal Sacrifice" (padubandha) (dariaptirn. ritualrules.Prince- .But he offers no actual rules.

This enumeration structure. the embedded. on occasions are dedicatedare often rites different deities to which at least in the names whichoccur whichinducesdifferences different. Such examplescan be multiplied almostindefinitely.recitedwhen the twigsof firewood the performance of D whichis embeddedin P when a cake on eleven is offered to Agni-Visnu. a performance of P and numerof A.For example.But at verses. performances of D are embeddedwhen a cake of eightpotsherdsis offeredto Agni and when a cake of eleven potsherds is offeredto Agni-Visnu. there are seventeen samidheni potsherds verses. We find the followingembeddings. the in to a later ritual in is perform general only eligible person the earlier ones. Conclusionand Deparof D embeddedin P). in many of the recitations.but for Indra-Agniat new animals deities to which the different moon.Final Bath. among others: In P.First of all.C may be analyseddifferently as . thereare fifteen example.In general.the different in performances in recitation. of P are dedicated.In the regularperformance samidheni are put on the fire. if he has already performed one or more occurritual presupposesthe formerand incorporates rituals. Similarly.induce differences thereare numerousmore complex But apart fromthese substitutions whichare inducedby embedding.one of the main oblationsis for Agni-Soma at full moon. fourteen performances ous performances of D.. Going Forth. and.16 FritsStatl A This sequence is not arbitrary.Sometimestheseembedrencesof one or more of the former ded rituals are abbreviated. some already embeddedin A and P. I shall give one simple modifications of D.There is increasingcomplexity. are embedded. but it may serve to illusis by no means complete. ture. tratethe "embedding"featureof the underlying which rituals undergo when they are Now for the modifications in different contexts. Even within D itself. they undergo modifications. Each later sequence. in termsof thesefor does not followthatthereis a unique description each particular ritual.not to mentionperformances in C.etc. in A are embedded: two performances of P (for Agni-Soma and of D (called for Pressing Soma) and several performances Consecration. it Though all these rituals involve embeddingsand modifications. more generally.

in which the construction of the New Altar is modified. d2 and d3. but is muchless elaboratethanthe latter. I shall writethisas a rule: D 4 dl d2 d3.: A -D a. Now let us make morespecificassumptions. (2) A involvesperformances of P. had to enter into some complexity even thoughI have made several In order to explicate the rules.which I shall call rites."In order to make this precise. Similarly. a modification of A. The reason for these artificialassumptions is merelythat and definitions constitute a model which exhibits structures and rules they specific of the ritual. and construct a model of a ritual. I shall have to simsimplifications. Let us assume: P pl D p2 Dp3 P4.dl.. Let us assume thata ritualconsistsof smallerunits. (3) .a series of artificialassumptionswill be made. a2 PD as a4." etc.g. as well as of D directly. what is important contextis only that it would involve embeddings and modifications.viz.Such an alternative would necesanalysis sitatea different structural in the present analysis." thoseof "P" as "p.a more formal plifydifferently to representation corresponding what Hubert and Mauss called a "schemeabstraitdu sacrifice. This may be illustrated as in Figure I: D (I) d1 d2 d3 Ritual P involvesseveral performances of D.The ritesof ritual"D" will be written as "d. definingD.The Meaninglessness of Ritual 17 an Atiritra. This model is similar with respectto these structures to the reallyexistingrituals. What is important is that the existingritualscan be analysed in the same manneras the model with regardto the structures in whichwe are here interested. Let D consist of threerites. P and A. e. In orderto get an inkling we have of the syntaxof thesestructures.

which expresses. the firstrite. it one of themain features of ritualstructure. in whichseventeen samidheniverses are recited. replaceby d( only the dl by occurrences in the second occurrence of D in P. We may introducethe example I gave into our model by assumingthat in ritual D. We cannot simply representthis transformation by adding an expression: (4) dl -+ df for the effectof this would be thatall occurrences of dl are replaced of d. rite dl has to be replacedby a ritedt. I have referred to as embedding. This can be done by introducing a different kindof rule whichcan be effected by means of an expression which uses a different symbolinstead of the single arrow -.18 FritsStacal A A representation of (3) is given in Figure 2: of the structure D dl d2 d3 at P 2a D P2 P D d d2d3 P3 P4 di D d2 d3 a3 a4 dl d2 da This picturedoes not correspondto any existingritual. What we mustdo is. We have to represent in whichdl occurssince it is nototherwise figuration possibleto single out the dl we wish to singleout. for example a doublearrow the entirecon=. Let us further represents assume that in the second occurrenceof D in P. However. the recitation of fifteensamidheniverses.dl. This can be done as follows: P P p1 D p2 D p p 4 pl D p2 D p p 4 (5) d d2 d3 d d12 d3 .precisely. We have already met with a second structure:rituals which are embeddedundergo modification.

The transitionbetween sound and meaning is unnecessarilycomplex. IV No linguist will have failed to observethe similarity of these ritual rules with the rules of syntax. But thereare weightier Syntax is the part of language which stands most in need of explanation. If language were rational and adapted to its purpose. This is not due respond correspondence to the fact that I selectedritualrules whichappear to resemblesyntacticrules. There would be no need for artificial languages. In the forthcoming articleon "Ritual Syntax" I have shown thatthereare also othertypesof ritualrules than thosewhich exhibitembedding and modification.but it expresAgain.or at least of Vedic ritual. I am inclinedto the oppositeview: syntaxcomes fromritual. to be universal. "Nobody in his rightmind would attempt to build an artificiallanguage based on phrase structure plus transformations" . The rules of embedding and modification are in factvery basic rules of ritual. sounds and meanings would be related by meansof a I-I correspondance. whichI have referred to as modification. had internalized when they learned their native language. If thiswere trueof naturallanguages. different naturallanguageswould assumingsemantics also standto each otherin a I-I correspondance. this rule does not correspond the featureof ritualstructure ses.and so it must necessarilycomprisea domainof sounds (studied in phonetics and phonology)and a domain of meanings (studied in semantics).but not considerations. The partial similarity between ritual and syntax could mean that ritualists the rules of syntaxwhich they follow. the double arrow rules which pertainto ritualmodification corto its transformational rules.and logicianswould be out of business. precisely.A simpleconsiderationin supportof this idea is that animals have ritual. language.The single arrow rules which pertain to ritualembedding to the phrase structure rules of syncorrespond tax. roundaboutand mathematicallyabsurd.albeit unconsciously. Meaningsand sounds are related to each other througha vast and complicated domain of structured rules: syntax. Language relates sounds to meanings. and translation could be effected withthehelp of dictionaries only. What we do findin languageis something different.The Meaninglessness of Ritual 19 to any actual rule.

A second feature is thatmysticism is characterized by theabsence of It to a state which can be induced by language. where theirway was paved by the sacred noises of popularTaoism. on mantras.I shall mentionthree. page 270. That assumes thatlanguageis only for the sake of whichit is not.or by other by silent meditation means. must come fromelsewhere.the Chief Priest of the SSmaveda chants songs which contain such sounds as: k hv h~i h hvS hv hvi h phal phal phal phal phal hau hau hau hau hau bham bham. Cambridge. points pre-linguistic ritual. I966.20 Frits Staal (J.All these methods sound and (ritual) structure. preceding languagesurvivesin religion as mantrasand magical spells: abracadabra. .Ritual is repletewith language. A. these are universal and need no translation. These specificrules.but it is veryoftenmeaningless language. This applies to most mantras.The similarity syntaxand ritualsuggeststhatthe originof syntaxis ritual. a structured domainof specificrules whichin fact makes language unlogicaland inefficient. dancies are necessaryfor communication because they decrease mistakes in reception. Approach. need be random: whichcanmerely not explain syntax. (eighteen times).lansounds were connectedwith guage was born when such structured The stateimmediately meaning. Smithand G.They look like a rudiment of something between quite diferent. The Genesisof Language: A Psycholinguistic Mass. Unlike language. A. as communication theorists thatredunmight. Fodor 8). Miller (eds). Such structured sounds partakeof the syntaxof ritual. 8 In: F. such redundancies. The abundanceof such formulas in Buddhismfacilitated its introduction into China. How are we to explain such apparentredundancies? It is not enoughto say.When a smallgolden image of a man is buriedunder the fire altar of the Agnicayana. as I have shown in Exploring Mysticism.which are withoutrhyme or reason. More importantly. help to eliminate meaning.. The ritual origin of syntax has implications not only in language but also in religion. by recitation. communication.but do not relate to meaning.. to perform theiralleged function. Originally.

" The Philosophical SF. Such sooner edly emerge. we have hardly begun.Let us reflect once moreon the Agnicayana. it is not. On the contrary. and fifth layer is the same. The surface of each layer is 7-1/2 times a square of the Yajamina's length. whichhas so far been impervious to our understanding. The configuration of the first. ritual. but reflect strucsyntactic ture in its pure form. nothing 9 whichI mentioned in passing: the Vedic gods fought and creatednot and chants. Re- view 74. What an extraonly with ritual."activity"]and not a theory. Obviously the essenceof can have nothing to do withthe factthatspeechoccurs. In addition there are 207 halves of squares. There are 136 squares. a firstadequate theorywill undoubtgeneralities a theorywill not only elucidate or later. VII We have not come to the end of our investigation.Once we abandon and startworking. 202 halves of oblongs. religion. it will throwlight on the origins of language.The main altar is constructed in the shape of a bird fifthlayer whichcomes on top. and so is that of the second and fourth.third from loo5 kiln-fired bricks. . and 205 in the The ritual origin of syntax is connected with another curious fact. page 16. What I hope to have shown is that ritual. is meaningless and also a subject amenable to serious study. and hence nothing is said. 48 oblongs of one size.this itselfis a component of religiousbehavior[the Germanoriginalhas: Handlung. each with "Notes on Talks with Wittgenstein. and five more groups consisting of bricks arrived at by further subdivision of the former shapes. Meters and chants are like ritualin thattheyfail to express meaning. All the bricks constitute furthermoreanother set of groups. and 302 of another.The Meaninglessness of Ritual 21 had an inklingof the place which language occupies Wittgenstein in religionwhen he remarked: Is speechessentialfor religion? I can verywell imagine in which a religion thereare no doctrines.falseor nonsensical.but also with meters ordinarythingto do! But no.hence pure activity. 200 each in four layers.Therefore turns on whether thewordsare true. What will a theory of ritualbe like? . The bricks are of ten different shapes. There are ten bricks which are half as thick as all the others.and perhaps man. 1965.or rather: religion if speechdoes occur. Waismann.

if at all adequate. and the drautasatras. will be There will simple. more simplethan the ritualfacts themselves. For all we know life itself may be meaningless.they are mutually exclusive and there is neitherdesire.Seen from without.and muchmore. they are In adhered case to. And so we may return to thequestionwhata theory of ritualwould be like. ritual traditionsco-exist peacefully. providedone general directionis maintained and the locationof the final brick is fixed. too. pretation.is in accordancewithnumerconsecrated. Some bricks have figures drawn on them. of California Berkeley.very roundabout order. A final paragraphand consolation. There mustbe readerswho are thatritual(not to mention shocked.viz. a thoughtthat must have occurred to King Solomon (Proverbs 6:6).22 FritsStaal its own name and consecratedby particularmantras. like a person. of or differences of interstrictly controversy various schools arise which establishdifferenttraditions. This feature. Most bricks have to be consecratedin a specific. Whetheror not the rules are arbitrary. be complaintsabout its myriad rules. Unlike sects. as there have been about Chomskyand Halle's Sound Pattern of English. angryor depressedat the thought religionand even language) is not only complexbut also meaningless. Others are lifted from their proper place.the life of an ant seems to be just that. I prefera thing. Neither ants. and not referto something or somebodyelse.for which in almost all cases no explanationwhatever is offered. nor mechanism for conversion. It is unlikelythat such a theory.University FRITS STAAL .. others may be consecratedin any order. has becomea markof Indian religions.to be itself. Euclid's Elements. carriedaround the altar and put back beforetheycan be fully All of this. nor we are any the worse for it. ous precise rules. I am not a bit sad about it.