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Rituals and the Subtlety Aspect of Hinduism: The Differing Views of the Sampradayiks and Frits Staal

During the Colonial Era, many European countries especially Germany were on the run in quest of their national identity, and an overview of their intellectual history shows evidence about how it used the field of Indology to find answers to some of these questions.

These countries succeeded by forming standard methodologies that were considered valid simply by themselves. For instance, with regard to questions of reliability and validity, scenarios like the inner experience of a Yogi could not be validated or sanctioned. Therefore, the accounts of a traditionalist became incapable of being referred to.

These “Historical-Critical” methodologies (Adluri and Bagchee 2014) invalidated the modalities of the established traditions, and new methods were brought in to study the indigenous cultural forms and formations. These methods began to gain an ‘observer’s advantage over the observed’, with new rules of the game that were created then and there.

Thus, scholars of the Indic Knowledge Tradition were kept out from contributing academically to all scholarly debates unless s/he knew of, and followed these new methods and rules.

The inclusivity of the field may have grown over time, but it is founded on rigid imperial notions. In modern times, possibly as an effect of such a colonial academic mindset, many ‘practicing’ Hindus stay away from performing rituals, regarding them mostly as superstitions, or seeing them as unscientific. In the common understanding of many modern Hindus, rituals are ‘only’ symbolic activities that embody meanings.

To bring conviction and confidence in performing these rituals, many of them even tend to impose certain ‘scientific’ claims on rituals. Here, they try to emphasize benefits that can be measured in scientific terms, over the phala, or promise of the ritual itself.

The English lexicon uses the word ‘science’ or ‘scientific’ predominantly to convey the mathematical/exact sciences and natural sciences. Whereas in German, Dutch, or French intellectual traditions, the understanding of science is slightly varied, and it does not exclude the field of ‘Humanities’ from Science (refer to the Wissenschaft in German —the pursuit of knowledge that is systematic, as an example).

In India, following the English systems, we consider Humanities altogether as a different stream detached from ‘exact’ Sciences. This tendency imposes serious limitations on the pursuit of knowledge and has led academic scholars and common people to regard rituals as superstitious, primitive, unscientific, and so on.

Widening the scope of science, and understanding it in its true spirit as a mode of inquiry will not necessarily make a change in one’s approach towards understanding the rituals as a sampradāyik i.e. a traditionalist, does. But, it can at least help the ritualists get away from being shamed or feeling anxious.

Frits Staal was one of the few scholars who directly or indirectly challenged dominant narratives that were prevalent and went on to study Indic traditions and rituals while maintaining an inquisitive-yet-positive approach towards these cultures. Seemingly, he never posed an oriental perspective and was admired by many Indic scholars. Staal regards the following characteristics as features of science: empirical adequacy, generalization, abstraction, consistency, and methodology (Staal 1993).

With this broad understanding, he identifies that the earliest sciences in India were ritual & grammar, and criticizes the modern limited understanding of the term ‘science’. However, he is aware of the pragmatic reasons for which science of ritual would not easily find a space in the subdivisions of modern academic disciplines.

Yet, Staal’s point of Indic Knowledge Systems being interdisciplinary in nature, his contributions in bringing this argument to the academic field of Indology, influenced many scholars to gain a similar perspective. His works have gained appreciation and admiration from the ‘Indic Scholarly’ milieu and from many sampradāyiks. Notably, his documentation on Agnicayana is commendable. And it would not be wrong to an extent if one claims that the Agnicayana ritual would not have survived if Staal had not drawn an interest towards it.

Having said that, can the admirations bestowed on Staal from the sampradāyiks be passed on to all levels, is my query. An engagement with his significant work, Rules Without Meaning: Rituals, Mantras, and the Human Sciences, which is about rituals and mantras, science and philosophy, religion, and music, can be a good entry point. This work was developed after his study and documentation of the oldest surviving Vedic ritual, Athirathram, which acted as the source for his theory on rituals.

Staal’s View:

Staal identifies some of the paradoxes prevalent in understanding the rituals; these are not the differences between the various schools of thought, but inconsistencies within the general understanding of the ritual itself. For instance,

  1. There is a general understanding that a ritual is all about symbolic activities, an enactment of something else. But, do we think about such symbolic meanings, or are we rather concerned about the ‘rules’ being followed while performing the rituals?
  2. Similarly, are we more concerned about our desires, or the rules while doing the rituals?

This intimate focus towards rules is the critical area in Staal’s way of understanding the rituals.

To elaborate this further, people engage in rituals for multiple reasons; some because they consider this is what they are supposed to do. Even though there are specified ‘phala’ attributed to each ritual, rituals are not performed for the sake of a ‘phala.’ Many practitioners from the Uttara Mimamsa do it without desires (niṣkāma). They consider it as a part of their svadharma, more or less like the Brahmin priests who would say that they do it because it is a part of their tradition. According to Staal, this would be another way of saying, ‘We are performing rituals, for the sake of the ritual itself.’

With regard to desire, he quotes an agnihotra hymn as an example – the priest on behalf of the patron says, “This is for Agni, not for me” (agnaye idam na mama). Staal quotes, paradoxically for Mimamsa, the reason for performing is the desire itself – “Those who desire heaven shall sacrifice with the Agnishtoma ritual” (agniṣṭoma svarga kamo yajeta).

But, here we identify that the ‘visarjan’ (renunciation or dissolution) of the ‘desire’ comes as an integral part of the ritual itself, and this necessarily does not negate the efficacy. The desired result may or may not be fulfilled, but there is a renunciation of desire for the fruit through tyāga, which is one of the three components of the ‘Srauta Ritual.’

Staal identifies the other implications of ritual – as a cultural renaissance of a region, a re-enactment of myth that imparts cultural values in the society, and as a process of transforming something or someone into something sacred. These features do not convey the primary meaning and purpose of the ritual as such. These side benefits would have helped in its preservation and growth but do not explain its ‘origin’.

It can also be noted here that Staal attempts to speculate and project upon the social aspect of a ritual during its origin, through a case study he conducted on Agnicayana in the year 1975, and his subsequent inquiries. In short, Staal understands that rituals are performed for their own sake. He states that the ritual is an action in its purest form; that is to say, it is not an activity that has been instrumentalized having any assigned meaning or goal.

Therefore, in rituals, the rules count, not necessarily the result. To be clear, Staal does not regard rituals as valueless by calling it meaningless, nor is he negating the effect of the ritual which may or may not follow. Still, the fact that in the course of the ritual, the results are renounced, and the obsession on following the rules alone rather than thinking about the fruit one would gain while performing the ritual, is the matter that Staal identifies to justify his position. This can be attributed to a mundane metaphor – rituals are like empty jars, which can be filled with meanings.

In order to understand it better, we should follow Staal regarding the way he differentiates ordinary activity from rituals based on ‘rules’. Unlike rituals, in ordinary activities, we have multiple ways to obtain the desired result. So daily activities become associated with more risk and uncertainty. Whereas in rituals, following the rules alone would ensure success.

Here, success does not mean reaping the fruit of the ritual, but the completion of the task itself. The failure to achieve the fruit makes the sampradāyik realize that they failed to adhere to the set of rules of the rituals. Therefore, according to him, the centrality of rules alone defines ritual and differentiates it from ordinary activities.

Thus, for Staal, rituals become an ideal activity meaningless or empty in its origin on which explanations are constructed later. Staal further moves on to argue that ritualistic formulas served as foundations for the emergence of the semiotic system of language, and thus, rituals are older than the human language itself.

To illustrate this, Staal identifies the similarities between the syntax of Vedic rituals and language. Unlike other scholars, he takes a position that the origin of syntax remains in the formulaic structure of the ritual and not the other way.

The language used in the rituals is initially meaningless; some of it can be traced to Agnicayana when the priests render the Sama Veda chants. Language took birth with such empty structured sounds on which meanings were attributed later. Language is bound to the meaning of the words which change with time, whereas, Vedic mantras which are orally transmitted, remain unchanged since the exactitude is rested upon their sonic rhythm, and not on their meaning.

To summarise, rituals are units of pure action. They functioned as the blueprints for the emergence of syntax and the development of the language. Mantras are sounds from the pre-linguistic state encapsulating meditation, based on which language originated. Thus, various meanings were attributed to rituals and mantras gradually.

Staal subtly takes on mantras separately after taking on rituals, hinting that the action precedes speech, so rituals become actions that preceded the origin of mantras, which he considered as a primordial form of language.

This view is in contrast to the Vedic view, which says mantras are pre-existing eternal entities that became revealed to Rishis. Rituals consist of Tantra, Mantra, and Yantra, hence making it impossible for a sampradāyik to isolate mantra as a separate entity.

In other words, speech and action are inseparable here. For instance, ‘chanting’ would be a wrong translation for ‘japa’. If we were to consider mantra as a primordial form of speech, we would not have been hesitant to say that we ‘said’ mantra or ‘read’ mantra. This issue was addressed in Mani Rao’s ethnographical work on the mantra. She takes an example from her mother tongue Telugu where the mantra is supposed to be “put” (veyaṭam) or to “do” mantras (cheyaṭam).

Here, the mantra is an entity that is associated with action over speech. This view is in opposition to Staal’s claim of rituals being that which precede the origin of mantras.

The Sampradayiks and the Studies of Staal – Areas of Disagreement

Desireful and Desireless

Identifying ritual as a desireless act is quite acceptable among sampradāyiks, or among Hindus in general, and particularly with Advaitins. Though there is a difference in approach towards rituals in various schools, none of them claim their path as absolute.

The idea of niṣkāmakarma is not significant in Mimamsa, yet it becomes acceptable for them when Vedantins practice rituals. It is a fact that while even Gita prescribes desireless action in Karma Yoga, there are Vedic hymns that prescribe rituals to satisfy one’s desires. Therefore, desirefulness or desirelessness lies in the approach one takes to perform the ritual.

It can vary among individuals and thus cannot be described as the feature of the ritual itself like Staal did. The real problems for sampradāyiks appear when Staal mentions rituals in their original form and does not have any element of desire associated with them. Even for Advaitins, the ability to perform an action without desire is subjective to an individual’s spiritual evolution.

So, for them, it is the individual who approaches rituals with or without desire, but essentially rituals contain space for one to satisfy one’s kāma in a dhārmika way, and when one indulges in yāgas, understanding it as his or her duty i.e. svadharma, without expectation of the result, s/he attains chitta-shuddhi.

Another disagreement is regarding the evidence that Staal uses to support his argument. As mentioned earlier, Staal cites the chant of ‘agnaye idam na mama’ as an indication that desire is renounced within the structure of ritual itself, so it comes in contradiction with agniṣṭoma svarga kamo yajeta (He who desires heaven shall perform Agnistoma ritual).

If the yajamāna says, ‘it is not mine’ and gives up the fruit of action, how can we say that rituals are done for the fruit of action, is the question Staal asks. But a counter-question arises, ‘Can the fruit of action be renounced before it gets actualised?’ of which Staal too was well aware of.

The sampradāyiks, particularly from the Mimamsa School, negate this argument. One such critical response comes from Pandit Pattabhirama Sastri who points out certain faults in Staal’s position. He explains what has been given up by chanting ‘agnaye idam na mama’; it is not the desire for the action which is given up, rather through this act (yajna), it is the substance (dravya) which is given up to Agni, to achieve the fruit of action.

According to Kalpasutras there are three folds of actions:
yajna – Renouncing dravya for a devatā
dāna – Giving away the ownership of the object
homa – Placing the object to be offered in the enjoined place

There is a subtle difference between yajna and dāna. While in dāna, the ownership of the object is both physically and mentally being transferred to somebody who receives it, in the case of yajna, the ownership is passed at the mental level, without it being actually physically passed to another. This is what distinguishes between the etymological description of the word tubhyam (to you) and agnaye (for you). Now, let us look at the etymology of the word Agni – etya dagdhva nayatityagnih, which means, ‘agni is that which carries forward something received’.

So in simple terms, agni is that which acts as a messenger between humans and the divine. By giving oblation to agni, sampradāyiks are not giving up the fruit of the action like Staal claims, but they are actually giving up the ownership of the dravya that the yajamāna offers as a libation to the God who then becomes its owner.

Meaningful and Meaningless

Staal’s deduction of rituals as meaningless actions comes from identifying the supposed meaningless character of the mantras (in its origin) and since action precedes speech, this feature can be extended to rituals as well. But if the sampradāyiks are able to identify that there are meanings in mantras, right from its origin (if at all there is an ‘origin’), then the claims of Staal would be strongly contested.

The debate of the meaninglessness and meaningfulness of the mantras is around 2000 years old, but the arguments by eminent scholars in the field seem to be different from that of Staal’s. Yaska, a 1 C.E etymologist, disproves Kautsa regarding mantras as meaningless or purposeless (Nirukta 1.15-1.16). Likewise, a 2 CE commentary on Jaimini’s Mimamsa-Sutra also brings details of such debates among scholars.

The reason that the mantras are inarticulate and inexpressive to call them meaningless and purposeless is often countered by defining mantras as something that directs the ritual procedures and their meanings being derived from etymology.

Any inability to understand a mantra is said to be the inefficiency of the particular person and not as the fault of the mantra. Coming back to Staal, as indicated earlier, the ‘action precedes speech’ logic that he applies to deduce mantras as meaningless, confronts the sampradāyik’s understanding of mantras as a pre-existing, eternal organic form which the Rishis ‘saw’ and made available to us.

It is deduced from the Rig Veda 1.164.45 and latter texts that there are 4 levels of sound. What humans speak is only the fourth level, the lowest form of sound called vaikhari, which is outwardly expressed by humans through their gross body, madhyama is where the sound exists in the subtle body as thoughts, pashyanti is the level where there is no distinction between word and meaning.

At this stage, the Rishis get the revelation of the Ultimate Knowledge without any sensory data and reasoning faculty. Therefore, they are not composers of mantras, rather, mantras are revealed to them from the already existing vibrations of the infinite to which the Rishis tune in, and of course, para is the supreme form of sound, the unmanifested, and is equated to shabdabrahman. Such classifications are not seen in the development of any other language.

Thus, the inseparability of meaning and sound become a critical aspect of Sanskrit language. The meanings of objects in the Sanskrit language are not random. The primordial sound multiplies into many root sounds, which manifests further by forming sound sequences that make words. In creation, every form or object was created out of the single-source sound or the primordial vibration.

These objects thus formed will also naturally get a sound vibration associated with them, which are manifested to us as different sounds. This indivisibility or pairing of sound and object is integral to Sanskrit words, and mantras would be the primary reason for sampradāyiks to disagree with Staal in his position that mantras are meaningless in their origin.

On the contrary, many sampradāyiks ignore the meanings of mantras that they chant and give focus to the rules of chanting itself. Even if they happen to know the meanings, while chanting, it becomes insignificant, and the meanings do not come to their mind while chanting. It is also very unusual to read out the mantras as poems by understanding word by word meanings, forgetting its meter of chanting.

Mantras are in a way meaningless (but not valueless) for a sampradāyiks when s/he does the chanting without being aware of its word meaning, but meaningful when the sādhaka takes sankalpa or when s/he receives inner experiences of chanting the mantras. The ethnographic work of Mani Rao on mantras, Living Mantra: Mantra, Deity, and Visionary Experience Today talk about how mantras produce deities inside oneself.

In this study, mantras are compared with seeds. Seeds produce trees which in turn produce back seeds. Likewise, mantras produce deities who then gradually give back mantras to a sādhaka.

The focus point here is that the distance between meaningfulness and meaninglessness are so minute or subtle that one does not actually conflict with the other. It is perfectly fine for a sādhaka to chant mantras without knowing the meaning, as s/he knows the ‘meaning’ would be gradually revealed to him/her by focusing on the regular chanting of the mantra with devotion. As it was revealed to the rishis, so would it be revealed to them, making the meanings complete.

Subtlety in Hinduism

Now, I would like to point out the subtlety aspect of Hinduism. There are many non-contradictory, subtle distinctions that are often found in Hinduism. For instance, knowing that desire or kāma is the cause of suffering, yet making a place for it among the four purushārthas (of course, bound by dharma). Perhaps, the inability to describe Hinduism only as Monism or Pantheism or Panentheism, and so on by modern scholars is due to this reason.

An outsider of the tradition often tends to miss out on identifying such subtleties.
In his work, Why I am a Believer, Arvind Sharma highlights this unique capacity of Hinduism to hold subtle distinctions. One such distinction he makes is between emptiness and openness. He says,

“We might indifferently describe a field as a vast open field or a vast empty field. But there is a difference. In fact, one could say that the goal of Hinduism is to convert an empty mind into an open mind. This is a delicate endeavor; how delicate may be seen in the West’s attempt to do this in the form of the New Age movement. The mind tends to become so open, according to observers, that the brain almost falls out.”

Likewise, we can find such subtle distinctions between Meaningful and Meaningless or by being desireful and desireless, in terms of Hindu rituals and mantras as we have seen earlier. They are not very contradictory to each other, and vaidikas understand this.

Another subtle distinction Sharma highlights are between origin and cause, he says,

“Hinduism is said to be reckless in borrowing from others on the one hand, and shameless in suppressing this fact on the other. But note that those who are exercised by the question “Who borrowed from whom?” are concerned with origins. But once you are concerned with the cause rather than origin, you are not so much concerned with where something comes from as with how well it explains something, irrespective of where it comes from. If I catch the flu, its origin may lie in the person I caught it from, but its cause is a viral infection. Note that causes are universal in comparison to origins, which are particular.”

When Staal talks about the single ‘origin’ of mantras, for sampradāyiks in contrast, mantras can originate from individuals even today. The cause and effect of mantras are what sampradāyiks are concerned with which Staal seems to be unaware of (at least in this work).

Staal’s failure of identifying this subtlety aspect in Hinduism would have been a major reason for his contradiction with sampradāyiks. His works were definitely revolutionary in the field of Indology and were widely accepted by the Indic scholars in his time.

The growing space for Indic Scholarship and works like that of Mani Rao’s Living Mantras gives us insights from an experiencer’s point of view. Such works, although not directly aimed at critiquing any other works, open up gates for new ideas that can challenge many of the existing eminent works of Indology. This paper was intended as an example to show how such works can be used to contest works like that of Staal’s, or at least can be used to display the differences with reasons.


  1. Bagchee and Adluri. The Nay Science: A History of German Indology (Oxford University Press, 2014)
  2. Staal, Frits. Ritual and Mantras: Rules without meaning (Motilal Banarasidass, 1996)
  3. Krishna, Daya. Discussion and Debate in Indian Philosophy: Issues in Vedānta, Mīmāṁsā, and Nyāya (Indian Council of Philosophical Research, 2004)
  4. Rao, Mani. Living Mantra: Mantra, Deity, and Visionary Experience Today, ( Springer, 2018)
  5. Sharma, Arvind. Why I Am a Believer: Personal Reflections on Nine World Religions (Penguin Books India, 2009)

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