In general, what purpose do religious rituals and laws serve?
The Guide: Religious ritual does not serve any purpose. It is a symbol, a reminder, an invitation, so to speak, to think about the inner meaning. Try to look beyond the ritual for the deeper meaning. It is nothing but a signpost, a reminder.
There are two categories of wrong human responses to ritual. There are those who keep following rituals in an imaginary sense of safety. They think that by following the ritual, they follow the sense behind it. This implies a laziness of thinking, and a wishful thinking that with minimum effort, maximum effect can be had. Many people belong to this category, and not only those who belong to a religious denomination. There are subtler ways in which this can be done.
People in the other category say that ritual means nothing, and to some extent they are right. But they have come to the wrong conclusion also, because it does not occur to them that something wise, true, flexible and alive may be behind the ritual. They would realize this if they were but willing to think of and consider such a possibility. However, they do not try, and so are incapable of thinking any more freely and independently than people of the other category.
Ritual in itself has nothing to do with growth, or with the freedom that you are all bound to achieve sooner or later, whether you now work on this Path or not. But freedom is bound to come eventually, when you are ready to see that you need to work for it. Then you approach freedom, but not by ritual.
In the traditional Scriptures of Judaism and Islam, the texts are specific regarding the consumption of fish, flesh, and fowl; it is commanded that “of their flesh shall we not eat.” But in the fifteenth verse of Matthew, Jesus said, “Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth the man, but that which cometh out of the mouth.” Christianity, in fact, has no ban against pork, but during Lent, dietary restrictions are observed by Christians. So are the dietary laws based on that which is unclean, or on that which is holy?
The Guide: The dietary laws were given at a time when human beings’ scientific and hygienic knowledge was so insufficient that such information was connected with religion. Merely sanitary or health reasons dictated them. In certain periods of history, under different circumstances, the laws were changed. Nowadays, it is unnecessary for religion to set up such rules. At no time did these laws have anything to do with spiritual life. They were merely safeguards to protect health.
So what made sense then no longer makes sense now. There were just totally different circumstances. To take over these laws today is nothing more than superstition. But new dietary laws should certainly be established, according to today’s circumstances. And many of you are really attempting to do this.
The spirit behind following dietary laws, or dietary common sense, is very different. In the former case, following a dietary law is done in an attitude of blindness, as if it were a magical means of attaining the grace of God. If humanity at this time still clings to them as a spiritual necessity, it shows a gross misunderstanding of what true spirituality is. It shows the superficial approach of humanity – people’s disinclination to think.
In the latter case, it is recognized that the personality carries the responsibility to maintain the body in the best possible condition. The desire for this springs from valuing life.
Your science today may find certain conditions that make it necessary to observe certain laws as long as the specific conditions prevail. When the conditions change, the laws will be eliminated. To persist in keeping them without any purpose or reason would be senseless.
So then what is the meaning of Lent and the counting of the days?
The Guide: The original symbolic meaning of the time of Lent was to give people a period of going into themselves, of purifying their systems, not only physically, but on all levels. Again, the outer is merely a symbol of the inner. A combined purification of body and soul is often healthy, provided it is done in an individual way and not merely by adhering to dogma.
Under whatever guise dogma appears, it shows rigidity and lack of self-responsibility in thinking for oneself. Thus it becomes something dead. The living spirit has gone out of it. The original symbolic meaning was that of purification, contemplation, a time of looking within the self and preparing for a new influx – a new strength with which to reach out.
What about customs such as circumcision?
The Guide: It is not too difficult to differentiate between eternal laws that are relayed from generation to generation through tradition, and laws that were meaningful at one time during specific circumstances but become totally obsolete at another period of history, or have to be altered according to the changing of circumstances in the evolution of mankind.
Let us now take this example and consider it in the light of using your own deep thinking, your inner knowledge and all the wisdom that is contained within all human beings. This is indeed the process of autonomy, as opposed to blind adherence to tradition.
Circumcision was introduced at a time when mankind was still in a very atavistic state. Blood sacrifice played a tremendous role, all over the earth. Blood sacrifice assuaged the inner guilt for betraying God and the truth, and for giving in to lower-self temptations. When the ancient Jews, who worshipped God as the one Creator, were instructed by the Lord to no longer sacrifice human life, some modified blood sacrifice had to remain in order to cope with the overwhelming inner guilt of humanity.
It is not true that this law had anything to do with health or hygiene. This was a very superficial rationale, for the true meaning could not have been understood. As humanity is maturing, this kind of guilt atonement no longer makes any sense. Today man is sufficiently adult to face his guilts directly and deal with them realistically.
Justified guilts must be restituted and the attitudes that created them purified and transformed. Unjustified and displaced guilts need to be recognized for what they are and obliterated. Displaced suffering, in which the effect of the guilt – suffering – is not connected with the cause of it – justified guilt – is no longer necessary, appropriate or desirable.
In this connection, I would like to point out that circumcision induces suffering to the male human being. Now what about the female human being? It could not escape your attention, if you really thought about it, that there is a meaning why women bore children in very great suffering until fairly recently in history.
This displaced “blood sacrifice” was the female version of atoning for guilt in the soul. At the time when humanity became ready to deal with guilts in a much more direct and effective way, suffering during childbirth became almost obsolete – first through chemical aids and more recently also through natural means.
As I pointed out in Lecture #246 Tradition: It’s Divine and Distorted Aspects, when people perpetuate customs that are no longer appropriate and that should be replaced by more meaningful procedures, it has a very undesirable effect on the psyches, the soul life and the physical life of those who are involved. It truly stops the evolutionary harmonious flow.
Most religions of the world use the motion of genuflecting. Many of them also use the two palms together. There are also the patterns created by the whirling dervishes. Do these movements have some inherent meaning?
The Guide: All ritual had at one time a symbolic meaning behind it. Every single one of the rituals in practically all existing religions had a deep symbolic meaning. The problem arises only when the connection is lost and the ritual becomes mechanical. Then it is meaningless.
It should then be discontinued, because the lazy mind assumes that in the ritual itself, in the mechanical movement itself, lies a beneficial act, or religious or spiritual act, that by itself will create a new consciousness, which it cannot do. But if there is a meaning behind it and if the meaning is truly understood, then it is a helpful thing possibly – for some of these, at any rate, not all of them at this time, any longer.
Is it possible that these body positions bring about new connections in the body? For instance, if a person bows and puts his head below his heart, lowering his ego, is that position significant in some way?
The Guide: If the person, let us say, goes into a church in an attitude that truly expresses the feeling, “There is a power beyond my little ego, a vast and infinite power of wisdom. This power exists within me, around me, in every particle of the universe. My little ego has a tendency to be arrogant, to intellectualize, to aggrandize itself,” – this is particularly true in this age of intellectualism and mechanization – “and I let go of the will of this little ego and want to accept this greater wisdom and be open to it, regardless of how fearful or how prejudiced I am,” then such a movement will be meaningful.
But you can take another person and go through the same kind of movement with a totally different attitude behind it. The attitude behind is “I go through this ritual” – without perhaps being articulate about it – “so that others see how religious I am and how good I am, and I make believe that I am a very religious and good person.” Or, for example, it may be done in a spirit of a very sick, masochistic, fatalistic attitude of worshipping a kind of deity who takes over the responsibility of the self.
With such attitudes, if they exist, the movement by itself will not do anything specific, unless you say any kind of movement is better than no movement. But then you may just as well go and have a course of gymnastics. But if it is combined with religious practices, it is a totally different thing if you have a kind of physical approach to your body and your soul, where you express your innermost feelings, as this group is doing now. That is not hypocritical.
It is not a thing of make-believe. It is a direct approach to your self, to whatever you are at this moment. And that is valid. The other is valid provided the spirit is good. But you can have people bowing and kneeling and making the sign of praying, and there is nothing behind it. And you can have someone else with whom it is meaningful because it is an honest expression of a beautiful attitude behind.
Could you please explain the meaning of the sacrament of Holy Communion? Is it a ritual or is it more?
The Guide: It can be more and it can be a ritual. Every ritual had originally a deep meaning, but most of the rituals as practiced in the current, existing religions have lost contact with the meaning, and are, most of the time, performed in a perfunctory way, as an empty ritual.
Ritual in itself can be connected to the truth of the higher self. And all these rituals can have that. But rituals must change through the ages. What was a meaningful ritual at one period becomes empty because it has been repeated and repeated without the feeling and the thought and the understanding.
Also, as the ages and the development and the conditions of mankind change, so must the rituals change, and so must the expressions of religions change. In the holding to the ritual, that in itself can be a life-defeating process. So the same inner content of the ritual reappears in a new age, in a different outer form.
But the imbibing of the Christ consciousness, which is this ritual of communion – the Christ feelings and the Christ life in the body – is an all-pervading, ever-existing spiritual reality that goes throughout the ages and that is expressed in your time in new ways. So new and meaningful rituals must arise now, and do arise.