Making things Rational

Modern Mythmaking 16 Comments

Published in Sunday Midday,  1 May 2010

I am often asked, what is the real reason behind Diwali or Dussera? Imagine asking a mythologist about reality. But people are consumed by the desire to know why we do what we do. We are surrounded by customs and beliefs that we follow, either by choice or under compulsion, and we would really like the reason to be rational. We want to explain to our foreigner friends why we worship cows or why we fast on Mondays or why we carry flowers to a temple. We seek rationality. If an act can be made rational it somehow becomes legitimate.

And then I think about birthdays – how can cutting a cake and blowing candles be explained rationally? And then I think about the national anthem – how does standing when the national anthem is being played be explained rationally. “But it is rational,” a friend once insisted, “That is how we show respect to our nation.” And I wondered – so to show respect I have to play a song and stand up. Is that it?

Rituals by definition are irrational. A ritual can be part of a religion. Or it can be part of a nation state or an organization, but still rituals are irrational. They are choreographed performances. Every action is a symbolic communication. Who decides what the symbolic communication is? Sometimes, in highly organized religions and organizations, there is a well defined authority that declares the meaning of a symbolic communication. For example, the ritual of standing up when the national anthem is being played and the national flag unfurled, is defined by the nation-state as a symbolic communication of respect. To not follow this choreographed performance is an act of treason.

Five hundred years ago there were no national flags and national anthems. So if a man from the 15th century were to come to the 21st century and watch us salute the national anthem, he would consider us strange irrational beings. Likewise, if people from the 21st century, raised in democracy, were to travel to the 15th century and see people bow before kings and kiss the rings of feudal warlords, we would find it funny.

Rituals exist in a context. People outside the context will never understand it. Those who are in it, follow it, experience it and are thus recipients of subliminal communications. I often see foreigners wondering why Hindus worship trees. This is genuine curiosity as they are from another context and find this behavior strange. When Indians travel abroad and watch men and women kissing each other passionately in public, they will find it equally strange.

The tragedy is that people who belong to one context often mock rituals of people belonging to another context. We make fun of the man who bows before what we consider stone yet we do not find it ridiculous when we blow out candles to celebrate our birthday. In one culture, white is the color of innocence, in another it is the color of widowhood. In one culture, orange clothes are worn by harlots and fools, in another it is the dress of the sage.

Humans give meanings to things and actions. That is how symbols and rituals are created. The reason is rarely rational. It is often emotional. Beyond the symbol and the ritual is a thought. Symbols and rituals are tangible manifestations of that thought. Every human being, even the most rational human being, surrenders to an irrational ritual without realizing it is actually a ritual. Wearing jeans to look casual is itself a manmade construct – a ritual of the youth.  It is important to remember this, next time we mock the rituals followed by someone else.

  • Amit

    Dear Devdutt,

    Brilliant article! Will ask my English friends to read it! Bang on target. I am trying to explain why do we do what we do since ages. What appears is they want to know more about our “Indian” culture, but then they dont see “why” do we do things in a manner where belief is more important than rationality.

    I think this should help my years of “ummm, aaahh, aarrrr” .

    Great article, as usual.

    Kind regards and best wishes,


  • Neha Aggarwal

    Wonderful article… Sir, you have distinctively explained the east and west cultures… People should learn not to invade in other’s arena and should respect the culture, whatever it is, as it is…

    a great learning.. thank you!

    Best regards,

  • Ganesh.V

    Dear Devdutt g.,
    white is the color of innocence, in another it is the color of widowhood. White in widowhood represents that even after loosing her husband she is pure as if the white cloth.

    may be you know just wanna share.

  • dear,we have to respect our rituals and also others,but we should not be very superstitious,for example marriage is an important ritual in India, but the rituals followed create an discriminations based upon their economic conditions…………

  • D Balasubramaniam

    Forces me to think or rather realize that rituals are dynamic and the one holding on the last one feels the fresh arrival is funny and vice-versa. Another thought is are they creations of man kind to control larger groups of people – the national anthem being a contemporary example.

  • Kalyani Raj

    Excellent article. Can you suggest some book/article explaining scientific or modern reasons behind ancient rituals? I have strong faith in many of the old rituals which I find very reasonable, like ‘Achamanm’ a practice by Brahamins to drink a palm full of water before eating. I believe they fasted for long hrs and before breaking the fast, a drop of water taken first could open the food pipes. I know there are many more rituals like this which can be very scientifically explained and would love to read it and explain to my children why we do what we do.

  • siddhartha

    there were rituals of sati and dowry also…SO DO WE FOLLOW THEM AND then say pls dont ask for reason as no reason can explain this…

    i agree rituals are formed w/o reason but stupid rituals are thrown away also…like sati dowry and may be next will be fasting

    • Arun

      Fasting has very many health benefits………………Well this isn’t place to give explanations, but it is scientifically proven to be good to fast once every week.

  • milind



  • DurgaPrasad

    Brilliant…..to the point and thought provoking….

  • Bharathi

    I agree that rituals & for that matter all faith is beyond reason.

    However, where we need to be careful about is when rituals/faith start hindering progress/development of people’s lives.

    Especially in a country like India, we need to be mindful of the harmless rituals & harmful superstitions. Also, rituals should not tend to legitimise the mythological stories behind them

  • Prabodh

    Dear Devdutta Namaste

    I think saying that rituals are always irrational is a bit stretched rational! Rituals are based on Jyotish! Devi navratra ends with Dasara. On any dasara day Surya, who is paramatma, will be in the Kanya(Devi) rashi either in Hasta or Chitra nakshatra. Dasara is celebrated when with this combination, chandra tries to move in Shravan or Dhanishta nakshtra. Dasara is festival of Kshatriya who primarily find their origin in Surya god as Surya Vanshim. Kanya rashi is the only rashi that has all three nakshtras lorded by Surya or some form of Surya! So it is but natural to have Kshtriya festival when Surya happens to be in Kanya(Devi) rashi! Chandras nakshtra along with this when happens to be lorded by Vishnu(Shravana) or Vasu(Dhanishta)the tithi is called as Vijaya Dashmi; a day for all to cross the boundaries(SeemaUllaghan) as Kshtriyas!

    When Surya is debilitated and Chandra is exalted we have karava Chouth! Thats is why Chandra pooja is performed by wife to save Surya(Husband).

    When Surya is debilitated and Chandra tries to meet this Surya we have Deepavali! Both of the luminaries are without power and hence we have to illuminate by lighting deepa every where.

    When Surya and Chadra both are exalted we dont want Kshya(decline/end) such day and that is why we have Akshaya Trutiya on this day!

    Similarly, there is an answer to all questions like why to worship Cow or fast on a day. Dharma gives all the answers in most rational way. We must be ready to accept those. Modern rituals are originated in west so we may have a ‘rational’ for that but all our rituals and traditions have answers in Jyotish and Dharma.

    Prabodh Vekhande

    • Devdutt

      Please do not assume ‘western’ rituals are rational.

  • Venkat Vadlamudi

    I just love this – Excellent !!, this logic never occurred to me. Thank you so much.

    “And then I think about birthdays – how can cutting a cake and blowing candles be explained rationally? And then I think about the national anthem – how does standing when the national anthem is being played be explained rational. “But it is rational,” a friend once insisted,”

  • Sanket

    Absolutely agree with you. Rituals are not at all rational.

    Celebrating Birthdays,Wishing on New Years , all these are irrational .

    Human beings need reasons to celebrate,have social gatherings,emphasize importance of relations. In these cases rituals are useful – even though they are completely illogical.But sometimes it is okay to be illogical.Hardly does the human mind occupy itself with rational thoughts.

    We should remember that rituals are for us not us for rituals.

    Problem with a ritual arises when a person starts feeling superior/inferior after performance/non-performance of a ritual.I have often seen people cursing themselves on not being able to perform some ritual or the other. They trace their misfortunes to inability to perform such and such rituals.This is where pseudo-science creeps in.

    And this is the problem with some rituals such as Griha-shuddhi and Shraadh. Hardly would a person worry over the ‘cosmic’ consequences of not being able to celebrate a Birthday or wish someone a Happy New Year. But in case of rituals such as Griha Shuddi people begin to worry over the wrath of Shani and what-not.(I’m sorry if I got names of rituals wrong).

    What pains me most is that most people still carry the idea of a retributive God in their minds. Why would God who is the alpha-omega get angry if a person doesn’t sprinkle water around his food before eating. Beats me.