The utility of rituals and duties

Rituals constitute an integral part of all religions.

 Whether elaborate observances or shortened versions, they are basically meant to cleanse the mind of the impurities of greed, selfishness, anger, jealousy, lust, vanity, arrogance and other such human frailties and lead it on to higher planes of thought, ultimately with a view to making man a better human being. But human nature being what it is, these very same rituals become a convenient resort to men, wherein, by conducting these rituals, they think they have done their duty and that is the end of their responsibility. It is exactly this weakness that the Mundaka Upanishad cautions against.

The second section of this Upanishad commences with the injunction to men to always perform their duty, religious or otherwise, since this is the path to the world of good deeds. Though various religious rituals are mentioned, the significance of the statement is clear. “Do your allotted duty, otherwise perish”. The Upanishad says that one who performs his duties at the proper times in the proper manner reaches the abode of the gods, the rays of the sun being the conveyor of his deeds. One who does his duty is respected and welcomed everywhere. But the man, who relies on rituals and sacrifices alone, neglecting his duties and ignoring the importance of virtues like truthfulness, will meet with failure and disdain.

The Mundaka Upanishad likens rituals to an unsteady boat in stormy waters which can collapse at any time. The gains that come with mere ritualistic observances are temporary and of inferior merit. The Upanishad condemns such ignorant men, saying that they conceitedly imagine they have attained their goal, while actually they do not understand the fact that they are really carrying out these rituals with some motive or desire in mind and not with a pure, tranquil mind that seeks to attain to higher, noble thoughts. Thus, though they may get some temporary gains, they fall back to their troubled, miserable lives once the fruits of the rituals are exhausted. The Upanishad goes on to say that such misguided men imagine that rituals, sacrifices and public benefactions alone lead them to the highest good, forgetting that without the bedrock of righteousness, faith, devotion, honesty, humility and other such virtues, all their efforts are a waste.

It is important to note that the Upanishad nowhere says that rituals must not be practised. It makes the very significant statement that “let a man deeply ponder over what can be and what cannot be gained through rituals. Let him not blindly follow what is said somewhere or what others do. Let man become a thinking being. For more clarity and knowledge, let him approach a preceptor who is himself a learned man of blemishless character, a wise man who is capable of leading the aspirant on the right path”. “Do not neglect your duties and human values and depend on just rituals alone” is the message of the Mundaka Upanishad.

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