The blessing of rules

When Ratnakara the bandit and hunter understood that no one, not even his wife, was willing to share the burden of his sins, he wanted to change.

Sage Narada gave him just one word to chant. He had to sit absolutely still and repeat it. Initially the word came out as ‘mara’. It meant death and he understood it well. He kept at it for many years. Anthills grew on him but he sat still repeating the word. Finally, when he realised the word was ‘Rama’, a name of the all pervading Vishnu, his mind was ready to receive the Vedas. He became a sage, came to be known as Valmiki, and wrote the epic poem Ramayana.

Was it ‘mara’ or ‘Rama’? Was it the untiring repetition or was it sitting still? What caused the transformation? To the bandit Ratnakara ‘Rama’ was a word which had no meaning, yet it made him a sage. In the times of yore, mantras were given by a guru, and the recipient accepted it without any questions. The guru also laid down how it had to be enunciated. The time, the place and specific motions could be part of the exercise; counting with beads or breaths could be part of what became a ritual.

More modern gurus may relax on the rigour but there are still some rules. Even gurus like Osho, who held that any sound or combination of sounds chanted with abandon had the same effect as a mantra, prescribed the abandon.

Does a mantra, and the ritual which accompanies it, have a meaning or is it just method? The scholar, Frits Staal, argued that “Ritual is a pure activity, without meaning or goal.” He hastened to add that it does not mean that it has no value. From the much sought after stress-busting to bonding with a group, it increases morale and makes one feel good.

This becomes clearer when he compares a ritual to a sport. A game has no meaning, only rules. Yet playing it or even watching it becomes an experience in itself. For a player, at the peak of performance, the experience is close to bliss. For those who watch and so get involved becomes part of the culture to be preserved. The rules can change but the ritual continues.

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