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Author: Ted Fairchild

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Hello, welcome. Many individuals perform actions that could be considered to have some sort of religious or spiritual significance. More common, however, are collective sacred actions or rituals performed by the larger religious community. Today, we're going to see that action in the context of religion and religious traditions functions to reinforce religious tenants, beliefs, and principles, maintain community cohesion, and in some cases is even believed to contribute to maintaining the order, the cosmic order and balance of the cosmos, perhaps preventing the forces of chaos from acting in the world. We'll look at examples from East and West to see that without certain intentional actions or rituals, traditions and the religions they represent wouldn't be what they are-- a link to the religious narrative and their principles and the link to the realm of the sacred.

An example from some branches of Tibetan Buddhism is the 12 day Kalachakra Initiation Ceremony, a community action or ritual that involves creating an elaborate, colorful, sacred design called a mandala using tiny granules of colored sand. The monks spend eight days making the large, intricate mandala which is based on a model that has existed in the tradition for thousands of years. The ceremony and the mandala are based on a text called the Kalachakra Tantra and represents the three wheels of time.

During the final four days, the mandala is used for initiation. When initiates or newcomers to the tantric school meditate on the images and the mandala attaining a vision of the Buddha body and the vision of divine emptiness. The mandala and the energy of the community are also used for generating compassion and extending peace to the world. Only certain parts of these initiation ceremonies are shared with the public.

A very public ritual in Hinduism is the practice of going on pilgrimage to various cities, cities of the gods. India has a very long history of pilgrimages. These journeys to holy cities are part of the lives of most Hindus. The Kumbh Mela, for example, is said to have more participants than the Hajj, the great Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. The Kumbh Mela is often considered to be the largest pilgrimage on the planet.

It is traditional to dip your body in the Ganga, or the Ganges river, to honor the goddess Ganges. This ritual is believed to expedite one's release from the karmic wheel of reincarnation and suffering and thus be closer to a state of freedom. Varanasi, also called Benares, is considered to be the holiest of Hinduism's holy cities, and it is the destination of many pilgrims. Hindus call it the city of Shiva, because according to tradition, it was this god who founded the city. Varanasi is one of the seven cities that offer release from suffering, from Moksha. Many Hindu pilgrims travel from one city to the next for this reason-- honoring and offering their devotion to the particular god of each city.

Pilgrimages are generally a case of ritual being performed by the public community of adherents in a particular place with a particular holy place as a destination at a specific time. However, as we saw with the Tibetan Kalachakra tantra, there are entire rituals or parts of a ritual or ceremony that are reserved for established practitioners and members of a particular subset of the religious community.

Another important Hindu celebration is called Diwali, commonly known as the festival of lights, a five-day festival which involves the lighting of small clay lamps that are filled with oil. This light signifies the triumph of good over evil. These lamps are kept on during the night, and one's house is clean. The intention is to make the goddess Lakshmi feel welcome. Each day has a special significance. And honoring this allows the tradition to be integrated with daily life and transmitted from one generation to the next. During the festival of Diwali, all the celebrants wear new clothes and share sweets and snacks with family members and friends.

And in the religion of Islam, one of the foundational tenets of the faith-- called one of the five pillars of Islam-- is the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj, a spiritual journey to Mecca. It is here where Muhammad was born, the prophet Muhammad, and the site of his revelation. It's the most holy city for Muslims. It is here where the first mosque, the Kaaba or Noble Cube was built, believed to be constructed in 2100 Before the Common Era by Abraham, the patriarch of the three monotheistic faiths and his son Ishmael.

During the Hajj, six million pilgrims come to Mecca to circumambulate the Kaaba. The circling the Kaaba represents the unity of believers and their collective faith in one god. Turning seven times counterclockwise in worship represents this commitment. Performing the pilgrimage of the Hajj is one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith, as we said. If one can afford it and is physically able, one must perform the Hajj before dying.

We'll end today with a ritual from the Jewish tradition, the action of breaking the glass at a Jewish wedding. This is either done after the bride has received the ring or at the end of the ceremony. And the specifics vary from one locality to the next. Amidst all the celebration and cheer, the breaking of glass-- usually crushed by the groom with his right foot-- represents the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The collective participation in this section and its witnessing expresses that in spite of the joy of the occasion, Jews everywhere still mourn the loss and destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.

Now we can review and summarize. Sacred actions that have some kind of religious and spiritual significance are often referred to as rituals. There are ceremonies that include certain ritualistic aspects. We looked at examples from Tibetan Buddhism, from Hinduism, from Islam, and from Judaism. Pilgrimage is a very public festival. We mentioned that there are some ritual actions that are reserved for a particular subset of a religious community. Others are more public, like the pilgrimages, for example-- the Hajj we mentioned in Islam, and we mentioned the Kumbh Mela in Hinduism, and we also mentioned the festival of lights called Diwali in Hinduism. Then we mentioned the tradition of breaking the glass in a Jewish wedding, which is a way of, again, maintaining community cohesion in light of the loss of the temple in

Terms to Know

A journey undertaken by a believer that has a sacred purpose and/or a sacred destination.


"Sacred action"; a set of words or actions that are spoken or conducted in the same or in a similar way over time, according to accepted religious, social, or other convention.