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Author: Ted Fairchild

This lesson will provide an overview of the significance of ritual and material culture within the study or world religions.

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Hello. Welcome to this overview on ritual and material culture. We're going to learn about ritual and material culture and how it interacts with the study of religion and religious culture. Let's jump right into the key terms.

Ritual is a set of actions performed mainly for the symbolic value. And material culture is something that refers to the relationship between artifacts and social relations. As a social science then, material culture is the study of societies and their relationship to things- material items that people deem important or not. This kind of investigation can tell you about most aspects of a culture- its attitudes and value of science, for example. Language, education, art, nature, manual labor, and of course a culture's approach and integration of religion and religious values.

Anthropologists and archaeologists often look at the physical objects of a culture and make assessments about the value and significance of them. For example, in some of the earliest civilizations in the Indus Valley region in the Northwest of the Indian subcontinent, archaeologists have found this devotional item honoring the lord and protector of the animals, or Pashupati. It is considered to be a precursor to the Hindu god Shiva.

And an element of Hindu religion and culture includes many other rituals. In this picture someone is performing a ritual sacrifice to one of the Hindu gods. He may also be reciting part of the Brahmana, or commentaries on the sacred texts, the Veda.

And you might think of Christianity and the holy cup of communion, the ceremony of the Eucharist, as a ritual reenactment of Christ's giving his body and blood to the disciples during the Last Supper. It has been a central element in Christianity since that day. So most churches will have a chalice for the ritual of the Eucharist. It doesn't have to be old and dusty to be a powerful symbol. You can buy these things online, for example.

So objects that have religious and spiritual significance are likely to be all around us. You probably have some kind of sacred object in your home. Maybe you use them for prayer. Certain keepsakes and memorabilia might fit into this category. In any case, as you study the world religions you will come into contact with different beliefs and practices that involve material items that are used in rituals and ceremonies.

Today we looked at a few examples from the East and the West, and we have seen that human preoccupation with sacred objects has been around forever, and may even be resting on your table or your window will right now. Well, thanks for being here and take care.

Terms to Know
Material Culture

A term referring to the relationship between artifacts and social relations.


A set of actions, performed mainly for their symbolic value.