What is Ritual for?
The answer to this very much depends on who you are! If you’re a participant in a Buddhist Pujah, then you’re using the rite to help yourself achieve enlightenment. However, if you’re an anthropologist watching the same ritual, you may see it as an expression of group values, and an affirmation of a way of life. On the other hand, a sociologist might see such a ritual as an expression of conflicts within a society, and a means of working towards a resolution of those conflicts. A psychologist may see such a ritual as a means of expressing tensions within the psyche, and of working constructively with subconscious forces. But whoever you are, you will see ritual as “doing” something.
Rituals always happen as part of a process of change: a calendrical rite marks the changing seasons, a wedding marks the change in status from unmarried to married, a “Goodbye” marks the change from being in someone’s company to being at a distance, a coronation rite marks a change in leadership.
Rituals mediate between the individual and the community. Even rituals performed alone will make reference to a wider social context – a prayer for other peoples’ safety (or harm), or a petition to a deity for an improvement in one’s own social circumstances.
My own interest in ritual is in creating and promoting community. In many ways our Society is fractured. People are increasingly dividing themselves along lines of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, wealth, politics, etc. We seem to be forgetting just how much we all have in common, and how much common interest we have.
The reasons for this are manifold: a mobile workforce which weakens a sense of geographic community, dogmatic religions which judge whole classes of people (e.g. Christianity and Gay men and women), Political systems which exploit the vulnerable (e.g. unrestrained Capitalism exploiting a workforce), etc.
However, I see the creation and performance of new rites which emphasise our commonality, common purpose and common interests, and which diminish dogma, as a powerful way forward to recreating community, and working against alienation and exploitation.