Many people have no difficulty in living with rituals. Just as you have to fill up forms to get anything done in the civilized world, rituals are the forms which you must fill in order to carry on in the world of the spirit. Neither rituals nor penances nor purificatory rites can themselves deliver the goods. Penances and purificatory rites are prescribed only for those who have turned away from sin. They come in only AFTER the change of heart.They are a mark that one is retracing one’s steps away from one’s evil ways. They serve to show repentance. This is what prAyas-chitta means. No scripture implies that sin could be removed by means of distribution of gifts or observance of fasts without an antecedent change of heart. If they had, they would not have prescribed many instances of ‘substitute’ prAyas-chittas. Just one classical instance.
A kRRichhr-AcharaNa is an observance prescribed by the Smritis for the expiation of several types of sins. It consists of twelve days of observance, eating only one day-meal for the first three days and nights, only one night-meal for the next three, and eating only food brought by a third person, voluntarily and unasked, for the next three, and, finally complete fasting for the last three days and nights. This constitutes one kRRichra. If a person observed these continuously through a cycle of 1080 kRRichras, the Smriti says, the totality of one’s sins through ALL one’s previous lives would be wiped out! The full observance would thus run over 36 years. Now comes the important point. ‘If one cannot perform this kRRichrAcharana for 36 years’, the Smriti continues, ‘he may do it for 12 years, or even if that is impossible, he may do it for six yeas, or, in the alternative, for three years, or in the final alternative, for one year’! If one year would suffice, why first of all start with a prescription of 36 years, which is almost an imposibility? It is clear that what matters is not the action but the attitude which one brings to bear in performing it. If the change of heart that motivates the observance for as long as 36 years can be sufficiently intensified over a period of even one year, then that would be enough -- this must be the spirit of the Smriti injunction.
Rituals and rites have thus a meaning if one’s attitude is rightly tuned. We all know in modern times, that almost every meeting, particularly a formal meeting of persons for a purpose, ends with a ‘vote of thanks’. Is not a vote of thanks just a ritual? But would any one support a universal rule that there shall never be a vote of thanks? And haven’t we observed that even a vote of thanks, in the hands of a competent person, can become an enjoyable and refrshing affair instead of a ‘mere ritual’?
To sum up, rituals have a meaning in one or more of the following situations: (i) when one is young or spiritually immature and has to learn self-discipline; (ii) when one is tuned up to it spiritually and the rituals are a bubbling forth of one’s internal conviction; (iii) when one is too much of the world – for such a person rituals are the reins, by which he controls, though for a brief spell only, the running away of his sense-horses, carried away by kAma, krodha, lobha, etc.; and (iv) when one is mature enough to understand that rituals are a means to an end and not the end itself.