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What ritual does

The expression of pain or grief could vary from society to society given its cultural baggage

What ritual does

There may be many paradoxes about which human race has no answers to. It has learnt over millions of years to deal with them and to live without the easy assumption that every day can be resolved and has a solution.

Perhaps everything does have a solution but it may neither be in black and white nor in blatant tangibility. Perhaps it has to do with the various emotional structures that need to be addressed, assuaged and reassured that control the levers of turmoil and anxiety, the bedrock of human existence.

There are issues that do not have a solution or a ready one or that have not been resolved in the long history of humankind. The option to address these emotions or fears or the unbearable loss is through arts.

Through these time-tested expressional fronts, humankind has learnt to fight and cope with the emotional upheavals that are greater than him or herself. And the next best way to deal with these is through rituals that underpin the broadsheet of societal existential reality.

Art is individual but finds its rationale in its sharing. It only blossoms when individual experience merges with the experience of the collective and loses itself totally to become indistinguishable.

Much that an individual in society experiences is expressed through a song, a poem, or a piece of visual objective delight. But ritual by its very essence is not individual or found to be travelling from the individual to the collective but in its origins is collective in character.

There may be a connection between the arts and the ritual because both are dealing with a reality that is intangible and of a presence that is unseen. It is dealing with the unknown or the reality of the unknown that can manifest itself in ways that are not fully recognised and it is there that the fears lie.

The only way to address the immensity of the overwhelming nature of the unknown is to learn to placate its unpredictability. It is too blunt, the sharp and rough edges of unpredictability that need to be focused and addressed and that can only be done through anger than leading to supplication.

Nearly all societies have elaborate rituals detailed about the sacrifice that somehow alleviated and took the burden off the shoulders of humankind. It is as if he or she was and is not the solely responsible but share it in parts with another greater presence that made the task easy and less burdensome.

All rituals have an element of the presence of something that is greater than humankind but it is dealt with in a manner of supplication. It is soliciting the powers that be to be not too rough or severe but to be benevolent and merciful.

A ritual could be a way of keeping the strings of a community tied together, it could be the glue that keeps it together but that is an auxiliary function — the real purpose is to address the fears and the anxiety and its collective response through the ritual that keeps society in a bind. Without the ritual or a common fear and the ways to overcome it, society is likely to fall apart with mere anarchy, psychic or emotional.

Societies that may have appeared to conquer the pervasive overspread of the unknown also address the issue through ritual that may be more secular in nature. The cult of the individual, the massive display of imperial power and the huge public demonstration of progress sufficient to reassure the society against the encroachment of the unpredictable.

Somehow the rituals constructed round sacrifice have been quite central to the societal ideological framework. Nearly all societies have elaborate rituals detailed about the sacrifice that somehow alleviated and took the burden off the shoulders of humankind. It shared it in parts with another greater presence that made the task easy and less burdensome. It made it less weighty and fall within manageable proportion and not something that is huge and crushing.

The Greek Tragedy grew out of a ritual of sacrifice that was then celebrated as a measure of relief, or a gesture of having temporarily overcome imminent disaster. In many religions one great man has taken the responsibility of all the sins and shows them the way to forbearance and fortitude. And in many the ritual alleviates and exposes the darker aspects that become less stark in the collective response of the community.

Read also: Stirring the pot

The expression of pain or grief could vary from society to society given its cultural baggage. At times it is to share the pain and suffering in the outward manner of the great event, sacrifice or happening or it could be less muted and frittered in symbolism of conquest, celebration and deliverance.

But it is mostly the collective anxiety and its deeprootedness that is expressed and it is beyond the scope of one person. It has to have overlays, some going back to the narratives of universe’s creation and the role of humans in it.

Sarwat Ali

sarwatali
The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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