Seen worshipping with intent

The Archetypal Actions of Ritual
February 2, 1996

Caroline Humphrey and James Laidlaw journeyed to Jaipur in 1985 with the intention of discovering the symbolic meanings for ritual acts in the Shvetambar Jain daily worship, or puja.

Chapter 4, "The ritual commitment", deserves an especially close reading for it is here that the authors describe their own theory of ritual. There is, they believe, a crucial difference between a ritualised and a nonritualised act. A nonritualised act can only be identified by knowing the intent of the person performing it. For example, laying a newspaper on the porch can only be understood as "delivering the paper" rather than "throwing it away" or "donating it" when one understands the intent behind it.

Such is not the case for a ritualised action. Here, the actor's intent or purpose is totally independent of the act itself, and identification of a ritual act is possible merely from observation. For example, one knows that a worshipper is performing "lamp puja" without knowing the worshipper's reason for doing so. This disjunction between purpose, intent, and meaning, and the action itself permits any number of meanings or intentions for the same action, an impossibility with nonritualised action.

While anthropologists may find this theory challenging and open to scrutiny, scholars of Jainism will certainly find it rich with original insights into Jain rituals. Performing puja is somewhat of a paradox for Jains because their objects of worship are often the tirthankaras, human beings who have broken the cycle of death and rebirth. Because they are totally isolated from this world, they cannot directly affect the lives of their worshippers. With no apparent reason, therefore, for performing puja, Jains give many different explanations regarding the symbolic meaning of their actions.

As the authors have noted, there are several factors that permit this plurality of meanings. One is the lack of a strong central authority, such as the church in Christianity, to enforce an orthodox meaning. Also, there are no priests but only non-Jain temple servants (pujaris) to assist in the ritual. Those who are in a position to know the doctrinal meanings are Jain monks and nuns, but they do not interact with the worshippers during puja. Unlike their lay followers, they never perform any physical rituals such as bathing and ornamenting the idols but worship only mentally by chanting the holy litanies.

Given the context in which Jains perform ritual, it seems appropriate to permit a plurality of meanings rather than privileging authoritative explanations. As the authors point out: "Where actors simply do not have an interpretation to offer, this need no longer be seen as an embarrassment. We can now see that variety, discordance, and even absence of interpretation are all integral to ritual."

Some may question the applicability of their theory to other ritual formats that differ considerably from that of the Jains. The authors are aware of the distinctive nature of Jain worship, stating that "Jains are unusual in acknowledging that they took on various parts of the puja from Hindu society" and "most readers will probably think that Jain puja, which can consist of an individual sitting in meditation, is pretty exceptional as rituals go".

However, it is in attempts like this to interpret the unusual cases rather than the norm that innovative theories are sometimes formed. With respect to its applicability, the authors themselves take a conservative approach. They are aware of the provisional nature of their theory. "We accept that a more detailed consideration of a wider range of cases might suggest some changes in our formulation." They offer the theory as an alternative way to view ritual, inviting other scholars to put it to the test.

Padmanabh S. Jaini is a professor in south and southeast Asian studies, University of California, Berkeley.

The Archetypal Actions of Ritual: A Theory of Ritual Illustrated by the Jain Rite of Worship

Author - Caroline Humphrey and James Laidlaw
ISBN - 0 19 8788 1 and 8947 7
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £35.00 and £14.95
Pages - 293

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