The Meaninglessness of Ritual

by Frits Staal
Citation
Title:
The Meaninglessness of Ritual
Author:
Frits Staal
Year: 
1979
Publication: 
Numen
Volume: 
26
Issue: 
1
Start Page: 
2
End Page: 
22
Publisher: 
Language: 
English
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Abstract:

 

The Agnicayana, a 3000-year-old Vedic ritual, was performed in 1975 in a village in southwest India by Nambudiri brahmins. This event, which lasted twelve days, was filmed, photographed, recorded and extensively documented. From twenty hours of rough footage, Robert Gardner and I produced a 45-minute film, "Altar of Fire." Two records are planned with selections from the eighty hours of recorded recitation and chant. Photographs of the ceremonies were taken by Adelaide de Menil. In collaboration with the chief Nam-budiri ritualists and other scholars, I am preparing a definite account of the ceremonies, which will appear in two illustrated volumes entitled: "Agni - The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar." 

 

I shall here be concerned not with empirical description, but with theoretical implications. Vedic ritual is not only the oldest surviving ritual of mankind; it also provides the best source material for a theory of ritual. This is not because it is close to any alleged "original" ritual. Vedic ritual is not primitive and not an (Jr-ritual. It is sophis-ticate(I and already the product of a long development. But it is the largest, most elaborate and (on account of the Sanskrit manuals) best documented among the rituals of man. Hubert and Mauss, who noted these facts in I909, used the Vedic animal sacrifice as source material for the construction of a ritual paradigm ("un scheme abstrait du sacrifice"). However, they did not know that these rituals are still performed, so that many data were inaccessible to them. I shall use data from the I975 performance and textual material from Sanskrit manuals, in particular the srauta sitras, a literature exclusively (levoted to ritual which dates from the eighth through fourth centuries B.C. 

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