Rituals are the basic principles found in the world that underlie the rules, laws, and codes of the natural universe. They are practiced by the offering of sacrifices, in eating, in drinking, through mourning and through marriage among others. In the human world, rituals exist in both the spiritual, social as well as the psychological dimensions. In the religious dimension, rituals portray how human beings communicate with spiritual powers. For example, when human beings dance and sing music while offering sacrifices, it is believed that it pleases the spirits and ancestors, and in return, the ancestors show their commitment and dedication (Yao 192). This exercise is followed by the repentance of sins and it makes humans gain confidence once more.
With regard to the social dimension, a ritual is a principle by which the ancient kings obeyed the laws of heaven and provided regulations for human nature. By following a ritual, an individual attains a special position in the family, community, and society and enables them to have the power to do what is right depending on the circumstances. By adhering to the rules of a ritual and community, one’s actions are liberated as they are thought to have acted according to their wisdom, which is enhanced by the rituals. It is believed that if everyone followed the rituals of his or her community, then the world would be an orderly place to live. In the psychological perspective, the following of rituals makes one enjoy their personal experience by following the rules (Yao 192). In addition, it enables one to cultivate their character as well as enabling them to express their feelings in a harmonized manner.
An essential aspect when it comes to a ritual is a sacrifice. In Chinese society, there are three instances in which sacrifices are offered: the offering of sacrifices to the heavenly spirits, to the earthly spirits as well as to the spirit of the ancestors. In addition, during the Han dynasty, there were three grades of sacrifice, with each offered according to the weight of an occasion. The grand sacrifice involved offering jade, silk, and animals, the medium sacrifice offering animals and metal as well as the small sacrifice that involved only offering animal sacrifices. Ritual was always treated with care, sincerity, and reverence as it enabled people to follow the rules in accordance with what was written in the text (Yao 193). Similarly, sacrifice was considered as the most utmost expression of humanity, in which by offering a certain sacrifice, a symbolic meaning was attached to it.
Furthermore, the strict adherence to a ritual was considered to be a critical thing to do because it ensured happiness, harmony, and prosperity for both the state, land, and society. Confucians believed that for a ritual to be done in accordance with laws, there should have been a proper number of animals, silk, and vegetables. This practice was to ensure that there was a proper communication between the humans and the spirits (Yao 194). The use of rituals was thought to be the most important ceremony that was used for ordering men. Moreover, of all the five ceremonies in Chinese culture (the mourning, the military, the festive, hospitality, and the auspicious), none is as important as sacrifices.
Nevertheless, sacrifice does not come from outside and is not imposed on people but it comes from within the people. Its interpretation when it comes to Confucianism is that it is human. Only the people that have virtue can display the meaning and purpose of rituals and sacrifices. Even though sacrifices can bring about protection, materialistic gain, and physical longevity, which is not its primary function in society. The most crucial thing is to have a good heart and a sincere attitude and offer sacrifices without expecting any gains (Yao 194). For those that are engaged in rituals, they should experience a spiritual as well as a moral union with the spirits. Also, the sacrifice should be offered as if the spirits are present; and this requires more than a ceremonial performance. Rituals are meant to offer moral perfection and should not be merely about offering animals, silk, and vegetables.
Rituals give a manifestation of both virtue and the meaning of life. Rather than having casual observance alone, rituals enable an individual to have a good life while fulfilling their mission. For example, when a Confucius is asked to pray for good health after they have fallen sick, the first thing they asked was whether such a thing as prayer existed (Yao 195). To them, prayer was a moment that had the ability to change one’s direction of life. They believed that they had lived a life that was according to the dictates of Heaven and a life that was dedicated to helping others. In addition, their life was that of doing good always and therefore, they did not understand why prayer was necessary even in their moment of death.
Traditionally, Confucianism transformed ancient rituals and made them become strikingly related to moral achievement. Most of the Confucians understand the needs of spirits are the spirits of the people and therefore, they are compelled to offer sacrifices that please the spirits. However, they are against the notion that the spirits are pleased when rituals are performed by offering fat sheep and the best silk and vegetables. They argue that the state of the people is what the spirits regard as material sacrifices (Yao 195). To them, individuals that have attained moral perfection, as well as those that have contributed to the well-being of others, are entitled to make sacrifices. Therefore, great rituals are done in honor of those that have helped the community and society.
Moreover, Confucians insist that rituals and sacrifices should not only be performed to enhance the communication between the people and the spirits but should also be used to transform ethics in people. By an individual performing a ritual in a sincere and effective manner, there is a great chance that their character will improve tremendously as a result. Also, through the observation of a ritual, the performers of the ritual are purified, the observers are educated, and the people are taught what is good (Yao 196). Those that follow the ritual and adhere to the regulations that accompany it have a high chance of making wise decisions that help others, the community, society, and the state. The people of a society will generally follow what is good while rejecting the bad and this will enhance the chance that they will do whatever is good for the community at all times.
Rituals were also important in the traditional government based Confucianism. The traditional religious belief was that political leaders were endowed from heaven and that the heavens were responsible for any political decision in a state. Therefore, in this regard, all state affairs were religious and all religious affairs involved the state and had a political significance (Yao 196). Numerous sacrifices were offered to the state and among them, there were three that were related to Confucianism. These rituals include the sacrifice to Heaven, to royal ancestors and to Confucius. The three grand rituals were the pillars of the state religion. Confucians invested heavily in these rituals and believed that when these sacrifices were made, the heavens were happy and could protect the state from its enemies. In addition, they believed that rituals are a part of the state as they hold a significant role in bringing the people of the state together and live in harmony.
The sacrifice to Heaven was the most important ritual of the state because the Chinese people believed that Heaven was responsible for the course of all the events in the world. The ritual was used for many purposes including and depending on the historical, social and cultural importance of an event. For example, when there was relief in the state, the sacrifice to heaven could be performed to request relief from the drought. Similarly, when harvest time was near, the ritual could be performed to ask for a good harvest. This was the same case with political campaigns and peaceful reign. All these were done with the specific intention of harmonizing the relationship between a state and the spiritual realms.
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Rituals had a critical role in the family as they made a reunion between the living and the dead. Through sacrifices, the ancestors could have a direct involvement in the destiny of a family. Even the reigning king could communicate to the royal ancestors and it is believed that the ancestors gave the king a peaceful reign if rituals were conducted effectively. To them, the ancestors had the same needs as the living and that is why sacrifices were necessary. The functions of rituals were for the ancestors as well as the living. To the ancestors, sacrifices were offered to sustain them to live in a manner that they could have lived while on the earth. For the living, sacrifices were to enable them to live in peace and help that would make them not experience difficulties in their daily endeavors (Yao 200). They believed that if they did not perform the rituals to the ancestors, the ancestors would not be happy and could curse them and result in bad fortunes in their lives.
Moreover, the offering of sacrifices to the ancestors was connected with communication to the Ultimate spiritual being. The royal ancestors were believed to sit alongside the Lord on high and therefore, by offering sacrifices to the ancestors, the people were communicating to the Lord through the ancestors (Yao 200). In this instance, it was considered a religious matter in that people would have good fortunes if they made sacrifices to their ancestors. Therefore, the sacrifice to the ancestors was directly related to the sacrifice of the Heavens. By performing the sacrifice of the ancestors, the Lord of Heaven was happy.
Filial piety is the service that an individual brings to his or her parents through his actions, the actions of the community and the state. This service includes providing the parents with food and clothes and do so with a good attitude that pleases the parents. In addition, the individual should not be a disgrace to his or her parents through his or her failure and at the very least should provide them with a decent life. The Confucian practice to the ancestors as well as the filial piety to parents is crucial as it enables one to understand the human destiny (Yao 203). As the family provides one with a source of life and continuity, the sacrifice to filial piety will enable the Lord of Heavens and the ancestors to bless and help the individual in overcoming any difficulties they may face in their life. This act shows that the individual understands his or her source of life and will do everything to make sure that his or her parents have a decent life.
Overall, there are many roles that a ritual does to bring a proper order in the society. As illustrated above, a ritual is an important component in an individual’s life as it makes them obey the rules and codes of a particular society. In addition, a ritual is important in helping the people of a society live in harmony while following their code of ethics. By performing various rituals and sacrifices, a community trusts that nothing bad will happen to them. Lastly, rituals are important to the state as it enables the reigning king and people of the state to respect each other while also giving respect to the spiritual powers and the royal ancestors. This practice brings good fortune to the state and its people.
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- Yao, Xinzhong. An Introduction to Confucianism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.