Debika Saha. 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: H James Birx. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2010.

Life is nothing but a process beginning with acts, rather than with thoughts. In the journey of life, every moment brings necessitation, which humans try to satisfy in their own way. Need was the first experience and efforts were there to satisfy the need. It is a general assumption that there are certain inherited tendencies—instincts—that humans acquired from their ancestors. When these inherited acts are repeated, they became customs in the same way; acted up individually, if repeated, they then became habits.

Customs are social habits forming the basis of an order of social behavior. There are various names for customs depending upon the situation. Ceremonies are customs signaling important events with the observance of some formal act or series of acts in the manner prescribed by custom. For example, there is a custom of giving the bride a ring at the wedding ceremony. Ceremonies, then, resemble the results of natural forces, unconsciously put into operation, or they can be equated to the instinctive behavior of animals, which is developed out of experience. These ceremonies are passed on by tradition and generally allow no exceptions. However, in the course of time, with new environmental conditions, the ceremonies become modified. So, it may be said that the life of human beings, in all ages and stages of culture, is primarily controlled by these forms of ceremonies. These ceremonies regulate the whole of human actions. From cradle to grave, human beings are the slaves of the various ceremonies.

Nature of Ceremony

Ceremony is a kind of social control that creates order for particular parts of life. It belongs to the structuring aspect of the cultural process. As a way of control, the ceremony has both subjective and objective aspects. As a social control, there is always explicit or implicit reference to other selves, be they real or imaginary. In ceremonial practices, attitudes, ideas, and emotions all reflect multitudinous form—and in the most diverse ways. According to Herbert Spencer (1974), social control is a modified form of action. Ceremonies are spontaneous responses of one individual to the presence of another. Later, these ceremonies are fixed and conventionalized. Ceremonies control behavior by defining social roles. These roles, assigned to individuals according to some principle of attribution, demand that the persons identify their personal identities to the social roles and encourage others to identity and treat the persons as constituted by the role.

Because they shape identity, ceremonies transform people. If they are successful, ceremonies produce not just a temporary emotion, but rather a permanent change in identity conforming to the society’s expectations of right conduct. Because ceremony exercises a powerful influence over behavior, it is appropriately conceived as a form of social control. Ceremonies are repeatable events—people can perform them for the same purposes, in the same orderly manner, and sometimes also with the expectation of the same result. They are expressions of shared feelings and attitudes through more or less formally ordered actions; these actions hold an essentially symbolic nature performed on appropriate occasions. A ceremony sometimes involves stereotyped bodily movements, often in relation to objects possessing symbolic meaning. For example, people bow, exchange greetings, and perform a myriad of other forms of action.

From the anthropological perspective, ceremonies express, perpetuate, and transmit elements of a culture’s values, and aim to preserve such values, while inhibiting sentiments of doubt and opposition. Moreover, they intensify the solidarity of the participants. The study of ceremony from the anthropological point of view has been confined mainly to the analysis of religions and magical procedures. The works of Tylor (1871/1958), Weber (1922/1993), Durkheim (1912/2001), and Frazer (1890/1959), in particular, draw the association between the ritual ceremonies and their religious or magical purposes. The reason behind this association is that anthropologists have often dealt with societies in which everything has a religious wrapping, or in other words, all of daily dealings are imbibed with the sacred.

But this is not to say that there are only religious or sacred ceremonies. On the contrary, there are secular ceremonies. Ceremony and rituals are also used in the secular affairs of modern life. Secular ceremony extends authority and legitimacy to the positions of particular persons, organizations, moral values, and the like. Here, ceremonies are employed to analyze particular interpretations of social reality in a way that bestows them legitimacy. Ceremony not only belongs to the structured part of social behaviors; it also can be construed as an attempt to structure the way people think about social life. Ceremonies mirror existing social relationships and existing modes of thought.

MacIver and Page (1988) noted sociologists bring out three main factors to reveal the importance of ceremony in human affairs. The first is the character of impersonality. Any formal event wears an impersonal look, though it is the individual who plays the lead role. This feature is noticeable in the field of military personnel when they bow toward the uniform or rank, not toward the individual. Here, this bowing-down ceremony clearly transforms the ritual to impersonal.

Myth, the second factor, plays a great role in shaping any stable life. Since social life moves continuously with some order, its movement requires a system of myths like the myth of law, power, freedom, and so forth. These myths are value-loaded terms where ritual plays an important role. With this, ritual and ceremony convey a feeling of broader realities of faith, and social establishment never fully comprehended by the individual. Certain concepts like “the church” and “the state,” which are abstract in nature, find concrete expressions through the rites of the church or the inauguration of the president.

The third factor is utility. Clear from the earlier discussion, there are certain compulsive and emotional parts of ceremony, but along with this, there are certain everyday assignments that need to be worked out. In a society, there are various functions that must be performed in a right way—how to behave in a particular occasion, like when a soldier performs well in protecting his country, or what to do when one’s daughter gets married. There are countless occasions like this when ceremony supplies the answer. As social beings, it is not possible to be aloof from such events, and these functions reflect the social life that one leads in a particular community.

Classification of Ceremonies

Let us first discuss some ritual ceremonies and their religious purposes. Herbert Spencer (1974) showed how, in the course of evolution, certain conduct first treated as daily ritual ceremonies converted into religious ones. For example, fasting as a functional rite gave origin to religious fasting and the prayers that were offered to the deceased grew into religious praises and prayers.

In almost every society, religious rites connect to the act of daily living. Through the prayer ceremony, divine grace is sought; this attitude reflects human beings’ craving for the supernatural. Ceremonies sometimes play three kinds of control—political, religious, and social (Spencer, 1974). The accession ceremony of the Chinese emperor explains this point.

The emperor kneels thrice and bows nine times before the altar of his father, and repeats the same ceremony before the throne on which the empress dowager sits during the accession ceremony. Then, after he ascends the throne, the officers line to their ranks, kneel, and bow nine times. Not only the Chinese, the Japanese too follow the same line. Starting from the emperor, down to the lowest subject, there is a constant succession of prostrations. The emperor bows to the divine, showing his religious attitude. The officers bow toward the emperor, showing their political subordination, while also showing the common people their social subordination. So, they express the same form of behavior—religious, political, and social subordination.

Tylor (1871/1958), a noted anthropologist, showed that in the science of religion, the study of ceremony occupies a major role. There are certain ceremonies that show marvels of permanence and hold the same form and meaning throughout ages. From the anthropological point of view, the performance of certain sacred rites express these ceremonies. Tylor has shown that there are rites of prayer, sacrifice, fasting, and expressions of artificial ecstasy, orientation, and lustration; these all have their unique place in any ceremonial performances. Though these rites were in practice among the primitive culture, they are still in vogue now among the different cultures in some revised form or other.

What is a prayer? Prayer is a kind of desire, uttered or unexpressed, addressed to disembodied or deified human souls. In almost every culture, the harvesting ceremony, which is celebrated periodically, offers prayers to the earth. This ensures that the crops come out in full strength and the plantation may be saved from evil eyes. During the harvesting ceremony, sowing, plowing, and reaping special rites are performed to control the processes of vegetation. Prayers, then, are a type of request to appease the unforeseen situations.

In some parts of the world, this prayer is a kind of sacred utterance where repetition requires verbal accuracy. In the course of time, it works like traditional formula. In Buddhism, the chanting of om mani padme hum evokes a kind of sacredness, and creates a kind of devotional atmosphere. This line is written on the prayer mill and these prayer mills vary in size. It may be little wooden toys held in the hand or big drums tuned by wind power with the devotee repeating the sentences. The use of the rosary among the Mohammedan and Christian religions are the outcome of this Buddhist tradition. Therefore, prayer of any form is a means of strengthening emotion, courage, and hope. It also sometimes serves as a source of motive or power behind the action performed by the individual.

Like prayer, sacrifice is an offering toward the deity to receive a favor. Generally, food and valuables are offered and there is custom in some parts of India to sacrifice an animal. The blood of the animal is then offered for the deity and the devotee retains the meat. In the temples, incense sticks are offered before the images of the gods during the sacrificial ceremony. The sacrifice by fire is well-known to almost all the religious ceremonies of the world. These rites, connected historically with different ceremonies, remain more or less unchanged in this modern world. The devotee who bows before the deity seeks her favor in all spheres of her action. In fact, the primitive people offered food and valuables to the gods in a large scale, for they did not know much about the mysteries of nature. With these offerings, they aspired to appease the supernatural powers. Almost everywhere in the world, it is the priest who acts as guardian of the deities and has the maximum share of the offerings. The priest is supposed to intake the food as representative of divinity. In India, during the yearly Mother Goddess Durga festival, there are offerings in front of the deity, such as fruits, sweets, vegetables, and clothes. After the sacred ceremonies are over, the priest takes the offerings along with him.

Tylor (1871/1958), while discussing these rites of sacrifice, distinguished the ideas as the gift theory, the homage theory, and the abnegation theory. In all three aspects of sacrifice, the ritualistic change may be traced from practical reality to formal ceremony. As mentioned, the gifts consist of foods and valuables and generally the priest is in charge of the gifts. There is also a ceremonial make-believe to feed the idol. In ancient times, it was a belief that the deity devoured the meals.

One of the most remarkable sacrificial rites of the world is that of offering by fire. This ranges from the classic Greek to the ancient Chinese, and it is a peasant custom still prevailing in Europe. But whatever may be the real intention of the sacrifice, afterwards, it becomes a feast. Public banquets are arranged in the name of the sacred deity and the whole event transforms into sacrificial feast.

Along with the gift theory and homage theory, there is another sacrificial rite, known as sacrificial abnegation. There is a sect of Buddhists who offer boiled rice, sweet meats, and coconut fried in oil to the temples; crows and dogs devour these offerings. The Muslims, on their return from Mecca, sacrifice sheep, oxen, and camels in the valley of Muna. They consider this a meritorious act and come back without eating anything of it. Similar customs exist in the Buddhist sect, and Buddhists explain this behavior as the sinful men coming back in the form of demons. These demons in turn may receive offerings of food and drink from their relatives who can further benefit them by good acts done in their name, such as offering food to priests. Even if it is held that this type of act does not benefit the spirits whom it is addressed to, it does benefit the person who performs it. Fasting as a rite is also part of many religious ceremonies. Through fasting, a kind of purification of the body results, which helps to feel good. It is a kind of penance coming from the abstinence from food.

There are also a group of ceremonies dealing with symbolism. Here “sun myth” plays an important role. While discussing the role of sun, Tylor (1871/1958) showed that from ancient times to this day, the east side associates with light and warmth, life, happiness and glory, while the west associates with darkness, death, and decay. This symbolism of east and west gives rise to a series of practices associated with the various ceremonies of the temples and the position of the dead in their graves. Sun always brings warmth and enjoyment in every aspect of our lives. It is common belief that the rising sun symbolizes new life, and setting sun symbolizes the concept of death. It is a well-known story that the body of the Christ was laid with the head toward the west, thus seeing toward the east. From that time onward, it is a custom among Christians to dig graves east and west.

Along with relating to the burial of the dead, this sun worship found a place in temple worship. The famous sun temple of Konark in Orissa, India was one of the remarkable places of sun worship. It is a remnant of an old solar rite. In other parts of the world, such as ancient Mexico, sun worship was one of the central parts of religious ceremonies, when people used to kneel in prayer toward the east and the doors of the sanctuaries viewed westward. In addition, in Peru, the villages were built on the slopes toward the east, so that people might view and receive the sun’s first rays at its rising.

In Asia, especially in India, sun worship is a regular ceremony that the Brahmans must perform daily. In the temple, before any ceremony, the Brahmans still pay tribute by mantra (sacred word) to the sun. These solar rites are found in other countries as well. In the Jewish tradition, the front door of the Jewish temple is toward the east and the sanctuary is toward the west.

Tylor’s (1871/1958) research allows for various and extended explanations for sun worship: On the one hand, there is Asiatic sun worship, which has its origin to the veneration of the rising sun in old Persian religion and, on the other hand, this orientation ceremony is recognized in classic Greek religion as a principle. Thus, in Athenian tradition, the temples have their entrances toward the east, looking out through which the divine image is welcoming the rising sun. It then became an accepted custom to turn toward the east during prayer, facing the region of the “light of the world” or “the sun of righteousness.”

This orientation ceremony finds its full narration in the rite of baptism among Christians. In this ceremony, turning toward the west shows abhorrence to Satan while turning to the east shows reverence. These acts are common to both Latin and Greek ritual.

There is another ceremony, known as purification of lustration, that involves both the clearing of bodily impurity and also mental purification. In Peru, this lustration ceremony connects to childbirth. There is a ceremonial washing of the child, and through this act, it is believed that evil influences wash away. After the baptism, there is a custom to cut off a lock of the child’s hair. The same ceremony was performed in old Mexico. In the name of the water goddess, the nurse washed the infant. This washing helped the child to discard the impurity of his birth, cleanse his heart, and also offer the child a good and perfect life. With the washing, there was a prayer toward the invisible deity to cleanse the child from sin and foulness, and to protect him from misfortune.

In other parts of Asia, like Japan and China, this lustration ceremony is well-known. In Japan, the sprinkling and naming of the child and other lustrations connected with worship are prevalent. In China too, sprinkling holy water over sacrifices is common, and after funerals, holy water is often dispersed throughout rooms and on the mourners.

This ceremony is even more famous in both Hindu and Muslim traditions, where bathing is a main part of daily worship. It may be said from the very first day of life until the last day, ceremonial purification by holy water is a must it every household. Even in this technologically advanced world, this cleaning and purification form a necessary part of life for the youth and the old. This sprinkling of holy water is always part of special ceremonies such as the naming of a newborn child, placement of the sacred cord over the neck, and the purification of the mother after childbirth. In the laws of Islam, it is necessary to wash hands and feet before the prayer. For this reason, to remove the impurities, a person washes five times before uttering the holy prayer in the name of Allah. In Greek and Roman churches, holy water is also used. As one enters the church, the individual is blessed with the sprinkling of holy water. It may be said, then, that this concept of lustration is well-known in almost every culture of the world. It is a faith of the invisible.

Arnold Van Gennep (2004), one of the most well-known anthropologists, coined the term rites of passage while studying the significance of the ceremonies in connection to the transitional stages of human life. He, in opposition to Émile Durkheim (1912/2001), argued that society is composed of individuals, and so it is possible for individuals to change the whole. This is contrary to Durkheim’s view that individuals cannot go against the collective will of the society. It is Van Gennep who noted first that the ritual ceremonies that accompany the transitional stages of human life may differ in detail from one culture to another, but they are, in essence, universal.

What, then, are rites of passage? From the anthropological point of view, a rite of passage is a ritual that marks a change in a person’s social status. It is a universal phenomenon through which the social hierarchies, values, and beliefs of a specific culture are revealed. There are ceremonies surrounding events such as birth, initiation, puberty, adulthood, marriage, and death. These are the phases of life through which the individual passes from one defined position to another. Van Gennep (2004) considered these ceremonies sociocultural rather than biological. A. M. Hocart (1954), British anthropologist, viewed the transition from one stage to another as the result, rather than the cause, of ceremonies. These phases are composed of three parts: separation, transition, and incorporation.

In the first stage, separation, participants disassociate from their social state. This separation makes them unique, as they are the special persons for whom the ceremonies are organized. For example, the wedding ceremony is a special social ceremony. There are variations in different cultures, but the point is to prepare the couple for the auspicious wedding day.

The second stage is the vital transitional stage. During this stage, participants almost remodel the past social status. New values in the form of sacred rites and objects are calculated. The changed perspectives are the seedbeds of cultural creativity and give rise to new ideas and paradigms. This transition may be symbolized by the act of transformation, for example, through a change of clothing or a special incantation. In the wedding ceremony, the couple is granted some privileged rights within the community.

The third stage, incorporation, welcomes the participants back into the community. In marriage, the couple merges back into the culture with the rights and privileges of their new role.

These ceremonial enactments possess a primordial and vital role by appealing to the place within human beings where culture is created and recreated by human behavior. From the anthropological point of view, ceremonies are more than social glue holding society together. Ceremonies instead happen to mirror the spiritual, religious, and emotional nature of human beings. In other words, ceremonies reflect how people build, learn, and transform culture in ways that infuse meaning and give definition to their existence.

Life Ceremonies

Ceremonies to celebrate the life cycle are universal and are found in all societies, although the rites vary. The ritual part of these ceremonies includes various kinds of rites, such as celebrating childbirth, as exemplified by baptism in Christian society. In other societies, for example in Hindu society, there are certain elaborate ceremonies performed by mothers before the childbirth. After the birth of the child, the mother observes certain restrictions regarding her food and way of living to ensure the well-being of the child. The child and the mother are kept in seclusion for at least 21 days, and after performing certain rites, they both are included within the family. Both mother and child are often regarded as defenseless at this time, and ritual acts are performed in order to protect them from harmful supernatural forces.

In all societies, some ritual observances surround childbirth, marriage, and death, although the degree of elaboration of the rites varies from one culture to another. In Southeast Asia and Indonesia, a practice called mother roasting, requiring that the mother be placed for some days near the fire, appears once to have had the goal of protecting the mother from such evil influences. This practice survives even today in altered form in the rural Philippines, where it is regarded as having therapeutic value. From an anthropological perspective, all these ceremonies are ways to reinforce familial ties. In addition to serving as a means of bond between husband and wife, these practices promote familial and societal solidarity.


The rites performed in functional ceremonies bear positive values for the individual in relieving stress at times when certain life adjustments occur, such as puberty and marriage. The rites are also viewed as socially supporting, such as to prevent social disruption by relieving the psychological stress of the individual. This prevention comes in the form of instructing all members of societies to continue life in a normal way with the new social role. New social and moral values emerge with this new role as they become part of the ceremonies, and life moves on as usual.

Entertainment is one of the primary functions of social rites. Centering these events, pleasurable activities follow in the society and find expression through art, music, dance, song, and other ceremonies. Performance of various ceremonies protects the sociocultural unity of society. They are a means to gain livelihood and sometimes they also act as incentive to keep unity of the group.

In ancient times, most of the ceremonies were religious events; that is, they were performed in a religious framework and regarded as religious acts. But more recently, from the viewpoint of social science, these events are considered secular. The primary significance of most rites reflects a change in the sociological structure of society. Modern life is viewed as dominated by a rational culture in which human responses are governed by selective choices. In other words, it is a disenchanted, nonmagical rationalized world, as Max Weber (1922/1993) has noted. In fact, anthropologists differ regarding the issue of the similarities between the primitive and modern cultures. In primitive and tribal culture, objects like plants and animals were worshipped. Even wind, sun, and water were treated as sacred. The real end behind this ceremonial worship was to increase the food supply and receive protection from natural disaster. But, as the modern culture advanced, this ceremonial behavior changed. It may be said that instead of religious wrapping, the tendency of recent times views the events as secular.

In today’s globalized world, most of the rites are viewed on the basis of their sociocultural context. The inventive and symbolic capabilities of human beings are treated as a constant factor, and attention is given to differences and similarities in the sociocultural traditions in which the ceremonies are performed. For instance, in attempting to understand why the marriage ceremony is an elaborate rite in one society and simple in another society, researchers have looked to the social order and manner of gaining a livelihood to judge the relative importance of the enduring union of the spouses. Since culture includes the social order, and composes a coherent inclusive system, scholars have interpreted the ceremonies in terms of their functional significance in the social system. In this way, scholars have broadened their investigations from observations of the symbolism of rites to include all the behavioral actions during the rites and their social contexts—uncovering the social identities of the performers and their relationships to other performers and the entire society.

Social Significance of the Rites of Passage

From ancient times to this technologically improved century, the rites of passage help to maintain society as a system of congruent parts. To operate any system coherently and effectively, it is necessary that the elements are mutually supportive or congruous. These rites help to keep society in a state of equilibrium. Social systems include a fixed number of people with a fixed number of roles. Any change disrupts social equilibrium. For example, when a child is born, a new member is added to the society and accordingly, due to changes in the social behavior and statuses of the parents, other members of the society are affected. In fact, rites of passages help to foster the development of a new state of equilibrium in adjustment to the social changes upon which the rites focus. The rites act as threads through which the members of society are informed of the new social development and, at the same time, permit social approval. The ceremonial observances also offer psychological assurances to the members of the society. The members are instructed, by the ceremonial enactment, to return to normal behavior as the situation demands. This kind of reasoning is not only applicable to social ceremonies but also to religious ceremonies. Anthropologists interpret these social rites, and others, as rites of intensification. The social rites reinforce or intensify the existing habitual relations, and thus serve to maintain their conditioned response. In other words, the performance of these rites prevents the extinction of habits to which the person has been trained.

From the anthropological perspective, besides balancing social equilibrium, there are a group of additional functions—some of which apply first to the individual whose positions change and then to the behavior of the entire social group. Other functional effects directly apply to the whole society. Whenever the individual faces any anxiety or stress, the functional effects of the rites prevent social disruption. For example, with funerals, the anxiety and stress caused by death and the grief of the bereaved are held in check. Funeral rites and ceremonies are held in every society, but then, in order to keep social harmony, the bereaved still must regain normal behavior after a certain period.

There is another implicit way that the rites are socially supporting. The shared rites are dramatization, with supernatural sanction of the social order of society. Relatives have a special role to play and the entire social hierarchy may be on display during the ceremonial rites through the assignment of ritual roles. Thus, statuses of kinship, caste, social equality, and hierarchy are all reimplemented by their dramatic presentation.

Accepting the social significance of these rites of passage, anthropologists have also offered explanations for the variations in behavior among societies of the world. A fundamental assumption is the idea that the greater the importance of a social change, the greater the ritual attention will be. It is an accepted fact that the birth, marriage, and death of a ruler obviously is more important to the entire society than these events in the life of a common person. Rites of marriage ceremony, for example, may be very simple or very elaborate in different societies of the same economic base and comparable levels of cultural development. The differences happen due to different structures of society. For example, marriage ceremonies in matrilineal societies—organized into subgroups primarily upon a principle of descent through female lines—only tend to be simple and divorce in these societies is also simple. Marriage ceremony in patrilineal societies, on the other hand, tends to be elaborate and divorce initiated by females is difficult. But whatever the case may be, in patrilineal societies, the role of the mother is vital for the birth and rearing of the children. In some societies (e.g., in some African societies), marriage ceremonies are elaborate and often involve the transfer of property, known as marriage suits. If the marriage fails, then the property must be returned.

Among almost all societies of the world, marriage ceremonies divide into three parts: premarriage ceremony, the main-day function, and postmarriage ceremonies. All three parts are performed for the well-being of the couple; the bride and the groom have undergone the whole series of rituals, from engagement parties to the religious ceremony, and may reasonably be seen as more firmly married than couples united by a simple civil ceremony. Anthropologists view marriage as one of the earliest social institutions. Marriage ceremonies have often included clearly visible signs of the new social status, in such forms as wedding rings, distinctive hair dress, new garments, and decorative ornaments. Traditionally, preliminary ceremonies have often provided instruction in the wifely role. Such instruction might be formal or conducted through mimicry, dancing, and other symbolic acts that dramatically depict the woman’s role in society, expressing her economic and social obligations with reference to her husband and other members of the family. Overall, the prime significance of marriage ceremonies may be seen to especially stress the social bonds between husband and wife and their relatives.

Government Ceremonies

Besides the rites of passage, there are government ceremonies, or celebrations of events that also play an important role in society. Sometimes, a ceremony may only be performed by a person with certain authority, such as the presidential oath in the United States. Here also the three stages of separation, transition, and incorporation apply. The particular person is being separated from the mass and offered a unique place. The point is to honor the person in the new role.

In the second stage, the participant acquires a new social status with other values. For the U.S. presidency, the transition is symbolized by the act of taking sacred oath to stand by the country and protect from all odds. The final stage follows, where the community welcomes the participant as one of the members of the mass with a special position.

There are also certain ceremonies, such as British coronations, that show a symbol of moral values to unite the British people and provide a consensus underlying political differences. This type of ceremony promotes the authoritative, official, and public image of the society. There emerges a sense of individuality and of collective membership.

Dancing Ceremonies

Physical display, such as dancing in a procession or the laying of hands, is an outstanding feature in ceremonial observances often accompanied by singing and clapping. In fact, songs and dances are so closely interwoven that the one cannot be separated from the other in any performances. These ceremonies have occupied a rightful place in all the principle celebrations in the cycle of human life (initiation, puberty, marriage) and of the seasons (planting, sowing, and harvesting).

These dances promote solidarity and mutual goodwill among the people dancing. In the tribal sort, the mimic aspect comes to the forefront with the behavior of animals’ fertility processes; natural phenomena are represented in a realistic manner in order to obtain control over the supernatural powers governing the objects and events portrayed. Dancing ceremonies are a way to appease the supernatural powers among tribal people, but among more sophisticated groups, communal dances afford an opportunity for social mingling, fringing people together for fun besides the ritual observances.

Religious Ceremonies

In all traditions and cultures, spiritual ceremonies and rituals play a central role. The very act of dancing, music, chanting, singing, and other ceremonial expressions bounds a community and also serves the purpose of connecting to the higher spiritual forces. The expressions in various communities are different, but the goal is the same—to stimulate the connectedness, communion, and spiritual experience of a group or an individual. In almost every religion, there is certain external ritual to help people unite with the divine. To develop this point, two types of ceremony are discussed: the Eucharist ceremony in Christianity, and the ritual of the Puja in Hinduism.

The Eucharist and Puja Ceremonies

The idea of unification with the divine is known as the Eucharist ceremony. These ceremonies fulfill the psychological need to find a place in this vast and ever-changing universe. The urge for divinity finds satisfaction through the observation of these types of ceremonies. Within this framework, the Eucharist ceremony is the ritual observed by the Christians through which direct unity with God is invoked. Eucharist is a biblical term that also means communion with God. The ceremony is observed by the congregants who gather together in their church. After the pastor reads and recites a specific holy passage, the participants are presented with a small amount of wine and a little piece of bread, and they eat in unison or one by one. The actual ceremony varies within the different sects of Christianity, but the aim remains the same—to invoke communion with God. The Eucharist is a moral and spiritual union with Christ through the bond of love. The spiritual part of this ceremony is revealed in the reference of the “Lord’s supper.” There are mainly five parts of this ceremony: (1) thanksgiving, (2) memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection, (3) invocation of the spirit, (4) communion of the faithful, and (5) feast of the future fulfillment of God’s reign. Before highlighting the anthropological significance of this ceremony, let us also discuss the rituals that are associated with Puja ceremony of Hinduism.

In Hinduism, Puja is a comparable ceremony to the Eucharist, performed to establish communication with a deity. During the Puja, the deity is treated as a guest. Similar to the Eucharist, the priest welcomes the deity during Puja. There are 16 steps of this ceremony performed during the deity worship, normally occurring in a temple (though a devotee can also perform the ceremony in a simplified manner): (1) invocation of the deity; (2) offering of the seat; (3) offering of water for washing the feet of the deity; (4) offering of sacred water; (5) a process for rinsing the mouth; (6) bathing; (7) clothing ceremony; (8) offering of the upper clothing; (9) offering of fragrant materials, like (10) flowers and (11) incense; (12) offering of the lamp along with the fragrant materials; (13) offering of food; (14) performing the puja by going around the image of the deity clockwise; (15) salutation; and finally (16) offering of flowers with the recitation of mantra (sacred words). In the end, blessings are sought from the deity. In either case, the main purpose is to procure happiness and sometimes there is a specific request that the devotee wants to achieve.

From an anthropological perspective, both the Eucharist and the Puja fill a deep void. There is an attempt to justify the loneliness of human beings in the vast world. An act of unity with divinity results through the partaking of food and drink during the worship. As a large number of people are present both during the Puja or Eucharist, a sense of intimacy develops by eating and serving food to each other. By eating together, people regard themselves as identifiable groups, representing themselves to each other as such and expressing their connectedness. A sense of unity therefore develops among the groups. It is not that always after performing all these rituals participants will be able to get whatever they want, but this is a kind of self-purification through which they can feel refreshed and encouraged. It may be said that there is an emotional effect, which helps people to start any work with more energy.

Celebration of Religious Events

Celebrated among different communities, there are certain annual, seasonal, or recurrent ceremonies like weekly Sabbath day or feasts held in honor of the saints. In some Asian cultures, tea ceremony plays an important role. Another important ceremony is the purification of the Virgin Mary, commonly known as Candlemas; it is of eastern origin, and symbolizes the meeting of the Christ with Simeon and Anna. However, in the West, it is the purification of Mary according to Jewish custom.

According to E. O. James (1961), the purification or Candlemas ceremony traces to the symbolism of the Feast of Lights and the ancient perambulations associated with the return of the goddess from the underworld and the rebirth of nature in the spring. Here, candles are emblems of the divine vitalizing power of the sun and work as a protection against plague, famine, and earthquake. Fire also symbolizes the emergence of the sun from the darkness of winter. In Christianity, Mary came into great prominence as the light bearer, since the sacred light became a symbol of the Holy Child who was declared to be the light to lighten the glory of human kind.

In Japanese, the Asian tea ceremony is called Chanoyu, which literally means “tea-hot-water.” It is a multipurpose traditional activity influenced by Zen Buddhism, in which powdered green tea is ceremonially prepared and served to others. Not only in Japan, the custom of drinking tea, first for medicinal and then for pleasurable reasons, is also widespread throughout China. This ceremony has its own aesthetic sense. Through the observation of this tea ceremony, a sense of harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility develop. In this framework, one of the essential constituents of society is ceremony. Ceremonies help to draw people’s attention to something that is extraordinary and worth mentioning in some way.

Another famous ceremony occurs in Rajasthan, India in the city of Puskar, where a fair is organized every year in November. Puskar is famous, as it is believed that Brahma, the creator of the world, resides here. The place is also known for its natural beauty with hills on three sides, with the 14th-century temple of Brahma in the center. Hindu mythology narrates that the gods created a swan with a lotus in its beak and let it fall on earth where Brahma would perform ayagna, that is, sacrificial fire. There is a sacred pond, known as Brahma kund, where people used to bathe. It is a belief that by the healing touch of this water, one may recover from all ills. So, bathing ceremonies are the top attraction and give people a new strength of life. It is also believed, even in this 21st century, that after bathing in this sacred water, it is possible to begin a new cycle of life.

There is a market around the temple of Brahma where local people sell handicraft works. In fact, this yearly Brahma ceremony allows the local people to earn their livelihood, and the fair also reflects the rural lifestyle. In addition, there is propagation of ecotourism through the village-type resorts. From an anthropological perspective, these types of ceremonies, which are abundant throughout India, help to foster not only earnings, they are also a way of knowing each other’s culture through the colorful lens of local handicrafts.


Ceremonies are reflections of culture. This may vary from country to country, but the focal point of the ceremony always remains the same—the reflection of culture. Culture is a blank sheet, an empty pigeonhole where forms of life are expressed through the actions and words of community members. Since every society is dynamic, complex, and ever changing, ceremonies play a central role in the cultural work of human activities.

Ceremonies work as a tapestry of patterns of culture and they create a backdrop against which individual behavior can be viewed in the context of past, present, and future activities. As such, the ceremonies serve as social glue that binds the whole community together.

From an anthropological perspective, it may be said that human beings, through agency and free choice, continuously make and remake their existence. This is possible because while culture provides the script for ceremonies, rituals, and other culture-building activities, humans are free to change that script according to their choices within the norms of the society. The result is complexity, and a dynamism that provides scope for cultural change and transformation.