Homo Ritualis

Hindu Ritual and Its Significance for Ritual Theory

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Axel Michaels
Oxford Ritual Studies
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     400 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Axel Michaels’s Homo Ritualis is a long overdue contribution to both the study of Hindu ritual and to ritual studies more generally. Michaels develops a theory of ritual using what he terms an “ethno-Indological” method, one that utilizes both texts (in an expanded definition of what constitutes a “text”) and ethnographic description of rituals in both India and Nepal. Michaels rightly notes that while there has been a lot of work done on Hindu ritual based upon textual evidence, there are only a few studies that consider Hindu ritual in its ethnographic contexts and in the wider context of ritual theory.

Michaels structures his study of ritual by outlining four “components” of ritual action that “constitute the basic structure of ritual performance,” and argues they must all be present in some way for an action to be considered ritual (32). These four components are: framing;, formality; modality; and transformation and confirmation of identity, role, status, or authority (32). Michaels then cautiously defines the term ritual “to denote the framed and structured performance of formalized, that is, repetitive, in principle public and variable, action(s) or enactments in variable, intense modes with individually or socially elevating implications or qualities that transform or confirm the identity, role, status, or authority of participants and social groups” (32).

The structure of the book is organized around Michaels’s four components of ritual. Part 1 concerns the framing of rituals, or, in Sanskrit, saṃkalpa. Ritual action, in order to be separated from ordinary, everyday actions, needs to be marked off. In Hindu and Buddhist traditions the framing component takes the form of a formal vow made by the performer of a given ritual and made specific by three criteria Michaels refers to as localizing, timing, and personalizing (50). These three criteria enable the saṃkalpa to frame the ritual action so that it occurs at a sacred place, during a scared time, and by someone who is genealogically allowed to perform the ritual.

Part 2 concerns ritual formality that, Michaels writes, “includes stylized and repetitive gestures and words, liturgical order, as well as a certain invariance of fixed sequences or restricted codes” (71). Michaels discusses the fraught issue of the “grammar of rituals” through an examination of the rules and order of ritual behavior (Sanskrit: viddhi). By deconstructing rituals into the smallest ritual units, which he called “ritemes,” Michaels wants to establish a set number of ritual elements together with a set number of formal rules that “produces an infinite number of rituals and thus allows new rituals as well as deviations within the ritual” (84). This produces a “syntax” of ritual that is related to the structure of language at the level of the sentence. Following his discussion of the grammar of rituals, Michaels also discusses the issue of agency, arguing that ritual agency exists not only for the priest, but also the patron of the ritual, the family, and even the superhuman agent being evoked in the ritual (119). This widening of an understanding of agency in ritual is important for an understanding of the relationship between the grammar of ritual with its fixed elements and structures, and the notion that rituals can be dynamic and creative.  

Part 3 concerns what Michaels terms “modality.” Michaels divides rituals into three “modal criteria” which he terms individualitas, societas, and religio (177). Under the heading of individualitas Michaels treats major life-cycle rituals known as saṃskāras. Michaels acknowledges that there is no fine line demarcating rituals that concern, or have an effect upon, the individual versus the group, he does argue that these rituals concern an individual in relation to the rest of society more than other Hindu rituals. Michaels next discusses temple festivals (utsava), vows (vrata), and pilgrimages (yātrā) in his examination of collective and public rituals, which he deems to be rituals of the societas modality. These rituals are clearly public, and for Michaels they serve the social function of “group coordination and solidarity” (211). Perhaps the most important modality for Michaels is what he terms religio. For Michaels, rituals without an aspect of religio would not be distinguishable from routine, and therefore rituals must in some way take into account transcendent values or what he terms “elevation.” What Michaels argues is that while rituals such as life-cycle rituals, festivals, or pūjā can be understood as focusing primarily on the individual or the social group, all of them have, and must have, an aspect of the transcendent or an elevating principle that establishes these actions as ritual rather than mere routine. For Michaels, all rituals emphasize these three modalities in varying degrees, and it is through these modalities that “man tries to overcome the insecurities of life” (264).

Part 4 concerns the meaning and function of ritual. Michaels argues that most rituals are either transforming or affirming (265). Simply put, rituals either transform the social position of the ritual actor or they affirm that social position. By defining a “cultural studies approach” and a “cognitive sciences approach” Michaels investigates the ways in which ritualization intersects with cognition, learning, and the reduction of angst and anxiety. It is this last function of ritual on which Michaels lays stress, writing, “why do humans practice (religious) rituals? The simple answer is: because they are scared and want to ensure they have not missed any possibility of preventing danger” (285).

Michaels’s book is a positive contribution to ritual studies and to the study of Hindu ritual within the larger conversation of ritual theory. The ethno-Indological approach taken by Michaels is, furthermore, an innovative and rewarding method for the study of Hindu ritual, particularly as these two fields—ethnography and Indology—have sometimes been seen as at odds with each other. While Michaels’s ruminations on the meaning of ritual tend to lean toward what seems to be a psychologically functionalist reading of religion—that rituals and religions exist to placate human anxiety stemming from an insecure existence—his four-part heuristic model of ritual may prove useful for rituals in other cultural and historical contexts outside of the Hindu context in India and Nepal.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Adam Newman is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.

Date of Review: 
February 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Axel Michaels is a scholar of Indology and religious studies. Since 1996, he has been Professor of Classical Indology at the South Asia Institute at the University of Heidelberg.



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