Ritual Regimens in Culture-Building

Presented in the workshop on “Traditions of Learning and Networks of Knowledge” in the series The Indian Ocean: Trans-regional creation of societies and cultures, Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Oxford University, 29-30 September 2001.

“Ritual Regimens as a Mechanism of Culture-Building in Early Historic South Asia”
Timothy Lubin, Washington and Lee University, USA

Beginning around the period of the Ganges urbanization, the Brahmanical priestly tradition began to codify a previously neglected area of ritual practice: household ceremonies, and especially the observances associated with textual study and recitation. Initiatory ritual and the rules of ascetical discipline to be observed in these contexts were progressively standardized, brought to the center of personal piety, and defined as the criterion of Arya status. In the Grhya-Sutras, and then in the Dharma-Sutras, such regimens (vratas) multiply, being employed also as expiations and as fixed-term and lifelong programs for spiritual cultivation. During the same centuries, the Buddhist orders were developing a system of discipline employing many of the same principles (chastity, mendicancy, marking of social separation). The effect of these institutions was to promote a standardized repertory of religious and social ideals, embodied in fixed practices, and to provide the motivation and discipline necessary for textual production and spread into new regions.

The Brahmanical forms of such regimens of discipline, although they continue to provide a model for the upper-caste householder, also are made to accommodate a wide range of professional ascetic movements such as the Pashupatas as well as the ideal of the Smarta sannyasi. But whereas the Brahmanical ascetics and the Buddhist and Jain mendicants have long been recognized as especially effective in spreading their respective systems of learning and standards of piety and refinement because of their mobility and their success in attracting royal patronage in the emerging cities, role of the brahmin acharya and family priest as an effective agent of cultural production has not been fully appreciated. Especially important is the way the Grhya and Dharma codes move progressively away from the old, rural lineage-based traditions to a synthetic, universal ideal of dharma appropriate to an increasingly urbanized and cosmopolitan society. A basic familiarity with and ability to use Sanskrit texts is made the unifying factor of “high culture,” and that knowledge is transmitted, whether at court or in the village, within the framework of the regimen of discipline.

These developments constitute the necessary (but up until now not adequately analyzed) background to the emergence of Sanskrit as the preeminent medium of elegant courtly expression in the first few centuries of the Common Era.