Having been brought up a Catholic, I have a long acquaintance with rites, rituals and ceremonies. As a child, I loved some of them, at least once to the embarrassment of my very proper grandmother. She had taken me to Sunday mass – I must have been about three years old – and we came to the Consecration where the priest raises the host and bells ring. I stood up on the pew, pointed at the altar and yelled at the top of my lungs, “There’s my Lord; there goes my Lord!”
Over the years, however, my fascination with rites and rituals began to wane, until I got to college (Catholic) and they actually began to irritate me. I began to put them in the same category with my growing irritation at the idea that the only way I could get to God was through the church’s priests. Arrogant teenager that I was, I wanted to know why: why couldn’t I go directly to God without all the ritual baggage and the so-called authority of those who insisted on them.
So, when I found Meher Baba in 1956, it was with much delight that I discovered there were almost no rituals attached. Let it be said at the outset, however, that although Meher Baba said there was no value in rites, rituals and ceremonies, he did recognize love when that was the reason for them. Occasionally, in my early days with Baba, someone did try to lay their own invented rituals on me. I remember one older Baba follower in New York who started berating me at a Monday Night Group meeting for going out to have coffee and listen to Baba stories after the meeting, instead of going straight home. To him, that was the way it was done. But Kitty Davy, who happened to be visiting that evening, overheard him, tapped him on the shoulder, and said sternly, “John, stop acting like a bishop.”
It was some years later when creeping ritualism began, I think because a large number of Baba followers had gone to India for the 1962 East-West Gathering and for the Last Darshan in 1969, bringing home with them the ingredients for rituals that not only persist today but are downright embedded. Saying “Jai Baba” to each other was originally something that was said only to Meher Baba himself. When I asked one of the mandali in the early 1970s about how it became an almost automatic greeting, she said she didn’t know, but when younger Baba followers started saying it to the mandali, the mandali simply responded in kind. Dhuni (fire) is another ritual that simply grew like Topsy. It started in the 1950s when Baba held the fire ceremony in response to pleas from the Arangaon villagers for rain. It is still held at Meherabad on the 12th of every month at Baba’s behest. But it has also spread to the West and is now very much a part of almost every Baba gathering, and some Baba groups have made it a weekly ceremony.
Arti – songs in praise of God – is probably the most popular Baba ritual in the West these days. It is of course a daily morning and evening event at Meherabad. I have no argument with that; I’m a firm believer in “to each his own” as long as you don’t try to make “your own” “my own.” For a number of years whenever I went to India, one or two Westerners living there kept trying to persuade me to go to arti on a daily basis. I did go occasionally, when I felt the pull to do so, but not regularly. Eventually the persuaders gave up. But an odd kind of pressure continued from other pilgrims, particularly newish Baba followers. For some reason, my disinclination to attend made them uncomfortable, perhaps because they weren’t yet quite sure of why they were doing this, and they were depending on total group compliance to assure themselves it was the right thing to do. On my last trip to India, when I had, with age, begun to settle into curmudgeoness, I actually enjoyed the consternation caused by my refusal to go to arti.
Rites, rituals and ceremonies, of course, will continue to grow. I have a theory about all of this and a scenario. Baba followers who found Meher Baba early on, up to the 1950s, say, were brought up in orthodox religions. Coming into adulthood, they rebelled, but quietly, and there were few of them. Then came the 1960s and 1970s and the children of parents who raised them in a religion rebelled in great numbers and with a lot of noise. Many of them flocked to Meher Baba. They grew up, got married, and had children of their own, who have not been raised in an organized religion. Those children are now showing a keen interest in and desire for rites, rituals and ceremonies, I suppose because at that age they feel the need for structure. They are even creating new rituals, and I must say, showing some imagination. The scenario for the future? These young people will grow up, get married, and have children raised in the midst of their parents’ rites, rituals and ceremonies. Then those children will rebel and the whole pattern starts all over again. I expect it all probably evens out in the end. What seems important in all of this, I think, is that we allow space for both the pro-rituals and the anti-rituals, but that we do not impose either one on coming generations. I’m not sure I have a lot of hope for that, given the history of past Avataric Ages and current holy wars, but it’s certainly worth treating as a goal.
On the other hand, if we paid attention to everything Meher Baba said about the way things should be and got it right the first time, would the Avatar have to keep coming back? If we fouled things up faster, would he come back more quickly? If so, given the fact that I very much want to see him again, I sometimes think it might be worth the tradeoff.