When is a religious ritual considered unusual? Making such a determination is largely subjective. For example, a Catholic may consider the Eucharistic Celebration to be a very ordinary, albeit significant ceremony. However, a non-Catholic who comes across a Christian mass for the first time might very well be outraged that the Catholic faithful actually imagine the bread and wine that they eat and drink to be their savior’s body and blood.
Nevertheless, it can hardly be denied that there are particular religious practices that most people, for various reasons, consider markedly more unusual than others. Some of them are considered extraordinary for the self-mutilation they involve. Others for their danger or gruesomeness. Yet others are considered especially unique because the beliefs behind them are difficult for most people to subscribe to. However, the following ten unusual religious rituals from all over the world are presented not to ridicule or demean these ceremonies and the religions that carry them out, but rather, to celebrate the uniqueness of each faith’s practices.
10. Wearing of Designated Undergarments
Mormon undergarments are often mockingly referred to as “magic underwear” because of the mistaken notion that Mormons constantly wear the white garments primarily to protect themselves from fire, bullets, knives, and other physical dangers. However, while a few believe that the garments do provide physical protection, most Mormons consider the designated underwear to be more of a symbol of protection from the evil present in the world. Furthermore, being considered sacred, these garments are not supposed to be displayed publicly. However, unlike what some have suggested, it is untrue that the undergarments are a deep, dark Mormon secret.
9. Offering Wax Figures of Diseased Body Parts
Offering objects to one’s god isn’t very uncommon, but Catholics who troop to the Sala dos Milagres (Room of the Miracles) found in the premises of the Church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim, Salvador in Bahia, Brazil offer some pretty unusual items for their prayers to be heard. Wooden objects, gold, silver, precious stones, and personal notes offered during the more than 700-year-old celebration of the Festa do Bonfim (Feast of the Good End) might not be considered very extraordinary. But how about pictures and belongings of loved ones, as well as wax figures of body parts like legs, arms, heads, livers, eyes, and uteri? Before these are offered, devotees first sing and dance at the church plaza. Then, the objects are prayerfully offered and displayed in what is believed to be a miraculous room. The faithful make the offerings in the hope that their god will cure whatever is afflicting a beloved’s body parts.
8. Refusal of Monks to Wear Clothes
One of the two main sects of Jainism, Digambar is an Indian religion that emphasizes the independence of the human spirit, equality between all forms of life, and a non-violent stance towards all living beings. One of its main prophets is Mahavira, who the faithful believe became free of the need for food, water, and sleep after attaining enlightenment. It is in this tradition that Digambar monks do not wear any clothes and carry only a water gourd (for nourishment) and a broom of fallen peacock feathers (to harmlessly brush away creatures that come in their way).
7. Rolling Over Leftover Food
“Made Made Snana” literally means “taking a bath by rolling over leftovers,” and that’s sort of what devotees in certain temples in Karnataka, South West India do on some festival days. The practice actually begins with Brahmins (upper caste citizens) eating meals on plantain leaves, after which the leaves, along with the leftovers, are spread on the floor or street outside a temple. People from the lower strata of society then roll over the leaves and leftovers and proceed to wash their bodies in the Kumaradhara River in the belief that the ritual will cure skin diseases. The practice has continued despite opposition to the ritual’s superstitious and caste system undertones.
6. Using an E-meter to Detect Spiritual Impediments
According to members of the Church of Scientology, an E-meter can be used to measure the “static field” surrounding the body, thus enabling a trained Scientologist to use the device to determine whether or not someone is carrying spiritual baggage from a past experience. The machine does so by inducing a light electrical current and measuring the minute changes in a person’s electrical resistance. In fact, believers declare that the device is so sensitive that Ron Hubbard, the sect’s founder, was able to use it to determine that tomatoes scream when they are sliced. However, the members of the religion insist that the E-meter should only be used in auditing sessions sanctioned by the Church and is neither a medical nor a curative device.
5. Slaughtering a Chicken Onto Which Sins Have Been Transferred
On the eve of Yom Kippur, some Jews perform kapparot, a ritual that may involve the swinging of a live chicken (roosters for men, hens for women) over the heads of the faithful, and afterwards, the slaughter of the fowl. The carcass is then donated to the poor for their consumption. The ceremony is done in the belief that through the ritual, the chicken is transformed into a sacred vessel onto which sins can be transferred. The slaughter of the animal is then performed in atonement of the sins committed. However, the practice created controversy in Brooklyn, New York on the eve of Yom Kippur in 2005 when a number of caged chickens, some of them dehydrated and starving, were abandoned in rainy weather. Eventually, the animals were rescued. But the incident has since sparked protests, some initiated by Jewish animal organizations, against the practice of kapparot.
4. Naming Oneself and One’s Male Children “Diego”
Why Diego? Well, according to some of his avid fans, Argentine legend Diego Maradona is not only a football god, but an actual god as well. In fact, on October 30, 1998, which was Maradona’s 38th birthday, a group of these admirers founded the Iglesia Maradoniana (Church of Maradona). The following are the religion’s ten commandments:
1. The ball must not be stained, as D10S has proclaimed;
2. Love football over all things;
3. Declare your unconditional love of football;
4. Defend the colours of Argentina;
5. Preach the words of “Diego Maradona” all over the world;
6. Pray in the temples where he preached, and to his sacred mantles;
7. Do not proclaim the name of Diego in the name of a single club;
8. Follow the teachings of the Maradonian Church;
9. Let Diego be your second name, and that of your children;
10. “No ser cabeza de termo y que no se te escape la tortuga” (meaning “don’t be a hothead and don’t let the turtle escape you”).
The church reportedly has more than 200,000 followers all over the world.
3. Sky Burials
While most people would consider de-fleshing a corpse and feeding the parts to animals as unnecessarily gruesome and even disrespectful to the dead, the ritual of sky burial actually serves a functional purpose. Observed by some Vajrayana Buddhists in the Chinese provinces of Tibet, Qinghai, and Mongolia, the ceremony is a practical means of disposing of human remains in areas where the ground is usually too rocky and hard to dig a traditional grave. Furthermore, the ritual is in line with the belief in the transmigration of spirits, wherein the body of the deceased becomes nothing more than an empty vessel. Thus, feeding the parts of the dead to animals is actually considered the most generous means of disposing of a cadaver. In recent times, however, the number of sky burials have decreased due to the diminishing number of vultures in the area and the tradition that the yak carrying the body to the ceremonial grounds has to be set free, thus making the rite considerably more expensive than a usual cremation.
2. Being Hanged by Putting Hooks Through One’s Skin
In Kali temples of south Kerala, south India, devout followers participate in the ritual art form of Garudam Thookkam (Eagle Hanging). The ceremony begins with believers dressing up as Garuda — a large mythical humanoid bird that can be found in both Buddhist and Hindu mythology — then performing a dance. That’s pretty ordinary. It’s what happens afterwards which is pretty extreme: volunteer men dangle themselves from metal hooks that are put through the skin, mostly through their backs, and are displayed in a procession. As the bullock carts, hand-pulled carriages, or special boats move, the men swing from their hooks, the holes on the participants’ skin being widened from the motion. The ritual is performed to pacify the god Kali, who is said to be satiated after receiving blood from a bleeding Garuda.
1. Infant Dropping
In western India, some parents volunteer to have their infants dropped fifty feet from the roof of a mosque and caught on a taut bed sheet in the belief that it will ensure their family’s good health and prosperity. It’s also been said that other couples include their babies in the ceremony in gratitude to a patron saint for having granted them the gift of a child. The practice, which has been going on for more than five-hundred years, has reportedly had no incidents of fatalities or even injuries. Nevertheless, rights activists all over the world have called for the practice to be stopped, but all local officials have done is to supervise the ritual.
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