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Article # 75
Masonic Ritual- its relevance in Today's context

Author: W.Bro.C.S.Madhavan    Posted on: Tuesday, November 25, 2003
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  Ritual is an integral and unique part of Masonic traditions. It employs stonemason's tools as symbols, to communicate the principles of Freemasonry to the candidate in a dramatised, if not dramatic, manner, and to explain its philosophy to him. Therefore, any discussion about the relevance of Masonic ritual must necessarily include not merely this ritualistic mode of instruction employed by Freemasonry, but the teachings and philosophy of Masonic ritual as well.


  We should, perhaps, start with a brief look at the origin of the ritual and the factors that shaped its form and substance, the better to understand and appreciate its message. There are many, though mostly unsubstantiated theories about the origin of the ritual.

  When Freemasonry was purely operative, there was a ceremony for admitting apprentices. A youth entered as an apprentice to learn the craft; an obligation was taken to preserve the mysteries of the Craft; the mason word and sign were communicated; charges were read telling the new mason of his duty to God, his master and his fellow man; and the legendary history was read. It was a simple ceremony - designed to impress him with the high moral standards required of him. During an apprenticeship of seven years, his masters taught him by means of the work itself, and the tools and practices used in the work. There probably was another ceremony at the end of his of apprenticeship, when he was given the full privileges of the Craft.

  Religious intolerance and social decadence were rife in Europe in the 16th century. The Holy Roman Church wielded much power, brooked no dissent, and ruthlessly suppressed all attempts at reformation as heresy. During that time of extreme religious persecution, when Wishart was burned at the stake and the Inquisition indicted Galileo for his theories on astronomy, a group of freethinkers, who called themselves called 'Gnostics,' (implying possession of spiritual knowledge) wanted emancipation from the rigid dogma of the Church. They sought to establish tolerance in religion and general improvement of society. The Church was understandably and implacably hostile to them. Though they were men of high intellectual calibre and social standing, they chose to join the building guilds to propagate their ideals, and to protect themselves from the wrath of the Church, they adapted the legend of King Solomon's Temple as an appropriate allegory of their aims. They might also have injected ideas and concepts of the ancient mystery schools and the occult into the simple ceremonies of the craft. Since these speculative Masons were not interested in the actual building arts, rituals of Freemasonry became more elaborate and were gradually transformed into symbols and allegory. Now the 'apprentice' was set to learn the art of building manhood and brotherhood.

  With the formation of the Grand Lodge of 1717 Freemasonry emerged as a system of morality and spiritual development presented in the form of ritual. It proposed a graduated method by which instruction was imparted to candidates in proportion to their ability to absorb its teachings. Accordingly three degrees were developed, to teach  

 (1) the initial stage of preparation and purification, followed by

(2) the cultivation of the intellectual faculties and the quest for the ultimate reality, culminating in

(3) the realisation of spiritual truth and the mystical death.

  Such is the probable origin of the Masonic ritual. It has subsequently been shaped and perfected by many hands, has drawn its wisdom from all parts of the world and from all ages, till it attained its present form.

  The ritual of the three degrees thus developed has retained the structure of the early operative ceremony, and comprises of two distinct parts. The first is the drama, in which the candidate is introduced, demonstrates his qualifications for the degree, takes his obligation, and is entrusted with the signs and words.  The second contains formal charges in which the purpose of the degree and a Freemason's duties are explained. Thus the ritual is meant not merely to mark the progress of the candidate towards the mastery of the Craft, but also to inculcate moral, ethical, and spiritual principles.


  In the 300 years since the formation of the Grand Lodge of England, the composition of Masonry has changed radically. The thousands who range under its banner are of diverse social, religious, cultural, economic and educational backgrounds, from many nationalities, and seek fulfilment of different emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs from Masonry.

  So we are faced with the question 'How relevant is the ritual in effectively meeting the varied needs of this heterogeneous membership and communicating its message to them?'  The answer, in all candour, must be 'It ought to be relevant, but it seldom is.'  It ought to be relevant, because:

  (1)Masonic ritual defines such fundamental values as Man's relationships with his God, his neighbour, and his own nature.

(2) It is in the very nature of Man to ritualise. Every important stage of his life  - be it birth, marriage, or death - is marked by rituals. Rituals arouse the inner nature of man and afford him glimpses of his true self. This atavistic penchant for expressing his thoughts and emotions through rituals is an ineradicable part of every man.

(3)Masonic ritual ensures that all Masons enter Freemasonry on an equal basis and share the same experience, whatever be their position or status outside the Craft. This experience of shared ritual fosters a bond of faith and brotherhood among Masons.

(4) Man is a creature of habit; his everyday life is conditioned by repetitive actions. Therefore repetition of the ritual conditions his mind to respond instinctively, in every situation in life, according to its ethical and moral precepts.

(5)All ritual is repetitive communication. Repeatedly hearing and reading the same words reveals new insights and imparts new interpretations to them.

(6)Freemasonry does not merely teach morals; instructions on morality are only preparatory to the understanding its hidden mysteries. It is a Spiritual Science, and lessons of the Spirit can only be taught in this manner because though they are simultaneously taught to many, they can be understood only in proportion to the individual's level of development and preparation.

(7)And finally, because its message is universal and timeless. It teaches us to build upon a foundation of faith in God, using the Square of justice, the Plumb-line of rectitude, the Compass to restrain the passions, and the Rule by which to divide our time into labour, rest, and service to our fellows so that in old age, we can look back with satisfaction on a life well spent, and face our end without fear or regret.

  It seldom is, because the average Mason is deaf to the voice of the ritual and blind to its beauty. If the ritual is to be conducted with concern for its message and commitment to its meaning, all Masons, not just candidates, need to be educated about its purport and purpose. The fundamental objective of Masonic ritual is to forcibly impress its principles upon the candidate's mind, and to create in him a new nature. Its focus must always be on the instruction and improvement of the candidate. It should inspire him, offer him an emotionally satisfying experience, excite his imagination, and kindle his desire for further knowledge. Unless this is done, there is the danger of the ritual becoming a stale and monotonous liturgy; and "the nightly grinding out of candidates may make numbers, but it will never make Masons!"


  There are so many interpretations of every part of the ritual, that we may safely avoid repeating them, and more profitably focus our attention on its central teachings and philosophy.

  The essential qualification, the sine qua non for becoming a Freemason is a belief in a Supreme Being; disbelief in its existence will negate the very basis of Freemasonry. That is why our symbolism is founded on the erection of a Temple to the Most High. And that is why the first of the Old Charges, “Concerning God and Religion” begins:

  “A Mason….. if he rightly understands the art, will never be a stupid atheist."   It goes on to say

" Let a man's religion, or mode of worship be what it may, he is not excluded from the order, provided he believe in the Architect of heaven and earth, and practice the sacred duties of morality".

  Here we have a reiteration of the essential qualification, and also an important tenet, one on which the very structure of Freemasonry rests - Tolerance.  This is but natural, because the seeds of modern Freemasonry were sown by men who protested against the intolerance of the Church. Therefore, accepting differences in faith, language and culture and respecting those differences are fundamental to the Masonic creed. Tolerance is the first step in a progression of mutual respect, mutual appreciation, and mutual assistance, which eventually matures into Brotherly Love.

  As the Old Charges put it:

  "Masons unite with the virtuous of every persuasion, in the firm and pleasing bond of fraternal love; they are taught to view the errors of mankind with compassion. …. Thus Masonry is the centre of union between good men and true, and the happy means of conciliating friendship amongst those who must otherwise have remained at a perpetual distance."

  Let us next discuss the philosophy contained in the ritual.

  We had seen in an earlier section that the theme of the ritual is developed in three progressive stages - of purification of the self, of development of the intellectual faculty and the quest for Truth, and of realisation of the Truth. This theme is illustrated by three allegories:

  The first is of " Building of a Temple not made by hands." That is purification of the heart from every malignant passion, and fitting it for the reception of truth and wisdom.

  The second is the search for the 'Genuine secrets' of a Master Mason. This represents Man's quest for the ultimate truth, and his efforts to realise it. It awakens the nascent need to achieve perfection, and suggests that Man must ennoble himself so that he might, one day, regain 'Paradise Lost'.

  The third is the death and resurrection of Hiram Abif. It portrays the raising of man from his fallen estate to recover his hidden divinity.

  Of these, we are now concerned with the second - the search for the lost word, and the finding of the 'Substituted secrets.' The underlying principle is that Man's soul had an existence prior to his being born, in which it was one with the Supreme Being, - 'Ayam Atma Brahma' - and to which existence it must strive to return. As Ghalib lamented in a pithy but profound couplet:

           "When I wasn't (born) I was God

            If I weren't ( born) I would have been God.

Being (born) has ruined me, 

If I hadn't been (born) what could I have been!”

  In the allegorical enactment of this principle, the Mason originally comes from the East, the eternal source of all light and life. His life here is in the West, to be spent searching for the 'Genuine secrets' which will enable him to return to the East. And till time or circumstances should restore them, he should regulate his life and actions by  'Substituted secrets', to guide him in his quest for perfection. These 'Substituted Secrets' express the philosophy of Masonic ritual.

  To revert to the parable of 'Paradise Lost': Man partook of the forbidden fruit and had become in part like God. "And the Lord God said, ‘Behold, the man has become as one of us, to know good and evil." (Genesis: 4.22) Having thus acquired the power of choice, Man has been consistently tempted to stray from the path of virtue. Moral teachings of Masonic ritual help him to prefer the good instead of the pleasant, to discriminate between Shreyas and Preyas, and redirect his course towards perfection.

  How does the ritual can help us to achieve perfection? There are many different philosophical doctrines derived from the ritual, each suggesting a different path to perfection. ' By whichever path men approach me, so do I accept them' says the Bhagavad Gita (IV.11). We might now look at some of those doctrines.

  The first is the doctrine of Knowledge, propounded by William Preston who, incidentally, authored much of the ritual of the second degree. According to this, knowledge is the key to enlightenment and as such, is the great object of Masonic endeavour. The purpose of Freemasonry is "to diffuse light, that is, to spread knowledge among men." The Lodge is like a classroom, in which the Master teaches and the candidate learns. About this Roscoe Pound comments,

  "Knowledge is not the sole end of Masonry. .But  Knowledge is one end - at least one proximate end - and it is not the least of those by which human perfection shall be attained".

  The second is the Moral doctrine, of Karl Krause, which says that,

  "The three pillars of the social order - Religion, Law, and Morals; Wisdom, Strength, and Beauty - are making for human perfection. The role of masonry is in maintaining and developing the moral order. So that, while it reminds us of our natural duties to ourselves, and of the duties we owe our country as the embodiment of the social order, it insists, above and beyond them all, upon our duties to our neighbor and to God, through which alone the perfection of the moral order may be attained."

  Next comes the George Oliver's doctrine of Faith. It proposes faith as the means to attain perfection; that Freemasonry is

  " one in its end with religion and with science.  Each of these is a means through which we are brought into relation with the absolute.  They are the means through which we know God and his works. And the fundamental principles of Masonry are essentially the principles of religion and the basic principles of the moral world."

  Albert Pike, in his metaphysical doctrine maintains:

  "The immediate end of Freemasonry is the pursuit of light.  But light means here attainment of the fundamental principle of the universe and bringing of ourselves into harmony, the ultimate unity which alone is real.  Hence the ultimate end is to lead us to the Absolute - interpreted by our individual creed if we like. Masonry seeks to reach these ends by a system of allegories and of which we are to study and upon which we are to reflect, until they reveal the light to each of us individually. It is nothing less than the whole history of human search for reality.  And through it he conceives, through mastery of it, he shall master the universe."

And finally comes the doctrine of Mysticism of Arthur Waite. It points out that Mysticism is a first-hand experience of things Divine and is the inner core of all religion, and declares that

  "Our Order is an instituted form of mysticism, in the ceremonies and symbols of which men may find, if they care to follow them, the roads that lead to a direct and first-hand experience of God."

  We have five eminent Masons who have evolved five different philosophies from our ritual. These philosophies, when discovered and then accepted and practised, teach us, in the words of Albert Pike:

  " above all, to reverence ourselves as immortal souls, and to have respect and charity for others, who are even such as we are, partakers with us of the Divine Nature, lighted by a ray of the Divine Intelligence, struggling, like us, toward the light; capable, like us, of progress upward toward perfection, and deserving to be loved and pitied, but never to be hated or despised; to be aided and encouraged in this life-struggle, and not to be abandoned nor left to wander in the darkness alone, still less to be trampled upon in our efforts to ascend."


  The very fact that Freemasonry has not merely survived, but actually thrived over the last 500 years, is proof enough that its philosophy continues to be relevant to all men at all times. The relevance of Masonic philosophy can be examined from three perspectives - Spiritual, Moral, and Social. We have already covered the former two, and seen that the Philosophy of Masonic ritual can guide us in our quest to realise the divinity innate in all of us, and preparatory to that end, it requires all Masons to live up to exacting moral and ethical standards.

  In the social context we also saw Krause's concept of Freemasonry as a moral force, working globally with Church and State for the perfection of society. Apart from this, Freemasonry has one more important social responsibility to discharge.

  "For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself."(Galatians 5:14).

  That is the first of the three great tenets of Freemasonry - Brotherly Love. Fissiparous forces have always kept humanity divided in the name of race, religion, colour, nationality, et al.; and Freemasonry has always resisted these divisive influences. Whilst acknowledging the existence of such diversity, Freemasonry attempts to cement the brotherhood of Man and bind humanity in one great band of peace and amity. 'E Pluribus Unum' - it postulates - Out of many, One.  It asserts that the bond of brotherhood will bring about harmony and social unity, which it believes is the ultimate destiny of Mankind.

  The temple that the Craft is building is the unification and the harmonising of the entire human family. And Freemasonry affirms with conviction,

  "God hath made mankind one vast brotherhood, Himself their Master, and the world His lodge."



I thankfully acknowledge the following Masonic works, which I have consulted, excerpted and quoted from, in preparing this essay.

  This is Freemasonry - Builder of Society - Unknown.

The Ceremonies - Anonymous.

The Story of the Ritual of Freemasonry -  R.V.Harris.

Freemasonry: How, Whence and Whither? - Unknown

Why Masonry Employs Ritual and Symbolism - Unknown

Is Our Masonic Ritual Out of Date for Today's Man? - Robert G. Davis

The Meaning, Purpose and Symbolism of Freemasonry- A.H.Bentley

Rituals and Man - Julian H. Cambridge

The Teachings of Freemasonry - H.L.Haywood.

The Philosophy of Masonry - Roscoe Pound

Masonic Philosophy - Christian Guigue French Masonic Site of Research

Masonic Philosophy: An Overview - Robert G. Aberdeen

Masonic Philosophy - Joseph Fort Newton.

Masonry, A Spiritual Asset -   A. A. Bailey


W.Bro.C.S.Madhavan is a P.M of Lodge Jyothi (No.253) Salem.He is a Masonic Scholar and a prolific writer and his articles have appeared in Pietre Stones Review of Freemasonry. He has won the first prize in the Essay Competition conducted by the Grand Lodge of India. The prize for this article was presented to him at the Grand Festival held on 15 th instant. We are very thankful to him for permitting us to post his prize winning article in this site. Webmaster

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