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I have a couple of questions about Buddhism rituals. Were Buddhism's rituals performed by a certain social class, or for a particular political end? Also what else was happening in the culture at the time the ritual was created or performed? Did Buddhism's rituals serve to bolster the political interest of the status quo?

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    To maybe clarify the question slightly, do you have an example or a definition of what is and/or is not "a ritual"? Is it the same thing as a "rite" or "ceremony"? Does ordination and/or any other act count as a "rite" and/or a ritual? Is there anything that isn't a ritual? – ChrisW Jul 21 '15 at 10:30
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    Second question, are you interested in any specific country and/or historical period? Buddhism has been in Asia for more than two millennia now. In some places it is or was more-or-less the state religion, at least the established religion, and at other times and places in history it isn't/wasn't. – ChrisW Jul 21 '15 at 10:34
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    Are you looking for an answer like, "Yes, during the last 2500 years the following social classes performed Buddhist rituals: ..." followed by an incredibly long list? Or looking for an answer like, "No, the practice of Buddhism is in some ways meant to be classless"? – ChrisW Jul 21 '15 at 10:37
  • Do we have a "homework" tag yet? ;) – Andrei Volkov Jul 21 '15 at 11:15
  • Also I think it can be difficult to ascribe motive: for example if a king is involved in a public ritual, is that for a "political end" (e.g. to gain favour with people) or is it for some more private/personal/religious motive of the king's? And how can one tell the difference? – ChrisW Jul 21 '15 at 12:00
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In a sense, this series of questions is probably too broad to be answered in this format. Given Buddhism's 2,558 year history, it's rich and varied traditions, and it's spread throughout Asia and much of the world outside of Asia, Buddhism's history is not homogeneous. It's been adopted by many different cultures and each of those cultures adds it's own flavor to it's practice of Buddhism.

But there are some things that can be said. Unlike Hinduism, the prevalent religion in the region when Buddhism originated, a follower of the Buddha's teachings did not need to be born into any particular class or caste to be ordained or to be considered a teacher or leader. So the answer to your question about Buddhism's rituals being performed by a certain social class is, no.

A section of the Dhammapada called "Brahmanavagga: The Holy Man" reinforces this in quotes such as:

  1. Not by matted hair, nor by lineage, nor by birth does one become a holy man. But he in whom truth and righteousness exist — he is pure, he is a holy man.

and

  1. I do not call him a holy man because of his lineage or high-born mother. If he is full of impeding attachments, he is just a supercilious man. But who is free from impediments and clinging — him do I call a holy man.

Perhaps the most universal Buddhist rituals are Taking Refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. Also accepting a number of precepts, 5 for ordinary lay people, 8 for more serious or dedicated lay people, serious meditators, and ordinary lay people on an Uposatha day and hundreds of precepts for ordained men and women. Taking refuge and precepts might be considered a ritual in the sense that they are often stated aloud in a group; although these are equally valid when done privately. The fact that both of these "rituals" can be done privately without any connection to a religious institution or particular type of religious leader would seem to indicate no connection to furthering political ends or interests.

I think anything else that would be considered a ritual in Buddhism is more related to the particular culture practicing it; a cultural overlay if you will. In fact, in Buddhism, release from adherence to rites and rituals is one of the hallmarks of a person who has reached a particular level of attainment. From Wikipedia's page on Sotāpanna:

Clinging to rites and rituals - Eradication of the view that one becomes pure simply through performing rituals (animal sacrifices, ablutions, chanting, etc.) or adhering to rigid moralism or relying on a god for non-causal delivery (issara nimmāna). Rites and rituals now function more to obscure, than to support the right view of the sotāpanna's now opened dharma eye. The sotāpanna realizes that deliverance can be won only through the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path. It is the elimination of the notion that there are miracles, or shortcuts.

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