While some of us may think that sitting through a religious service every week is painful, there are numerous religious rituals practiced throughout the world that truly inflict severe physical pain on their participants. One of the most common and well known painful religious practices is male circumcision. Circumcision is common in both Judaism and Islam. The foreskin of the penis is removed during the circumcision procedure. Studies have shown strong evidence that even in newborns who undergo this procedure, there is quite a bit of pain involved. Female circumcision is another practice that is common in Africa for people of different faiths and is a source of great controversy.
Another extremely painful religious ritual is the Sun Dance, practiced by many Native American tribes. The ritual varies among different tribes but all involve a flesh offering. The purpose of the Sun Dance is to pray while maintaining a connection to the Tree of Life and sacrifice oneself to the Great Spirit. Young men participating in the ritual are pierced through the chest by a skewer and the skewer is attached to a pole in the center of an arena. This pole represents the Tree of Life. The objective is to break free of the skewer by tearing the skewer through one’s skin. As I’m sure you can imagine this is extremely painful and the ordeal can last several hours. Although at one time the United States and Canadian governments banned portions of the Sun Dance ritual, the full ceremony is now legal and continues today.
A third religious ritual that can cause its practitioners severe pain is the Shi’a Muslim practice of self-flagellation on the Day of Ashura. Islam technically forbids self-harm but nevertheless some followers of the Shi’a sect whip themselves with metal chains and spikes during the Zanjeer Zani ritual of mourning for Hussein. A fourth ritual that may not be as painful as some of the others we have mentioned but nevertheless is no walk in the park, is the Hindu pilgrimage to Sabari Malai. Pilgrims must make a journey of forty miles during which they are celibate and eat or drink only small amounts. The agonizing part however is that they must complete the journey barefoot over hot ground. By the end of the pilgrimage the majority of followers have blisters and cuts on their feet and foot and leg sprains. Nevertheless, they view this suffering as a symbol of their devotion.
On the most extreme end of the spectrum of religious rituals is human sacrifice. Indeed, human sacrifice still occurs today in traditional African religions as well as followers of Tantrism, a theistic philosophy in India. The purpose of human sacrifice is to bring good luck and please the gods and may be performed before going to war, while dedicating a new bridge or building, or to try to end or forestall a disaster. When you consider the rituals described here and the many others that are practiced throughout the world today, it makes a day of fasting or an hour in a religious service seem like a very small sacrifice.