I thought I will write about saddened mindset of Indians in relation to homosexuality or comment on the disappointment surrounding Indian politics. But I am moved to write about our proud and marvellous ethnic tradition. I went to the land of Ganges , Haridwar and Rishikesh, where pilgrims flock to take a dip in the holy river to revive and to seek blessing for the future. I was amazed, as an atheist, by the sheer passion that drives masses of devotees to this holy river. I witnessed traditions being performed everyday with same passion and deference. I feel proud when I call myself a citizen of this beautiful country which embraces such vibrant culture. Being an atheist allows me to enjoy such tradition without being mystified. It allows me to observe a fascinating history and be cynical.
Our driver, who hailed from the plains of the holy river and was a rigid Hindu, shared with us some fascinating stories/myths. He articulated how river Ganges is supposedly a river of heaven, a symbol of the living god. I was amused and bewildered when he failed to make me understand how he could dispute its geographical source i.e. glaciers. Apparently, source of Ganges is the 'jata of a god named Shiva'. I was met with angry sneers when I doubted the purity of the Ganges. I guess I was just wrong in stating the obvious and dint realise I came across as an arrogant literate person to people who dint share my atheist ethics but were a part of centuries old myth. I also heard how Jainism differs from Hinduism and is superior and demonises certain deities of Hinduism. This might be my interpretation of jain granthas, which is off course prejudiced. Although I saw my driver grumbling on this comment made by my brother. Least he dint burn buses or shouted anti-jain slogans and destroyed public property when spoken against, may be because we both shared some sort of brotherhood and could join him in singing holy hymns and aartis praising the Maa Ganga.
Enough of being a cynic and don’t want to question else’s faith. But I have never seen such an amazing display and have never been surrounded by the ambience that hypnotised believers and non-believers alike. It was outstanding and awe inspiring evening when I joined hundreds others in the evening aarti at those centuries old ghats. I and thousands others were catapulted centuries back since the first aarti was performed according to the shastras. Arguably, Aaarti has not changed a bit since then but has embraced loudspeakers and bollywood singers. This serves as a great example of how we have survived and managed to cultivate our wonderful heritage.
But I also shared rather disappointing and rotten side of this religious festivity. I saw God being sold and divinity a privilege of very few rich sinners. God was being auctioned and so was the faith of various other poor pilgrims. Rich could pay money to perform the main ceremonies along with prime priests. But I guess this rarely matters when you can do your little own aarti if you know ancient mantras written in Sanskrit. I frequently crossed paths with several devotees and holy sadhus begging for food in the god’s owned land. Certainly faith cannot, alone, arrange for food or precious currency to support families of poor people but it can certainly pay for building, huge extravagant, temples built to praise the very same god who had forsaken its own subjects in its own land. Thousands of temples, with huge costs to the beneficiaries of various dharma trusts, are built without acknowledging what god itself tell in granthas ‘I am the, and the is me’ (I am not sure how its written). Servicing mankind means praising god's very precious creation. But I believe our rich and holy men are oblivious to this fact because they believe writing the word RAM more than 1 million times will get you access to the god. (There are books available with small empty checker boxes in which a devotee can write RAM’s name.. apparently there is a temple in Ayodhya where you can open an account in a 'holy bank' if you have written the word RAM more than 125000)Guess this serves its own purpose as it does come with a guarantee that a place in heaven is guaranteed for him, although all the sins he commits by dejecting poor men will go unnoticed by the God on the judgement day.
There was this general aura around which begged the question of the sanctity of religion. Why weren’t the poor part of god’s plan? I guess this very question attracts poorest of the poor to these holy temples and sites created by the rich in a hope that this will wipe off their sins. (Again cynical me) The poor come here to pray to deities made up of lifeless stone in a hope that there prayers will be answered by this entity which is as abstract as air itself. Will it not be better to save money spent on the pilgrimage to afford better education for their children and work hard for a better life, instead they will hope that god will talk back or shall I say stones will talk back. Cant really blame them, anyone who doesn’t find itself glorified by gods warmth, atleast have an assurance of an institution which claims to fulfil their wishes ( although sometimes you might just have to pay rupees to pandas for a direct connection with god) I saw people dipping in the freezing water of the Ganges which promises to make one sin free. I don’t know whether you get free of sins or not I am sure of catching cold.
Poor sanitation, poor facilities for pilgrims and lack of security dominated my trip. Although, sanitation, forms part of our culture and was highly advocated in our shastras, was seldom seen around. Used plastic bags and other wasted material used for religious ceremonies patched the landscape. I hardly saw anyone behaving in a manner which corresponded to the sanctity of the place. ‘RAM TERI GANGA MAELI HO GAYE’ stood true. I failed to draw a parallel between performing aarti’s praising the river as a pure and divine god and how devotees and caretakers were making that very river a dump. I should not commit the crime of generalising all the devotees. There were educated folks who would pay a higher price for a bio-degradable ‘diya’ and other ‘samagri’. Shopkeepers also did their part to save the environment. They sold raincoats made from recycled M&M’s packaging. Least there is some improvement.
I have seen many ironies in a day and have tried to put my logical mind in understanding religious augments and have failed to separate myth from the fact. I have failed to understand what attracts , rich and poor alike, to this mystical place where all of them want to take a piece of heaven and find salvation through the holy water of the river Ganges. I should not doubt their faith, after all this is all they have.