Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Well-being : March 12, 2000
The moving spirit
G. N. Devy
The dichotomy between the human body made out of perishable material and the human consciousness, which is apparently free to transcend the limits of space and time, has been one of the central forces that create cultural dynamics. All arts and creativity springs from the conflict between the two, all spirituality wells up from that source. The search for that which transcends the material world then takes on a variety of forms. Sometimes it turns to the symbols of worship, at other times to devotion for human messengers of the eternal. But while symbols of eternity, human or otherwise, are the destination for spiritual longing, even if as mere medium, the urge is firmly seated in the human body. And, therefore, a certain degree of control of the body, putting it through some tradition - bound regime of spiritual exercise, becomes an essential part of the realisation of that urge. That in essence is the motivation for the age-old custom of pilgrimage.
It is just not possible to determine how old it is. But, we notice that pilgrimages are recorded in ancient literature and scriptures in all cultures. In our tradition, we find elaborate descriptions of pilgrimages not only in the epics but also as the most inevitable beginning of every prose narrative, whether the Jatakas, the Kathasaritasagar or the Puranas. The destinations may vary from the Himalayas, various hermitages, holy cities, shrines to natural mysteries and scenic spots. But the motif remains as the most archetypal component of the growth and transaction of the human mind. In European literature too, one finds references to pilgrimages in abundance, whether it is in Homer, Dante, Chaucer or the canonical literature. But the most fascinating pilgrim stories of the world come from the Islamic world, from Arabic and Persian literature. In the Judaic-Christian tradition, Dante's Divine Comedy and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress are probably the ultimate literary expressions, respectively, in poetry and in prose, of the pervasive and profound desire for journey into spirituality. However, it is the Picaresque mode of writing that grapples more closely with the driving force behind man's urge for spiritual journey. This mode of writing first developed in Spain and France, shows a fascinating interest in the moral aspects of spiritual journeys. The hero, known as a Picaro, a vagabond, free of moral scruples, learns the value of love as a Christian value through his encounters with the world of crime and deceit.
Thus, the Picaresque fiction takes into account the material side of the dichotomy between the body and the mind that spurs the urge for pilgrimage. Yet, it will be far from correct that the main or the only purpose of pilgrimage is spiritual. The history of pilgrimage shows that probably the purpose is more aesthetic than ethical and spiritual. The long walks and the lonely halts are probably intended to provide opportunities for releasing the fatigue caused by the familiar. Staying with strangers and sharing food and rituals with them are perhaps aimed at relieving the ego of its excesses of self-consciousness. Through these release mechanisms the sensory perceptions are given a chance to regain their sharpness so that the world to be experienced by them becomes enjoyable once again.
Hence, it is the ritual value of pilgrimages that has a greater significance. Through these rituals is enhanced the collective well-being of communities.
One such ritual pilgrimage is the vari in Maharashtra. The destination for the pilgrims is the ancient temple town of Pandharpur. The deity there is Vithoba, variant of Vishnu, but the entire pilgrimage is woven round the saint tradition of Maharashtra. The Pandharpur vari is clearly a folk ritual. It accommodates persons from all castes, classes, age groups and professions. And even the non-Hindu tribals and Muslims take part in it.
It takes place in the months of Ashadh and Kartik. The route of the pilgrimage starts at Alandi, the place associated with the thirteenth century poet-saint Jnaneshwar. It passes through Jejuri, which is the temple town most sacred for Dhangars, a nomadic tribal community. The conclusion of the pilgrimage is marked by a ritual dip in the river Chandrabhaga, called so because of its crescent bed in Pandharpur. All along the route, villagers welcome the pilgrims and serve them food. The pilgrims themselves organise small bhajan groups and sing and dance to the tune of those songs. All songs are recalled and recited from the writings of the saints like Namdeva, Tukaram, Chokhamela and Janabai.Invariably, the pilgrims are clad in spotless white. The number swells as they approach Pandharpur at the end of the fifteen-day march, often crossing the mark of half a million. The whole sight of such a mass of humanity so neatly distributed in bhajan groups, tuned to the eternity of the great literary works in Marathi, Hindi and even Kannada, is so hypnotising that no varkari ever returns home without shedding his or her anxieties and stress.
Thus a kind of therapeutic hypnotism is effected by pilgrimages bringing in a sense of well being for the peasant and artisan communities of Maharashtra. But for those who take up pilgrimages, there may be an entirely personal reason such as a vow made or a desire to seek blessings, or even to achieve a sense of equanimity by bowing before a symbolic manifestation of the divine. The yatras to the maths and lingas in the Himalayas, the Haj to Mecca and Medina, the retreats sought in monastaries by Christian and Buddhist monks have such motivations.
There is always the need for every person to submit to a force which is larger than oneself and cosmic in significance. The pilgrimages that a person makes help in fulfilling that desire. One may say that the feminine in a person's psyche is the root of the desire for a spiritual journey. And therefore in societies which have been getting more closely organised, faced by the prospect of increasing severity of the State machinery, pilgrimages become increasingly necessary. Since the modern State, with all its armies, legal systems based on reason, Parliaments regulated by strength of political parties, the masculine side of citizens comes in play and finds full gratification, almost in excess of its own desire. And so, the feminine aspects too must find a release and articulation through rituals, hypnosis, frenzied dance and songs, self-denial of an ascetic type and a certain masochistic tendency. Pilgrimages provide an opportunity for all these. In a way, the modern-day "tourism" and the strong and even "self-destructive" longing for holidays is but a secular version of the older forms of pilgrimage.
In this version, beaches and pubs, theatre and pool rooms replace shrines and rivers, sacred-groves and icons of the older type. Yet, it cannot be denied that the cultural practice of pilgrimage is closely linked with the sense of well-being of a community. It offers the pilgrim a certain opportunity of entering into a new subjectivity, giving the human consciousness once again the ability to enter into a new relationship with the body as well as the world surrounding it. It is, in the ultimate analysis, the most public and the most articulate expression of returning to the mother's womb, a primeval search for innocence. Pilgrimage therefore is the journey, to use William Blake's expression, from the darkness of experience to the Song of Innocence.
Copyrights © 2000, The Hindu.
Republication or redissemination ofthe contents of this screen are expressly prohibited
without the written consent of The Hindu.