by Ricky Toledano
Nestled in the lush hills of the Periyar National Tiger Reserve in Kerala, the shrine of Sabarimala is considered the abode of Lord Ayyappan, one of South India’s most revered deities, whose annual pilgrimage attracts millions, making it one of the largest peregrinations of its kind in the world.
Many men prepare months in advance for the trek by adhering to a simple life of yoga, abstaining from sex and certain vices of food, drink, language and behavior that distract and are unconducive to the spiritual quest. Dispensing with their shoes and donning the iconic blue or black garb, they head out in groups 41-days prior to their scheduled arrival at the shrine, adhering to strict daily devotional practices of bathing and prayers, while visiting other temples in South India on their fraternal path winding through the southern hills to reach the shrine where they are to be blessed upon beholding the lights of the Lord.
It was at another shrine, however, where I first saw these men dressed in black and blue. The colors themselves were a curiosity since they stand in stark contrast to the normal saffron colors of a sadhu. I had seen a few, and then more and more. Some were coming up and others down from the many steps that lead up to the hilltop shrine of Lord Hanuman at Hampi, where I had gone on a kind of pilgrimage of my own for the third time. Then I encountered the starkly dressed men at other temples. Their great number, unusual clothing for renunciants, and certain subtle hints of manner and hairstyles led me to suspect they were not necessarily sadhus, although obviously on a pilgrimage.
Inquiring with my North Indian brothers as to what order they might pertain, I discovered they had already had the same curiosity and questioned our driver, who responded as best as he could in broken Hindi.
“I didn’t get much, but they are on a pilgrimage to Kerala. They have strict disciplines. When they arrive there, they will see the lights of God. Something like that,” responded my brother.
My curiosity led me to research more on what the pilgrimage was all about. The answer was easily found with some basic Google snooping, but what was not so easy to decipher was the immediate and alarmingly controversies involving the Sabarimala temple, replete with fiery accusations of immorality, irresponsibility and ignorance that flew off the screen.
Some disputes were almost comical: I could only imagine the courtroom battles regarding the temple’s religious protocol, including its security measures and VIP queue, as well as quotas for purveyors of bananas. Other legal skirmishes were part of the pricklier clash between the traditions of old and modern values, in which the prohibition of women to the shrine was directly challenged. Taken as a whole, the list reminded me of what might be included by Amartya Sen in his Argumentative Indian, and such controversies and melodrama were not only unsurprising but uninteresting to me. What did get my attention were other debates I found to be the opposite of comic: There were several accounts of religious fraud in the articles from “Rationalists” seizing upon the opportunity to decry the ignorance of religion upon the revelation that the makarajyothi, the lights of God witnessed at the end of the pilgrimage, have indeed been rigged by authorities. Considering it is a pilgrimage of profound economic importance for the state of Kerala, where hundreds of deaths from stampede have repeatedly resulted over the years as part of this ritual, the indignation of the Rationalist may not be without cause.
And if you are like any of my many rational friends, I have probably already supplied you with enough information to reinforce your belief that such a pilgrimage is yet another pointless act of religious craziness. But I would not be so quick to draw your sharp weapon of logic. You might discover it is much blunter than you had imagined, especially if you believe it is pointless to undertake a discipline to curb desire in the pursuit of self-knowledge. Besides, if pointless means fruitless, and you believe in an action that produces no result, you had better review your sciences, because there is nothing in the known world of reason and logic indicating that an action has the possibility of producing no result whatsoever. An action always produces a result, and all effects have causes, even if undesired, unaccepted or unbeknownst. That is the law, and that means that even a prayer produces a result, even if it is just momentary calm for a troubled mind – but under no circumstances are you to believe that peace of mind is the utmost result of prayer. The results of our actions are not ours to choose; they are delivered to us, according to an Order we do not control.
Take my return to Hampi: an unseen collaboration had occurred to fulfill my desire to repeat the voyage, and it was precisely that Order that did not block my path with catastrophes both monumental and minute. Yet it might be that there were other ones unbeknownst to me that did occur in order to deliver me to that hilltop again, to say nothing of the infinite successes of the weather and the people behind planes, trains, autos, governments and the intersecting stories of many people and their parents before them, interconnecting in an unimaginable web – an Order – of which each and every one of us is indivisibly a part. That is why even when we carefully choose our actions to fulfill our desires, we shall never be the sole and exclusive authors of our success or failures, much less decide upon the results of our actions. It is by recognizing this Universe that comes to our aid where the very basis of humility and maturity lies. That is why an action like prayer may indeed be a way of calming the mind when dealing with fear, but it may also be part of a practice of recognizing oneself as part of this Order, which means speaking to Oneself honestly, cultivating a certain vision of indivisibility with all that there is – and that vision shall also have results of its own.
But a prayer and a peregrination are two very different investments in effort. Heading up narrow and steep steps to shrines, I could not help but to notice the pilgrims’ rugged feet as they walked down, as I tried imagining what my feet would look like after walking barefoot across South India for a month, suspending my mundane desires, casting off much more than my shoes in order to fulfill my word to myself. Imagining the difficulty. Imagining what might be gained – and lost.
How I envied them!
In part because I already have some experience in consciously renouncing certain habits in order to gain other habits – according to the ancient tradition of yoga – I have an idea as to the resulting possibilities when one undertakes to discipline the mind and body. I was very proud of those men, but I confess the envy was more from imagining the exhilaration of suspending all my duties for the time being and surrendering myself to the Universe, practicing the acceptance of all that comes my way while insisting upon nothing more than my barefoot promise to reach the shrine.
That is why beholding the makarajyothi, the ‘miraculous’ lights arising from the hilltop exactly at the time the stars of Sagittarius begin their northward ascent, would be taken for no more than the symbolism found in any ritual. The fact that the lights are indeed man-made – bereft of miracles in what many have called a ‘fraud’ – would make no difference: I should think that the result of my effort would be measured by the devotion to my mission of maturity in life, in having dedicated myself for one month of accepting that I am limited to choosing my actions, but not their results, which are delivered by an Order I do not control, of which I am indivisibly a part.
But that is not necessarily the vision for every one of the millions of people who partake in acts of faith every day, who might even do so superstitiously, out of fear of that uncontrollable Order. And it is certainly not how many of binary logic see such acts of devotion, ridiculing them, unaware of the reason behind ritual, regardless of whether the vision behind them is one of faith or of superstition. Or worse: there are those that categorically disregard all religions as the same ignorance.
They are nothing of the sort. There is a profound distinction between a religion whose truth depends upon the acceptance of a single story and a religion that does not require the acceptance of any story to seek truth that is the Law and Order of this Universe.
It was sitting upon that temple hilltop after Hanuman puja, looking across that green river valley filled with boulders in a golden sunset, where I contemplated this difference, as well as how very difficult it is to discipline the mind to cultivate the vision that is faith. Returning to the village where we stayed by nightfall, I was reminded once again about this challenge and the directions in which belief can go when a friend steered clear of walking near a peepal tree at our inn, doing so with exaggerated precaution. As a superstitious person, he greatly feared the tree of ghosts at night and I had already seen him hang a charm of a lemon and seven green chilis by the door of our quarters – an offering to alakshmi, unluckiness, so that its sourness and bitterness stays outside and do not enter. The boys teased his superstitiousness remorselessly.
Once the comic jostling among boys was reaching its limit, bordering upon irritation and defensiveness, the question was directly posed for me to answer: “What was the difference between superstition and faith?”
I stumbled into silence, pausing responsibly to consider my words carefully before speaking, like feeling for little stone in my food with my tongue. There were two reasons for such caution. Firstly, I had been asked by a person who regularly practiced acts of superstition in order to get the things desired and avoid things undesirable, and it would be unethical to disturb him on this path, because, I thought, it may have its own merit in training the mind to pay attention – something that is hardly insignificant these days. Secondly, I wasn’t really prepared to answer such a question, despite my instinct telling me that acts of superstition were not expressions of faith, no matter how diligently practiced, and no matter how ritualized.
My silent, if momentary contemplation was followed by a hesitation to pull the trigger, demonstrating my own self-doubt. After all, from the outside looking in, what really was the difference between me putting fire, water and food every day for the gods and avoiding eggs on Tuesdays and his avoiding peepal trees and hanging lemons and chilis by door?
“I think the difference might be that superstitions are practiced out of fear. Fear of not getting what one wants, or fear of not avoiding something feared. Faith is not this; it is a surrender,” I finally argued, but unconvincingly, because it occurred to me that both practices might be considered disciplines that calm the mind when there is fear.
Out of seeing me waiver or not fully chewing my own answer, it was rejected, rather briskly: “No, no, no! I don’t agree. My faith is not superstition!”
I doubled-down: “No. You do those things out of fear. It is not out of an appreciation. You are asking for things. Faith is giving; it’s love; it asks for nothing. It is fearlessly placing yourself at the service of the Universe you are a part of.”
That was served as dryly as it was swallowed, and it was not corresponded, except the few sparks of friction that fly whenever two objects as solid and heavy as our egos are rubbed together. It was a warning that we had already begun competing; and I stopped the potential conflict, quickly changing the subject to things ineffectual, remembering the golden day we had all spent together.
But now it was me who was in doubt. I felt but didn’t actually know what faith was. It had already become such a part of me for so long that it was not questioned any more than the legs that carry me in the direction I wish to go.
I decided to consult my teacher from across the globe with my question. Advaita Vedantist and Sanskrit teacher, trusted student of the late Swami Dayananda Saraswati, Gloria Arieira responded almost immediately after I had explained the context: “Faith is shraddha, it is believing in and devoting oneself to the Tradition of the Vedas.”
Shraddha! Of course! I had forgotten from Vedanta class.
“But it is more than this,” she continued, “shraddha can be translated as trust. Faith is not merely believing in something that does not make sense and is illogical. When one trusts, even when there is still not a full comprehension, one has already sufficiently confirmed that an argument is valid. After that, a vote of confidence is given to try to comprehend by trusting in and devoting oneself to the Order that is this Universe.”
So, I thought, is an act of superstition a mistrust of the Order that governs this Universe?
“Superstition is just a response to fear. Its act has no logic in doing so. It is not a ritual, which is an action – be it physical, oral or mental – deliberately establishing a relationship with reality greater than that of the individual. There are rituals practiced by religious traditions, such as singing, praying and meditating. And as actions, they will produce results: the first is a connection with All that there is – Ishvara; the second is peace of mind. But it may be that a ritual can be made of a series of practices to calm an individual’s anxiety and fear. In such case, the ritual may not make sense or be executed with logic, but it calms the person, which has its own validity,” she explained, with the exactitude I’ve grown to know and which would have been digested much more smoothly than the one I offered when directly inquired.
The night’s silence was that of the river flowing nearby and I am happy to say that only one ghost managed to get past the lemon and chilis hanging by the doorway.
We were in the land of Kishkinda, where the great epic that is the Rāmāyana takes its surprising twist when Lord Rāma encounters the Bear and Monkey kings who come to his aid on his quest to find the beloved Sītā, captured on the Island of Lanka by the Demon King, Rāvana. And it was the ghost of doubt that entered the room – ghosts are always doubts – remembering another question posed to me: “Is it true? Were we really in the cave of the Great SugrīvaBear? Is the Rāmāyana all true?”
“Who knows?” I had responded distractedly; I was in too much awe of the beauty and the significance of the land around me. But finally laying my head to rest, awaiting sleep, I saw how dangerous the ghost of doubt is as it entered the room and my mind. In the morning I would explain to them that it does not matter if the story is true or not. Many friends still send me articles and videos of the scientists “proving” that there was indeed an ancient land bridge between the Subcontinent and Sri Lanka and that it had been constructed – artificially – as if inferring some veracity to the story in which the animals came together to help construct the bridge so that their army could take Lord Rāma to defeat Evil and save Sita. I realize how fascinating the premise of a true story might be, as well as how irresistably alluring it might be for scientists of all kinds to take an analytical look at literary phenomena – be it Moses parting the waters of the Red Sea or any of the many magical moments contained in the puranas – but it is not the historicity of such stories that gives them value. The transformative power of literature has another purpose and one that is just as imperative as that of science in the quest for knowledge, and it is one that transcends the duality of fiction and nonfiction: it is the cultivation of wisdom, and all that ensues when one learns to discipline the mind to deal not only with others but with one’s very own self in life. Without such self-knowledge, even the most brilliantly intelligent and talented, such as the demon-king Rāvana, become examples of how unwise and enslaved are those unable to relinquish their ego. That is why I say it is impossible to know the story that is the Rāmāyana without discovering how to be a hero and how to be free in one’s very own life.
The danger of this ghost of doubt lies in the intellectual laziness of construing truth into the weave of a single, irrefutable narrative that can accommodate no other, instead of doing an analysis of what one considers truth. The former is the opposite of faith, what Rationalists might call blind faith, its intolerance of any other narrative forms the root of ignorance from which sprouts manipulation, subjugation and violence. The latter is the faith in searching for the truth and meaning of one’s life that depends on no story, although many stories may be heard to help one on the journey to fulfillment.
Ironically, even the most intelligent often fail to discern this difference in vision with regard to faith, labelling all religion as ignorance and lashing out at what is not understood, such as pilgrimage.
And it was upon seeing more of the black- and blue-dressed men the next day that I beheld them with great admiration, in light of Gloria Arieira’s further explanation of what pilgrimage means:
“It is comprised of the pilgrim (the devout who have a desire), the place of pilgrimage (which has significance according to religious tradition), and the journey – the path.
It is done by a person who wants something, generally an experience along the path, but the peregrination itself is often offered as a sacrifice to receive something else.
Any sacrifice, including peregrination, involves an individual’s act of letting go of something of great value. It is from that moment onward that the individual feels deserving of something even greater. There is the feeling that in doing so, one has qualified to reach out for something that will bring greater satisfaction in life. Whether there is a specific objective or one that is not yet clear to the individual, the expectation is to receive something greater.
Besides the sacrifice involved with peregrination, there is also the effort placed in search for something and making the encounter happen. The individual becomes deserving and makes a final effort to reach it through peregrination. The path is significant, since the individual lets go of the quotidian – but no to go on a mere excursion for entertainment. A person embarks on a journey for something greater, seeking an experience of fulfilment. During the peregrination, there is silence and an attitude of devotion, which helps a person to have an experience that transcends the mundane. Arriving at the shrine of devotion takes the individual to an encounter that is the experience of being blessed by fulfillment.”
Now what would that greater thing be? That fulfillment? That desire so ardent that the hands let go of things cherished in order to reach out for something better?
As a student of Gloria Arieira’s, I know that it is not a thing, because I know that there is no object or amount of them in this world that can be acquired for a person to be satisfied by the fulfillment that leaves no further desire. Yet that is just an intellectual grasp on what is called the final objective of a human life, and it is not enough. It is said that it may take this and many other lives to realize that final objective, so elusive because it is so close it cannot be seen. So close that none of the five senses can detect it. In fact, it is so close that it was never actually missing.
Happiness is the fulfillment that is already one’s very nature and all that one seeks. It is boundless and it is what Lord Krishna, in chapter nine of the Bhagavadgītā, calls “the greatest of all secrets… the king of knowledge”. But due to the ignorance of ourselves that constantly obfuscates our path to self-knowledge, many religious traditions have left us with the tools to practice not needing anything in order to be happy. They consist of actions – rituals both simple and sophisticated – that apparently produce nothing, no results whatsoever.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any.
It might mean you’ll have to look in the opposite direction, sitting down to relinquish everything for a moment and turning off those five senses to discover you can see even the mind in the dark. And if that fails, then there are also the stories to help point us in the right direction. As Gloria Arieira explains via the great epic and probably the world’s oldest story:
“Unlike Lord Krishna the great sage who instructs Arjuna to self-knowledge. Lord Rāma , on the other hand, is not aware of his nature. Rāma represents the Atman (the soul) and Sita represents happiness – Ananda. The two are always together, indivisible. However, due to ignorance, desires and delusion – all that is Rāvana– Sita is captured. Rāma must fight against disillusion to bring back Sita and live once again in their rightful abode of Ayodhya, the place without yuddha, struggle, strife, opposition, division and duality.
To destroy Rāvana, Rāma cuts off the demon-king’s many heads from which a new one always sprouts from his insatiable mind, until Rāma hits Rāvana directly in the heart, striking his false-self, destroying his ignorance.”
The false-self: I think I would rather drop it and reach out for the real one in a steady discipline of actions to control my scattered head like that of Rāvana, instead of having my ignorance painfully struck down like an arrow in the heart. Either way, at some point in one’s life, nothing less than self-knowledge will provide the fulfillment that dispels ignorance. And that is the reason why you are not to ridicule anyone’s faith as long as it requires nothing from you. Watch their rituals. It might be that one day you’ll also discover the need to walk to a place that you’ve always been, searching for that something you’ve never lost.
OM TAT SAT