Pilgrims and God's grace
I watched in dismay the BBC World reports of the death of 343 pilgrims during this year's Haj pilgrimage. The image that remained with me was
of Indian flags fluttering forlornly in the camp area as big fire engines spewed
forth torrents of water. Why, I wondered, do these tragedies happen
to Indians? Because life is so cheap in the subcontinent? Is it the wrath
of God against our country?
I asked myself the same question last year when pilgrims on the
Amarnath trek perished due to cold and lack of infrastructure. But, the
Saudis in Mecca had apparently spent $18 billion to upgrade their
facilities, here infrastructure was not the problem. It may
simply mean that when two million people converge on a
small area, it is a tragedy waiting to happen.
I worry about the same issue in regards to Sabarimala in Kerala.
This small and remote hill temple to Lord Ayyappan has become
one of the premier pilgrimage sites in South India. I have found it increasingly
difficult to go there during the season -- December/January -- because the infrastructure
really cannot deal with the influx of up to 500,000 of the black-clad,
bearded pilgrims a day. Sabarimala is a wonderful place, but I
am afraid the area is exceeding its carrying capacity.
There is another question, though? Is it such a tragedy after
all that pilgrims perish in the midst of their pilgrimage, when their hearts
and minds are so focused on God? The Amarnath pilgrims, many of them
old and infirm, perhaps were ready to die -- after all, in the Hindu scheme
of things, it is auspicious to die on holy ground, as those who go to Banaras
to end their lives would suggest.
An Egyptian commentator on the BBC speaking about the Haj mentioned
something similar. As I understood it, he said the objective of
the Haj is to purify a Muslim, so that he/she is freed of all sin. Therefore,
what better time to perish than when he has been purified and is in
a state of original innocence? If I am not mistaken, he also said that some
pilgrims go to Mecca and particularly Mount Ararat hoping to pass away
I was intrigued by the videos of the pilgrims circumambulating
the Ka'aba in their unstitched white vestments, bare-chested, and with an
occasional shawl, almost identical clothing to the men who worship in Hindu
temples in Kerala in their white mundu (dhotis), and the occasional angavastram,
bare-chested, too. There is so much all our religions share, both
superficially and even in depth.
It has never ceased to amaze me that otherwise reasonable people
could claim, in all seriousness, that their particular religion is the
only answer and they have a unique, direct channel to God. How utterly
ludicrous! As if God had time for our silly human conflicts!
The Haj video also reminded me of a book one of my favourite professors,
Dr Anthony Reddy, mentioned to me years ago: Thornton Wilder's The
Bridge on the San Luis Rey. I have never read it, but it seems the
author explores a real-life event: the collapse of a bridge and the death of a number
of pilgrims to a Catholic Latin American shrine.
The author traces each pilgrim's life, and attempts to prove that
indeed there was a pattern: it wasn't God's wrath but God's grace that
brought them there at that time and place, and it was perfect timing for them
to pass away.
It's hard to believe that for all those people, fifty or so, this
was indeed the very best time. But I accept the idea that there is a right
time for death: note how the wise Bhishma chooses to live in excruciating
pain, on a bed of arrows until the uttarayanam.
As a religious person, I refuse to believe that God is capricious -- as
Albert Einstein suggested, "God doesn't play dice with the Universe."
And I believe God is merciful, not vengeful. There must be a reason for everything,
and although this reason may not be self-evident to us, we don't have
enough information to judge the 'rightness' of events. Our job is merely
to do our duty, nishkama karmam; not to second-guess God's will.
Yes, God must have a plan. Otherwise how does one explain the
travails of the Tibetans, surely the gentlest of people? If there is such
a thing as the 'best' religion, it probably is Tibetan Buddhism, with
its fundamental tenets of other-worldly detachment and ahimsa. And His Holiness
the Dalai Lama is without a doubt the greatest religious leader alive at
this time, in addition to being an extraordinary human being.
It was therefore appalling to hear of the murders of several of
the Dalai Lama's followers, and the grave threat to his own life, allegedly
from the Yellow Hat Tibetan sect. My suspicion is that the Chinese government
is behind this mischief: after all, they term him a dangerous 'splittist'
and condemn his alleged feudal practices. Indeed, recent news about
Bill Clinton leaning on the Chinese a little bit regarding Tibet must be most
unwelcome to them.
I personally consider India's generosity to Tibet's refugees as
an act of singular merit; and India's (and America's) abandonment of their
political cause an utterly despicable act. Once again, as my passionate
friend Varsha Bhosle might say, the sheer cowardice and moral bankruptcy of
our politicians never ceases to astonish. We have forgotten that we
too were slaves to aliens a mere fifty years ago.
I wonder, in passing, if the mandarins of Beijing worry about
Marx's ghost -- for they have betrayed him and abandoned the core ideas
of their Marxist religion, while retaining only the Stalinist trappings.
I guess you could say that Marx was the man who would be God, but failed to
quite make it. Did Marx invite God's vengeance by attempting to be God?
What about other religions that have disappeared? For example,
the ztecs -- they worshipped Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent. Was
it divine retribution for their inhuman cruelty that the Spaniards were
able to turn their very mythology against them to destroy and enslave them
and eradicate their civilisation? Did God turn against them in ire? I don't
That is the question that worries me about India too -- we have
sinned greatly in our past, as a people, all of us, Hindu or Muslim or Christian -- out
of pride, out of hatred. Is the accumulated burden of iniquity great
enough to attract God's rage upon us disproportionately? I hope not.
In the end, though, I have to believe God is not jealous but merciful;
and if even the worst sinner dies with the praise of the Creator on
his lips, God will receive him kindly. Despite the tragedy for those left
behind, those grieving kith and kin, the pilgrim who dies on pilgrimage
may indeed be the lucky one.
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