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Commentary/Rajeev Srinivasan

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 there.

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 know.

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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Rajeev Srinivasan

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