Modern pilgrimages irritate the hell out of me. Almost, everything about it is wrong. I’m an agnostic. But my agnosticism is not the reason for my irritation. I’m disturbed by how the blind and suffocating faith of today’s believers is trashing the environment and degrading the sanctity of the very temples they flock to every year. The spiritual is lost in the meaningless ritual.
Take the example of Sabarimala, one of India’s prominent holy shrines. Muslims, Hindus, Christians, all throng the shrine of Lord Ayyappa in the Idukki forests of Kerala.
As a child, I would look forward to the annual visit to Sabarimala, and that trek through the hilly jungle. Clad only in a dhoti and a towel, with an Irumudi on my head, I would take two small skipping steps to every one of my father’s stride, peering through the dense jungle to catch a glimpse of a tiger in the wild. The distant hills seemed mysterious, separated as they were by miles and miles of undisturbed wilderness. River Pamba where pilgrims bathed before beginning the 8km trek to the shrine had ice-cold water, and greedy, big-mouthed fish that nipped gently at the bathers.
I was amazed at the efficient way in which our van-load of pilgrims made camp, cooked, ate and left without leaving any trace of our presence in the forest. Our utensils were clean, and the campsite was left clean for the next party of pilgrims.
But those were the days before cheap and disposable plastic made its ugly appearance. Those were also the days when some of the deeper teachings of religions still had some relevance.
Today, the chances of stepping on human excreta at least once during your trip to Sabarimala, or of entering the Pamba and snagging a plastic cover with your feet or your head as it emerges from the river are close to 100 per cent. Even before they set out to the temple, the devotees destroy the peace of neighbourhoods around temples with loud music, and plastic litter.
A website dedicated to pollution in Sabarimala reminds us of the disconnect between the spiritual and the ritual. www.cleansabarimala.com says “Lord Ayyappa is also known as Bhoothanatha which means the lord of Panchabhoothas.”
In Hindu philosophy, the Universe is composed of Panchabhoothas or five elements – Earth, fire, water, air and ether. If these elements are in balance in our universe and our bodies, both remain healthy. Any imbalance will trigger disease and disaster.
The website claims that every devotee of Lord Bhoothanatha leaves behind 250 grams of plastic waste behind. At least 35 million pilgrims visit Sabari each year, leaving behind a total of 8,750,000 kgs of plastic trash in the beautiful jungles of Sabari.
Gods are supposed to be all-powerful and all that. Give me one reason why Lord Ayyappa should remain at the same shrine waiting for bus-load after bus-load of marauding pilgrims to come and desecrate the sacred jungles chosen by him for meditation. My bet is that if the gods really exist, they are likely to have abandoned the places frequented by modern pilgrims.
This is not a rant against Hindu ritualism. Change the word Hindu to Christian or Muslim or Sikh, the word Sabari to Vailankanni or Nagur or Hemkund, and you will come up with much the same commentary on the death of spiritualism.
If Lord Ayyappa is to return to his hill shrine, or the gods from the other religions to their designated places of worship, pilgrims should spend time to connect more closely with nature and consider converting the trek to the hill shrine into a true ritual of spirituality, paying particular attention to how their journey to god impacts on the environment and the people around them.