15th Jan- Pongal or Sankranti, the day of the harvest festival in India. The day when new avenues are supposed to open up - "Thai Pirandhal Vazhi Pirakkum" as it is said in Tamil. The month of Thai which begins with Pongal is also the day when the auspicious calender opens up as the sun journeys its way out of the Tropic of Capricon.
But the 15th of Jan this year was not such a pleasant one. The early morning headlines reported that nearly hundred pilgrims had died at Sabarimala during their way down after witnessing the "Makara Jyoti". A jeep had apparently lost control and in the confusion that ensued there had been a stampede resulting in this terrible accident!! There were interviews with the Devasoam board officials, ministers etc all of whom gave their condolences while stating that "a high level probe" would take place. Compensation amounts were announced for those dead and those injured. But the point is that those who had died were not going to be back. And, it was ironical that they had died while performing a pilgrimage!
The Sabarimala incident is only one among many. There were those who had died in a templed in Maharashtra some time ago, some in Puri and ofcourse we also hear about people who suffered accidents during the Hajj! The number of such incidents seems to be on the rise.
"Can't do anything about it. Population is on the rise" says a friend. But I am not so sure that it is increased population that is the sole cause. The population ofcourse is on the rise everywhere but why does its dark face show up only around places of religious worship? "A lot of people travel these days" said someone. "Life is so uncertain these days. So many people have to go on pilgrimages" was another reason .
I wonder if it is a combination of all the above. Yes, more people are able to afford to travel on pilgrimages these days but there is also the question of obtaining information about these places. It is very interesting to note that the maximum number of pilgrims who come to Sabarimala are not from Kerala where the temple is located but from the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. So this little temple that is located on a hill within a forest which originally was designed to accomodate only those from that region is now trying to accomodate crowds way beyond its capacity!
As I had mentioned earlier the question of access to information about such places , the religious significance of certain days for e.g the need to be assembled during the "makara jyoti"- has been popularized by the media in a manner that most people probably expect miracles by going there and being there on a particular day!
I sometimes wonder how all this mindless crowd navigation would actually make a person feel religious? I have on my part braved hours of waiting in crowded cage like structures in Tirupati for a Darshan and finally when we reach the sanctum sanctorum there is always a stampede. I have never had god on my mind when this moment comes- what I usually think about is my foot, my bag and my purse( Lord Venkateshwara please forgive me!) Alternatively I think back of the experiences I have had at the Ramakrishna Mission Math in various places or the Mother's Samadhi at Pondicherry- such peace and tranquility that it often brings tears to my eyes!
I also wonder about what has happend to the local temples in the various little villages and towns that used to be so popular with the people living there. Why have those temples and their gods lost their popularity to the reigning few like Lord Venkateshwara and Lord Ayyappa? And anyway these are but only forms of the one supreme being. Hinduism as a way of life does not prescribe any particular form of worship. We dont have to really go to a temple to pray. We can pray at home if we want to...
Sometimes I wonder what is it that religion has come to these days. Temples seem to have become commerical establishments that sustain themselves through pilgrimage economies. Someone plants a story about some wish having come true after having visited a particular temple and the media picks it up and there it goes.. the temple and its god becomes a star!!
But seriously, has all this temple hopping made us in any way better human beings? I dont think so. One of the most dangerous situation for a woman to be in is to be on a train alone with returning Ayyappa devotees. Ater nearly a month of abstinence from alchohol and sex, they try to make up for it by getting drunk and harrassing any woman they meet...!
So why all this sham? Why cant we be like Abou Ben Adhem who woke up one night from a "deep dream of sleep" and told an angel sitting on his bed to write about him not as someone who loves god but someone who loves his fellow human being! Until we can all do that we will continue to be the nasty lot that we humans usually are, take a pilgrimage every now and then to "wash away" our sins and in the process be subject to accidents like the one a couple of days ago.