The whole of India is replete with stories of Rishis, Munis and Sadhus from ancient time who realized God, established relationship with God and inspired people to live a pious and righteous life. There were deviations as in every field of life but usually spiritualism is an accepted fact of Indian life which gradually got mixed up with various other modern motives and ways of living; unnecessary rituals.
The hoary tale of Agastya coming to Pondicherry to spread Vedic teaching and culture in the south, coupled with Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s venture in establishing their ashram in recent past at the same spot where Agastya had his own, were the main sources behind the spiritual ambience of Pondicherry. The olden temples of the age old gods, foundation of churches by the Europeans and different places of worship fixed by other communities added flavor to this spiritual ambience. South India is full of temple-towns. Pondicherry is one of them. A large number of temples, semi-temples, some masjids, churches and other similar constructions dot its lanes and by lanes besides the not-too-broad highways where bare footed women often move to and from temple doors with thalis full of puja materials in their hands and the temple staff clear the air blowing trumpets.
Temples, churches, mosques and ashrams are places for collective religious practices. Places of worship by their association and tradition are often holy but it does not always hold good. They become sources of business; those who run them become dogmatic, sometimes help corrupt or criminal practices as they are the source of huge income at some places. Without entirely denying the dignity of the places of worship and rituals, for they too have their virtues and values in their respective areas for a devotee who meticulously follows them without any paraphernalia to go up the ladder and leave them when he reaches the real site. All worships are for seeking the divine, for establishing a relationship with the God at the personal level. This relationship is neither democratic nor autocratic nor to be forcibly claimed or snatched away by any. If we dive deep into our psyche we will find how true the realizations of the few are compared to the clamoring crowd. But such things are really rare.
We know of perfunctory rituals galore in different religions. Think of the three times call, now-a-days almost everywhere, over the amplifier by the muezzin. And a story of going to the church or in absence of it somewhere as collectively decided on Sundays, comes to mind as told by the Mother of Pondicherry.
“The first time I came to India I came on a Japanese boat . . . .
“Now, Sunday came. There had to be a religious ceremony on the boat, or else we would have looked like heathens. . . .
“It took place in the lounge of the ship. We had to go down a few steps to this lounge. And that day, all the men put on their jackets- it was hot, I think we were on the Red Sea- they put on their jackets, stiff collars, leather shoes, neckties well set, hats on their heads, and they went with a book under their arm, almost in a procession from the deck to the lounge. The ladies wore their hats, some carried even a parasol, and they too had their book under the arm, a prayer book.
“And so they all crowded down into the lounge, and the Presbyterian made a speech that is to say, preached his sermon, and everybody listened very religiously. And then, when it was over, they all came up again with the satisfied air of someone who has done his duty. And, of course, five minutes later they were in the bar drinking and playing cards, and their religious ceremony was forgotten. They had done their duty, it was over, there was nothing more to be said about it.” (The Mother/148-49)
What we see around us; a few usurpers grab temple lands for their own gains or people of a community create great sound pollution by playing popular songs through amplifier during pujas disregarding the immense disturbance of the other sane and peace loving people whose work and smooth sailing life get disrupted by such worshippers who raise money from the public, a usual practice in Bengal, by request and threat or force as it suits the circumstances, to use for the festivity and excitement, to satisfy their whims and personal ends; displaying lighting and decoration in extravagant ways for the show of puja in most such collective worshipping in public places. Durga Puja and large numbers of other pujas in Bengal, particularly Kolkata, Deepavali or Diwali, Christmas and many such ever increasing ceremonies elsewhere, have come to a stage of popular festivity giving place to all political plays underground and display of popular but poor culture. These are not simply rites but doing the other paraphernalia in the name of God.
Let us come to the most important festival and pilgrimage of the year 2013; the Maha Kumbh Mela which is being held after 12 years at Prayag, at the confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati river which is invisible. Leaving the last, the other two rivers do not have adequate flow of water to allow the most auspicious dipping during the period up to 10 March 2013. During the time world’s largest number of pilgrims, 100 million, has reached the mela, it has been reported. Waters have been released from barrages and dams hundreds of miles up the river to help pilgrims to fulfill their ardent wish to dip in the confluence. The congregation is 80 times bigger than the population of the host city, Allahabad, five times the population of Mumbai and two and half times the population of Tokyo. Despite huge security and other arrangements large number of people have died due to stampede and breaking down of a bridge over the river. The pollution like overflowing excreta, feces, urine, plastic bottles, cans and various ingredients like puja offering materials have flooded the mela ground; toilets are overflowing and drinking water is not pure enough for health. Many have been suffering from diseases, especially diarrhea. To help such a large body of humanity to stay and visit the rivers, live and enjoy the visit, are gigantic affairs which must have some expected fall out. British and Indian researchers have published papers which have recorded that despite cold weather, polluted atmosphere, huge noise and risk of disease the mental makeup and physical health of the devotees who participate in the program are generally good and they have a very high level of wellbeing. The strong faith and aspiration of the devotees, of tasting perhaps some nectar that fell in drops on these rivers in the mythical age due to churning of the sea, kept them going, living with not too healthy food in unhealthy atmosphere. They perform all rites and take Ganga water in bottles for use throughout the year in spite of pollution as they believe that Ganga water remains pure. It may have some truth too as scientifically proved at certain levels. (Down To Earth/26-30)
On the whole no one who has once dipped or has so done more than once will know whether all sins of this life and the life before have been washed away, whether they would be born again or would melt with the divine forever. If it happens they become utterly pious without any trace of self-contradiction, without an iota of conflict with the others in mundane affairs once they visit the holy spot. Still, such pilgrimage takes place in growing numbers as a result of blind faith and the spirit of fulfillment; pilgrimage galore throughout the globe including the Hajj to Mecca. Does it mean that those who haven’t ever gone to participate in such fairs would have less pious lives? Has it ever happened that any such visitor has become really spiritual after the visit? As the pujas so these pilgrimages thrive on gross human faith and sense of achievement. True spiritual life has to be achieved usually through the process of yoga or doing some other types of ascesis, tapasya.
Such festivals have become, besides meeting ground for people accompanied by all merriment mixed with unsavory display of consumption of national energy, occasions for publicity and propaganda, for sales and for business. Real worship is almost absent in such public places; a display of collective might.
In some temples certain restrictions are not only irrational but also contrary to the real ideas of worshipping for which such things were created. Some are not allowed inside the temple precincts on the basis of sex, caste or race. They create communal feelings. In an age when atheism is gaining ground more and more, superstitions or age old practices should not turn back those who want, are willing to enter the temple and offer prayers, etc. to the God for after all, such practices give chance and hope for further growth.
While temples and idols for public worship on the roads and parks may help in collective worship, their increase in numbers does not bring forth equally the quality of bhakti, quality of life. Temples, when constructed encroaching public places or others’ lands creating great inconveniences to the general public, become redundant, contrary to the ideals of a bhakta who tries to lead a righteous life.
Great people have always denounced elaborate worship and dry rituals. They realized that the true spirit of godliness is in physical cleanliness, cleanliness in the heart, in thought, ideas and actions. “Be pure in mind. That is Dharma. All else is but pompous show,” said Thiruvalluvar (Tirukkural No.34/9). But when one goes to a higher realm of truth he realises, like the follower of Lao Tse that, “That is everywhere, - That which I searched for, That, That is my soul” and the sage replies, “Look at the scene around. The trees, the mountains, the sea, they are your brothers as are air and light . . . . Tao is in us. Tao is in repose.” (Wu Wei/6-7). Our age old Upanishad proclaims the same truth of God’s presence everywhere, especially in our hearts. Go to Raman Maharshi and find that he only searches the soul inside, “Who am I?” When you get the answer you reap the fruit of your life long search without going into any place of worship. Sri Aurobindo began Book One, Chapter Four of The Life Divine with his own translation from the Taittiriya Upanishad, “If one knows Him as Brahman the Non-Being, he becomes merely the non-existent. If one knows that Brahman Is, then is he known as the real in existence.” (The Life Divine/18/1)
It is the same as saying that God is all existence as Tao is.
Swami Vivekananda, during his lecture at Jaffna, said that the meaning of Vid is to know. It is the root of Veda which means divine knowledge which is eternal and infinite. The meaning of Rishi is one who has the vision of the mantra, the idea and words of God which already exists. The Rishis visioned them. They carried the spiritual message as seen and realized. But they did not create Vedas, the oldest scripture of the world so far discovered, which carry the eternal message of the God, as it already existed. In his Vedic Religious Ideal he said that the mantra or revealed words which created a wave in the thought world of ancient India and which shall be the focal point in the world of religion in future is: “Ekam Sadviprah Bahudha Vadanti”, the truth is one, the wise called them variously.
In the chapter titled “Religion and Spirituality”, in his voluminous The Foundation of Indian Culture, Sri Aurobindo presented and discussed the aspects of Indian religion and spirituality, their respective areas and perspectives.
Indian civilization and culture are based on the foundation of spiritualism. At the beginning man required the scaffolding of dogma, worship, image, sign, form and symbol in order to build the pure temple of the spirit, Sri Aurobindo said. The first stages belong to religion. Spiritualism is the freedom from outward forms and rituals. Those who achieve spiritual consciousness realize the truth. In their ascent they leave the paraphernalia of religion behind. About Hinduism Sri Aurobindo wrote, “It gave itself no name, because it set itself no sectarian limits; it claimed no universal adhesion . . . it was less a creed or cult than a continuously enlarging tradition of the Godward endeavor of the human spirit.” (Indian Culture/122)
A seeking for beyond, a curiosity to know more than what we find in our vicinity is the innate urge in human beings. It is more so with Indian mind. About the history of Indian religion Sri Aurobindo wrote, “It is sheer falsehood or a willful misunderstanding to say that it has lived always in the externals only of rite and creed and shibboleth. On the contrary, the main metaphysical truths of Indian religious philosophy in their broad idea- aspects or in an intensely poetic or dynamic representation have been stamped on the general mind of the people . . . .
“The one Godhead is worshipped as the All, for all in the universe is he or made out of his being or his nature. But Indian religion is not therefore pantheism; for beyond this universality it recognizes the supracosmic Eternal. Indian polytheism is not the popular polytheism of ancient Europe; for here the worshipper of many gods still knows that all his divinities are forms, names, personalities and powers of the One; his gods proceed from the one Purusha, his goddesses are energies of the one divine Force . . . .
“Observing the one Truth from all its many sides, it shut out none. It gave itself no specific name and bound itself by no limiting distinction . . . .
“First comes the idea of the One Existence of the Veda to whom sages give different names, the One without a second of the Upanishad who is All that is, and beyond all that is, the Permanent of the Buddhists, the Absolute of the Illusionists, the supreme God or Purusha of the Theists who holds in his power the Soul and Nature, - in a word the Eternal, the Infinite . . . .
“Follow this great spiritual aim by one of the thousand paths recognized in India or even any new path which branches off from them and you are at the core of the religion. For its second basic idea is the manifold way of man’s approach to the Eternal and Infinite. The Infinite is full of many infinities and each of these infinities is itself the very Eternal.’ (Indian Culture/128-136)
Why forget the famous lines from an earthly poet, close to our heart, Rabindranath Tagore?
Whom does thou
worship in this lonely dark corner of a temple with doors all shut? Open
thine eyes and see thy God is not before thee!
He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the path-maker is breaking stones. (Gitanjali/11/46)
Whatever it is, it is not the rites that we do on the streets of towns and metropolis.
The Mother. Collected Works of The Mother. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Centenary Edition. V.8. 1978
Can Faith Heal? Down To Earth. February-1-15, 2013
Tirukkural. V.R. Ramchandra Dikshitar. Madras; The Adyar Library and Research Centre. 2000. Reprint
WU WEI. Henri Borel. Translated by Shyam Sundar Jhunjhunwala. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo’s Action.1997
The Life Divine. Sri Aurobnido. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Ashram-SABCL. V.18. 1972
The Foundation of Indian Culture. Sri Aurobindo. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Ashram- SABCL. V.14. 1972
The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore. Ed. Sisir Kumar Das. Sahitya Akademi. 2004. Reprint.