More people have embarked on a quest for the sacred in India than anywhere else. An exceptionally rich religious tradition and an abundance of minor and major pilgrim sites have given seekers ample motivation to pack their bags and go on a search.
PILGRIM’S INDIA is about all journeys impelled by the idea of the sacred. It brings together essays and poems—from The Katha Upanishad, Fa-Hien, Basavanna and Kabir to Paul Brunton, Richard Lonnoy, Amit Chaudhuri,Arun Kolatakar and others—about various aspects of trips undertaken in the name of god. Readers will encounter the watchful reserved of a British Journalist in Southern India, the Vitgorous prose of a Contemporary Sikh pilgrim, a French author—adventurer’s appraisal of the Ellora Caves, a Modern-Day Zoroastrain’s Reflections on Udvada and a Woman’s Impression of What It Means to be Muslim in India.
Mystics, witnesses and wanderers write about the Superme Being, about journeys and destinations, false starts, bottlenecks and blind alleys, about humour, rage and evelation—all of which make this anthology a deeply absorbing and idiosyncratic take on pilgrims and pilgrims in India.
Is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Where I Live: New and Selected Poems. Her prose works include the Book of Buddha and a biography of a contemporary mystic, Sadhguru: More Than of Life. She divides her time between Mumbai and a yoga centre in Coimbatore. She still isn’t quite sure where home is.
I’m aware that our experience of the sacred cannot exist anywhere outside of us. But I’m also given to travelling intermittently in quest of it. At times I have been a vulgar tourist, ticking off pilgrim destinations and encounters with holy men and women in my head with near-imperial glee.
It’s an ancient paradox and one that I haven’t filly sorted out yet. ‘I’ve travelled east,! I’ve travelled west,! Back in Seiken,! I haven’t moved an inch’ goes an old Zen poem. There are equivalents of that nearer home. Bulleh Shah, for instance: ‘They go to Mecca to atone;! I’ve many a Mecca in my home.’ Or Lal Dedh: ‘Soul, get this! You should have looked in the mirror.’ Or Sultan Bahu: ‘I found Him closer than my jugular vein when I looked inside myself.’
You can’t get louder or clearer than that. And yet, whenever I’ve been seized by certain feverishness, I’ve packed my bags, caught the next train to Shirdi—and forgotten that jugular entirely.
Things are somewhat different now. I’m less feverish. So, though the travel continues, it’s a tad less compulsive. I’m also beginning to suspect that some of those venerable divides—weekend—weekday, maayka—sasuraal, nirvana—samsara—won’t ever be entirely bridged. The world we inhabit clearly isn’t intended to be home. A kind of existential comma, perhaps. Or a laboratory Or a transit lounge.
It takes getting used to, though. And the forgetting and remembering, the going away and returning, is an old, old pattern,
difficult to erase. But when you begin to make your peace with it, it has its moments. It offers breathing space. It allows you to ease a little more into the present continuous. You start seeing the rewards—however glimmering—of being spiritually hyphenated. You mind the gap, but you resent it less.
About a decade ago, I felt the need to travel to sacred destinations around the country There was a churning about those journeys, a fretful, fidgeting anxiety In 2004, I found my guru. That became the terminus of one kind of journey, and the beginning of another. But that’s another story.
My point is that the journey itself doesn’t seem to let up. It shape-shifts but endures. And it probably will as long as ‘the abyss that separates us from ourselves’ (in Thomas Merton’s lovely phrase) persists. Yes, the enduring answers are perhaps to be found in a place no further than the jugular-or the heart, or the forehead, or the navel, or the soul (wherever that is). But it’s a hellishly hard journey to that elusive spot in the human spiritual anatomy. And there seem to be no short cuts either.
Abysses are tricky things. Those who airily claim they’ve never been tripped up by them are, I believe, usually too scared to set out on a journey, in the first place. They may quote Vedantin seers and Buddhist masters and claim, like the great mystics before them, to have found their Meccas in their home. But I suspect most of them suffer the abyss unconsciously.
On the other hand, sacred journeys—those disruptive excursions— are for those who want to cross thresholds. It’s for those who mind the gap terribly. But there’s hope. When you resent the gap consciously it seems often to be the first step towards finding your own drawbridge.
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