Every day, as I pass the houses of Bollywood superstars in the suburbs of Mumbai, I see vast crowds of tourists waiting to have a glimpse of them. Excited families pose for selfies. On certain days, they emerge and wave out to fans like the Pope granting audience to the faithful or the Queen to her people. They cheer. They cry. They click photographs. They return home, nourished. Are these tourists or pilgrims?
In South India, temples are built for heroes and heroines by their fans. Some stars belong to totally different leagues: milk being poured on their posters, flowers and money being thrown on the screen as their movies are being shown; people look forward to their next movie like the return of a prophet or a descendant of an avatar. Are these fans or devotees?
Unless we appreciate what a religious experience is, we really cannot understand what pilgrimage is.
To understand the religious experience, we must understand a bit of evolutionary psychology. The dominant emotion of nature is fear: fear of starvation and fear of predation. This is amplified in humans, with a vivid imagination that creates imagined hunger and imagined predators, all the time, day and night, at scales that keep increasing. When we appreciate this terror, we empathise with human insecurity, our yearning for wealth and power and meaning, our defensiveness and rage, our sense of helplessness and hopelessness.
And then, we hear stories of gods and kings and sages who conquer fear and defeat demons, and who bring down nectar for us from the heavens, and we are filled with awe and excitement. We feel the rush of joy and excitement. We feel we matter. We feel alive. This becomes the religious experience: where there is no fear, there is only love. This manifests in the worship of vira-stones or hero stones that litter the Indian countryside, representations of great men and women: some warriors, some cooks, some poets, some dancers, some singers, all worthy of veneration.
These men and women did not just feed and protect you, they gave you a glimpse of a world where there was more to life than just fear. And so, in India, the gods are closely associated with the arts, they sing and dance all the time, activities associated with chaos in Greek mythology, and evil in Abrahamic mythology. Shiva is Nataraja, Krishna is Natawara. The first theatre was linked to the yagna-shala, and later was integral to the temple complex. Here the gods appeared in human form, as music, as dialogue, as gesture, as expression, as ideas, as makeup, as action, as they negotiated with fear and showed a path to the humans in the audience. It is therefore no surprise that a great piece of art becomes a religious experience. In India, temples become grand artistic exhibits and temple rituals become performance art, experiencing which makes you feel expanded and light, in touch with the divine.
Adi Shankaracharya understood this. The idea of pilgrimage appears for the first time in the epic Mahabharata that reached its final form 2000 years ago. The Pandavas wonder what they should do during the long years of exile. Krishna advises them to visit holy spots located on top of hills and at the confluence of rivers. In their journeys, they hear stories, meet sages, encounter demons and gods, experience starvation and generosity, all of which expands their mind, helps them better understand their roles as humans and kings. The sages and mendicants of India always travelled from one holy spot to another. But it was Adi Shankaracharya, 1200 years ago, who democratised this idea as a religious activity for those who sought access to the ‘true self’ revealed by the Vedas. He was the first philosopher who explicitly connected abstract Vedic ideas with the tangible gods of the Puranas, enshrined in various holy spots. If his commentaries spoke of gyanayoga (the intellectual way), his poetry spoke of bhakti-yoga (the emotional way), his lists of 12 Jyotir-lingas and 18 Shaktipeethas, revealed the value he placed on karma-yoga (the activity way). Karma for him was not the yagna, as much as the yatra. For he understood what a religious experience was in its essence. And it was not simply an intellectual exercise: it was visceral, propelling passion, and demanding action, a kind of release.
After the rush of that larger-than-life experience, initiated by a work of art, comes the horror of mortality. It will end. You anticipate it. And so you wish to consume more of it, or simply cling to it. Retain a piece of it. You want to touch it and carry a bit of it back home. So you seek ‘prasad’: a memento from the shrine you visit, water of the Ganga, ash or flowers from a temple.
You want to assure yourself that the source of that joy is real, and available to refresh you again. You want to touch that askhaya-patra, that cornucopia that makes you feel alive and valid. You want to touch the rockstar who sang you that song, that musician who stirred your soul with the music, that actor whose onscreen charm and chutzpah made you forget the mediocrity of your existence. So you travel to their house to see them, to touch them, to cheer them, to nourish yourself, and reassure yourself that the source of that religious, spiritual or artistic experience is eternal. Whether it is in a temple, or mosque, or church, or a roadside shrine, or a Bollywood megastar’s home, it does not matter. They are but mediums to your own true self.