A Confused Atheist’s Pilgrimage of Indian Holy Websites

My spouse and I should not non secular. Monica was raised as a Gujarati Hindu whereas I grew up in an orthodox Parsi household in Ahmedabad, India. Formal faith — hers or mine — performs no function in our day-to-day lives. Each of us studied in the identical convent elementary faculty after which in a Jesuit school, earlier than she went on to medical school and I joined the Indian Institute of Expertise (IIT) Bombay. Marrying her in 1972 was a VERY BIG DEAL in my household, as I used to be the primary one to marry a Parjat (a non-Parsi). After 44 years of marriage, two fantastic sons and 4 grandchildren, our household has turn out to be actually numerous with Polish and Chinese language daughters-in-law. Since each of us are formally senior residents, we determined to take a tour of a few of the holiest locations for the completely different Indian non secular teams. 

I’m not an professional on comparative religions, I merely take into account myself extra of a curious outsider who critically observes the traits of every non secular follow in India and develops his personal impressions.

Previous Goa — Basilica of Bom Jesus — Holiest Church for Catholics in India

In early January 2016, the 1970 IIT Bombay batch had its sapphire reunion, an occasion to have a good time 45 years of our commencement, in Goa. As a part of our tour, we visited the Basilica of Bom Jesus, the place St. Francis Xavier’s sacred relics lie. By the way my highschool was named after him. The church was majestically constructed within the colonial Portuguese days. However the go to was extra akin to a tour of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan — folks in organized teams following a information talking in hushed tones with no shoving and pushing occurring. 

To be sincere, the truth that the saint’s physique has remained intact didn’t make an incredible impression on me. All all through my faculty days, there was all the time an undercurrent of resentment in our necessary Ethical Science class taught by Jesuit Fathers. This may need been resulting from the truth that the Portuguese and the British imposed Christian faiths on Indians who had been primarily Hindu and Muslim. These emotions from over 50 years in the past got here flashing again to me as I walked by means of the basilica. 

Amritsar, Punjab — Golden Temple — Holiest Gurdwara for Sikhs within the World 

In 2016, we visited the Golden temple twice – first round 10pm on August 26 after which once more on the next morning. The temple was surrounded by a big water-filled moat and at evening it actually glowed like a big Golden construction. There have been actually hundreds of devoted guests; greater than 95% had been Sikh males, ladies and kids. We had been all requested to cowl our heads, wash our toes and stroll barefoot. The caretakers, known as sevadars, had been well mannered however fairly stern and stored folks in verify. We noticed the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy non secular scripture of Sikhism, being ceremoniously taken from the inside sanctum, known as Harmandir, to the Akal Takht, the seat of energy, for the evening. Dozens of non secular Sikhs wished to the touch the Palkhi, the provider wherein the Holy E-book was positioned, with a purpose to get blessings. Strolling across the whole sq. was a memorable expertise. 

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The next morning, we stood in a protracted line to get into the inside sanctum and had been capable of partake in some glorious candy halwa given to everybody as prasad, an providing to the gods. I discovered outstanding that in our two visits to the Golden Temple, nobody ever requested for alms. Additionally, contemplating the big crowds, the place was remarkably clear. A lot of the providers and administration on the temple was carried out by Sikh volunteers. This was an distinctive characteristic not seen at different non secular locations we visited. I used to be actually touched by the selflessness proven by the Sikh neighborhood.

Varanasi aka Banares, Uttar Pradesh — The Holiest of the Seven Sacred Cities in Hinduism and Sarnath — One in every of The Holiest Locations for Buddhists 

From the Golden Temple in Amritsar we made our solution to the traditional metropolis of Varanasi, which many Hindus deem the holiest of cities. We arrived within the metropolis on August 28. Simply a few days earlier the Ganga River had flooded over its banks making it not possible to climb down the ghats, its flight of steps. Our day began with a chaotic drive by means of the guts of soiled Varanasi in the direction of the well-known Kashi Vishwanath Shiva temple. After parking the automotive, we walked over a mile by means of slim and shockingly filthy lanes. It was unhappy to see the emaciated cows consuming rubbish and plastic wrappers. To name a cow “holy” after which deal with the poor animal in such a disgusting method is nearly felony.

At first the police guards outdoors the Kashi Vishwanath temple wouldn’t permit Monica and myself to enter the temple. Fortunately our information intervened and we might go to the temple given that we left our US passports with the inspectors. Earlier than getting into the temple, we had to purchase some objects for the puja, an providing to the gods, with a purpose to make the service provider who was guarding our sneakers and different belongings blissful. The Shiva Mandir’s inside sanctum was somewhat underwhelming with all of the worshippers hustled out and in inside minutes. The place was unkempt and lower than my expectations. Or possibly it was simply my skepticism about faith that made me deal with the negatives. 

In my view, Varanasi takes the primary prize in being the filthiest metropolis in India with little or no civic sense. However to my nice shock at any time when we talked about this reality to the locals, they seemed amazed and identified that town had by no means had an epidemic of malaria or plague like different Indian cities. Even lots of the educated people sincerely believed that Ganga Maiya, which accurately means Mom Ganges within the Hindi language, took care of all these points as a divine matter. 

The subsequent day we visited Sarnath, solely about 13 kilometers from Varanasi. It stays one of many holiest locations in Buddhism. The temple receives a particularly massive variety of vacationers from Southeast Asia and significantly the Sinhalese Buddhists from Sri Lanka. In contrast to Hindu temples, the Buddhist place of worship was austere, clear and neat. There was an aura of peace and quiet we had by no means skilled on earlier events. We additionally stopped by the Dhamek and Chaukhandi Stupas – one in all them erected by Emperor Ashoka who dominated within the 3rd century BCE. These commemorative monuments are large buildings and an actual archeological rarity. 

Jaipur to Ajmer to Go to Pushkar — A Uncommon Hindu Brahma Temples and the Holy Muslim Ajmer Sharif Dargah 

We continued our 2016 pilgrimage by means of North Central India to Jaipur, Rajasthan. On August 31 we reached Pushkar about 14 kilometers from Ajmer and walked for fairly some time to one of many 5 most sacred dhams, pilgrimage websites, on the Pushkar Lake. The Brahma temple that we visited was constructed within the 14th century. In response to legend, there are only some Brahma temples in India as a result of the god’s spouse, blinded by jealousy, cursed him that he wouldn’t be worshiped anymore on earth. At this website we had fairly an disagreeable journey with the pujari, the temple priest answerable for the puja. Once we refused to pay the whole massive sum of cash he had requested for to carry out the ritual, the priest attacked us claiming that our kids and grandchildren would undergo consequently. For sure, I gave in to his request, however the entire expertise left me fairly disillusioned with the importance of non secular ceremonies.

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After Pushkar, we drove to Ajmer Sharif Dargah of Moinuddin Chishti, a revered Muslim shrine visited by over 100,000 pilgrims a day. Regardless of being fairly crowded, the place was surprisingly clear just like the Sikh Golden Temple. My late mother- and fatheri-in-law who had been Hindus, used to ship cash by means of their Muslim servants to supply a chaddar, a sheet supplied in devotion, on the Ajmer Sharif Dargah. In honor of their beliefs, my spouse requested one of many Muslim clergymen to conduct a brief prayer ceremony and requested him concerning the cost. In contrast to the aggressive Hindu priest at Pushkar, the Maulvi replied that we might provide no matter sum we wished. For an providing of two,000 rupees, they ready an elaborate wicker basket with flowers and fruits and I needed to carry it on my head into the inside sanctum of the Dargah. It was an fascinating and pleasant expertise. We additionally noticed an enormous pot wherein rice and dal had been cooked. The meals was to be distributed to the poor outdoors the Dargah. 

Tirupati through Hyderabad — Tirumala Venkateswara Temple — Holiest Temple in South India 

On September 1 we flew to Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh. After checking into the lodge, we visited the fanciest Sari Palace on the town. So, whereas chatting to the store proprietor, we unintentionally realized that it might be somewhat tough to do a Tirupati Temple Darshan with out prior approval from a neighborhood official. However every thing has a worth in India. We had been knowledgeable that if we gave a considerable baksheesh, a tip, to a sure particular person, we’d be given fast entry to the world-famous Tirumala Venkateswara Temple’s inside sanctum. For this  particular go to, known as darshan, ladies should put on a sari or a protracted plain churidar costume, with tight becoming trousers, whereas males put on a dhoti and angavastram, a protracted sarong and a shoulder material. 

So we bought the mandatory garments after which patiently waited for a name in our lodge room. At round 9.30pm an inspector with the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Division with the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD) introduced he could be our information and was keen to take us for a really particular darshan that very same evening. We rapidly dressed with the appropriate attire and adopted him. The whole lot concerning the temple was extremely organized in a businesslike method.  We lower throughout enormous traces of pilgrims due to our  particular dispensation and had been allowed to cease and observe the deity of Lord Venkateswara for effectively over 5 minutes, whereas others had been hustled out with not more than 30 seconds of darshan

All of this particular dispensation got here at a heavy worth. The subsequent day we had been requested to provide the inspector who had organized our go to, a princely sum of 10,000 rupees. Our driver obtained visibly upset as a result of we had been handled as “foreigners.” He claimed that we had been overcharged and that the inspector had taken full benefit of our ignorance. Later that day we additionally visited a few different temples and in all places the enterprise method was the identical. It felt extra like going to a shopping center than to a temple. No marvel that the TTD Belief receives over $30 million simply in admission tickets and the sale of laddus, sweets, generates a staggering income stream exceeding $10 million. All different donations are in all probability 100 instances greater than the numbers talked about above. The TTD belief does run a number of universities and claims to conduct many charitable actions. 

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Bombay — Zoroastrian Atash Behram — The Finish of Our India Pilgrim Tour 

When Islam got here to Persia, some Zoroastrians fled to India. Since then, members of this neighborhood have been known as Parsis in honor of the land of their origin. In Bombay, I made a decision to finish our pilgrim tour by visiting all 4 of the holiest Parsi hearth temples known as Atash Behrams, which suggests the hearth of victory. That is the very best grade of a fireplace that may be positioned in a Zoroastrian hearth temple as an everlasting flame. The opposite two decrease graded fires are Atash Adaran and under is the Atash Dadfah. These three grades signify the diploma of reverence and dignity these are held in. 

As I discussed in the beginning, my spouse was raised as a Hindu and non-Parsis should not allowed to enter these locations of worship, due to this fact on September 4, 2016, I visited by myself the Banaji Atash Behram (AB) on Charni highway in Bombay, adopted by the Wadiaji AB in Dhobi Talao, then the Anjuman AB additionally in Dhobi Talao and the final Dadyseth AB in Fanaswadi, Chira Bazaar space. 

What got here as an incredible shock to me was, in contrast to all the opposite crowded temples we had visited, the extremely neat and clear Atash Behrams had been nearly empty and there have been extra clergymen than lay folks. I’m a 67-year-old senior citizen, however the overwhelming majority of the Parsis praying in these temples gave the impression to be a lot older than me. All of the Hindu, Christian, Sikh and Muslim locations of worship had been teeming with younger youngsters, whereas within the Atash Behrams I didn’t see any. It’s a identified undeniable fact that the Parsis are a dying breed in India. With our intolerance of not admitting any non-Parsis into our hearth temples and essentially the most outrageously offensive coverage of disbarring a Parsi feminine who marries a non-Parsi in India from getting into our hearth temples and treating her youngsters likewise, the Zoroastrian Parsi inhabitants will proceed to decrease quickly. Now there are solely 53,000 Parsis remaining in India and about 110,000 worldwide. At this charge, Parsis will likely be worn out in 50 to 75 years until the orthodox extremists lose their stranglehold on the fast-declining neighborhood. 

Extra Confused Than Ever 

Indian society is kind of non secular. In each day life, faith typically performs an enormous function in folks’s lives. Many individuals make pilgrimages to holy websites and locations of worship to thank god/gods, search blessings and make needs. I went to locations of worship in a spirit of curiosity. I wished to see if there was one thing about faith that I had been lacking over all these years.

One putting factor occurred to me. There’s nice religious vitality among the many individuals who go on pilgrimages. Every of them have their very own hopes, wishes and beliefs. But whereas the locations of worship gave the impression to be lush with money, the poor don’t appear to profit from this wealth. Their religiosity advantages the locations of worship and the custodians of such locations. 

As I stated earlier, I went on this pilgrim tour with an open thoughts. I hoped to flee my state of “confused atheism,” obtain a deeper understanding of the non secular practices and, consequently, turn out to be a greater particular person. Nonetheless, the 2 weeks of touring the size and breadth of India elevated my disenchantment and disillusionment with faith. Because of my 2016 pilgrimage, I stay much more of a confused atheist.

(This text was edited by Senior Editor Francesca Julia Zucchelli.)

The views expressed on this article are the writer’s personal and don’t essentially replicate Honest Observer’s editorial coverage.