Recently, I attended a wedding in Deoghar, Jharkhand. The marriage was a splendid affair. I had the time of my life, dancing, chatting with the rather beleaguered jeejajee, and indulging in exactly the kind of silly behavior that always made me roll my eyes at the dimwittedness of giddy onscreen saalis.
The next morning, many of us felt it a duty to go to the nearby Baba Baidyanath temple. Coming all the way to the holy town and not visiting the sacred jyotirlingam didn’t make much sense after all.
Suffused with early morning post- breakfast energy and enthusiasm, we decided to walk the distance between our hotel and the temple. The weather had turned pleasantly warm. Moreover, the unsaid agreement among us devoted pilgrims was that shunning the luxury of a car might help us earn ‘brownie points’ in our race to reach the closest to the Almighty.
The locality in which the temple is situated is quite like any other in the country. The streets become predictably narrower and the crowd denser as one gets closer to the temple grounds. Yet, once inside the mandir parisar, what first strikes any visitor is the sheer number of devotees thronging the place. Women, men and kids- all dressed in their brightest best- seem to converge in this single place of worship. Frenzied pandas sniff out uncertain visitors, materialize before them, and promise “trouble- free” entry into the main temple- the one that houses the Jyotirlingam itself. In return, he expects no less than a few hundreds, undoubtedly a meager price to be paid in order to be able to meet GOD Himself.
The main temple throws up a few surprises of its own. A solitary door acts as both the entrance and the exit. Crossing the threshold, you find yourself in a narrow, claustrophobic corridor, being pushed and pulled at the same time, wondering if this is how you feel just before you say your final goodbye. The corridor leads you into the small area in the middle of which the jyotirlingam is positioned. You look at other (visibly) more experienced devotees and do exactly what they do- fold your hand, throw the flowers and gangajal on the lingam, and then start thinking what will be there for lunch. That is exactly when your sweet, hired- help- of- a- panda hollers into your ears, “YOU NEED TO SIT AND PRAYYY!!” So you sit down and brayyy.
The battle to get out of the mandir is so tortuous and suffocating that you feel like Harry Potter trying to reach the surface of the sea, with the effect of gillyweed already starting to wear out. The faceless mass then literally carries you out and you step out of the intimidating shrine into the sun, breathe in gulps of air and promise yourself, “never again.”
And just when you think the worse is over, you notice a beheaded goat at a distance- a bali, an offering to please God and keep Him good humored. The headless goat keeps flailing its limbs, twisting in pain, obviously believing it is still alive. And then you try to recall if it was Einstein who once said he could not conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures.
In today’s day and age, religion does not pervade our day- to- day lives, or dictates our actions in as decisive a way as it did, say, a century ago. Yet, many of us still find it impossible to wiggle our way out of the complex web of dated and logic- defying (washing stone structures with milk and honey? Ringing bells to wake God up from His slumber?) rites and rituals. We join hands and bow before idols. We tie the red thread on our wrists. We expect married women to wear sindoor, and widows, white. And we do all this unthinkingly.
So religious rituals still remain the opium of the masses. By masses, I do not mean Asimov’s ignorant, gullible and yet- to- evolve multitudes “out there”. Rather, it includes educated, scientifically aware, modern young men and women like you and me.
And it is only after we go on a holy pilgrimage ourselves that the true meaning of Marx’s words hits us hard. Before any puja or holy trip, we forget that it is simply in the faces of men and women that we ought to see God. And no matter how excruciatingly uncomfortable the experience might be, we emerge out of these with a weird sense of… accomplishment and tell ourselves,
“Ha. Three dhaams down, one more to go!”