07 August 2005

The spiritual tourist, 1

For the spiritual tourist, the obvious choice for adventure is India. The land offers a delight of religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Islam, Christianity, Zorastrianism and even Judaism, not to mention faiths and following in various gurus and godmen. In spite of its chaos, gruelling travel and pungent food, there is no better destination than India when it comes to spirituality.

Everywhere you go, you can be assured of seeing some symbol or act of devotion. The country is scattered with temples, mosques and churches, most of them architectural exhibits of a certain period or place, defining India’s history and culture through the ages.

The people are remarkable too. Hindus seem capable of worshipping just about anything: from clay, stone and metal icons to trees, stones, monuments, sacred spots, and even accomplishments like a birth in the family, girls achieving puberty, a new car, harvests and industrial production. They celebrate religious events like nobody’s business, revelling in loud festivals through the year.

Other religions, on the contrary, keep to themselves, celebrating special events on special dates, strictly by the calendar. But there is spirituality, and knowledge, here too. Whether you are a sociologist, a historian, an architect, a culture buff, a layman, a spiritual tourist or a devout worshipper, India’s mosques and churches, agiaries and synagogues, rituals and practices, sacred traditions and texts, are sure to keep you occupied for a long time.

But what fascinates me most is Buddhism – for its kind, quiet and compassionate ways. Once, a spiritual bug had bitten me and I had travelled to Bihar – first to Rajgir and then to Bodh Gaya.

In Rajgir, or in the hills just above Rajgir, is the bright and shiny Vishwa Shanti stupa. I was not alone, but one among many spiritual tourists, jostling in the town of Rajgir before boarding a ropeway to reach the hill top. A breathlessness had caught me off-guard and I couldn’t be sure whether it was because of the condition of the ski lift, the view, or in anticipation of Buddha himself.

The Vishwa Shanti stupa was a most amazing sight. I saw Buddha larger than life, bathed in the golden sun of the late winter afternoon, and would have settled in had it not been for the hundred-odd other tourists crowding and talking all at the same time. Sadly, I gathered, peace was not to be found here.

Instead of taking the ropeway back, I chose to walk down the circuitous path from the hill, to absorb what I had seen and felt. It turned out to be a good decision as no one else followed me… and I had the time and the path to myself. What more could anyone want?

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