Since this piece has the potential of offending the devout and the devotees and raising their hackles, I must begin with my personal disclaimers and disclosures. I am not a religious person; in fact, I am an agnostic. I pride in imagining myself a rationalist, though my incisive nephew Pronab has serious misgivings about my pretensions because of my fondness for Dr. Brian Weiss, and belief in the eternal soul and the transmigration of the same from one material body to another. I don’t visit temples on my own but I am not averse to visiting them when with others.
I planned the visit to Vaishnodevi only because my wife Shukla had evinced an interest a good quarter century ago to visit the Mata and we were, in any case, going to Srinagar. Given mine and my children’s agnosticism, for us it was going to be an experience, I thought.
Seven in the evening when darkness spread across the mountains and the lights shone brighter, standing at the base in Katra I looked up at the mountain trails high up my eye-line. I knew the Mata was even far beyond the serpentine paths – the gradient looked steep, the twinkling lights in the far high horizon seemed ineluctable. Our journey up indeed intimidated much before it had begun.
But we were determined – to make our experience count. We knew there was no battery-operated car since they don’t ply after evening six and we didn’t want to take the mule or pony or palki. So we trudged up. The walking stick was of some help but not enough to stop me from panting and resting my by-now aching legs every ten minutes. My sweat had begun a runnel.
The devout waded through the promenade, shops on either side blaring Mata’s numbers, the mules and ponies paced up and down amid the sludge of animal excreta – some adding their own fresh dollops of waste – and shouts of Jai Mata Di adding to the festive cacophony. The atmosphere was electric.
Not so my legs. They cried for rest which I dutifully provided as Jai Mata Di, Jor se bolo, baithke bolo, haas ke bolo, pyaar se bolo rent the air. We were nowhere near the half-way mark to Ardhkuwari, which itself was only half-way to the Mata’s abode.
Reaching Ardhkuwari felt blessed. Now on, the incline wasn’t as steep as the one to it, our guide consoled us. The mules and ponies took a different route, so our path was cleaner and freer to walk. The thought of getting closer to the destination spurred us on. We quickened our steps and reached well past midnight and after a quick wash headed for the darshan.
It was few days before navratri and the place high up the mountain was abuzz with devotees thronging every conceivable space. A line – men, women, old and young, toddlers and bentbacks – snaked across as we wound our way through the milling multitude. Closer to the Mata’s shrine the grilled barricades caged the devotees in single-file to avoid stampede. I looked up the high mountain paths at the pony route lit up with bright lights ferrying devotees. It looked menacing.
“Leave medicines here,” the CRPF policewoman bellowed.
“But they’re my BP medicine.” I protested.
“No medicine can go to the Mata!” she fumed.
Our darshan of the Mata was for a nano-second. My daughter Priyanka couldn’t see the deities as we were commandeered out of the tunnel.
Back in the open I saw the same jostling. Around us, the din and bustle of pilgrims kept the place agog with wild excitement. “How long will it take these devotees to have a darshan?” I asked our guide, pointing at the snaking populace incarcerated in the grilled single-filed barricades as we prepared to head back down.
“Well,” he paused, his eyes sweeping over the endless queue whipping across to the tunnel of nano-second darshan, “they would’ve joined the queue around six and it could be well past nine tomorrow morning before they’ve a darshan.” I gulped. 15 hours for a nano-second darshan!
The walk down didn’t feel difficult. My son Prayag and I discussed the VIP darshan and the commercialization of aarti priced at thousand rupees per head. “So while all devotees are equal, the privileged and the rich are more equal than the others,” he said, as we raced down the winding path to Ardhkuwari.
By now our eternally braking knees were protesting. The guide enticed us to take the steps. By the time we had done the third flight of 500-odd steps my thigh muscles had cramped up. I could barely walk. I collapsed in a chair nursing my cramp and watched a pony struggling his way up with two gas cylinders on its tender back. The memories of palki-bearers and peethis resting en route came back to me in a flash. How hard it is for these people/animals to ferry humans up the mountain for devotees to have darshan?
Did the Mata wish this hardship on her devotees? Certainly not. No Mata worth her nobility would like her devotees take this trouble. No Mata would like animate beings tortured under the weight they’re made to carry to serve her devotees? No Mata would like her devotees with toddlers in tow to self-flagellate and stand in queue nightlong without the benefit of toilet, food and water for darshan. I remembered the young girl, barely six or seven, piteously crying out in protest, “Mama, I don’t want to go. Why you forcing me to? I just can’t walk any further.” Or the shrill cries of another young soul, “Please, please, leave me here. I’ll die.” These scenes came back to me in a collage.
As I hobbled over to Katra, I couldn’t help recalling Bertrand Russell’s observations on ‘sin’. “If ‘sin’ consisted in causing needless suffering, I could understand, but on the contrary, sin often consists in avoiding needless suffering. Some years ago, in the English House of Lords, a bill was introduced to legalize euthanasia in cases of painful and incurable disease. The patient’s consent was to be necessary as well as several medical certificates. To me, in my simplicity, it would seem natural to require the patient’s consent, but the late Archbishop of Canterbury, the English official expert on sin, explained the erroneousness of such a view. The patient’s consent turns euthanasia into suicide and suicide is sin. Their Lordships listened to the voice of authority and rejected the Bill. Consequently, to please the Archbishop and his God, if he reports truly, victims of cancer still have to endure months of wholly useless agony, unless their doctors or nurses are sufficiently humane to risk a charge of murder. I find difficulty in the conception of a God who gets pleasure from contemplating such tortures, and if there were a God capable of such wanton cruelty, I should certainly not think Him worthy of worship. But that only proves how sunk I am in moral depravity.”
It was day-break. My mind still in a whirl, I tried to fathom the senseless human-created psychology of devotion imposed on poor senseless devotees trawling their young wards up the mountain-path much against their wishes. For all the hardship and humongous loss of human-hours, I thought if Mother Teresa wasn’t spot-on when she said, “Hands that serve are holier than the hands that pray.”