In the book “Pilgrim Nation: The Making of Bharatvarsh”, renowned mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik takes readers on an insightful journey to thirty-two holy sites in the Indian subcontinent.
The sections in the book include – The Vedic Age, The Shramana Age, The Puranic Age, The Tantrik Age, The Islamic Age, The Bhakti Age, The European Age, and The Nation State. Different holy sites which have been in existence from these eras have been described.
Along with the pilgrimage sites, the author also discusses about the complex and layered history, geography, and imagination of the land once known as Bharatvarsha.
Read an excerpt from Devdutt Pattanaik’s book “Pilgrim Nation” below.
Why does one visit Amritsar? To see division or union?
The division manifests as the Indo-Pak Wagah border, where sibling, nationalistic rivalry is on glorious display. The division manifests as the 1919 massacre at the Jallianwala Bagh by the British army, which has now become a tourist spot. The division manifests as Operation Blue Star, in 1984, when the Indian army stormed the Golden Temple complex. The division manifests as the discomfort against the authoritarian style of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), administrators of the Golden Temple complex, since the Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925, that sidelined the hermits of the Udasi order, once keepers of Sikh lore. The division manifests as miri-piri, the separation of the temporal (miri), embodied by the Akal Takht, seat of the leadership of the Khalsa, which is the community of Sikhs, and the transcendental (piri), embodied in Harmandir Sahib, which is the formal name of the Golden Temple, located in the middle of a man-made lake, considered to be the pond (sarovar) that confers immortality-bestowing wisdom (amrit).
Then comes the union: when you take a dip in the pond, and enter the shrine or gurdwara (doorway to the teacher); when you bow before the Guru Granth Sahib (holy teacher-scripture); when you hear the wise words and songs of the gurus, sants, and pirs, from Bhakti and Sufi traditions that constitute the book; when you eat in the communal canteen (langar); when you chant and pray (simran) as you do service (seva), and cook, serve, clean, and watch others doing so, irrespective of religion, caste, class, nationality, race, gender, or sexuality, with full humility and piety. Here, humans are connected with God, the divine possibility: the dissolution of all borders, hence hierarchy, domination, and power struggles; as fear disappears, there is no need to be territorial.
This idea is embodied in the Mul Mantar of the Sikh tradition, that describes the universal oneness, the supreme, unchangeable truism, the Creator, the Sustainer, who is beyond fear, hatred, death, birth, who is self-contained, and manifests as the grace of the guru. Guru Nanak, the first guru of the Sikhs, who lived 500 years ago, composed the Mul Mantar.
Sikhism rose geographically, historically, and psychologically at the interface of two major religions: Hinduism and Islam. And one can clearly see the two influences. The name Harmandir, for example, is derived from ‘Hari ka Mandir’, with Hari being the specific title of the Hindu god, Vishnu, but stripped of all sectarian connotations, when used in Sikhism. The kitchens are strictly vegetarian. But unlike Hinduism, Sikhism is highly organized through a clearly defined holy book, where songs present God as formless (nirakar) and attributeless (nirguna). It evokes a world of justice without oppression. Known as the Adi Granth, it was declared the Guru Granth Sahib, the final guru, by the tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh, who formalized the religion 300 years ago.
The Guru Granth Sahib is placed on a pedestal (takht) and covered with a cloth (rumal) and a chowrie (chaur) or yak-tail flywhisk is waved over it. In ancient India, the chowrie was reserved for kings. In temples, it was reserved for Ram, for Ram is the royal avatar of Vishnu. The Sikh kings, including Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who plated Harminder Sahib with gold, 200 years ago, denied themselves this honour, to remind the Sikh people that ultimate power rested with the book itself, for whom the chowrie is forever reserved. Right from the start, the gurus of the Sikh faith wanted to end all divisions that fragmented society, including the religious divide, caste divide, class divide, and gender divide. Most of these divides manifested themselves in the act of eating. Hindus did not eat with Muslims, Brahmins would not touch the food of Dalits, men would eat food first, and then the women of the household. The langar symbolically dissolves these boundaries and hierarchies: everyone cooks and serves, and eats together. Thus, the Hindu ritual of ‘bhog’ is transformed into a Sikh custom that establishes equality. Of course, activists do point to the caste divisions that are increasingly creeping into modern Sikh gurdwaras, both in India and abroad, with deep divisions between Jat Sikhs and Dalit Sikhs.
Sikhism has, consistently, valued the householder’s life over the hermit’s. Marriage and family were seen as foundations of society. The holy book has no songs by female saints, but it repeatedly speaks of gender equality, a radical thought, five centuries ago. If the man who accepted Sikhism was called lion (Singh), the woman was called princess or lioness (Kaur), thus giving her an identity of her own that is not dependent on her father or her husband. Women have played a key role in the Sikh religion. There is, for example, the tale of Mai Bhago, who, in the eighteenth century, inspired and changed the mind of forty army deserters and led them on a suicide mission against the Mughal army that was pursuing Guru Gobind Singh. The forty soldiers later became famous as the forty liberated ones (Chali Mukte).
The Guru Granth Sahib has nothing to say on matters related to queer genders and sexuality. In the absence of any guidelines, one wonders what direction Sikhism will take. Will it be influenced by one Janmasakhi ‘B40’ (orally transmitted lore on the life and travels of Guru Nanak) that informs us about and even presents a miniature painting of Guru Nanak having a dialogue on the nature of the divine with the cross-dressing Sufi sage Sheikh Saraf in Baghdad? Or will it follow the trend of Hindu, Islamic, even Christian and Buddhist radical groups that have glamorized conservative values as pure and original? Maybe Sikhism, the youngest religion of the subcontinent, that has always challenged boundaries and divisions and prejudices, can show the more egalitarian way in the twenty-first century.
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