A Quest for Finding Oneself in India: Introduction
Humans are born with an incredible amount of mental capacity to learn and grow, yet we are not born with a pre-determined set of rules guiding our thoughts. Religious practice around the world is thus the result of a collaboration of ideas between humans within a society in order to bring a framework of understanding into everyday life. Yet even with justifications of existence provided by religion, some individuals choose to pursue unanswered questions, in order to find a deeper meaning to life, and existence. Pilgrimage is such a quest, and is the pursuit of knowledge, as well as a journey of the mind and body, in search of answers to the unknowable questions of the universe. Pilgrimage also serves to prove one's own devotion to his or her faith, and can be qualified as a measure of good will, intended for gaining the favor of the higher being, as well as proving to oneself the resolve which exists within. India, in particular, has perfected the idea of pilgrimage. Devotion to Krishna and the ways of Hinduism are, for instance, important aspects of religious believers in India; this feeling of devotion can only be reached through a pilgrimage of some sort, whether internal or external. Yet Hinduism is not the only religion of belief India. In fact, there are many others, just as important and just as interesting. But no matter what religion the pilgrimage is in reference of, the reward, the most important facet of the pilgrimage, for a successful and thorough quest, is the comfort of knowing one's own existence is justified. This paper will thus discuss this idea of pilgrimage and how it can be utilized to provide a sense of self-fulfillment for an individual.
The Idea of the Pilgrimage Expanded
The search for a higher understanding of life's elusive answers compels humans to take journeys throughout their life, whether it is the Muslim Hajj to Mecca, the Catholic voyage to Rome, or the Bhakti practice of pilgrimage in India. India in particular has many hundreds of religions, thousands if you follow links to religions of the past. Pilgrimage has existed for mankind for longer than recorded history, and therefore the idea of the long journey itself is central to human nature.
The pilgrimage is not always peaceful, either, as the crusades of the Christians to Jerusalem was conducted via war, and even the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage of Mohammed from Medina to Mecca, was under the auspices of conquest. The Sikh, the Indian warrior class which has separated its beliefs and practices from the majority Hindu population surrounding the Sikh, has made battle an important aspect of their freedom. Not all Indians have pursued the path of violence, however, and the Bhakti movement is one which will be studied in order to observe how non-violence and tolerance has shaken the foundations of India itself.
One aspect of pilgrimage which is shared by all pilgrims is the belief that they are following a path set before them, either by God or by a man, and therefore to take pilgrimage is to begin not simply a quest, but rather a divine trail intended to test the devotion of an individual. To enter into pilgrimage is not merely an escape from life as it exists, but rather a difficult challenge to be approached with intense fervor in order to prove one's own worth, even if it is a worthiness employed entirely within one's own understanding of God and the divine. It is important to any pilgrim to be able to find what they are looking for when setting out on a long journey, as pilgrimage demands, and therefore it is altogether wise to have some sort of guru or teacher to follow, whether that be Jesus, Mohammed, or Arjun, from the pages of the Bhagavad-Gita.
Pilgrimage in India
There are many varieties of religions in India, and thus many forms of pilgrimage, as can be seen from the short description previously stated. From the large Muslim population, to the monotheistic, including Christianity, to the Sikh, and of course including the variations of polytheism which has dominated Indian political life from Delhi. This is a contrast from many other countries, which usually have a prevailing religious practice within the border.
India has always been very rich in culture, and unusually accepting of diametrically opposed beliefs. The different pilgrimages undertaken by individuals here can take many forms, either in the context of a single group or community, or pilgrimages of the self. Bhakti, a movement rejecting the restrictions that had been built on the Hindu people by centuries of careful manipulation of the Caste system, is an important movement towards the realization of equality among men, and the self-actualization of the power of God. It is a movement which has helped reshape Indian society as well as deepen the understanding of pilgrimage, particularly the pilgrimage one takes within their own self, over the course of years, in order to achieve a better understanding without relying on intermediaries between the individual and the world of the divine.
Bhakti, translated to "devotion to God," which is the core principle of the Bhakti movement as a whole. Bhakti has several key traits which differ from other Indian religions and practices, even within Hinduism. The five basic principles of the movement are, firstly, concentrated on the fact that it is devotion to God only which can lead to enlightenment. Also, it is important to follow a guru in Bhakti, in order to receive the correct and best education on the movement, and to keep the influence of neighboring movements out. Third, is the very strong belief that all who are born as equals, and as such in the world there are no betters and no worse people, and everyone should be treated with that amount of respect regardless of who it is, Indian or not.
Fourth is the very controversial belief and divergent from mainstream Hindusm practice of no caste distinction, as well as the denial of the effects of simple ritual or the idea that fasting is a useful practice before God. Caste is an extremely embedded concept in India, and due to the inherent inequality within such a system, there are many movements which try to rid castes from separating society. Fasting is also non-important to the Bhakti, but for different reasons than the ridding of the caste system. To fast is to withdraw from eating and consuming liquid for a certain period of time, in order to show devotion to God. God does not appreciate the fast, however, as it serves no purpose to others and does not do anything to work towards achieving enlightenment. Nourishment of the body is just as important as nourishment of the soul, and therefore fasting is removed as a principle of the Bhakti movement.
Finally, the fifth principle of the Bhakti is that all men should be tolerant. This blanket statement is weak in its specifics, but strong in its sentiment, particularly for those who see conflict as a means to achieve selfish goals.
Forms of Pilgrimage
Just as different religions have different forms of pilgrimage, so does an individual. For the purposes of this examination, meditation and the Bhagavad-Gita will be examined in detail. Meditation is a form of pilgrimage which is available to those who are unable to travel, or who have questions of self which cannot be answered in any other fashion except for the exploration of one's internal thought process. Although meditation is considered an internal process, there are external factors that must be present in order to achieve the preferred state of conscious necessary to have a fulfilling meditation. Meditation guides help with this process by providing the environment and knowledge necessary to explore one's own soul.
For centuries foreigners have entered the Indian subcontinent wishing to have the secrets of India unveiled before them. This style of pilgrimage is rather different than that of the local, who understands pilgrimage as a fundamental part of being Indian, rather than as an optional getaway from the troubles of far away. For the foreign pilgrim, the journey is less about belonging to a ritual passed throughout generations within a community setting. The pilgrimage is generally also not about reincarnation and the various aspects of Hinduism and the lessons revealed by Krishna, unless of course this foreigner is a Hindu themselves. Rather, pilgrimage to India is about realizing oneself, and denying the internal concept of 'ego', which translates to 'self'.
A guru is generally still the teacher during this sort of trek, but the lessons learned are to be internalized. The concepts laid out in Bhakti partially relate to the pilgrimage of the foreign individual, particularly in equality for all men, and the toleration for others, but some of what Bhakti teaches is intended solely for the political process of India, which operated by excluding lesser Castes and weaker populations.