Two days ago I returned from helping to lead a trip to India for 24 Ananda members and students, most from the Seattle area. I've been many times to India but I would say that this trip was a highlight for me. I think I may, at last, have some perspective on these trips worth sharing.
Here's a few general things that have come clear:
1. A true pilgrimage always involves "tapasya." Tapasya can, in this case, equate to the hardship and self-sacrifice that is entailed in leaving home, comforts and routine to travel a long distance to a foreign country for the sake of spiritual purification and upliftment. As one of the pilgrims put it, "it's not what you put in the brochure!" Maybe it should be, but we didn't! (We DID talk about it, however.) You can start with the simple fact that it is expensive to take such a trip but that's only one kind of tapasya. There's the discomfort and weariness of travel; the exposure to illness, disease, and general malaise associated with bacteria of a far distant country. There's heat, humidity and coldness: and we had it all, though truthfully, the heat was no by no means extreme, nor the cold, though we were near to literally freezing in the Himalaya (there was an unseaonable snow in Ranikhet). There are unlimited opportunities for annoyances specific to travel and to traveling in groups (where's there's bound to be one or more fellow travelers who get on your nerves).
2. There's the unrealistic expectation that you are going to go into "samadhi" (a high spiritual state) at these holy shrines or in the presence of saintly people; or, that you might have visions or deep insights into your life's drama or into universal truth. Even though, in fact, you might have such experiences, the issue is one of expectations. What then is a realistic expectation in regards to the spiritual "fruit" of pilgrimage? Let me share some thoughts a little ways further on this very important topic.
3. The bonds of friendships that derive from sharing meaningful, adventurous and new experiences, both mundane and sublime, cannot be understated. The value of learning patience with others and acceptance of self are enduring, practical, and life-long traits.
4. Entering into a culture that is so different than one's own is expansive to the mind and heart. The importance of, as one pilgrim put it, "getting out of the bus" (from where we look out at Indian street culture, separate and safe), is paramount to the instinctive impulse in signing on to such a trip. Immersion is what the pilgrim seeks: both material and spiritual. It is empowering to ride local transportation; to visit the homes and families of locals; to learn about their history and way of life, and, more importantly, to experience their way of life: these are also essential. As visitors this is not easy and attempts to induce this integration can be all too false (like tourists attending a luau organized by their five star hotel in Hawaii). There are risks, both to health and person. But making the effort (which takes some courage, common sense, and intuition) is important. Five our pilgrims accepted the auto rickshaw driver's invitation to his home. They were all women. On paper, at least, it was risky, perhaps foolish. But grace and intuition seems to have guided them to a genuine and heart opening experience.
5. India is changing rapidly. New apartment buildings are rising to surround temples, ashrams, and other sacred sites. Don't put off unnecessarily your inspiration to go on pilgrimage. Our travel to and our devotion to these holy places will help them survive and thrive. The Indian people take notice of our sincere interest in preserving and honoring these holy sites. A culture that historically and instinctively honors saints and sacredness seems wonderfully unusual to us. We may be stunned when we meet an Indian professional man or woman (perhaps in fields such as medicine or technology) who, while well educated and traveled, spontaneously and naturally expresses deep devotion to the guru, deities, or shrines. Same for the rickshaw driver. Either way, we contribute not only to developing our own devotion but preserving theirs by our example and our pilgrimage.
6. No pilgrim from western countries can avoid the intensity of encountering first hand the contrast and seeming conflict and injustice between luxury and poverty; health and disease; life and death; self-indulgence and hunger, to name a few. To return each night to one's four or five star hotel after walking the streets where trash, hardship, and poverty run amuck is a contrast guaranteed to generate tears of sorrow or guilt, anger at injustice, or worst of all, deadening indifference.
It is our intention that dictates the consequences. If we go truly on pilgrimage, offering ourselves and any tapasya that comes, into the flames of devotion, self-sacrifice, and desire for soul-freedom (ours and others), then the results are "guaranteed" but not in any way we can or should expect. Non-attachment to the fruits of pilgrimage must be our starting point.
Spiritual consciousness and insight come "like a thief in the night" Jesus warns us. We must be prepared but not expectant. "Two are working in a field; one is taken, the other remains." This paraphrase of another of Jesus' metaphors reminds us that our consciousness (including intention) is more important than any outward (travel) or position (role). Prayer, meditation, humility, openness, equanimity under stress or success........these reflect the ways we must approach our pilgrimage if its spiritual fruit is to be tasted.
Spiritual blessings from pilgrimage may well be experienced after, even long after, the trip itself. The power to suddenly make important changes in your personal life may be felt almost immediately. For some, time is needed for the seeds of grace planted during the pilgrimage to sprout. The joy of pilgrimage may appear like flowers in the Spring but may not even be noticed by you until you return home when the contrast with your pre-pilgimage state becomes noticeable. Meditating in Babaji’s cave may be, for some, a contemplation of discomfort rather than bliss. But the effort may produce spontaneous wisdom or joy under otherwise challenging circumstances just when you need it most.
When we travelled to the Himalayas to visit Babaji's cave on Drongiri Mountain, northeast of the hill station of Ranikhet, we were met by unseasonable and near winter conditions. Hope of even ascending the path to the cave was silently at stake, potentially crushing our highest hopes. But, all in all, our group remained cheerful and confident regardless of weather conditions. But the following morning dawned bright and sunny, even if still cold. Our climb that day, and the next day's trip back down to the plains, was met with gorgeous, sunny weather!
Every culture has its own tailor-made ways and karmic patterns which produce misery for its people. India is no exception. Once one of the richest countries in former times, centuries of foreign occupation had reduced the subcontinent to the poorest of the poor countries. A rigid class (caste) system nurtured exploitation and prejudice even as it stifled freedom, creativity and energy for far too long.
But all of this is steadily, even rapidly, changing. One cannot but experience the vibrancy and creativity of modern India. While loss of spiritual values attends growing material prosperity everywhere, it is a necessary stage in India's recovery and in overcoming past karma. Underlying this obvious trend, a pilgrim finds the innate sweetness, kindness, devotion to saints and sacredness, and hospitality very much alive today. India's avatars and saints, nurtured by the native devotion of its people, has, as Yogananda put it in his "Autobiography of a Yogi," bulwarked India against the fates of Egypt, Rome, Greece and other past civilizations.
The pilgrims' discomfort in encountering a culture that tolerates widespread beggary is not so easily resolved or dismissed. Each pilgrim must confront his response to extreme poverty in his or her own way. While we cannot end injustice or hunger by our own individual actions, we mustn't let this reality excuse our own indifference.
Share, then, as or if you feel to do so and under whatever circumstances confront your conscience. There is no one way; no pat response. I've seen the simple act of giving a few "cents" to a beggar create an onrush of fellow beggars grasping and pawing at the hapless foreigner whose confusion and discomfort grow to the point of panic or even anger.
At a train stop, some of us, with meal plates in front us in our seats, were confronted with a little boy outside our window on the platform asking for food. We had eaten a banquet only hours before and had little need for the meal placed in front of us on the train. There was no time to jump up and try to give our meal to this boy as the train was about to lurch forward. The feeling of helplessness: both his, and our own in responding to his need, produced tears and averted eyes. This is the price of expanding our awareness of realities far from our own. It is the price of opening one's heart to the realities of others. For this we have traveled so far.
The bonds of friendship in a holy and sacred effort last far beyond the few weeks of a pilgrimage. The simple exchanges of kindness with those in India whom we encountered in our journey, too, are heart-opening. We need not measure "success" by visions or superconscious experiences but by the yardstick of the open heart. Open not merely to sentiments or personalities but to the great Giver of Life, Love, and Joy from which the transforming power of love and friendship come. To attune ourselves to that divine power as manifested especially in the lives of those great saints whose lives reflect this power so perfectly is find a channel, a life-spring, to the Source.
We, who are, in a sense, privileged, have put our karmic inheritance to good use in fulfilling the timeless inspiration to leave all, risk all, and go on pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is a metaphor of the soul’s journey back to God. Not only do the destinations offer to us priceless blessings but the very journey itself opens our hearts and minds to the greater reality which we call Life: the divine Life.
It’s good to be back and it’s a blessing to have gone!