Pilgrim’s India by Arundhathi Subramaniam – Book Review

Pilgrim's India by Arundhathi Subramaniam

Pilgrim’s India is an anthology of 52 pieces that combines poetry and prose to put together a collection of spiritual journeys taken by people over many centuries. And the search that still goes on sometimes physically and sometimes just spiritually. Arundhathi Subramaniam begins the book Pilgrim’s India with a beautiful quote from Aitareya Brahmana, By Indra to a young man called Rohita:

 There is no happiness for him who does not travel, Rohita! Thus we have heard. Living in the society of men, the best man becomes a sinner. Therefore, wander! The feet of the wanderer are like the flower, his soul is growing and reaching the fruit, and all his sins are destroyed by his fatigue in wandering. Therefore, wander! The fortune of him who is sitting, sits; it rises when he rises, it sleeps when he sleeps, it moves when he moves. Therefore wander!”

I think this very beautifully sums up the need to wander. And pilgrimage is nothing but a way to wander. A way that has been followed by the so many in every era, by the seekers, by the devotees and by the enlightened. My favorite piece in the anthology was by Osho who very clearly defines what a pilgrimage is and why people go there. He does not favor either the believers or the skeptics. He only wants them to understand what a pilgrimage is. And then choose to go or not to go.

It must have been a difficult task to choose the pieces for the anthology as such a huge, vast and deep repertoire exists in this space. Looks like the author has tried to balance the believer’s and skeptic’s journeys. Has chosen journeys across ages by picking up pieces from Huan Tsang, Meera, and Kabir. There is an attempt to cover all major and minor religions even the ones that exist on the fringes. There are varied voices, voices of western seekers who came to India in search of elusive spirituality. Of the followers who visit the pilgrimage as a matter of ritual. More often than not skeptic’s account makes an interesting reading as there is something mystical happening in their stories. They discover something unexpected, sometimes they are changed forever and sometimes they just come back with a sense of completed journey.

Sometimes there is an instant connection that happens and converts people, sometimes it happens gradually over repeated journeys. The poems, on the other hand, show an inner journey that can take place without a physical journey, or sometimes an inner journey that follows the actual journey.

One thing that remains common though is that some change is bound to happen with each journey. The extent and impact can be different for different people, but the change is a must. I would say this is true for every journey that you take not just the spiritually inclines ones. Because the true spirituality pervades this universe, especially in the places where nature is abundant. You can feel the same surge in energy standing on a hill or on a beach. Some places are high-energy points and this is where man has built temples etc as and when the energy was realized. What you call that place, and how you worship is a matter of chance. But what is important is the energy that these points can give the visitors.

This leads to a question, why don’t people live on these points, why these places are meant for visiting only? Is it because the energy may be too much to handle if you live there? Or is it the energy needs to be distributed to all and not restricted to few who live close by?

Some pieces that I enjoyed more than others are the journey of an absolute skeptic to Hemkunt Sahib. And the truck journey of a journalist to discover the pantheon of roadside deities that have evolved over ages and the need of protection ‘in-between’ places. Article on Udvada was educational, I did not know of this place. Most pieces by the western authors on their Indian journey sound too similar. And lack the depth that comes with the understanding of and connection with the native culture. Though one common question that they seem to have is what is the difference between the ecstatic space that reaches through drugs and the one you reach through meditation. Never thought the two could be compared. But then you need unconditioned minds to ask these kinds of questions.

Pilgrim’s India is a good collection to read slowly and recall your own journeys!

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