Hinduism

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Virtual Pilgrimages

By Anthony MacIsaac

During the difficulties imposed by Covid-19 many of our religious habits have necessarily changed. Among these are habits of prayer, personal and collective. One especially profound form of prayer is the pilgrimage, which has been affected extraordinarily. At its root, the concept of pilgrimage involves leaving one’s normal space, to enter into sacred space. To leave oneself (along with any notions of selfishness) and to be embraced by a living and selfless whole. When we make pilgrimage to a particular site, we indeed walk the paths on which countless others have trod, living and dead. We enter into communion with them, even if an unseen communion, and we focalise that onto a particular space. We might call this focal-point a kind of Divine presence in the world around us. It is indeed a kind of deep communion with God.

pic_1518594231It is impossible to conceive of any religion that doesn’t include some concept of pilgrimage. Islam makes it one of the Five Pillars to its religion – the Hajj. Every adult Muslim is expected to make this journey at some point in their life, even if only by great difficulty. The Holy site of Mecca is itself rather illusive, despite being at the centre of this rite. It’s Ka’bah is popularly considered to have been built by Adam, and to have been re-built by Abraham. These legendary associations transform this figurative “House of God” into a focal-point for all Humanity, in the first instance, and then into an Abrahamic shrine. Pilgrimage to Mecca thereby accomplishes, for Muslims, a return to their source (Allah) and to the foundation of His relationship with Humanity. They fulfil religious obligation in making a journey of prayer to this site, and return home uplifted. For Jews and Christians both, Jerusalem is the central space by contrast (Muslims make a secondary pilgrimage there nonetheless). By Biblical narrative, this city was the site upon which God blessed Abraham – through Melchizedek, its King – and upon which His Chosen Nation was founded centuries later. In the New Testament, it was the city in which Jesus Christ was to be suffer His Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension. It was also the city in which Pentecost was to come, and from which the Gospel would leave to reach the ends of the earth. So that, in making pilgrimage to Jerusalem, there are again the two key notions of returning to a Divine source and leaving rejuvenated by that source, to bring its joy to others.

article-2059042-0EB7BDCD00000578-46_634x416In the tradition of Hinduism, the ancient city of Varanasi holds especial significance for pilgrimage. Within its boundaries is the sacred river Ganges, which is of great importance to most Hindus, as a river in which they might wash away their sins. The city itself was reputedly founded by Shiva, who beheaded his rival Brahma. Brahma’s head was lost by Shiva, and fell into the ground, therefore making the land encompassed by Varanasi absolutely sacred in Hindu belief. Varanasi is crucial also to many Buddhists – the Gautama Buddha having given his first sermons not far from the centre of the city, at Sarnath. For Sikhs, there is the city of Amritsar, which hosts the Golden Temple. The city’s name translates as “Pool of the Nectar of Immortality” – returning us to the theme of a space’s power to transform us from within – and it was founded alongside the temple by Guru Arjan.

The above sites are just some of myriad different locations venerated in religions around the world. Each religious tradition will usually have a plurality of sacred spaces. This returns us to the effects of Covid-19. In the first instance, we have found that making great pilgrimages to great places has been an impossibility. Yet, what some of us might have recovered is a sense of the Holy in Nature around us – which is an even more fundamental source of the Divine than any Holy city, we might say. Whether we walk in a nearby park, or look to the night sky – we are able to sense something greater than ourselves within Nature. Granted, many of us live in busy cities and it is difficult to recover any of this sense. Parks might be closed, the night skies covered in artificial light. However, we still might have so many other little spaces of prayer around us – if we are fortunate. Our local Church, Masjid or Synagogue can become that source of the Divine in our life – we can make pilgrimage to it. Of course it is clear that the imagination becomes important with all of this. We are perhaps re-thinking our space around us. Seeing beauty in Nature, even when hard to spot, and appreciating the Holy in everyday religious life. The Catholic Church has certainly encouraged virtual pilgrimage throughout the pandemic, and perhaps other religious groups have also done so. In November, the Holy See even declared that a virtual visit made to a cemetery would allow us to obtain a Plenary Indulgence – which we would be free to offer to anyone buried there, or perhaps to anyone buried anywhere. Such a virtual pilgrimage as this didn’t presuppose the Internet – it went beyond that. We were told that even the act of imagining a visit made to the graveside, perhaps just the act of imagining our loved one, would bring this Indulgence. The emphasis on individual spirituality has taken centre-stage in this declaration. Through our own personal contemplative life, we can access the full bounties of God despite being so very confined in this difficult pandemic. For this winter season, the Christians among us (but others too if they desire) might stop to make a virtual pilgrimage – a pilgrimage of the heart – to Bethlehem. This has been the idea of the Christmas crib, for so long, and it would surely bring great benefits to us – even equalling those we would gain by making a physical visit to Bethlehem itself. There are no distances in God. 2539739a446a5da1756d7d6e39867554

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Spring Festivals

By Sr Isabel Smyth

A global virus has done what we human beings have been incapable of doing – reducing carbon emissions. For the first time in a long time Beijing is without pollution and citizens can see blue sky, the canals of Venice are clear and fish and dolphins are returning. Is coronavirus the cosmos reaching out for equilibrium and will we humans learn from it?  So much of ordinary life has changed but nature goes on and there are signs of spring everywhere. Even religious services have been cancelled but there’s still much to celebrate in religion. Recently there’s been a rash of religious festivals, all around the 21st March.

On 21st March the Baha’i community ended their nineteen day fast with the festival of Naw Ruz, which is also the Iranian and Zoroastrian New Year. Taking place, as it does, at the spring equinox it symbolises the new life of spring and is associated with the Most Great Name of God. Sending greetings to the Baha’i community, Bishop Brian McGee, chair of the Bishops’ Committee for Interreligious Dialogue commented that there is a lesson for all of us in this, especially those of us who are believers: “For those of us who are believers the sovereignty of God is a counterpoint to the material and consumerist culture of our times.  Coronavirus, climate change and its consequences, conflicts between and within nations are indicative of a world in which humanity has forgotten that life is a gift, that we are all brothers and sisters sharing a common home with a responsibility of caring for creation and one another for the sake of future generations.”  Shall we be more aware of this when the present crisis is over?

Another spring festival which lasts over two days is the Hindu festival of Holi. Like all Hindu festivals there are stories attached to them – one is of a demon Holika who was burned on a pyre in place of Prahlahda who insisted on worshipping the God Vishnu. Another is of the Lord Krishna who being worried that Radha would not accept his blue skin was encouraged by his mother to rub any colour he wished on Radha’s face. So the carnival atmosphere during Holi involves the lighting of bonfires to symbolise the overcoming of evil and throw coloured paint and powder over one another. I was in India once during Holi. We danced round the bonfire but I retired well before the others who danced and sang all through the night. The next day we were bombarded with coloured water bombs that seemed to come out of nowhere. This year Holi was celebrated at the beginning of March, before the virus kept people off the streets.

At the same time as the Hindu community were celebrating Holi, the Jewish community were  celebrating the carnival festival of Purim.  Purim recalls how Queen Esther saved the Jewish community when the wicked Haman had convinced King Ahaseurus of Persia to issue a decree ordering their extermination. The story is told at Purim when the Book of Esther is read through twice in the synagogue. Every time the name Haman is mentioned it’s drowned out with rattles and hooters and boos from the congregation. Children also wear fancy dress and there’s a sense of hope and celebration, a bond of unity within the community and a belief in survival in the face of what in the story seemed a hopeless situation.  I’m sure this festival has taken on added significance since the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews. It’s a lesson for all of us that life can come out of death, that hope can overcome despair, that communities that stand together can and do survive.

Last year these three festivals fell on the same day. This year Purim and Holi were held earlier in March while Naw Ruz was celebrated on 20th. They’ve a certain amount in common, being Spring festivals. Purim and Holi have a carnival atmosphere and all of them a sense of new beginnings, a sense that light can follow darkness. As the world faces these dark days of isolation and quarantine their message can give us hope and confidence that this too will pass, that a new life is possible, that we will one day be able to celebrate once again with family and friends.

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