I never have been a good devotee. Different people have tried to induce at least a grain of belief in me, and have miserably failed. But without any kind of belief in any kind of sect, religion or God, I have had a cheerful life so far.
However, I like to visit temples, especially when they are not crowded. I like to explore the temples. My creative mind can travel in the past and can see certain things – all assumed of course! I can paint the past and compare it to the present and sometimes there is a difference and some other times there is no difference at all. What amuses me more than the God is people’s perception about that particular God, the astounding stories associated with the spot and the thriving market around it. It is always wonderful to note how common people carry on materialism in one hand and spiritualism in the other. Only they know what happens in the process.
So, the other day when we are entering Karaikal a district town in Puducherry, my colleague tells me about the famous Shiva temple nearby. “Would you like to go there?” he asks enthusiastically. We have lot of work ahead that day and so have started from Puducherry as early as 6.00 in the morning. I do not want to throw cold water on his passion. So as I usually respond to such suggestions, I say, “Let us see how our work progresses. If time permits, we will go.” By experience I know that if I do not strongly say “NO” time always permits!
After different meetings, discussions, visit to four villages, interaction with villagers, discussion on issues and strategies to address that etc, it is 5.30 in the evening. “Madam, shall we go to the temple now?” a village volunteer asks me anxiously. One group of our team does not want to visit the temple so they start off straight towards Puducherry.
The day had been hectic enough and it would take another four hours to reach Puducherry. But I know my colleague wants to take me to the temple. Additional half an hour is not an issue for me. So we go to Thirunallar.
Here I come across a temple which has both Shiva and Shani. I have seen very few Shani temples so far. In Pune there is a Shani temple and I remember to have visited Shani ShingaNaapur. In Delhi to my surprise I have seen many Shani temples. But almost all these temples are surrounded by beggars and ‘differently able’ crowds. For me, Shani temple is associated with sorrow, pain, shattered hopes, dreams and an urge for survival. My memory of Shanimahaatmya is depressing. For this reasons I have instinctively avoided Shani temples so far. On the other hand I have visited many Shiva temples which are generally cool, elegant, and calm. They have always filled my heart with peace.
The temple reveals history of conflict between Jainisim and Shaivism. There was a king and a saint and a miracle involved. The place was also association with King Nala (and Damayantee) who invoked Lord Shani for his mercy and was successful. The devotees say that this is the only place where Shani is in a ‘blessing’ mode and the devotees believe that it is because of Shiva’s existence, Shani is controlled.
If you have visited religious places and studied scriptures and mythology, you know that the Gods are always very human like in their thoughts, ideas, nature and behavior. I think that is the only way human mind can connect itself with God – the known tries to relate with unknown in a typical way.
Well, I like the temple. The architecture is attractive. Before I understand what is happening, I am taken ahead of the queue, a Pooja is fully planned. Here when we break the queue and go ahead, nobody complains. Later I realize that “pay more and have quick darshan’ is the usual practice in most of the temples. I do not like breaking the queue this way – how can someone be more important (and that too because of money or designation) in front of God? That only shows that people do not really believe in God. I never perform Pooja in the temple – but here I am helpless. Well, I could storm out of the temple without doing any of this – but it took me time to understand what was happening. And by the time I understand it, I have as if given my indirect consent by actually participating in it. I am feeling like an illiterate person lost in the library.
The Pooja begins with a little hurdle. The temple priest wants to know my zodiac sign (or whatever it is called) – I say, “I have none”. This makes everybody around speechless. All of them say something in Tamil – which fortunately I do not at all understand. But as I am their guest, they cannot get angry with me. Then the priest asks -which month I was born. For a moment I am tempted to tell a lie – but well, I give the right information. Then my colleague asks me to donate some money – I have kept my purse in the car, so he hands me a note and I put it in the plate. Later I pay that amount to my colleague and he says that because it is for religious purpose, he has to take it from me. Otherwise, I won’t earn the merit of the Pooja. In short I am forced into paying the amount – but I know my young colleague is doing it with good intention.
Then there is some kind of Emerald. I neither understand its significance not any story related to it. It is locked and the priest comes with so many keys and opens lock after lock. A group of devotees is patiently waiting – underlining the importance of this ceremony. Then suddenly few women start singing a devotional song praising Shiva. Though it is a Tamil Song, I know it by heart. I had forgotten it so far but it comes back to me without breaks. Long back I used to listen to this song. Like rest of the devotees I repeat the lines and I feel happy like a child that I can still remember and pronounce those difficult sounding Tamil words.
Well, finally everything gets over. The head priest hands over Prasada to me. In his broken English he assures me that :This place is next to Tirupati Balaajee. Well, I don’t understand how there could be such hierarchy in the community of Gods. Are not they all supposed to be powerful and accommodating enough? Just imagine one God – say for example Shiva here – not happy with me because I did not pray him. Sounds like a human being who is hurt if someone does not salute him/her. Gods are not affected by what I do or what I don’t do. Are they not supposed to be beyond all these mundane feelings?
The priest adds: Whatever you wished here, will come true.
Everybody around me smiles. I too smile. Why ask questions if they are happy with their belief?
“What did you wish for?” my colleague asks me on the way back.
“Oh, if I knew the power of the God in advance, I should have definitely asked for certain things,” I say lightly – that is my usual answer to all strong devotees. That generally satisfies them.
I wonder what I was thinking in the temple. I was certainly not praying, I was not asking for anything. I was just watching the devotion of the devotees – there might be honesty and truth in those devotees, there might be quality longing and urge in that devotion. I was as usual observing; I was as usual trying to understand; I was as usual amazed that so much is unknown to me; I was wondering how the place might have been hundreds of years ago; I was imagining how those people might have been; I was thinking what will happen to this place 500 years down the line; I was thinking how everything emerges- lives and gets destroyed; I was feeling happy with whatever I have knowing that nothing is going to last forever.
The best gift of that devotion-less moment is: Re-establishing of that eternal truth: That my lack of devotion does not affect Lord Shiva and Lord Shani (and other Gods) and it does not affect me as well. We choose to co-exist without demanding, without commanding and we maintain the connection without any apparent give and take.
Well, why do I need devotion?