Sacred Journeys: A Disbeliever’s Dilemma

Ritual can move mountains—and sometimes, the staunchest agnostics.  
golden temple
Golden Temple, Amritsar. Photo: Navdeep Soni Photography/Getty Images

On a pleasant February morning recently, a colleague and I embraced the crowd at the Rajim Kumbh mela, held annually at the confluence of the Mahanadi, Pairi, and Sondur rivers in Chhattisgarh. Our thoughts however, were in Allahabad, at the Maha Kumbh and its throng of millions. We were discussing a National Geographic Magazine story that had applied Émile Durkheim’s theory of “collective effervescence” to the largest religious gathering in the world. According to the 19th-century French sociologist, jointly attended religious rituals imbue the gathering with a special energy, where individuality gives way to unity with the group—and by implication, with the divine.

At Rajim though, the only effervescence we could feel wasn’t wearing a saffron robe or whirling like a dervish. Loud, repeated cackles of evil laughter welcomed us: We traced them to a 3-D horror movie show adjacent to a lurid inflatable castle full of bouncy children. Chickpea sellers screamed for attention, competing with shrill bells of ice-cream vendors. At the temporary ghat embanked by sand bags, bathers were taking a dip in the Mahanadi next to others washing their utensils and clothes. If there was a spiritual energy emanating from this place, it was probably evaporating in the rising heat of the day.

Later, driving past a cancerous profusion of welcoming political billboards that seemed to outnumber the people at the Kumbh, I wondered if I had, yet again, let my disdain for organised religion interfere with a potential spiritual experience. I don’t believe in a universal creator and most places of worship leave me cold, although I am not above a quiet moment of centring inside a silent monastery.

Despite these reservations, I visited Amarkantak, a temple town and source of the Narmada and Son rivers in Madhya Pradesh, on the recommendation of a former colleague who had made it sound paradisiacal. I admit I went there expecting an untouched Eden. At Sonemuda, a gang of aggressively effervescent monkeys shadowed us down a flight of dirty steps to a candy-hued temple where everyone clustered around a small sculpture of a cow’s head that spouts a weak spring of water. I found myself completely distracted by a panorama of rain-washed plastic bags on the hillside that appeared like a multicoloured waterfall.

I’ve desperately tried—and failed—to wrap my head around this paradox of littering and disrespecting the places we consider so sacred that we can’t walk into them wearing shoes. By the time we reached Narmadakund, shoved around by others in a hurry to go about the business of faith, I was very far from feeling like a part of the pulsating multitude.

On my travels then, why do I continue to seek collective effervescence wearing this cloak of contempt? Maybe, because I have tasted it once.

A few years ago on a reluctant trip with family to the Golden Temple, I’d packed my usual dismissal of ritual. On the afternoon we reached Amritsar I walked around the kitchen and sarovar areas to get away from the kirtan and the tears that it inevitably inspires in my aunt. However, I couldn’t escape attending the first prayers the following morning. At 4 a.m., I sat wearing a scowl, feeling a little oppressed by the main hall’s opulent aesthetic.

I slowly started listening to the rhythm of the prayers, and even though I couldn’t draw any meaning out of them, I caught the occasional phrase here, a familiar cadence there. Then I watched a coordinated effort when the Palki Sahib, bearing the Guru Granth Sahib, is brought in from the Akal Takht. Devotees prostrated on either side of this chanting procession, falling like dominoes. Then, right before the Hukumnama, or the order of the day, was to be read out a sudden quiet fell on the congregation. I was mesmerised by this clockwork ritual that continues unchanged, day after day; this harmony of the crowd that follows a path in tandem. As we sat down after the Ardas, the core Sikh prayer, my aunt turned around, her face streaming. It was only then that I realised that my own eyes had welled up too.

I still can’t explain why I was so overwhelmed. Maybe, a new environ had yielded an appreciation for an old ritual, or the communal experience had allowed me to lose myself in a shared moment. Maybe, for a fleeting interval, I was tuned into a universal language. Or just maybe, I had unwittingly witnessed collective effervescence.

Appeared in the March 2015 issue as “The Disbeliever’s Dilemma”.

  • Karanjeet Kaur was formerly Chief Senior Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She likes stumbling through small towns and is the last person to board the plane. She will always pick the mountains over the beach. She tweets as @kaju_katri.

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