Saturday, November 19, 2022

Sister Nivedita: If Niagara Falls Were on the River Ganga?

Devprayag: Ganga's Birthplace

Confluence of Alaknanda & Bhagirathi

In Hinduism, the places of natural beauty are associated with the divine and are regarded as a place of pilgrimage. For thousands of years, the Hindu sages and theologians have been associating the mountains, rivers, lakes, waterfalls, and forests in the Indian subcontinent with divinity. 

The holy places of Hinduism are the places of natural beauty located in the land where Hinduism was founded—the Hindu does not have to travel to Palestine or Arabia or any other part of the world to conduct a pilgrimage. His holy places are located in his motherland. 

If the Niagara Falls were located on the River Ganga, then there is no doubt that the world would have known these falls as a holy place, a place where the pilgrims could wash their sins, a place where they could experience a sublime union with the Gods and Goddesses, and hope to become physically and spiritually healed. A multiplicity of religious and mythical stories would have arisen around the Niagara Falls. 

In her 1904 essay, “An Indian Pilgrimage,” Sister Nivedita has reflected on the global image of the Niagara Falls if these falls had been located on the River Ganga. Here’s an excerpt:

“Beauty of place translates itself to the Indian consciousness as God’s cry to the soul. Had Niagara been situated on the Ganges, it is odd to think how different would have been its valuation by humanity. Instead of fashionable picnics and railway pleasure-trips, the yearly or monthly incursion of worshipping crowds. Instead of hotels, temples. Instead of ostentatious excess, austerity. Instead of the desire to harness its mighty forces to the chariot of human utility, the unrestrainable longing to throw away the body, and realise at once the ecstatic madness of the Supreme Union. Could the contrast be greater?”

The institution of pilgrimage has always served as a powerful factor for developing a sense of cultural unity in the Indian subcontinent. Even 3000 years ago, during the Vedic period, there was a sense of unity in this land. 

In the Vedas, Puranas, and other ancient texts of Hinduism the major rivers, mountains, lakes, waterfalls, and forests in the Indian subcontinent have been identified with the divine and depicted as a place of pilgrimage. There is a long tradition of people living in one part of the Indian subcontinent going on a pilgrimage to other parts of this land.


Ajit R. Jadhav said...

If so, she was mistaken. And, you don't realize the actual reason either.

Talking of India, the places of pilgrimage actually were the places of relative isolation from society (and hence from the vagaries and changes in the then regimes/politics/wars), not necessarily the places of natural beauty.

People who undertook अनुष्ठानs (a pre-planned course of worship at one place that runs into long time, lit.: "following the sticking by a place", which is in contrast to the mandated wandering around of the संन्यासि (lit.: the renunciate) who was forbidden to spend more than 2 nights in one place), and तपश्चर्या (lit.: the conduct of heating up, actual meaning: that intense and prolonged action of spiritual practices which burns the spiritual demerit, with such practices often also resulting in the actual heating of the body too (whether physical fire was involved or not); with one dominant meaning ascribing doing one अनुष्ठान of 12 years as qualifying one तप, and with several such तपs being done in a place), found that the isolated places were best suited for these purposes --- no interference, no physical force (due to the politics of the day like चाणक्य mentions), and not even the usual temptations.

It is [at least] supposed that not only does the man gets spiritually purified, the place acquires certain characteristics conducive to the same action too.

So, such places later became the places of pilgrimage.

The साधक (people who undertake साधना; which itself means that which involves साधन; which itself means the means of attaining goal(s)) didn't run after beauty, whether of the bodily variety or of natural settings. They went after isolation.

Association of spiritual practices with beauty is more like an invention of those who don't/haven't actually undertake(n), or for that matter, even just abstractly understood, the nature of तपश्चर्या.

Trying to sell such practices through such associations is useless. The plain truth is that you can't go गुणातीत (lit: properties that are beyond being susceptible to be directly pointed out) by clutching to what can be pointed out directly in the ordinary perception, e.g., beauty.


Anoop Verma said...

@Ajit: You have made good points. I agree with you. I will, however, point out that the places of pilgrimage are of two types: there are those which are located in isolated and remote areas, and there are those that are located in populated areas. In Indian culture, you will find both kinds of pilgrimage sites.

Ajit R. Jadhav said...

Yes, population has increased many times over, and equally important, so have technological capabilities, e.g., those related to transportation, communication, building, etc. Whole towns have come up where there were forests or desolate areas (not just in the mountains but also in the islands in rivers or riverside places that were difficult to access).

Sometimes, the transformation of a place from a small spiritual hamlet to a destination for pilgrimage, itself has catalyzed the process of urbanization.

Today, almost every such a place looks surrounded in decidedly urban settings.

It's impossible to believe today, e.g., that places like Nasik and Triambakeshwar were just small hamlets consisting entirely of the ashrams of one or two rishis. Even more dramatic have been the transformations of Shirdi and Shani Shinganapur. These occurred right within the last few decades, right in front of my own generation. I spent some part of my early childhood in a nearby village (late 1960s), and can tell at the first-hand that nothing built in the cement-concrete in Shirdi existed back then --- there was only the old granite housing (the main temple), that's all. Why, even in the in mid-1970s, shops in Shirdi were hardly anything more than a few hand-carts (with kerosene lamps) huddled outside the temple. (I distinctly remember this because it was one of the places where our school tour had visited.) Forget "darshan pass" and queues, there wouldn't be more than 10--20 people in the entire premises at any time. (And sometimes, not even that many!) You could idly walk into the temple, relax, etc. Impossible to believe, now that Shirdi has not only a railway station of its own, five-star hotels, recreation parks, but also an airport!

Similarly, people just a few years elder to me vividly recall that the main granite block which is the Shani-dev at Shani ShingaNaapur, was actually just lying by the road-side, with just a small box of bricks nearby, barely enough to keep an earthen lamp. And, absolutely no visitors! ST buses would ply by the nearby road, and no one would even take notice (unless he knew); no passenger would do that usual "namaskaar" in the hurry either; there were no visible signs of there being any temple at all! Even people a few years younger to me well recall a slightly improved status for the deity, but still, without any development whatsoever of the place, and with just a few Sadhu's doing तपश्चर्या in the open (and undeveloped) area around the deity. Today, the development in cement-conrete and landscaping is there also in Shani ShingaNaapur, shops, big car parking, hotels and all, but Saadhu's actually doing तपश्चर्या around the deity are long gone.