Padayatra (Pilgrimage on Foot)
Every day is a journey and the journey itself home.
During my recent trip to India I noticed pilgrims on foot journeying to holy shrines. Though it was a familiar scene to me, still, this time, the sight of the pilgrims on foot touched a nerve deep in me and made me reflect on my own spiritual life.
People of all age groups and from different walks of life were walking: some with a walking stick, some with a cloth bag swung across their shoulder or a bundle on their head, some carrying their children on their shoulder, some with sandals, and others with no footwear, some in groups, some alone, some praying, chanting, and singing, and some in silence. As I passed through Thiruvanamalai (a town in South India) I saw people on their ‘girivalam;’ a 14 kilometer circumambulations of the Arunachala Mountain. I also witnessed in India others on their padayatra to different holy shrines.
During the month of August it is quite common to see Christians on their padayarta to Velankanni, a very famous Marian shrine in South India. It is said that thousands of people walk the Camino, the road to the shrine of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Many undertake pilgrimages to Marian shrines throughout the world and other holy Christian places. Today definitely there is a renewed interest in padayatra.
People undertake padayatra for various reasons: to fulfill a promise/vow, to do penance, praying for a particular intention (healing, marriage, job, finance, well-being, peace), to thank and praise God, as an act of love for God, and finally to reach God’s house to worship God and to have a darshan (seeing the image of the deity). Plus, there are also physical benefits in undertaking a padayatra. Ramana Maharishi once seems to have remarked to Devaraj Mudaliar, “Why are you so concerned with all these questions about the efficacy of going round the hill? Whatever you may or may not get, you will at least have the benefit of physical exercise.” Since I have not undertaken a padayatra myself (God willing, hope to do so in the near future), my reflections are based on the experiences of those who have done it and shared their experiences with me.
A few undertake the physically, emotionally, and spiritually challenging padayatra because it seems (other than the reasons already stated above) that for some today’s ritual orientated religious culture fails to fulfill a deeper desire for interiority and the longings of the Spirit. Padayatra seems to fulfill this void to a certain extent. It creates a wonderful opportunity for inner and spiritual renewal. The daily mundane life comes to a halt and there is ample scope for introspection and reflection, we sharpen our senses to listen to the inner voice calling us. Thus, it is more a journey moving inward than outward. It is a precious time to be with ourselves as the journey itself allows scope for silence and solitude. It is an opportunity to take stock of our life: Who am I? Is my life meaningful? Am I happy and contented? Is God real in my life? Am I fulfilling the purpose of my life? Where my life is heading to? And many other deeper questions of life, relationship, love, religion, etc., are sure to surface as one continues the padayatra.
In undertaking a padayatra one realizes that life in its simplicity is so beautiful and the many material things that we thought are indispensable to life are really not necessary. We manage with the least. Seeing people walking on the road with hardly anything as their own yet genuinely happy and contented – was a sight to behold. They make it clear that it is not what we possess that defines us but the presence of God that fills our nothingness is what defines our identity. It is also an opportunity to receive the hospitality of people along the way and to be grateful for the things offered.
Of course padayatra comes with its own challenges and difficulties. First and foremost there are different physical challenges one faces: walking barefoot for miles during summer especially in a tropical country is not easy, no proper places to lay one’s head, lack of proper bathrooms and bathing facilities, no proper food, dealing with physical illnesses that crop up along the way. Then there are emotional and psychological issues to be dealt with: loneliness, signs of frustration and depression, facing and dealing with the dark shadows of one’s life. And at the spiritual level: doubts whether one is doing the right thing, experience of the dark night of the soul, prayers not being answered, etc. But once they reach their destination there is only an experience of bliss and an overwhelming sense of contentment.
In most cases healing takes place not at the destination but during the journey. I am reminded of the miracle of the Ten Lepers (Lk 17:11-19). While they were on their way to the temple the healing takes place. Isn’t it true that along the way so much of our psychological garbage and dogmatic fundamentalism are thrown out and the house is clean for God to act in us? Since during the journey the unconditional surrendering to God and acceptance of life as it is takes place that at the destination even if physical healing does not take place, they are at peace with life and its demands; for inner healing has already taken place.
The question is that where does all this lead me to? One day, God willing, I would love to do a padayatra. But for most of us, given our responsibilities, health situations, commitments, it may not be possible to take time off. Let us keep the desire and the dream alive and it will come to fruition in God’s time. In the meantime we can always find time and place to do a modified padayatra. Aren’t there so many venues where we can get away for a day; retreat houses, parks, trails? All that we need is a sandwich and a bottle of water. Try to be free from social media and all external distractions. In silence and solitude we learn the art of listing to the inner voice calling us to the depth. Let the sadguru (God within) lead you. Spend the entire day in prayer and meditation, reflecting on things that really matter to you in life. Refocus and recommit. In the evening, if there is a church nearby, drop in to give thanks and glory to God. We could do it alone by ourselves, or with another, or with a group of likeminded people.
A day spent for and with God is never a waste.