Jayary Newsletter # 75

The Pilgrimage Machine

It's time to stop thinking about pilgrimage - writing more will take me into a long detour away from the main story and I want to get back to the Pandavas. Closing out, I can say that reading the Jaya has thrown up two unexpected surprises: reading Nala and Damayanti's story made me reflect on the relationship between love, chance and divinity, and later, the great emphasis on pilgrimage and the importance of tirthas for religion.

Of course, travel to pilgrimage sites is central to the practice of most Indian religions and I am not the first person to think about sacred geography. However, I think that the traditional idea of sacred space is being destroyed by modern development - and while its primary effect is physical (how sacred can the world be when you cut down its forests and blare jagrans from the temples that remain?), we shouldn't underestimate the mental distance between us and the pilgrims of the Jaya.

When our primary model of the world is that of a machine, it becomes impossible to see particular places as sacred or powerful. There's no going back to performing sacrifices to one deity on a full moon night and prayers to another deity on the new moon night. That combination of ritual, belief and altered consciousness is gone for ever. What's left is textual, fundamentalist (or threatening to be fundamentalist) belief which is such thin gruel that I can't imagine it satisfying our religious urges.

So how can we be religious again?

Sticky Stories

I thought I was done with pilgrimage but I was wrong - it's sticking to me on the way out the door.

When Parasurama was done with his carnage of the Kshatriyas, he filled five lakes with the blood of the men he had killed. Gruesome, isn't it? After doing so, Parasurama concentrated his mind on the gods. Pleased with his devotion, they asked him what he wanted.

Parasurama said "Forgive my violence, which I committed in a wrathful state. If my penance has any value, turn these five lakes into tirthas, so that the misdeeds of those who come here are purified and absolved."

The gods were polite in response - remember that Parasurama was one of them. He was an avatar of Vishnu and we saw earlier that another tirtha, Dima, was created out of Vishnu's penance after he had killed the Danavas and the Daityas.

The gods assured Parasurama that his wrath was justified and that the Kshatriyas had brought the violence upon themselves and so there was no problem whatsoever in transforming the lakes of blood into a holy site.


So why is this sticking to me? Because I am wondering whether our current understanding of divinity as primarily peaceful is horrendously wrong. When I read James Lovelock's thoughts about Gaia's revenge, I am reminded of Parasurama and his cleansing of the earth of all Kshatriyas. Except that this time around it might be more than Kshatriyas getting cleansed.

Back to Back Digressions

In P. Lal's version of the Jaya - the one I am following - the discussion of tirthas and pilgrimages takes up about a hundred pages. That discussion is back to back with Nala and Damayanti's story, which also takes up over a hundred pages, so no one can accuse the Mahabharata of half-hearted digressions.

A modern reader exposed to back to back book length digressions is bound to wonder, "what's the logic behind:"

  1. Such long digressions.

  2. Having a long discourse on pilgrimage follow a love story.

There are several answers to these questions, the most obvious of which is Yudhisthira's depression - which is why he has to be introduced to Nala and Damayanti, whose nadir was worse than his but whose renewed zenith was a cause for hope; and now that he isn't depressed but in a mood to engage the world, why not start that engagement auspiciously, i.e., by going on an extended pilgrimage? The exiled king has several years to kill after all.

Still, I can imagine a flashback or two or a quick lesson, but a hundred pages a pop seems a bit much doesn't it? So why? I would say that up to first order, the answers to the above two questions fall under one of three categories:

  1. There's no logic to it: these Indians were idiots with no idea how to tell a good story. Another version of the same: the books were written over hundreds of years and are full of interpolations.

  2. These Indians were superhumans whose logic and mental capacity is beyond our understanding.

  3. There's a logic and it's within our understanding.

The Algebra of Digressions

Does a digression within a digression bring us back to the main story or does it open a third level of understanding? In other words, what's the algebra of digressions? Here's a theorem I want to state:

If there's no algebra of digressions, all Indians are idiots

You might think I am an idiot to state such a theorem but bear with me, will you. Consider the rules of morphology for a moment. Many words in English have irregular plurals. For example, the word "life," whose plural is "lives" not "lifes." However, if you go to the dentist's office and notice a stack of LIFE magazines, you won't call that a stack of LIVES, but a stack of LIFE'S. The exception to the exception is back to the regular form.

Morphology is fine, but what about hundred page digressions?

Recall my tripartite division of digressive logic: idiots/superhumans/logical.

I am not inclined to conclude Indians were terrible at telling stories; in fact, if history is any guide, they were pretty good storytellers, seeing as how so many stories the world over are of Indian origin. If you accept that statement and if you accept the theorem in italics, you must necessarily conclude that there's an algebra of digressions.

There's a superhuman element to the ancients, but only because we have lost some of their talents. Memory is one of them: it's rare to find a scholar today who has memorized dozens of texts, while prodigious feats of memory were relatively common in the ancient world. The great thing about telling a story to an audience with a well trained memory is that you can expect them to layer the digressions into the main story as they hear you speaking.

Yudhisthira was jolted out of his depression by Nala and Damayanti's story and then the recounting of all the tirthas brought him into a heightened state of engagement within the main story. Two digressions don't bring you back to the original state, but it brings you close enough. Added bonus: the difference between the starting point and the end point is a positive difference, for now Yudhisthira is happy and calm.