Oh Lord! I went all round the world to do pradakshina to you but you are in fullness everywhere. How then could I complete a round?
-- The Ribhu Gita
From time to time I am accused of being a skeptic. I ought to appreciate such occasions more. It is not often that I am accused of being something so reasonable and accepted by society.
Alas, it is not true. I am not a skeptic. I am a believer. Worse, I’m a devotee, I’m of that spooky and unnerving breed. Even if this essay ran to a 1000 pages, it would not be long enough to list the perfectly preposterous things in which I believe. I believe in karma and moisturizer, in ayurveda and marriage, in invisible spirits and social justice. I believe a giant panda who once lived in the National Zoo was a great spiritual being. I believe that certain people, who have never been warm or kind to me, will one day become warm and kind.
If it appears that I sometimes doubt or question the colorful gurus and earnest devotees of holy Tiruvannamalai, please know that I am only saying neti neti -- not this, not this – like any good devotee.
To suppose that I truly disapprove would be to assume that I approve of and find reasonable the world from which they turn away, the world they’re cautiously sticking their noses out of, the world of materialism and consumerism, of owning and competing, of progress and success.
The assumption is not correct. The beliefs and practices of a Tokyo commuter are not less strange and inexplicable than those of a tantric yogi living in a cremation ground. Whether you are working for enlightenment or for retirement, you are seek to live in a magic story, one where suffering ends. We are vulnerable, hungry and soft-bodied creatures. Mortals. No matter the location, there will never be a shortage of nonsense to report.
As for Tiruvannamalai, what room is there for skeptics here! For skeptics three days would be enough. Considering the power outages, the beggars, the crabby spiritual types, the sheer filth. For a skeptic I think it would be enough to come for lunch.
I am a devotee. I’ve been here seven weeks now. If you tried to dislodge me from this place, I’d probably bite you. Devotees do things like that. Please beware.
Even if I may be forgiven for believing in karma and skin cream, if I may then still qualify to take my seat at the charmless and interminable dinner party known as Reasonable People, surely there is no place for a person such as myself, who believes a stubby rocky hillock to be a visible form of the very most sacred mystery.
Arunachala. Just like meeting a famous person; the first thing you think is “I thought it would be taller.” Even the smitten don’t call it a mountain. It’s a hill. A rocky scruffy jagged-looking hill, a pile of gravel, the sort of place you’d think that only goats and goat keepers would notice.
In the vicinity of Arunachala, people say strange things happen. People say they can’t sleep. People say their lives are changed. I believe them. But it is not necessary to resort to the word believe. It is enough to say that this is also my experience. Just as my experience of trains in Tokyo is that they are smooth and convenient. Of course I may be wrong; I may be fooled. I have been fooled about many things, sometimes for years. Nonetheless, I do not deny my own experience.
Like any new pilgrim to Tiruvannamalai, I read a lot of books and learn different styles of meditation and practice from the gurus of this place. But nothing else I have done has anything like the force of getting up an hour before dawn and walking for three hours around Arunachala.
Girivalam, it’s called in Tamil or pradakshina in Sanskrit. The circumambulation of the hill. Keeping the hill on one’s right side, walking clockwise. 14 kilometers approximately. Always on the left side of the street. Sri Ramana explained that the right side is reserved for ghosts and invisible beings.
There is nearly always a trickle of pilgrims doing girivalam, obvious because of their bare feet and measured pace. On full moon nights this stream broadens, becomes a river of visible ghosts moving steadily down the street.
Girivalam on a full moon night seems a supernatural event composed of ordinary people – how else could a procession be produced without break or interruption, without emotion or noise, a flow so dense that there is hardly room enough for bicycles to dart and swerve.
Upon seeing such a crowd it is natural to wonder, What’s happening? Where are they going? But they will only arrive, in 14 kilometers, back where they are now, only subtly changed and with tired feet.
For a parade this size you might expect banners and cheers, signs and uniforms – but there is none of that. Well, I suppose the orange robes of the sadhus are a sort of uniform. Some of the sadhus have improvised bands, with drums and finger cymbals, and are singing the names of God for merit and for alms.
This is a sacred procession, in honor of the god, but there is little religious paraphernalia or even obvious devotion, aside from occasionally chanting the name of God and checking in at each roadside shrine. This ordinary and un-awed way of being seems entirely right to me. If God was in the room with you – if God is here as this hill, this Shiva lingam, this banyan – then it would be foolish to wave a banner or shout a name. You don’t cry out to someone across the table. You don’t bellow at someone in your arms.
The sacred may be impossible to define or explain but, take heart -- we have been able to locate it. It is exactly here. I am sitting in the middle of it. So are you.
But then, this is just the sort of madness you can expect, from a love-struck true devotee.