Of Faith and Reason


Sai Baba of Shirdi, Hindu saint (1838-1918).

Image via Wikipedia

This weekend we went on a pilgrimage of thanksgiving to Shirdi. The devotion of fellow pilgrims, and the sense of holiness at the Gurusthan made me very glad we had made the trip.

However I was saddened to see the commercialism that had encroached closer to the shrine. A large mall dominated the precincts. Big hoardings with pictures of local politicians proclaiming proximity to the seer competed with advertisements of fast food. Traffic on the main arterial road through Shirdi spilled over on to the footpath where devotees were waiting patiently in queues.

Already in the few years since I had last visited, the air of serenity and tranquility that was etched in my memory, seemed to struggle to find a place.

The memory of Shirdi that always comes to my mind when I think of Baba, is not of the Aarti or of the temple but of the Peepal & Neem trees in his garden where he meditated. At my last visit these were fresh and green – this time they were dusty and worn. It was as if the relentless onslaught of our world was taking its toll.

When I looked at the list of the Temple’s trustees – they were all eminent names. The steady flow of devotees and their donations clearly provided a respectable flow of funds. Why, I wondered, had the trustees not seen fit, to purchase the surrounding land and create an open green haven for devotees,  many of whom had walked barefoot for several hundred kilometers, to rest and reflect in peace. Why had they allowed, the sanctity of the shrine of one of the holiest men of our country, to be turned into a market place ?

This question is true of many of our holy places. It is rare today to find temples in India that provide a sanctuary from our material world, or the tranquility the spirit needs. Why is this so ?

I am still struggling to find the answer, but remembered the words of my father as we drove back home. We stopped at a small way-side stall to buy some fresh guavas. As I turned to pay, I heard the sound of a conch shell. Tucked under a tree was a small shrine with a photo of Baba, and performing the simple puja was a humble priest. As he smiled and gave me his blessings, the words of my father echoed in my mind “Faith begins where reason ends.”     

Ours is a country of much faith, and not enough reason. I hope that our faith will sustain us till reason dawns.

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