I am just back from a vacation to Delhi and its surrounds. Unexpectedly, the trip turned out to be a bouquet of the religious and spiritual diversity of India. Here is the list of religious and spiritual places visited in the chronological order:
- Ramakrishna Math, Delhi – This is the Delhi center of the world wide Ramakrishna Math. Swami Ranganathanandaji Maharaj spent several years here. The organization is known for its openness in accepting people of different religious backgrounds, and its social service activities. In the words of its founder Swami Vivekananda, “The Christian is not to become a Hindu or a Buddhist, nor a Hindu or a Buddhist to become a Christian. But each must assimilate the spirit of the others and yet preserve his individuality and grow according to his own law of growth.” Combining spirituality and service, he founded an Order of monks, whose principles and structure was taken up in different degrees by various monastic institutions in India.
- Golden Temple, Amritsar – This is the holiest place of the Sikh religion. Sikh religion was founded by Guru Nanak. The holy book of the Sikhs is the Guru Grant Sahib, which is a beautiful collection of songs and sayings by saints of different denominations of Hinduism and Islam. The Sikh religion itself is a standing example of how a religion can be formed by collecting the good aspects of different religions. It is a standing testimony towards the unity of God and Man.
- Jyotisar, Kurukshetra – This is the place where the Bhagavad Gita was told to Arjuna and the world by Lord Krishna more than 5000 years back. The exact date of this incident is remembered and celebrated all over India as Gita Jayanti. This scripture revived the Vedic tradition, uniting all the different philosophies and religious practices of that time. Reading it today, it amazes us with its modern outlook. The problems of man and the world have not changed at all. The same ancient solution applies today with some minor adaptation to the times.
- Swami Sivananda Ashram, Rishikesh – Swami Sivananda was a physician who became a monk after giving up a successful practice at Malaya. He started several welfare schemes for the monks and common people in the Himalayan region. He was a prolific writer. His books are treasures for spiritual aspirants. The twenty simple spiritual instructions that he has framed is a guiding light to spiritual aspirants of all religions. He revived the tradition of Yoga. He presented the traditional Hindu wisdom in a way that can be practiced and assimilated by people of all cultures, while continuing to follow their own religion and culture.
- Rameshwar Temple, Rishikesh – This is a old temple at the bank of river Ganga. This temple and its counterpart in Rameshwaram in South India have been talking of the cultural and spiritual unity of India over millennia, in spite of political differences in the times in between.
- Ganga Ghat, Haridwar – This is the place where Mahakumbh Mela was held a few months back, which I had to miss closely. Ganga is an uniting force of India. Over its banks have lived countless number of saints of different denominations over thousands of years. Ganga is a cultural and religious symbol of India from time immemorial.
- Birla Mandir, Jaipur – The number of Birla temples all over the country, especially North India, are a sign of revival of the big temples which stood at one time. Now big temples stand only in South India. The big temples of North India have all been swept away by religious intolerance by fanatics from outside India. Birlas are known to the common man for their temples, planetariums and educational institutions.
- Darga Sharif, Ajmer – The darga of the Islamic Sufi saint Chisti in Ajmer is a place visited by people of all faiths. The great Sufi saint, who saw God and Man beyond narrow constraints of religion. I prayed to him to help free the world from religious extremism.
- Pushkar Lake, Pushkar – This is the place where Brahma pronounced the Gayatri mantra as the substitute for the complete Veda. This covers the holy triad of Indian culture – Ganga, Gita and Gayatri – in my pilgrimage.
- Fatehpur Sikri, Agra – King Akbar is known for his religious tolerance. It is said that he even went in disguise to see Mirabai, the great devotee of Krishna. He donated jewelery to the statue Mira was praying with. In Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar tried to create a new religion – Din Ilahi – combining the principles of various religions existing at his time.
- Jahangir Palace, Agra Fort, Agra – Mughal kings Akbar and Jahangir had Hindu queens. So within the palace, they have Hindu architecture with Hindu motifs and even Hindu shrines for their queens. The blend of Hindu and Persian architecture is a feast to the eyes. I have captures some of them.
- Krishna Janmabhoomi, Mathura – The places associated with Krishna – Mathura, Gokul, Vrindavan, Govardhan, etc – are all still vibrant with His memories. I could visit only Mathura in this trip. The Krishna temples in and around the place of His birth are alive with bhajans sung by sadhus and devotees. The huge structure built near the place of his birth by the Muslim fanatic rulers a few centuries back is the only scar on the place. I hope our secular Muslim brothers soon help to restore the holiness of the place by vacating the structure.
- Qutub Minar, Delhi – This is one of the first monuments in India built by demolishing Hindu temples. Historians say that there were 27 Hindu and Jain temples at the place when they were demolished and the structures were built using the debris. Today this site stands as one of the signs of religious intolerance. You can see some of the pictures that I have taken here. You can notice the destroyed, damaged and defaced icons.
- Lotus Temple, Delhi – This is a temple of Bahai faith. They have a beautiful religion based on simple principles to live a prayerful and social life. This again is derived from the common essence of most of the organized religions of the world.
- ISKCON Temple, Delhi – ISKCON temples all over the world are known for their beautiful paintings of Krishna and other deities from the Hindu religion. Though they hold a bigoted view of religion, they serve as miners and sappers to introduce Hinduism to people in many cultures. Surely, a lot of people find solace in Krishna through them.
- Akshardham Temple, Delhi – After seeing the exquisite palaces and tombs built for themselves and for their queens by kings of bygone era, Akshardham temple is a total eye opener on two fronts. One, the same architectural tradition and craftmanship that was used to build those magnificent buildings is still alive in India, and in fact has evolved further. Two, when the same art and architecture is used to glorify divinity, instead of earthly mortals, the art takes an elevating turn. When at Red Fort, the guide described the original craftmanship of the Diwan-i-Khas, which was plundered by Nadir Shah. Here, we can see the live Akshardham Temple and understand what Diwan-i-Khas would have looked like. Akshardham is a feast to the eyes and to the heart. The simple teaching of Swami Narayan is again the essence of all religions, that can be practiced by the common man.
- Birla House, Delhi – This is the place where Mahatma Gandhi spent the last 144 days of his life. His life and teachings have been put up into a beautiful museum. His call for freedom, religious harmony, social upliftment, uniform spread of development, individual morality, etc are relevant more for the world today than during his times.
Thus, the 10 day trip turned out to be a tour of more than 5000 years of Indian religion and spirituality.