I was reading Shoba Narayan’s excellent piece in MintOnSunday about the Palani temple when I was reminded of my own trip there back when I was a kid, so thought I should write about it.

The memories are extremely hazy, for I was a really small boy back then (I don’t even remember how old I was). It was a strict pilgrimage, consisting of two overnight bus journeys, and the only purpose of the trip was to visit the Palani temple.

There was some religious context to it. Apparently my parents had visited the temple some time before I was born, and had promised to return had some condition been satisfied. I don’t remember the exact condition (though the fact that I’m named Karthik has something to do with this, I know) but apparently it had been satisfied, and so off we went to fulfil the “harke”.

I remember taking a Tamil Nadu State Transport bus. I don’t think I was old enough for them to take a ticket for me, so I didn’t get my own seat. But then my father spoke to some people across the aisle and found that they were scheduled to get off at Krishnagiri, after which we crossed over to the three-seater, and I remember sleeping across my parents’ laps.

We reached Palani in the morning and checked into some random hotel. I don’t remember much of what happened there. I remember going to the temple sometime during the day. There was a cable car, if I’m not wrong, to go up. I don’t remember if we took it.

Shoba’s piece is about the Prasad at the Palani temple, but I don’t remember any of it. All I remember is going to some vibhuti (sacred ash) shop there to buy some vibhuti. And I remember the shopkeeper telling us that whatever we bought, we would only get half of it after the pooja was done. Finally my parents, after some deliberation, settling on buying one (largish) packet of vibhuti. I remember taking home half of that, and it satisfying our vibhuti needs for several years after that.

As I said right up front, this is one of my least memorable trips from my childhood. All I remember is the bus. The shady hotel. The steep flight of stairs to get to the temple (Shoba writes about that, too). The cable car. And the half packet of vibhuti. I have no clue what we ate. I think there were people there in Palani who spoke Kannada, but I’m not so sure. And I remember taking another overnight bus back (this one being empty enough that I could sleep across my parents’ laps for the full journey).

Abou Ben Adhem

I’m a big fan of Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase). I don’t particularly consider myself religious but I like his philosophy (as described in the poem) about being a lover of fellow-men (no pun intended) being superior to a lover of god. I get extremely irritated by people who cause inconvenience to others by way of their religious acts.

Recently I happed to read this excellent (in my opinion) article in Open by Manu Joseph (Udupa, who referred the article to me, thinks it was written in my style. I would take that as a major compliment (to me, of course). It’s been ages since I’ve made arguments like those). The article is about Islam and cricket betting but Joseph makes some important points about religion itself. To quote my favourite part of the essay,

A religious person, having done his pilgrimage, having done his prayers and fasts, has no further motivation to be good in a way that is more useful to the rest of humanity.

I think on similar lines every time I’m invited for some pooja-cum-lunch where the lunch gets delayed beyond reasonable time because the hosts (who are also doing the pooja) are taking too long with the pooja; giving too much attention to God at the cost of the felllow-men and women who they have invited. There are several such examples you come across in daily life.

Thinking more about it, I wonder if this statement (from Joseph’s article) actually applies to a religion such as Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma, to be technically correct), given it’s Karma concept. The beauty of the Karma concept is that you accumulate points in God’s books (all well tabulated by the excellent Chitragupta) by being nice to your fellow men.

Now, with the Karma concept being around, and the efficient Chitragupta watching you, I’m not sure you need to “relax” and stop bothering to be nice just because you’ve said your prayers and generally been nice to God.

In this context, it surprises me further that supposedly deeply religious Hindus are nice to god at the cost of being nice to fellow men and women. Probably they just do some “religious things” blindly without really understanding what they are doing; mug up their prayers without understanding them properly. I think there’s a black swan risk in what they are doing!

In other news, during the Ganesha pooje today I tried my best to put my limited knowledge of Sanskrit to good use and actually understand the mantras that were being chanted while I was going through the motions. I’ll probably write in detail about that in another post.