Abstract: This article explores the ongoing fascination with pilgrimage in accounts of travel to India. Pilgrimage emerges in multiple faith traditions, often associated with an external journey that mirrors an internal or cosmic one: or the crossing of a threshold between material and spiritual worlds. The place itself is a site of individual and communal encounter, and a site of exchange, trade, social interaction as well as introspection. In addition, the contemporary narrative of pilgrimage is difficult to categorize as guide, memoir, or travelogue. This is a survey of examples that provide both recurring and unique glimpses of the genre, such as A Rope in the Water (Fraser), Pilgrimage to India (Jayapal), and the cinematic translation of Eat, Pray, Love (Gilbert). In another vein, both An Indian Odyssey (Buckley) and Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God (Blank) trace the journey of the Indian epic Ramayana from the perspective of international pilgrims and journalists, who use the concept of pilgrimage to reflect on the social, cultural, and political past and present of the sub-continent. As Canadian writer Sylvia Fraser had asserted to the Vancouver audience 15 years ago, South Asia possesses “a unique spiritual connectedness.” The use of the pilgrimage trope by corporate executives such as Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg demonstrate yet another reiteration of this neo-Orientalist paradigm.
The story is ubiquitous and compelling: it transgresses boundaries between public and private spheres, the material and the sacred, the personal and the political, the individual and the community. In this story, South Asia is narrated for consumption and wonder by settler-invader cultures in Europe and North America as a site of pilgrimage. Today, for example, one quick Google search using keywords of “pilgrimage” and “India” turns up over 3 million links to tour organizers (e.g. The Expanding Light Retreat) and faith traditions. Moreover, the website Cult of Mac focuses repeatedly on ongoing association and investment in India. During a visit to the United States, Narendra Modi met with representatives of Apple, Facebook, and Google, attempting to boost India’s share of this powerful and lucrative cyberspace. At one meeting, Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, assured Modi that India has “a special place in the heart of every Apple employee.” In short, connecting with South Asia brings both spiritual enlightenment and increased profitability. This story is repeated without cynicism or self-awareness.
When Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg met with Modi, he recounted his own pilgrimage to India: “Early on in our history…we hit a tough patch and a lot of people wanted to buy Facebook, and thought we should sell the company. I went and I saw [my mentor] Steve Jobs, and he told me that in order to reconnect with what I thought was the mission of the company, I should visit this temple that he had gone to in India early on in his evolution of thinking about what he wanted Apple and his vision of the future to be.” Zuckerberg explained that “our mission is to give everyone in the world the power to share what’s important with them and to connect every person in the world.” However, he downplayed the fact that “more than 130 million people in India use Facebook,” which makes South Asia the second-largest market for social media. Are such declarations distinct from those of writers such as Elizabeth Gilbert, Sylvia Fraser, and multiple others who have asserted that South Asia possesses “a unique spiritual connectedness”? The irony of an American entrepreneur playing guru to another—advising him to make a pilgrimage for business reasons—is palpable.
In this article, I draw out the thread I have traced many times, focusing on pilgrimage accounts as border-crossing narratives, locating sites of exchange, trade, social interaction, and introspection. South Asia as setting for pilgrimage is particularly intriguing, as both local and international pilgrims make the journey, but the narrative is unique in settler-invader cultures: the focus on the solitary narrator, experiencing sensual and spiritual extremes, and coming to a brief glimpse of the sacred is repeated again and again. The two narratives I examine at the end of this article—Martin Buckley’s Indian Odyssey and Jonah Blank’s Arrow of the Blue Skinned God—are more difficult to categorize, since they present themselves as scholarly accounts of journeys through South Asia using the Ramayana as model, and educate their readers on the socio-political context, the narrators’ experiences, and the ancient epic itself. Both use the format of alternating between reflection, observation, and narration of the Ramayana as told by Valmiki, Tulsidas, and others.
Western preoccupation with India as a site of pilgrimage—its infinite rehearsal of Edward Said’s idea of the “Oriental”—is the initial incentive for studying contemporary pilgrimage narratives by Western writers. Said notes that the very label of “Orient” is “for the European observer [always] a place of pilgrimage.” Steve Clark describes the term “pilgrimage” as “over-determined” and argues that this term “conflates empirical reference to the biblical domain; a residual context of mediaeval journeying; and an internalization of this as spiritual quest.” Most interesting to me is that while the Sanskrit notion of “tirtha-yatra” (journey to a river-crossing, or binding oneself to a threshold) intersects with the English notion of “pilgrimage” (from the Latin “peregrine” or foreigner), Western writers inscribe South-Asian sites as spaces of self-absorption and rarely of interaction. In incorporating two distinct travel narratives in this study, I may only be able to skim the surface of their place in the genre, but such texts contribute an integral piece to the larger conversation.
The connection between pilgrimage, boundaries, and Indian geographical space is itself fertile ground for exploration, since the Indian notion of “tirtha-yatra” assisted in the forging of a national identity integrating “thousands and possibly tens of thousands of tirthas throughout India, Nepal, and Tibet”; moreover, “tirthas…have been catering to travelers for hundreds, if not thousands, of years and receive far more visitors annually than Disney World, Las Vegas, and Cancún combined.” Contributing to the popularity of pilgrimage among Indians was the availability of the British infrastructure of roads and railways, which helped to increase the frequency of visits to tirthas, and the concept of a “grand tour” of India. As David Gladstone’s From Pilgrimage to Package Tour (2005) has explored, tirtha-yatra “need not entail a physical journey on the earth’s surface but may refer to a journey undertaken within one’s soul.” Moreover, the “meaning” of pilgrimage differs according to culture, place, and language; the Sanskrit term “tirtha-yatra” is almost always translated as “pilgrimage,” but has distinctive resonances. Victor and Edith Turner describe pilgrimage as a quasi-liminal activity that builds communitas; Gladstone notes that both local and international pilgrims travel to the same sites, and theoretically may experience this communitas; however, even as they visit sites they stay in diverse establishments—hotels and guesthouses—and foreigners “patronize the ‘all-you-can-eat’ buffets and restaurants serving Western-style food,…[while] Indians eat at dhabas [literally swamps or low-ground greasy spoons].” Even within these two larger groups, Gladstone categorizes pilgrims as “Indian…‘poor’ Westerners or backpackers, and ‘rich’ Westerners on package tours. Most local residents do not view pilgrims as tourists at all; they are yatris who have come…for the merit that attaches to such a journey.” And while corporate empires like Facebook downplay the conflation of economic and spiritual “merit,” that connection is repeatedly exploited.
The conflation of pilgrim and tourist can be seen in travel brochures and guides, as well as in articles focusing on South Asian travel. As Gladstone notes, “Both involve temporary journeys….Both involve ‘attractions’….Both…are things people do in their spare time and are not work-related activities. Both are socially and culturally sanctioned….Both tourists and pilgrims avail themselves of tourism related goods and services.” But the Western pilgrim translates this activity into something “work-related” when he or she narrates it for an audience, constructing a story, for instance, focusing on the experience and the learning acquired from it. And such life writing cannot be considered “innocent” since—as Gillian Whitlock recently contends—it is a “cultural space where relations between individual and society are thought out intensely and experienced intersubjectively” (https://global.oup.com/academic/product/postcolonial-life-narrative-9780199560622). While on one side such narratives can decentre the reader and allow “us to think beyond ourselves, implicated in lives that are not our own,” they can also become a “commodity that is marketed… to authenticate and legitimate the narrative and secure its reception by the powerful reading communities that range from the metropolitan intelligentsia and the suburban book clubs, to the fans of the best seller.”
There is perhaps no more fitting example of this kind of tendency than Gilbert’s best-selling travel narrative subtitled One Woman`s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia, in which India—the second “Ì”—emerges as the site for focus on prayer. Gilbert even draws attention to that intersection of journey and self-discovery when she decides—after a traumatic marital breakdown and conversion experience on her bathroom floor—to explore “one aspect of [herself] against the backdrop of each country”: “the art of pleasure in Italy, the art of devotion in India and, in Indonesia, the art of balancing the two. It was only later…that I noticed the happy coincidence that all these countries began with the letter I. A fairly auspicious sign, it seemed, on a voyage of self-discovery.”
The book brought India again to the public sphere; the paperback version was on the bestseller list for over 60 weeks—a result partly of Penguin Book’s massive campaign to increase its promotion and visibility, and its appropriation by Oprah Winfrey in both her magazine and television program. The Oprah website, for instance, was peppered with images of Gilbert and descriptions of her meditation at the ashram in India, during which she reportedly felt herself to be “in the palm of God”: “It was very brief. It was also very eternal. It was as though the scales fell from my eyes and the openings of the universe were shown to me,” she recalls; “What I felt was pure, divine, eternal, knowing, compassionate love, and it was obvious…It just switched like this. ‘Oh, I see. I am that. I come from that. That is what I am. And that is what everything is.’” Her conflation of this moment of “seeing” with the idea of darshan was troubling to many readers, including Nyla Matuk and Karen von Hahn of the Globe and Mail; von Hahn’s humorous column [published March 1, 2008] is titled “Eat, pray, sob,” and opens with her physiotherapist’s allusion to Gilbert’s book, and its popularity among her friends; she focuses on the various responses to the Oprah talk—including comments such as “Is anyone else out there on the bathroom floor?” and “I feel like I’ve been on the bathroom floor and someone locked me in.” She concludes that “Gilbert’s book isn’t a smash hit just because it’s well written. It’s hitting us all where we live, which, apparently, is sobbing uncontrollably with our faces pressed against the bathroom floor tiles (no wonder we are spending so much on our en suites).”
Similarly, Matuk’s review is titled “Eat pray and look at me,” and she identifies Gilbert’s book and its promotion as emblematic of the “culture of narcissism.” She writes: “Gilbert’s ashram experience tries to show how difficult it is to shed Western self-preoccupation in such an ascetic environment…in writing the book, she makes herself an exception and brings into relief the very tendency she hopes to neuter. Any self-erasure or humility she may have gained is cancelled.” Thus, the very description of that moment of “seeing” simply reinforces the cataloguing of individual lives “as a set of consumer choices…Travel, consume (eat), meditate (pray), and watch me (love me) doing it. Read my book about it! Watch me on TV! Please look at me!” That reflection brings us back to Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Cult of Mac. Western guru and Western disciple overlooking the country of over one billion people who are, as Sylvia Rau Badami has stated, are “busy trying to live ‘without drowning or dying while catching a bus.’”
As Gladstone writes, “Both tourists and pilgrims travel to a place in order to see its sights (or sites), to sightsee.” In pilgrimage accounts, the narrator alternates between witness and participant—in some places adopting an ethnographic perspective, and in others concentrating on personal reactions and physical responses. The witness is often a participant in courses, programs, and acts of worship. Pilgrimage narratives often incorporate maps, glossaries, bibliographies, and interview-style conversations into all the texts I have studied; that authority also undermines the integrity of the Turners’ ideal of communitas; Turner’s notion that pilgrims experience “a sense of socially unencumbered selves…[which] contributes to a universal sense of a human self”; these “may be useful categories but only insofar as the analysis of power is fully engaged in connection with them.” Fracture lines “are evinced among the pilgrims themselves, site officials and pilgrims, the power perceived in the shrine and pilgrims, and among those who initiate and control the pilgrimage: tourist agencies, religious organizations and/or local and national governmental associations. As well, owners, managers, and religious institutions in charge of pilgrimage sites attempt, in some measure, to control the interpretation of the site’s power.”
Two accounts stand apart from these exercises in cultural narcissism: the books of Martin Buckley and Joseph Blank that review the pilgrim’s journey through the lens of the epic, Ramayana. Both make some attempt to follow the path of the story, reflecting on political events and personal experience as well as recounting the epic. Though clearly targeted to Western audiences—Buckley’s title alone draws on the familiarity of Western culture—these two studies contain rare glimpses of exchange, even while they erode communitas through the scholarly and economic authority of the narrators.
The books emphasize the material reality of sacred sites, their role in contemporary political and military conflicts, and the heart of the ancient tale of Rama and Sita as it inhabits the South Asian imagination. Blank’s narrative, republished more than once since 1992, begins with his visit to Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, and his baffled view of pilgrims entering a Hindu temple within the mosque. His aim, he claims in the introduction, is to trace Rama’s journey in a detailed and intentional manner, and to get glimpses of a higher journey. Buckley’s narrative explicitly refers to the national elections of 2008, the controversy about the building of a bridge between South India and Sri Lanka. His citing of statistics such as “since 1992, 13,000 people have died because of the Ramayana” underscores the material consequences of sacred sites; when he returns to Sri Lanka at the end of the narrative, he finds that the civil war “had killed the pilgrim trade” although a “little mandir devoted to Sita” remains to mark her entrance into the fire.
Buckley’s and Blank’s narratives keep a respectable distance and clearly are designed for the Western reader. Buckley ponders “how much of India was woven into the myths of Hinduism. It seemed that every hill and lake had some spiritual significance, was mentioned in some holy text or other and subsequently patinated with temples and officiating Brahmins and festivals and pilgrims, and an ultimate commercial layer of souvenirs and veneratory paraphernalia.” Similarly, Blank describes his encounter with a family of pilgrims from Tamil Nadu while in Varanasi; it is, they tell him, their fifth pilgrimage, but their conversation is blended with references to cricket and Star Wars paraphernalia. Both Buckley and Blank have their own moments of darshan; Blank describes a “small ray of illumination” in Varanasi. Buckley’s conclusion openly addresses the potency of the story in comparison to pre-Raphaelite art and Bach’s compositions:
This book began life as a cultural journey, a literary adventure….
But if I close my eyes and think of the Ramayana, I no longer see a book, or a dusty Ayodhyan hilltop, or headlines about religious clashes, or fragments of a journey from Ayodhya to Sri Lanka. I don’t really see anything. I seem to hear—indeed, to sense—an ancient alchemy: Sita Ram, Sita-Ram, Sitaram, Sitaram….
On a superficial level, such books are a breath of fresh air in the stale environment of narcissistic pilgrimage narratives like Gilbert’s or justifications of economic exploitation by social media and technology magnates like Zuckerberg. They at least acquaint the reader with one of the key texts of South Asia, woven into its material and political, as well as social, landscape. Sites of pilgrimage are treated with humility and respect, for the most part; the narrators do not pretend to be anything but scholars and outsiders. The corresponding hope is that such accounts can “produce an openness to narrative that decenters us and allows us to think beyond ourselves, implicated in lives that are not our own.” Buckley describes during his visit to Varanasi: “It was strange to be a tourist floating on the stuff, the deity, in which these pilgrims were immersing themselves. They never looked up at you, were wholly unaware of themselves as spectacle. And you respected the fact that this was an intimate act on their part.” Does the pilgrimage paradigm repeat endlessly a tale of conquest and exploitation? Can it suggest a true glimpse of encounter and exchange, and the desire to move towards an anti-structural communitas that interrogates the assumptions of the Western pilgrim? These narratives come close, but perhaps a different story needs to be told; or perhaps it must be told by someone else.
 Surinder Mohan Bhardwaj, in Hindu Places of Pilgrimage in India: A Study in Cultural Geography, acknowledges that the travels of pilgrims to sacred sites “have given meaning to India as a cultural entity” (dedication), and he also states that “The concept of pilgrimage exists in all major religions, although…its meaning varies widely within the canonical structure of each religion.” The Sanskrit term “tirtha-yatra” can be defined as “undertaking journey to river fords”—where the “river ford” is a threshold separating and connecting material and immaterial worlds. This notion has been associated with external places—such as rivers, running waters, hot springs, hills, and forests—and with a inward state acquired through meditation. Bhardwaj notes, “The number of Hindu [my emphasis] sanctuaries in India is so large and the practice of pilgrimage so ubiquitous that the whole of India can be regarded as a vast sacred space organized into a system of pilgrimage centres and their fields.”
 Like Fraser, for instance, Gilbert states that this book is an account of her search for truth, but notes that such a search “is not some spazzy free-for-all, not even during this, the great age of the spazzy free-for all.” She opens with the breakdown of her marriage, and her prayer on the bathroom floor which she offers, mysteriously, in English, Italian, and Sanskrit. Moreover, she describes herself as “culturally, though not theologically…a Christian. I was born a Protestant of the white Anglo-Saxon persuasion.” Universalism—simultaneously emphasizing Western and Protestant individualism—is repeated throughout the book. Remarkable also is Gilbert’s parodic repetition of the conversion narrative, when she prays on the bathroom floor and hears a voice telling her to go to bed; yet she distinguishes this experience from the typical Protestant conversion narrative saying that she was not transformed, saved, or born again at that moment, but only experienced “the first words of an open and exploratory dialogue” with the divine.
 Darlene Juschka explains: “Communitas is a second important concept developed by Turner. Communitas, or social anti-structure, is a liminal phenomenon that arises ‘spontaneously in all kinds of groups, situations, and circumstances,’ wherein participants are ‘liberated from conformity to general norms,’ although this liberation is neither permanent nor deconstructive. Rather, it acts to support status by its momentary reversal of status.” Therefore, Turner argues that communitas “posits a model of undifferentiated wholeness wherein participants experience egalitarian community in opposition to hierarchy.” Juschka cites other anthropologists who critique this idea of communitas and liminality: for example, Alan Morinis, Michael Sallnow, Jill Dubisch, and Catherine Bell.
This work was first published as part of the Maple ~ September 2017 Issue, of the Coldnoon journal.