Maha Shivaratri: What is our responsibility as individuals and as community?

After Maha Shivaratri last year I wrote an article titled ‘Post Maha Shivaratri’. In it I shared some personal observations about a few key aspects of the event, in a bid to trigger constructive thinking on the part of all concerned – organizers and participants – so as to bring about an improvement in the rolling out of the celebration. This can only happen through exemplary personal conduct on the part of pilgrims and a more enlightened organisational approach. This would necessarily be based on a correct understanding of the how and why of this important celebration in the Hindu calendar, which seems largely lacking and hence leads to practices at Ganga Talao which do not do full justice and honour to the solemnity of the occasion. And gives a wrong perception overall.

Since these observations are still pertinent and Maha Shivaratri is next week, I have revisited and updated them, and am offering them to fellow Hindus for their appreciation and the good of the community, indeed of the country generally.

I noted that over the years I have been witness to a lot of changes taking place in relation to the yatra, ‘alas not all of them good’. I mentioned that we could look at ‘these developments in terms of what I would call hardware and software. While the hardware has mostly improved, the software needs much refinement and fine-tuning.’ By hardware I meant essentially infrastructure and logistics required, where the State had a major role which it was fulfilling adequately given the security, sanitation and environmental aspects that such a massive national movement over nearly a week entailed. I gave the example of the walk to Pere Laval as the other mega-event of comparable dimension in which the State had a similar role for the same reasons.

And by software I meant ‘the mindset of the individual as s/he embarks on the journey, as well as the associated organizational and operational aspects’.

While, therefore, the State took its part of the responsibility, functioning through a Task Force, I pointed out that ‘the rest is up to the individual pilgrims and all those associated with them in the performance of the yatra – namely the religious heads and guides, the organizations under which the latter are grouped, the various civil society entities such as youth associations and so on’.

At the same time, I underlined ‘that a greater understanding is solicited from all citizens during this period so that the pilgrimage can proceed without hitch – which is usually the case’.

Then I took a self-critical look at what happens during the several days that this event lasts, under headings which are retained blow:

Kanwars on the roads

I quoted from Diana Eck, a specialist in Indian Studies and Professor at Harvard University, who wrote in her book India: A Sacred Geography: ‘…pilgrims converge on the temple carrying pots of Ganga water on either end of a shoulder pole. These people, called kanwarias, “pole-bearers,” have made a vow, perhaps for the health or well-being of a spouse or child, and have walked the distance from the Ganga at Sultanganj sixty-five miles away. For a month, the road is a steady stream of saffron-clad figures, both men and women, undertaking a pilgrim’s discipline’, and walking barefooted.

Since the issue of the sizes of the kanwar had been discussed ad nauseam, I didn’t consider it further, moving on ‘to the larger issue of interference with traffic flow. Clearly the police have a large role to play here, but also, the kanwarias must display a sense of greater civic responsibility by following the police instructions, and not stopping – when they have to — anywhere but well by the wayside or at a lay-by.

Further, they must keep away from the centre of the road as they rest and refresh when they have stopped. It will be seen that these are very simple things to be followed, and that this will be better for traffic and commuters overall. Awareness and sensitization are key here, especially as it’s mostly the young who are involved’.

Will pilgrims and organizers show that greater sense of responsibility in 2016? I pray sincerely that this be so.


a) There were cleaners and cleaning teams, along with waste carrying lorries, present regularly 24/7 along the access route leading to Ganga Talao and at the lake site too. However, here again the responsibility of pilgrims must come to the fore: use of the bins which are to be found all along the way by the roadside.

Sadly, the practice of just dumping plastic cups on the roadsides has not stopped – although they were being picked up as pointed out. Still, they are certainly not a pleasant sight while awaiting to be collected, and it is only the individual pilgrim/organisation that can make a difference – not the police, not the Minister of Environment, not the Task Force.

For example, one youth association that was serving drinks at Ganga Talao had placed a bin in one corner. But when it was full and the cups started to topple over and pile up on the road instead, none of the group seemed to think that the bin should be emptied and a new bin bag put in! We can multiply this example several-fold because it repeats at many locations. Again, just a little forethought can make all the difference.

b) Please TAKE BACK YOUR OFFERINGS – DON’T LEAVE, PICK UP banana, coconut, betel leaves remaining etc. That will leave the place much cleaner. I don’t think there can be any disagreement on that.

Noise and other pollution

a) I narrated how one night I was awakened abruptly by the sound of loud drum beats. When I looked at the time, it was 2.30 a.m. Some kanwarias were passing by and playing loud music. I can appreciate that they need something to keep them awake but surely they can listen to a softer bhajan when going though residential areas. They must therefore be advised accordingly. This is something that has to be looked into, and it isn’t a matter of law. It is only sensitization and understanding, and that is the role of the religious people and other civil society organizations.

b) More important: At Ganga Talao too, there is a need to rationalize the diffusion of music. Practically all the organizations present there, especially the purely religious ones, had music playing on loudspeakers in their individual stalls. These were separated by only a thin sheet partition, so that there was a profusion of sounds heard, and one did not know which was which — since all the sounds together became noise that drowned the soulful single tunes. Clearly, this conflation, which is compounded by the loudness, is not desirable.

I pointed out to a religious group which was clearly not amenable to any reasoning, compared to the University of Mauritius students whom I had approached to lower the volume of their music, which they promptly did. That group kept on blaring non-stop the Maha Mrityunjaya mantra.

Besides, they had a large hawan kund which they kept going with the mix of samagri that is thrown into the fire, which was being done continuously as it was being distributed to pilgrims. The burning generated a lot of smoke, which had only one outlet: the road, towards which it went on drifting. Several people had smarting of the eyes, and that was the least concern of that group.

I had noted that ‘This is something that needs to be looked into’ – Will this happen? One suggestion has been that no group should be allowed to use a loudspeaker in the individual cubicles. After all, those who stop by can hear at normal volume as they stand there, and listen to the other music at a next stall if they so wish. Better still, since there is still time, why don’t the organizers consider the centralized diffusion of appropriate mantras that would induce pilgrims to sit and meditate in a sedate atmosphere? It is something to be seriously considered, and the advice of the religious heads should be sought.

No smoking!

I narrated the how a lady tourist who was walking up from the waterfront was heard admonishing a few youngsters sitting on the steps and puffing away: ‘This is a place to pray, not to smoke!’ She clearly had a better sense of what spiritual meant, which equally clearly these misbehaved fellows didn’t have. What a shame. I hope that we will be spared a repeat of such behaviour again.

Food distribution

As usual, there were many volunteer groups doing food sewa, with a concentration near and at Ganga Talao. I thought that there was one too many at the Ganga Talao site itself, a feeling shared by a senior and elderly member of the Hindu Maha Sabha whom I talked to there. I had the opportunity to discuss this matter with Swami Pranavananda, Spiritual head of the Chinmaya Mission, when he graciously accorded me some time last week.

The broad view is that a rethink is needed about the location and number of food service points at Ganga Talao, and allowance must be made for the fact that many people, whether they have come in their own cars or have walked, invariably carry something to be consumed after they are done with the puja, since they would have been fasting before coming there.

Of course there are those who have come from further afield, and their needs must be catered for. However, this aspect can be considered as part of the overall set-up that requires redesigning, and the space allocations and utilization more deeply thought through, keeping in mind particularly the spiritual dimension of the yatra. Here’s work cut out for the socio-cultural organisations that are in charge of the preparations for the yatra – with a few more days to go, they can surely come up with something along these lines.

I rounded up with: ‘These are a few personal observations, and there may be more points that others may have noted and that equally need to be articulated – so that the thinking about next year’s yatra can start early, and the set of measures/actions/advice to pilgrims begun well in advance, and not wait to be done only a couple of weeks before. The whole thrust must be on the pilgrim’s discipline – vide the quote from Diana Eck’s book above. That would certainly be a great service to both the pilgrims and to the country at large.’

I do not know whether the advance thinking has been done and therefore the question remains: Will we travel that road too? This is yet, alas, to be seen. It’s our dignity as a community and our understanding as individuals that are at stake, and unless we take up the challenge it will be business as usual. But it shouldn’t be so…

* Published in print edition on 26 February 2016

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