Does it make any sense being everyone’s go-to person when people only come to you with their wants – often supporting a morally and financially corrupt ecosystem, that too in your name?
This morning’s papers are full of pictures of Sachin Tendulkar, his wife Anjali and Telugu superstars Chiranjeevi and Nagarjuna visiting the famous shrine of Lord Venkateshwara at Tirupati yesterday. I have no information if these VIPs got a special darshan at the temple which overtly champions equality and ostensibly administers an efficient, impregnable queue/visitor management process. But seeing those pictures reminded me of my several visits to Tirupati and how, over four years of going there, I was weaned off my desire to go after God!
Almost 15 years ago a friend of mine, sitting at the Westminister bar in the erstwhile ITC Park Sheraton Hotel (it became the Crowne Plaza Hotel last year), told me that if I wanted business success I must take to worshipping Lord Venkateshwara “religiously”. He cited how the country’s top business people unfailingly went to Tirupati to pay obeisance to the Lord. “Have you ever wondered why their businesses are more sucessful than yours or mine,” he asked me, adding quickly: “That’s because they are blessed by Balaji, Lord Venkateshwara.”
I found my friend’s logic unputdownable. And so, on the first day of the immediate quarter that followed, Vaani and I went to Tirupati. We had not been there in over two decades. And so we had no idea of how to secure the tickets for darshan or how the queue system worked. After a lot of traumatic exploration – read running from pillar to post; that was also the non-internet era, so we had to literally scavenge for reliable information – for five hours we got our tickets. As we snaked our way into the Vaikuntam queue complex, we were appalled when, after three hours of barely inching forward, our queue was halted. Even as we were wondering why we were not making progress, we found Anil Ambani and his wife Tina, walking breezily past us in the adjacent, barricaded, queue lane. I was livid. Even then, the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD) advertised that it practiced an all-are-equal darshan policy. So, I was even more piqued that the TTD was not keeping up its own promise. But I knew I could do nothing to challenge what was going on. So, I did the next best thing. I worked over that quarter and quickly cobbled together a network of influencers within the system who I could tap to have our special darshan “arranged” even at short notice. For the 17 quarters (that is, four years) that followed, Vaani and I got “great darshan, with extra-time in the main sanctum sanctorum”, at Tirupati.
But eventually, we stopped making that pilgrimage to Tirupati for two reasons. One, our own spiritual evolution happened and it clarified to us that the God we seek so desperately is within us. We realized that we found meaning and value in spirituality and not in religion. Two, every visit to Tirupati – or to any place of worship that reeked of crass commercialization (and most places, sadly, are that way) – left me more disturbed than at peace; the behavior of the self-proclaimed representatives of God was appalling, they appeared to be no better than vultures that avariciously pecked away at corpses. During my mouna sessions (daily practice of silence periods) I examined the guilt that was gnawing within me. I realized that I was feeling so because I was literally ‘bribing’ God to give me an appointment; I was imploring God to prioritize me over hundreds of thousands of others who could not afford the ‘bribe’. Over time, mercifully, this guilt transformed into an awakening, a realization that God must not be chased, that God need not be searched for, that God must not be either feared or bribed. And that’s how I weaned myself away from wanting to go see God in a place that’s outside of me. Let me tell you, I have never experienced, in 48+ years, more Godliness and inner peace than I have in the last eight years that I stopped visiting places of worship!
So, this morning, when I looked at the pictures of the VIPs’ visit to Tirupati, all these thoughts came gushing. I have nothing against God, godmen, representatives of God, religion and the many, many people who still believe God resides in places of worship. I only feel sorry for God, as in the human definition and interpretation of God! Being God, I guess, must be pretty stifling. Imagine being God and being locked up in an unventilated, dark place, when you can’t even move! Imagine how you will feel if the only people who come to you are those who never ask you how you are or offer gratitude for what you have already given them, but only ‘want’ something for themselves! Imagine people using your name to divide each other! Imagine having to watch helplessly as ritualistic and gender-biased restrictions are imposed on women even though you created them with the same love and compassion as you created men! Imagine being God, won’t you feel sorry for yourself?