“Money. You give money. Look,” the pandit insisted as he held his hand on my head tightly, refusing to let go, while I tried to pull away. With his other hand, he pointed to all the 100 rupee notes from devotees. “This is the footsteps of the Goddess. If you don’t give money here you won’t get what you want.”
I was at the Mansa Devi temple, perched on a hill above Haridwar, and had just received a blessing from the pandit. He’d taken some flowers from my tray of offerings for the goddess, but he wasn’t satisfied. He wanted something for himself too. Money. He didn’t get it though, and finally released my head when I shouted at him in Hindi that I didn’t have any (which was the truth as I wasn’t carrying any).
I was quickly hoarded, along with the mass of people, to a counter where bored and disinterested looking workers were taking coconuts from devotees and throwing them into bins (where, I dare say, they would later be retrieved from and re-sold as prasad/offerings the next day). One of the workers took the rest of my flowers, and gave me a few pieces of broken coconut in return.
With a shock, I realised I was inside the inner sanctum and in front of Mansa Devi herself. The fact had almost escaped me due to the mechanical actions of the workers, and the diminutive size of the idol compared to the temple surroundings, which surprisingly also hosted many other more impressive idols of other deities.
“I’d better make a wish,” I thought to myself, after all, Mansa Devi is known as the wish fulfilling goddess. But how was it possible to make a wish when I felt so harassed and disconnected. Herded this way and that, and my offerings so unceremoniously taken from me.
As I made my way towards the exit, pandits called out to me to stop by the other deities and receive their blessings (for a fee, I’m sure). Market stalls, selling more floral offerings and trays of cheap jewellery, lined the exit. The rings were particularly popular items. Could it be that people thought that it would bring them good luck to buy them from the lap of the Goddess?
Having caught the cable car up to the temple, my husband and I decided to walk down. On the way, we were greeted with a bizarre surprise — three men dressed up to look like Hanuman, the monkey god. Their faces were painted a bright saffron colour, and they were ready to tap people on the head with the maces that they were carrying (but for how much money in return, I didn’t care to find out).
Further along, one man was being trailed by a doubtful looking sadhu. “Come and join Shiva. All your problems will be solved,” the sadhu implored. “Baba, if you don’t go and do some real work, your blessings won’t have any effect,” the man argued back as he tried to get away.
The blatant thirst for money in the holy city of Haridwar left me bewildered and disenchanted. It was a paradox. After all, isn’t spirituality about developing detachment from money and material items? During the trip, I was reading a book called Living with the Himalayan Masters by Swami Rama. It revealed great sages of India who openly rejected naive devotees who brought them offerings of riches. These great sages had nothing and wanted nothing. Their contentment came from within, and they were the most spiritually advanced and enlightened people possible.
Then what sense is to be made of the quest for money at holy places, particularly temples?
My husband was equally as dismayed. He’d also become irritated at the temple after being harassed for money by the same pandit, and didn’t feel like making a wish. “How can those people so blindly visit that temple, give money, and believe their wishes will be granted?” he asked. “I think it’s the power if the mind,” I tried to explain to him. “It’s got nothing to do with the power of the goddess, or the pandit. If people truly believe their wish will come true, that thought will create the action, nothing else.”
I guess we became a little more enlightened, but not in the way we’d hoped!
© 2011, Diary of a White Indian Housewife. All rights reserved. Do not copy and reproduce text or images without permission.
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