Our last day in India was the first official day of the festival known as “Pongal”. Initially, it was explained to us as the equivalent of the American celebration of Thanksgiving. The first day people spend in preparation, purchasing food and celebratory items, the second day is spent with family, and the third day of the festival is spent in thanksgiving…
to one of the 330 million gods of the land.
At breakfast our waiter presented us with a sweet dish of rice and nuts and said, “Happy Pongal.” The head waiter brought us the paper (in Hindi) with pictures of some of the activities that would be carried out in celebration of the holiday. One of which, is the chasing of a bull through the streets that has a bag of money tied around his neck. Many risk great injury to grab the prize, in spite of the fact the bulls horns have been sharpened for the event, and his temper enraged by chili powder up his nostrils and alcohol poured down its throat.
It seemed amazing, and had been describe as an innocent and innocuous holiday of festivities and village traditions. However, all our innocence on the issue was dispelled by the picture of the goddess they were paying homage to in their activities. We inquired (out of polite curiosity) of our host, who the multi-colored, many armed woman pictured was. “She is our main goddess of the temple, the goddess of destruction.”
This was thanksgiving? To a deity who destroys? Homage, in hopes the destructive one would be on your side instead of spewing wrath and wreaking havoc in the coming year.
As we were driving the two and half hours to the airport, we passed through towns and villages where loud music carried into the street. We asked if the music had any religious significance. Our escort laughed and said, “no these are just songs from movies that are popular and put people in a holiday mood.”
“White Christmas” anyone?
Along the two lane road, thousands of people were walking in a variety of yellow and saffron colored robes. All of them were barefoot. We asked where they were headed as well as the significance of their clothing and lack of shoes. Our host explained, they were off to the main temple (one of the largest in India) to this deity of destruction. From where we were it was over 50 miles away from where we were on the road, (but the pilgrims were not starting from where we were, but some from as far as 80 miles.) Men, women, young and old, walking out their “salvation” in hopes to please and spare themselves hardship. He also explained they are taking days to accomplish this. Some not even stopping to sleep and eating is out of the question.
What saddened me was not their destination, or even their misplaced desire to seek salvation from a goddess of destruction instead of the God of love and mercy. The heartbreaking fact is here were thousands of people of all ages and stages of health, devoted and willing to walk for days, barefoot across dirt, rocks and glass to earn a false security for the next year. While “we” sit in our comfort wondering what our God (the ONE) is going to give “us”. I cannot count the times I’ve heard and I confess said, “I didn’t get much out of church Sunday.” How quickly we have forgotten it is not about us “getting” but us “giving”. Worshipping the God who is worthy of our praise!
I pray to return with the conviction and vision to share “thanksgiving” to the living God for the privilege to fly twenty hours, drive by car and bus up and across the pathways of foreign countries, sleep in train cars traveling to orphans, as a pilgrimage of praise and thanks for His mercy and gratitude for His love.