RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–“By the grace of God I am a Christian, by my deeds a great sinner, and by my calling a homeless wanderer, roaming from place to place.”
So begins the 19th-century spiritual classic “The Way of a Pilgrim.”
The words were written by an anonymous Russian peasant who strove to learn to pray without ceasing. But they accurately describe any follower of Christ with an honest view of self, a healthy disdain for the world and a true hunger for God.
Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah and other faithful servants of old were “strangers and pilgrims on the earth,” Hebrews 11:13 recounts. The Apostle Peter likewise urged the redeemed “as strangers and pilgrims” to abstain from fleshly desires (1 Peter 2:11).
Pilgrimage can become an unholy end in itself, however. “Those who go on many pilgrimages are seldom made perfect and holy by them,” Thomas a’ Kempis warned five centuries ago in “The Imitation of Christ” as the Roman Catholic Church was sinking under the weight of superstition, idolatry and shrine worship. Yet he appealed to the true believer to “keep yourself as a pilgrim and a stranger here in this world, as one to whom the world’s business counts but little.”
The urge to go on pilgrimage — in search of holiness, revelation, wisdom, cleansing or divine favor — is as old as mankind. There are countless inspirational (or irrational) destinations, from the birthplace of the Buddha to the tomb of Elvis. Seekers go to holy mountains, rivers and temples. Penitents walk or crawl great distances in hopes of gaining redemption. One holy man recently rolled sideways 1,500 miles across India to worship at a sacred site. Jews long for Jerusalem. Muslims take the hajj to Mecca. Hindus go the Kumbh Mela and other festivals.
At such events, Hindus believe physical time and space rendezvous with the spiritual and the eternal. “To them, going on a pilgrimage means going to heaven,” says one observer.
“There are thousands of holy sites in India,” a student of Hinduism adds. “Each day millions of Hindus are on pilgrimages. A pilgrimage may be a day trip to a holy banyan tree by a wife seeking the prosperity of her husband, or it may be the long journey to Varanasi to die in Hinduism’s holiest place.” By bathing in holy rivers during the Kumbh Mela festival, they believe they will be “absolved of sin, receive bountiful blessings and attain salvation.”
In one sense, the Kumbh Mela captures Hinduism in a single time and place. Seekers come to worship any of a staggering variety of gods, to “make puja” (show reverence to some aspect of divinity through prayers and rituals), to seek power and purity, to attain release from the endless toil of the world.
“Pilgrims, not only from India but from around the world … pour in, wave after wave, from every walk of life, caste and sub-caste…. Brahmin and untouchable, male and female ascetics, religious leaders and gurus of countless sects,” writes Cambridge University religion scholar Julius Lipner. “The journey itself to the site is a pilgrimage, gaining merit and expending sin and bad karma for the pilgrim.”
If conditions are just right, pilgrims believe, they may even attain “moksha” — liberation from the cycle of rebirth.
There are nearly 840 million Hindus in India, and 40 million more in neighboring countries of South Asia. Faithful Hindus long to worship. God desires faithful worshipers. Can they be united to Him in spirit and truth? Yes, if they see that Jesus Christ offers true liberation, that He is the true Incarnation of God — unique and absolute.
“May the Ganges River become known as the place where Indians go to be baptized in the name of Jesus,” a follower of Christ in India prays. “From the Himalaya Mountains to the tropical islands of the Maldives, may the glory of the Lord cover South Asia as the waters cover the sea. Dear brothers and sisters, I urge you, pray, pray, pray!”
Erich Bridges is senior writer for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.