December tends to be freezing cold in Jammu & Kashmir state. Thus, many avoid taking a trip to the famous Hindu shrine of Vaishno Devi around this time of the year.
However, against many advices, we embarked on a pilgrimage. We boarded an overnight train from Delhi to reach Jammu the following morning and then boarded a bus to be at Katra, the base camp from where the ascent to the shrine begins.
We were happy to have made that decision.
As we reached Katra, the sky was getting clear and the sun was glowing in gilded glory.
We began the ascent with a winning smile as we did not face any showers, sleet or snowfall. We were lucky! We were favoured by the sun god. Shall we say the Goddess herself? The nip in the air was undone by the warmth of the bright sun.
We covered 14 kilometers uphill climb in half a day. Finally, we reached the destination past dusk with sore and swollen feet.
We headed straight for dinner and then to the guest room to sleep so that we could get up early in the morning for darshan (audience) of the goddess.
There was visible excitement among the fellow devotees. Dressed up in new clothes we were waiting for our turn at the temple.
The happiness after having a blissful darshan of the goddess was winning over the pain incurred through the strenuous journey.
It was a sublime experience and I was appreciating my decision to come on this journey, the first for me
After the darshan, we returned to the base camp at Katra. Soaked in ecstasy we headed to Jammu from Katra the next day.
As we looked back from the rear window of the car, the sky over the shrine was overcast with dark clouds. We thanked the divine power for making our journey pleasant and obstacle free.
One and half hours later, we checked in a hotel room in Jammu, deposited our belongings there, changed into new clothes and went to the local market.
The Jammu market was abuzz with locals and tourists alike. Shops were stacked with woolens, Kashmiri hand-embroidered clothes, walnut wooden artifacts, puffed rice, dry fruits and nuts, you name it.
While criss-crossing through the market we entered the famous Raghunath Temple in the heart of the market.
We entered the temple complex comprising many temples dedicated to different deities.
After depositing our footwear, we proceeded to the main temple of Lord Rama. We were literally ushered in by a couple of priests sitting there through their hand gestures.
I walked up to the temple precinct, and the priest appointee started chanting mantras the minute I reached the rampart. I considered myself fortunate and thought the priest was especially chanting the mantras for me and for my family’s welfare. I was impressed with his selfless dedication.
He concluded his prayers by placing his right hand on my head to bless me and by telling rather softly “donate as much as you can, as per your capacity”. The concluding sentence was not in sync with his “selfless” prayers for me. I was going to do that anyway. Being Hindus we generally offer money while visiting temples and it could be anything right from a token amount of Rs1 to one’s capability.
As I looked down to open my wallet to take out a note, I saw a plate full of crispy notes placed just at the feet of the deity. Each of them not less than Rs 500 and Rs 1,000. I felt gullible to the power of big denomination without realizing it.
I deliberately took out a note of bigger denomination as if someone compelled me. I chastised myself for being calculative and letting the thought of money coming to my mind at such a spiritual place.
I moved on to the second temple dedicated to Hanumanji. Another priest stationed here started chanting prayers loudly and started gesturing me to come near the deity. He did all the ritual, put vermilion on my forehead, blessed me and by gesturing to the plate full with 1000 Rs notes he said “jitni ichacha ho utna daan kar dijiye” (donate as much as you can). Overpowered by the plate full of notes, again I felt compelled and departed from another crispy note.
However, it did not sound ok to me. I doubted his intention. But I snubbed myself for doubting the priest to manipulate me psychologically.
Nevertheless, the doubt remained there. TO me the ‘selfless’ and personalized service of the priests was a way of influencing the psyche of devotees and extorting money from them in a subtle way under the guise of faith.
Another temple, another priestly hypnotism and another forsaking of a crispy note. But this time of lesser value. But after this I dared not to go inside any temple just folded my hands from a distance and walked on.
I was not alone to go through the same feeling. Fellow devotees too found it as psychological manipulation and coercion even though none of the priests out there explicitly asked anyone to donate any amount of money.
One of them narrated how his daughter in law was rushed by a priest the moment he saw she was holding only a 10 Rs note in her hands. He did not let her finish her prayers and called in another devotee to be blessed by him. It was simply outrageous for all of us there.
Half an hour later everyone had enough fodder to talk about. Angry fellow visitors blamed the priests and their greed for discouraging people from coming to the temple.
The ‘priestly’ psychological manipulation for materialistic gains at Raghunath temple was quite in contrast to the spiritual and religious journey at Vaishno Devi where no one was under any external pressure to offer any cash or kind.
While I’m quite reluctant to go back to the Ragunath temple ever again, I think I will be fortunate enough if I get a chance to revisit the Vaishno Devi shrine.