“Kanwad Yatra can evolve, blend social, religious duties, says prominent seer”, Hindustan Times

This article was published in the Hindustan Times, here.

Some Hindu religious leaders want that from next year the Kanwad Yatra should also associate with social causes like ensuring the numerous routes they undertake stay clean, saying no to plastics and giving the message of water conservation.

The Kanwad Yatra would end on Independence Day, the occasion coinciding with the last day of the Hindu holy month of Shrawan.

Some Hindu religious leaders want that from next year the Kanwad Yatra should also associate with social causes like ensuring the numerous routes they undertake stay clean, saying no to plastics and giving the message of water conservation.

During this yatra, lakhs of devotees of Lord Shiva cover long distances barefoot to reach temples. They carry Ganga jal kept in bamboo contraption called Kanwad, balanced on shoulders, to offer to the deity.

Swami Chidanand Saraswati, the president and spiritual head of the famous Parmarth Niketan of Rishikesh, believes that while growing devotion is welcome, the religious frenzy of the young has to be re-directed for social causes.

Is it possible? “Yes,” says the seer who speaks English, travels across the globe and feels religious beliefs have to be taught to the young in a manner they connect with. Excerpts from an interview:

Q: What does Kanwad Yatra mean to you?

A: To me, it’s proof of immense devotion. Over the years, it has grown. But, I feel sad when I hear that there were Kanwadias who consumed ‘bhaang’ or took liquor, or picked a fight! These incidents are few but often end up giving a bad name to the pious but arduous trek that devotees undertake each year. Kanwadias travel raising the chant of ‘Bol Bum’. I would be more happy if they march to the chants of ‘Bol Bum, Bol Bum, kachra kar do, jadd se khatam (Keep chanting Lord’s name and pledge to root out dirt in all its forms).’

Q: That’s interesting. So are we talking of a Kanwad Yatra with a social cause from next year? Is it possible?

A: Possible? Yes. I can’t promise if it would start happening that way across the country but we can nevertheless begin to create a consensus in this regard. I will personally take the lead by talking to various stakeholders. The Kanwad Yatra can certainly evolve to a journey where we just don’t fill up pots from rivers to offer to Lord Shiva temples but also become conscious of the importance of protecting our sacred water resources and Mother Earth. Whilst we take out the yatra, let us also think of how we can save water, activate dry ponds in villages and do our crucial part in water conservation.

Q: But wouldn’t this clash with religious sentiments?

A: No, it would add social value to a religious dimension. What’s the harm if we pledge to keep the route on which Kanwad Yatra is undertaken clean? Kanwadias travel all over, crossing difficult terrain barefoot on way to and from Shiva temples across the country. So why can’t a ‘swachhta (cleanliness) campaign be undertaken by them on all kanwad routes? The Lord would definitely be much happier in cleaner environments. We should take the water from the holy rivers and carry it back to our villages to activate the ponds in our villages, bringing back water to the people. Keeping our pariyavaran (environment) clean is the most natural outcome of true piety.

Q: What else you have in mind?

A: For instance, we can also think of this ritual of filling up pots with river water to offer to the Lord as a reminder of the kind of influence this Kanwad Yatra can wield. It is a Jal Shakti yatra, where one bows and respects the need to ensure that our rivers flow clean. Shouldn’t the water of the river that is offered to the Lord’s mastak (head) be clean? Of course, it should! Then also we can move forward from there. From offering a little water on the Lord’s mastak, can we move from there with the resolve of keeping our ‘mohallas’ (neighbourhoods) clean?

Q: Hmmm … sounds logical!

A: Not just that. See, I would like the social and religious duties to blend. So there is this belief that the Lord after consuming the poison that emerged from the ‘samudra manthan’ (churning of the sea), arrived on the banks of the Ganga, meditated on its banks and then bathed in the river. All this has a message and context for the present. Lord Shiva consuming poison and then bathing and meditating are also symbolic, for they teach us that when confronted with problems and poison in life it’s time to meditate, to look within and to bathe in the inner Ganga to purify and cleanse ourselves of dirt. One who truly imbibes this message would never pollute their surroundings or rivers.

Q: How do you check the few ‘blacksheep’ who pollute the Kanwad Yatra, giving it a bad name?

A: I will discuss it with the larger community of saints. Some say ‘bholey baba consumed poison’ and justify consumption of bhaang during the trek. The truth is that the Lord never required any intoxicant to enjoy! Such people don’t know the kind of damage they are doing to themselves. Kanwad Yatra was never a trek to consume bhaang or enjoy DJs etc. Let’s move again from ‘bhaang’ to ‘bhajan’, from gapp (gossips) to japa (meditation), less chatting, more chanting! It’s possible and eminently doable. For instance after or during the trek don’t we discard our used clothes and kanwad anywhere we want? This can be checked. We can curb the use of plastics. When these start happening, the Yatra would become more relevant and meaningful at engaging young people to be the change that they want to see in their nation and in their world.

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