Pilgrimage, I would suggest, has the power to unite people of different religions
because it deals in the affective, in what is connected with the emotions.
I climbed the mountain called Sri Pada in the late 1980s with two others. We started just as night began. It was the pilgrimage season between January and May, when rain and mist are unlikely to hinder the ascent of more than seven thousand feet.
Gone were the days when pilgrims had to haul themselves up with iron chains during the last part. Steps, carved into the side of the mountain, lit by lamps, aided our ascent. From a distance, these looked like a diamond necklace hung from the summit. Hundreds of people climbed with us, young and old, fit and infirm, some of whom would have cleansed themselves before starting by washing in a river at the foot of the mountain. At certain points, we had to pause at every step because of the crush. Some pilgrims were dressed in the traditional white worn by Buddhist laypeople when they are involved in religious activities and sang religious verses as they climbed. Others, particularly young people, played music on radios, attempting to reach the top for fun rather than for religious purposes. There were also some Hindus - not many, since this was a time of ethnic tension and internal war - and a few Westerners, such as myself.
All of us were united by the effort of climbing, the darkness of the night, and our goal to reach the top before sunrise. Those who were religious were also united by the wish to gain blessing and to touch a source of the holy. Most of us reached the top before dawn. We pulled on the cord of a vast bell to indicate how many times we had made the journey. We visited the Buddhist shrine at the top and paid reverence. We then waited for the sun to appear, pulling warm clothes around us, talking in hushed tones. When it did, we found we were above the clouds. Swirling below us was a sea of white. The sight was stupendous. Only then was the return journey made, with strained muscles but joyous hearts.
The name Sri Pada literally means "holy footprint." Sri Pada Mountain is conically shaped and rises from the southern part of the island of Sri Lanka. At its top is a large indentation something like the shape of a foot. To Buddhists, this is the footprint of the Buddha, who is believed to have visited the island three times during his life. To Hindus, it is the footprint of Siva. To Muslims, it is the footprint of Adam. William Harvard, one of the first Wesleyan Methodist missionaries from Britain, who arrived in Sri Lanka in 1815, claimed that Muslims believed a fountain at its summit was produced by the tears of Adam and Eve, weeping over the killing of Abel.1 To some Christians, it is the footprint of Saint Thomas, a belief that could go back to the very early centuries of Christian history, when it was known that there were Christians in Sri Lanka.
Sri Pada has brought pilgrims of different religions together in Sri Lanka for centuries. Buddhists and Hindus who climb Sri Pada believe that they will create merit or spiritual capital for themselves, because the very act of climbing toward the footprint will have good consequences according to the Law of Karma, or Action. Others believe the indentation has healing properties or that prayers offered near it will surely be answered or that touching it will eradicate all their wrongdoings. Some will have made a vow that they would climb Sri Pada if a request to the gods had been answered. All believe it is necessary to climb with a pure heart and pure intentions.
True pilgrims climb with humility and devotion. Sri Pada, however, has seen tussles of power among Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims about who should control the shrine at the top. Buddhists control it at the moment, but there have been times when it has been controlled by Hindus. Pilgrimage sites such as Sri Pada have the potential both to hinder interreligious understanding and to foster it. I would argue, however, that the potential for creating interreligious understanding is greater than the potential for harm.
Let me illustrate this through citing the encounter of three British people with Sri Pada in the nineteenth century. Sri Lanka was governed by the British between 1796 and 1948. At first, Sri Pada lay within an independent Kandyan kingdom in the center of the island, but it could be seen from the coastal areas, which were under British control. It became an object of fantasy and myth for the British as they established their rule and attempted to understand the Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam that they found in the country. When they actually conquered the Kingdom of Kandy in 1815, Sri Pada became British territory, as did some of the other important pilgrimage sites in the island, such as Kandy and Anuradhapura. It was Sri Pada, however, that particularly appealed to the imagination of the British, not at first because of its religious significance but because it was such a challenge in terms of physical effort and courage. They began to climb it and used the ascent to test their power. In fact, the mountain became a metaphor for whether the British had the power to rule. In this sense, their presence on the mountain caused tensions for the local people, who saw the mountain as their holy space. However, on the positive side, the British were able to witness, as they climbed, an aspect of Sri Lankan religion that they had not seen before. For some, this gave them a greater understanding and sympathy toward it.
The early British climbers were mainly men, and vivid descriptions of the mountain emerge from their diaries and memoirs. Some were only concerned with the physical difficulty of climbing the mountain, particularly the last part, which involved using metal chains. Some watched, however, the devotion of the people and learned. Henry Marshall was one. He arrived in Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then known) in 1808 and from 1816 to 1821 was senior medical officer in the Kandyan provinces. He climbed Sri Pada in 1819 and wrote this of the pilgrims:
"Some of them were indeed mere children; and others, both men and women, were bent and infirm from old age. They were all obviously dressed in their best clothes. When a party of pilgrims arrived, they generally proceeded to the rock in the centre of the enclosure, which they ascended on the shelving side. They stood for a short time looking at the sacred impression, making occasionally a number of profound salaams, putting the palms of the hands together, and holding them before their faces, bending low at the same time, or raising them above the head. While thus employed, they seemed to be muttering some words of devotion. Each individual presented an offering, which was placed on the sacred impression. The offerings were various, consisting, however, generally of copper coin, rice, betel leaves, areka-nuts, cotton cloth, onions, flowers, a lock of the hair of the head, or a portion of a long beard. . . . The pilgrims then descended the rock, and formed themselves into a row, with their faces towards the foot-print or Sree Pada. Here one of the party opened a small prayer-book, constructed of talipot leaves (banna potta) and read, or rather chanted, a number of sentences or passages from it. At the end of each passage he was joined by the whole group, male and female, in a loud chorus or response."2
Marshall wrote factually, wishing to implant in his memory what he saw. It is evident, however, that he was fascinated by it. John Davy (1790-1868), a doctor who worked in Kandy soon after it lost its independence, climbed Sri Pada in 1817. He was not very impressed by the footprint. It was the view from the top that caught his imagination. When he was woken in the morning, however, by some Sinhala Buddhist pilgrims, he was deeply impressed by the emotions he witnessed. In his memoir, he first of all explained that a member of the monastic sangha led the group in the chanting of the three refuges and the five precepts. He then wrote:
"An interesting scene followed this: wives affectionately and respectfully saluted their husbands, and children their parents, and friends one another. An old grey-headed woman first made her salems to a really venerable old man; she was moved to tears, and almost kissed his feet: he affectionately raised her up. Several middle-aged men then salemed the patriarchal pair; these men were salemed in return by still younger men, who had first paid their respects to the old people; and lastly, those nearly of the same standing slightly salemed each other, and exchanged betel-leaves. The intention of these salutations, I was informed, was of a moral kind - to confirm the ties of kindred - to strengthen family love and friendship, and remove animosities."3
Davy was evidently touched and impressed by this. Women did not usually climb Sri Pada. One exception came later in the century. Constance Gordon Cumming (1837-1924) was an aristocratic Scottish woman who traveled to Sri Lanka in the 1870s at the invitation of the then bishop of Colombo, Bishop Jermyn. The bishop was an evangelist and believed mistakenly that it would be easy to convert Buddhists to Christianity. Gordon Cumming was tempted to think in the same way and was evidently influenced by Christian missionaries. She was also a sketcher and was deeply attracted to the aesthetic appearance of the Buddhist monastic sangha, the Buddhist monks. It was her climbing of Sri Pada, however, that brought her, I believe, to a deeper understanding of what could unite religions. According to her memoirs, she slept on the summit of the mountain, and when she awoke she heard pilgrims nearing the summit, struggling up through the mists, holding lights and singing. At first she described their singing as "wild and pathetic," but then she wrote this:
"At last the topmost stair was reached, and as each pilgrim set foot on the level just below the shrine, he extinguished his torch of blazing palm-leaves, and with bowed head and outstretched arms stood wrapped in fervent adoration. Some knelt so lowlily that their foreheads rested on the rock. Then facing the east - now streaked with bars of orange betwixt purple clouds - they waited with earnest faces, eagerly longing for the appearing of the sun, suggesting to my mind a strikingly Oriental illustration of the words of the poet-king, 'My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning.'
"Gradually the orange glow broadened, and the welling light grew clearer and clearer, until, with a sudden bound, up rose the glorious sun, and, as if with one voice, each watcher greeted its appearing, with the deep-toned 'Saädu! Saädu!' which embodies such indescribable intensity of devotion."4
In this piece of writing Gordon Cumming compared Buddhist devotion to the devotion of Jews and Christians by quoting a line from the Bible. She could not have done this if she had not seen deep similarities between Buddhist and Christian devotion. She was thus able to move beyond her own Christian beliefs to see what all religions share in common.
Pilgrimage, I would suggest, has the power to unite people of different religions because it deals in the affective, in what is connected with the emotions. Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam can appear very different from one another when beliefs are compared. Buddhism is nontheistic. Christianity and Islam are theistic. Buddhism believes in rebirth; Christianity and Islam do not. However, people go on pilgrimage not so much because of structures of belief but because of something connected with the heart and the emotions. As I've explained, it is connected with the desire for blessing, for forgiveness, for wholeness, and for strength to continue the journey of life. These emotions are not restricted to one religion. They stretch across the religions of the world. Therefore, in pilgrimage all who walk or climb together can be united in aspirations that can be communicated through gesture, dress, posture, and facial expression.
The presence of the British on Sri Pada, as imperialists, may have caused tensions for some people, but I would suggest that more good was done than harm, in terms of the interreligious understanding it nurtured. Pilgrimage can be a practice that unites and strengthens people, whatever their religion.
1. William Harvard, A Narrative of the Establishment and Progress of the Mission to India and Ceylon Founded by the Late Rev. Thomas Coke under the Direction of the Wesleyan-Methodist Conference (London: W. M. Harvard, 1823), xxiii.
. Henry Marshall, Ceylon: A General Description of the Island and Its Inhabitants, with an Historical Sketch of the Conquest of the Colony by the English
(London: William Allen, 1846), 235.
. John Davy, An Account of the Interior of Ceylon, and of Its Inhabitants: With Travels in That Island
(London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1821), 345.
. Constance Gordon Cumming, Two Happy Years in Ceylon,
vol. 2 (London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1892), 338.
Elizabeth J. Harris is a senior lecturer in the comparative study of religion at Liverpool Hope University. From 1996 to 2007, she was the executive secretary for interfaith relations for the Methodist Church in Britain. Dr. Harris has been involved in Buddhist-Christian encounter for more than twenty years and serves as president of the European Network of Buddhist-Christian Studies. Her latest book is Buddhism for a Violent World (London: Epworth Press, 2010).
This article was originally published in the January-March 2012 issue of Dharma World.