Sunday, May 29, 2016


In preparation for this summer's Kailas trip I've been tasked with reading up on pilgrimage and sacred mountains and writing a short guide for the other members of our research team. I thought I'd get a leg up from Ian Reader's just published volume Pilgrimage in the "Very Brief Introduction" series (a series I have profited from before). It's got me far enough up to see there's a lot farther to go.

Reader's an expert on the 88-stop Shikoku pilgrimage in Japan, and has also evidently been to Hardwar, Santiago de Compostela, Glastonbury and many other sites of pilgrimage. Over his thirty years studying them he has seen pilgrimage traditions evolve with new forms of transportation, tension and symbiosis with other forms of tourism, and reframing of old sites by political, commercial and New Age types. He's seen pilgrimage site priests scope out the competition at other sites, and souvenir stall owners respond to repeat pilgrims' demand for new products. He's spoken to countless pilgrims, walking and on package tours, from one-off holiday-goers to dedicated devotés who find themselves returning every year. They come for healing, in tribute, for transformation, on vows, for the loot.

The journey is important for some, the destination important for others (especially those who fly or bus in) - but Reader cautions that neither is necessarily more "authentic." Walkers disapprove of bus pilgrims, seeing the sacrifice and effort of the journey as essential.

Not everyone is of that view. Priests in Shikoku sometimes have commented to me that those on foot are often more interested in hiking than devotion - arguing that those on buses spend much longer in prayer at the temples than walkers. ... A young man doing the Shikoku pilgrimage by car made the point clearly to us [Reader and his wife] when we met him near the end of the route. Perhaps rather smugly we said that we had walked for over five weeks and were just a couple of days from completing the route. Rather than being impressed, he simply said that in the time it took us to walk it once he could do the pilgrimage six times, thus gaining far more merit than us walkers. (67-68)

Reader is commendably non-judgmental, balancing different understandings and practices, "high" and "low," and finds these differences in traditions everywhere. With some approval he quotes from the website of an English society for would-be pilgrims on the Camino:

Remember that there are no rules,
that it's your pilgrimage. (70)

I'm usually a fan of non-judgmental religious studies, especially when it juxtaposes practices and practitioners who disapprove of each other. As a lived religion afficionado I should be all over "it's your pilgrimage." But Reader's book is, in the end, not academic enough for me. What I mean by that is that it isn't reflective about its categories. You see this in the final section, 'Secular sites and contemporary developments," whose opening discussion includes the book's only reference to academics.

If pilgrimage is found almost universally cross religious traditions, it has also, in modern contexts, become widely associated with places that have no specific religious affiliations or links to formal religious traditions. Many of the themes associated with pilgrimage may be visible in a variety of settings that include visits to the graves and homes of deceased celebrities, war memorials, places associated with seminal political figures, and itineraries relating to the search for cultural roots, identity and heritage. Moreover, those who participate in such visits may refer to their activities as pilgrimages and to themselves as pilgrims. ... Academics, too, have applied the term 'pilgrimage' to activities that occur outside of formal religious contexts but that incorporate modes of behaviour and phenomena similar to more traditional forms of pilgrimage. (100)

Reader's one of those academics, surely, and yet... If visitors to Graceland or Robben Island call themselves pilgrims, doesn't "it's your pilgrimage" oblige us to take them at their word? Why should "formal religious traditions" (whatever they are) distinguish the true pilgrim from the pilgrim-like? Reader's description of pilgrims to Nelson Mandela's cell at Robben Island stumbles over political religion:

While some come to honour a political leader, many demonstrate religious levels of devotion, burning incense at the grave and praying to him for help in their personal lives. Many, viewing him as a unifying national figure, also invoke his help in solving the nation's problems. (107)

The phrase "demonstrate religious levels of devotion" is a masterpiece of equivocation. Isn't it religious devotion? Doesn't Reader's own evidence make that clear? In the next paragraph, he describes Lenin's tomb in Moscow as a de facto pilgrimage shrine (107). Um, "de facto"? Once again, his own account entitles him to say more - and many a theory of religion would be happy to back him up. This final section of the book is all about distinguishing more traditional forms of pilgrimage from modes of behaviour and phenomena similar to them, but it's not clear why.

Here's a guess why. Reader has a salutary skepticism when it comes to "traditional religion" - why shouldn't people pray for this-worldly things, buy trinkets or gold watches, stop by the beach on the way back from their pilgrimage? - but there's something about these "secular sites" he finds unpalatable. It's not the prerogative of formal religious traditions to determine what's authentic, any more than the scholar of religion. But perhaps the scholar of religion can help distinguish religion from its abuse and cooptation by politics. The history of Japanese religion (Reader's area of specialization) is full of the sorts of prayers for the nation which people made at Robben Island (and who does he think paid for the 88 temples of the Shikoku pilgrimage?), so what's the problem with politics being part of the pilgrimage mix?

Reader's fidgety language seems connected to the (rather modern western) view that religion is and ought to be an individual thing, driven by individual needs. Here's how he wraps up the book:

What is certainly recurrent and seemingly unchanging [in the world of pilgrimages] is the desire of people to get away, even if temporarily, from their everyday circumstances, to look for new meanings and reaffirmations of personal identities, and to go to places that they feel can help them in such quests. ... As such, pilgrimage has been a recurrent theme in religious contexts, and nowadays increasingly in more clearly nonreligious ones, that offers scope for self-development, escape, faith, and hope, as well as play and entertainment. (120)

The apolitical individualistic bent of his argument isn't what initially troubled me about Reader's account. What I sought and didn't find was something else: the suggestion that pilgrimage works in a dynamogenic way (to use Durkheim's Jamesian word) - pilgrims are actually transformed, they don't just think or feel or say so. Without that piece, you can't seriously engage the work done by places of power, by the communitas of being on the the same path with strangers, or even by the social death of shedding your regular identity for that of the pilgrim. (He breezily mentions each of these things but doesn't engage them.) I'll have to think more about whether Reader's worries about state cooptation of individual experiences are in the background of his care not to suggest that pilgrimage is ever more, ultimately, than an experience sought out by a knowing consumer.

No comments: