This is the time of the Hajj, when up to three million Muslims from all around the world converge on Mecca, in order to fulfil one of the pillars of Islam. It is one of the greatest spectacles on Earth and certainly one of the largest gatherings of humans in one place at the same time. So what is the nature of pilgrimage itself? It appears to be one of very few things which actually set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. The closest parallel I am aware of is the way elephants take their young to visit the bones of their ancestors and ponder them in silence. However this example is more akin to visiting a grandparent’s grave with the family than a mass ritual of an entire tribe.
When animals gather in large numbers, it is either for mating, spawning or feeding. This makes perfect sense because the two essential tasks for continued survival are feeding and mating or spawning; and yet pilgrimage in humans is universal across all cultures and over a large period of time. It seems that as soon as we became self-aware and curious about our place in the universe, we began to feel that our survival was also dependent on other forces beyond ourselves and beyond feeding and procreation. And so we developed the need to sustain and nurture these forces also – we needed to eat, procreate and receive spiritual succour – to give thanks, worship and appease the personified deities.
The first part of this seems to me to be perfectly true, so far, so rational; but with the personification of these forces, reason was no longer applicable and numerous, sometimes bizarre sets of beliefs and rituals developed. We knew we were dependent on water and sunlight, and without them there would be no food. We worshipped the sun as a god and drank holy water from life-sustaining wells. We could not explain where we came from and believed something must have created us – we called it God. Rituals arose where we would mass together in service of something unknown and unknowable, beyond the service of ourselves and our own individual survival. This would somehow ensure our continued survival in this life and beyond. When humans mass together in religious pilgrimages like the Hajj, they are actually recognising that there is something much bigger than us of which we have no control, but upon which we are wholly dependent for our very existence and survival, and of which we are only a tiny part. The rituals arose in ancient times when we could believe, as many still do, that by performing the rituals, we were actually gaining some control over these forces by pleasing and appeasing the gods or God, but in modern times, with or without these beliefs, their power really lies in coming together as a tribe, culture or even species, experiencing our unity and becoming more conscious of the forces which created and sustain us, uniting us not just with each other, but with all life and even the universe itself. Many rituals, religious and otherwise, are more personal and not performed en masse at all, but this recognition of unity and the forces that lie beyond us, as well as the sense of shared belief is greatly amplified in the presence of such large numbers.
This, at least, is the esoteric, inner value of a major religious ritual, but it cannot be denied that there is also an exoteric, outward value, arising from just this sense of shared belief. It makes it very difficult for followers to question any of the beliefs within the system and much easier for the people in power to maintain that power over the devotees. The more unconscious the ritual becomes, the easier the control, which is another reason why such rituals are so resistant to change over vast periods of time, even when some of the core elements no longer make any sense. Sometimes however, change is forced upon them. An interesting example is the way the animal sacrifice element of the Hajj has changed over time. In former times, each pilgrim at the Hajj would sacrifice an animal, but today with three million people, this is no longer practical, and so each pilgrim purchases a sacrifice voucher, which entitles a butcher to sacrifice an animal for them at a particular time, when they are not present. The meat is distributed to the poor all over the world through charities, thus further adding to the feeling of unity and serving God through serving others rather than themselves.
There are also many other, more everyday, human effects of pilgrimage, such as our needs for identity, belonging to a group and acceptance. Being an outsider, or even thinking like an outsider, is just one step away from being an outcast. Deep in our subconscious, this is still one of our greatest fears, as for most of our time on Earth as humans, when we lived in small hunter-gatherer tribes, (and therefore still present in our evolutionary memory), it would have usually meant certain death. It is interesting that this is one element of the story of Ibrahim (Abraham) commemorated at the Hajj. Ibrahim was commanded by God to abandon his second wife, Hagar and their baby son Ishmael in the desert. In desperation, Hagar begged and prayed to God for help as she lay the baby on the sand. The baby cried and hit the ground with his heel, whereupon God intervened and the holy Zamzam well sprang forth. Another element of the pilgrimage is running between the two hills Safa and Mawar as Hagar did, and drinking from the Zamzam well. In fact the Hajj contains all the important elements of religion and pilgrimage: our dependence on water and sunlight, human suffering, followed by surrender to God and God’s subsequent assistance (miracles), identity and belonging (performing the same rites in a group) after being outcast (returning to the flock), having the surrender tested by God, punishing and banishing the demons/devil, following in the footsteps of a prophet where he or she either died or did something very important, (in this case giving his last sermon), and visiting sacred buildings and temples built for prayer and surrender, where the promise to serve is refreshed and strengthened.
However, many of these elements are common to other types of pilgrimage, including pagan and secular ones. There seems to be something strong in the great majority of the human race, which drives people to take part in something very close to a pilgrimage with varying degrees of ritual. Sometimes they are engaged in as a group or in the footsteps of many before them, (fulfilling the need to belong), and sometimes they are very personal, unique to the individual, but there is mostly a connection with others through time and space. Ancient sites are particularly popular, especially ritual or burial sites, connecting with the ancestors, without whom we would not be here. We can show appreciation to them for the hardships they suffered and the battles they fought so that we could be born and not have to fight those same battles. Important natural sites are often visited, especially wells (holy or otherwise) and springs, or mountains, many of which are also sacred. Mountains are associated with purity due to their inaccessibility, and their unspoilt, untouched nature, and the way they stand above us all like the gods themselves. Some are associated with gods such as Kailash in the Himalayas, some with prophets or missionaries such as Croagh Patrick in Ireland, some just with the land and nation, such as Mount Fuji in Japan. Most Japanese people wish to climb Fujisan (Mr Fuji) once in their life and huge numbers climb it every year together in July and August – around 300 000 in a year. An element of effort or even suffering or hardship is common to many pilgrimages, which is why they usually involve walking. Mountains are perfect for this, since the only access is by walking and it requires effort. This results in a sense of achievement and purification, not unlike that sought-after by religious asceticism.
Probably the most secular pilgrimages involve walking in the steps of famous people, visiting their graves or places closely associated with them, such as Elvis’s Graceland, Karl Marx’s or Jim Morrison’s graves, the Cavern club in Liverpool or Abbey Road zebra crossing for Beatles fans. But even here, we see a parallel to religious practice. These people are not so different to prophets to their devotees. They may not always offer moral guidance, but do provide inspiration, joy and hope, and receive in return, love and devotion, if not perhaps, surrender.
Another powerful call to pilgrimage is human suffering, an obvious example being the former Nazi concentration camps for Jews, but also for non-Jews. The experience cannot be quite the same for non-Jews, but many people find catharsis in sharing in this intense suffering by visiting the site where it took place.
Perhaps pilgrimage fascinates me because I am one of the few humans who does not feel a need for ritual, but I have taken part in a kind of pilgrimage, and it proved to be one of the most profound experiences of my life. The most important part for me was the walk itself, which was carried out in silence over one week, as fully in the moment and with as much mindful awareness of the experience as I could manage. Was it really a pilgrimage? Well, it was a deliberate spiritual practice and several sacred, ancient sites were visited on the way, with the final destination being Avebury Ring and West Kennett Longbarrow, where we did engage in an all night ritual as a group; but for me it was more about living fully in the moment and developing my spiritual life in that way rather than being focussed on the goal at the end. However, we did all take part in spiritual practice such as meditation and some ritual; so although a pilgrimage is usually defined by the goal at its destination, I could say, yes in a way it probably was, and – although elephants are probably masters of mindfulness, it was still uniquely human.