Pilgrimage: Then and Now

Speaking in New York on Apr. 17, Pico Iyer suggests several kinds of spiritual journeying are valid in the early 21st century. (1 min., 22 sec.)
Speaking in New York on Apr. 17, Pico Iyer suggests several kinds of spiritual journeying are valid in the early 21st century. (1 min., 22 sec.)

NEW YORK, April 17, 2010 - A day-long, multi-disciplinary symposium The Art of Pilgrimage: Journeys of Faith and Discovery explored the timeless appeal of spiritual journeys across cultures and centuries.

The program explored the themes of Asia Society's current Museum exhibition Pilgrimage and Buddhist Art, curated by Adriana Proser, and included a number of panelists from the arts, film, academia, and religious studies.

"Pilgrimageis something that unifies," the panelists suggested, bringing together India'sdiverse population, Buddhist communities across Asia, andseekers from both East and West. The symposium also addressed the disputesthat arise at sacred sites of pilgrimage when rival religious groups lay claim to them, or when governments seek to control the revenue from tourists and worshippers.

In her keynote address, Harvard Divinity School Professor DianaEck said that "the focus of pilgrimage is the land itself." Eck showedimages of pilgrims climbing in the Himalayas, "the abode of the gods." Shespoke of the four dham, the dwellingplaces of the divine, in India's far north, south, east, and west; the avatarana, where rivers descended to theearth; the swayambhu, where the godsmanifested themselves; and the shakta pithas,where the flesh of the goddess Devi fell to the ground. Theseinterconnected pilgrimage places, Eck argued, "have generated a powerful senseof land and location." Modern nationalism harnesses the power of this "sacredgeography," but subverts its inherent pluralism.

Buddhist scholar D. Max Moerman spoke abou the historic evolution of Japanese Buddhist maps of India, the land that was "a distant object of religious desire." Dartmouth Fellow ShaliniAyyagari included lively performance clips in her talk on musicians who play at both Hindu and Muslim pilgrimage sites inRajasthan, India. The University of Pennsylvania's Victor Mair spokeabout the discovery of a Buddha relic at the Chinese Famen temple and the subsequent protest bylocal monks.

In the afternoon, UNESCO's RochelleRoca Hachem, Chun Fang Yu of Columbia University, and Asia Society's RachelCooper talked about the reasons for pilgrimageand UNESCO's effort to preserve select monuments as World Heritage Sites. Filmmaker David Grubin spoke with curator AdrianaProser about making his newest documentary, The Buddha, in conjunction with the Pilgrimage and BuddhistArt exhibition. Grubin described the project as personally "transformative."

A final conversation between PicoIyer and Rachel Cooper broughtthe symposium to a close. Iyer advised against judging other people's spiritualjourneys, because, in our global age, "what you bring … is whatgives meaning to any experience." He spoke of tourists, includinghimself, who go to places of pilgrimage to observe the devotion of others, and returntransformed. Not all journeys are equal, Iyer clarified, for only deepcommitment will "sustain you and give that completion. That really is whatpilgrimage is about."

Reported by LaraNetting, Asia Society Museum Getty Fellow