Caught most of Part 2 of the fascinating Extreme Pilgrim last night. There are clips from the episode and previews of next week here. After spending a month with the Shaolin Monks, Rev Peter Owen-Jones moves to the other side of the Himalayas to join a Hindu 'sadhu' (holy man) as he makes his pilgrimage to the Ganges along with several million others for the Kumbh Mela festival. "Forget Glastonbury, forget Piccadilly Circus, there are 7 million people here at this festival, a sea of seething humanity."
The programme was a fascinating exploration of Hinduism - Owen Jones gives us a good summary of the basic ideas of the religion, a bit on the pantheon of the gods (over 100,000 - that must take a heck of a lot of organising), and a lot simply watching the way it works.
At the same time you can't help but be impressed by the way he throws himself into it. There can't be many Anglican vicars (myself included) who'd happily wrap themselves in nothing but a thong and do bad headstands by a river whilst crowds of local kids watch, and a camera crew films it for national telly. It reminded me of Jesus saying about becoming like little children: trust and enthusiasm, rather than being too aware of reputation, status and what people think.
One thing towards the end struck me. POJ heads up into the mountains to live in a cave near a poor village as a sadhu (the day he arrives it rains for the first time in 3 months - very interesting!). He comments that its the first time for 15-20 years that he's really got away from it all and had time to think. But why? Okay he had a bad time at theological college, but hopefully at some stage someone talked about retreats, prayer, and having time to reflect. There's a really nice place near Tiverton I could point him to if he wants to get away from it all without having to go all the way to India.
I guess there was more to it than that - living in a cave, without a home, posessions, etc. is a level further in detachment than simply going on a retreat. However I'm convinced that every Christian leader has a duty to themselves, and to the people they lead, to get away from it all regularly and have time to think and pray.
Sadly, the programme finished rather abruptly: amoebic dysentry struck, and as we saw Peter trudge off in search of a toilet the voiceover for next week suddenly cut in. I was waiting for the bit where it all got summed up, but maybe it was ok not to have it - life isn't neat, discipleship isn't neat, and we do sometimes abruptly go from the mountain to the valley. Straight after his transfiguration, Jesus walks into an argument over why his disciples have failed to cast out an evil spirit.
There will be a big contrast next week. For two weeks the programme has focused on religions of detachment - the focus of Buddhism and Hinduism is to liberate the self from human life. I found it odd that a chap as life-affirming as POJ didn't pick up on the massive downer these two religions have on human life, basically seen as a prison to escape from. It also seemed quite individualistic, a personal quest to get enlightened. Next weeks Christian monks will (hopefully) focus on Jesus - the worship of God incarnate, and something that's not about us, but about Him. Jesus who deliberately chooses human life, in order not to liberate people from it, but to transform it.
The danger of going as an individual pilgrim through all this stuff is that you don't critique the system, and what it does to a society and a culture. I hope there's a bit of space next week to compare and contrast.