God Kataragama and His Supreme Identity
A candid interview with Murugan Bhakti editor Patrick Harrigan
Colombo: The Daily News of Saturday, 27 July 2002
by M. Nelson Piyaratne, Kataragama Group correspondent
For centuries Sri Lankans of all communities have responded to a mysterious ‘call' that summons devotees to the Kataragama jungle shrine. Foreigners also from India and even central Asia have been known to answer the same call of the heart that draws thousands to Kataragama at Esala festival time.
In many respects Kataragama has changed over the past half century, yet its magnetism even today attracts visitors from all corners of the earth. While most are casual tourists, among the foreign visitors there are also ardent devotees of the wily jungle god.
Over the years hundreds of foreigners have come to Kataragama and gone. Some have later published articles abroad about Kataragama while others have even produced television documentaries. It is not unusual for such foreigners to feel an irresistible attraction to return after a period, having found no other place like Kataragama.
For one western devotee, however, Kataragama has been an obsession for the past thirty years. Since 1971, Patrick Harrigan of USA has attended sixteen Esala festivals, each time coming on foot in the arduous Kataragama Pada Yatra from as far as Jaffna. Today Patrick not only administers the increasingly popular pada yatra, but also maintains Kataragama's own Internet website (www.Kataragama.org) and has helped to organize two international academic conferences devoted to god Skanda-Murugan.
What fuels this obsession of Harrigan and others for Kataragama? What do westerners find in Kataragama that Sri Lankans do not see?
To find answers to such questions, I cornered Harrigan outside the Mahadevale front gate and asked if he would submit to a newspaper interview, which he agreed. The following are extracts from that interview.
Q. Tell us frankly, Patrick. What made you choose Kataragama as your favorite god?
A. I did not choose Kataragama. He chose me.
Q. What is your religion?
A. I am a Kataragama devotee. As such, I may be Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or almost anything. Kataragama admits all religions, doesn't it? Kataragama devotees have the best of everything.
Q. You are an educated westerner. How can you place your faith in a local spirit?
A. This god is more than a local jungle spirit. To His devotees He is the Almighty, the Supreme Commander of Divine Forces. In Tamil there is a word for Him. He is Kanthazhi, the Supreme Identity. He has no form, and yet He can take any form as He pleases – as a Vedda, as a child, as a tree, as anything.
Q. Can you tell us how you became so deeply involved with Kataragama from a young age? It is not normal for Americans.
A. The ‘normal' things of this degenerate age did not interest me then and do not interest me now. So perhaps I am abnormal. Anyway, I have found something better here than anything the West has to offer. Shall I tell you?
Q. Yes, please. Tell us briefly, from the start.
A. Okay. Even as a small tot, before I could speak, I used to wonder who are my real father and my real mother since before I arrived here. I could only wonder. I felt that my real home was somewhere far, far away.
That was in the early 1950's. Then all of a sudden in 1957 Russia launched Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite. It came as a great shock to Americans that the Russians had done it first. So there was a great cry that American children should study science and engineering.
I was already spending time looking up into the night sky and wondering what was there. So I took up astronomy and physics. For years I studied math, just to calculate the orbit of planets and such things. Now looking back, it was a waste of time. Western science could never begin to answer my questions.
Q. When did you first become interested in Eastern philosophy?
A. As an undergrad at the University of Michigan, my Korean karate teacher introduced us to Buddhist philosophy. In my third year I left the university and went to Korea and stayed two months in a Zen monastery learning meditation and Buddhist values. That was in 1970.
My plan was to return to the university within seven months. I visited monasteries in Japan, Taiwan, Thailand and Nepal. It was an eye-opening experience for a twenty-year old.
Finally one day I found myself in New Delhi at the Ceylon Buddhist Pilgrim's Rest House. It was time for me to return to America. But I realized that I was learning more from living here in Asia than the university could teach me in America.
When I told a Muslim boy from Chilaw about my interest in Buddhism, he advised me to go to Ceylon. There are many monasteries in Ceylon where learned monks speak English and the books are also in English, he said.
So I went straight from New Delhi to the Island Hermitage at Polgasduwa near Dodanduwa. I entered as an upasaka and was determined to spend the rest of my life here as a Buddhist monk.
Q. But you are not a Buddhist monk today. What happened?
A. It was not my fate to remain as a monk. One day in 1971 another American Buddhist, Alan Marlow, arrived at Polgasduwa. He was on his way to this place Kataragama and described it to me. I wanted to visit this place also. So we both went.
In Kataragama I saw Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and others, all worshipping peacefully, each in his or her own way. I did not know that such a place existed anywhere. Nowhere else do you find all religions being practiced side by side. Muslims launch the Esala festival of Buddhists and Hindus mostly, for instance.
I also learned that almost everyone who comes to Kataragama is asking for divine intervention to settle personal problems. Some need to pass an examination. Others need cures. Others want employment here or abroad. They all come to Kataragama for help.
So I thought to myself, "They have all come a distance to ask for something. I have come farther than any of them to be here. So I can also ask for something."
I said, "Kataragama God, I don't need a job in the Gulf or in America. Give me work with you and I will stay here. Give me any work and I will take it!"
Gods are not in a hurry, so this one did not give me an reply at once.
Q. What happened then?
A. Marlow and I then went to Jaffna to meet his old friend German Swami Gauribala at his ashram ‘Summasthan' at Selva Sannithi Murugan Temple.
German Swami was always interested in sacred geography, in sacred power spots like Kataragama or Sigiriya. We wanted to join in his ‘Mu research' as he called it. So as a test he sent us to a small monastery on the Nepal-Tibet border to find a sacred text called The Road to Shambhala.
We went and actually found the text with a Tibetan geshe (doctor of Buddhist philosophy) who had brought it with him from Lhasa in 1959. It took me six months to go there and bring it back to show to German Swami. He was delighted. He accepted me into his ashram and my basic training began in earnest.
Q. When was your first pada yatra to Kataragama?
A. From the late 1940's German Swami used to walk every year from Jaffna to Kataragama for the festival. So when I expressed my interest to walk with him in 1972, he allowed me to join. He knew better than I that it would not be easy.
All the pilgrims used to make a vow, so I vowed to walk exactly like the other pilgrims. I had two dhotis, twenty rupees and only my bare feet to take me there.
The hot tar roads were almost molten at times. When I finally limped into Kataragama two months later, I had to spend the first three days in the base hospital with terribly blistered feet.
After the 1972 festival German Swami advised me to go back to America and continue my university studies. He could see that I was academically inclined. He told me to learn Sanskrit, Tamil, Sinhala and study sacred texts. He advised all to study the work of authors like Ananda Coomaraswamy and Rene Guenon who could see one Tradition present in all religions.
Pada Yatra then and now
Q. You have walked in the Kataragama Pada Yatra sixteen times since 1972. What differences are there between pada yatra of now and then?
A. Some big differences according to the changing times. But the essential practice remains the same.
Those days nobody even considered wearing slippers on yatra. Even today in South India no one wears slippers. But since those days the sandy lanes shaded by tamarind trees are hardly to be seen. Instead we walk on hot tar roads where all the trees have been felled to prevent ambush to security forces. We walk in remote places where the roads are broken to pieces. So to walk barefoot all the way is very difficult.
Those days there were many hundreds of experienced swamis and swami ammas, like Bebi Amma of Trinco and a few others who are still walking since the 1950's. So there were always lots of pilgrims who knew the way and knew the Tradition.
Today there are only a few such pilgrims left. So we who remember the Pada Yatra as it was have an obligation to show others how it is done and to root out innovations that are inappropriate.
No peace march
You know, Pada Yatra is not a peace march or a protest march. We are not agitators or publicity seekers. Quite the opposite. Urban people especially do not understand. German Swami told us, ‘To understand the tradition, you must follow the tradition.'
Q. You have been following the tradition now for thirty years. Do you have any experiences to tell?
I have seen this god play with peoples' lives, leading them forward from small happiness to greater happiness. He protects peoples' lives without their knowing. Sometimes He may take lives also. You may say that He is the great sutradhara, the Divine Puppeteer who pulls our strings and makes us laugh or cry.
The greatest experience for me is that this god of the jungle has accepted a foreigner like me into His service. I came without any qualifications except my earnest intent and He slowly directed my training so I could be of service to Him.
Now He has so much work for me here in Sri Lanka and abroad also. His divine hand is behind everything. It is not my work; it is His Work. With this god as my boss, I have no worries.
Not only I, but other Europeans are finding Him, too. He has a great network of servants at work, but it is very difficult to fathom His Work.
Q. You studied Buddhism here and abroad and practiced Buddhist meditation for years, and yet today we see you walking pada yatra and speaking only of Kataragama. So how do you understand Kataragama in the light of your Buddhist background?
A. In the Majjhima Nikaya the Lord Buddha advises his forest meditators to practice devatānusati – that is, to give full regard to local deities in order to make steady progress in meditation. Not only meditators but all people can derive great benefits from honouring great gods, especially Kataragama Deviyo who has promised to protect the Buddha Sasana and all religions here in Sri Lanka. He is a great bodhisattva having spiritual powers to assist those who appeal to him.
Q. Do you have any advice for others like you?
A. I have been researching Kataragama and documenting its traditions professionally since 1987. Before I started, the first thing I did was in my heart to ask god Kataragama for permission to study His shrine and His traditions. With His permission only I continue. If He is not happy with my work, He can take my life or do anything to me, as He likes. So I must be careful and diligent.
Other researchers and film producers should do likewise. They should start with the assumption that this god is real, or else stay at home. Many come here and leave with only the crumbs. He saves the best for His devotees.
Since I am an insider, a servant of His, He gives me special opportunities and reveals things that remain concealed to others. Mehe Kataragame hungak rahas thiyenawa (Sinhala: 'Here in Kataragama there are many secrets'). This is not just a folk saying. It is as true now as it ever was.