A new year is upon us, which comes first a new day. At Kanyakumari each new day is marked with festivity.
Tourists and pilgrims come to this southern tip of India — formerly known as Cape Comorin — to see both, the sunrise and the sunset. Kanyakumari is surrounded by bodies of water which create a vast horizon, an empty canvas for the illuminating sun. The confluence of the three bodies of water — Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea — inspires visitors to watch the sun rise in the east, making its way across the sky to set in the west. The sun emerges from the water only to return; the two observatory points are a mere 2.5 kilometres apart.
Tourists come for the breathtaking views but are inclined to visit the large monuments off the coast of the city. A short, yet choppy, ferry ride brings them to the Vivekananda Rock Memorial built in honour of Swami Vivekananda, a guru who is said to have attained spiritual enlightenment in that location.
A temple of the virgin goddess Kanya Kumari — whom the city is named after — and a meditation centre lies there. Across the memorial stands a massive, 133-feet tall statue of Tamil poet and philosopher Thiruvalluvar. The Thiruvalluvar statue and temple are the Hindu shrines that mark the sunrise viewing point. In contrast, at the sunset viewing point is a more modest, but still tall, statue of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, Stella Maris.
At sunrise, there were some 10,000 to 15,000 Hindu pilgrims thronging the sunrise point. Hinduism has many gods and like all polytheistic religions — ancient Egypt comes to mind in the biblical context — tends to divinize nature itself. The opening lines of the Bible — In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth — make it clear that the Judeo-Christian tradition firmly rejects the worship of nature as idolatry. Nature is not God; only the God who created the natural world is God. Having both Hindu and Catholic shrines in close proximity underlines that contrast.
The Third Eucharistic Prayer, echoing the psalmist, prays that “from the rising of the sun to its setting a pure sacrifice may be offered to your name.” Visiting Kanyakumari in that light, where the sunrise and sunset define local life, makes it something of a pilgrimage even for a Catholic, who comes not to worship the sun itself. Indeed, at the Stella Maris statue we prayed the rosary awaiting the sunset.
In Kanyakumari, Hindu mythology foretells an adolescent virgin bringing to end the evil reign of Bana, a demon king. The Hindi goddess of love, Parvathi, was reincarnated into Kanya Kumari (“a virgin teenage girl”) in order to fulfill the prophecy. However, Kanya Kumari fell in love and was engaged to marry Lord Shiva.
To preserve the prophecy, the marriage was undermined and the bridegroom was manipulated to think the wedding had passed. Heartbroken, Kanya Kumari vowed to remain a virgin. The prophecy was fulfilled, and the heroine won the battle against Bana, however, not without cost.
At sunrise there is the temple of Kanya Kumari; at sunset the statue of Our Lady, Stella Maris. Even independent of what is true, one tale is rather more comforting and hopeful than the other.
Pope Pius XII, quoting Bernard of Clairvaux, remarked the title of Stella Maris, Star of the Sea, “befits the Virgin Mother … (for) as the ray does not diminish the brightness of the star, neither did the Child born of her tarnish the beauty of Mary’s virginity.”
The meeting points of the three seas makes Kanyakumari sacred for Hindus; after the sun, it is water that is the most powerful force in nature. Bathing in Kanyakumari’s waters is believed to absolve the sins of the faithful; a pagan baptism of sorts.
But as we recalled recently on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord Jesus, it is not the waters that are sacred, but the entry of Jesus into them that makes them holy.
Sacred Scripture is replete with references to nature, extolling the greatness and power of creation. But it remains always that, the creation of a still greater, still more powerful Creator.
The temptation to worship nature never entirely goes away; indeed, in our time it is growing stronger, even in the Church, as a love of nature becomes disproportionate.
As Catholics, we don’t really love nature, which in any case cannot love us back. We love God, who created nature, and who loved us first.
-Father de Souza is editor-in-chief of Convivium.ca and a pastor in the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ont.