I was 15 years old when I had an experience that I haven’t got the answer for yet. I was visiting a temple in India with my mom. It was the occasion of Kaali Puja, and we were there for the Sandhya Aarti. I have never been very religious. But, what happened that evening changed the very face of my spirituality. Amidst the resonations of conch and bells, and the blinding fumes of aarti, I felt that Kali Maa herself was calling out my name. My body shivered with disbelief and my eyes filled with tears for no apparent reason. I looked around to find nothing that made sense to what I experienced. We went back home. I could never gather the courage to tell my mom what happened. Times passed by and I forgot everything about it. But, a question lingered in my consciousness forever—can a place bring out a whole other person in you?
It is a few weeks back that I came across a YouTube video playing the story of a man who visited Jerusalem and never came back has himself. I watched the documentary for hours. I strangely felt connected to the person in the video. It transcended my mind back to the 15-year-old me in that temple. It was then that I decided that I need my answers. Jerusalem has been a place of my interest ever since. Although I haven’t visited Israel ever, something says that I might land up there real soon. The documentary was educating people about Jerusalem Syndrome. Since 1980, psychiatrists in Jerusalem are getting a unique case to deal with, in which people (tourists) while visiting Jerusalem suffer from a psychotic decompensation. As strange as it sounds, the thing is real. The tourists begin to believe that they are biblical characters. They start experiencing a weird phenomenon where they think God is talking to them and instructing them to do certain things. There a psychiatric joke, “If you talk to God, it’s called praying; if God talks to you, you’re nuts.” The doctors from Israel’s Kfer Shaul Mental Health Centre has been getting about 100 tourists every year who are suffering from this syndrome. Out of them, about 40 are serious cases and need to be treated at the hospital. These patients are mostly Christians, some Jews and a very few Muslims.
The very common behaviours of these people include taking countless baths, believing that they are dirty, wearing a white toga (or something similar), delivering sermons, shouting psalms, singing religious songs and telling people about some biblical event that they believe has recently occurred. Researchers have identified subtypes of the delusions that these patients suffer from. The first group identifies itself with a certain biblical character. The second group identifies itself with an idea that they have to put into action in Jerusalem. The third group finds a connection between Jerusalem and health. These people believe that there is some magical healing power in the city. The final group expresses psychotic disturbance through family problems.
Many have blamed it on the holy city, but let’s face it. God would never want you to be a lunatic. There’s nothing wrong with Jerusalem. People visiting Paris also tend to think that the love of their life would just be waiting for them there. These cities might trigger certain behaviour in people, but it’s not the fault of Jerusalem or Paris (or, any other city). Often, it’s simply a long-suppressed psychological disorder that gets a body when it comes to a certain environment. “The majority of people who suffer from Jerusalem syndrome have some psychiatric history before they get here”, says Yoram Bilu who has come across many such cases.
What actually the brain brews with the Jerusalem Syndrome is not clear. There’s nothing wrong with feeling the presence of God when you visit a holy place. But there’s a difference between spirituality and delusion. The next time you visit Jerusalem and you hear God calling out your name, pack your bags and get back home. Apparently, that’s the best way to prevent the syndrome.
Thankfully, the experience of my childhood never showed up again, but I’ll make sure to consult a doctor the very moment I begin to feel like I am a Messiah!