Tīrthayātrā or going to holy places or pilgrimage plays an extremely important part in a Hindu’s life.
Whereas the places of pilgrimage of other religions are mostly connected with the lives of their founders, those of Hinduism have the primary aim of elevating the minds of pilgrims to higher spiritual levels.
These pilgrim centres are legion and are spread all over India, from Amarnāth in the north to Rāmeśvaram in the south and Somnāth in the west up to Purī in the east. If the sthalapurāṇas or the local legends have to be believed, these places are all extremely ancient, closely connected with the persons and incidents narrated in the epics and the purāṇas. Of course, places associated with great saints and religious leaders of the historical period are also taken into consideration.
More often than not, these places of pilgrimage are situated in spots of natural scenery and beauty like mountain-tops, valleys, banks of rivers, islands, forests, seashore and other similar regions which are congenial to contemplation.
Over the centuries, Vedic sacrifices gradually faded out due to their inherent difficulties in performing them. Their place was soon taken up by pūjās (ritualistic worship), homas (oblations into consecrated fires associated with popular deities), vratas (religious vows) and tīrtha-yātras (pilgrimages). These were eulogised as easy to perform, but, giving equally good and quick results.
Literature on tīrthayātras is very extensive. In the Mahābhārata and the purāṇas there are 40,000 verses concerning this subject.
They have been dealt with in independent treatises also.
Some of them are:
Apart from these, there are separate treatises on individual places like Gayā and Purī also.
Tīrthayātrā has been listed as one of the sāmānyadharmas (universal or common duties) by some of the scriptures like the Viṣṇudharmasūktas (2.16, 17). It is supposed to destroy one’s sins, give religious merit and result in purity of mind. Even the Ṛgveda (10.75 khila) refers to the holiness of the place where the white and the black rivers (Gaṅgā and Yamunā) merge. A bath here enables one to go to heaven. One who drowns himself here attains amṛtatva or immortality. The purāṇas abound in such ideas.
The beauty and grandeur of such places conducive to a mood of meditation, as also association of spiritual giants who might have visited these places earlier and a host of related ideas have endowed these places of pilgrimage with spiritual vibrations. The etymological meaning of the word ‘īrtha’—tīryate anena iti tīrthaṁ, saṁsārasāgarataraṇopāya-bhūtaṁ; ‘that by which it is crossed, that which helps in crossing the ocean of transmigratory existence, is tīrtha’—also points towards this conclusion.
That is why when people visit these places with the right attitude, they are immensely benefited.
The Brahmapurāṇa (70.16-19) classifies the tīrthas or places of pilgrimage into four groups:
These four are assigned to the four yugas—Kṛta, Tretā, Dvāpara and Kali—respectively (ibid 175.31-32).
However, this classification does not have much relevance to us today.
One of the questions that has often been discussed in the purāṇas and the dharmaśāstras is that of adhikāra or eligibility for tīrthayātrā. This had probably become necessary because study of the Vedas and performance of the Vedic rituals had been restricted only to the dvijas (the ‘twice-born’ classes, viz., the members of the first three castes).
Unlike the study of the Vedas or performance of the Vedic rituals, taking recourse to tīrthayātrā is open to all human beings irrespective of their caste, status or condition (vide Matsyapurāṇa 184.66, 67). The purāṇas go to the extent of declaring that those who take a bath in a holy river or at a holy place will not only attain liberation themselves but also purify seven generations of their fore-fathers and descendants (Vāmanapurāṇa 36.78, 79).
Such hyperbolic eulogy was obviously meant to induce even the common folk to undertake tīrthayātrā.
Notwithstanding such liberal statements, some primary rules had also been imposed on those intending to perform it.
A brahmacārin living in the guru’s house had to take his permission.
Married persons were obliged to take their spouses also, failing which they would not get the religious merit of the pilgrimage!
Despite eulogising tīrthayātrā in order to attract the common people, the sages of the purāṇas did not fail to stress the importance of a moral and ethical life as a precondition, without which it would become futile. However, it was also conceded that persons—even transgressors of dharma, and sinners—who undertake tīrthayātrā with faith, repent for their misdeeds and resolve not to repeat them, will definitely be benefited by it (vide Vāyupurāṇa 77.125).
Though persons leading a pure life do not need to undertake pilgrimages, they too will immensely be benefited in their spiritual evolution if they do.
It is interesting to note that the practice of virtues like jñāna (scriptural knowledge), kṣamā (forgiveness), dayā (compassion) and dama (self-control) are themselves ‘tīrtha,’ since they are conducive to purity of mind. So also the company of holy persons (devotees of God Vāsudeva).
The purāṇas and the dharmaśāstras have laid down the procedure to be followed in tīrthayātrā. The same may be briefly summarised as follows:
Fasting on the previous day; worship of the family deity, Gaṇapati, and Navagrahas and giving gifts to the poor and the needy on the day of departure; wearing ochre-colored or yellow clothes; saṅkalpa or religious resolve as dictated by the scriptures; giving up all articles of luxury and leading a simple, austere, life during the pilgrimage; after returning, repetition of the worship of the deities and offering gifts as a mark of thanksgiving.
In the modern context when even pilgrimage has become a part of tourism industry, one may just offer worship to the family deity, visit a temple of the same (or of one’s choice) and take the blessings of the elders before starting. The same may be repeated after the successful completion of the pilgrimage.
In the olden days, it was a lifetime’s ambition for every devoted Hindu to visit Kāśī (and other holy places) at least once. However, during the times when transport and communication were extremely difficult, even able-bodied persons could not easily make it. Then what to speak of others handicapped by ill-health, lack of money, old-age disabilities and so on!
For the benefit of such persons, the treatises on tīrthayātrā have given a unique method called ‘pratinidhi-kriyā’. According to this, the person who is unable to perform the pilgrimage should request someone who is going, to perform some rite like bathing in the river Gaṅgā, on his behalf also. After reaching the Gaṅgā river, the pilgrim prepares an image of straw (kuśa-grass) and immerses it in the water with appropriate mantras. The person for whom this proxy rite is performed is said to get a part of the religious merit which he would have got if he had personally done it himself. (vide Atrismṛti 50 and 51).
Tīrthayātrā or pilgrimage to holy places has been an integral part of a Hindu’s religious life. If people, both in the ancient and in the medieval periods, were prepared to face all hardships and undertake pilgrimages, it was their deep faith in the system that sustained them. It also helped them to attain emotional integration with other Hindus throughout the country.
Today, with the tremendous advancement of science and technology in the fields of transportation and communication, it is possible to reach even the farthest point on the globe in a matter of hours! This has made pilgrimages not only easy and comfortable but also enjoyable. Only, the pilgrims should avoid the temptation of making the pilgrimages pleasure-trips, by trying sincerely to cultivate the same religious fervour our forefathers had.