By Swami Purnananda
A tīrtha is a place of pilgrimage. These places are considered to be holy and thus, most people have both faith and devotion towards. When a holy place is associated with truth, righteousness, initiation, penance, prayer, and sacrifice, than it is known as a tīrtha. The difference between a tīrtha and other places of importance (ie historical, geographical, archaeological, or natural beauty) is that people visit the latter on excursions or pleasure trips. Pilgrimage are journeys only undertaken with some sacred or pious intention.
The Sanskrit word tīrtha is derived from the root verb tr, meaning ‘to cross’, ‘to surpass’. So according to the derived meaning, a tīrtha is a place from where one can surpass or overcome one’s evil actions (tarati pāpādikam yasmāt) or a place from which one can ascend (tarati yasmāt sthānāt) to a higher stage of life. A holy place raises us by leading to a higher mental plane; it has the power to manifest godliness in the human heart by making it pure.
The ultimate Truth is the foundation of spiritual science. All scientific truths—even religions and philosophies are but lower steps of the seemingly infinite flight of stairs that leads to the summit of spirituality. Pilgrimage also happens to be one such step.
In English, one who goes on a pilgrimage is called a pilgrim. The word pilgrim is derived from Old French peligrin or from Late Latin pelegrinus, meaning ‘foreigner’. A pilgrim is ‘one who journeys in foreign lands’. So a place of pilgrimage is, by implication, a foreign land. But this differs greatly from the meaning conveyed by the word tīrtha. Tīrtha is a place for devotees, and devotees are not foreign to one another. For practicality’s sake, however, we must make do with the term place of pilgrimage for tīrtha.
Manifestation of God Is More in a Tīrtha
Descriptions of holy places are found in the scriptures of all faiths right from the Vedas, the most ancient one. It is God that has taken the form of tīrthas; that is why they are so holy. The Yajur Veda adores them with salutations: ‘Namastīrthyaya ca; Salutation also to the Divine dwelling in tīrthas'. Though God is omnipresent He manifests Himself in certain places or objects for the sake of common people. Those places or objects are adored with the highest reverence and that is why the shruti offers the above salutation. Another such beautiful passage is found in the Atharva Veda:
Divam brūmo naksatrāni
|‘We revere the sky, the stars, the earth, all super-natural beings, and mountains; the oceans, the rivers, the ponds; let them (the gods dwelling therein) deliver us from our troubles.’
A man of true knowledge experiences God everywhere. To him God has become this universe. But to a common man with his sense of distinction this idea is not that easy to accept or assimilate. For such people God manifests, as it were, in special objects or places or persons. This has been expressed by the Lord Himself in the Bhagavad-Gita:
|‘Know it for certain that whatever there is extraordinary, endowed with splendor or valor, that originates from but a spark of my divine brilliance.’
As Sri Ramakrishna says, ‘The Sun’s light falls equally on all surfaces, but only bright surfaces like water, mirrors and polished metals, can reflect it fully’. Similarly, tīrthas have the power to manifest the presence of God. For ages together great souls, spiritual luminaries, saints and sages have been visiting these places and undergoing spiritual practices there. Powerful spiritual vibrations surging out from their pure minds have produced strong spiritual fields that have made the places holy. In fact, these pure souls are the actual redeemers of the tīrthas. It is their holy presence and spiritual fervour that transform these places into tīrthas. ‘Tirthīkurvanti tīrthani they make the tīrthas holy, says Narada. Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi used to say: ‘Where else is God except very close to His devotees? If worldly people even visit the place used by holy men, the very atmosphere of the place can remove the dross of their mind.” Such places are found in abundance not only in India but all over the world. The entire land of India is, as it were, a place of pilgrimage. Swami Vivekananda called it holy land, punya bhumi.
How Tīrthas Came into Being
How have these tīrthas come into existence? Where are they situated? What are the characteristics that make them holy or sacred? Tīrthas are located everywhere-generally on river banks, mountaintops or in remote, inaccessible places. Many rivers like Ganga and Yamuna are regarded as holy. Innumerable pilgrim spots stand on their shores right from the place of their origin down to where they meet the sea. Confluences of two or more rivers are called prayāgas. Tīrthas like Prayagraj at Allahabad, Sone Prayag, Vishnu Prayag and Rudra Prayag are examples of these. Puri, Dwarka and Kanyakumari are some of the famous tīrthas that are situated on the seashore. But tīrthas stand even in the midst of impassable deserts; Hinglaj is one such. The Himalaya, the greatest of mountains, is believed to be the abode of gods and goddesses. So the entire Himalayan range is one vast place of pilgrimage with its innumerable tīrthas like Kailas, Mansarovar, Amarnath, Kedarnath, and Badrinath.
Many tīrthas are mentioned in the Vedas, Puranas and other scriptures. Places that have witnessed the birth and divine sports of incarnations of God and places chosen by saints and sages for their spiritual practice and ministration have become famous tīrthas. Naimisharanya is one such eternally holy spot that has been described in many Puranas. Then there are the fifty-one ‘saktipīthas’ dedicated to the Divine Mother, the embodiment of cosmic Energy. The story how the various parts of Sati’s body came to be associated with these Pīthas has been narrated elsewhere in this issue. Besides places like these, spots where famous ancient temples are located are also called tīrthas. Thus Varanasi, Kanchipuram, Tirupati, Prabhas, Bhubaneswar, and Ujjain can all be equally designated as tīrthas.
Each tīrtha enshrines the spiritual culture and religious heritage of a particular tradition. In the Skanda Purana, Agastya says to his wife Lopamudra: ‘Tīrtha sabda varārohe dharmakrtyesu vartate; O fair one! The word tīrtha is related to religious observances.’ Agastya further describes other implications of tīrtha to Lopamudra: O fair one! Mother is a tīrtha, father is a tīrtha, congregations of holy persons are tīrthas, religious thinking as well as spiritual principles (yama) and disciplines (niyama) are tīrthas, sacred discourses by the celestial sages (devarsis), places which great ascetics and gods frequent, and holy lands, O my beloved, are all considered tīrthas’ .
Purpose of Pilgrimage
People go on pilgrimage for various purposes. Some go merely to visit or to enjoy the Places’ natural beauty; some go for attaining piety, others to perform religious rites. Spiritual aspirants resort to holy places in order to observe penance and purify their minds. One should go on pilgrimage with some bhava (mental attitude). A tīrtha is an embodiment of the Divine God assumes the form of a tīrtha and divinity is manifest therein. God, in this case, is not a person but an aggregate of divine principles. From an even higher stand-point, God is without any attribute whatsoever. It is the devotees who bring God down from the Principle to the Person (of their choice), and out of sheer love and compassion for them God descends to the personal level and accepts the various names and forms they attribute to Him in order to satisfy them. Devotees worship with utmost love the same God in different forms and with different names according to their mental make-up as their ista devata (Chosen Deity). That is why it is said:
|‘The assumption of forms by Brahman, the pure Consciousness, the One without a second partless and bodiless, is for the sake of fulfilling the purposes of the worshippers.’
The Lord is also called bhāvagrāhī, one who takes into account the inmost attitude of the devotee. That inmost attitude, imbued with the utmost unalloyed love, is the final word in the sphere of genuine religion, though outwardly a devotee may worship God with offerings or through charity or by singing of praises and glories. Pilgrimage too is but a kind of worship of God in the form of a holy tīrtha. Every tīrtha has its presiding deity who must be paid reverential homage, bit in the form of worship, chanting of holy names or meditation. That apart, in a tīrtha one is enjoined to give in charity to holy persons as well as to the poor and the afflicted. This is the manner in which the Divine in the form of tīrtha is worshiped. God in turn is pleased to gratify the pilgrim with the desired results.
Obtaining the Fruits of Visiting a Tīrtha
Sri Ramakrishna once told a devotee:’ From time to time he [a worldly person] should live in the company of holy men, and from time to time go into solitude to meditate on God. Furthermore, he should practice discrimination and pray to God, “Give me faith and devotion.” Once a person has faith he has achieved everything.’ Pilgrimage can provide a devotee with all these. At a tīrtha one can associate with monks and devotees, benefit from the solitude and spiritual vibrations of the place which help concentrate one’s mind on God easily, and sincerely practice prayer and discrimination. What is discrimination? It is the ability to judge what is good and what is bad, what is acceptable and what is non-acceptable, what is real and what is unreal. After discriminating thus one must with strong determination accept the real and give up the unreal. Sri Ramakrishna says, ‘God is real and all else is illusory’ . This is the essence of discrimination. True, but unless the mind is prepared to accept it, it is all futile. So one should maintain one’s bhava. A famous Sanskrit verse says:
Bhāvena labhate jnānam
|‘Through bhava knowledge is attained, through bhava comes God-vision. Everything is achieved through bhava; therefore bhava is to be adopted.’ Bereft of bhava merely visiting holy places would at best be an excursion or a pleasure trip. However many dips one may take in the holy rivers, nothing will happen.
Says Mirabai: “If God can be attained by daily bathing, may I be an aquatic animal.’ In the ‘Kashi’ Khanda’ it is said:
|‘Impurities of the mind cannot be removed by bathing in holy rivers, just as a vessel used to hold liquor remains impure even if washed hundreds of times.’
In order to acquire the competence and mental purity required for benefiting from a pilgrimage the scripture prescribes the practice of certain principles (yama) and disciplines (niyama). Again, these qualities themselves have been considered tīrthas.
Mental Preparation for Tīrtha
Yamas are the lofty ethical principles of life. They are termed ‘universal’, because they comprise spiritual imperatives which are valid irrespective of time, place, social purpose or cultural demands. They consist of the five great vows of non-killing (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), non-stealing (asteya), continence (brahmacarya), and non-receiving of gifts (aparigraha).
In order to be established in these ethical principles, five observances or disciplines have been prescribed. They are: internal and external purification (sauca), contentment (santosa), mortification or penance (tapas), study (svadhyaya), and worship of God (isvara-prani-dhana) These are called niyamas.
A mind established in the yamas is itself a tīrtha. This ethical conduct has to be maintained throughout one’s life. Otherwise, merely visiting a tīrtha once in a while with a mind full of selfish desires—though making charity, performing worship and penance, practicing cleanliness, and hearing religious discourses does no good.’ In other words, pilgrimage is efficacious provided it is done in the right spirit. A tīrtha has the power to purify the mind and awaken spiritual fervor. As the Bhagavata says:
Susrūsoh srāddhadhānasya vāsudevakathārucih
|O venerable brahmins! By performing holy pilgrimage and serving great souls one can attain devotional faith (sraddha) and the willingness to listen to discourses on Vasudeva.
Three Types of Tīrtha
God is all-pervasive. Just as He manifests Himself in human beings He dwells in animate and inanimate creatures too. Accordingly, tīrthas are classified into three types: sthāvara (immovable), jangama (movable), and mānasa (mental). Sthāvara tīrthas include sacred locales like Varanasi, Vrindaban and Kamarpukur; sacred rivers like the Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati; and temples like Jagannath, Somanth and Dakshineswar. The word tīrtha usually refers to immovable tīrthas. The Kashi Khanda describes what made them tīrthas: ‘The wonderful natural characteristics of the locality, the unique grandeur of the local waters or the fact that some sage resorted to them (for austerity).
The great souls who make tīrthas all the more holy are jangama tīrthas, or moving tīrthas. They are called brahmanas by virtue of their qualities and actions. Another verse attributed to the ‘Kashi Khanda’ says:
|Brahmanas devoid of all blemishes and who fulfill all the desires (of others) are the moving tīrthas. Their words, like holy water, purify people stained by impurities.
The virtues and duties that go to make one a brahmana have been enumerated in the Bhagavad-Gita: ‘Serenity, self-control, austerity, purity, forbearance, uprightness, knowledge, realization and faith are the duties of a brahmana born of his nature.’ Persons possessing these qualities are indeed moving tīrthas. Whatever they speak is authoritative and the places they visit become sacred. In the Bhagavata, Yudhishthira tells Vidura:
|O venerable one! A bhagavata (one possessing divine virtues and motiveless devotion to God) like you is himself an embodiment of a holy tīrtha; Gadadhara, the Lord Himself, being manifest in such persons; they make the tīrthas even more holy.’
How great these souls are! They possess the power of purifying anything that comes in contact with them. The Lord Himself confesses to Uddhava: ‘I always follow him who desires nothing, who is a muni (deeply engrossed in God), serene, free from enmity and who looks upon all with an equal eye, in order that all (the worlds within Me) may be purified by the dust of his holy feet’ . Such are the great devotees of God! They possess infinite purity, and the capacity to purify everything.
The third category of tīrtha is a man’s own mind that has been purified of all desires and merged in God. God is holy; there is nothing holier than God. And a mind always living in Divine presence becomes identified with the Divine. Says Sri Ramakrishna: 'That which is Pure Mind is also Pure Buddhi; that, again, is Pure Ātman.’
Visayesvatisamrāgo mānaso mala ucyate;
|Attachment to worldly objects is what is termed mental impurity and detachment from sense objects is mental purity.
A person having such a mind has no need to go anywhere to purify himself; his own pure mind is a place of pilgrimage. Not only that, whoever comes into contact with him becomes pure regardless of whether words are exchanged or not. This is beautifully described in the Daksināmurti Stotra: ‘How strange! Under the banyan tree is seated a young guru, surrounded by old disciples; the guru’s mute eloquence dispels all doubts of the disciples!’ What is the secret behind this? The guru’s mental field is so vast and powerful that it attracts and merges into itself the disciples’ small mental fields. Where then is the room for any doubt? Such a mind, devoid of the least stain of desire, the cause of impurity, is a much more effective purifying agent than a place of pilgrimage. A pure mind is a storehouse of immense power, including that of purifying other impure minds.
So the truest and best pilgrimage is to purify the mind (manasah visuddhi)’ that is the greatest tīrtha—because it gives rise to a number of divine qualities that are themselves considered great tīrthas: truthfulness (satya), forgiveness (ksama), sense control (indriya-nigraha), compassion (sarvabhuta-daya), uprightness (arjava), charity (dhrti), self-control (dama), contentment (santoła), continence (brahmacarya), pleasant speech (priyaviditi),knowledge (jnāna), fortitude (dhìti) and austerity (tapas). All these are tīrthas in themselves (6.32); they are called 'divine treasures'. A heart that possesses these rich treasures is ‘God’s parlour’; God manifests therein. And wherever such a person goes, that place becomes a tīrtha.
When all the senses (indriyas) are brought under control and the mind is constantly fixed on God, all mental modifications subside, and one feels Divine presence everywhere, within and without. It then makes no difference where one lives, for one’s residence then becomes a tapovana—‘nivrttarāgasya grham tapovanam;to a man of subdued passions his own home is a hermitage’. Sant Kabir says: ‘In the mind are Ganga and Yamuna. I take a holy dip in my mind. What further good will a tīrtha do to me? Again he says: ‘Don’t go, O brother! Don’t wander off to far-off places. Ganga and Yamuna are here in this body. So have your bath here itself.’
Therefore, all that is required is a pure mind, bereft of selfishness and passion. The same truth is spoken about in the Skanda Purana:
Nigrhītendriyagrāmo yatraiva ca vasennarah;
|Wherever a man may live having controlled the senses, for him that place turns into the tīrthas of Kurukshetra, Naimisha and Pushkara.
Good Actions: The Fourth Type of Tīrtha
There is yet another tīrtha, and that is good actions—work done for the well-being and happiness of the many; bahujana hitāya bahujana sukhāya. This was one of Buddha’s instructions. He said to his disciples: ‘Caratha bhikkhave cārikam bahujana hitāya bahujana sukhāya; Let the bhikshus roam the four quarters for the well-being of the many, for the happiness of the many.’ In the present age, Swami Vivekananda has interpreted it as the real karma yoga in the light of Sri Ramakrishna’s great dictum of siva-jnāne jīva-sevā, service to human beings looking upon them as God. The principles of karma yoga is discussed in many scriptures, but it has been interpreted variously. Swami Vivekananda has highlighted its practical value as a means to God-realization. According to him jīva-sevā is not just a good deed but ‘the best work you ever did’. To work for the sake of others is the only true work, all other work is non-work and contrary to real work. This jīva-sevā, not sarvabhūta-daya, compassion towards all, elevates the mind to a plane in which it sees the supreme Self in all beings. Let alone selfless work, even a sincere prayer for the well-being of others makes the mind pure and the person blessed. And the place where this jīva-sevā is performed also becomes a tīrtha. The Mahabharata story of the brahmin family and the mongoose is proof of this, and is worth recollecting:
There lived a poor brahmin with his wife daughter and son. Though the family was poor they were very pious. They lived on alms and could hardly make both ends meet. Once it so happened that they did not get any alms and so had to starve for a couple of days. Death was knocking at the door. Then, with much trouble, the brahmin managed to procure a meal of wheat. It was first offered to God and then divided into four equal parts. They were about to eat the meal, when a hungry guest arrived. He too was starving. A guest is to be regarded as Narayana Himself, so the brahmin offered his share to the guest, who ate it and said, ‘Bring more food. This small quantity has only increased my hunger!’ Now the wife offered her share to him. The guest consumed it in no time and demanded more. The son thought: ‘It is my filial duty as a son to complete the sacrifice undertaken by my father. Let me offer my share also to the venerable guest.’ The guest devoured that too and said, ‘My hunger is not yet satiated; I want some more food.’ Then the daughter thought: ‘As a daughter, is it not my duty to fulfill my parents’ sacrifice?’ And she placed her share before the guest. The guest’s fiery hunger was now satisfied and he blessed them all and went away. Thus the four people gave up their lives for the sake of the guest. A mongoose was there witnessing everything. It came out and rolled on the sacred leftovers—and instantly half of its body became golden! ‘Where on earth can I find another great tīrtha like this?’ It began searching for such a place in order to turn the other half of its body golden. During its long search it came to the place where Yudhishthira had just completed his rājasūya yajna, the greatest sacrifice performed by a paramount ruler of the entire earth, and rolled on the spot—but with no effect!
Another incident: Once a very poor devotee had a strong desire to go to Varanasi to have the darshan of Lord Vishwanatha. But he was too poor to do so. Swami Adbhutananda, a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, was then living in Varanasi. He came to know of the devotee’s earnest longing and wrote to him to somehow collect the one-way railway fare to Varanasi and that other things could be taken care of. Thus being assured, the devotee reached Varanasi with great difficulty and had the darshan of Lord Vishwanatha and Mother Annapurna, and enjoyed the holy company of Latu Maharaj. But one day, at the Vishwanatha temple, he felt great mental anguish. After bathing in the Ganga and finishing his worship of Shiva with bel leaves, when he came out of the temple he saw that all the devotees were giving alms to mendicants and beggars according to their ability. He alone lacked the capacity to give in charity. He cried fie upon himself: ‘I am a poor, wretched beggar myself, deprived of this rare opportunity. On the contrary, having come to this holy place I am enjoying food and shelter provided by sadhus, and I do not have a penny to pay for it!’ He returned to his room with a heavy heart, closed the door and started shedding tears of grief. Latu Maharaj came to know everything and suggested: ‘What does it matter? You do one thing: tomorrow after bathing in the Ganga offer a handful of it to God and pray, ‘May all the miseries of the world be dispelled.”’ The devotee thought, ‘This is just a consolation for a helpless destitute like me. What merit can be derived from it?’However, the next day the devotee did exactly as he was advised simply to honor the words of a great soul like Latu Maharaj. Immediately his mind became calm and serene, his heart was filled with an unspeakable bliss, and he felt blessed with divine grace. This is the result of true pilgrimage.
Pilgrimage to Unity
Human civilization is vast and infinitely diverse, and the different tīrthas are places of holy communion for the whole of humankind. The tīrtha experience is about experiencing a sense of oneness; where pilgrims feel that they are a part and parcel of the Cosmic Being, Virāt. Pilgrimages help pilgrims to break free from the narrow, limited bounds of selfishness, caste, creed, and nationality and become one with humankind. God is all and is in all. The one Eternal Being has become many, assuming innumerable forms and innumerable names. Realization of this truth is the culmination of spirituality—avagatih paryavasānam, everything terminates in knowledge. It is this knowledge of oneness, where the entire universe becomes one single home, that a genuine devotee, whose heart has become pure and saturated with the nectar of universal love, realizes at a tīrtha. This is the highest significance of pilgrimage. Else, as Sri Ramakrishna said, ‘A sannyāsi’s kamandalu, made of bitter gourd, travels with him to the four great places of pilgrimage but still does not lose its bitterness.’. Floating in the vast ocean of human souls we must transcend artificial barriers.
- Atharva Veda, 12.1.1
- Krishna Yajur Veda, 16.42.
- Atharva Veda, 11.6.10.
- Bhagavad-Gita, 10.41.
- Swami Brahmananda, Words of the Master (Calcutta: Udbodhan Office, 1938), 19.
- Bhakti Sutras, 69.
- Her Devotee-Children, The Gospel of the Holy Mother (Chennai: Ramakrishna Math, 2000), 265.
- Skanda Purana, 6.108.11.
- Skanda Purana, 6.108.12-4
- Rama-purva-tapini Upanishad,7.
- M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Chennai: Ramakrishna Math, 2002), 87.
- M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Chennai: Ramakrishna Math, 2002), 392
- ‘Kashi Khanda’, 6.38, in Skanda Purana.
- Skanda Purana, 6.108.12.
- ‘Kashi Khanda’, 6.39.
- Bhagavata, 1.2.16.
- ‘Kashi Khanda’, 6.44.
- Kashi Khanda
- Bhagavad-Gita, 18.42.
- Bhagavata, 1.13.10.
- Bhagavata, 11.14.16
- M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Chennai: Ramakrishna Math, 2002), 178.
- ‘Kashi Khanda’, 6.37.
- Skanda Purana, 6.40
- M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Chennai: Ramakrishna Math, 2002), 225