PROLOGUE ON SOME PILGRIM CENTERS WE VISITED
(DISCOURSE BY N.R. SRINIVASAN, SEPTEMBER 2011)
My wife and I went on a Pilgrimage or Teerthayatra visiting several sacred pilgrim centers extending from Badrinath in the North of India to Rameswaram in the South of India in the recent past. I gave a series of discourses on our visit to these holy places which formed the theme of my discourse that follows.
Celebrated temples of various Gods in India stand high in the mountains, on the sea shore, on the banks of the famous rivers or tanks and lakes. Millions of pilgrims make strenuous efforts to reach them every year. Most celebrated among them are the Pilgrim centers in the Himalayas. Himalayas are the most sacred and revered mountain ranges of Hindus. Lord Siva sat in deep meditation so also Nara and Narayana here. It is here Lord Siva found his beautiful consort Parvati, the daughter of Himavan, Himalayan King after whom the mountains are named. The snow-bound inspiring serene and awesome Himalayan Mountains with their enchanting divine rivers, springs and lakes are shrouded in mystery. It leaves one speechless and is a paradise on earth for all spiritual seekers and to those who seek wisdom and tranquility.
The word Teertha is a Sanskrit word which etymologically means "teeryate anena iti teerthah, smasaara
saagara-tarangopaaya bhootam" meaning that by which one crosses, that which helps to cross the ocean of trans-migratory existence in this world. Yaatra means journey. Vishnudharma Sookta describes Teerthayatra as a Saamaanya Dharma or normal duties expected of an individual. Teerthayaatra destroys one's sins, gives religious merits (acquiring Punya) and brings purity of thought and peace of mind.
Hindu religious texts like Mahabharata and other Puranas contain more than 40000 verses on this subject glorifying Teerthayaatra. You are all aware of the strenuous Teerrthayaatra Arjuna took to get rid of the sins he accidentally and momentarily acquired in his life. There are many religious texts on this subject. Some of them are Teerthachintamani (15th century) by Vaachaspati; Teerthasaara by Dalapati (about 1490 A.D.); and Kritya Kalpataru (12th Century A.D.). Going on a Pilgrimage or Teerthayaatra or visiting holy places plays an extremely important part on Hindu life, a tradition as old as Kritayuga itself. Teerthas are associated with Gods, Asuras (demons), Rishis, sages and saints as well as human devotees. Teerthayaatra has no religious constrains or stipulations like the study of Vedas. All human beings without any distinction of caste, creed or sex can perform this religious act. There are however few guidelines. A celibacy or Brahmachari living in a Guru's house or Gurukula has to take permission. A married person should always take his spouse with him otherwise he would not get the benefit of Punya or religious merit of the pilgrimage. Saastras also prescribe what is called Pratinidhi Kriya (proxy rite) if a person is not able to perform pilgrimage due to physical condition someone else can undertake the pilgrimage on his behalf. The person for whom this proxy rite is performed is believed to get a portion of the Punya or religious merits.
Fasting on the previous day prior to undertaking this long journey, worship of the chosen deity, the nine planets (navagrahas) to make your journey safe, feeding the poor and giving away gifts to the needy are mandatory before starting off. Ones should also lead a simple life and lead an austere life, dressed in simple clothes during the pilgrimage. At the conclusion of the pilgrimage worship is again offered to the chosen deity followed by poor feeding, listening to Vedic chanting, feeding the Vedic scholars and offering gifts to the Needy (daana) as a mark of thanksgiving.
Pilgrimage is not a compulsion for a yogi or the one who is leading a dhaarmic (Pure and sanctified) life. But if he undertakes it would help him in his spiritual evolution. Scriptures say Jnaanayoga, Japayoga and spending time in the company of holy persons have the same religious merits like Teerthayaatra. Teethayatra to holy places is an integral part of Hindu way of life. They are also conducive to the purity of mind and thought.
Today pilgrimage has become a part of the tourism industry. This has its advantages too. This makes Teerthayaatra comfortable to reach the farthest point as well as not easily accessible spots in the past easily accessible. One cannot avoid all temptations of making pilgrimage a pleasure trip or a sight-seeing trip or shopping trip. But at the same time the guidelines shown by our forefathers to cultivate religious fervor during Teerthayaatra and also the necessary to cultivate a dhaarmic life during the pilgrimage and then after to practice it throughout life should not be forgotten.