Vising holy places as a pilgrimage plays an extremely important role in the life of a vaidika (Hindu) with the primary aim being to elevate the minds of pilgrims to higher spiritual levels.
The etymological meaning of the word teertha is: teeryate anena iti teertham samsaara saagaraat tarana upaaya bhootam that by which it is crossed, that which helps the crossing the ocean of samsara, a life of becoming/cycle of birth and death/sukha dukha and also takes one to the path of liberation.
It is a deliberate effort of purification physically and mentally as Hindus consider every mountain, hill, the rivers seas and tanks ponds and plains and forests as sacred. All pilgrim centres are associated with some form of a deity, temple, which has been consecrated either by devatas, rishis, kings, brahmanas, or by a community or by the entire village as a place of worship for Deva yajna, Pitru yajna, Brahma yajna, Bhuta yajna or an opportunity to do seva for manushya yajna in the form of annadaanam and providing places to stay for pilgrims.
These pilgrim centres are spread all over India, from the Himalayas to Kanyakumari from north to south, and Somnath to Puri, west to east.
The Puranas, sthalapuranas or the local legends tell us these places are all extremely ancient, closely connected with the persons and incidents narrated in the Puranas. Places associated with great saints and religious leaders of a historical period are considered to be worthy of worship too.
During Krta yuga people were capable of doing dhyanam, in Treta yuga, kings encouraged Vedic rituals by conducting big yagas which soon faded out due to inherent difficulties in performing them. Their place was soon taken up by pujas, homas (oblations into consecrated fires associated with popular deities), vratas (religious vows) and teertha yatras. These were eulogised as easy to perform but giving equally good and quick results of chitta shuddhi or purification.
A kshetra means a field or a place of pilgrimage or cultivation where you reap the fruits. In a general sense it means an agricultural field where seeds are sown for reaping a good crop to serve the Jivas for the Annamaya Kosha.
In the Bhagavad Gita – Chapter 13, it stands for any upaadhi (body mind sense complex) of any jiva (humans, animals, insects, worms, birds, reptiles, aquatic, the Deva shareeram too – since it is through this body that the fruits of karma – paapa punya are reaped, hence Dharmakshetra.
Usually the manushya shareeram is called kshetra as we understand in the literal sense – it is a Dharma kshetra and Karma kshetra being endowed with the free will to do karma – this is with reference to gaining freedom from samsaara.
The Deva shareerams are meant for exhausting their punya alone and cannot acquire new karma and lesser than animal shareerams are meant to exhaust paapa karmas and to acquire new karma.
Only a human shareeram can exhaust paapa and punya and also acquire new papa-punya because of free will. This includes the five elements -intellect, sense organs, ahankaara and all the sense objects.
While the human body is subject to disintegration, its purpose is not merely to disintegrate – or grow or metamorphosis or age but to serve as a kshetra. It is called kshetra because it can save you from disintegration. Kshtaat traayate that is, it helps you overcome duhkha, or like a field of cultivation, this body is also a kshetra since you can reap the fruits of karma. Whether it helps you save yourself relatively (from the cycle of birth and death) or absolutely (moksha), it is called a kshetra. The entire physical, physiological, psychological, intellectual emotional complex including the gross, subtle and causal bodies is called the kshetra.
Shankara defines the etymological meaning of kshetra in the Gita Bhaashyam
- kShataat traanaat iti kshetram – it protects one from falling into samsaara
- kShayaat kShetram – it undergoes destruction by external forces
- kSharanaat kshetram – subject to disintegration natural process
- kshetratcvaat kshetram – because one reaps the fruits of one’s actions through this body, it is like a cultivable land through which one harvests the crop one has sown
In Hindu astrology, the 12 signs of the zodiac are considered as kshetras for the seven planets and 27 nakshatras to estimate the effects of the planets and nakshatras respectively in their multiple combinations.
The literature on teertha yaatra is very extensive. There are more than 40,000 verses available on Yaatras in the Mahabharata and Puranasa.
The whole corpus of texts which are considered as part of the Skanda Purana is grouped in two ways. According to one tradition, these are grouped in six saṁhitās, each of which consists of several khaṇḍas. According to another tradition, these are grouped in seven khaṇḍas, each named after a major pilgrimage region or site. The chapters are Mahatmyas, or travel guides for pilgrimage tourists.
Teerthas are of three kinds: Jangam Teertha is to a place movable (of a sadhu, a rishi, a guru), Sthawar Teertha is to a place immovable (like Benaras, Hardwar, Mount Kailash, holy rivers), Manas Teertha is to a place of mind (of truth, charity, patience, compassion, soft speech, soul) – Skanda Purana.
In Bharata there are many places of worship which have gained sanctity over the centuries. There are stories in the Puranas and epics associated with different places where devotees feel the presence of the Lord.
It is one’s attitude called bhavana in Sanskrit that makes a place as sacred. It is only when one visits a place of worship with an attitude of devotion that one will be blessed. In the fourth Skanda of Devi Bhagavatam, Sage Ajaavana glorifies this attitude of devotion. He tells Prahlada that even though many people live on the banks of the sacred River Ganga and bathe in the holy waters, they do not benefit from it without an attitude of devotion.
In the Padma Purana it is stated that it is one’s devotion and the purity of one’s mind that blesses one who visits sacred places. It is because of this attitude that one is called a pilgrim and the journey to the temple is called a Yatra or a pilgrimage. There are certain pilgrimages that are considered important in the life of a Hindu. These may be to a Kula Devata temple, Pitru yajna temples, or Parihara sthalas as praayaschittam or for fulfilling ones Purushaartha dharma. All these places are meant for one’s own external and internal purification.
It is believed that every person owes three debts in one’s life – deva runam, pitru runam and rishi runam. The first debt is to the Gods for what one is blessed with; the second debt is to one’s forefathers/ancestors who have left the legacy of culture, knowledge and this present janma for us; the third debt is what one owes to oneself for one’s spiritual growth to the sages. The Tri-sthala has been extolled in many puranas including the Padma Purana, Vayu Purana, Matsya Purana and Skanda Purana.
The purpose of a Teerth yatra
Teertha yatra has been listed as one of the religious Saamanya Dharmas or common duties of every Hindu Bharatiya in his life time by some of the shastra granthas like the Vishnu Dharma Sutra (2.16.17).
It is supposed to neutralizes the paapas and earn punya or religious merits and result in chitta shuddhi or purity of mind.
Even the Rig Veda (10.75) Khila refers to the sacredness of the place where the white and black rivers – Ganga and Yamuna merge at Prayag. A bath here is believed to enable one to go to heaven. The puranas are replete with such ideas.
The beauty and grandeur of such places are conducive for meditation. Besides associating with spiritually advanced sadhakas, who might have been visiting these places earlier and learn from their experiences and also a host of related ideas have endowed those places of pilgrimage with a lot of sacredness.
Classification of teerthas
The Brahmapurana (970.16-19) classifies the teerthas or places of pilgrimage into four groups
- Daiva – those that are created by gods
- Asuras – those associated with asuras and demons like gaya
- Arsha – those established by rishis like Vasistha, Prabhasa, Naranarayana
- Manusha those created by kings, beings like Ambarisha, Manu Kuru, siddhas, yogis
These four are assigned to the four yugas – Krita, Tretaa, Dvaapara and Kali. These classifications may be relevant or not relevant depends on the bhavanaa of the devotee.
Skanda Purana is replete with details – Reva Khanda talks about Naramada teertha, the entire Narmada 3000 kms are covered. Ujjain is dealt with in detail with 84 Linga temples specifically in 84 chapters.
Bhakti saints and our Acharyas have travelled extensively irrespective of the difficult situations and inconveniences of travel. Some of them they have left behind their travelogue as interesting devotional poetry.
Eligibility for Teerth Yatra
One of the questions often asked and discussed in the Puranas and the Dharma sutras is that of the adhikaari or eligibility for teertha yatra. This had probably become necessary because study of the Vedas, performance of the Vedic rituals were restricted to the dvijas, the twice born which included Brahmana, Kashatriya and Vaishya.
Unlike the study of the Vedas or performance of the Vedic rituals, taking recourse to teertha yatra is open to all human beings irrespective of their caste status or condition (Matsya Purana 184.66, 67).
The Puranas go to the extent of declaring that those who take a bath in a holy river or at a holy place will not only purify seven generations of their fore fathers and descendants but also find their path to liberation (Vaman Purana 36.78,79)
Such arthavaada (hyperbolic eulogy) was obviously meant to induce and encourage everyone to undertake teertha yatra. But a few primary rules have also been imposed for undertaking the teertha yatra:-
- A brahmachari living in the guru’s house had to take his permission.
- Grihasthas were obliged to take their spouses, because dampatyaa saha would get more punyam, failing which the man or the woman will get the due merits of the yatra.
- Sanyasis keep moving anyway from place to place as long as the body permits to travel.
Disciplined ethical life a prerequisite/precondition:
Despite eulogising teertha yatra in order to attract people, the sages of the Puranas did not fail to stress the importance of a moral, religious, ethical life as a precondition, without which it would become futile.
However, it was also conceded that persons – even transgressors of Dharma and wrong doers – who undertake the teerth yatra with faith and devotion, repent for the misdeeds and resolve not to repeat them will definitely be benefitted by it.
Our Sanatana Dharma gives every opportunity, ways and means to change transform ourselves, to lead a pure life according to Dharma. While persons leading a pure life do not need to undertake teerth yatras, they too will be benefitted in their spiritual evolution if they do. They inspire others to emulate them.
It is interesting to note that the practice of virtues jnaanam – daivee sampat (Bhagavd Gita), assimilating which and adopting in our lives, leads to purity of mind; kshama (forgiveness); daya (compassion); dama (self-control) are all called teertha as they are conducive to chitta shuddhi, purity of mind.
These teerth yaatras help the pilgrims to be in satsanga with company of holy persons who are themselves called teertha, whose very presence makes the place sacred.
Shankara’s instructions on teertha yatra to his disciple Swami Padmapada(Madhaveeya Shankara Digvijayam, 14th chapter by Swami Vidyaranya):
Once Padmapada approached the Acharya and sought permission to go on a pilgrimage to holy places. The Achaarya thereupon said to him – the proximity of the Guru is the real place of pilgrimage, the washings of his feet are the holy waters, the attainment of Atman through the guru’s instruction is the real experience of the holy presence which men seek indirectly through the adoration of sacred images installed in temples.
It is better to be near the Guru serving him than to go about from place to place. When one has walked long distances and become completely exhausted and sleepy, how can one meditate on the Atman?
Sanyasa is of two kinds – Vidvat Sanyasa, this is the first – the knowing one, like Yajnavalkya. The second is Vividhidhaa Sanyasa – the enquirer of the Supreme Truth. In order that they may gain the meaning of the Mahaa vaakya tat (Ishvara) tvam (Jiva) asi (you are that) the enquirer will always be reflecting on the Supreme. This will be difficult for a pilgrim to do, for a traveller will always have his mind agitated by thoughts such as ‘in which place is water available in abundance? In which area there is water scarcity? Where can a place of rest and stay be available? What would one do if one is afflicted by fever (infection)?
Even one’s companions will desert one when one becomes incapacitated by illness to walk or lie down or unable to carry on life independently.
Where shall I bathe in the morning?
Where shall I get a place suited for meditation?
Where shall I get my food today? Where shall I meet a trustworthy person to be friendly?
Thus the wanderer will have time only to think of shelter, food and safety and protection.
The Puranas and Dharma shastras have laid down the procedure to be followed in teertha yatra. It is summarised briefly here:
- Observing a fast if possible or fluid diet on the previous day of the commencement of the yatra.
- Kula Devataa puja, Ganapati puja, Navagraha puja, Brahmana bhojanam or annadanam in a temple on the day of the departure.
- Visit the local temple and offer prayers.
- Wear yellow coloured vastram.
- Sankalpa or religious resolve as dictated by the scriptures.
- Carry minimum luxury during travel.
- Keep life simple.
- Recite the namas of the lord, stotra pathanam japa etc.
- After returning, worshipping the same deities and offer annadanam as thanks giving.
In the modern context, compromise is inevitable. So atleast offer a simple puja and sankalpa at home, visit the local temple before going and after successful completion of the pilgrimage.
Pratinidhi or proxy system according to the Shastras
In the olden days it was the ambition of every devout Hindu to visit Kashi and other holy places at least once their life time. However transport and communication were extremely difficult, not so convenient, there was no immunisation against local infections and often if they went for yatra it would take months before they returned. Even able bodied persons could not make it so easily then, to say nothing of others in old age and ill health, handicapped and those without money.
For the benefit of such people the treatises on the teertha yatra have given a unique method called ‘pratinidhi kriya’. 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 Ganga etc. on his behalf also.
After reaching River Ganga, the pilgrim prepares the image of the person with kusha grass, immerses it in the water with appropriate mantras remembering him. The person for whom the 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 (Atri Smriti 50,51)
People both in the ancient, and medieval period were prepared to face all the hardships and undertake pilgrimages, because of their deep faith in the system that sustained them in and through their hardships and inconveniences. Their shraddha in the Shastra vakyas, Guru vakyas, their ancestor’s way of life, Veda vakyas, and in the disciplined religious life style and ethics made them ready to undergo difficult journeys. It has also helped them to attain emotional integrity and maturity and to develop a cultural and religious harmony with other bhaktas throughout the country.
Some would chose to live in Kashi until their death. Many families from the South have immigrated to these pilgrim centres in the north and have made a living for centuries.
Today with the fast paced advancement of science and technology in the field of transportation and communication it is possible to reach even the farthest part of the globe in a matter of hours. This has made pilgrimage not only easy and comfortable and also enjoyable. Pilgrims should however keep up the fervour of devotion and should avoid the temptation of making the pilgrimage a pleasure trip of holiday trips, or tourism promotions or honeymoon trips, trekking trips, by trying to cultivate the same religious fervour our fore fathers had.
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