The Importance of Pilgrimage in Hinduism
Pilgrimage is one of the sacred duties of adherents of the Sanatana Dharma. Pilgrimage is called teertha yaatra in Sanskrit. Teertha means a sacred river or sacred site and yaatra means a travel. So teertha yatra is traveling to a sacred site. Many sacred Temples and sites in India include a sacred source of water where bathing is possible. Bathing at such sites is thought to wash away our karmas and bless us with Divine consciousness. My master recommended that any devout Hindu perform daily puja in the home, attend weekly puja in the local Temple, and make pilgrimage to one distant and especially sacred Temple annually. This routine helps ensure that the soul is keeping current with the karmas of living and ensures the expansion of divine consciousness.
Pilgrimage is a special and sacred travel unlike any other. When people vacation, they book a stay at the finest hotel they can afford and make reservations for dinners at fine dining establishments. Along the way, they visit beautiful sites and plan for plenty of entertainment. They plan for lots of recreational activities and make sure to save money to be able to purchase souvenirs to remind them of the fun places they have visited. A vacation is a feast for the senses which provides a distraction from the troubles of day to day life. For pilgrimage, there is a very different sort of approach. The whole trip is viewed as a journey to see God, which is really a journey within ourselves. Luxuries are forgone for the time of going on a pilgrimage. Instead, certain vows are taken and austerities performed. There used to be an arduous journey involved in getting to certain remote Temples and sacred sites. Traveling to the Himalayas posed certain risks of landslides and altitude sickness. Traveling to Sabarimala used to involve a long walk through forests inhabited by tigers. It was not a luxurious journey, but one of peril which forced us to rely upon our faith in God. Modern transportation has removed many of the risks involved in such travels, though visiting certain Himalayan sites can still present certain risks. These risks are a part of the process which forces us to rely upon faith.
There are many very powerful sacred sites in India. Many of the most powerful sacred sites on Earth are located there, and some of the most popular pilgrimage destinations. Sites like Ujjain, Gaya, Haridwar, Lake Manasarovara, and Mount Kailasa are well known as destinations for faithful pilgrims. Visiting such sites faithfully is said to be very powerful to remove the effects of misconduct committed in this life or past lives and to bestow spiritual blessings. We get free from all sorts of papakarma by visiting these sites. However, misconduct committed in these sacred sites is said to have much greater karmic effect to bind a person. Rameshwaram is said to have great power to remove various sins. It is said that Lord Ram performed penance there to help remove the effects of brahmahatya after killing Ravana. It is said that bathing at Rameshwaram has the power to remove the effects of bad deeds committed even at other sacred sites. Yet if we commit some misconduct at Rameshwaram, then it is said we can bathe at Kashi (Varanasi), which removes the effects of all sorts of misconduct. The power of that sacred city to remove our papakarma is said to be so powerful that many Hindus go there to die and have their ashes spread into the sacred Ganges there. So powerful is Varanasi to purify us that papakarma committed in Varanasi is said to be purified by bathing at Varanasi itself.
Many thousands of saints have established the sacred tirthams throughout India. These sacred sites hold the living presence of the ancient Sages and Saints. Some such spots were identified through the mystical awareness of the saints. Others were established when the saints and sages performed tapas there. Some were consecrated intentionally by the saints to leave their blessings for future generations. Many of the sacred temples also house the jivasamadhis (the burial places) of the saints. Brahmapurishwarar in Tamil Nadu is said to be the resting place of Patanjali’s remains. Kedarnath, in Uttarakhand, is said to be the location of Adi Shankaracharya. Shirdi in Maharashtra is where devotees visit Sai Baba. The places where the saints lived and died are highly charged with healing and awakening spiritual energy. Each denomination of Hinduism has its own sacred sites to visit. For the Vaishnavas there are four very sacred sites spread throughout India. These are Bhadrinath in the North, Rameshwaram in the South, Dwaraka in the West, and Puri in the East. There are countless other sacred Temples for Vishnu, including Thirupati in Andhra Pradesh, Padmanabha Swami in Kerala, and Ahobilam Narasimha Temple in Andhra Pradesh. For Shaktas, there are 64 or 108 sacred Shakti Peethams, of which three are considered most important, Kamakhya, Gaya and Ujjain. These three are said to relate to the Goddess’ power of creation, sustenance, and destruction. The Shaivas have countless sacred sites, including the twelve Jyotirlingas spread over India. There are five sacred Temples of Shiva relating to the five elements in South India: Ekambareshwara (Earth), Jambukeshwara (Water), Arunachaleshwara (Fire), Kalahasti (Air), and Chidambaram (Ether). Mount Kailasa in Tibet and Lake Manasarovara in Nepal are said to be the Earthly abode of Lord Shiva. For Ganesha there are the 8 Ashta Vinayaka Temples in Maharashtra, and Pillayarpatti Temple in Tamil Nadu. The Eight temples of Lord Ganesh are often visited together as a special pilgrimage. Lord Murugan also has many sacred Temples mainly in South India. In Tamil Nadu there are 6 extremely sacred Temples for Lord Murugan, of which Palani is considered most prominent. There are countless other famous pilgrimage sites including the Swami Ayyappa temple in Kerala, and Prayag, Nashik, Haridwar, and Ujjain where the Kumbha Mela festivals are held, which are the largest religious gatherings in the world. These are just a few of the most well-known sacred sites that are most often visited. There are literally thousands of lesser known temples stretching across India established by the Saints and Siddhas.
Even if we live outside India and cannot easily afford to travel abroad, there are many sacred sites in every continent and nation on Earth. Some are sacred places of worship for various indigenous and modern religious traditions. Others are natural places of great spiritual power. In Europe, there are powerful spiritual sites where worship was conducted by the pre-Christian people like NewGrange in Ireland and Stonehenge in the UK. There are also many powerful old cathedrals built on sacred sites like Chartres Cathedral in France. In North America, there are many powerful natural sites like Sedona Arizona or Humpback Rocks in Virginia. These and many other sacred sites around the world, like the powerful Temples of India have channels open to the inner realms. They have a great ability to purify us and awaken spiritual consciousness when visited with the right attitude. With the Gurus and masters of the East traveling more and more, there are established Hindu temples in most countries now and many of these have great power as well. There are even a few jeevasamdhis in the West of famous masters like Yogananda in Forest Lawn, California, and Swami Satchidananda in Buckingham, Virginia. For those living in other countries it may be possible to research or ask indigenous people where the most powerful sacred sites are located. There is certainly no reason to allow a lack of money to prevent us from conducting pilgrimage. But ideally the process begins with saving. Saving money for travel expenses and saving up days off from work to allow time for the journey. We should take a solemn vow to conduct a pilgrimage and pray to God to help with the life-changing process. No expense should be spared in our quest for God.
"The more effort we put into a spiritual practice like pilgrimage, the more we will get out of it."
When preparing for a pilgrimage, we should expect that obstacles and difficulties may arise. This is no average vacation. This is a process of moving toward the Divine. It is a normal part of the process to experience setbacks and difficulties. We must not be discouraged, but see these things as a blessing. This is how the process purges negative emotions from our minds and releases our karma. In fact, the more difficulties we experience, the more we should feel that the Lord has noticed our efforts and blessed us. Ideally while conducting a pilgrimage, we leave our worldly work and concerns behind for a short time in order to focus on our practice. If we observe certain austerities for a time before and while traveling, this will help empower the practice. For a few weeks to a month before the actual trip, we should observe certain vows and austerities according to our health and ability. This is an extremely important time to observe a strict vegetarian diet, abstaining completely from meat, fowl, seafood, and eggs. It may also be possible to observe occasional fasting entirely from food or a monofast on a simple easily digested food like kitchari or sabudana. During this time, stimulants and intoxicants should be avoided as well. Violent or sexual movies, music, media should be avoided also. This helps us to focus on spiritual thoughts and to purify the mind and body. During this time, daily puja of the Deity we are going to see should be conducted if possible. At least, it will be possible to conduct a regular practice of Japa of the mula mantra or other mantras of the Deity.
Each sacred temple has a certain traditional protocol for approaching the Deity. In certain cases walking a distance to arrive at the temple is traditional. In other cases, it will be necessary to bathe in a certain way before having darshan of the Deity. In some cases, it will be necessary to visit various other Temples before approaching the main deity. Each Temple also has its own protocol for proper attire and diet and lifestyle recommended for approaching the Deity. We should always research and consider these traditional recommendations to empower our visit, and implement them as much as possible for best results. In the case of lesser known Temples, or sites outside India, it may be very difficult if not impossible to find information on traditional practices for approaching those sacred sites. In this case we can follow the protocols for approaching other sacred sites or the general recommendations described here. When planning travels, we should travel in the least comfortable ways practical. We should always book coach airline tickets, not first class. Accommodations should be meager and humble. If possible, it may be beneficial to forgo comfortable beds and sleep on the hard floor during this time. If possible, we should walk rather than relying upon vehicles. This makes the pilgrimage a task that requires greater effort on our part. Of course, the more effort we put into a spiritual practice like pilgrimage, the more we will get out of it. Wearing tilakam and traditional clothing like dhoti or saree helps remind ourselves and others that we are on a spiritual journey and will not be distracted by worldly things. Some people in India conduct pilgrimages, traveling hundreds of kilometers, prostrating every step of the way. Obviously, we need not take the practice to this extreme, but we will tend to benefit from implementing the full extent of austerity we can endure. We test ourselves during pilgrimage and expand our capacities by the grace of God. By living in a very austere way, we find little enjoyment from the pleasures of the world around us. This naturally encourages us to go within.
"Temples are traditionally kept very dark and illuminated only with dim, natural ghee or oil lamps. This helps us to favor the vision of the third eye, so that we can see and feel the presence of the Devas in the inner realms. "
People see ghosts more often at night. Why? This is because it is harder to see in the dark of night. When we cannot rely as much on our physical senses, we tend naturally to rely more upon our intuition and spiritual vision. This is why we see spiritual beings like ghosts more easily at night. This is also why the inner sanctums of sacred Temples are traditionally kept very dark and illuminated only with dim, natural ghee or oil lamps. This helps us to favor the vision of the third eye, so that we can see and feel the presence of the Devas in the inner realms. When we do not find the stimulation or fulfillment we are looking for through the normal external means, we naturally seek inner things instead. We should remember this concept when planning for a pilgrimage and be like a miser when planning for the provision of physical comforts. An austere physical experience helps to enrich the spiritual experience of a pilgrimage.
We should not be miserly in our support of the sacred site of pilgrimage, however. For this, we should plan to spend lavishly to please the Deity. God does not need anything from us, but God is pleased by selfless and generous acts which help to reduce egoism. Throughout the year, we should save a little money each month to be donated. When we receive the blessings of that sacred site, we should give as much as we can in return. Giving dakshinam is generally necessary to open a channel to connect us to receive the blessings of a sacred teertham. Donations help to support the maintenance of that sacred site. In this way, we offset any harm our visit does to the sanctity of that place.
Each time a devotee visits a sacred site, they receive a little of the spiritual energy there and they leave a little of their worldly energy. Over time, the energy of thousands of pilgrims begins to wear away at the sacred energy of a site. To revitalize and maintain its sanctity certain rituals must be performed. This requires many resources which are acquired through the donations of the pilgrims who visit these sites. Giving something for God and for the caretakers of that sacred site is important. We must not judge those caretakers and think “the managers of this Temple are corrupt.” It is not our place to judge or worry about such things. We must understand that all people have some selfish tendencies and faults, but these people are the ones ordained by God to maintain that sacred space. For their efforts to do so, without which we could not receive the blessings of that sacred place, we owe them a great deal of gratitude.
Even if we are denied entrance to a sacred site upon arrival (which is not uncommon especially for Western travelers to certain very orthodox Temples in India like Pashupatinath, Kamakshi, or Guruvayor), we should view this as the Divine will of the Lord and happily receive blessings from the Deity from wherever we are allowed to. We need not enter into the inner sanctum or touch the physical image to receive blessings. Though this practice is often permitted in North India, it is largely forbidden in South India. The Deity is beyond the physical form of a murti in the inner sanctum of a Temple and the shakti of the Deity pervades the whole vicinity of the Temple complex and a great distance around it in most cases. It is the process of pilgrimage which blesses us and connects us with the Divine.
As we travel, we should keep God in mind. Small obstacles may arise along with a purging of negative thoughts and emotions. Maybe when a person goes to drive to the airport, they accidentally close their finger in the car door and experience an intense flood of emotion. There are no accidents when we are on pilgrimage. This experience had been necessary for us to release the negative mental patterns which were preventing us from receiving grace. I have seen this kind of thing many times with people traveling to sacred Temples and have seen it also with people traveling to the humble Devi Temple we maintain in Virginia. Sometimes a bus or train is delayed. Other times an automobile breaks down. In rare cases, I have seen people experience serious injury. Only the most determined make it to a sacred Temple. We should not let such obstacles deter us from our pilgrimage. Even when the travel seems impossible, we should maintain faith in God and remain determined.
I witnessed one young man traveling to our temple on his motorcycle. He was hit by a car and was in a coma for over a year. When he awoke and was released from the hospital, he continued his journey and arrived successfully. This is the kind of resolve we should have to successfully complete a pilgrimage. Even if arriving at the planned time is not possible for some reason, we should feel that we have not had the grace to complete the journey as scheduled and continue to plan for the future. These kinds of experiences are all a part of the process. Small obstacles arise to help free us from bigger obstacles in life. The more mindful we are, the more we will feel these samskaras being purged and the less we will require intense experiences to facilitate their release. We should always focus on the light of God, but we must be sincere and courageous to face the doubts and negative feelings that may be purged through the process. The more darkness we can give up, the more light we can absorb from a sacred site once we arrive. We must take the needed time to feel any intense emotions that arise through the process. That is all we need to do; feel them. We should not analyze them or try to understand them or speak of them or act on them. If we can witness them with detachment, they pass and we are free from them. This is the real austerity for which all the outer experiences prepare us.
As we begin to near any great sacred site, it will be possible to feel the shakti of that place working on us. We may feel negative emotions being purged from the subconscious. We may feel blissful or tranquil states of mind. We may feel energies shifting in the body. We may experience pounding of the heart or along the spine. We should try to remain very mindful and practice feeling the spiritual presence of that sacred site. This allows us to deepen the experience. It is much easier to see and feel spiritual things in the proximity of a sacred site. Upon arriving at such a place, it is not uncommon for a person to feel heavy, to begin weeping uncontrollably, to begin giggling uncontrollably, to begin sweating profusely, to feel tingling sensations, to hear Divine voices, or for the hair to stand on end. Sometimes a person may feel somewhat ill as the body purges physical toxins. It is possible that a person may lose their appetite in the powerful energy of a sacred site. These experiences are nothing to worry about. The pull of gravity is more intense in such a place and the workings of spiritual energy there are quite powerful. If we pay careful attention, it should be possible for most to notice some of these signs or others which demonstrate that the sacred site is working on them.
One time I took one young student to the “Chidambaram” Samadhi Shrine of Swami Satchidananda here in Virginia. He prepared himself for some weeks before the trip, fasting and chanting mantras. I encouraged him to open himself to the energy of that master. When we got within 50 miles of the Temple, I could feel its shakti working on us. I could see it was working on him. Encouraging him to pay attention to the experience, I asked him if he could feel anything. He tried to feel and then said “No, I don’t feel anything.” I encouraged him to have faith that he would experience something, saying: “It is an extremely powerful experience to go see a master. I feel confident you will feel something as we get closer.” When we were a few miles away, I felt the shakti intensely. I felt a pulsation around the heart and I could see the energy filling the aura of this young student. Again I asked him if he felt anything. After stopping to feel, he said “No.” I said, “Do not worry. I feel certain when we arrive that you will feel something. People experience the shakti in different ways. Be open to the experience.”
When we parked at the parking lot for the Samadhi shrine, the energy was very powerful. I said to him, “The aura of such a powerful master is very large. We are within the master’s aura now. Surely you must feel something now?” He took some time to meditate and said “No, I still don’t feel anything.” We still had to walk up a hill to arrive at the actual shrine. I just suggested that perhaps he would feel more as we got closer to the Temple. We walked up the stairs carved into the hill to the shrine and stood outside looking in through a glass window. I said “Now we are here, surely you must feel something.” He looked frustrated and said “No. I do not feel anything. You tricked me. You made me believe that I would feel something coming here and I don’t feel a thing.” I said “Well, let’s go inside and sit and meditate with the master.” We took off our shoes to enter the sacred Temple and opened the door. As soon as he stepped into the room, he fell to the ground and started screaming “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” I laughed and said “Breathe. You will be fine. It seems you have felt something after all.” Then I carried him to the shoe room as not to disturb others meditating in the Temple and helped him to sit in a chair and brought him a cup of water. After about 10 minutes he regained his composure and we re-entered the temple to sit and meditate for a while. We had a very nice meditation and then drove 3 hours home. After the meditation, this man reported that he had been spoken to by Swami Satchidananda through the grave and that Swamiji answered several important questions he had had for some time.
These kinds of experiences are possible whenever we visit any sacred site. The saints and Devas speak to us through such sites. Sometimes spiritual initiations are received when visiting such a site. The results of our spiritual practice often come to fruition in such a sacred place and shifts that had not been possible in consciousness occur spontaneously. The powerful Temples in India where pujas and yajnas have been offered daily for many centuries are uniquely powerful. I have heard and seen many amazing things at these sacred places. People who are sick miraculously become well. People who are dumb, become eloquent. The lame walk. And the sinners become pious. This is the mystical power of these sacred Temples. There are many signs along the way of the power of transformation acting through these sacred sites. If a person practices enough, if they work to overcome the doubts and setbacks, if they maintain faith, and develop the will to allow themselves to experience the Divine presence, they will experience it.
We should always go toward a pilgrimage with the intention of deepening our experience of the Divine presence. Even if we go there with a desire for some worldly benefit, it will always deepen the blessing if we can see or feel the grace flowing to us. We must practice sitting in silence and feeling. In silence, we do not judge or resist. Whatever we experience is what we are meant to experience. We take a break from being in control and offer that responsibility to the Lord. We can pray to the Lord to help us to see and we can practice. Not everyone will have such profound seeming experiences immediately. This is why my guru had recommended that we do a practice at home every day, and that we empower that practice further by visiting a local temple weekly and by traveling to a sacred temple somewhere distant each year.
After the experience, we return home with a lot of shakti. This will pass through us to people we know or encounter. We carry the blessing of the Devas associated with that sacred site to various people we meet. We may feel that our minds are in an elevated state, and being around us will elevate others. Yet, in time, the routine of daily life brings our consciousness back down.
We can deepen and extend the experience and keep it with us longer in several ways. One is to remain mindful of the shakti of that sacred space. Such blessings often continue to unfold for weeks or even months after the actual experience of visiting a sacred teertham. The more we remain aware of these energies working on us, the deeper the experience will be. We can bring some of the energy of that sacred site into our home shrine by lighting a ghee lamp upon returning home. This helps the Devas to transfer those spiritual energies into the home altar. Many times, it will be possible to receive some sort of prasad or items that have been blessed in that sacred place.
We must always remember that the outer journey is symbolic of the journey within ourselves. There will be trials and setbacks and delays. These are important lessons along the path. They make us aware of what has bound us so that we can become free from it. Such obstacles bring with them spiritual experiences that foster great faith. Unique experiences become possible when we step away from our routines and travel to distant and unique places. This is the unique power of pilgrimage to free us. It is ironic that it is often necessary to travel halfway across the continent, or the world, to find what is within us. But we get so stuck in the routines of our mundane lives that sometimes it is very useful to step out of that role to expand our awareness.
Certain powerful sites throughout the world have been established by the grace of God and the efforts of the saints and priests to facilitate people’s spiritual enlightenment. In ego, we remain bound. We must seek something beyond our ego, and grace must flow from beyond to untie the knots of ego which prevent our liberation. In time, with practice, we see that everything is within ourselves. Until then, we must beg for grace and mercy to descend upon us. We must call to God as if he were distant, because we have made ourselves distant from the realization that God is within. Because we feel God is very far away, traveling halfway across the world is a great way to help us feel close to God. Whatever we feel we need to be bound by, we will remain bound by, until we decide to take the necessary steps to become free. Each step in a sacred pilgrimage is a major stride toward our liberation from disease, delusion, suffering, ignorance, and all that binds us.