Tirthayātrā

From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

By Swami Harshananda

Sometimes transliterated as: Tirthayatra, TirthayAtrA, Tirthayaatraa


Tirthayātrā literally means ‘going to holy places,’ ‘pilgrimage’.

Tirthayātrā or going to holy places or pilgrimage plays an extremely important part in a person’s life. Whereas the places of pilgrimage of other religions are mostly connected with the lives of their founders, those of religion have the primary aim of elevating the minds of pilgrims to higher spiritual levels.

Locations of Pilgrim Places in India

These pilgrim centers 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 Puri 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. Even the places associated with great saints and religious leaders of the historical period are also taken into consideration.

Alternative of Vedic Sacrifices

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:

  1. Pujās - ritualistic worship
  2. Homas - oblations into consecrated fires associated with popular deities
  3. Vratas - religious vows
  4. Tīrtha- yātras - pilgrimages

These were eulogized as easy to perform but giving equally good and quick results.

Literature

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:

  1. Krtya-kalpataru of Lakṣmīdhara[1]
  2. Caturvargacintāmani of Hemādri[2]
  3. Tirthacintāmani of Vācaspati[3]
  4. Tīrthasāra of Dalapati[4]
  5. Tristhallsetu of Nārāyaṇabhaṭṭa[5]

Apart from these, there are separate treatises on individual places like Gayā and Puri also.

Purpose of Tirthayātrā

As Referred in Scriptures

Tirthayātrā has been listed as one of the sāmānyadharmas[6] by some of the scriptures like the Viṣṇudharmasuktas.[7] It is supposed to destroy one’s sins, give religious merit and result in purity of mind. Even the Ṛgveda[8] 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.

As per General Reference

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’ is
"Tīryate anena iti tīrthaiṅ, sarnsārasāgarataraṇopāya-bhṅtaiii; ‘that by which it is crossed, that which helps in crossing the ocean of trans-migratory existence, is tīrtha
also points towards this conclusion. That is why when people visit these places with the right attitude, they are immensely benefited.

Classification of Tirthas

As per Brahmapurāṇa

The Brahmapurāṇa[9] classifies the tīrthas or places of pilgrimage into four groups:

  1. Daiva tirthas are those that are created by gods.
  2. Āsura tirthas are those associated with asuras or demons, like Gaya.
  3. Ārsa tirthas are those established by ṛṣis or sages, like Prabhāsa and Nara-Nārāyaṇa.
  4. Mānuṣa tirthas are those created by human beings, kings like Ambariṣa, Manu and Kuru.

These four are assigned to the four yugas:[10]

  1. Kṛta
  2. Tretā
  3. Dvāpara
  4. Kali

However, this classification does not have much relevance to us today.

Eligibility for Tirthayātrā

One of the questions that has often been discussed in the purāṇas and the dharmaśāstras is that of adhikāra or eligibility for tirthayātrā. This had probably become necessary because study of the Vedas and performance of the Vedic rituals had been restricted only to the dvijas.[11]

Unlike the study of the Vedas or performance of the Vedic rituals, taking recourse to tirthayātrā is open to all human beings irrespective of their caste, status or condition.[12] 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 forefathers and descendants.[13]

Such hyperbolic eulogy was obviously meant to induce even the common folk to undertake tirthayātrā. Notwithstanding such liberal statements, some primary rules had also been imposed on those intending to perform it. For instance:
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.

Ethical Life, a Precondition

Despite eulogizing tirthayātrā 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 tirthayātrā with faith, repent for their misdeeds and resolve not to repeat them, will definitely be benefited by it.[14]

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 is ‘tīrtha’ itself since they are conducive to purity of mind. These virtues are:

  1. Jñāna - scriptural knowledge
  2. Kṣamā - forgiveness
  3. Dayā - compassion
  4. Dama - self-control

So also the company of holy persons.[15]

Recommended Procedure

The purāṇas and the dharmaśāstras have laid down the procedure to be followed in tirthayātrā. The same may be briefly summarized 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.

Pratinidhi System

In the olden days, it was a lifetime’s ambition for every devoted person 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.

For the benefit of such persons, the treatises on tirthayātrā 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 rites like bathing in the river Gaṅgā on his behalf also. After reaching the Gaṅgā river, the pilgrim prepares an image of straw[16] 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.[17]

Epilogue

Tirthayātrā or pilgrimage to holy places has been an integral part of a person’s religious life. If people, both in the ancient and in the medieval periods, were prepared to face all the 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 people throughout the country.

Along 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 fervor our forefathers had.


References

  1. He lived in 12th Century A. D.
  2. He lived in 13th Century A. D.
  3. He lived in 15th Century A. D.
  4. He lived in circa A. D. 1490
  5. He lived in A.D. 1570
  6. Sāmānyadharmas means universal or common duties.
  7. Viṣṇudharmasuktas 2.16, 17
  8. Ṛgveda 10.75 khila
  9. Brahmapurāṇa 70.16-19
  10. Brahmapurāṇa 175.31-32
  11. Dvijas are the ‘twice-bom’ classes, viz., the members of the first three castes.
  12. Matsyapurāṇa 184.66, 67
  13. Vāmanapurāṇa 36.78, 79
  14. Vāyupurāṇa 77.125
  15. These holy persons referred here are the devotees of God Vāsudeva.
  16. Straw is the kuśa-grass.
  17. Atrismrti 50 and 51
  • The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore