Comunitŕ di Sant

On the Frontiers of Dialogue:
Religions and Civilization in the New Century

International Meeting Peoples and Religions - Barcelona 2-3-4 september 2001

 September 4, Tuesday
Saló del Palau Centelles-Solferino
The pilgrimage in the different religious traditions

Swami Amaranandaji
Ramakrishna Vedanda Center,India


In all religions there are places of pilgrimage in spite of the fact that they admit that God or the ultimate reality is omnipresent. There is a hymn of which the authorship is attributed to Vyasa. Vyasa begs pardon of God on account of certain mistakes in his spiritual practice: God is everywhere, yet he has undertaken pilgrimage; and the essence of God is indicible, yet he has composed verses in praise of Him. Vyasa , we may presume, does not mean that he has really blundered. He wants to impress upon us that we should not forget the ultimate reality even though our limited minds, during the spiritual practice, fail to climb towards the dizzy pinnacle.

Why do people, from the hoary past down to the present age, continue to visit places of worship? Is not the Truth present or attainable outside the premises of a kind of temple or church? Have not many men and women, for example Upanishadic sages, Buddha, Mahavira and mystics in the Abrahamic religions contemplated the sublime verities of the spiritual domain without being in front of a templed deity or in a place of public worship? The clue to such riddles are there in the ancient philosophies of India—Samkhya, Yoga-darshana and Vedanta.

These philosophies assert that mind is matter, because mind is changeable, objectifiable and capable of commingling with even gross matter. As energy is a special version of matter, so thought, volition and feeling are special versions of the subtle matter having many psychical qualities and having the popular nomenclature mind. Volition and feeling attach themselves to objects in the area where they arise. I shall give you a few illustrations to support this point.

Swami Vivekananda was the guest of three Mead sisters in the western coast of the USA a little more than a century ago. One of the sisters became later Mrs. Wycoff through marriage. Mrs. Wycoff suffered in her old age from a severe migraine. Once in a moment of suffering she leaned against the mantelpiece; she unconsciously took hold of a tiny memento left by the Swami who had left this world many years ago. Soon she began to rub her head with the memento. She was startled by the voice of the Swami who assured her of an instantaneous relief and she was cured.

Thirty-four years ago I stayed a few months in a certain obscure village of the Bihar state of India to serve the famished people around. From my cottage I used to slip away every morning to meditate in a forest. I was amazed to have a deep meditation without fail each morning. I knew that my evolution of mind was not so great that I could merit such a prize at my early youth in the midst of hectic relief operations. Later on I discovered that the small rivulet where I used to take bath is Buddha’s Nairanjanâ river and that the place is only 28 miles from the holiest spot of Buddhism. I could well visualize Buddhist monks of the past sitting in meditation in the forest where I used to go. Then only I got the reason behind my deep meditation in a particular forest.

I conducted once an experiment which for me was enough verification that mind can be glued to matter. Once we accept that thought and feeling can impregnate materials around them, we shall find easily the rationale behind erecting a place of public worship or the coming into being of a spot of pilgrimage or behind the worship of relics of God-men. The philosopher-cum-mystic Râmânuja said that a special divine presence comes to haunt a representation of God made of clay, stone, metal etc. He called it archâvatâra ( God’s descent in something worshipped). Most pilgrims undertake pilgrimage because they believe that pilgrimage will give them religious benefit, others with lukewarm devotion go to these places with a touristy attitude. But there are also others who visit these places just to reap the benefit of the spiritual thoughts which have imbued everything around. I have visited holy places of many religions in and outside India; I have found sincere pilgrims in all religions.

Is it possible to make this impregnating spiritual principle gradually inactive in a place of worship or pilgrimage? I think it is possible. If there is a great presence continually of criminals outnumbering sincere seekers of spirituality in such places, then the erosion we are talking about, will take place. Again, the feeble devotion of a person whose mind is very unclean, does not produce any appreciable effect due to pilgrimage. Do you remember that Jesus was in an angry mood on seeing the money-changers in front of the synagogue? This anger against what is unjust, has been called Many in Vedic texts and the Vedas teach us to covet this quality. Jesus was angry to discover that the spiritual vibration generated by devotees was being marred by the spirit of commerce.

In Sanskrit a place of pilgrimage is called tirtha. An Indian Purana addresses the following words to a great yogi: “ God-men like you have become as effective as tirthas. By the power of God who specially reside in your minds, you impart holiness to tirthas”.

There are wandering people in India who very frequently visit tithes. All scriptures of the Hindus agree that without being spiritually serious, such a habit is counter-productive. The Shiva-Samhitâ goes to the extent of declaring that pilgrimage and many activities popularly known to bring religious merit are hindrances to the cultivation of spirituality.

In ancient days in a vast country where pilgrimages are spread from Hinglâj (128 kms N-E of Karachi in Pakistan) to Kâmâkhyâ (Near Guwahati in eastern India), from Manas Sarovar in Tibet to Kanyâ Kumârikâ ( the southern-most tip of India), dangers and the strain involved in a comprehensive pilgrimage were enormous. An average pilgrim was likely to be under the compulsion of putting in a great effort at the risk of getting the spiritual fervour evaporated.

The law- givers in India prescribed rules for keeping up the right spirit of pilgrims.

A simple diet without any elaborate preparation is enjoined two days before the beginnig of the journey. The day before the journey one has to fast , have a shaven head and practise continence (Young wives in ancient days seldom accompanied their husbands during pilgrimage). Once you are in a tirtha, you are advised to walk bare-footed, repeat for long hours the name of God according to your choice, and give as much as you can to the poor and lead an austere life.

Most Hindus maintain a very liberal attitude towards the different cults of Hinduism. So the same pilgrim usually visits the places considered holy to the adepts of Vishnuism, Shivaism or Shakti-ism . Only one temple in India , situated in Pushkara, is dedicated to Brahmâ, the aspect of Godhead responsible for the creation of the universe. 51 places in the subcontinent are sacred for the shâktas. Though India has thousands of Shiva temples, twelve among them are very important for the Shaivas. Seven rivers are of paramount importance as tirthas to the Hindus: Gangâ, Yamunâ, Godâvari, Saraswati, Narmadâ, Sindhu and Kâveri; the fourth river has almost vanished due to tectonic movement some 50 centuries ago and the sixth river flows through Pakistan. Puranas mention thirty-three other holy rivers. A bath in them is considered purificatory. Confluences of rivers or of a river with the sea are also deemed holy popularly. The most important among the last group of tirthas is where Gangâ loses herself in the Bay of Bengal. Many Hindus visit with veneration places rendered holy due to the association of saints and also centres of pilgimage of Buddhists, Jainas and Sufis. Krishna says ( Bhâgavata Purâna X 48.31): “It is not that holy waters in tirthas or divine images in mud , stone etc. are not purifying. The purification they effect, however, is attainable only in course of a long time, but holy persons effect it at sight.” In the twentieth century, places associated with Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Aurobindo, Ramana Maharshi etc. have become tirthas visited by thousands of people every year.

In early Vedic period, the Indo-Aryans sang the glory of Saraswati by giving her the epithet of the greatest river and the greatest mother. In post-Vedic days, Gangâ came to the front. The two headsteams of Gangâ—Alaknandâ and Bhâgirathi—meet at Devaprayâg on the Himâlayas. Higher in sanctity than Devaprayâg is Gangotri near which is the the ice cave from where Bhâgirathi issues. Pilgrims go to take bath in the river bed at Gangotri at a height of 3145 m and export water from this spot to other parts of India. In a general way, about one kilometer wide land on either bank of Gangâ ( about 2500km long) is holy for orthodox Hindus. The valley between Gangâ and Yamunâ is the biggest patch of fertile land on the surface of the globe. Gangâ water contains many special minerals of great medicinal value coming from the Shivâlik range of the Himâlayas. No wonder that Gangâ is regarded by Hindus as a gift of God and as a representation of the merciful aspect of God.

On the bank of Gangâ is situated the holiest place of Hinduism, namely, Vârânasi. It is mentioned in the Mahâbhârata. It was already famous at the time of Buddha who first preached in its vicinity. This holy city used to be the meeting place of three rivers—Varunâ, Asi and Gangâ. The flow of Gangâ is generally from north to south; but near this holy city the river traces a northward path. There is hardly any great saint of India since the days of Buddha with whom Vârânasi is not associated. The last of the giant mystics who sanctified this city is Trailanga Swami who died towards the end of the nineteenth century. All doctrines enunciated by Hindu pundits had to be approved by scholars of this city. Untold millions of Hindus have come and still converge to this city to finish their sojourn on earth through worship, prayer, fast and vigil. That is why Vârânasi was seen in a vision of Sri Ramakrishna as a city made of gold. It is man’s devotion and God’s grace which render all places of pilgrimage for all religions golden.