Places of Pilgrimage
Every spiritual tradition recognizes some places as holy. Visit to such places, connected with specific behavior, is considered to be spiritually purifying and constitutes an important part of spiritual practice. There are regular festivals connected with the history of these places and many pilgrims take part in celebrations. This is seen as even more beneficial than visit in other times.
The biggest festival of all is known as Kumbha Mela. It is celebrated on four holy places in India every four years (called Ardha Kumbha Mela) and every twelfth year there is the famous Maha (Great) Kumbha Mela near Prayag (Allahabad) on the confluence of three holy rivers - Ganges, Yamuna and the hidden Sarasvati. Estimated 30-70 millions of pilgrims take part, thus making it the biggest spiritual gathering on earth.
Holy place, or place of pilgrimage, is called tirtha ("ford") because there one can cross the the stream of samsara (cycle of birth and death in this material world) and reach the spiritual dimension. Even a simple stay in such place has a purifying effect which can be increased by following specific spiritual practices. To die there or even on one's way there assures one a great spiritual benefit up to the liberation from the material world. Thus pilgrimage continues to be an important part of life of people in India. In the West the pilgrimage was recently replaced by tourism.
The holy places are described in the scriptures in detail with their spiritual characteristics. They are usually rivers (Ganges, Yamuna), lakes (Puskara, Radhakunda), mountains (Abu, Sri Saila), forests (Dandakaranya, Naimisaranya), cities (Varanasi, Ayodhya), and places of appearance, life and disappearance of Lord's avataras, demigods or important spiritual personalities. There are many tirthas in India and neighboring countries visited yearly by millions of pilgrims. In the places like Ahovalam, Alalanatha, Bhuvanesvara, Gaya, Guruvayur, Jiyada-nrsimha, Kurma-sthana, Kuruksetra, Tirupati etc. exist important temples and facilities for pilgrims. Holy places in another countries connected with other spiritual traditions (Jerusalem, Mecca, etc.) can be also called tirthas having the same nature.
Dhama ("abode of the Lord") is another type of holy place, more important than tirtha. It designates an area where the Lord's spiritual abode is manifested in the material world - on this or other planets. Tirtha and dhama are differentiated e.g. in SB 10.87.35 (tirtha-sadanani).
Brhad Bhagavatamrta 1.2.94: "The Supreme Personality of Godhead Krsna becomes conquered by the loving service of devotees like myself, and for this reason He resides on my planet, on Svargaloka, and in many other places as well, and enjoys suitable pastimes there. (In the same way Siva resides in Kailasa because of the devotion of Kuvera.)"
The scriptures mention four dhamas - Badarikasrama (Badrinatha) in Himalayas, Jagannatha Puri (Purusottama-ksetra), Ramesvaram and Dvaraka. As even higher are celebrated Vraja-dhama (Vrndavana, Mathura) and Mayapura-dhama (Navadvipa). The glories of the dhamas are collected in the scriptures called mahatmyas (Mathura-mahatmya, Dvaraka-mahatmya, Navadvipa-mahatmya).
"My Lord, devotees like your good self are verily holy places personified. Because you carry the Personality of Godhead within your heart, you turn all places into places of pilgrimage." (SB 1.13.10)
The Personality of Godhead is omnipresent by His diverse potencies everywhere, just as the power of electricity is distributed everywhere within space. Similarly, the Lord's omnipresence is perceived and manifested by His unalloyed devotees like Vidura, just as electricity is manifested in an electric bulb. A pure devotee like Vidura always feels the presence of the Lord everywhere. He sees everything in the potency of the Lord and the Lord in everything. The holy places all over the earth are meant for purifying the polluted consciousness of the human being by an atmosphere surcharged with the presence of the Lord's unalloyed devotees. If anyone visits a holy place, he must search out the pure devotees residing in such holy places, take lessons from them, try to apply such instructions in practical life and thus gradually prepare oneself for the ultimate salvation, going back to Godhead. To go to some holy place of pilgrimage does not mean only to take a bath in the Ganges or Yamuna or to visit the temples situated in those places. One should also find representatives of Vidura who have no desire in life save and except to serve the Personality of Godhead. The Personality of Godhead is always with such pure devotees because of their unalloyed service, which is without any tinge of fruitive action or utopian speculation. They are in the actual service of the Lord, specifically by the process of hearing and chanting. The pure devotees hear from the authorities and chant, sing and write of the glories of the Lord. Mahamuni Vyasadeva heard from Narada, and then he chanted in writing; Sukadeva Gosvami studied from his father, and he described it to Pariksit; that is the way of Srimad-Bhagavatam. So by their actions the pure devotees of the Lord can render any place into a place of pilgrimage, and the holy places are worth the name only on their account. Such pure devotees are able to rectify the polluted atmosphere of any place, and what to speak of a holy place rendered unholy by the questionable actions of interested persons who try to adopt a professional life at the cost of the reputation of a holy place.
"By his piety, Vidura achieved the advantages of the pious Kauravas. After leaving Hastinapura, he took shelter of many places of pilgrimages, which are the Lord's lotus feet. With a desire to gain a high order of pious life, he traveled to holy places where thousands of transcendental forms of the Lord are situated." (SB 3.1.17)
(...) Places of pilgrimages are meant for eradicating the sins of the pilgrims, and they are distributed all over the universe just to give facility to all concerned for attaining pure existence and God realization. One should not be satisfied, however, merely by visiting the places of pilgrimage and performing one's prescribed duties; he should be eager to meet the great souls who are already there, engaged in the service of the Lord. In each and every place of pilgrimage, the Lord is present in His various transcendental forms.
These forms are called arca-murtis, or forms of the Lord which can be easily appreciated by the common man. The Lord is transcendental to our mundane senses. He cannot be seen with our present eyes, nor can He be heard with our present ears. To the degree that we have entered into the service of the Lord or to the proportion to which our lives are freed from sins, we can perceive the Lord. But even though we are not free from sins, the Lord is kind enough to allow us the facility of seeing Him in His arca-murtis in the temple. The Lord is all-powerful, and therefore He is able to accept our service by presentation of His arca form. No one, therefore, should foolishly think the arca in the temple to be an idol. Such an arca-murti is not an idol but the Lord Himself, and to the proportion to which one is free from sins, he is able to know the significance of the arca-murti. The guidance of a pure devotee is therefore always required.
In the land of Bharatavarsa there are many hundreds and thousands of places of pilgrimage distributed all over the country, and by traditional practice the common man visits such holy places during all seasons of the year. Some of the arca representations of the Lord situated in different places of pilgrimage are mentioned herewith. The Lord is present at Mathura (the birthplace of Lord Krsna) as Adi-kesava; the Lord is present at Puri (Orissa) as Lord Jagannatha (also known as Purusottama); He is present at Allahabad (Prayaga) as Bindu-madhava; at Mandara Hill He is present as Madhusudana. In the Anandaranya, He is known as Vasudeva, Padmanabha and Janardana; at Visnukanci, He is known as Visnu; and at Mayapura, He is known as Hari. There are millions and billions of such arca forms of the Lord distributed all over the universe. All these arca-murtis are summarized in the Caitanya-caritamrta in the following words:
sarvatra prakasa tanra--bhakte sukha dite
jagatera adharma nasi 'dharma sthapite
"The Lord has so distributed Himself all over the universe just to give pleasure to the devotees, to give the common man facility to eradicate his sins, and to establish religious principles in the world."
"Dear Lord, Your personal associates, devotees, wander all over the world to purify even the holy places of pilgrimage. Is not such activity pleasing to those who are actually afraid of material existence?" (SB 4.30.37)
"Narada Muni continued: Now I shall describe the places where religious performances may be well executed. Any place where a Vaisnava is available is an excellent place for all auspicious activities. The Supreme Personality of Godhead is the support of this entire cosmic manifestation, with all its moving and nonmoving living entities, and the temple where the Deity of the Lord is installed is a most sacred place. Furthermore, places where learned brahmanas observe Vedic principles by means of austerity, education and mercy are also most auspicious and sacred." (SB 7.14.27-28)
"Auspicious indeed are the places where there is a temple of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krsna, in which He is duly worshiped, and also the places where there flow the celebrated sacred rivers mentioned in the Puranas, the supplementary Vedic literatures. Anything spiritual done there is certainly very effective." (SB 7.14.29)
muhUrtaM vA muhUrtArdhaM yas tiSThed dhari-mandire
Asa yAti paramaM sthAnaM kim u zuzrUSaNe ratAH ||141||
It is said in the NAradIya PurANa: If one remains in the temple of the Lord for one muhUrta (48 minutes) or even half of a muhUrta, he goes to the supreme abode. What then to speak of the person engaged in the paricaryA of the Lord? (Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu 1.2.141)
Going to the Temple of ViSNu or to Places of Pilgrimage
It is stated in the PurANas, "Persons who attempt to visit the holy places of pilgrimage, like VRndAvana, MathurA or DvArakA, are actually glorified. By such traveling activities, they can pass over the desert of material existence."
In the Hari-bhakti-sudhodaya there is a statement about the benefit of visiting the temples of Lord KRSNa. As we have explained previously, in VRndAvana, MathurA and DvArakA the system is that all the devotees take advantage of visiting various temples situated in those holy places. It is stated in the Hari-bhakti-sudhodaya, "Persons who are impelled by pure devotional service in KRSNa consciousness and who therefore go to see the Deities of ViSNu in the temple will surely get relief from entering again into the prison house of a mother's womb." The conditioned soul forgets the trouble of living within the mother's womb during birth, but it is a very painful and terrible experience. In order to make an escape from this material condition, one is advised to visit a temple of ViSNu with devotional consciousness. Then one can very easily get out of the miserable condition of material birth. (BRS/Nectar of Devotion, ch. 9)
"Then, given leave by the sages, the Lord went with a contingent of brahmanas to the Kausiki River, where He bathed. From there He went to the lake from which flows the river Sarayu.
"The Lord followed the course of the Sarayu until He came to Prayaga, where He bathed and then performed rituals to propitiate the demigods and other living beings. Next He went to the asrama of Pulaha Rsi. [also known as Hari-ksetra]
"Lord Balarama bathed in the Gomati, Gandaki and Vipasa rivers, and also immersed Himself in the Sona. He went to Gaya, where He worshiped His forefathers, and to the mouth of the Ganges, where He performed purifying ablutions. At Mount Mahendra He saw Lord Parasurama and offered Him prayers, and then He bathed in the seven branches of the Godavari River, and also in the rivers Vena, Pampa and Bhimarathi. Then Lord Balarama met Lord Skanda and visited Sri Saila, the abode of Lord Girisa. In the southern provinces known as Dravida-desa the Supreme Lord saw the sacred Venkata Hill, as well as the cities of Kamakosni and Kanci, the exalted Kaveri River and the most holy Sri-ranga, where Lord Krsna has manifested Himself. From there He went to Rsabha Mountain, where Lord Krsna also lives, and to the southern Mathura. Then He came to Setubandha, where the most grievous sins are destroyed.
"There at Setubandha (Ramesvaram) Lord Halayudha gave brahmanas ten thousand cows in charity. He then visited the Krtamala and Tamraparni rivers and the great Malaya Mountains. In the Malaya range Lord Balarama found Agastya Rsi sitting in meditation. After bowing down to the sage, the Lord offered him prayers and then received blessings from him. Taking leave from Agastya, He proceeded to the shore of the southern ocean, where He saw Goddess Durga in her form of Kanya-kumari.
"Next He went to Phalguna-tirtha and bathed in the sacred Pancapsara Lake, where Lord Visnu had directly manifested Himself. At this place He gave away another ten thousand cows.
"The Supreme Lord then traveled through the kingdoms of Kerala and Trigarta, visiting Lord Siva's sacred city of Gokarna, where Lord Dhurjati (Siva) directly manifests himself. After also visiting Goddess Parvati, who dwells on an island, Lord Balarama went to the holy district of Surparaka and bathed in the Tapi, Payosni and Nirvindhya rivers. He next entered the Dandaka forest and went to the river Reva, along which the city of Mahismati is found. Then He bathed at Manu-tirtha and finally returned to Prabhasa." (SB 10.79.9-21)
Holy places visited by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu Himself are held in a great esteem among the Gaudiya Vaisnavas. They are listed in the summary of Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya-lila, Chapter Nine "Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu's Travels to the Holy Places":
"A summary of the Ninth Chapter is given by Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura. After leaving Vidyanagara, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu visited such places of pilgrimage as Gautami-ganga, Mallikarjuna, Ahovala-nrsimha, Siddhavata, Skanda-ksetra, Trimatha, Vrddhakasi, Bauddha-sthana, Tripati, Trimalla, Pana-nrsimha, Siva-kanci, Visnu-kanci, Trikala-hasti, Vrddhakola, Siyali-bhairavi, Kaveri-tira and Kumbhakarna-kapala. Finally the Lord went to Sri Ranga-ksetra, where He converted a brahmana named Vyenkata Bhatta, who, along with his family, became a devotee of Krsna. After leaving Sri Ranga, Caitanya Mahaprabhu reached Rsabha-parvata, where He met Paramananda Puri, who later arrived at Jagannatha Puri. Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu then proceeded farther, arriving at Setubandha Ramesvara. At Sri Saila-parvata, the Lord met Lord Siva and his wife Durga in the dress of a brahmana and brahmani. From there He went to Kamakothi-puri and later arrived at southern Mathura. A brahmana devotee of Lord Ramacandra talked with Him. Then the Lord took His bath in the River Krtamala. On the hill known as Mahendra-saila, the Lord saw Parasurama. Then the Lord went to Setubandha and took His bath at Dhanus-tirtha. He also visited Ramesvara, where He collected some papers connected with Sitadevi, whose illusory form was kidnapped by Ravana. The Lord next visited the places known as Pandya-desa, Tamraparni, Nayatripadi, Ciyadatala, Tilakanci, Gajendra-moksana, Panagadi, Camtapura, Sri Vaikuntha, Malaya-parvata and Kanya-kumari. The Lord then met the Bhattatharis at Mallara-desa and saved Kala Krsnadasa from their clutches. The Lord also collected Brahma-samhita, Fifth Chapter, on the banks of the Payasvini River. He then visited Payasvini, Srngavera-puri-matha and Matsya-tirtha. At the village of Udupi, He saw the Gopala installed by Sri Madhvacarya. He then defeated the Tattvavadis in sastric conversation. The Lord next visited Phalgu-tirtha, Tritakupa, Pancapsara, Surparaka and Kolapura. At Sri Rangapuri the Lord received news of Sankararanya's disappearance. He then went to the banks of the Krsnavenva River, where He collected from among the Vaisnava brahmanas a book written by Bilvamangala, Krsna-karnamrta. The Lord then visited Tapti, Mahismati-pura, Narmada-tira and Rsyamuka-parvata. He entered Dandakaranya and liberated the seven palm trees. From there He visited a place known as Pampa-sarovara and visited Pancavati, Nasika, Brahmagiri and also the source of the Godavari River, Kusavarta. Thus the Lord visited almost all the holy places in South India. He finally returned to Jagannatha Puri by taking the same route, after visiting Vidyanagara again."
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