What is a Tirthayatra?
Yatra means a journey and the term, ‘tirtha’ occurs frequently in the Rigveda and the Vedic samhitas, with contextual meanings ranging from ‘a way’ to “a ford in the river.”
Just as some parts of the human body e.g. the right hand or ear are held to be purer than others, so too some places on earth are held to be sacred. These places are considered sacred because of some wonderful natural characteristic of the place or on account of some grandeur of some water body or where the devatas and Rishis resorted to.
Tirtha blesses with punya.
The Gautama Bauddhyana Dharma Sutras and Vashishtha Dharma sutras have the same sutra stating the deshas, places that are holy and hence destroyers of paapa are all mountains, all rivers, holy lakes, places of pilgrimage, the dwellings of Rishis, cowpens and temples of the devas.
The grandeur and sublimity of snow-capped mountains, of large life -sustaining rivers and of great forests easily invoke wonder and inspire all of us to associate it with sacredness which is easily revealed in such places.
And so, tirthayatra means a pilgrimage to sacred sites, temples, rivers, mountains, lakes and places considered energetically more potent with the presence of devatas and Rishis and hence their blessings.
Tirtha also means sanctified water that is offered as prasada after a puja or a yajna. Even the places where great sages or gurus were born or had their mahasamadhi are considered tirthas.
When my beloved guru, Pujya Swami Dayananda ji was still present in the physical body, to visit him, learn with him and spend some time in his presence was a tirthyatra that I looked forward to undertaking, every 3 – 6 months. His earlier kutiya in our Arsha Vidya Gurukulam, Anaikaati has been preserved and is called guess what ‘Guru Tirtha’.
How is Tirthayatra different from a vacation or a holiday?
A regular tourist typically seeks comfort and convenience. In a vacation, we seek rest, pleasure, an indulgence of the senses, as it were, in terms of gorging on the food of the local culture, immersing oneself in the sights, sounds and having immersive experiences.
Any experience however memorable is
sense data + your engagement with the world around you+ your thoughts and emotions related to it.
The regular tourist has expanded his or her vistas thus seeking seek personal growth and peace of mind. This tourist visits places with historical, cultural, religious or natural landscapes. Activities such as meditation and yoga are included in spiritual tourism packages to enhance spiritual well-being. The destinations chosen in spiritual retreats may not be tied to a particular religious tradition. Still the trend in spiritual tourism is related to feeling good and not being inconvenienced.
On the other hand, a tirthyatra is different. A person going on tirthyatra i.e. a yatri is ready for the unexpected during a tirthyatra and does not typically seek comfort and pleasure.
The Manu Smrti and Yajnavalkya Smrti do not give as much importance to tirthyatra as do the Mahabharata and the Puranas. In the Vanaparva of the Mahabharata, a comparison is made between yajnas, ritual offerings to devatas and tirthayatras. As compared to a tirthyatra, Yajnas require a lot of material, gathering of material, the co-operation of pandits, the presence of a wife and so they can be performed only by princes or rich people. Visiting holy places is superior to yajnas. In modern day thinking, we may believe that tirthyatra is more expensive than a yajna.
The Vayu Purana states that the one who has no shraddha, who is full of paapa, whose mind is not free from doubts about the rewards of pilgrimages, who has no shraddha in Bhagavan and who is bent on illogical reasoning, does not reap the reward of a pilgrimage.
A tirthyatra is an external journey as much as it is an internal journey of shraddha, bhakti- growing love and connection with the devata, self-mastery and punya.
Why do we perform a Tirthayatra?
The many reasons Hindus perform a tirthyatra are as follows –
Expression of gratitude for answered prayers – To express gratitude to the devata for big milestones of their lives like after a wedding, after the birth of a child, after gaining a new job or after achieving a major milestone. Soon after the wedding, it was customary for traditional Hindus to go on a tirthayatra, visiting temples on the insistence of the elders instead of the honeymoon. Not that one is opposed to the other. Both are important.
Darshanam of devata as a part of mantra sadhana – We perform a tirthyatra to seek blessings as a part of the sadhana of a particular devata.
For instance, if one has been chanting the Panchakshari mantra for Shiva, then after an x amount of repetitions has been reached, one goes to a Shiva temple to have devata darshanam, express gratitude and seek blessings.
Performing rituals related to Hindu samskaaras – We go on a tirthyatra to conduct rituals which are a part of the essential samskaaras or sacraments that mark the rites of purification for a Hindu.
Some examples –
Mundan ceremony (tonsuring the head) of the child in a temple or by the river bank when 3 years old;
Initiating the child into learning, by conducting the Vidya arambham ceremony of having the child carve out Om or a sacred symbol with her finger in a plate of rice in a Devi temple.
Performing the ritual of Vivaah, Hindu wedding blessed by devatas in a sacred place, long before the trend of destination weddings.
Scattering and immersing the dead body’s ashes after cremation in sacred waters and conducting the cremation in places like Kashi.
Undertake vratas – We perform a tirthyatra to make a vow or a vrata. We seek blessings for success and prosperity and promise the devata that when the desired situation is achieved through the devata’s blessings only then, will one return to that temple.
For punya – A tirthyatra if done prayerfully is a series of karma which has the power to bless with tremendous punya. Given the uncertainty of human life and knowing that punya in one’s karma bank transforms into sukha, Hindus perform tirthyatras to add punya, karmic credit.
For meeting and seeking guidance from gurus, saints or teachers.
For an immersive learning experience – Earlier temples were the centre for all religious and cultural activities, including prayers, rituals, painting, sculpture, music, dance and drama. We would learn our history and connect to the glory of the past too, through stories carved in stone.
Perform prāyaścitta, atoning for one’s wrong actions – Though the Smrti lays out in great detail the specific atonements, it is not possible for us to know these and hence Gautama Sutra provides that the acts of Vedic chanting, tapas, fasting, giving may be optionally performed. Parashara says that the recitation of the Gayatri manta 10,000 times is the best atonement for all papas. Additionally, serving cows and different types of fasts such as Chandrayana are effective. This fast includes a fast for a month, in which one reduces his food by one morsel daily during the dark half of the month, and increases it during the light half,—bathing thrice a day during sandhi periods.
How is a tirthyatra done?
Practice of Shraddha and Bhakti (Trust and Devotion):
Shraddha: Pilgrims usually undertake Tirthayatra with a clear Sankalpa – prayerful request and intent. ‘I shall perform a tirthyatra to such and such a place, and I shall worship Ganesha and my favourite deities for the accomplishment of the pilgrimage without any obstacles, offer worship to Ganesha, to the nine planets and his favourite deities, then perform a Shraadha ritual offering to ancestors (if it applies), honor and give money to 3 Brahmins’.
There are 2 views, one is that the person should undertake a fast before a yatra and the other is that one fasts after reaching the yatra. Then putting on simple clothes, one stands in the direction of East and moves forward, preferably on foot. The additional sankalpa may be stated – of darshan of their loved devata, seeking blessings, expressing gratitude, fulfilling a vow (Vrata), or seeking spiritual purification. In these days where we may not be able to take too much time off for travel, we compromise and take flights but still try to walk as much as is possible while in the tirtha.
Bhakti/Devotion: Yatris or pilgrims often engage in prayers, meditation, and japa before they undertake a yatra. Since a tirthyatra involves some difficulty and one is praying to Bhagavan before and when one reaches the place, one’s shraddha increases. It is common to silently chant the mantra related to the particular tirtha while travelling or engage in bhajan/sankirtan. A lot of insights, epiphanies and transformation take place for the devotee which aids one’s bhakti further.
2. Practice of Shaucham (Physical and internal purity):
Pilgrims or Yatris observe personal cleanliness through immersing oneself in the holy waters or bathing before starting the pilgrimage, emphasising the value of shaucham, inner and outer cleanliness. A cold bath in the cold waters in the wee hours of the morning can stun anyone into stillness and stop the nonstop overthinking mind.
In the Mahabharata, Vanaparva 82.9-12 and Anushasana Parva 108.3-4- the greatest emphasis is on the cultivation of Dharmika qualities to reap the full rewards of a tirthyatra.
He whose hands, feet and mind are well controlled, who possesses knowledge, tapas and a good reputation (because of dharmika actions performed) derives the full reward of the tirthyatra. He who turns his face away from receiving gifts and is content with what little he gets and is free from vanity, obtains the rewards from tirthyatra.
He who is free from hypocrisy, is not engaged in pursuits to earn money during the pilgrimage, is not a heavy eater, has subdued his senses and is therefore free from paapa, so also he who does not fly into a rage, who always speaks the truth, who is firm in his observances, and acts towards all beings by treating them like himself obtains the full reward of pilgrimages.
The idea is that pilgrimages seem to remove the paapa of eople who do not possess the above characteristics and those who already possess them in some measure, acquire a lot more of this plus punya.
In recent times, seeing the burgeoning crowds and the corruption related to darshan of deities or the high prices of VIP tickets, many people are put off by the idea of going on a tirthyatra. And yet we can still go to meet a loved one at a crowded airport or go to a rock concert and jostle with crowds. Why? Because our focus is on us and who we love. We are going to have darshan in the tirthayatra and we drown out the noise.
Practice of Vratas and Tapas (Vows and Austerities):
Pilgrims might take vows associated with the Tirthayatra, committing to certain practices or behaviors during the journey. Fulfilling these vows is considered significant.
Some pilgrims voluntarily practice austerities, which may include dietary restrictions such as giving up grain or a particular vegetable, fasting, tonsuring the head or cutting the hair, taking a dip in the river every day, sleeping on the floor, not shaving, wearing simple clothing and living a frugal lifestyle by deliberately avoiding certain comforts.
Tapas is the quintessential stepping out of your comfort zone and deliberately choosing discomfort as a way to undergo some difficulties and hence exhaust one’s paapa which often transforms into suffering. How wonderful that one can choose one’s suffering rather than have it foisted on you! Tapas gives much punya as well.
Practice of Yajna-Puja (Sacred ritual offerings) at sacred sites:
Yatris typically offer prayers, flowers, fruits, and other symbolic items at temples and sacred sites. Some people offer land, cows, gold, precious jewellery and contribute to the endowment fund of the temple.
The secular crowd often question the need for devotees to offer at the temple like milk, flowers etc. Ask them why they purchase diapers and toys for their children. They will reply because it is an expression of care.
Just like you have no business to tell anyone what they are allowed to do for their loved ones, a non-practising Hindu has no business to tell a devotee what he is allowed to offer or not to a his beloved devata/devi.
Specific pujas and yajnas are performed which may include astrological remedies of pujas at certain places to specific devatas.
Practice of Daanam, Giving
Daanam or Giving is expected to be done during tirthayatras. Every day millions of people get free food as prasada because many people contribute to Annadaanam schemes. In this world, only food and Brahmavidya can bless with fullness, so much so that one will say ‘I am full’! In all other receiving, there is scope to feel dissatisfied and feel that one was not given enough. Hence Annadaanam and Vidya daanam are considered to be exalted forms of daanam.
One ensures that one has done enquiries beforehand so that we can give generously. In a regular vacation, one expects to spend only for the service received in the tour package, while in a tirthyatra, one ‘s orientation is ‘I give because I am privileged and blessed to be in a position to do so.’
On many yatra routes, especially in the remote mountains we find choultries or places of temporary accommodation for the travelling pilgrim all managed by endowment funds. Offering donations to temples and the less fortunate blesses you with punya.
Practice of Vratas and Prayaschittas (Observance of Vows and Making amends for wrongs done):
Penance (Prāyaścitta): Some forms of prayaschitta include bathing in holy rivers, fasting and having dietary restrictions, saying certain mantras and reciting some scriptures for most day to the exclusion of all other activities, daanam and so on. The intent is to make amends for wrongs done in the past and generally speaking a tirthyatra itself is considered a general prayaschitta. Of course it makes no sense to be mean to people around you and go on a tirthyatra as an escape. One would rather apologise to the person concerned first.
Walking and pradakshina – Walking on foot to the tirth site is considered the most austere mode of travel, reinforcing the idea that hardship enhances the punya of the journey. Circumambulating sacred sites or performing pradakshina (walking around a sacred object or place) is a common ritual to complete the pilgrimage. Pradakshina around sacred mountains like Govardhan or Arunachala or pradakshina around Narmada river which takes about 4-6 months to complete.
Cultivation of the inner tirtha – Skanda Purana says that in addition to the holy places on land, there are certain virtues that may be called tirthas – truthfulness, forbearance, restraint of the senses, compassion for all beings, straight forwardness, giving, self-control, contentment, brahmacharyaa, sweet speech, knowledge, patience and austerity.
The further state that a person who is cruel and hypocritical and immersed in pleasures of senses remains impure even if he bathes in all tirthas and that fishes are born and die in holy waters but they do not go to svarga because their minds are not purified. If the mind is not pure (relatively free from ragas and dveshas, cravings and aversions), any amount of giving, maintaining purity and learning will not give the benefits of a tirthyatra,
Respect for Local Traditions: Respecting and adhering to the local culture and traditions is important in a tirthyatra. For instance in Kamakhya Peetha, one of the powerful Shakti peethas, bali of goats is offered. While you may not want to do this personally, you will respect that certain traditions allow this.