EVERY YEAR, as eagerly as Westerners flock to Hawaii on vacation, millions of Indians journey to tirthas, holy places of pilgrimage. According to the 1993 edition of the Guiness Book of World Records, the world's largest-ever gathering of people took place in 1989 at Prayag, India, where "fifteen million persons assembled with a common purpose" to bathe in the sacred waters of the Ganges and Yamuna during the auspicious festival known as Kumbha-mela.
Every spring, despite local political turmoil, hundreds of pilgrims journey to the snow-covered peaks of Vaishnodevi, in Jammu and Kashmir. Similarly, thousands wait hours at a time to get just a moment's audience with Lord Balaji at Tirupati, in South India, and to sacrifice their hair, money, and jewelry for the pleasure of the Lord. Gangasagara, Kedarnatha, and Puskara are other examples of popular pilgrimage sites.
Pilgrimage is of such importance in India that it is undertaken even at the risk of life. The desire for darsana of the Lord who resides in a holy place that is, to see the Lord and receive His mercy is often so great that it seems to override all considerations of home, family, and friends.
My mother still remembers when her parents, some forty years ago, left home for the long pilgrimage to Badrinatha, high in the Himalayas. At the time the path was so treacherous that my grandparents were half expected never to return. Family and friends grieved and lamented. Still, my grandparents knew that the pilgrimage was something they just had to do.
What is the impetus behind such strong desires to visit holy places?
For many the impetus is the quest for spiritual pleasure. Dr. David Haberman, assistant professor of religion at Williams College in Massachusetts, says, "In my own work, I became very intrigued with the tremendous tapas, the tremendous difficulty, of the pilgrimage, and its relationship to the stated goal of the pilgrimage ananda, or bliss … It is basically these two divergent experiences austerity and bliss about which I would ask pilgrims. Why undertake such a grueling pilgrimage? … I would hear again and again that they were doing it to experience ananda joy or bliss."*
* Steven J. Rosen, ed., Vaisnavism: Contemporary Scholars Discuss the Gaudiya Tradition (New York: Folk Books, 1992) p. 324.
People also go to holy places to atone for sins and thus gain immortality. The Srimad-Bhagavatam explains, however, that merely washing away sinful reactions may be of little value, because such atonement can be like the bathing of an elephant. After an elephant cleanses itself in a river, it comes out of the water and throws dust all over its body. Similarly, as soon as pilgrims return from a pilgrimage, they may start committing sinful activities again, because they may still be dirtied by their material desires.
The sage Jamadagni advised his son Lord Parasurama on the actual meaning of atonement: "My dear son, killing a king who is an emperor is more severely sinful than killing a brahmana. But now, if you become Krsna conscious and worship the holy places, you can atone for this great sin." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 9.15.41)
So real atonement comes from becoming Krsna conscious, which requires the association of devotees. Srila Prabhupada explains, "Because an ordinary person cannot immediately surrender to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, he is advised to go from one holy place to another to find saintly persons and thus gradually be released from sinful reactions."
Srila Prabhupada says that one should go to holy places to meet pure devotees of the Lord. He writes, "Common men go to pilgrimage sites to get themselves purified of all sins. Thus the places of pilgrimage become overburdened with the sins of others. But when [pure] sages visit overburdened places of pilgrimage, they sanctify the places by their presence." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.19.8, purport)
Indeed, any place where pure devotees are present is a holy place, for it is they who sanctify it. When Vidura left home and went on pilgrimage, he met the sage Maitreya and heard from him the pastimes of Lord Krsna. After returning home, Maharaja Yudhisthira said to him, "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." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.13.10)
By hearing from a pure devotee in the pure atmosphere of a holy place, one realizes the true purpose in human life love for Krsna. In Vrndavana, Srila Prabhupada once reprimanded a devotee for not attending a lecture and instead going off to visit holy sites. Prabhupada told the devotee that holy places were not for sight-seeing but for hearing about Krsna.
There are many holy places related with the Supreme Lord Krsna Badrinatha, Dvaraka, Navadvipa, Vrndavana, Ramesvaram, Jagannatha Puri. These holy places provide unlimited spiritual benefit and fulfill all desires. Now, by the mercy of Srila Prabhupada, there are dhamas, or holy places, not only in India but all over the world. Prabhupada established hundreds of temples where we can easily obtain sadhu sanga, association with devotees, and worship Krsna in His Deity form. We can take advantage of New Jagannatha Puri in San Francisco and New Dvaraka Dhama in Los Angeles. We can obtain darsana of Radha-Rasavihari in Bombay, Radha-Paris-Isvara in France, Radha-Gokulananda in Brazil and London. And all over the world we can hear from people who have dedicated their lives to the service of the Lord. In this way we can turn all our travels into pilgrimages.
Ravi Gupta, age twelve, is the son of Ananta Rupa Dasa and Aruddha Devi Dasi, who run the Hare Krsna center in Boise, Idaho.