Tirtha and “Crossing Over”

For Hindus, many times, to travel, was to go for Tirtha Yatra. Without bothering about the separation of languages, kingdoms, and societal practices, the yatras continued

 

With the beginning of Shravanaa (July-August) in the Hindu calendar, the whole of Bharat witnesses an exquisite expression of devotion. Clad in bhagwa (saffron) robes and clothes, pilgrims from the length and breadth of the country flok in to worship Mahadeva Shiva on different sites. The pilgrims particularly visit Baidyanath Jyotirling in Deoghar (Jharkhand) and Kashi Vishwanath in Kashi (Uttar Pradesh).

 

Tamil devotees from far-off Dakshin Bharat can be seen making an appearance in Kashi travelling hundreds of miles. However, this long perennial walk for worshipping not only the deity but the location has been going-on from the days when any mechanical medium of locomotion was still not invented!

 

Why the people of Bharat, i.e. the Hindus, have been taking these pilgrimages or tirthas around the same time in a calendar year? Why most of the tirthasthals have water bodies around them which are considered equally sacred? How the tirthas as locations have been attributed equal significance and sacredness as much as the deity?

 

“Locative” strand of Hindus

One of the oldest strands of the Hindutva tradition is what, Harvard scholar Diana L Eck calls, the "locative" strand of Hindu piety. Its traditions of ritual and veneration are connected primarily to place-to hilltops and rock outcroppings, to the headwaters and confluences of rivers, to the pools and groves of the forests, and to the boundaries of towns and villages.

 

In this locative form of religiousness, the place itself is the primary locus of devotion, and its traditions of ritual and pilgrimage are usually much older than any of the particular myths and deities which attach to it. In the wider Hindutva tradition, these places, particularly those associated with waters, are often called tirthas, and pilgrimage to these tirthas is one of the oldest and still one of the most prominent features of Bharatiya religious life. Tirtha is a spiritual concept in Hinduism, particularly as a “pilgrimage site”, states Axel Michaels, which is a holy junction between "worlds that touch and do not touch each other.”

 

The word Tirtha is found in the oldest layer, which is the Samhita of the Rigveda as well as other Vedas. In the hymns of Rigveda, such as 1.169.6 and 4.29.3, the context suggests that the word means "a way or road". In other hymns of Rigveda such as 8.47.11, states Kane, the context suggests the term means "a ford in the river". Yet, in other cases, Tirtha refers to any holy place, such as by the sea, or a place that connects a Yajna to the outside. Later texts use the word Tirtha to refer to any spot, locality or expanse of water where circumstances or presence of great sages or Gurus has made special.

 

According to Diana L Eck, the "crossing over" refers to the "spiritual transition and transformation from this world to the world of Brahman, the Supreme, and the world illumined by the light of knowledge". The emphasis in the Upanishads, in Tirtha context is on spiritual knowledge, instead of rituals, and this theme appears in the Hindu epics as well.

Shravan Kumar taking his divyang parents to Tirtha. For Hindus, doing this has been outlined as a necessary duty

 

Vrata and Prayaschitta

Some pilgrimages are part of a Vrata (vow), which a Hindu may make for a number of reasons. It may mark a special occasion, such as the birth of a baby, or as part of a rite of passage such as a baby's first haircut, or after healing from a sickness. It may, states Eck, also be the result of prayers answered, or consequent to a vow a person had made if his or her prayer were to come true, such as the well being of a family member, or overcoming poverty or destitution or a challenging situation.

 

Another reason for a Tirtha is the Hindu belief that journeys have rejuvenating potential, to purify the inner state of man, and there is spiritual merit in travel, a theme asserted by the Vedic texts. This reasoning is related to the panacea and atonement. Vishnu Dharmasastra asserts that the type of sin that may be expiated through pilgrimages is referred to as anupatakas (small sin), in contrast to mahapatakas (major sin) that require other penances. An alternate reason for Tirtha, for some Hindus, is to respect wishes or in memory of a beloved person after his or her death. This may include dispersing their cremation ashes in a Tirtha region in a forest, mountain, river or sea to honor the wishes of the dead. The journey to a Tirtha, assert some Hindu texts, helps one overcome the sorrow of the loss.

 

It is still well-observed that the practice of Tirtha continues today. With the development of faster mode of transportation, and quicker access to inaccessible landscape, the frequency of the tirthas may have increased. However, the inherent linkage of many tirth yatras with the calendar cycle has still not changed. While dwelling in the multiple reasoning of doing Tirtha, a Hindu across the landscape of Bharat will agree about its significance, long continuity and the aspect of taking pain in completing it.