Food for Thought|Mar 17, 2008 6:41 AM| by:

Walking as Tirtha (pilgrimage)

‘You road I enter upon and look around.  I believe you are not all that is here, I believe that much unseen is also here’ – Walt Whitman

Walking is manifestly a physical activity, but it is not that alone.  Pilgrimage is undoubtedly to a geographical place, but a place of pilgrimage is not just a geographical place.  And self-knowledge is not something simply of the mind.  All these—walking, pilgrimage, and self-knowledge—are in their real sense woven into each other, as they always have been in the history of mankind.  But one must not turn this into a theory either.  There can be a pilgrimage without physical walking, and a self-knowledge without the rites of pilgrimage.

The Mahabharata offers us, for living in the historical conditions of today, a very profound understanding of the physicality of pilgrimage as a process, at the same time, of self-understanding and self-awareness: without, however, turning it into a conceptual scheme.  After the Pandavas had lost in that infamous game of dice, to their first cousins, the Kauravas, and now, although the inheritors to the kingdom, were banished from the realm, they found their personal situation dramatically altered.  That raised a variety of questions concerning the human condition; for it was clear that what had happened to them, doubtless a personal disaster, could not be understood, if it could be understood at all, in purely personal terms.  After they had regained some measure of balance, they set off, with sage Lomas as their guide on a pilgrimage to the various sacred places, the tirthas, walking from one place to another, in slow stages.

With the progress of their journey, the tirtha-yatra, human questions unfolded: and with them, the awareness that there could be no one single answer to them; for whatever could be said, was a part still of another truth about the human condition, and that of another.  When they were tired, and their wife, Draupadi, could walk no longer, they would stay in a hermitage, where some other aspects of the human truth would emerge.  The journey outside was also the journey within.  Thus the flat planes, and their rich earth, and the rivers, and the trees, and the woods, and the dark forests, the hills, the mountains, and the valleys became intimate companions towards self-understanding.  The aim of the yatra was not to gain merit but the knowledge of man’s relation with the world.

Man’s relation to the world is, in essence, one’s relationship with one’s self and with the other.  The Mahabharata demonstrates that it is not until one’s relationship with one’s self is right that one’s relationship with the other can be right.  That right relationship itself is tirtha, a pilgrimage – the fruition of all pilgrimages.

Truth makes all pilgrimages sacred.  The truthful speech is pilgrimage; not to violate another’s being is pilgrimage.
Austerity is pilgrimage, compassion is pilgrimage, Sheela is pilgrimage, Contentment is pilgrimage, a good woman is pilgrimage.
Those devoted to the good of others are pilgrimage, and those who seek to understand things are pilgrimage, too.  He who protects, and who brings freedom from fear, is called pilgrimage.

So a tirtha is not necessarily a place, it is a person, too, a person who embodies all those attributes without which no life can ever be.  Without the corresponding awareness of how one is related to everything that there is, mere walking to some place of pilgrimage is entirely useless.  It can bring no possible merit, and hardly any understanding at all.  Pilgrimage, rightly understood, is a process, as physical as it is spiritual, of deepening that awareness.

(Chaturvedi Badrinath’s career in the Indian Administrative Service spans thirty three years.  He was given a Homi Bhaba Fellowship from 1971-73 for research on dharma and its implications for human living.)

(Courtesy: THE EYE; VOL.II NO.3, 1993)