Hindu Places Of Pilgrimage In India

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
I. A General Survey of the Literature on Places of Pilgrimage in India 14
Epic and Puranic Material 15
Medieval Sources Based on Puranic Material 17
Travel and Related Literature 20
Twentieth-Century Studies 21
Pilgrims' Travel Guides and Related Literature 26
Gazetteers 27
Pilgrim Registers and Records kept by Priests 28
II. Distribution of Hindu Places of Pilgrimage According to the Mahabharata 29
Analysis of the Distribution 29
Relative Importance of Tirthas and Cults according to the Mahabharata 40
III. A Grand Pilgrimage of India According to the Mahabharata 43
Introduction 43
The Route of the Pilgrimage 45
Conclusions 56
IV. Sacred Places According to the Puranas and Some Later Sources 58
Introduction 58
Places of Pilgrimage according to the Puranas 61
Distribution of Hindu Places of Pilgrimage in the Early Part of the twelfth Century A.D. 73
Distribution of Hindu Places of Pilgrimage Based on Some Non-Hindu Medieval Sources 75
Conclusions 79
V. Tirthas: Their Relative Importance, Site Characteristics, and Principal Deities 80
Distribution of Sacred Places 80
Classification of Present-Day Tirthas 82
Stoddard's Attempt to Account for the Distribution of Holy Places 94
Conclusions 95
VI. Perception of the Ranks of Sacred Places 97
Introduction 97
Ranking of Sacred Places in Traditional Hinduism 97
Perception of the Rank Order of Sacred Places 100
Perception of "The Most Sacred Place" as Related to Caste 105
Conclusions 115
VII. Determination of Levels of Sacred Places 116
Introduction 116
Ranking of Sacred Places According to Average Distance Traveled 116
Levels of Sacred Places Based on the Cultural Diversity of the Field of Pilgrimage 124
Conclusions 145
VIII. The Level of Sacred Place and the Purpose and Frequency of Pilgrimage 148
Introduction 148
Purposes of Pilgrimage in General 148
Purposes of Pilgrims in Field Sample 153
Relationship between the Level of Sacred Places and Purposes of Pilgrimage 158
Deities and the Purposes of Pilgrimage 160
Frequency of Visits to Sacred Places 160
Conclusions 162
IX. Level of Sacred Place and the Religious Travels of Pilgrims 163
Introduction 163
Aspects of Religious Travel Considered 163
Two Basic Patterns of Pilgrim Circulation 168
Implication of Religious Circulation at Different Levels 173
X. Sacred Places and the Caste Composition of Pilgrims 175
Introduction 175
General Findings on Caste Composition 176
Relationship of Castes of Pilgrims to the Level of Sacred Places 184
Relationship between the Pilgrims' Castes and the Distance Traveled to the Sacred Place in the Sample 188
XI. Sacred Places and the Diffusion of Religious Beliefs 201
The Diffusion Mechanism in General 201
Specific Examples of Incipient Stage of Diffusion 204
Diffusion from High-level Sacred Places 206
Conclusions 215
XII. Pilgrim Interaction at Sacred Places: The Case of Hardwar 216
Introduction 216
Regional Seasonality of Pilgrimage 217
Regional Biases in the Residential Pattern of Pilgrims 222
Cate Biases in the Residential Pattern of Pilgrims 223
Conclusions 223
XIII. Summary of Conclusions 225
Appendix Pilgrim Samples and Caste Groupings 229
Pilgrim Samples 229
The Questionnaire 229
Categories of Castes or Comparable Groups 230
Bibliography 233
Published Works 233
Unpublished Sources 247
Index 249
List of Maps and Graphs
1-1 Study Area 10
2-1 Tirthas according to the Mahabharata 30
2-2 Scheduled Tribes and Corridors of Southward Aryan Expansion 38
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First Chapter

Hindu Places of Pilgrimage in India

A Study in Cultural Geography
By Surinder M. Bhardwaj

University of California Press

Copyright © 1983 Surinder M. Bhardwaj
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-04951-9


The institution of pilgrimage to holy places (tirtha-yatra is an ancient and continuing religious tradition of the Hindus. Numerous sacred places distributed in various parts of India attract millions of pilgrims; some places draw pilgrims from all over the country, others largely from the neighboring villages. Thus, religion assumes an important role in generating a circulation mechanism in which all the social strata of Hinduism participate. The liberal distribution of sacred places throughout India has created an essentially continuous religious space in which the otherwise great regional cultural diversity becomes less significant for the movement of pilgrims over long distances. Religion provides the basis of pilgrimage by offering the reward of purification of the soul and the attainment of objectives related to the problems of mundane existence. The study of this circulatory mechanism of Hinduism, with its roots in religion, forms the subject matter of our inquiry.

Hindu Pilgrimage, Its Nature, Development, and Motive

Every religion has its sacred foci to which men of faith periodically converge. From the most ancient civilizations to the present times sacred centers have exerted a powerful pull on the believers. The Sumerians of antiquity, who reverently ascended the steps of the Ziggurat to reach the gate of heaven, have their modern counterpart in the devout Jews and Christians who visit the Holy Land, and in the multitudes of Muslims from diverse parts of the world who undertake the hajj to Mecca. Millions of Hindus, since time immemorial, have similarly been attracted to their numerous holy sites in India. Pilgrimage is thus a panhuman phenomenon albeit its importance is reduced in the industrial-commercial nations of the Western world. The concept of pilgrimage exists in all major religions, although, not unexpectedly, its meaning varies widely within the canonical structure of each religion.

Hindu Pilgrimage

The nature of Hindu pilgrimage is capsuled in the Indian expression tirtha-yatra, which literally means "undertaking journey to river fords." In common parlance, visitation to sacred places is considered tirtha-yatra. There is, however, much more implied in the term tirtha-yatra, and it is essential to understand those implications in order to avoid confusion, which is bound to arise if the English expression "pilgrimage" is equated with the strictly Indian terminology. Agehananda Bharati has rightly pointed out that Indian terms for pilgrimage are often to be understood metaphorically. A yogi, for example, may physically stay put and yet, through a specific type of meditation, may "perform a pilgrimage" to the seven "shrines." Here both the "pilgrimage" and "shrine" are to be understood in their generalized meaning. Pilgrimage here means to "partake of" and the "shrine" implies a certain quality such as "truth." We may further clarify this metonymy by referring to a verse from Skandapurana (a religious treatise): "Truth, forgiveness, control of senses, kindness to all living beings and simplicity are tirthas." Thus, tirtha-yatra not only means the physical act of visiting the holy places but implies mental and moral discipline. In fact, without the latter, pilgrimage in the physical sense has little significance in the Hindu tradition.

The practice of pilgrimage in Hinduism follows from some of the basic underpinnings of its philosophy. Four dominant ideas have persisted in Hindu thought concerning attitudes to life. These are dharma, artha, kama, and moksa. Dharma is characterized by "considerations of righteousness, duty and virtue." Artha entails material gain, worldly advantage, and success. Kama signifies love and pleasure. The fourth, moksa, is the spiritual realization and self-emancipation which has been equated by some scholars with salvation or freedom from transmigration. The first three aspects of life converge toward the final goal, spiritual bliss. Within this philosophical concept of life those activities, observances, rituals, and rites become meaningful which help in the attainment of liberation of the self from the bondage of repeated birth and rebirth. Hinduism provides a wide variety of courses that individuals may take toward religious fulfillment. For example, there is the path of knowledge, jñana-yoga; the way of action, karma-yoga; and the path of unmixed devotion, bhakti-yoga. Pilgrimage, though not one of the major recognized paths of achieving moksa, is nevertheless accepted as a desirable practice to earn religious merit within a life lived according to dharma. It is one of the many ways toward self-realization and bliss.

Pilgrimage to sacred places is of no avail if a person does not lead a moral life. There are repeated references in Hindu religious literature that suggest moral life as a precondition for deriving any merit (phala) from sojourn to holy sanctuaries and bathing in sacred rivers. Journey to sacred places provides opportunity for the householder to detach himself for some time from the cares and worries of daily life and to devote that time to prayer, contemplation, and listening to the spiritual discourses of holy men.

Development of Hindu Pilgrimage

Several scholars have expressed their views on the origins and development of the practice of tirtha-yatra, and it is not my purpose in this introduction to examine these views in detail. I shall merely attempt to point out the salient features of the development of Hindu pilgrimage.

Perhaps the earliest allusion to the practice of pilgrimage in Indian literature is to be found in the Aitareya Brahmana of the Rg Veda: Flower-like the heels of the wanderer, His body groweth and is fruitful; All his sins disappear, Slain by the toil of his journeying. See, for example, Kalyana, Tirthanka, p. 31. Several selected verses from the Puranas convey this idea. The Brahmanas are "expository liturgical texts" attached to the Vedas. The period of composition of the Rg Veda is usually considered to be between 1500 and 1000 B.C. In the previous stanza of the above verse it is suggested that "Evil is he who stayeth among men." It is possible that the concept of pilgrimage may have existed in some form at such an early time period. Even today the ideal pilgrim undertakes the journey to sacred places for purification and redemption from sin. I am not suggesting here that pilgrimage of today has the same ritualistic content as that of the Vedic period, but a conceptual similarity seems to be there. If this view is tenable, we need no longer accept the assertion of R. V. Russell (and of those who followed his belief) that "the feeling which prompts the undertaking of the journey is not a very great advance on the primitive reverence for certain places as the abodes of spirits."

The Aryan people of the Vedic times revered the rivers, as is clear from the famous river-hymn (nadi stuti) of the Rg Vida. Perhaps, from the Aryan reverence of the rivers grew the concept of tirtha (ford). Bharati believes that pilgrimage proper is not mentioned in the Vedic literature. I feel, however, that at least two strands of the concept pilgrimage, namely, the merit of travel and reverence for rivers, can be considered to have been continuous from the Vedic times, to which later developments in Hinduism added further content and meaning.

A further reference to the practice of tirtha-yatra is found in the classic Aryan lawbook Manusmrti, although the relevant verse tends to attach relatively little importance to visiting the Ganges and the Kuruksetra-both celebrated as sacred in later times:

If thou art not at variance with that divine... Who dwells in Thy heart, Thou needest neither Visit the Ganges nor the (land of the) Kurus.

I must emphasize that even today no Hindu scholar claims that bathing in the Ganga (Ganges) is superior to meditation. In fact, within the religious armory of Hinduism the emphasis is always on the control of sense and meditation, for which pilgrimage is no substitute. It is always considered an additional redemptive practice, an adjunct to other forms of worship.

Following the Vedic period the practice of pilgrimage seems to have gained considerably increased popularity as shown by the relevant sections of the great epic Mahabharata (ca. 300 B.C.). As Hinduism became more formalized religion the significance of ritualistic elements within it increased greatly, as is clear from the voluminous literature of the Puranas (to be discussed later). Bharati has observed that "medieval and modern pilgrimage is certainly due to Brahmin revival, and to the ritualization of religion in the Hindu middle ages through its partial absorption into local, non-Brahmanic cults."

Once the ritualistic details got committed to writing and the Puranas became accepted as the authority in the matter of common religious observance, the practice of pilgrimage, glorified by the Puranas, achieved a higher status in Hindu beliefs than in the previous times. It must also be pointed out that the offerings made at the sacred places are sources of livelihood for the officiating priests. The latter are therefore more than inclined to extol the merits of visiting sacred places, particularly, of course, where they are the controlling priests. In my visits to numerous holy places I have been struck by this motive of the local body of priests.

The practice of pilgrimage, with its ancient and diverse origins, continues to be popular among the Hindus. In fact, one can maintain, without fear of contradiction, that more people now visit more sacred places than ever before in the history of India. It is not that the Hindus have become more religious; rather it is because modern means of mass transportation have made it possible for larger numbers of individuals to undertake pilgrimages. The number of pilgrims each year visiting the well-known Hindu tirthas is to be reckoned in several millions. Specific occasions, such as the kumbhamela at Hardwar and Allahabad, may attract over one million devotees eager to bathe in the sacred rivers.

Motives in Hindu Pilgrimage

The purpose and motives that impel individuals to undertake pilgrimage are diverse and have been fairly thoroughly investigated by Diehl. Two broad categories of motives may be distinguished. First, there are specific motives concerned with mundane existence. They usually involve a commitment or vow to the deity whose blessing is sought for the solution of a problem the pilgrim is afflicted with. They may also be concerned with such rites as the first haircut of a male child or expiation of a ritual impurity that an individual may have acquired. The second category of motives consists of earning religious merit. It is hard to define such motives, but they may include holy bath on a specific climactic occasion, the darsana (sight of the deity), or visiting holy men. In the first category of motives the deity is the focus of pilgrimage; in the second, deity per se is less important, the event of pilgrimage more significant. This question of motives will be discussed at some length in another chapter. The exact rituals to be performed in connection with a given pilgrimage depend largely on the motive of the pilgrim himself and the religious occasion on which the sacred place is visited. The rituals for each specific motive and occasion are prescribed in the appropriate religious treatises, but in actual practice they are carried out by the officiating priests of each sacred place.

System of Sacred Places as an Integrative Network

So far I have introduced to the reader pilgrimage only as a religious practice in Hinduism. It has, however, another highly significant dimension. The innumerable sacred places of the Hindus can be conceived as a system of nodes having varying degrees of religious import. Within this system, some places may be the focal points for pilgrims from the entire vast Indian subcontinent with its variegated cultural mosaic. Other, more modest places may serve as centers of congregation of devotees from the immediate vicinity. Between these two extremes there are sacred places of several intermediate levels. Sacred centers of each "level" have their corresponding pilgrim "fields." The holy places thus generate a gigantic network of religious circulation encompassing the entire Hindu population. Pilgrim "flows" are the connecting links between the Hindu population and its numerous sacred centers.

The number of Hindu sanctuaries in India is so large and the practice of pilgrimage so ubiquitous that the whole of India can be regarded as a vast sacred space organized into a system of pilgrimage centers and their fields. Scholars who emphasize the linguistic, regional, and social diversity of India often tend to minimize the integrative role of institutions such as sacred places. More and more social scientists are, however, beginning to be conscious of the indigenous forces of cultural integration. Professor Mandelbaum has rightly pointed out that "there is a traditional basis for the larger national identification. It is the idea, mainly engendered by Hindu religion, but shared by those of other religions as well, that there is an entity of India to which all its inhabitants belong." Speaking specifically about the role of pilgrimages in India, he observes: "Pilgrimages to super centers reinforce religious precepts but also impress the pilgrim with the vastness, the diversity, and - seemingly paradoxically - the oneness of the society."

The system of large and small sacred places in India has not developed as a result of an overt effort by some supreme centralizing authority, because there is no such authority in Hinduism. There is no single, explicit organizational mechanism in Hinduism and hence no neatly structured, hierarchically ordered system of religious authorities, such as is characteristic of Roman Catholicism. The "ranks" or "levels" of sacred places have evolved for over three millennia as a result of absorption of many local cults and reconciliation of numerous traditions. Thus, Hindu sacred places are not to be conceived as a hierarchy of the "pecking order." The informal hierarchy or ranking of Hindu sacred places has resulted from the many, partially overlapping, subsystems of sacred places. These subsystems may have had regional-cultural, caste, or cultic orientations.

Objectives of This Study

The chief aim of this study is to understand the nature of interconnections between the Hindu sacred places of different levels and their pilgrim fields in both the spatial and the social dimensions. However, since these interconnections are rooted in antiquity, it is not possible to fully appreciate the present religious circulation without explicitly demonstrating its intimate ties with the past.


Excerpted from Hindu Places of Pilgrimage in India by Surinder M. Bhardwaj Copyright © 1983 by Surinder M. Bhardwaj. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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