"All love is expansion, all selfishness is contraction. Love is therefore the only law of life. He who loves lives, he who is selfish is dying. Therefore love for love's sake, because it is law of life, just as you breathe to live." - Swami Vivekananda











PRABUDDHA BHARATAPrabuddha Bharata | August 2006  








              The Meaning of Tirtha



                         Swami Satyaswarupananda



     One question that we have been repeatedly asking ourselves while putting together the twin issues on tirthas is Why this theme? Pilgrimage sites are now being actively promoted as tourist spots. Easier and cheaper travel facilities combined with increasing middle-class affluence has resulted in a dramatic rise in the number of tourists across the globe and the traditional pilgrimage spots have not been exempt from this influx. A vast amount of literature, scholarly as well as popular, is being churned out on virtually every pilgrimage destination. So, what fresh insights could we possibly be offering our readers?


     What does tirtha mean? Is it the same as pilgrimage, or does it have other connotations? What does a pilgrimage signify, for that matter? Can this term be used in a generic fashion, or does it have shades of meaning that vary with cultures, traditions, locales and times? Are the Hindu doing parikrama around Vishwanatha at Kashi and the Muslim doing tawaf around the Kaba at Makkah doing the same thing? What possibly is going on in their minds? What emotions do they experience? Is it possible to share these experiences when they meet? Is there a common language for this?


     Then there is the distinction between the devout and the skeptic (or the agnostic, the atheist and the heretic). What does the uninitiated make of the salutations and prostrations, the fasts and vigils, the burning of incense and the waving of lamps, the unintelligible prayers and the apparently irrational charity? True, the scenic ambience, ornate architecture, tasteful decorations, soulful music and vibrant fervour at a tirtha can all evoke a sympathetic or even an awed response from even skeptics and agnostics; but there are other elements that outsiders may find incomprehensible or even positively repulsive: mindlessly monotonous rituals, gruesome animal sacrifices, self-inflicted torture, and narrow exclusivist sermons. Irreverent outsiders can obviously vitiate the holy atmosphere which is so precious to the devout. Hence the restrictions on non-believers entering shrines or participating in closed rituals that obtain in virtually all religious traditions.


     More intriguing are the differences within traditions that the outsider often takes to be monolithic. What does an austere celibate given to lifelong worship of Shiva at Uttarkashi make of Krishnas ubiquitous sport in Vrindavan? What feelings arise in a Lutheran Protestant when he sees the rich tapestry of icons, images and murals at St Peters Basilica or attends Mass there? How does a Theravada Buddhist make sense of the huge pantheon of divine beings represented in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition? How does a Sufi from the dargah at Ajmer react to the restrictions on veneration and prostrations at Prophet Muhammads and other tombs in Madinah?


     Religion itself is a conglomerate of diverse dogmas and folkways, social mores and cultural values, personal psychological orientation as well as the collective unconscious. So even insiders approaching a tirtha are likely to have very different feelings and reactions individually. How does an Indian tourist react to the massive ruins at Angkor Wat? Does he see them merely as historical remains of archaeological interest, or does he feel the presence of the Holy? How does this reaction vary with the religious affiliation of the visitor - Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim? And what are the thoughts of someone who does not care much for religion but has strong Indian nationalist sentiments? How would the Kampuchean react to his suggestion that what he sees in front is Greater India? What if this Kampuchean is Sita, the teenage vendor selling mementoes outside the temple complex?


     Ancient cities like Varanasi, Jerusalem, Makkah and Rome have been important pilgrimage centres since ancient times. They have served as religious crossroads where humans confronted the Divine. But they have also been cultural melting pots where people had to encounter men and women of other faiths, cultures, convictions and religious affiliations. While much of this interaction was responsible for the cosmopolitan character of these cities they also lead to conflict, strife and open warfare. The juxtaposed temples and mosques of Varanasi are more often reminders of this conflict when they could well have been symbols of harmony, just like the musical gharana of Kashi where Hindus and Muslims train in classical music with equal discipline and devotion. The Wailing Wall of Jerusalem still draws tears from battle-hardened Jews for being the remnant of the ancient Temple of Solomon which was razed to the ground more than once and in whose place stands the Mosque of Umar atop Mount Moriah. While Jerusalem is a hotly contested territory - being of importance to Jewish, Christian as well as Islamic traditions - the peace of uniformity reigning at Rome or Makkah can be very deceptive. For the price of that uniformity is the total demolition of cultures termed pagan coupled with an exclusivism that prevents the flowering of diversity.


     The non-Hindus not allowed or only the baptized may enter notices in some Hindu temples and Christian churches, or the prohibition on non-Muslims from entering Makkah are only symptoms of a much deeper human malady that prevents us from relating to each other at a deeper level of our being. But if there are numerous divisive forces, the attempts at breaking barriers and bridging divides are no less significant. The famous Vaikom satyagraha in Kerala initiated by Gandhiji and led by Vinoba Bhave was an important step in allowing Harijans access to Hindu temples, and when Vinoba visited the Vithoba shrine at Pandharpur accompanied by a German lady, a Muslim worker, a Parsi young man and some Harijans, it was probably the first time that a traditional Hindu temple was formally declared open to non-Hindus.


     There have been numerous recent attempts at bridging sectarian divides within different religions. The Christian ecumenical movement has made concerted organized efforts to increase cooperation between the various Christian Churches and denominations. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Organizations of the Islamic Conference have similar aims though the efficient organization of the pilgrimage institutions of Kumbha Mela and Hajj probably provide greater impetus to sectarian unity amongst Hindus and Muslims.


     The efforts at inter-religious dialogue and understanding have, in comparison, been feebler and less effective. How does a Hindu appreciate the Christian thesis that the incarnation of Jesus is unique and no one comes to the Father but through me? How does (s)he honour the belief that Islam is the most perfect of all divinely revealed religions and that Hazrat Muhammad is the seal of the Prophets? How does a Muslim reconcile himself to the Hindu reality of numerous gods and their worship through images, a practice that amounts to shirk (idolatry) and kufr (unbelief) in orthodox Islam? How does a Christian grapple with the Buddhist silence on the existence of God?


     None of these are new questions. But the fact that we hardly have any definite answers to these questions only exposes the fact that nowhere is our basic religious knowledge up to the level of our basic knowledge of mathematics or biology. So an appreciation of tirthas can be a small step in the process of religious education; and the tirthas can serve as concrete reminders of the beliefs and aspirations of traditions other than our own. In trying to understand these tirthas we understand ourselves and in meeting the other at the tirthas we are forced to take a fresh look at our own inner being.

International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015







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