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In This Article Pilgrimage

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Sanskrit Texts
  • Travelers’ Reports
  • Gazetteers
  • Site Catalogues
  • Analytical and Theoretical Works
  • Anthologies
  • Pilgrim Guides
  • Ascetics
  • Pilgrim Accounts

Hinduism Pilgrimage
by
James Lochtefeld

Introduction

Hindu pilgrimage not only has a long and venerable history in India but is also a vibrant religious practice in modern times. The Sanskrit word usually translated as pilgrimage, tirthayatra, is a compound word meaning a “journey (yatra) to a crossing place (tirtha).” A tirtha is literally a “ford” or a “crossing-place,” and tirthas are places where one can “cross over” to establish contact with sacred forces less easily encountered in everyday life. Thus, the most common meaning of tirtha is a “pilgrimage place” or “holy place.” Yet many other things can be considered as tirthas, including one’s teacher, a saintly person, or even qualities such as compassion and generosity. In this, the tradition seems to stress that the holy is found not only in places but all around us. Yet it is noteworthy that the traditional term for pilgrimage included not only the notion of the holy place but also the pilgrim’s journey (yatra) there. This implies that the journey was part and parcel of the rite, and that the manner in which one traveled was part of the transformative process. The puranas and the Mahabharata both recommend pilgrimage as a less expensive and more easily practiced religious alternative to sacrifice, and they often describe the religious merit of pilgrimages by equating them with Vedic sacrifices such as the ashvamedha. Yet both sources also emphasize that a disciplined way of life and the cultivation of personal qualities are as important as the site itself. Each of these conflicting emphases stresses something profoundly important—on one hand, the sacrality of the site itself, and on the other hand, the importance of genuine sincerity and commitment.

Introductory Works

Hindu tirthas are an illuminating indicator for the tradition as a whole. Just as the Hindu religion has no supreme deity or religious authority, its complex and decentralized character is visible in its pilgrimage sites. As the maps in Schwartzberg 1978 clearly show, the Indian subcontinent is studded with tirthas, and this has been true for millennia. Some of these sites are more important than others, but sectarian and regional differences mean that no single site is the holiest for all Hindus. Yet despite this diversity of sites, Hindus unite in accepting certain fundamental propositions about the tirthas themselves: their nature, their power, and the process by which people can gain access to this power. Eck 1981 describes the different senses of the word tirtha, but primarily addresses the notion of their power: the idea that tirthas are places where the most ordinary religious acts generate extraordinary religious benefits (in the same way, their sanctity also magnifies the demerit from evil actions). Aiyengar 1942 not only describes the religious importance of pilgrimage and pilgrimage sites but also stresses the idea that pilgrimage’s transformational quality is not magical, but results from the pilgrim’s sincerity and faith.

  • Aiyengar, K. V. Rangaswami, ed. Krtyakalpataru of Bhatta Laksmidhara. Vol. 8, Tirthavivecanakhanda. Baroda, India: Oriental Institute, 1942.

    E-mail Citation »

    Aiyengar’s English-language introduction was written to give an overview of this Sanskrit text. It is an excellent summary of ideas both about pilgrimage sites (first in general, followed by subsections devoted to specific sites), and about the more general pilgrimage rites themselves.

  • Eck, Diana L. “India’s Tirthas: Crossings in Sacred Geography.” History of Religions 20.4 (May 1981): 323–344.

    DOI: 10.1086/462878E-mail Citation »

    This examines the etymology and the implications of the notion of tirtha, both as a literal place (in its many possible forms) and as a metaphorical concept.

  • Schwartzberg, Joseph E., ed. A Historical Atlas of South Asia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is an excellent historical atlas with a wealth of detail. Each of the historical sections has maps devoted to religious sites during a particular historical period, and just about every section has a map relevant to Hindu pilgrimage and pilgrim sites. Available online.

LAST MODIFIED: 01/27/2011

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195399318-0096

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