James Lochtefeld

in Hinduism

ISBN: 9780195399318
Published online January 2011 | | DOI:

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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.

Article.  15848 words. 

Subjects: Hinduism

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