What is the Importance of Going on Pilgrimages

Worshipping the River Ganga

Worshipping the Ganges, Image taken from: Title: "The Land of Temples (India)" Shelfmark: "British Library

by Jayaram V

Question: What is the importance of going on pilgrimages? Is it true that by going on pilgrimages or taking a dip in the sacred rivers such as the River Ganga, Narmada or Godavari, you will be cleansed of all sins?

I cannot specifically tell you which pilgrimages are effective or which rivers are better purifiers since in my opinion any place where there is divine presence is good enough for a devotee. However, I can explain why such activities are good enough for people to practice their Dharma and attain peace and happiness here and hereafter.

Unless you are a skillful yogi or a mahatma who has controlled his mind and senses and attained highest purity, you cannot live in the world and avoid committing sin. When you wade through mud, the mud will stick to you. When you live in the mortal world, its impurities become a part of your mind and body. It is why even the yogis and mahatmas find it difficult to remain pure or restrain themselves from temptations, even after all the effort and practice. The world constantly presses upon you from all sides and invades your consciousness at the slightest opportunity. You cannot therefore avoid committing sin, entertaining sinful thoughts or accumulating sinful karma.

As a householder, you cannot also abandon your duties and obligations in the middle and take up sannyasa unless you have a compelling reason. Even if you want to do it, you may not succeed due to your own desires and attachments or social pressure and family obligations. Tradition encourages householders to pursue liberation by doing their obligatory duties without desires and attachments, not by abandoning them or escaping from them. They have to live in the world and be a part of it, without being tainted by it, however difficult and troublesome it may be. The world is made to be chaotic, and living in it we too cannot avoid the chaos and the modifications of our minds.

In such circumstances, what is the best remedy to say free from the cloud of impurities which hovers around you or clouds your consciousness from inside? Since as a householder you cannot avoid sinful karma or easily overcome your desires and attachments, our scriptures offer various solutions to cleanse yourself, cultivating sattva and suppressing the impure gunas namely rajas and tamas. They suggest that you have to make every possible effort and find every opportunity to accumulate good karma and neutralize your sinful actions.

In other words, you have to engage in virtuous actions which lead to your spiritual wellbeing and that of others. You can do it as a householder, without abandoning your duties and obligations. One of them is going on pilgrimages to holy places and sacred temples and imbibing some of their purity and energy. The act in itself is good karma since you have to make a conscious effort to visit them, sacrificing your own comfort and security. Since these places abound in powerful positive energies which might have accumulated over a long duration of time and historically associated with divinities and spiritual beings, they act as powerful purifiers and antidotes to sin. They can cleanse people, and give them a chance to start afresh. They also reinforce your religiosity and spirituality or reinvigorate your faith and devotion. You can visit them to recharge yourself and start afresh or regain your balance and composure and find peace. Sometimes they may also help find solutions to vexing problems.

There are other ways to cultivate purity and recharge your mind and body or accumulate good karma and neutralize the sinful one. For example, you can do it by being a good person, helping others, avoiding harmful and destructive thoughts, avoiding the company of evil people, associating with good people, saints and devotees (satsang), giving charity, visiting temples, making ritual offerings to gods, studying the scriptures, reciting prayers and mantras or the Lord's names, performing sacrifices (yajnas) and penances (vratas), paying your material and spiritual debts, showing compassion to animals, seeking the blessings of elders, yogis, gurus and righteous people, avoiding hurting or harming others mentally or physically, cultivating devotion to the Supreme Lord, praying to him or contemplating upon him, performing selfless actions, and so on.

As a householder, you may never completely neutralize your sinful karma or achieve liberation unless you put in extraordinary effort and achieve perfection in jnana karma-sannyasa yoga or buddhi yoga or atma samyama yoga or bhakti yoga. It is very difficult for you to spare time for spiritual effort, while performing your duties and taking care of your responsibilities. For most people, the practical option is to accumulate good karma. By that, you can at least wish to attain a better life in the next birth or lay a strong foundation to achieve liberation. As the Bhagavadgita suggests, by performing your obligatory duties you can hope to be born in a family of pious people in the next life and work for your liberation.

However, if you want to end the cycle of births and deaths, these halfhearted measures do not help. You have to renounce the world, restrain your mind and body and overcome desires and attachments to attain liberation. It is the final solution to escape from samsara, and always the best option, although not everyone can do it or possess the inclination to do. The desire to attain moksha arises only after numerous births and accumulation of great merit. If you have the inclination and willingness to pursue liberation, you may still go on pilgrimages to strengthen your conviction. In the past many saints and seers such as Adi Shankaracharya or Ramanujacharya did it after taking the vows of renunciation or initiation from their teachers. It helped them strengthen their resolve and cultivate purity and devotion.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Translate the Page