The Ten Amazing Benefits of Pilgrimages in Hinduism
Why should you go on pilgrimages? Some people believe that it is a waste of time and money. Some think that it is no better than going on vacation. Are pilgrimages truly beneficial? What is their significance in the ritual and spiritual practices of Hinduism? In the following discussion we will try to answer these questions and present the ten most important benefits of pilgrimages in the ritual and spiritual practices of Hinduism.
In Hinduism, pilgrimages are considered important for one’s spiritual progress, peace and prosperity upon earth. According to it, they contribute to the preservation, propagation and continuation of the faith, by drawing the people to gods and increasing their religious and spiritual awareness. In the ritual practices of Hinduism, they constitute an important and integral aspect of Hindu devotional service.
Each year, millions of Hindus undertake pilgrimages to various places in India where temples and sacred objects are located. They do it primarily to declare their love and devotion, fulfill their vows or seek divine help. The pilgrim places serve as God’s foot prints upon earth, and make India a sacred country. They also serve as power houses, radiating enormous sacred energy, and thereby contribute to the spiritual wellbeing of the people and the community.
They also elevate our consciousness, by helping us engage in religious and spiritual activity, besides strengthening our commitment to the Dharma (duty) of nurturing the gods and to our ultimate aim of achieving liberation (Moksha) in the pilgrimage of life, which we undertake upon earth as mortal beings. In the past, pilgrimages played an important role in uniting the people of the faith, despite their cultural, linguistic and regional differences.
They played a significant role in creating the national identity and unity of Hindus during foreign occupation. They continue to promote the Dharma and feelings of universal brotherhood, perhaps even with greater vigor, despite the growing shadow of materialism. The following ones are a few important benefits of undertaking pilgrimages according to our tenets.
1. They prepare you for renunciation.
Pilgrimages help you break free from your daily routine and mundane problems, and perform devotional service to God. While for the wandering monks, life itself is a long pilgrimage to the abode of Brahman, for the householders it is an opportunity to practice temporary renunciation, in which they have to briefly leave everything behind and go on a spiritual journey to the abode of God. Each pilgrimage prepares worldly people for the ultimate renunciation in the last stage (ashrama) of their lives, reminding them of the life they have to lead someday in search of liberation.
2. They strengthen your devotional fervor
In daily life we remain preoccupied with our worldly goals and concerns and do not think much about God, nor do we pay attention to our spiritual goals or religious obligations. When we are on a pilgrimage, we find many opportunities to divert our minds to spiritual matters and strengthen our devotion. Pilgrimages are thus very useful to withdraw the mind from worldly matters and stabilize it in devotion or spirituality. One should not undertake them purely for pleasure or for recreation, but to honor one’s obligations or declare one’s love and veneration for the deity.
3. They help you engage in sacrificial actions
Each pilgrimage is a form of devotional service and sacrifice, during which you will find many opportunities to make small sacrifices to appease the gods or forgo your selfishness. During the pilgrimage, you will spend time and money, forgo personal comforts, leave behind your worldly priorities and bear with the stress and strain caused by the journey. Thus, pilgrimages introduce you to the practice of sacrifice and selflessness, by helping you put others before you, give up your selfish desires and personal comforts, endure the suffering caused by it, and in the process subdue your ego and practice virtue.
4. They help you meet spiritual people and practice satsang
Many pious and spiritual people live in and around the pilgrim places because of their purity and sanctity. For example, places such as Kashi, Mathura, Prayag, abound in religious ashrams and spiritual masters. It has been so since ancient times. The Buddha and Mahavira used to frequent them to gain followers. Even now, many spiritual people, sadhus and holy men regularly visit them and make them the centers of their activities. Hence, when you go on a pilgrimage, you will come across many spiritual people, yogis and babas, with whom you can interact and benefit from the association (satsang), seeking their advice, knowledge or blessings.
5. They cleanse your mind and body
Pilgrim places are powerful energy centers. They are filled with sacred presence and aura of the deities as well as the strong vibrations caused by the prayers and supplications of devotees, priests and saintly people. When you visit them, you become soaked in that positive energy and feel refreshed and uplifted. The strong currents of spiritual energy radiating from the powerhouses of gods cleanse your mind and body and remove your negativity and impurities. Thus, each pilgrimage is an opportunity to accumulate sattva, fill your mind and body with divine energy and elevate your consciousness.
6. They strengthen your relationship with God
Pilgrimages are good opportunities to cultivate nearness to God and strengthen your relationship with him. Just as your relationship with people improve with frequent and positive interactions, your relationship with God improves as you make frequent pilgrimages and spend time in his abode as his guest, expressing your love and devotion. With each visit, you will feel more affinity, familiarity and nearness. As the Bhagavadgita states, God responds to his devotees according to their faith. In whatever way they approach him and make the offerings, he accordingly reciprocates with love. Each pilgrimage draws you closer to God and strengthens your relationship with him.
7. They help you seek divine help and guidance
Pilgrimages are mostly made to seek divine help to resolving personal problems or fulfill one’s desires. It is a lower form of divine worship, since it is motivated by desire. Yet, it is not a sin to seek God’s help or intervention. A devotee earns the right to ask for God’s help when needed by virtue of his or her faith and devotion. The tradition supports it. Hence, many people undertake pilgrimages to make a personal appeal to their personal gods for help and guidance. Some vow to go on a pilgrimage if their prayers are heard, and they do when it happens. Thus, pilgrimages offer hope and courage to people to deal with their problems or endure their suffering. It helps them persevere in the face of adversity.
8. They help you overcome sinful karma
According to our scriptures, pilgrimages are the best way to overcome sinful karma. The Puranas described how in the past many devotees were able to rid themselves of the gravest of sins by going on pilgrimages. They also state that most pilgrim places where the deities reside have the power to cleanse your karma. For example, many people go to Varanasi (Kashi) to take a dip in the River Ganga and cleanse themselves of all sins. Many Hindu pilgrim places are considered good enough to overcome sinful karma, including past birth transgressions. Therefore, it is certainly beneficial to visit them and clear one’s sins to begin afresh.
9. They heal your mind and body
We have already stated that pilgrim places are suffused with a lot of spiritual energy due to the sacred presence of gods. Due to their auspicious and healing nature, they have the power not only to cleanse your mind and body but also remove your physical and mental ailments. The epics and Puranas vouch for the miraculous healing powers of many pilgrim places. They contain stories which narrate how by going on pilgrimages several devotees, pious men and women and even gods were able to overcome ancient curses or recover from incurable diseases. By those accounts, pilgrimages are considered useful for divine healing, especially when known methods of treatment are found ineffective.
10. They help you practice Dharma
Pilgrimages play an important role in the preservation and propagation of Hinduism. For all practical and spiritual purposes, each pilgrim center also serves as a center of Hindu Dharma. In the absence of centralized institutions and religious authority, they keep people bound to their gods and their faith, by helping them serve their gods and people who need help. As a pilgrim, you will find many opportunities to engage in purification practices such as charity and selfless service and cultivate virtue. In Hinduism, many rituals and sacraments are customarily performed at religious places so that devotees can benefit from the visit by engaging in good actions. Even today, many Hindus perform religious ceremonies such as a marriage or a tonsure ceremony near temples and other sacred places as a part of their religious duties.
Pilgrimages test your faith, devotion and commitment to your chosen deity. To undertake them, one requires personal effort and sacrifice. They prove how far you can go to affirm your faith and devotion. In the past, pilgrimages were arduous and dangerous. Many pilgrim places used to be located in difficult and inaccessible places. To reach them, devotees had to risk their lives. Even today, certain pilgrimages are risky, especially those which are located in the most inaccessible places in the Himalayas and mountainous regions. Pilgrimages form a part of ritual worship. They are meant mainly for Hindu householders. However, traditionally many ascetic people also undertake pilgrimages as a part of their spiritual practice. They keep wandering from one place to another to fulfill their vows and cultivate purity, and during their wanderings they visit pilgrim places also to engage their minds in devotion and contemplation. The wandering tradition of the ancient Shramanas, Vratyas, Adi Shaivas, Shaktas, Bhagavatas, Bauddhas, Jinas and other ascetic groups probably gave way to the idea of making pilgrimages, as numerous temples, monuments, memorials and religious places came into existence in the post Buddhist era.
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