walking the path

In ancient times people undertook journey primarily for business and conquest. And sometimes for pilgrimages.

These days people mostly undertake journey for business and pleasure. And sometimes for pilgrimages.

Even though Yatra literally means  journey – any kind of journey,  whenever we hear the word yatra we can sense a tinge of holiness or spirituality attached to it. Without yatra there can be no progress in spirituality.  This yatra should not be haphazard. It has to follow a path.

The term ‘walking the path’  is normally not taken literally. It connotes a spiritual journey where in one follows certain pratices, usually under the guidance of a Guru to understand one self or in the traditional sense to attain moksha. It may also mean ‘to follow one’s dharma’.  In our tradition a distinction is made between dharma and moksha. 

The four fold division of human endeavor are  – Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha. Thus a distinction has been made between dharma and moksha even though the distinction gets blurred in common understanding. Doing dharma without the explicit interest in moksha will bring auspicious results but one has to take birth again and again to enjoy the fruits of those dharmic actions. But when one does dharma with the intention of moksha, with a sense of mumuskhutwa, one is likely to move in the direction of getting freedom from the cycle of births and deaths. 

Then,  one can do dharma for the sake of fulfillment of desires, or for the sake of getting those resources (artha) so that one can fulfill those desires. But when an intense longing for moksha arises, one will do dharma but without any intention to fulfill worldly desires. Thus should we understand not only the distinction between dharma and moksha, but also the interconnections between these four purusharthas. 

Then there are confusions and paradoxes. The longing for moksha may lead one to start the journey in the path of moksha. At the same time, sages say that as long as there are desires how can one get moksha? Even the longing for moksha is an obstacle to moksha – that is the whole paradox.

So to make things simple let us come to the literal meaning – the physical act of walking. In this series  I intend to write about certain journeys of religious and spiritual nature which are undertaken by walk. Some of  them will be my own experiences and some compiled from other sources including our puranas. 

Thus going on pilgrimage is a kind of dharma. But everyone who is on a pilgrimage may not be doing it necessarily for the sake of Moksha. Some are for artha and many are for fulfillment of desires. When we talk of fulfillment of desires it is usually for the desires which have already been fulfilled, and now the pilgrimage is done because a conditional  commitment was done earlier.  

Pilgrimages are for various purposes. Pilgrimages are in various forms. In ancient times, the major portions of pilgrimages were done on foot as there was no other choice. It took years and months to complete a particular pilgrimage circuit. 

With improvement in infrastructure, pilgrimage on foot is not the only choice in majority of cases.  Still walking the pilgrimage circuit has a special connotation and many do it voluntarily. In the present series I will restrict myself to India and also to the pilgrimage circuits which have been active for many centuries.  

Another thing to note is that – maybe in ancient times the pilgrimage by walk started right from one’s home. These days it need not be so. Usually there is a starting point for the walk and one reaches there by any convenient mode of mechanical transport.

It is understandable when one walks the entire route or those last miles when other alternates are not available or are too costly for an able bodied. But, what makes those take to the path of walking even when easier and less time consuming alternates are available?

And some of the paths of pilgrimages are fraught with lots of perils. Weather, lack of oxygen, tough terrain, lack of amenities  are some of the challenges that awaits those who venture to reach Gaumukh from the Gangotri in the Himalayas? In addition to all those, the constant threat of Islamic militants pose immense danger to those who walk the Amarnath trail in Kashmir.  What makes those take to by walk such perilous paths for the sake of pilgrimage?  

It is said that walking is the best form of travel – whether spiritual or otherwise. In spiritual context walking itself becomes a spiritual process. It is a kind of sadhana, a kind of tapas. In India, millions of hardcore sadhus continue to walk the length and breadth of India covering the places of pilgrimages, many of them barefoot.  The answer to ‘why people take to walk’ will become clearer as we explore some of the interesting, intriguing and exhaustive walks of India that people undertake for the sake of dhrama, artha, kama or, moksha.

There are primarily two types of walks. One is from point to point in a linear way. You start from either your place of residence or from a designated point and end up at the place of destination. During the month of Shravana the devotees of Lord Shiva start from a holy river(usually the Ganga), collect water from there and carry the water upto a designated Shiva temple to offer the water to Lord Shiva. Similar type of journey is seen in South India for Lord Murugan and Lord Ayappa. One has to live under certain restrictions during these periods. 

There are many local versions of Lord Vishnu and Lord Krishna. If in Odisha Lord Krishna is worshiped as Jagannatha, in Andhra Pradesh the favourite form of Lord Vishnu is Venkateswara.  At Pandharapur in Maharashtra Lord Krishna is lovingly addressed as Lord Vithala, Lord Panduranga or Mauli. The history behind such stories is interesting and we will touch upon it later on. 

Special walks associated with Lord Vithala is known as wari.  During the month of Ashadha and Kartika large contingents of people from various places of Maharashtra and other nearby places undertake wari. In the month of Asahdha, the main waris start from the birth place of saint Tukaram and Saint Dhyaneswara near Pune. Their padukas are taken in a palanquin and people accompany the palanquin on foot singing and dancing on the way. The distance is about 250 Kms and it takes 21 days. While some people are part of the journey from beginning to end, thousands join on the way. The journey culminates on the 11th thithi (ekadashi) of the Month of Ashadha – one of the most auspicious days for the Vaishnabas.

At about one hundred kms from Pandharpur, at Tuljapur is the temple of Goddess Bhavani. She is often referred as the Kula Devi, Goddess of the Clan. Chhatrapati Shivaji was an ardent devotee of the Goddess and the sword he used was specially blessed by the Goddess. Even though Tuljapur is a small place, the Devi temple is thronged by devotees through out the year. Many of the devotees arrive at this temple by undertaking the journey from their hometown by foot. 

There maybe thousands of such pada-yatras in different localities of India. Many pada-yatras like  the Amarnath yatra, the kawadia yatra or the Ayappa Yatra  are nationally well-known. There are many which are quite well known in the region, but are hardly heard of outside. 

There is one such lengthy-pada yatra which not much known outside the region in spite of the scale of the yatra. This also brings us to the second form of pada-yatra which is known as parikrama – where in, instead of ending your yatra at a destination, you come back to the same place after going around a sacred mountain or a river.

One such little known parikrama  is associated with the Narmada river.  Yes, devotees walk around the entire stretch of river Narmada on foot. It involves a journey of about 3600 kms and may take at least 3 months and may stretch upto 3 years. Most devotees start the journey either from Amarkantak or Omkareshwara. While Amarkantak is the place of origin of the river, Omkareshwara is famous for the presence of one of the Jyotirlingas of Lord Shiva. From Amarkantaka or Omkareshwara, the devotees start their journey on the south side of the river towards the sea. At no point of time should they cross over to the other side of the river.  Hence they journey upto the point where the river meets the Arabian sea. Through the sea they cross over to the north side and carry on the journey on the north side. 

This parikrama,  where one ‘returns to the source’ can be taken as symbolic celebration of  our cyclic concept of life and time. The Jeeva or the living being or the individual atman is not different from the Paramatma. Our independent existence is only temporary. Some even call it an illusion. This independent existence goes on a journey of life times after life times, but ultimately it has to ‘return to the source’. Same way in our philosophy,  time is also conceived as cyclic in nature. In one of my earlier articles I have touched upon this cyclic nature of time. (September 2022 issue of Lighthouse).

 Narmada is the only river whose parikrama has been authorized in our scriptures and devotees have been doing this parikrama since time immemorial.  However, there are thousands of mountains in various parts of India which are considered as sacred and whose parikrama is done by thousands of devotees. Prominent among them perhaps are the Govardhan mountain near Mathura and the sacred mountain of Arunachala in Thiruvanmalai. There must be many more. I would request you my dear reader to inform through the comment box about any such mountain parikrama that you know of.  

During the time of my great grand father, perhaps it was common to walk the distance of 200kms from home to  Puri- the abode of Lord Jagannath by foot.  These days people staying two kms away do not do it. However, there are still many devotees who undertake the pilgrimage or parikrama on foot in spite of the alternates available. For many sadhus it is a life long activity. There are thousands of anonymous devotees who keep on walking the length and breath of India in search of enlightenment. For them, the sacred walk is not only a journey but also a destination in itself.

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