What is a pilgrimage?
A pilgrimage is a journey of discovery. It is a means of discovering who you are, what is your very essence, what is your niche in this world, what is your connection with the rest of the world, and how to find the fulfillment your soul is seeking.
This search for oneself and for a connection with the sacred within is an ancient phenomenon. Throughout the history of the human race, people have been seeking external places of power and sanctity in an attempt to find the sacred within.
How does a place become spiritually illuminating?
There are a variety of opinions about this. What I feel is that Mother Nature herself created vortices of energy in different places throughout the world. Just as various spots in the human body have different concentrations of energy, so do various places on the earth. There is a principle in tantric philosophy, which holds that whatever is in the universe is also in the human body and vice versa. In the same way that the heart center, the eyebrow center, and the navel center have different characteristics, the planet has manifested her different personalities—her different shaktis (powers)—in different places. This manifestation of energy is the beginning point of a pilgrimage site.
Just as various spots in the human body have different concentrations of energy, so do various places on the earth.
Throughout the ages, spiritual seekers have made a concerted effort to discover and recognize those places and to connect their individual consciousness with the consciousness residing there. In so doing, they brought a greater level of enlightenment to themselves while contributing to the concentration of energy those places were already exhibiting. In other words, there’s a mutual relationship between the energy of a sacred site and the consciousness of the seekers who live and do their practices there.
Think of it this way: The more you recognize and concentrate on the energies of your heart center, for example, the more you will cultivate the virtues of the heart, and as you do, the virtues of love, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness manifest in you more vividly. In the same way, by connecting yourself to the sacred and illuminating energy of a spiritual site, you attain a certain degree of spiritual experience. At the same time, you are intensifying the energy of that site. People have been intensifying the shakti at powerful pilgrimage sites—such as Assisi, Mount Sinai, Mecca, the confluence of the Ganga and the Jamuna rivers in Allahabad, Kamakhya, Ujjain, Kedarnath, Mount Fuji—for many, many years. In the process, they not only benefited themselves but also passed on that concentration of energy to the next generation. As a result, such places evolved into highly illuminating spiritual sites.
From time to time, by the design of nature, cosmic forces align themselves with the spiritual energy of specific pilgrimage sites. As a result, the energy of those sites becomes more pronounced, more awakened, and more available to mankind. Prominent examples include the lunar cycle that brings pilgrims to Mecca for the Hajj and the alignment of cosmic forces that occurs every 12 years at the confluence of the Ganga and the Jamuna rivers in Allahabad. Other examples are the 13th day of the moon in February and the 9th day of the moon in early fall in Kamakhya.
What makes a journey a pilgrimage?
A journey becomes a pilgrimage when you go to a site with the intention of connecting yourself with the sacred energy residing there. When you bask in that energy and illuminate the unlit corner of your being, you discover an aspect of yourself that was not well known to you. Your intention to discover this makes your journey a pilgrimage. In other words, when your intention is to know the deeper aspect of yourself and to bring forth the richness that lies within you (thereby overcoming the inner poverty that is manifesting in your heart in the form of greed, possessiveness, and the hunger for power and prestige), your journey becomes a pilgrimage.
In what sense is a pilgrimage a road map for the inner journey?
As soon as we begin to realize that to be born human is precious, we turn our attention to the precious gift of life itself.
If you know that there is an energy vortex of a particular nature at a site, and you know your own body, mind, and senses are also unique and powerful vortices of energy, you will understand that you can illuminate yourself and attain a higher degree of self-understanding by connecting yourself with that pilgrimage site. In this way, your pilgrimage can become a map of the inward journey.
As soon as we begin to realize that to be born human is precious, we turn our attention to the precious gift of life itself. And when we do, we come to understand there is a sacred core within us that is free from violence and fear, and further, that there must be a way of reaching that spot. We prepare to make a pilgrimage with the understanding that we are going to this sacred spot.
We first have to put away the angry, fearful aspect of ourselves, gather our courage, and make a commitment to find the peaceful, joyful core of our beings. This requires that we make a commitment to love ourselves.
In order to find our way there, we first have to put away the angry, fearful aspect of ourselves, gather our courage, and make a commitment to find the peaceful, joyful core of our being. This requires that we make a commitment to love ourselves. That’s how we prepare ourselves for a pilgrimage.
This sense of love and appreciation for ourselves can inspire us to learn about the special characteristics of a particular pilgrimage site, including the kind of personal practice that can open the inner door leading to the very core of our being. Cultivating this attitude and understanding helps us prepare ourselves for a pilgrimage.
How can I use my pilgrimage to enhance and deepen my practice?
Many of us already have some understanding that there is a deep connection between ourselves and the rest of the world, and we understand that these pilgrimage sites are nodal points. We also have some level of commitment to practices, such as pranayama, prayer, meditation, mantra japa, scripture recitation, or hatha yoga.
Cultivate the intention of discovering the indomitable will that is the inherent capacity of your inner being—the true burning desire to help yourself, to love yourself, to free yourself from fear and doubt, from anger and worry and grief.
As you prepare for your pilgrimage, identify your central practice and see how that practice addresses your understanding of yourself, your connection with the divine within you, and your connection with the spirit of the world in which you live.
Ask yourself if your central practice is really capable of helping you connect yourself to that inner self, that higher divinity that is in you and that is you. If not, perhaps the pilgrimage can be a way to discover that central practice.
If your practice is capable of connecting you with your inner self, do your best to add a little more sanctity, love, and respect to your practice when you are at the pilgrimage site. Do your practice with the genuine intention of discovering something more than you have so far known. Also, cultivate the intention of discovering the indomitable will that is the inherent capacity of your inner being—the true burning desire to help yourself, to love yourself, to free yourself from fear and doubt, from anger and worry and grief. When you arrive at the pilgrimage site, intensify that intention and bring it back with you. Continue to practice that when you return home. That’s why it’s very important to put some thought into your pilgrimage.
What else can I do to prepare for my pilgrimage?
Learn as much as possible about where you are going. What kind of site is this? Every spot has its own unique characteristics. For example, Assisi embodies the very spirit of Saint Francis. It is permeated with the unique energy of selfless love and a life of simplicity.
Once you surrender to the love of the divine here, you are taken to a place where selfless love and compassion and the blessing of healing and protection is granted here and now.
The Kumbha Mela embodies a different spirit—the spirit of becoming connected to a tradition of faith, discovering the forgotten part of ourselves, and connecting ourselves with the collective consciousness. At the Kumbha Mela, you will find all kinds of people: holy men and women, genuine sadhus, drug addicts masquerading as sadhus, curiosity seekers, scholars, great adepts, yogis, tantrics, ritual-oriented practitioners, practitioners of meditation, and thousands of innocent pilgrims who come with the simple faith that Mother Ganga will bless them. Numberless diversities find their perfect place here. The collective consciousness of this time and place helps people rise above all diversities, all differences, all disconnection, all those definitions that put us into small boxes. Here the collective consciousness allows us to connect with the whole world without judging anyone. That is the spirit of the Kumbha Mela.
Khajuraho and Kamakhaya embody the spirit of the Divine Mother. What does Divine Mother mean? The principle of motherhood: loving, giving, self-sacrificing, not judging her children, not judging anybody. These sites embody the energy of protection, healing, and nourishment, which so many of us need. Here our merits and demerits are not weighed. Here we are not subject to examination and cross-examination. The law of karma—“as you sow, so shall you reap”—is not the energy of Khajuraho or Kamakhya. Once you surrender to the love of the divine here, you are taken to a place where selfless love and compassion and the blessing of healing and protection is granted here and now.
So make an assessment: Why are you going to the Kumbha Mela? Why are you going to Assisi or to Mount Sinai? What is the unique personality of that pilgrimage site? Based on that, build a genuine expectation and then transform that expectation into an actual accomplishment.
You will be able to do this if you remember that a pilgrimage involves an element of discipline, self-study, and contemplation leading to self-transformation. It is not a spa vacation. One of the important aspects of that for contemporary students might be to step away from the habit of being hyper-connected. Leave all the electronic devices at home: smartphones, iPads, laptops. That is important—we are caught in the web of maya.
In the old days, our web of maya was really not that complicated. It was related to our family, our religious beliefs, and financial concerns. Now our web of maya is extremely complex: this World Wide Web is so complicated that almost everyone is caught in it. Just putting away this web of our modern maya when we go on a pilgrimage will give us a great sense of relief and freedom and allow our minds to reflect and ask: Who are we? What are we? What are we doing? How can we make the best use of life? How can we enjoy the objects of the world rather than drowning in them? How can we become master of what we have instead of just attending those objects as slaves? How can we truly become master of ourselves and rise above slavery to this world? A great deal of that can be accomplished by leaving behind all the trappings of this modern lifestyle, which erode our sense of interconnectedness with the world, other people, and our own Self.