Does making a pilgrimage to a holy shrine have any value in our spiritual development? The answer is both “yes” and “no.” The holy sites are like mirrors—they reflect what we have inside. If we know our motivation for visiting these places, if this motivation is spiritual, and if we have learned the proper method of seeking, then making a pilgrimage to these sites will certainly be conducive to our spiritual growth.
To visit these places as a tourist or to earn religious merit has no spiritual value. Tourists find satisfaction in stopping by because they find it entertaining to visit places mentioned in the guidebooks. Faithful pilgrims believe they gather merit by visiting such places, and so they find joy in making the trip. But those who understand the spiritual significance of shrines and the relationship of these shrines with specific practices they have undertaken visit a holy site for a precise reason. Often they make a temporary dwelling in the vicinity, do their practices as prescribed by the scriptures or by a teacher, and find joy when they experience how the energy of the shrine accelerates their practice.
To visit these places as a tourist or to earn religious merit has no spiritual value.
To take full advantage of the spiritual energy of a shrine, you must know the history of that place, the exact spiritual tradition associated with it, and the spiritual laws that uphold the sanctity of the site. You can benefit from these holy places even more when you understand that these shrines are not necessarily associated with a particular religious or ethnic group, but are rather the living abodes of Divine Energy, which makes no distinction among various groups of humans or between humans and other living beings. Regardless of background or religious orientation, if you visit these places in the right frame of mind and undertake the practices compatible with the characteristics of the shrine, you will certainly experience a deepening in your practice.
If you don’t approach a shrine in the proper frame of mind, is it possible to have a negative experience instead of a positive one? Yes. If your attitude is not correct and if the practices that you have been doing are not in conformity with the energy of the shrine, then you may have an unpleasant experience. The experience of a spiritual leader from the United States who took a group to Gangotri, a holy place deep in the Himalayas, illustrates this point.
It was this teacher’s first visit, and he and the group of students accompanying him were fascinated by the idea of spending a few nights in the famous cave of the Pandavas at Patangana, half a mile from the main shrine, and doing their practices there. Tents were erected outside the cave for the group members, but the teacher asked the tour guide to fix a place for him in the cave itself. The guide told him that it was not appropriate to disturb the cave, but the teacher insisted, and in the evening he retired to the cave to meditate. When night fell and everyone else had fallen asleep, the teacher began to have frightening visions—he heard strange, disturbing sounds, and fearful images flashed through his mind. Convinced that the cave was haunted, he ran out and joined his wife in her tent.
According to the tradition to which I belong, this cave is very special. It is where Arjuna and his four brothers did their meditation several thousand years ago, and since that time it has been favored by the Himalayan adepts as a place to do their practice. I could not understand how the cave could be haunted. How could anyone be fearful or restless there? When I asked one of the saints about it, he explained that this cave is for those who meditate, not for those who worship ghosts and spirits, as was customary in the tradition of that particular teacher. Furthermore, by living in the cave, the teacher was trying to impress his students—a practice of sheer hypocrisy. The powerful spiritual energy of that cave does not allow such things.
Why are some shrines compatible with particular practices and incompatible with others? The answer to this question lies in understanding the dynamics of the energy involved in the formation of these shrines. Today we assume that a shrine has to be associated with a particular god or goddess. But this assumption is incorrect.
In ancient times holy men, intent on intensifying their practice without interruption and achieving their desired goal, retreated to a secluded place, either singly or with groups of aspirants, where they could do their practices without attracting attention. These places offered only the bare necessities, and so they attracted only those who were fully committed to sadhana—the austere environment repelled those who were less sincere. And here, in isolation, sincere seekers were free to experiment with practices that would have been difficult to do elsewhere. In time the energy generated by their intense and prolonged practices became so concentrated that these remote sites began to exhibit their own life, and subsequent aspirants—even novice seekers—were able to feel the powerful energy supporting their practice.
After the original adepts left their bodies, their faithful followers came to regard these remote places as shrines, living abodes of the spiritual energy of their masters. In honor of the adepts of their lineage, or the aspect of Divinity that had enabled these adepts to reach high levels of realization, the disciples and followers erected monuments to them, many of which were later modified into temples.
As the decades rolled by, people gradually forgot the history of the adepts who had founded the shrines and the nature of their practices, although they still regarded the site with reverence. Visitors usually focused their attention on the monument itself, or on the temple, or on an altar or statue that it housed, but the truth of the matter is that the actual shrine is the entire locale where the adepts lived and practiced—a stretch of riverbank, a hilltop, an entire mountain valley, or a sizable tract of forest. Pilgrims, unfamiliar with the dynamics of the energy that vibrates throughout the locale at a subtle level, pay homage to a monument or to the deity in the temple, but knowledgeable spiritual aspirants bask in the energy, taking it in by living in the vicinity of the shrine and undertaking a prolonged practice there.
If our practice is not compatible with the energy of the site we will confront formidable obstacles.
Some of these shrines have traditionally been occupied by a group of spiritual seekers who undertook the same or a similar practice, while at other sites adepts and their students may have experimented with a variety of practices of varying intensities and with different goals. As a result, the energy of a shrine and its adepts is so well polarized that if we undertake a compatible practice while living in the vicinity we are naturally immersed in that stream of energy and glide toward the goal almost without effort. If our practice is not compatible with the energy of the site we will confront formidable obstacles.
Let me give an example. At the northern tip of the Vindhya Range in central India is a site known as Chittrakut, for centuries the abode of masters and aspirants alike. Situated on a bank of the Mandakini River, the ashram of Sage Atri and Mother Anasuya is as vibrant today as it was thousands of years ago. A group of sadhus known as vairagi dominate this site, and for untold ages the saints of this tradition, through their practices, have so charged a hill in the area that it is known as Kamad Giri—the wish-yielding mountain. The nature of the practices performed here was such that through the millennia this mountain has become an embodiment of love, compassion, kindness, and complete surrender. If a practice undertaken here is not in conformity with these characteristics, you will feel uncomfortable doing it. Those seeking name, fame, or the acquisition of siddhis (spiritual powers) feel intensely bored, frustrated, and lonely while doing their practices here.
Not too far away there is another shrine called Maihar. It has a totally different flavor. Maihar is a site of miracles. Aspirants, especially tantrics intent on cultivating healing power and creativity in the fine arts, find their practices thriving at this shrine, but saints seeking divine love and surrender to God feel bored, frustrated, and lonely here.