A tirtha, a sacred place of pilgrimage, is a unique invention, very deep and symbolic, made by an ancient civilization. But our present civilization has lost all knowledge about the significance of such places. Today visiting a place of pilgrimage is just a dead ritual for us. We just tolerate them, without knowing why places of pilgrimage were established, what their use was and who made them. Whatever can be seen from the surface is not everything. There are some hidden meanings, which are not visible from the outside.
There is a famous place of pilgrimage for Jainas known as Samved Shikhar in Bihar, India. Twenty-two out of the twenty-four tirthankaras – enlightened beings – of the Jainas have died there, have left their bodies there. It all seems to have been pre-arranged; otherwise it is impossible that out of twenty-four, twenty-two should happen to die, with long periods of time between them, in the same place. If we believe the Jainas there is a gap of one hundred thousand years between the first and the twenty-fourth tirthankara. That twenty-two of them died in the same place is worth thinking about.
The place of pilgrimage for Moslems is the Kaaba. Until the time of Mohammed, there were three hundred and sixty-five idols in Kaaba – a different idol for each day of the year. All these idols were removed or destroyed, but the central stone, which was the center of the temple was not removed. The stone at Kaaba may not be part of a meteorite but may have been left by some inhabitants of another planet, possibly as a means of communication.
I am telling you this only as an illustration to explain that a sacred place of pilgrimage was a means to establish contact with enlightened souls who once lived on this earth.
There are places, which are very cold, where there is nothing but snow everywhere; and there are areas so hot that it is difficult to make ice. In the same way on the earth there are places with high-density consciousness and low-density consciousness. Conscious attempts have been made to create areas of high consciousness, fields charged with human consciousness. They do not happen automatically, but are a result of the consciousnesses of powerful individuals.
Twenty-two tirthankaras traveling to that one mountain, entering samadhi and leaving their bodies there, created a highly charged field of consciousness, in some special sense, at Samved Shikhar. It was intended that if someone sits there, chanting the special mantras given by those twenty-two tirthankaras, his journey in out-of-the-body experiences will immediately begin.
The only reason for creating the places for pilgrimage was to experiment with creating powerfully charged fields of conscious energies, so that anyone could easily begin his inner journey.
In a tirtha, a holy pilgrimage place, you drop all resistance and open all your doors and windows. There, positive energy is flowing in abundance. Hundreds of people have traveled into the unknown from there and have created a path. On the religious path, efforts are made by the higher, stronger consciousnesses to help weaker people, in every way.
A place of pilgrimage is where the currents are flowing from the body towards the soul, where the whole atmosphere is charged; from where people have achieved samadhi, from where people realized their enlightenment. Such places have become specially charged. In such a place, if you just open your sails, without doing anything else, your journey will begin.
The word tirtha means a sort of jumping board from where one can take a dive into the infinite ocean. The Jaina word tirthankara means a creator of a tirtha, of a place of pilgrimage. A person can only be called a tirthankara if he has charged an area into which ordinary people can enter, open themselves up and begin their inner search. Jainas call them not incarnations but tirthankaras. A tirthankara is a greater phenomenon than an incarnation, because if the divine enters a human form it is good, but if a man makes a place for others to enter the divine, it is a far higher event.
Jainism does not believe in a god, it believes in man’s potential. Jainas do not think that God can give any help; the seeker is alone and has to travel by his own effort and energy.
But then there are two ways in which he can travel. On the first, every man has to travel in his own boat, with the strength of his own hands, using the oars. One out of many may succeed. But on the second path you can take the help of the winds and open up your sails so that you can travel faster and more easily. But are such ”spiritual winds” available? This is the whole purpose of the places of pilgrimage. In fact, this flowing in a spiritual direction is the holy pilgrimage.
There are physical indications of such places of pilgrimage, but as time passes, those signs may disappear. So they have to be protected by building temples or erecting huge idols so that the footprints of those great seers can be preserved. Great care has to be taken so that those places do not shift even by an inch from where the event had happened sometime in the past.
The places of pilgrimage are well indicated, but the exact place where the spiritual event took place may not be known. Such places are hidden from ordinary people. You may go to some place where it is said Mahavira reached nirvana, but there is a great possibility that the exact spot is a little away from the place shown to everyone. The real location is shown only to those people who are authentic and deserving seekers. There, those people can bow down in respect and return home. The real location will be kept hidden for those who come there out of an authentic spiritual search and who need that help for the jump.
There are many such places…. In one Arab country there is a small village called Alkufa where no civilized man has been able to enter. There is no doubt about its existence, because history mentions it and there are also maps available. The location is hidden for a special purpose. When a Sufi reaches a deep state of consciousness during meditation, he finds the key to the path; he is able to visualize the whole of Alkufa. Otherwise, whatever maps are available are false, to misguide people. Alkufa is a secret holy place, more ancient than Islam. The places of pilgrimage which are well known and can be visited by any pilgrim are not the real ones; the real one is nearby, but hidden.
The truth is that the Vishwanath temple in Banaras, the most scared Hindu temple of Lord Siva is not the real one.
There are secret keys, mantras, through which to enter Vishwanath temple, just as there are for Alkufa. Occasionally, some fortunate seeker, who has the knowledge about the mantra, may be able to enter, but otherwise pilgrims go to the false temple, worship there and return to their home. But this temple has developed a sort of sanctity over thousands of years, even though it is false, because for so long people have believed it to be the true one.
All religions have developed their own code languages. They have their secret holy places, their secret languages and secret scriptures. So what we understand to be places of pilgrimage are almost certainly not the right places. Such great traditions have to be preserved because if they fall into the wrong hands, they may be misused. Ordinary people will only get into difficulties and will not benefit from them.
Every place of pilgrimage has its own key. Every religion has its own keys. The Tibetans have special mystical diagrams or yantras. These are keys. Hindus also have such instruments, thousands of them. In their houses, they write words like ”Labha-Shubha” – ”Prosperity and Goodness” – and they write some numbers underneath.
Another important fact is that in the life of man everything except his consciousness is made from matter. But we do not know what that inner consciousness is. We know only our body, and the body is related in every way with matter. So let us now look at another kind of alchemy so that you can understand the second meaning of a place of pilgrimage.
Like the water of the River Ganges, up to now scientists have not been able to understand why there are certain qualities in its waters, which can’t be found in the water of any other river of the world. Even the rivers that flow from the same mountain from which the Ganges flows, do not have the same qualities as the Ganges. It is difficult to prove the difference, but the whole of the River Ganges is an experiment of alchemists.
It has been attempted to treat the whole river alchemically. That’s why Hindus have so many of their holy places on the banks of the Ganges. This was a great experiment to give something special to the waters of the Ganges. Now chemists and scientists have also agreed that there is something special about its waters. If you save the water of any other river it will spoil and go bad, but the water of the Ganges doesn’t, however long it is stored. You can keep that water for years without it changing. The water of the Ganges keeps its purity and remains unchanged for years. It is because of this that Hindus have established their tirthas along the banks of its river.
You may wonder why all the Hindus’ places of pilgrimage are on the banks of rivers, while all the Jainas’ are on mountaintops. Jainas make their places of pilgrimage only on mountains that are absolutely dry and without any greenery. Mountains with vegetation and trees will be rejected; even large mountains like the Himalayas have been ignored. If just any mountain would do there could be none better than those of the Himalayas. But the Jainas wanted a dry mountain, open to the scorching sun, with the least possible vegetation and with no water. The reason is that the alchemical changes, which they are experimenting on, are connected to the fire element of the body. Hindu alchemy, on the other hand, is related to the water element.
Both have their separate keys. Hindus would never think of having a tirtha not within the vicinity of water, of a river flowing by, with the beauty of green vegetation. They experiment with the element of water, whereas Jainas are working on the fire element and so depend more on the generation of heat in the body.
Hindu scriptures and sannyasins, monks emphasize the water element, so a Hindu sannyasin consumes sufficient milk, curd and ghee to maintain enough humidity or moisture within his body. Without sufficient moisture, the Hindu key will not function. The whole effort of the Jainas, on the other hand, is to produce dryness within, so Jaina sadhus don’t even take a bath, because they want to preserve a state of dryness.
Inside us there is a balance of all the elements: if you want to go on a spiritual journey through one of the elements, the balance will have to be broken by dropping the use of the opposite element that balances it. So if you concentrate on the fire element, water will become inimical to your work, because the less water in the body, the better the fire will burn within.
The Ganges is a deep chemical and alchemical experiment, and by taking a bath in the Ganges, an individual will enter the tirtha. As soon as he takes a bath, the water element within his body is transformed. This transformation will only last a short time, but if the experiment is done properly, the spiritual journey begins. Bathing in the Ganges and then immediately going into a temple or to a holy place is only a way of using the outer for the inner spiritual journey.
The pyramids of Egypt are tirthas of some old, lost civilization. One interesting fact about the pyramids is that there is complete darkness inside. Some of the pyramids were constructed ten thousand years ago. It is possible that people entered them with the help of burning torches, but there are no signs of smoke anywhere on the walls or ceilings of the pyramids. The paths within the pyramids are very long, with many twists and turns, and along them it is very dark. This has remained an unsolved puzzle.
The most plausible explanation is that they were tirthas. When someone experiments in the right way with the inner fire, his body emanates a light. Such people were qualified to enter the pyramids. Neither electricity nor torches were ever needed; their body light was sufficient to move around inside the pyramid. But such body light is only produced through special meditative practices. So the producing of that body light was itself the test of certain people’s right to enter.
The exact measurements for a room that makes meditation most easy were determined after experimentation. Certain measurements of a room can be used either to help you to expand or contract your consciousness. The color scheme outside and inside rooms, the fragrance in the room, and the acoustics also can be devised in such a way as to help meditation.
All tirthas have their own music. In fact all music was born in such places, and the music was originally created by the seekers. Not only the art of music, but also all dance originated in temples. Fragrance was also first used in temples. When it became known that one could reach the divine with the help of music, it was also realized that through music one could also go astray. If a certain fragrance can help you go toward the divine, then with another fragrance one can also go towards sensuality. If in a certain kind of room one can go into meditation more quickly and easily, there are other kinds, which can prevent meditation.
All methods of helping a seeker were found in tirthas and temples. The bells hanging in the temple, the sounds that emanate, the incense, the flowers – their fragrance – were all prearranged. It was all designed to maintain a certain harmony whose continuity would not be broken.
There is one other thing to be understood. Ordinary we have the illusion that we are all separate individuals. This is a wrong belief. There are many of us sitting here, but if all of us sit silently separate individuals do not remain but only one individuality. One individuality of silence remains, and our consciousnesses begin to vibrate together and flow into each other.
The tirtha is a mass experiment. On one special day in a year, hundreds of thousands of people gather at a tirtha – all with one desire, one expectation. People will come from hundreds of miles away to be together at a certain hour, under a certain star or constellation. With so many people and this one desire, this one expectation, one prayer and one aim, a bridge of consciousness is created.
So when human consciousness forms a bigger contact field, the possibility of the divine descending into it becomes greater. The descending of the divine is a great happening. The greater the happening, the greater a place we have to create for it.
So the original form of prayer was group oriented; individual prayer was born much later, when the individual became more egoistic and it was more difficult for him to melt with others. So from the time individual prayer was done in the world, the real benefits of prayer were lost. In fact, prayer cannot be individual. When we are invoking such a great force as the divine, the larger a contact field we provide, the easier it is for that force to descend.
The third use of the tirtha was a mass experiment. The ultimate power could be drawn more easily when people were innocent and simple. So tirthas were more relevant in the distant past – no one returned empty-handed from them. But the pilgrim of today does return empty-handed, and so he must go again and again. The more innocent and simple a society, the less people were aware of their individual personalities, the more successful was this mass experiment.
Even today, there are primitive tribal communities in which the individual is unaware of his personality. There is less of an idea of ”I”; more of ”we’ is there. There are a few tribal languages in which the word ”I” does not exist. Tribal people speak in the language of ”we.”
So when the society was more conscious of the feeling of ”we” and there was not much awareness of ”I,” the tirtha was more relevant. The utility of such a place will be lost as the awareness of ”I” increases.
The final thing to be understood about the tirtha is the value of symbolic acts. For example, someone comes to Jesus and confesses his sins. Jesus puts his hand on that person’s head and says, ”Go, all your sins are forgiven.” Now how can Jesus, just by putting his hand on someone’s head, forgive them? Who is Jesus to forgive anyone’s sins? In India it is said that no matter what sins may have been committed, if you take a bath in the Ganges you will be free from your sins. How can a murder become freed of his sins by bathing in the Ganges?
Here two things need to be understood. The sin is not the real event but the memory is real. It is not the sin, the act of sin that clings to you, but just the memory of it. If you have killed someone, the memory of it will haunt you like a nightmare throughout your life. If you committed a theft it was done through you by the infinite. If you killed someone it was done by the infinite through you. You are unnecessarily standing in between with your memory of the act, and that memory is a burden on you.
Jesus says, ”Repent, and I will take away your sins” – and someone who trusts in Jesus returns unburdened and purified. In reality, Jesus does not free you from your sins but from the memory of your sins. The memory is the real thing. Jesus only removes that. Similarly, the Ganges does not free you from your sins, but can free you from the memory of them. If someone really trusts the Ganges and believes that if he bathes in it he will be free of all sins – if his collective unconscious built up over thousands of years reinforces this, and if the society in which he is living also confirms his strong belief – then he will be. Bathing cannot make a person free from the sin as such, because the sin has already been committed – nothing can be done to the theft that has been committed or the murder that has been committed; nothing can be done about that – but when a person with such a belief emerges from the Ganges, his trust in its purity and power frees him from the feeling of guilt even though the bathing is only a symbolic act.
Hindus say that Kashi is not a part of this earth, but a place apart; the city of Shiva is separate and indestructible. Many towns will be built and will be destroyed, but Kashi will remain forever. Buddha went to Kashi, all the Jaina tirthankaras were born in Kashi, Shankaracharya also went to Kashi, Kabir went to Kashi: Kashi has seen tirthankaras, incarnations and saints, but all are no more. Not one of them remains, but Kashi does. The holiness of all these people, the benefit of their good work, all the achievements of their lives, their collective fragrance is absorbed by Kashi and it has acquired their life streams. This makes Kashi separate from the earth, at least metaphysically.
On this city’s roads Buddha has walked, and in its lanes Kabir has given religious discourses. Now it has all become a story, a dream, but Kashi has assimilated everything within itself. If someone with absolute trust and faith enters this city, he can again see Buddha walking on its roads, he can see Tulsidas and Kabir…. If you approach Kashi like this then it is not just an ordinary city like Bombay or London, it will take on a unique spiritual form. Its consciousness is ancient and eternal. History may be lost, civilizations may be born and destroyed, may come and go, but Kashi keeps its inner life-flow continuous.
For example, Kailash has been a holy place for Hindus as well as for Tibetan Buddhists. But Kailash is absolutely desolate, it has no houses and no human population – no worshipers, no priests…. But whoever sits in meditation in Kailash will find it fully inhabited. From the moment you reach Kailash, if you are capable of going into meditation you will say that is inhabited by many souls, and wonderful ones too. But if you go there and cannot meditate, then Kailash is empty for you.
Researchers believe that there are no inhabitants on the moon. But those who have some experience of Kailash will not agree that that is true about the moon. The astronauts will not find any signs of habitation there, but it does not necessarily follow that there is no one there just because the astronauts don’t find anyone.
There has been a Jaina belief, over twenty thousand years old, that there is life on the moon, but they don’t know what kind of habitation. That life form is like that of Kailash or that of any other tirtha.
When you get down from a train at the Kashi station, you see the gross form of Kashi, made of mud and stone: any tourist can go there and return. But there is a spiritual form of Kashi which only those who are introspective will be able to reach – those who can go deep into meditation.
It is more or less certain that about five hundred Buddhist siddhas regularly stay there; five hundred individuals who are enlightened buddhas will always remain on Kailash. If one of them wants to go on some other mission, he will not go until some other buddha arrives to take his place. But a minimum of five hundred enlightened buddhas must always stay there to make Kailash a tirtha. Only when one reaches such a tirtha does one meet disembodied souls, but it is not possible to meet them unless there is some fixed physical location; otherwise where would you meet disembodied souls, which cannot be seen? So Kashi is a place where you can sit in meditation and enter that inner world to establish communication with such souls. A tirtha cannot be understood intellectually, because it has nothing to do with the intellect. The real tirtha is hidden somewhere near the physical indication of it.
Tirthas do the same work as is done by radars today: radars reach where the eyes cannot. Stars which cannot be seen with the eyes can be detected by radar. Now through the tirtha communication can be established between those who have left us, and with those from whom we have become separated. Tirthas were established by those who left for those who are still on the path – for those who have not yet reached, for those who can still go astray. Those left behind may occasionally need to ask something, to know something, which may be absolutely necessary for further progress, and without which they may go astray. They don’t know what their future is, they don’t know the road ahead; so for needy seekers such as them special arrangements were created – such as tirthas, temples, mantras, idols, and so on. They are all rituals, but still they are definite processes to be gone through.
In relation to religion similar things happen. What we call religious rituals are outward, superficial actions observed by us. Those who know nothing of the inner arrangements also go through the same actions. Sometimes, when something happens, we feel perhaps the rituals are helpful; at other times when nothing happens we feel earlier successes must have been accidental, because if the ritual is right it should always produce a result. So whatever we do not understand appears to be like a ritual from the outside. This happens even with those who are highly intellectual people – because intellect is, in a way, childish, and an intellectual person is, in a sense, juvenile, because intellect cannot take you very deep.
It’s interesting to note that all civilizations live through beliefs, faith. Only three or four people may know how the record-player actually works; the rest just have faith in its working. You switch on a button and there is light; you do it daily but can you explain how it happens? Only a few people know the secrets of its working; the remaining people only utilize the benefits of the discoveries. But when those secrets are lost, those who have just utilized their benefits will be at a loss; they will be afraid if one day the light bulb doesn’t light up.
Buddhists do not allow the original Bodhi tree – the one under which Buddha became enlightened – to die. Now you can understand why. When the original tree was withering, King Ashoka sent one of its branches to Sri Lanka. That branch became a tree and is still there. A branch of it was brought back to India and planted in Bodhgaya. The same tree has been kept in continuity. The Bodhgaya tirtha is valuable because of that tree.
When Buddha became enlightened the tree must have deeply absorbed something of Buddha’s consciousness. It was an unprecedented and extraordinary event, the experience of enlightenment happening to Buddha. That tree had its own experience of the event of enlightenment and became charged. Those who know use the tree to establish communication with Buddha. So it is not the town of Bodhgaya, but the Bodhi tree that is of value. Buddha had walked and lived under that tree for a long time before his enlightenment. The whole life energy of that tree was filled with, saturated with, and charged by Buddha.
Mahendra, the son of King Ashok took the branch of Bodhi tree to Sri Lanka. No other king in this world has ever given a branch of a tree as a present. Can such a thing be a present? But the whole of Sri Lanka was affected with the energy vibrating from the branch of that Bodhi tree.
People said that Mahendra had made Sri Lanka Buddhist, but they were wrong. The conversion of Sri Lanka happened through the branch of the Bodhi tree; that branch turned those people to Buddhism. Buddha had given a secret message that the branch should be sent to Sri Lanka, and that the right time and the right person to carry it should be waited for. When that right person arrived, the branch was sent.
Mahendra and Sanghamitra were Buddhist bhikkus and were living during buddha’s time. The Bodhi tree could not be sent to Sri Lanka through just anyone; only a person who had lived with Buddha, who had known Buddha, and who would not carry the branch simply as a branch of a tree but as a living buddha, could be entrusted with the job.
The history behind this history is worth remembering. This is the secret history, which travels behind the mundane history. The real history is that where the actual roots are; otherwise there is a network of events that happen on the surface. That is not the real history – which is printed in newspapers and books.
If we ever become capable of focusing our sight on the real history, we will be able to understand the secrets of all these things.