Pilgrimage to Puri (Part I): Tirtha, Kshetra, Dham

A couple of decades ago I worked for Raoul Ramdas Goff of Mandala Press translating. Ramdas is a disciple of Srila Bhakti Pramode Puri Maharaj, the founder of the Gopinath Gaudiya Math, which is now headed by Sripad Bhakti Bibudha Bodhayan Maharaj. My relationship with Mandala came to a sudden end when the company went through a period of financial difficulty and so many of the projects that I worked on never found their way to the printing presses.

One of those projects, which was in an advanced state of completion, started out as a translation of Sri Kshetra by Sundarananda Vidyavinoda, but since Sundarananda's book was written near the end of the pre-Independence period (pre-1947) a lot of the information was out of date and required considerable supplementary research. We prepared maps and so on, but needed photography and I felt I needed to do some on the spot research. My relationship with Mandala was severed before that took place and the project was left in limbo. Some material from it has found its way onto this blog:
At this point I doubt that the book will ever be printed and if I were to find the time to do it again, it would require a thorough revision in view of the fact that more than 15 years have gone by since the work was done. I looked at the introductory chapter for some work I am currently engaged in for the Journal of Vaishnava Studies and thought that it would be of interest to devotees. It was written with Mandala's audience in mind and so my readers may find the flavor a little different from what is usual on the blog, but I thought it had survived the decade and a half rather well. Since it is a bit long, I will divide into three parts.

The concept of sacred space

Nowadays, the Indian and Orissan governments look towards the West and its ever-growing hunger for offbeat travel destinations as a lucrative source of foreign currency. As part of that program, their tourist departments are busily engaged in a process of transforming Hinduism’s ancient holy places of pilgrimage into exotic hot spots for the world tourism map. Rather than immediately crying “sacrilege!” however, we should remember that there is a common thread between the concepts of vacation travel and pilgrimage.

The adventurous tourist wants want to step outside his normal existence to encounter nature in the wild or some strange and wonderful manifestation of human culture – in the hope of being transformed in some way. Even the less adventurous vacationer still wants to come away from his holiday feeling refreshed and renewed, the accumulated stresses of daily life forgotten. Aren’t these part of the promise of pilgrimage -- freedom from sin and transcendence of the empirical self?

Tourism can thus be seen as a secular version of the search for spiritual perfection. But, of course, pilgrimage is much more than a momentary relief from day-to-day cares or a titillating new experience of the exotic.

All human beings, secular or religious, have some awareness of sacred time and place. What American does not feel some degree of awe when standing in the Lincoln Memorial or before Mount Rushmore, great testimonials to the ideals on which the American nation was founded? The aura of sacredness, even in such secular places of pilgrimage, comes from a combination of factors, but is more than any one of them alone. It is more than the man-made monument itself, impressive though it may be, more than the ideals that inspired it, more even than the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who have trekked there year after year, leaving their accumulated feelings of reverence to permeate the ground below and the atmosphere above.

The overall effect is that any individual who enters such a place and pauses to reflect cannot help but be touched by the spirit of the sacred and the fundamental meaning that it communicates – something that transcends individual human experience and bears testimony to a higher purpose for human life. From the time of the pyramids, through the great cathedrals of the European middle ages, to the great secular monuments of the modern day, human beings have sought out or created such sacred places and designated sacred times – moments of silence, festivals, memorials, times of prayer and remembrance – as ways of orienting their lives to a higher purpose.

Places of Pilgrimage: Tirtha, Kshetra and Dham

India, the home of Hinduism, is a land where pilgrimage has always played a large role in the religious life of the people. There are many great sites that are visited by pilgrims in their thousands – Hardwar, Prayag and Ganga Sagar are some of the most ancient holy places situated on sacred bodies of water. The ocean, rivers, lakes -- even man-made ones -- that have been invested with the sacred are called tirthas. The name tīrtha or “ford” comes from the idea of “crossing over” the ocean or river of material suffering. Since this quality has been attached to all holy places, the term tīrtha has come to be used in a generic manner for any such spot, and tīrtha-yātrā for all pilgrimage.

Jagannath Puri is situated on the ocean, the “great tīrtha,” and also has four other prominent bathing spots, together known as the five tirthas, Pancha Tirtha. Devotees come to these places to perform the timeless rituals of bathing, saying prayers and offering oblations while standing in the sacred waters. As they do so, they feel that not only are they cleansing the body, but also being cleansed of sin. They are thus crossing over from this world into the next. This “crossing over” can be figurative or real – for many pious Hindus consider it to be the ultimate act to go to Benares or Jagannath Puri to die – or failing that, to simply lie by the banks of the Ganges to breathe their last. And if that too is not possible, they try to have their funeral rites carried out there, so that their ashes may be sprinkled in the holy water. One of the customary duties of the Hindu pilgrim is to make offerings to the ancestors (śrāddha) in such a holy place.

There are other sacred places in India that have been centers of worship for centuries, where there are temples in which the deity is considered to be particularly “awake” or jāgrata, i.e., where the deities have historically blessed their devotees, often through miraculous displays of compassion. These too often have roots deep in prehistory.

Some of them are the sites connected to Lord Shiva, like Benares or Bhubaneshwar, and the Goddess, like Kamakhya. Vishnu temple cities like Nathdwar, Tirupati, Venkateshwar and Jagannath Puri are also significant pilgrimage centers in this category.

Some of these temple cities have arisen out of ancient rituals of the pre-Aryan peoples of India, like Jagannath Puri where the Lord of the Universe became manifest to the Shabara, Vishwavasu. This epiphany – where the truth of a supreme person, lord of the universe, was revealed to a humble and uncultured man – made Puri the seat of a great culture, where the entire kingdom dedicated itself to the service of God in wooden form. Through the ages, the members of different faiths – whether Jain, Buddhist, Shaiva, Shakta or Vaishnava – all came to accept that Jagannath was their God, regardless of their own sectarian beliefs. They celebrated the festivals connected with their God, festivals of sacred time, interpreting them according to their understanding of the religious function and the meaning of worship itself.

When an extended area is viewed as having a sacred character of this kind, it is often called a “kshetra” (kṣetra), which means field or territory. Jagannath Puri is often called "Sri Kshetra" meaning the holy territory, though some people say that the word Sri here refers to Lakshmi. Another name is Purushottam Kshetra, or the "territory of the Supreme Person." Others say that there are four holy territories of kshetras in Utkal or Orissa, each related to one of Vishnu's four weapons: śaṅkha (conch), cakra (discus), gadā (mace) and padma (lotus flower). These kshetras are as follows:

  • Bhubaneswar is Chakra Kshetra,
  • Jajpur is Gada Kshetra,
  • Konark is Padma Kshetra
  • Puri is Shankha Kshetra

Puri is associated with the conchshell because it is supposedly shaped like a conchshell.

Another term used to designate holy places is dham (dhāma). The term was first used in connection with Jagannath Puri when Sankaracharya established one of his four great preaching centers or maths here. He called the four places where he founded these maths – Bhadrinath in the north, Dvaraka in the west, Rameshwar in the south, and Jagannath Puri in the east – the four dhams of India.

One meaning of the word dhāma is “dwelling place.” According to the Pandas in Jagannath Puri, Badrinath Dham originated in the Satya Yuga when Lord Jagannath was in deep meditation; Rameshwar is connected to the Treta Yuga when Lord Jagannath took His bath; Dwaraka Dham arose in the Dwapara Yuga when the Lord's activity was sleeping or taking rest. Finally, Puri Dham in the Kali Yuga is the place where Lord Jagannath eats His meals. Therefore, Badrinath is called the Lord’s place of meditation, Rameshwar His bathing place, Dwaraka His bedroom, and Puri His dining room.

Vaishnavas, however, generally use the word dhāma specifically to refer to the places where Krishna made His home during His incarnation, His “dwelling places.” Mathura-Vrindavan and Dwaraka are the principal areas where Krishna had His pastimes; Ayodhya is the birthplace of Lord Rama, and Gaudiya Vaishnavas also consider Nabadwip, the birthplace of Lord Chaitanya, to be such a sacred land. The etymological meaning of dhāma is “effulgence” in Sanskrit, and it indicates the concept of the sacred place as an extension of the divine presence, non-different from the Supreme Person Himself.

Gaudiya Vaishnavas also consider Jagannath Puri to be a dham, not only because of the dominant presence of Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra in the mighty temple around which the town has grown and the other temples and sacred places associated with them, but also because it was inundated with the mercy of Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu chose Puri to spend the last twenty-four years of His life. The entire land of Puri is permeated with reminders of this time, when Mahaprabhu’s rādhā-bhāva was the most intense and He made His most significant revelations. Of these places, the Gambhira, Siddha Bakul and Haridas Thakur's samadhi on the beach at Swarga Dwar.

Pilgrims invest a further level of sacredness in places where great saints were born, practiced their spiritual life, experienced the Divine, attained perfection or died. For Vaishnavas in the line of Bhaktivinoda Thakur, Jagannath Puri is particularly significant, for it was in the holy atmosphere of Sri Kshetra that the Thakur’s devotion to the Supreme Lord blossomed, and it is here that Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Goswami Prabhupada appeared in the world to further the mission of Lord Chaitanya in the world. For those who follow in their line, the words of the Padma-purāṇahy utkale puruṣottamāt – “The religion of devotion to Vishnu will spread from the town of Purushottam in Orissa” have particular significance on account of these events.

Siddhanta Saraswati himself established the Purushottam Math in the vicinity of Tota Gopinath, but in 1950, there were still no other Gaudiya Maths in the town. Since then, many of his disciples have come and settled here to do bhajan and to establish centers for their followers, including most notably Bhakti Dayita Madhava Maharaja, who reclaimed the birthplace of Siddhanta Saraswati near the Narayan Chata Math on the Grand Road, and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, which now runs the Bhakti Kuti where Bhaktivinoda Thakur spent many of the last years of his holy life engaged in bhajan. Both these places are of great historical importance for the followers of Bhaktivinoda Thakur and Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur Prabhupada.

Saintly persons of other spiritual traditions have also established monasteries in Puri and so their followers give the town the same sort of veneration. For the disciples of Srila Bhakti Promode Puri Goswami, Purushottam Kshetra will forever be of special significance, as it is here that he lived out his last days and entered into the eternal companionship of the Lord.


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