India’s Tirthas

We have been studying the Hindu religion in one of my classes, and were asked to write a paper about Hindu pilgrimages, called “tirtha’s.” I find this idea of pilgrimage fascinating and thought I’d share some of it here…

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I recently read a short story by Stephen King called “The Reach.” In the story, the main character, a 95 year old woman named Stella, is prompted by her dead husband to cross a body of water called “the reach” that separates her island from the mainland. The reach is frozen and as she crosses it begins to snow, causing disorientation and making the journey extremely difficult. Still, she carries on, meeting other parted loved ones who help her along the way. The next day, her son finds her body on the mainland. In the story, the reach is both a literal body of water and a way to symbolize the crossing from life to death.

This idea of a crossing–journeying between two worlds–is fascinating to me. In their books Eat, Pray, Love and Wild, Elizabeth Gilbert and Cheryl Strayed describe journeys they took in their own lives that were not only spiritually healing, but also served to bridge a gap between who they were and who they later became. Even my therapist recently told me she wants to start hosting intensive healing retreats that include a sort of pilgrimage, as she believes there is a healing and transformative power that comes from such a journey. In the Hindu religion, this idea of crossing is embodied by the concept of the “tirtha.” In it’s simplest definition, a “tirtha” is literally a crossing place or ford, but in Hindu culture the word “tirtha” has come to refer not only to places of pilgrimage, but to the way one travels. Tirtha’s are believed to be “limens which link this world and the other,” and the journey itself is considered a spiritual transformation where one may “cross over to the far shore of the worlds of heaven.”

As this is obviously a practice that has endured for centuries with powerful effects, even in our modern culture which doesn’t typically operate within the framework of concepts such as tirthas, it begs the question: what makes such a journey so powerful?

Perhaps its power lies in the meaning of life itself.

I was recently speaking with a friend about Aristotle’s concept of “eudaimonia,” the pursuit of which Aristotle believed was the highest perfection of life. Often taken to mean “happiness,” the word is better translated as “the highest human good” and embodies the pursuit of goodness for goodness’ sake, rather than a means to some other end. In this line of reasoning, well-being is not so much an outcome but the process of realizing one’s own “daimon” or “true nature” and pursuing one’s own virtue. The idea resonates powerfully with me, because I have long believed that while in American culture we are indoctrinated toward the “pursuit of happiness” as the highest goal, the pursuit of “goodness” is, in my opinion, a much better one.* (Of course, how we define “goodness” is a topic all its own, but suffice it to say that the pursuit of “goodness” will often [and, I think, necessarily] be accompanied by moments of extreme UNhappiness). Unlike the pursuit of happiness, the pursuit of eudaimonia is not one of pleasure, comfort, or ease. There is no instant gratification, no achievement of satisfaction through indulgence or entertainments. Like the tirtha, it is arduous by its very nature, and, according to Diana Eck, it is the difficulty which serves to multiply the rewards.

In this way, I believe the tirtha is not just the act of traveling from one place to another but the deeply symbolic physical manifestation of a spiritual truth. The tirtha is not just something we do, it is something we are.

*As an interesting side note, Aristotle believed that deep intellectual contemplation was necessary for the acquisition of a moral character, and therefore a requirement in the pursuit of eudaimonia. Hindu teachings echo this concept, as the world of heaven, according to Hinduism, is said to be a world “illumined by the light of knowledge.”

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Quotes taken from India’s Tīrthas: “Crossings” in Sacred Geography by Diana L. Eck

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