The Authenticity of Spiritual Places
from Back To Godhead Magazine, #35-05, 2001
by Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami
Pilgrimages can enhance our devotion to the Lord, provided we go to authorized holy places, and in the proper mood.
When Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu—Krishna Himself in the role of His own devotee—was present on earth five hundred years ago, He sometimes traveled to holy places, or tirthas. Not only did He tour South India, but He traveled to Vrindavana, Lord Krishna’s eternal abode on earth. When Lord Chaitanya was about to leave for Vrindavana, King Prataparudra ordered his servants and soldiers to accompany the Lord, to make His path easier and especially to erect monuments at each place the Lord stopped. It is said that anyone who visits places where Lord Chaitanya stopped even briefly will receive great benefit from such tirthas.
Wherever the Lord went, tremendous crowds of pious people followed Him to get a glimpse of Him and receive His blessings. He was always merciful to the people, but sometimes He would escape without their knowledge and go on to the next place.
Raghava Pandita, seeing the great crowds following the Lord, took the Lord away to his house. The Lord stayed at Raghava Pandita’s place for one day. The next morning He went to Kumarahatta.
Srila Prabhupada writes:
From Kumarahatta, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu went to Kancanapalli (also known as Kancadapada), where Sivananda Sena lived. After staying two days at Sivananda’s house, the Lord went to the house of Vasudeva Datta. From there He went to the western side of Navadvipa, to the village called Vidyanagara. From Vidyanagara He went to Kuliya-grama and stayed at Madhava Dasa’s house. He stayed there one week and excused the offenses of Devananda and others. Due to Kaviraja Gosvami’s mentioning the name of Santipuracarya, some people think that Kuliya is a village near Kancadapada. Due to this mistaken idea, they invented another place known as New Kuliyara Pata. Actually such a place does not exist. Leaving the house of Vasudeva Datta, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu went to the house of Advaita Acarya. From there He went to the western side of Navadvipa, to Vidyanagara, and stayed at the house of Vidyavacaspati. These accounts are given in the Chaitanya-bhagavata, Chaitanya-mangala, Chaitanya-candrodaya-nataka, and Chaitanya-carita-kavya. Srila Kaviraja Gosvami has not vividly described this entire tour; therefore, on the basis of Chaitanya-caritamrita, some unscrupulous people have invented a place called Kuliyara Pata near Kancadapada. (Sri Chaitanya-caritamrita, Madhya 16.205, Purport)
From this information we can understand that some so-called holy places are not authentic. What, then, constitutes an actual holy place?
Before Srila Prabhupada’s arrival in the West, we knew very little of holy places. We knew that a church or synagogue was meant to be a holy place, and we may have had a conception that the heart was meant to be a holy place, the seat of God. We may have even known of what is called the Holy Land in the Middle East. But we certainly knew nothing of the holy places in India, or of the details that made a place holy in the first place.
Often it is difficult to ascertain the exact location of a tirtha. It is too easy, especially with the influx of comparatively naive Western pilgrims to India, for people to create a holy place to bring in money. Vaishnavas and others, however, usually contest the authenticity of such places.
Qualifications Of A Holy Place
The main qualification for a place to become holy is that the Lord or His pure devotee appeared or had pastimes there. For Gaudiya Vaishnavas, followers of Lord Chaitanya, Vrindavana and Mayapur are the main tirthas. In the present age, Kali-yuga, holy places tend to become covered by the material energy, so it is sometimes difficult to understand the mood of such places.
Even when a holy place is established as authentic, the question still must be raised as to our own eligibility to understand its mood. A holy place must be approached with the proper spiritual attitude and humility if we are to gain anything by visiting it.
Nowadays, devotees in the Hare Krishna movement are more concerned with the question of how to define holy places because they are living in places established by Srila Prabhupada, not only in India but in the West. Are ISKCON temples holy places? Most of the land now owned by ISKCON was once owned by persons with no intention of its becoming a tirtha. We usually cannot claim that the site of a temple has historical integrity as a tirtha. Its claim to holy place status must be based on something else.
Several things constitute a tirtha:
- Devotees must have performed (or be performing) spiritual activities in the place, and the tirtha must be visited by sadhus, saintly persons. In fact, the Vedic scriptures state that a person who visits even the historically bona fide places of pilgrimage only to take bath is no better than a cow or an ass. Visiting a tirtha means associating with the saintly persons in attendance. Canakya Pandita warns that we should avoid a place devoid of saintly persons. And a place bereft of talk of Krishna, or God, and service to Him cannot claim holy place status.
- By visiting a tirtha we should feel enlivened in our Krishna consciousness; the tirtha should carry that potency.
- The chanting of the holy names must be present as a prominent feature of the tirtha. Concurrent with that should be deity worship. Srila Prabhupada told us that as he established the various deities around the world, he worried that his disciples would begin to feel the worship as a “burden in the neck.” But if the deity worship is going on uninterrupted and the devotees in the area are taking shelter of the deity, then that place is holy.
- Prabhupada defined a holy place as wherever the Srimad-Bhagavatam was being honored. That might be in a large temple or under a tree, and it may be in India or elsewhere, but wherever there is respectful and repeated reading of the Bhagavatam, that place becomes holy.
Obstacles To Pilgrimage
Devotees sometimes wonder if there are ever any reasons not to visit a particular holy place. Of course, travel is always inconvenient. One inconvenience may be political. Holy places may suddenly be subject to political division, which can make them difficult or even impossible to visit. What was once part of India later became part of East Pakistan, then Bangla-desh. If there is political dispute between the two countries, we may not be able to cross borders in the name of spiritual pilgrimage. Political divisions can also cause a holy place to become lost. Just as the Ganges sometimes shifts her course, so tracts of land upon which the Lord performed pastimes can become lost to our sight. Perhaps generations from now, the Lord or His pure devotees will again uncover them and pilgrims will be able to visit them for purification.
Another inconvenience may be our own inability to travel. Another may be our sense of personal disqualification to enter the mood of a tirtha. Lord Chaitanya’s devotees never visited the temples on Govardhana Hill, and it’s questionable whether Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati ever bathed in Radha-kunda. Many of Lord Chaitanya’s Navadvipa followers never went to Vrindavana.
Visiting a tirtha requires qualification. Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura indicates this in his Navadvipa-bhava- taranga. After mentioning Ishodyana, which he calls “the Lord’s garden,” he writes that if anyone visits this place in Navadvipa, he will find only thorns. Still, those with qualified vision will be able to see the Lord’s garden through his descriptions of it. No holy place can actually be “seen” without qualified vision.
While holy places maintain an actual physical integrity, they also maintain an integrity in the descriptions found in devotional literature. During Srila Bhaktisiddhanta’s time, a conflict ended in Indians killing a British officer and the British lining up their cannons and destroying a temple. Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati noted that although the British thought they had smashed Krishna, they had done nothing more than destroy a temple.
If a tirtha disappears from our vision because of politics or time, we can remember it and see it by submissively reading the scriptures. A tirtha is revealed by the mercy of a pure devotee and is seen through the ears.
The scriptures also tell us that we are not required to travel the world visiting holy places. There is always the tendency for pilgrimage to turn into wanderlust, which results only in a superficial sightseeing. Although some devotees can sustain a feeling of Krishna conscious intensity when on pilgrimage, others are better able to meditate on Krishna and His tirthas while serving in the place assigned to them by their spiritual master. We have limited energy in this lifetime; visiting tirthas can become an entire service in itself if it is done frequently. Often, our spiritual master has assigned us a service other than pilgrimage, and we make more advancement by following his order than by going to tirthas.
Narottama Dasa Thakura has assured us that we can visit all the holy places simply by visiting Vrindavana or Mayapur. He also says that in Kali-yuga, pilgrimage is as much a source of bewilderment as of enlightenment. The real service to a holy place is to meditate upon the event that took place there, and it is just as potent to compose ourselves in our own place, meditate on the significance of the particular place, and to then allow the mood of that place to imbue our service with new life.
Every holy place has an internal reality. We are not always qualified to see it, especially if we remain outsiders to the mood. That is not only true of places like Vrindavana and Mayapur, but in ISKCON temples too. If we wish to really take advantage of the spiritual and historical authenticity of a particular place, we must learn to see with eyes of devotion. When Arjuna and his brothers were being taught archery, only Arjuna was able to see nothing but the eye of the target bird. Only he was successful at hitting the target.
Similarly, we must learn to see to the heart of a place and not focus only on the externals, the apparent faults or shortcomings according to our estimations. We must see the saintly people living there and see a little of their purpose in serving their holy place.If we wish to find the spiritual essence of any holy place, we must learn to appreciate both the service and the mood with which it is offered there. Without that vision, we will always remain outsiders, even in the most spiritually authentic place.