“The perfection of human life is based on knowledge and renunciation, but it is very difficult to attempt to reach the stage of knowledge and renunciation while in family life. Krishna conscious persons therefore take shelter of the association of devotees or sanctified places of pilgrimage.” (Prayers of the personified Vedas, Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 2, Ch 32)
As a vacation idea, travelling to an exotic destination is very popular. Aside from seeing great landmarks and various wonders of the world, people especially enjoy visiting the homes of famous personalities. Seeing the ground that famous people walked on, and touring the homes where people lived, immediately reminds us of that famous person and takes us back into the past. These trips can bring about pleasurable feelings since we can be reminded of the things and people that we love.
The day-to-day grind can get to anyone. Whether we are in the workplace or studying, daily life can quickly become monotonous. Not only do the days repeat themselves, but months and years go by where we end up doing the exact same things all the time. It’s nice to break out of the routine every once in a while and do something different. Travelling is a way to accomplish this. The summer season is a popular time to take family vacations. The kids are off from school for a few months, so families like to go on road trips together, visiting famous sites around the country and the world. Disneyland, Disneyworld, the Grand Canyon, and Niagara Falls are some of the popular tourist destinations in North America.
Graceland is another popular tourist site. The home of the King, Elvis Presley, fans flock there in droves to see everything related to him. The homes of America’s Founding Fathers are another popular destination for tourists and those taking school field trips. People visit Monticello and Mount Vernon to see the homes of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, two of America’s early presidents. Visitors can see how these great men, and the other people of their time, lived over two hundred years ago. These places are nice to visit because it puts one in a nostalgic mindset, reminding them of the accomplishments of their heroes.
Devotees of Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, also enjoy touring, but of a slightly different nature. Instead of visiting famous landmarks and world wonders, devotees flock by the millions each year to tirthas, or holy places of pilgrimage. Lord Krishna is so kind to His devotees that He comes to earth from time to time to enact pastimes for their benefit. Though His actual lila may have occurred thousands or even millions of years ago, the Lord’s activities are all well documented in the voluminous works of Vyasadeva and other great Vedic authors. Not only do we know where Krishna enacted many such glorious pastimes, but we often know the exact day, month, and year in which they took place. The Vedic calendar is based on the lunar cycle, so Vedic authors made it a point to describe the position of the moon on specific days of interest.
Though God has many many incarnations, too many to count actually, major texts such as the Mahabharata and Shrimad Bhagavatam provide us the list of incarnations which are deemed noteworthy. Lord Rama was one such incarnation, famous throughout the world even to this day. Born as the eldest son of Maharaja Dashratha of Ayodhya, Rama enacted many wonderful pastimes during the Treta Yuga. His life story is the subject of what is probably the oldest book in the world, the Valmiki Ramayana.
One major event in Rama’s life was His banishment to the forest for fourteen years by Dashratha. This order greatly saddened all of the citizens of Ayodhya, and even Dashratha, but Rama firmly adhered to His father’s wishes. Taking His wife Sita Devi and His younger brother Lakshmana with Him, Rama embarked for the forest. Rama had two other younger brothers, Bharata and Shatrughna, who were both away when the exile order was given. Upon returning to the kingdom, Bharata was informed of the news that Rama had left the kingdom and that Dashratha had died due to separation from Rama. Bharata immediately set out for the forest to look for Rama and to persuade Him to return to rule the kingdom.
“This is the bed of my brother; on this hard spot did he turn his lovely limbs, and this grass was pressed by them. I think that the graceful Sita adorned with ornaments slept in this bed, for here and there are scattered particles of gold. It is clear that Sita had spread her sheet at this spot, hence it is that fibers of silk are discoverable here.” (Bharata speaking to his mothers, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, Sec 88)
In the above referenced statement, Bharata is describing the sleeping grounds of Rama and His wife, found in the woods inhabited by the Nishadas, headed by their chief, Guha. Rama, Lakshmana, and Sita had stayed with Guha early on in their trip, so Bharata questioned Guha as to their whereabouts. Though a forest dweller considered low-born and uncivilized, Guha was a great devotee who had the honor of personally hosting Lord Rama and His group. Bharata wanted to hear all about the group’s stay, so Guha promptly filled him in on what had transpired. He showed Bharata the area where Rama and Sita had slept during the night. One may wonder as to where Lakshmana slept. The answer is that he didn’t really. Such a kind and loving younger brother, Lakshmana kept vigil during the nighttime while Sita and Rama would sleep. The exile order applied only to Rama, but both Sita and Lakshmana insisted on accompanying Him, so great was their love for Him.
Bharata, along with Shatrughna, also loved Rama greatly, so he took great pleasure and pain in seeing where Rama and Sita slept. The pain arose from the fact that his brother had to sleep in such a place. As the eldest son of the king, both Sita and Rama were accustomed to the royal life.
“…Rama used to be awakened with vocal and instrumental music, the tinkling of elegant ornaments, and the peals of goodly mrdangas…” (Bharata speaking to his mothers, Vm, Ayodhya Kand, Sec 88)
At the same time, Bharata enjoyed visiting this site because he was immediately reminded of Rama. This is the purpose of a tirtha. Many great scholars ponder the meaning of life, wondering why we are here and what our purpose is. Such exercising of the brain isn’t necessary since the Vedas already fill us in on the meaning of life. The material world was created as a place for spirit souls to enjoy sense gratification. This enjoyment is of a temporary nature since one has to eventually give up their body at the time of death. This temporary enjoyment is meant for the animal species, and not for the human beings. The human form of life represents the opportunity to know and understand God. That knowledge allows us to put a permanent end to the repeated cycle of birth and death:
“After attaining Me, the great souls, who are yogis in devotion, never return to this temporary world, which is full of miseries, because they have attained the highest perfection. From the highest planet in the material world down to the lowest, all are places of misery wherein repeated birth and death take place. But one who attains to My abode, O son of Kunti, never takes birth again.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.15-16)
So the point of life is to think about Krishna, or God, at the time of death. How do we make sure this happens? The easiest way is to start thinking about Him today. The ways of karma remain a mystery to us, thus we never know when death may come. If one practices devotional service today, they are more than likely to think of God at the time of death.
“He who meditates on the Supreme Personality of Godhead, his mind constantly engaged in remembering Me, undeviated from the path, he, O Partha [Arjuna], is sure to reach Me.” (Bg. 8.8)
There are many ways to practice thinking of God. Sravanam and kirtanam, hearing and chanting, are the easiest and most effective ways. Remembering is another process of devotional service. This remembering of God is what occurs when we visit pilgrimage sites. Lord Rama Himself visited many places in India which are now considered to be holy such as Chitrakut, Ayodhya, and the forests of Kishkindha and Dandaka. Mathura, Vrindavana, and Dvaraka are some of the holy cities related to Lord Krishna. Even the battlefield of Kurukshetra, the site of the famous Bharata War, is considered a holy pilgrimage site. There are these and many other famous cities and pilgrimage sites in India relating to all the activities of Krishna and His various incarnations.
Visiting a tirtha is a great way to spend a vacation. Many of us like to travel as it is, so why not get a spiritual benefit out of doing something that we already like? That is the secret behind devotional service. One doesn’t have to artificially renounce their current way of life and go live in a secluded place, practicing various breathing exercises and sitting postures. We simply have to take activities that we already perform and find a way to dovetail them with service to Krishna. Many great historical personalities extensively toured India, visiting the major holy sites. Sita, Rama, and Lakshmana bathed in holy rivers and visited famous saints during their fourteen year exile. In the Mahabharata, we see that Vidura and Lord Balarama also took similar trips. This type of devotional service is very authorized. Anything we can do that reminds us of God, His beautiful form, and His kindness to His devotees, will always benefit us in the end.