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" One touch of nature

makes all the world kin "

William Shakespeare

Pilgrimage in the Jain Tradition

May 9th, 2009

One of the spiritual practices found at the heart of every religion, is that of pilgrimage. In Sanskrit, the term for pilgrimage, a sacred or spiritual journey, is ‘yātrā’.
In a yātrā one takes a journey to a sacred place, but the whole journey, and the landscape one moves through can also be seen as sacred, and in addition sacred sites are often clustered to form a particular ‘sacred landscape’.
A yātrā can take place in the outer world or in the inner world. In the inner world it can even occur within the sacred landscape of each individual’s soul and body. A key stage in Jain Preksha meditation involves such an inner pilgrimage (Antar Yātrā) in which one journeys in consciousness from the base of the spine to the top of the head and back again a number of times.
The inner pilgrimage can also occur within the sacred geography outlined in Jain cosmology. One sentence in Natubhai Shah’s ‘Jainism: The World of the Conquerors’ Volume II (p.31) presents a thrilling picture: ‘Rare accomplished humans may travel as far as nandisvaradvipa.’ Those humans who manage this feat will be able to make the most extraordinary yātrā to the fifty-two eternal Jina temples which exist on the continent of nandisvaradvipa, which forms the last of the concentric rings of continents that surround the middle world of jambudvipa.
Heavenly beings are the normal visitors to the 52 temples in nandisvaradvipa. They go there to worship the jinas, to celebrate auspicious events in their lives, and to undertake pujas. The swastika of rice grains made by devotees in Jain temples venerates these holy places.
Even if we are unable to reach these sanctuaries on this far continent, we are blessed with an abundance of sites sacred to Jainism in the world around us. There are now Jain temples in all those countries which the Jain ‘diaspora’ has reached, but the most sacred sites must surely be those that lie in Bharata and that have a historical connection with the Jinas or the saints who have followed the path they have revealed.
Many of these places have become holy because they have been associated with key events in the lives of the Tirthankaras, such as when they were born, became renunciates, attained omniscience or achieved nirvana. The place where it is believed the very first Tirthankara, Sri Rishabdev Bhagwan, obtained moksha lies at one of the most powerful, remote and sacred spots on the planet.

The Path to Kailas by Nicholas Roerich

The Path to Kailas by Nicholas Roerich

For Jains it is known as ‘Ashtapad mountain’ (Ashtapad means literally ‘Eight Steps’) with most writers considering it to be Mount Kailas in Tibet, which is also considered sacred by Buddhists, Hindus and followers of the indigenous Bon religion.
Opinions differ as to the exact location of Ashtapad. The author of a book on Kailas and Lake Mansarovar, Swami Pranavanand, who has made 35 pilgrimages to Kailas believes the mountain is both Meru and Ashtapada. The sadhu Rambaba, who performed the last rites of Indira, Sanjay and Rajiv Gandhi, believed Ashtapad was actually located on a nearby peak to Kailas, while Shri Jaswantrai Busa believes Ashtapad lies at a location between Lake Mansarovar and Kailas.
Ashtapad is one of the five holy mountains of Shvetambara Jainism, and to make a pilgrimage to it is long and arduous, but the other four are considerably more accessible: Shatrunjaya, Girnar, Abu, and Sammeta have all become popular and highly venerated pilgrimage destinations. In addition to these five holy spots, and the pilgrimage routes to them, there are many smaller, regional pilgrimage networks, connecting temples and shrines.
Two important distinctions can be made between Jain sacred places and those of the other Dharmic religions. Unlike Buddhist sites, which often house relics, such as bones or ashes, or Hindu sites which are often associated with sacred rivers, Jainism rejects the idea that physical relics are of value in worship, or that purity can be achieved through ritual bathing. Instead its sites are most often associated with auspicious events in the lives of Tirthankaras or saints, and with associated miracles or myths (atisayksetras).
The most important guide to sacred places, at least from the Svetambara perspective, is the ‘Description of Various Holy Places’, written in the 13th or 14th century by the monk Jinaprabha Suri. Today, however, there are so many temples and sacred places related to Jainism, any author is faced with a daunting task trying to describe them. Even the magnificent three-volume work ‘Teerth Darshan’, published by the Shree Jain Prarthana Mandir Trust in 1980, is unable to include all the sacred sites of Jainism.
Nevertheless, it is possible to see the pilgrimage sites of Jainism falling into two broad categories, with the most prominent Svetambara sites being in Gujurat and Rajasthan, and the most important Digambara ones lying in Karnataka and Maharashtra. Different authors attempt to tackle the subject of describing the holy places in different ways. Paul Dundas in ‘The Jains’ chooses to focus on one example from each category: Mount Satrunjaya (Hill which conquers Enemies) also known as pundarika, (Hill of the White Lotus) as one of the most important Svetambara sites, and Sravana Belgola (White Lake of the Ascetics) with its remarkable Bahubali statue, as the most significant Digambara sanctuary. Natubhai Shah in his two volume work ‘Jainism: The World of the Conquerors’ lists 28 of the most significant sites, and the three volumes of ‘Teerth Darshan’ feature 265.
A traveller might do well to consider three areas to visit, perhaps on three separate visits, since they are far apart geographically and each is rich in opportunities for pilgrimage: Bihar, Rajasthan and Gujarat combined, and Karnataka and Tamil Nadu combined. For brevity, just three sites for each of these areas will be mentioned, although there are naturally many more sites worthy of attention in each.
In Bihar a visit should be made to Mount Sametshikar, where it said 20 of the 24 Tirthankaras, and many monks achieved liberation. Starting at 5 am the keen pilgrim will walk for almost 18 miles up and down the hill, visiting the many shrines, before returning to their base in the late afternoon. It is said of this complex of temples and shrines that it is ‘Tirth-raja’ – the king of holy places. Pavapuri should be visited too: it is the site of Lord Mahavir’s last sermon and where he attained moksha, for which reason a great Diwali festival is held here. Here there are temples in the city and beside a lake, with one temple, known as the ‘Jal Mandir’, lying in the middle of the lotus-filled lake, to mark the spot where the last rites were performed for Lord Mahavira. A third site well worth visiting in Bihar is Rajgriha, where it is said that both the Buddha and Mahavira spent many a rainy season. For this reason, the site, which encompasses five peaks, is sacred to both Buddhists and Jains. According to the Digambaras, Lord Mahavira’s first sermon was preached here, and there are many Jain temples and two features which are found in other holy places of the Jains: sacred caves and stone blocks with carved footprints, to mark the spots where it is believed saints or Tirthankaras stood in meditation.
In Rajasthan and Gujurat, Shatrunjyaya, Ginar, and Mount Abu should all be visited for the beauty of the idols and temple architecture to be found there, but also for the spiritual atmosphere which surrounds them and which is said to confer blessings on all pilgrims. The description in ‘Teerth Darshan’ conveys this atmosphere at Mount Girnar: ‘The natural scenery of the mountain laden with medicinal trees and plants in a deep, wild and thick forest is enchanting and beautiful. After reaching the top, one feels so much suffused with delight and happiness that one does not wish to descend. In Svetambar Jain temples, the ancient sculptural art on walls and ceilings and various other spots reveals incomparable dexterity which is worth enjoying. On every dome, and on every ceiling and pillar, the art displayed is wonderful.’ (Vol III, p.576).

The Bahubali Statue at Savranabelgola

The Bahubali Statue at Savranabelgola

In Karnataka and Tamil Nadu some of the most striking ancient statues are to be found. Once a visit to the great Bahubali statue and surrounding temples has been made, the pilgrim might like to venture a visit to the Villupuram area in Tamil Nadu, which was once a flourishing centre of Jainism. At Panaipadi village a 10th century bas-relief of Mahavira, identified only in August 2008, can be seen and nearby more carvings of the Jinas are to be found. Nearby too are the ancient caves near the village of Tirunarukondai, where it is said that Jain ascetics practised their austerities from some time between the 3rd to the 5th centuries, and inscriptions dated from the 9th century can be found. It is an important place of local pilgrimage. Finally, the modern-day pilgrim might like to travel to the Sri Ponnurmalai Teerth where it is said that the great Acarya Kundakunda practised his austerities. At the base of the hill is a temple with a beautiful image of Lord Mahavir, and on the top of the hill are commemorative footprints of the Acarya.
At all these sites the pilgrim will come to ‘Tirtha’ – sacred places – a word which means literally ‘to cross the river safely’. A Tirthankara translates as ‘a ford maker’ which shows us what an intimate connection there is between the ‘holy person’ and the ‘holy place’. Both offer us the possibility to ‘cross the ocean or river of worldly existence’ to journey through the ford created by the ford-maker to the other side. In recognition of this intimate connection, for a Jain, a visit to an ascetic is equivalent to visiting a holy shrine, and this is particularly so for the Sthanakvasi and Terepanthi sects of Sevetambara Jainism, who do not have a system of holy places, but for whom the monks and nuns themselves are considered destinations of pilgrimages.
Some devotees will have the means to travel to many places of pilgrimage, others will be unable to do so for practical reasons, and in Jainism no pilgrimage is considered obligatory or essential, as it is for example in Islam. However many benefits may be obtained from undergoing a pilgrimage, ensuring that we observe the precepts of Ahimsa (harmlessness), Aparigraha (non-possessiveness), and Anekanta (non absolutism/multiple viewpoints) are undoubtedly of more importance, and the optional vow of digvrata, which limits a householder’s movements to a prescribed area, provides an interesting contrast to the concept of making outer pilgrimages to distant places.
Perhaps those of us who do not have the means to physically travel to many places of pilgrimage can aspire to the yogic flying powers of Sri Acarya Vidyasidh Padaliptasurji who in the 1st century composition ‘Updeshsaptahika’ describes how he used to fly daily to Ashtapad, Girnar, Abu and Shatrunjay by applying a special paste or ointment to his feet.

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7 Responses to “Pilgrimage in the Jain Tradition”

  1. I feel incredibly nit-picky, but if you don’t mind, I believe the Sanskrit term is “yātrā” (not sure the special characters will survive wordpress; bot ‘a’s are long, marked with a macron as in latin).

    ‘yatra’ with short ‘a’s simply means “where”. Not that far off either, in a way.

    • Dear Philip.

      There are several Unicode fonts nowadays, e.g. Arial Unicode, which can handle the Sanskrit diacritics, and the texts with these fonts can be transferred to e-mail or webistes.

      In my daily work I use a font Times Extended Roman (but it’s not a unicode font)

      Ariel Unicode:
      Yathāpravṛtti kāraṇa (in this text box only the standard font is used, but as you see, it works)

      Times Ext Roman:

      Yathāpravṛtti kāraṇa



  2. Oh yes, special character on computers are still a mess 😉

    On a Mac, I use the keyboard layout “US Extended” which has most of the squigglies I normally need. The makron, as an example, is typed by first pressing alt-a, releasing the keys, and then typing the actual letter, so for “ā” it’s “alt-a”, “a” in a row.

    On Linux there’s serious magic and arcane key combinations involved (compose key, ‘-‘, actual key if I remember correctly). And on Windows I have no idea. It’s probably documented somewhere 😉

    Thanks for the article, now that I had time to give it the attention it deserves!

  3. Wonderful post Philip – thank you. You write about digvrata and I was wondering what the Jain thinking was behind this? I am fascinated by our spiritual connection to the intimately known and well trodden places that we occupy (in contrast to those we visit) and am curious about what digvrata’s spiritual aim is and, with regard to the Jains who choose this, what they hope to experience via its restrictions?

    Could do with some of that Yogic flying!

  4. Hi Maria – my understanding of digvrata is that it is a vow you can take which helps you in your aim of following the doctrine of Ahimsa (harmlessness) and secondarily perhaps Aparigraha (non-possessiveness/attachment). The idea being that the less you move about, the less harm you cause and the less attachments you have to going to places etc. It is essentially an austerity/limitation chosen, which would be fantastically hard for most Westerners (since we all love to dash about!) But like all limitations I think if perceived in the right way become keys to empowerment. (In the wrong way I feel just become attachments/obsessions in themselves). I found contemplating it in distinction to the idea of taking pilgrimages really interesting. I know I would find taking on a vow of digvrata even for a short time would be fantastically hard for me, but I can also sense how I could gain from it – as if the self is constantly brought back to itself every time it tries to wander! Again contrast that with the ‘wandering renunciate’ idea! A question I guess to ask of ourselves at any given time would be: What would best serve my soul? To wander freely or to stay in one place…
    I know I would go for a big pot of yogic flying paste!

  5. Thanks Philip! I find this whole question of ‘wander freely or stay in one place’ really interesting. I probably wouldn’t last very long with the extreme restrictions of digvrata, although I am intrigued by what the impact of staying put has on our perception of what is around us. Maybe this has something to do with me living on a small island where there is a tangible boundary around what may be experienced – I remember Jamie Sams recalling an aspect of her Native American spiritual training in which her teacher drew a small circle around her and told her not to look outside this but to spend an entire day observing everything that happened within it. She remarked how, after initial resistance, that this little patch of earth proved to be fascinating – teeming with life; a world all its own. I like the idea of our known, mundane spaces opening up and revealing themselves to be magical and extraordinary when we engage with them intimately; staying put challenges us to transcend our boredom or the dulling of familiarity and constantly see with fresh eyes. However, I remember seeing Venice for the first time and being struck how no other place on earth could feel and look (or smell!) like that and how wonderful it was to experience it…

    Travel can be such an expansive thing that opens you utterly, completely changes you, and yet there are times when it can be a form of avoidance. I guess that this is also true of staying put – it can deepen our experience and understanding of where we are and yet can be a form of hiding. I think your question ‘What would best serve my soul?’ is such a wise question to ask of ourselves. The trick is to be able to hear clearly enough what our soul is telling us…It’s hard to know sometimes, isn’t it? I just wish I had a pot of that yogic flying paste because then I could stay put and travel at the same time!

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