A pilgrimage (ਤੀਰਥ ) is an integral part of conventional religiosity. It involves the believer undertaking a journey to some alleged sacred site which has been specifically designated as being spiritually supreme by a religious deity and/or the deity’s messenger. The prevalence of pilgrimage sites in all faiths indicates a commonality of thought among early humans which we have inherited today. Some sites were identified as being religiously more able, more sacred, than others by our forefathers. With the advent of structured civilization, pilgrimage sites were evolved by their guardians into the harbingers of solace. This was a cleverly crafted lure to exploit mankind’s sophistication. Sophisticated man, it was argued, could rid himself of worldly pains by paying ritualistic obeisance at such sites. It was surefire entrepreneurship with human gullibility and incredulity ensuring that the fact that no site was more sacred than others was roundly ignored.
Even prior to the advent of Sikhi, a few enlightened souls questioned the sacredness of some locations over another. In the subcontinental context, the first such dissenter proved to be Ramanand. History does not record who he was or the dangers he confronted by resisting dogmatic spiritualism. Scholars opine that he was the same Ramanand who is credited with initiating the so-called Bhakti or mystical movement. Existing evidence does not substantiate this claim nor does it furnish any viable chronology to Ramanand’s contemporary era. Had it not been for the Sikh Gurus, this Ramanand’s name would have been erased from the pages of history ad-infinitum. They recorded his singular verse decrying pilgrims in the Guru Granth and thus granted him immortality:
ਕਤ ਜਾਈਐ ਰੇ ਘਰ ਲਾਗੋ ਰੰਗੁ ॥
ਮੇਰਾ ਚਿਤੁ ਨ ਚਲੈ ਮਨੁ ਭਇਓ ਪੰਗੁ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥
ਏਕ ਦਿਵਸ ਮਨ ਭਈ ਉਮੰਗ ॥
ਘਸਿ ਚੰਦਨ ਚੋਆ ਬਹੁ ਸੁਗੰਧ ॥
ਪੂਜਨ ਚਾਲੀ ਬ੍ਰਹਮ ਠਾਇ ॥
ਸੋ ਬ੍ਰਹਮੁ ਬਤਾਇਓ ਗੁਰ ਮਨ ਹੀ ਮਾਹਿ ॥੧॥
ਜਹਾ ਜਾਈਐ ਤਹ ਜਲ ਪਖਾਨ ॥
ਤੂ ਪੂਰਿ ਰਹਿਓ ਹੈ ਸਭ ਸਮਾਨ ॥
ਬੇਦ ਪੁਰਾਨ ਸਭ ਦੇਖੇ ਜੋਇ ॥
ਊਹਾਂ ਤਉ ਜਾਈਐ ਜਉ ਈਹਾਂ ਨ ਹੋਇ ॥੨॥
“What can I say? Where can I roam? My mind is now wholly crippled. (Listen now as to why), on one occasion my mind expressed the desire to go on a pilgrimage. Perfuming myself, I performed the required ablutions and set forth to make good on my desire. When I reached my destination, I commenced my rituals. There, then, my Maker revealed the Guru within my mind. This Guru inquired what I was doing for my Maker was all-pervasive and all around. What does one discover at these sites anyhow? Only stones and waters. All the religious scriptures claim otherwise, but I would only believe these tomes if I wasn’t conversant with the truth within me….”
-Guru Granth, 1195.
For Ramanand, his Guru was spontaneity. The Gurus, though, clarified in their verses that spontaneity was a mental process arising out of another more profound process: the internalization of the truth. This exercise revealed the Guru within, Gian or wisdom.
ਤੀਰਥੁ ਸਬਦ ਬੀਚਾਰੁ ਅੰਤਰਿ ਗਿਆਨੁ ਹੈ ॥
“The true pilgrimage is internal. It consists of contemplating the Shabad (the medium) through which the truth is conveyed and acquiring the resultant Gian.”
-Guru Granth, 687.
For the Gurus, the only authentic pilgrimage is one of introspection and internalizing reality. Spontaneous flashes of comprehension are one of the many elements manifested by this innate Guru. No physical location can supplant this true pilgrimage within.
While Ramanand was content to stray away from pilgrimages altogether, the maverick Kabir was more vocal in his denouncements.
ਕਬੀਰ ਭਾਂਗ ਮਾਛੁਲੀ ਸੁਰਾ ਪਾਨਿ ਜੋ ਜੋ ਪ੍ਰਾਨੀ ਖਾਂਹਿ ॥
ਤੀਰਥ ਬਰਤ ਨੇਮ ਕੀਏ ਤੇ ਸਭੈ ਰਸਾਤਲਿ ਜਾਂਹਿ ॥੨੩੩॥
“Kabir cannabis, fish, and alcohol-they who partake of them are said to annihilate all their spirituality and blessings accumulated as pilgrims.”
-Guru Granth, 1377.
This verse of Kabir is often misinterpreted and miscontextualized by so-called traditionalists to claim that he opposed meat consumption. But Kabir is not focusing on such a trivial issue here. He is actually challenging the power of pilgrimage sites. What is more powerful, he inquires caustically, the sin which effaces the virtue acquired from going on pilgrimages? Or the pilgrimage site which cannot influence the pilgrim to relinquish these consumables?
The Maker’s Gates?
The lure of a pilgrimage site lies in its marketing. It is claimed (by the site’s controllers) that it is some mystical gateway to the mystical realms. Guru Nanak disparages this sentiment in his Japji. There is no specific sacred site which leads to the Creator. All of Creation is the Creator’s court so why would one portion be more sacred than another?
ਰਾਤੀ ਰੁਤੀ ਥਿਤੀ ਵਾਰ ॥
ਪਵਣ ਪਾਣੀ ਅਗਨੀ ਪਾਤਾਲ ॥
ਤਿਸੁ ਵਿਚਿ ਧਰਤੀ ਥਾਪਿ ਰਖੀ ਧਰਮ ਸਾਲ ॥
ਤਿਸੁ ਵਿਚਿ ਜੀਅ ਜੁਗਤਿ ਕੇ ਰੰਗ ॥
ਤਿਨ ਕੇ ਨਾਮ ਅਨੇਕ ਅਨੰਤ ॥
ਕਰਮੀ ਕਰਮੀ ਹੋਇ ਵੀਚਾਰੁ ॥
ਸਚਾ ਆਪਿ ਸਚਾ ਦਰਬਾਰੁ ॥
ਤਿਥੈ ਸੋਹਨਿ ਪੰਚ ਪਰਵਾਣੁ ॥
ਨਦਰੀ ਕਰਮਿ ਪਵੈ ਨੀਸਾਣੁ ॥
ਕਚ ਪਕਾਈ ਓਥੈ ਪਾਇ ॥
ਨਾਨਕ ਗਇਆ ਜਾਪੈ ਜਾਇ ॥੩੪॥
ਧਰਮ ਖੰਡ ਕਾ ਏਹੋ ਧਰਮੁ ॥
“Days and nights; airs, waters, fires and shores; within such a system is this earth installed. Upon this earth are a multitude of lifeforms, they have multiple names. Upon this earth are acts committed and discussed. This is the true court of the true Creator. Here the Maker’s selected ones sit and rule; through their Maker’s grace they leave their presence in the form of deeds. Truth and untruth are adjudged here, Nanak repeats this forever. This, then, is the realm of righteousness-the Dharam Khand…”
-Guru Granth, 9.
The Bathing Ambit:
Ramanand’s sarcastic dismissal of pilgrimage sites only containing stones and water targets another corollary of pilgrimage entrepreneurship. The notion that bathing at a sacred site will wash away all physical and intangible impurities. Gurbani is emphatic:
ਪਾਣੀ ਚਿਤੁ ਨ ਧੋਪਈ ਮੁਖਿ ਪੀਤੈ ਤਿਖ ਜਾਇ ॥
“Water may quench your thirst but it will never eradicate your sins.”
-Guru Granth, 1240.
This verse is to be comprehended in light of Guru Nanak’s original emphasis on all of Creation being divine. No singular site is more divine than another. No one drop of water is more divine than another. Why then, Gurbani questions, do religious individuals delude themselves into unnecessarily polluting pristine water sources by polluting them with ashes and their own filth?
If Gurbani rejects pilgrimages outright than what of Darbar Sahib, Sikhi’s so-called Vatican in Amritsar? Are the dual edifices of the gold-plated Harmandar and the marble encrusted Akal Takhat a transgression against Sikhi? The answer lies not in perception but purpose. Doubtless, from the 19th century onwards the purpose of the Darbar has been derailed. Ratan Singh Bhangu in the Sri Gur Panth Prakash narrates multiple times how the Sikhs would congregate at the Harmandar to synchronize themselves with the words of their Guru and then gather at the Akal Takhat to discuss political matters.
The Harmandar, then, was intended by the Gurus to function as Sikhdom’s constitutional house while the Takhat was its sole senate. By no means was the Darbar intended to be a pilgrimage site as it has been made today. The artificial lake atop which the Harmandar is built was designated as a local water source by the Gurus and never designed to be some reservoir for washing sins off. Historically, Sikhs used to water their horses at its banks. The practice of taking a dip in it was commenced by veteran Khalsa warriors who would distract snipers by wading into the lake and furiously swimming towards neighboring forests while other warriors carried out sensitive missions within Amritsar.
Mistranslation of Gurbani:
Pujari mobs have translated two Gurbani verses to give the illusion that Sikh principles support their stance that the Darbar is a pilgrimage site and conventional pilgrimages are supported in Sikhi. The first is routinely beamed out to Sikhs globally with routine pictures of the Harmandar and its lake accompanying its musical rendition. This is the:
ਰਾਮਦਾਸ ਸਰੋਵਰਿ ਨਾਤੇ ॥
ਸਭਿ ਉਤਰੇ ਪਾਪ ਕਮਾਤੇ ॥
“Bathing in the pool of Ramdass, all acquired transgressions are taken away.”
-Guru Granth, 625.
History is also brought into the mix given that Guru Ramdass, the fourth Nanak, excavated the lake around the Harmandar. However, a preceding verse makes clear what the pool of Ramdass actually is.
ਮਿਲਿ ਸਾਧੂ ਦੁਰਮਤਿ ਖੋਏ ॥
ਪਤਿਤ ਪੁਨੀਤ ਸਭ ਹੋਏ ॥
ਰਾਮਦਾਸਿ ਸਰੋਵਰ ਨਾਤੇ ॥
ਸਭ ਲਾਥੇ ਪਾਪ ਕਮਾਤੇ ॥੨॥
“Meeting the self-enlightened Beings, even the outcasts are made whole again. Bathing in such a pool of Ramdass (the pool of wisdom), all acquired transgressions are taken away.”
-Guru Granth, 624.
The True Harmandar:
The etymology of the term Harmandar is much debated with texts like the Suraj Prakash asserting it to be Harimandir and mythologizing that the Hindu deity Vishnu instructed Guru Arjan to construct the edifice. However, even before Guru Arjan was born the term Harmandar was in vogue among the Sikhs. Guru Amardass, the third Nanak, writes:
ਗੁਰ ਪਰਸਾਦੀ ਵੇਖੁ ਤੂ ਹਰਿ ਮੰਦਰੁ ਤੇਰੈ ਨਾਲਿ ॥
ਹਰਿ ਮੰਦਰੁ ਸਬਦੇ ਖੋਜੀਐ ਹਰਿ ਨਾਮੋ ਲੇਹੁ ਸਮ੍ਹ੍ਹਾਲਿ ॥੧॥
ਮਨ ਮੇਰੇ ਸਬਦਿ ਰਪੈ ਰੰਗੁ ਹੋਇ ॥
ਸਚੀ ਭਗਤਿ ਸਚਾ ਹਰਿ ਮੰਦਰੁ ਪ੍ਰਗਟੀ ਸਾਚੀ ਸੋਇ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥
“Through the grace of the Guru, you will realize that Harmandar is constantly at your side. Through the contemplation and embodiment of the Guru’s injunctions, you will come to witness this Harmandar. My mind, stain yourself with the colors of the Guru’s word. By practicing true spirituality (not conventional spirituality), you will realize that the true Harmandar is within you.”
-Guru Granth, 1346.
The true Harmandar or 'everyone's temple’ is the enlightened human psyche. By no means is it some fictional deity's abode of worship.
Pilgrimages are not an aspect of Sikhi. The fact they have been made so at the hands of Pujari cliques only expresses how far the Sikhs have deviated from their tenets. Gurbani assiduously dismisses them. The question is, who will the Sikhs follow? Gurbani, or the Pujari?
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