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This lesson will discuss the value and meaning of pilgrimages to different religions.

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A pilgrimage is a secret journey that an individual might take to an important religious site, such as a shrine or a river, a place that is important to a particular religion. This might be undertaken only once in a lifetime or many times. The largest pilgrimage in the world, and also the largest festival, is the Kumbh Mela. This is the largest gathering of human beings on the planet. It's hard to get a hard number, but around 80 million in 2013. Rivers have a special significance in Hinduism and bathing in sacred rivers is thought to bring remission of sins.

The Kumbh Mela happens every third year. It rotates around four different cities, Haridwar, Allahabad, Nasik, and Ujjain. And these correspond to sacred rivers that flow through them, the Ganges, the Yamuna, the Saraswati, the Godawari, and the Shipra River. These are rivers, but they are also goddesses. And they are also the one mother goddess. So by bathing in the river, one connects with the goddess. There's also a huge assembly of Swamis, renunciates, also what are called the Naga Sadhus, completely naked Sadhus who only come out of the forest once a year, or once every three years for the Kumbh Mela.

An important city for pilgrimage in India is Varanasi, also known as Banaras, also known as Kashi. Varanasi is such a holy city that it's thought that if you die there, you will be saved. Famous Hindu religious figures, Adi Shankara and also Tulsidas lived there and wrote religious books at Varanasi. Varanasi is known as the religious capital of India. It has many different temples and shrines that are important for Hindu worshipers.

Another important Hindu pilgrimage practice is called the Char Dham, which is the practice of visiting four temples in four different cities, one in Badrinath, one in Rameswaram, one in Puri, and one in Dwarka. So this covers the north, south, east, and west of India. The interesting thing about this pilgrimage practice is that it crosses sectarian lines. So some of these are Shaivite shrines and some of them are Vaishnava shrines. Part of this is being facilitated by the tourism industry, which is putting together Char Dham pilgrimage packages. So it's a little bit easier now to visit these four cities than it used to be.

Four places that are important for Buddhism in Northeast India, the last one is actually in Nepal now. But the first one, Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment. Sarnath, the site of his first sermon. This is actually right outside of Varanasi. Kushinagar. This is the site the Buddha's is parinibbana, also known as parinirvana, otherwise known as death. But this is the place where the Buddha is thought to have entered nirvana. And Lumbini, the site of the Buddha's birth.

So all these are important sites for Buddhist pilgrimage. There are also are shrines in Japan that are sites of Buddhist pilgrimage that are often intermingled with Shinto shrines. So Japan has a thriving pilgrimage tradition. But the Shinto shrines happily intermix with the Buddhist shrines.

There could be as many different reasons for going on a pilgrimage as there are for being religious. But a pilgrimage is a sacred journey that can be completed physically, seeking out a particular shrine or geographical location, or to visitor particular holy person. And sometimes we also speak of pilgrimage metaphorically, to refer to any kind of significant journey.

We talked about some important pilgrimages, the Kumbh Mela, the largest gathering of human beings on the planet. We talked about the city of Varanasi and the Char Dham pilgrimage. We also mentioned Buddhist places of pilgrimage, Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, Kushinagar, Lumbini.

And we said that there are also important pilgrimage sites in Japan that are important for both Buddhism and Shinto. Almost every world religion has sites of pilgrimage, so we really only covered a few of them. But the purpose, I think, is similar, to have some sort of transformative life experience.

Terms to Know

A sacred journey that may be completed physically seeking out a particular place, such as a shrine or important geographical location, or it could be a metaphorical journey.