What is a pilgrimage? Why do people make pilgrimage?
I live in one of the oldest cities in the USA: Espanola, NM (since 1598!). About 15 miles down the highway is a precious Catholic church no bigger than our Gurdwara here. The Santuario de Chimayó is regarded as the Lourdes of France; people trek there for healing and as in Lourdes, they leave crutches and canes.
Every year during Holy Week before Easter, thousands of pilgrims walk 1 to 100+ miles to the Santuario. They walk on the interstate. They walk across hills and mountains. They walk for their health, the health of a beloved, for gratitude, for knotty problems only solved by prayer. Some walk on their knees. Some carry large wooden crosses. Some have babies in strollers and on their backs. Many leave Santa Fe at 9pm and walk all night to arrive by dawn of Good Friday. It is amazing. It is a privilege to witness. Volunteers from our Sikh community honor this event by serving drinks, snacks and sunscreen at a roadside table on the highway on Good Friday morning.
My own first experience of this Santuario was years ago. I’d been living in Washington, DC and had volunteered as a yoga teacher in the AIDS community. In 1992 I watched eight students waste and die. I fled the city for New Mexico and spent hours at the Santuario. It wasn’t Holy Week but it still helped heal the trauma. Such a teerath (place of pilgrimage) is for everyone, not just those who belong, in this case, to the Catholic Church.
To me a pilgrimage or yatra is a chance to connect to time, space and people who have come here before, “here” being the pilgrim’s destination. It is a journey of body, mind, and spirit, each in varying degrees depending on the yatree’s (pilgrim’s) intention and the personal Hukum he or she is motivated by. Many reading this have gone on yatras (the act of pilgrimage) to myriad teeraths in India. Remember how it felt to first set foot at Keshgarh Sahib in Anandpur? Or Harimandir Sahib in Amritsar? Remember the chill, the knowing, the immediate connection to Guru? Remember wishing you could bottle up the feeling and take it with you?
Guru Nanak tells us that pilgrimages are not how one liberates or comes to know the Divine. In Nanak’s time, many thought they could achieve good karma and liberation simply by traveling to sixty-eight known places of pilgrimage. The real work of clearing the mind and living dharma, not karma, was not understood or considered. In Japji Sahib, pauri 6 Nanak tells us that (journeying to) places of pilgrimage is worthless if there is no loving relation to the Divine within (terath navaa(n) jay tis bhava(n) vin bhanay kee na-I karee). And in pauri 9 Nanak tells us that by deeply listening within we are cleansed as if we had gone to all sixty-eight places (suni-ai athsath kaa ishnaan). Throughout the Siri Guru Granth Sahib, Guru tells us that the true sixty-eight holy places are found within one.
For some, the pilgrimage to an earthly holy place is the first step of a conscious journey to Self. For others, the yatra is an affirmation of the Soul and of a conscious journey well underway. For all who undertake it, a yatra mirrors the Journey of the Soul. We are all on a Yatra to One. The Siri Singh Sahib Yogi Bhajan summed it up in his epitaph inscribed on his tombstone by the Shinto Shrine at his Ranch here in Espanola: “Born Zero, Died One.” It took me years to understand that he meant the culmination of his Soul’s Yatra to complete merger with the One.
Keep on keeping up! The Chinese wish safe travels by saying “one road peace.” May your personal Yatra be one road, in peace.
Guru ang sang.