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Saturday, March 18, 2017

Tirta (Sacred water) and Kshetra (Sacred site) - Maha Bharata Series 25

Tirta is water, sacred water; kshetra is shrine, a sacred site. The word tīrta means “that which enables a man to cross an obstacle (a river)”. The river seems to have symbolic meaning at several levels and in all cultures. The water comes from the sea and merges into the sea. The water of the river is not much different from that of the ocean and indicates flow of life. Rivers contribute to prosperity. They also cause calamity. The banks keep changing. Yet the unity of appearance is maintained.

We all know how much Hindus believe in bathing in sacred waters and visiting holy shrines. The origins of these practices can be traced to several of the ancient texts. Maha Bharata is certainly one of them. Starting with Book 3: Section 82, there are several passages on going to sacred shrines, which are invariably associated with sacred waters.

In one episode,  Dharma asks the priest Lomasa why  good people suffer and bad people prosper. The essence of Lomasa’s response is: “Do not bother with that question. Be good. Visit holy shrines. Worship the Lord. You will be OK”.

In response to a question from Bhishma, sage Pulastya talks about the importance of visiting holy shrines and taking bath in holy waters and says that this is equivalent to performing yagnas and homas (fire sacrifices). In this list, names of several homas are given.

 It also appears that yatras to holy places and bathing in sacred waters were offered to those who were not permitted to perform homas (that will be every one other the brahmins). This was offered also for the less wealthy, who cannot afford to perform the big yagnas. They were expensive, what with all the priests to be employed for performing specific functions, building of the hall, items needed for dana (giving of gifts) such as cattle, coins etc. Only monarchs, for example, could afford to perform aswamedha yaga.

As I pointed out elsewhere, we learn about many things from reading our sacred texts, in addition to the main story. We learn about geography, culture, plants, animals, birds and even celestial events.

The Pandavas go on tirta yatra and kshetradana during their period of exile. The number of sacred places mentioned are just too many to list here. Saraswati is mentioned several times. It is also mentioned that the river disappears at some spots and reappears further down. It must mean one of two things: 1. It ran underground in some places. 2. It dried up during draught and whenever a tributary caught some rain, the water showed up downstream. From what we know, this river existed in ancient times.

Other rivers mentioned include: Sindhu, Aruna, Gandaki, Sarayu,Ganga, Yamuna, Gomati, Godavari, Kaveri,and Tambraparni.

Kurukshetra is mentioned as one of the holiest places to visit, bordered in the north by Saraswati and in the south by Dhrishadwati.  Pushkara is mentioned, but am not sure whether it was a specific place or a region. Other keshtras mentioned include Prayaga at the junction of Ganga and Yamuna, a place called Vitasta in Kashmir region, Kedara in the land of Kapila, Naimisha forest and Dandaka forest and Gaya. There is a mention of Kanya on the list. It is probably Kanyakumari because it is mentioned soon after the river Kaveri and is said to be located on the sea-shore.

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