Light up the dark in the places of Pilgrimage



By Acharya Chandanaji


Tirth-Kshetras (the places of pilgrimage) are a distinguishing feature of our culture. The word Tirth means the sacred bathing spots found at the confluence of various holy rivers. By extension, the name has come to mean mountain retreats or other areas hallowed by the austerities and spiritual exercises practised by the great seers, and purified by their presence.

From a cultural point of view the sites of Indian pilgrimages are also a holy 'confluence' of different sects, religions, languages and traditions. Here you can see India's diversity, her brilliant colours, her pageantry and her intoxicating beauty. In ancient times these holy places were the vital centres of learning and religious debate. If you visit any of these pilgrimage sites today, you can catch a glimpse of the soul of India. That is why India is called Tirth-Bhumi, 'the land of pilgrimage'.

Many of the ancient places of pilgrimage are situated in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Both Buddhism and Jainism have strong roots in Bihar. It is the heartland of both these religions. In Bihar alone there are hundreds of places of pilgrimage. At one time these sites saw many scholarly discussions by great thinkers and seers. Their meditative zeal and spiritual striving lit a flame which illuminated the entire nation. One could find a row of these ascetics, like jewels in a necklace, sitting strung out across the mountain tops in quiet introspection. What was uttered there reverberated around the world. Sadly that situation no longer exists. These once very lively places of pilgrimages - temples, holy peaks, banks of rivers and mediation groves - now wear a sorry air. They have become like shabby stopover places, like empty shells. Though their spiritual light has not been extinguished, it has considerably diminished. If we are not careful it will go out altogether and darkness will prevail. We have to re-establish our holy pilgrimage sites as centres of worship, welfare work, education and cultural activity. We must restore them to their former glory.

It seems that many of the areas where our holy places are situated, are economically backward and the people living there are very deprived. They lack proper provision for health and education, and a proper infrastructure for development and commerce has not been set up. Sometimes it appears that this backwardness, this slow pace of development, has in itself become one of the hallmarks of our holy places. There is dependency instead of self-sufficiency; instead of being welcomed, travellers are robbed of their belongings. In fact, neither life nor property is safe in these regions. People who visit these places make generous donations, as they come for religious purposes and they feel an attachment for the place. They are eager to do something for local development but often they do not get the co-operation of the locals. The local people benefit from the generosity of the philanthropic pilgrims, but once the largesse has been dispensed to them, they promptly disperse. They do not even use the money for their own or their family's welfare.

Such acts of charity have actually become an obstacle rather than a spur to development because they breed a dependent culture and provide cash for social evils. Poverty, unemployment and various types of addiction are increasing. I feel terrible anguish when I see that the glorious past of these places has disappeared; when I see these mountains and forests, once hallowed by superhuman feats of spirituality, reduced to being places of iniquity. I feel great sorrow when I see places once described as centres of knowledge, now drowning in illiteracy. Places where great world religions were born are now notorious for their staggering infant mortality rates. Places that attracted the great souls of the world with the rich perfume of their culture and spirituality, are now overrun with poverty, unemployment and crime. Anywhere you go today the situation is the same, whether it be Rajgir, Pavapuri, Guniyaji, Shikharji, Vaishali or Champapuri. The bitter truth is that all these social evils tend to be concentrated in our holy sites - turning them into places of danger and degradation.

It is vital that we change the situation as soon as possible. We hope that our places of pilgrimage will once again become centres of knowledge, purity and spiritual awareness. For this to happen, however, a truly concerted effort is required. A far-sighted collaborative scheme is essential. The development of pilgrimage sites cannot be confined to the building of temples and rest houses alone. Their reputation as centres of excellence will be restored only if the living conditions of the local people are improved and a sustainable development programme is instituted.

Thousands of people around the world visit these areas of pilgrimage every year. Pilgrims come here with faith and devotion in their hearts. They are eager to do something to help the local people. When they see what the conditions are like, they immediately try to alleviate the poverty and unemployment. They distribute medicine, food, clothing and other necessities. However, due to the poverty, unemployment and addiction that they face, the morale of the people of Bihar has sunk so low that despite these energetic efforts by the pilgrims, the situation changes very little. What is needed is a minutely planned development programme by the pilgrims to make the local conditions better and make the people less dependent.

I believe that a one-sided approach will not resolve the problem. Pilgrims can donate money and support but this will not suffice. It has to turn into something very practical. No progress is possible until the consciousness of the local people is raised. Self-worth cannot be given, it has to be born within the self. When people are responsible for their lives, help will automatically come to them. As people become less dependent on others for food, clothing and the basic necessities of life, the situation will begin to change and a different atmosphere will be created in these holy places. Hard work and collaboration will replace despair and lack of morale. However, the problems will never be solved if the people in these holy places remain objects of charity.

One of Bihar's main problems is lack of security. People are happy enough to come on a visit or make a donation, but no one wants to stay because their physical safety cannot be guaranteed. From time to time people inquire as to what can be done to improve conditions. They are full of enthusiasm and want to contribute to the development of our pilgrimage sites, as well as helping local people. Industrialists are willing to put up factories; schools, colleges and hospitals could be opened - but nothing will get off the ground if the law and order situation does not improve. The fact is that just hearing the word 'Bihar' frightens people. An awful atmosphere of insecurity prevails there. Everyone is worried about the problem. To improve the situation, the first thing local people have to do is to instill confidence in their visitors by creating an atmosphere of safety in these areas. Let the benefactors be seen not just as a source of revenue but as respected guests, and let local people be entirely responsible for their safety.

The locals should make the visitors feel at home and should make them feel secure. They should let the visitors know that they are with them, not against them, and show willingness to help in the development work. In my view it is only then that these problems of development at the pilgrimage sites can be properly addressed. We must replace the present 'reign of terror' in these parts with security, and illiteracy and disease with an atmosphere of trust and collaborative effort, so that the task of development can be carried through successfully.

Much can be done to promote vegetarianism in Bihar. Local people are trapped by ignorance and addiction, so it will be necessary to go from door to door to tell them about a better way of living. First, their diet and manner of life will have to change - they'll have to be free from addiction. The ordinary person in the area is very poor, fearful and superstitious. As they are uneducated, they are unable even to think of progress. Our first priority is to end this ignorance and addiction. Poverty is no crime; it is merely the consequence of ignorance and lack of a proper education. No development is possible for these people unless their mental outlook changes. Pilgrimage site protection committees and other organisations should get together and agree to a programme of action. At the same time the consciousness of the local inhabitants must be raised and they should feel motivated to collaborate on the restoration of the pilgrimage sites. I believe that this environment can then be rendered hee from fear and development can go ahead.

When I turn the pages of history, many things become clear to me. Jain society has always played a leading role in the independence struggle, constructive development programmes, and welfare schemes. Jains have been at the centre of building up the nation as a whole.

The Jains have always acted on the principle of parasparopagraho jivanam - there can be no progress or development in our lives without us helping each other. I see the Jain community in village after village assisting wholeheartedly in the building of schools, hospitals, temples and the development of other worthwhile institutions. I feel that their contribution to the development of our nation has been remarkable but that it has never been adequately recognised. With all due respect, I must point out that these services to the community have not been seen in their true light. People have been ignored rather than rewarded with compliments. No honour, prestige or other mark of distinction has been accorded their charitable deeds. The prevalent attitude seems to be that once the philanthropists have done their work, they should move on.

What sort of attitude is it that, when someone comes from far away to do something for you, and you don't even say two words to thank him; you don't seem in any way obliged to him and your eyes never light up with affection or empathy towards him? This indifference should be swept away and we should all learn to return the affection shown us by our benefactors. We should welcome their assistance. At the same time, the Government of Bihar should accept responsibility for developing these pilgrimage sites that are visited so regularly, and to provide security for them. Once the development of these places of pilgrimage is underway, the whole state will prosper.



Source : "The Jains Through Time"
Veerayatan's Silver Jubilee A Commemoration-An English Translation of' Samay Ki Parto Mein' published to celebrate the Twenty-sixth Centenary of the birth of Tirthankara Mahavira, English Translation By Sadhvi Shilapiji

Published By : Veerayatan U. K. The Wentworth, Pinewood Close, Oxhey Drive South, Northwood, Middlesex HA6 3ET


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