Pilgrimage and the Construction of Bhārat

The conventional understanding of Indian identity – and one that is still taught in our schools – derives from what is called the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) or in watered-down versions of it such as an Aryan Migration Theory (AMT).  An entire sociocultural and sociopolitical edifice has been built on this, its key constituents enshrined in the Constitution of India that structures the Indian Republic.  It is preached at the highest levels of the State [1] and the consequences on our national polity of such a Macaulayan understanding are evident all around us now.  We are being broken apart.[2]

The Aryan Invasion Theory is based on linguistic and theological mythology – the supposition of a language called Proto-Indo-European, and dating based on the calculations of Archbishop James Ussher of Ireland that “God” commenced his creation of all of us on Sunday, Oct 23, 4004 BC. [3]   This date, in 1701 accepted as authentic by the King James Bible, to this day determines the officially-sanctioned Indian historiography.  Because we could have no history prior to 4004 BC, Max Muller arbitrarily assigned 1500 BCE to the Rig Veda, and that is what is still taught in Indian schools and believed by us Indians, though more soundly-researched accounts take the Rig Veda back to at least 6000 BCE.[4]   The sole archaeological basis for the AIT was British colonial archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler’s excavation in Harappa of 38 human skeletons that he assumed were evidence of a massacre by invaders. That’s it. There is no supporting evidence of any kind whatsoever to establish any massacre, let alone that by invaders, yet it is on such flimsy foundations that generations of schoolchildren have and are being taught of an invasion by fair-skinned “Aryan race” that drove southwards the indigenous dark-skinned “Dravidians” and dealt even worse with the autochthonous “Adivasis”.

Though the AIT is quite discredited, and its proponents now attempt to salvage their professional reputations through the AMT, that it continues to dominate our school education and, therefore, to ways in which we Indians construct our identity, is tribute to the continuing hold of the Macaulayan manifesto over our national psyche.

All this, notwithstanding ample evidence available from a variety of sources including, most importantly, genetics, that the Indians who our professional historians claim are invaders, and Indians who are said by them to be indigenous, are of the same genetic stock. [5]

The Constitution of India makes a single, parenthetical reference to the possibility that all of us are of the same genetic stock, as “Bhārat”, but the interpreters and enforcers of that Constitution are yet to break free of their Macaulayan mould. All the evidence points to an overwhelmingly common indigenous ancestry; a commonness sustained and promoted through civilizational values propagated at the shastriya level through the use of Sanskrit and interconnecting, for millennia, at the lok level across the entire subcontinent with the phenomenon of pilgrimage.[6]

The Indian subcontinent, the land, being considered sacred is an ancient tradition the study of which found modern academic expression in the conception of what Milton Singer called a “sacred geography“. He described this as a set of sacred centres — rivers, holy places of saints, temples, and shrine centres — that provided the forum, media and vehicle for expressing the Great Tradition.[7]

For such centres in India, Bernard Cohn and McKim Marriott elaborated that

Centres carrying on each of these special functions are  related as  nexes or ganglia to…rural networks whose strands they  bind and  intertwine…[Among those networks are religious ones  that] include periodic individual and mass pilgrimages which are almost universally  practiced,  as  well as the  constant  movements  of professional entertainers, preceptors, holy men and beggars.  Such religious  networks have always been vital channels  of  cultural communication…..By  moving through the religious  networks,  by joining  in the life of those microcosmic centres which  are  the sacred cities, Hindu pilgrims become aware of Indian civilisation as multiple orderings of diversity.[8]

If the sacred cities are microcosmic centres, Robert Redfield and Milton Singer pointed out how these microcosms are further replicated:

In India `sacred geography’ has also played an important part in determining the location and layout of villages and cities and in this way has created a cultural continuity between countryside and urban centers. In ancient India, at least every village and every city had a `sacred center’ with temple, tank, and garden. And  the trees and plants associated with the sacred shrine  were also planted in private gardens, for the households too had their sacred  center;  the  house  is the `body  of  a  spirit’  (Vatra Purusha)  just as the human body is the `house of the soul’.

At each of these levels — of household, village, and city — the `sacred center’ provides the forum, the vehicle, and the content for the formation of distinct cultural identities — of families, village, and city. But as individuals  pass  outward, although their contacts with others become less intimate and less frequent,  they nevertheless are carried along by the  continuity of  the  `sacred centers,’ feeling a consciousness  of  a  single cultural universe, where people hold the same things sacred,  and where  the similarities of civic obligations in village and  city to maintain tanks, build public squares, plant fruit trees, erect platforms and shrines, is concrete testimony to common  standards of  virtue  and responsibility…..[Redfield and  Singer  suggested that]  actual physical places, buildings and monuments —  especially  as they become places of sacred or  patriotic  pilgrimage —are important means to a more universalized  cultural  consciousness  and  the  spread  of  a  Great  Tradition  [that]  in India…has been and still is an especially important  universalizing force…..Today the millions of pilgrims who flock to  such pre-eminent holy spots as Allahabad or Banaras create problems of public safety and urban overcrowding, but they, like Nehru  are also discovering the Bharat Mata beyond their villages.[9]

SM Bhardwaj,  in  a comprehensive and authoritative  account  of Hindu  pilgrimage, based  on interviews with a  total  of  5,454 pilgrims at 12 pilgrimage centres, spoke of the antiquity of this  sacred geography — “a grand tour [can be  drawn]  through the entire country some centuries before Christ”.  Clearly, by the time of the Mahabhārata at least 5000 years ago, [10] there were established pilgrimage centres over almost the whole subcontinent, creating what he called “the recognition of a vast religious space”.  David Sopher, from fieldwork in Gujarat, illustrated how pilgrim traffic is among the more important “largely informal, autonomous circulatory flows” that maintain “common forms and a sense of community” throughout India.  There is no strict and universally accepted hierarchy of religious centres — they are, as Bhardwaj said, “active nodes from which certain aspects of religious tradition circulate among the mass of Hindu population”. He went  on  to describe  them also as “economic enterprises”, nodes  for trade, from early times the recipients of revenue to the government  — such  as through a pilgrim tax — and more recently, “a useful field  for  the  diffusion of new ideas bearing on  the  social, economic, and political development of India”.  Nevertheless, “at the highest  level,” these nodes “define the  limits  of  Hindu religious  space…..They provide a perpetual link with the  past —  as far back as the epic period…..Long-distance pilgrimage provides a mechanism whereby the pilgrims transcend the political and cultural boundaries within India” and at a lower, regional or sub-regional  level  of circulation, “elements  of  the `little tradition’  may  become parts of the `great tradition'” and also,  as Irawati  Karve showed, the other way around.  V Raghavan attributed intention to “saints to make certain shrines powerful centres to attract multitudes” and, as an example, citing Nehru, said “doubtless Sankara was aware of the effects of his travels and specifically wanted to encourage the conception of a culturally united India.” He repeats Gandhi’s question: “What  do  you think could have been the intention of these farseeing  ancestors of  ours  who established Setubandha (Rameswar)  in  the  south, Jagannath  in  the  east and Hardwar in the north  as  places  of pilgrimage?”[11]

Such is our land Bhārat, conceived of as sacred; “not a mere extension of the physical profane space; it is a space of the moral order, the sacred order” (Bhardwaj).  Thus, Bhārat is not just a physical or political entity; it is also a psychic construction, and all together go towards sustaining bhāratiyata as a civilization.

Agehananda Bharati provided a salutary warning that “it is important not to use English descriptive terms for Indian themes just because the contextual ranges seem to overlap. When we  talk  about `pilgrimage’ we are no doubt entitled  to  assume some parallels in the Christian or in the Muslim traditions,  but we  must  not expect that the philosophy, ideology, or  even  the implementation  of  those  deeds and  attitudes that constitute `pilgrimage’ will coincide with Mediterranean notions referred to by the same terms…..Indian terms for pilgrimage are often to be understood metaphorically, as when a yogi (a contemplative adept) `performs’ a `pilgrimage’ (yatra) to the seven `shrines’ (tirtha) by  a  specific type of meditation, during which  he stays put, physically.”

Bhardwaj clarified that “pilgrimage here means `to partake of’ and the `shrine’ implies a certain quality such as `truth’.”  Thus, a Skandapurana verse that he quotes says “truth, forgiveness, control of senses, kindness to all living beings and simplicity are tirthas.”  In its most generalised sense, Hindu pilgrimage is a partaking of Truth through austerity and mental and moral discipline and is only “one of the many ways toward self-realization and bliss.” It has always been part of the “mainline manifestation” of the faith, albeit not a very important observance from the salvific point of view. Indeed, Bharati stated that while it is “not essential to spiritual welfare…as an observance it has been ubiquitous, but never compulsory.”

Even where its performance is “expected”, it “has not the psychology of one who would abide by a rule but of one who fulfils an essential and well-loved promise.”[12]  Carl Diehl noted it is “an affair of the individual…a means to an end” the individual is seeking.[13]  The ends  as  listed by Bhardwaj included “desire  for identification with the sacred order…the accumulation of merit and the removal of sin…life-cycle purposes…problem-generated  (or  tension-generated) purposes…purposes related to social  motives  and desires” [14]  but apparently, as Bharati noted, never “because  it is  a pleasant pastime or because one `wants to get away from  it all'”, that is, as a secular retreat.  Bharati continued that the “very ancient canonical device” of phalasruti (literally “revealing the fruit”), that is, “he who does…properly…will gain x,y,z”  is quite basic in the history of pilgrimage in India.  It is applied indiscriminately: “in principle, every Hindu would pay homage to a Muslim saint or, for that matter, to a saint of any religion”. Sopher showed how “technological change and modernization are giving pilgrimage an increasingly touristic, secular character”, encouraged by what Bharati called official “cultural, secular efforts”.  This  is tending to approximate  it  to the characteristic modern Christian pilgrimage which Victor and Edith Turner  described as  that which “is blended with  tourism,  and involves a major journey, usually by modern means of transportation”.[15]

There is much contemporary debate over the meaning of religion and its forms of expression in our modern “secular” polity, especially when “secular” itself is controversially interpreted. The debate is yet to be resolved.  David Kinsley pointed out that “there are thousands of sacred places of pilgrimage all over the Indian subcontinent”[16] — the whole land is become sacred.  For that  period when political boundaries were shifting or  blurred, credit  (or discredit, depending on the point of view)  for  the construction  of  a  pan-Indian consciousness  through  a  sacred geography is usually accorded by scholars to the Great Tradition. Yet, it should be amply clear that, over the millennia, there was a corresponding and enormous knitting together of an intricate net of pan-Indian consciousness at the popular and nonliterate level – at the level of the so-called Little Tradition – through millions of people eclectically performing pilgrimages. The creation almost overnight of “India, that is Bhārat” would not have been possible without their contribution to what is being called “the idea of India”.   Bhardwaj’s dedication of his book summed it up aptly and neatly:  “to the countless pilgrims whose footprints have given meaning to India as a cultural entity”.

It is important to understand the essential difference between the bhāratiya evolution and interpretation of pilgrimage, and the Abrahamic one into which our State has been converting it.  The pilgrimages of the Pandavas are a hoary example of the former. They walked long distances, stopping for rest and refreshment along the way at local ashrams.  In return, they listened and they talked – a sharing of lives and its experiences. So it is with all traditional pilgrimages.  Visualize the exchanges that typify them; little drops of cultural water coalescing to create our civilizational ocean.  Recall the experience of travelling in what used to be a third-class compartment in a long-distance train.  People shared space and food and ideas and identities – a sharing that both constructed and exemplified bhāratiyata.

The Turners provide a basic cultural understanding of the Abrahamic pilgrimage system (essentially the Roman Catholic one, but the conceptual similarity of the Islamic one to it is evident).  There  appears  to be little of the notion  of  a  sacred geography — Catholic pilgrimage centres tend to be hierarchically arranged according to pilgrim catchment area and,  if  “pilgrimage processes seem to have contributed  to  the maintenance of some kind of international community in Christendom”,  it  appears sanctity is attached to points along  the  way, “way stations”, rather than to the route or the land as a  whole. An exception is perhaps “the pilgrimage complex of the Holy Land, made up of sites traditionally connected with the life, teaching and  death  of Jesus”, but when this complex  was  “transferred piecemeal to Europe…the    result     was pilgrimage polycentrism…many  [soon competing] shrines were  founded,  in many linguistic and cultural regions, as though to compensate for the lost compact shrine cluster in Palestine where  Jesus’  life and death had been mapped on a limited cultural space”.

Sites became sacred essentially through “miracles” wrought by relics (in Europe) or images (in Mexico) of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and certain saints. Motives for pilgrimage are “a vow, a promise, or as a self-chosen act of penance” or, indeed, getting away from it all.  Only “monastic contemplatives and mystics could make  interior  salvific journeys” and, in  addition, “Christian pilgrimages tended at first to stress the voluntary aspect and to consider  sacred travel…as acts of supererogatory devotion,  a sort  of frosting on the cake of piety. But a strong element of obligation came in with the organization of the penitential systems of the church [and] pilgrimages were set down as adequate punishments inflicted for certain crimes”.

However, of essential significance in Bhārat, there is no data in Hinduism to indicate that its pilgrimages are “in order to intensify the pilgrim’s attachment to his own religion, often in fanatical opposition to other religions”. On the contrary, as Bharati pointed out, “in principle, every Hindu would pay homage to a Muslim saint or, for that matter, to a saint of any religion”.

That pilgrimage has been instrumental in creating a sacred geography of our land is indisputable.  That pilgrimage has been instrumental in creating Bhārat is a corollary and equally indisputable.

It is on the foundation of Bhārat that the shaky edifice rests of the Republic of India.


  1. For example, Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju propagates it, not because of any objective evidence in its favour but because of his subjective impression that no one would have wanted to leave “a comfortable country like India” for “uncomfortable” ones like Afghanistan or Russia!  He also confuses varna and jati, but that is another story (http://www.hindu.com/2009/01/08/stories/2009010853480800.htm;  http://www.hindu.com/2008/11/24/stories/2008112451891000.htm).
  2. The Idea of India, Krishen Kak, October 2019, YourAwesomeIndia.com
  3. Ussher Chronology
  4. For the date, see NS Rajaram & David Frawley, “Vedic Aryans and the Origins of Civilization”, Voice of India, 2001.
  5. Michel Danino, “Genetics & the Aryan Debate”, Puratattva– Bulletin of the Indian Archaeological Society, 36, 2005-06:146-154.
  6. Kak, op. cit.
  7. Milton B Singer, “When a Great Tradition Modernizes” (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972).  The Great Tradition was defined by Robert Redfield as “cultural heritage developed by a self-perpetuating intellectual group into  highly  specialized and systematized thought, often esoteric, commonly connected with religion,  and in many (but not all) cases dependent  on writing for  its continuance and development”, that is, the  learned  and literate tradition.
  8. Bernard S Cohn and McKim Marriott “Networks and Centers in the Integration of Indian Civilization”, Journal of Social Research (1958), 1.1:1-9.
  9. Robert Redfield and Milton B Singer “The Cultural Role of Cities”, Economic Development & Cultural Change(1954), III.1:53-73.  Bhārat Mata is “Mother India” — the mother goddess “on the most general level of ideology” (Akos Ostor, “The Play of the Gods”, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980).
  10. Rajaram and Frawley, op.cit.
  11. Agehananda Bharati has “vicarious shrines”; “important and meritorious places of pilgrimage have a sort of regional substitute in far-off places”. Irawati Karve illustrates an aspect of this in her Pandharpur pilgrimage. Bharati also cites Mircea Eliade’s “hypostasization” or metaphorical substitution of sacred geographical sites to within the human body and mind.   He refers too to “the pilgrimage of the soul between two births”. David Shulman points out the distinction between the “long, uncomfortable journey to the shrine” and the “real journey” within the microcosm that is the temple.  SM Bhardwaj, “Hindu Places of Pilgrimage in India: A Study in Cultural Geography”, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973 ; David E Sopher, “Pilgrim Circulation in Gujarat”, The Geographical Review (1968), 58.3:392-425 ; Irawati Karve,  “On the Road: A Maharashtrian  Pilgrimage”,  The Journal of Asian Studies (1962), XXII.1:13-29 ; V Raghavan, “The Great Integrators: The Saint-Singers of India”, Government of India: Publications Division, 1964 ; Agehananda Bharati, “Pilgrimage in the Indian Tradition”, History of Religions (1963), 3.1:135-167 ; Agehananda Bharati “Pilgrimage Sites & Indian Civilization”, in J.Elder,  ed. “Chapters in Indian Civilization”, Dubuque,  Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1970 ; David D Shulman, “Tamil Temple Myths:  Sacrifice and Divine Marriage in the South Indian Saiva Tradition”, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.
  12. Deleury, with regard to the Pandharpur pilgrimage (Victor Turner, “Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors”, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974).
  13. Carl Gustav Diehl, “Instrument and Purpose: Studies on Rites and Rituals in South India”, Lund: C.W.K.Gleerup, 1956.
  14. Milton Singer refers to “bhajanapilgrimages to places of religious interest”, and Hawley describes the tragic one-way pilgrimage of widows to Vrindavan (John Stratton Hawley, “At Play with Krishna:  Pilgrimage Dramas from Brindavan”, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981).
  15. The Turners also refer to “secular pilgrimage” in America and “political pilgrimage” in Russia (Victor Turner and Edith Turner, “Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture”, New York: Columbia University Press, 1978).
  16. David R Kinsley, “Hinduism, a cultural perspective”, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1982.

This article is adapted slightly from the one first published in April-June 2009.

Image from Ardha Kumbh Mela 2019


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