T H E E R T H A M
We often visit temples and after worshipping the Lord and offering our prayers, we are given tiirtham or holy water and prasaad (food offered to the Lord). After having that holy water and prasaad with great reverence & devotion we feel great happiness. This "tiirtham" is the holy water used for the Abhisheka(bath) of the Idol of the temple. After doing the abhishekam that particular water becomes "thirtham".
In Srimad Bhaagavatham, there is a story of Lord Mahavishnu, in his avatar of vamana. When he started measuring the BrahmaanDa (the universe), his toe reached the Brahmaloka (the abode of Brahma). On seeing this toe of the Lord of Lords, the creator of the universe, Brahma, took water and poured it on the Lord’s feet for washing it. This water that flows from the Brahmaloka became the holy river Ganges. The Bhagavatam also talks about Bhageeratha who did a rigorous penance for the sake of salvation and peace of his forefathers. Bhageeratha did a 1000 year penance and brought the river Ganges to earth. The holy water of the Ganges is also called "tiirtha"
When devotees are given the holy water, the following Sloka is often chanted:
akaala mrityu haranam, sarva vyaadhi nivaaranam, samastha paapa kshayakaram,
sarva dhuritopashamanam Vishhnu paadodakam paavanam shubham.
Prevention of untimely death, cure for all diseases, remedy for all miseries, are all possible by this water that has washed Lord Vishnu’s feet.
akaala mrityu means untimely death. When a person dies before the completion of an average life span, by causes such as road accidents, building collapse, fire etc., it will be called akaala mrityu. This Sloka says that the holy water has the power to destroy the akaala mrityu or untimely death and get rid of all miseries and diseases.
shariire jarjarii bhuute, vyaadhi graste kalebhare
Aushadam jaahnavii toyam vaidhyo naaraayano harihi
In this Sloka we say that this holy water is like medicine. When we become old and have diseases due to old age, this holy water has the power to reenergize us. Lord Narayana and Sree Hari are the doctors who protect us. This is the greatness of the "thirtha."
The Bhagavatam, also tells the story of Devaahuti. Devaahuti is the wife of Kardamamuni who is the father of Lord Kapiladeva and a great sage.
In this story, Devaahuti regains her beauty and youth by taking a bath in the Bindusaras, which is a part of the river Sarasvati. The Bhagavatam also explains how the Bindusaras originated. The word Bindu means a drop. The story goes that the lord was happy with his devotee in a particular moment and in that place, a drop of water fell from his eye due to this happiness and it became Bindusaras. Kardamamuni was performing a great penance near this river, and due to the association with this great sage, the river is said to have attained its power of purification. Even today, the river Sarasvati is greatly revered in India.
A pilgrimage or visit to holy places such as Kaashi, prayaag etc. in India is called "tiirtha yaatra". These places and rivers became holy only because great saints have stayed in such places in days of yore and conducted penance and puja to the Lord. When we visit such places, we feel the lord’s presence there and we get peace of mind and happiness.
Before we go on a pilgrimage to holy places, it is good to understand the importance and holiness of that place, river or temple so that we can offer prayers with a pure mind and be inspired to offer everything to the Lord with faith and devotion. The great saints and sages have done many years of penance and have attained knowledge from the Lord. From this knowledge all the sR^iti, smR^iti, shaastraas and puraaNas (all the scriptural texts), have been given by these sages for the benefit of mankind. So when we reach these holy places with the knowledge of the greatness of such places, it will invoke greater reverence and devotion in our minds.
Many great saints and sages are referred to by the name "tiirtha", such as Srimad madhavatiirtha. This is because of their great penance, sacrifice and unflinching devotional service to the Lord and to mankind. These saints are considered holy, because of the way they lead their lives and hence they are referred to as "tiirtha swamis". This can be explained by the following Sloka from Srimad Bhagavatam
bhavadvidhaa bhaagavathaasthiirthaa bhuutaah svayam vibho
tiirti kurvanti tiirtaani svaanthah stengathaadbhratah
yudhishtra says to sage vidura, "You are a great devotee of Lord KrishhNa and you yourself represent all holiness. In your heart, the Lord is ever present. When a person like you has a bath in rivers, ponds or lakes, they also become sacred or holy. Thus, by your presence and companionship, we also become pure. When Ordinary people who commit many sins take bath in rivers they become impure, but when great people such as you take bath in such rivers, again these waters becomes pure and holy.
Many people might not be able to visit holy places. The scriptures say that for all people their parents and teachers are the sacred and holy places or rivers. For a noble woman, her family is itself the holy place. The Bhagavatam and the Bhagavad Gita also talk about the mental pilgrimages, which help to purify our hearts and minds. When a pot is filled with liquor, cleaning it externally will not really cleanse it and it will continue to be impure as long as it is filled with something impure. Similarly, when a person visits the holy places with an impure mind, such a visit cannot cleanse him thoroughly. Only when our hearts are pure, we can get mental peace and happiness while visiting holy places.
In the 17th chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, the lord talks about "triimaana tapas" (threeway penance of body, words and mind). An intelligent and attentive person should control his desires and purify his mind by removing the impurities and only then he will get the benefit of the pilgrimages. It is said in the scriptures that wealth is lost in three ways. It is either used for worldly enjoyments or for charitable and noble actions or taken/stolen by others or used for wrong actions. Of these ways, when wealth is used for charitable and noble actions, it is the best way and is called "uttamaM". If it is used for worldly enjoyments, it is "madhyamaM" or the middle way. The last category where it is used for wrong actions is called "adhamaM" or the wrong way. Hence it is necessary to use wealth in the right way, in charities and noble actions, because this is the way to reach the lord.
Normally, we do actions with some selfish motive. Instead we should try and dedicate all actions to the Lord and understand that we are only instruments and He is the doer. Our long journey of life is a pilgrimage towards God. There is a confluence of the three rivers (triveni sangamam) of yaGYa (noble actions), daana (charity) and tapas (penance). When we offer all our actions to the Lord and pray only for his blessings, then we can feel the happiness of God realization. This is the most ripened fruit of the tiirtha yaatra (pilgrimage) of life.