Do pilgrimages really benefit people?
In ancient times, when people thought they were ready to learn more about God, they set out on a pilgrimage. The journey was difficult, but it would be a unique experiment in interacting with people and situations. They went to a place that was specially blessed by nature. It could be near a river or lake, near the sea or deep in the hills, lush green and cool. There would be others like them in similar search of God, or to give life a new perspective. Since they were away from home there would be no interruptions to respond to everyday challenges of life. These were occasions to exchange knowledge and learn from each other.
With time, the places of pilgrimage have not lost their character. Only, they are now more crowded and commercialized. Larger numbers of pilgrims visit them every year, but not all are in search of God or to find a new meaning of life. Some travel for fun and to relax in new surroundings. If nothing else, they do so to shed some of their tensions and cares of life.
The religious texts say:
A pilgrimage is a place where one can learn to float or cross over the vast river of life.
One can learn to swim in this vast river of life through noble thoughts and deeds and in the company of good people. Pilgrimages are places where one finds strong magnetic vibrations emerging from gods and goddesses, from the beauty of natural surroundings, from hills and rivers that exert a special influence, from the presence of saints and ascetics who sing and preach the glory of the Supreme Spirit.
The religious texts are full of descriptions and benefits of going on pilgrimage. Large parts of the Shivpuran, Padampuran and Skandpuran are devoted to the benefits of pilgrimages. Even in the Vedas, Puranas and Upa Puranas and in the Mahabharata there are portions which say that by going on pilgrimage one gets rid of sins, accumulates virtues, finds favour with gods and goddesses, achieves inner peace, finds fulfillment in everyday life and steps towards heaven. These benefits inspire the common householder to go on a pilgrimage.
In the Mahabharata, Vanparv, it is said that through a pilgrimage one can conveniently attain the benefits that cannot be easily attained even through the special Agnistome yagya. However, those who travel for fun or sightseeing and are devoid of the devotion required for a pilgrimage cannot attain these benefits. A pilgrimage should have two objectives - the cleansing of the mind and welfare of the self. Those who travel with these objectives benefit from a pilgrimage.
In the Mahabharata, Vanparv, 85/92, it is said: