Pilgrimage Research Paper

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The word pilgrimage is derived from the Latin words per (meaning “through”) and ager (meaning “field” or “land”). People usually think of pilgrimage as involving a journey—made either alone or in a group—to and from a sacred site. Pilgrims often perform rituals not only at the sacred site itself, but also at the beginning and end of the journey. In addition, pilgrims may visit other holy places during the course of the journey.

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Since ancient times people have been engaged in pilgrimage, either alone or in groups, leaving their homes to journey to a sacred place. Motivations for pilgrimage can include a desire for divine healing, penance for a wrong committed, thanks for a prayer answered, fulfillment of a religious injunction, or some combination of these motivations. The fact that pilgrimage occurs, in some form, in so many societies makes studying this phenomenon fascinating but difficult.

Pilgrimage in the Classical World

No single word in Greek or Latin specifically described travel to a holy destination, but festivals brought together people from scattered settlements both to celebrate the gods and to engage in trade. The numerous shrines of the Hellenic (Greek) world illustrated a great variety of possible reasons to travel. The frieze (an architectural ornament in the form of sculptured, horizontal band) of the famous Parthenon in Athens commemorates the Great Panathenaea, an event celebrated every four years and aimed at achieving a union of all Athenians. Epidauros provided a place for the god Apollo and his son Asklepios to cure the sick. Delphi delivered prophecies through the medium of a priestess. At Olympia the festival of Zeus was celebrated with sporting competitions every four years—an event echoed in the contemporary games, which have taken on global significance in their revived form. Wealthier people in particular had the resources to travel, and pilgrimage also provided one of the few opportunities for women to travel outside their home cities. Roman patterns of pilgrimage were often modeled on Hellenic precedents, with numerous gods celebrated in shrines of greater or lesser size, but with few written doctrines or rules being drawn upon.

Pilgrimage in the World Religions

Pilgrimage is performed in all of the great religions and is usually—unlike its position in the classical world—provided with a justification and model in sacred texts. The degree to which pilgrimage is seen as obligatory varies. Islam is the most prescriptive faith. Every Muslim is required to perform the hajj (pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia) at least once unless prevented by illness or lack of economic resources. The binding nature of the hajj is combined with other features that distinguish it from other activities. Only Muslims are allowed to enter the holy city; the timing of the pilgrimage is fixed at certain days within the twelfth month of the Muslim year; and pilgrims, dressed in two sheets of unsown cloth or plain dresses, must perform a predetermined sequence of ritual actions, including walking seven times around the Kaaba, the cube-shaped stone building in the court of the Great Mosque.

Just as the practices of the hajj developed out of earlier traditions already extant in the Arabian Peninsula of the seventh century CE, so Islam emerged within a wider sacred landscape already occupied by Judeo-Christian religious assumptions and influences. The Prophet Muhammad (c. 570–c. 632 CE) regarded Jerusalem as sacred, and the seventh-century Dome of the Rock—even today an object of Muslim pilgrimage—was constructed on the site of the former Jewish Temple and resting place of the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem. The hajj had some parallels with the haggim of Judaism, the ancient pilgrimage feasts involving the convergence of the Israelites on Jerusalem. (The Hebrew term hag implies the actions of turning around and dancing.) But such feasts also expressed specific aspects of Jewish history. The oldest feast, Passover, celebrated deliverance from servitude in Egypt. Tabernacles involved the construction of temporary shelters and commemorated the forty years spent by the Jews in the wilderness. Shavuot (Weeks) was a harvest festival that also marked the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai. These gatherings therefore provided occasions for pilgrimage while also recalling different forms of movement: escape from slavery, wandering in the desert before locating the Promised Land, or ascending a mountain. They are still celebrated by members of a faith whose identity remains rooted in the experience of dispersal, the so-called Diaspora (the settling of scattered colonies of Jews outside Palestine after the Babylonian exile). Even today, two thousand years after the final destruction of the Temple but with the State of Israel restored, Passover is an occasion when many Jews proclaim: “Next year in Jerusalem!”

Christianity echoes Islam and Judaism in its reverence for Jerusalem, both in relation to scripture and in relation to pilgrimage. The landscape of the Holy Land and the holy city have provided potent reminders of Jesus’ life as well as of the location of his future return (just as in Islam Paradise will be transferred to Jerusalem during the Last Days). The early centuries of the church brought the quick emergence of a pious tradition of traveling. During the fourth century CE Helena (c. 255–327 CE), the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine (c. 274–337 CE), toured the Holy Land, adapting the model of traditional Roman imperial progress through a province for her own spiritual as well as political purposes. As the Christian empire developed so did the pilgrimage routes of often highly ascetic travelers, who expected to see the biblical narrative played out in the places visited. A growing monastic tradition was also evident in Palestine and neighboring lands. But with the decline in Muslim tolerance of Christian visitors to Jerusalem from the tenth century onward, European sites became increasingly prominent pilgrimage locations. Rome housed the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul, and other shrines, such as Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain, were viewed as symbols of Christian military opposition to Islam, celebrating St. James in his role as a warrior, armed with both a sword and a cross. Some sites even replicated the sacred landscape of the Holy Land, such as Walsingham in Norfolk—known as “England’s Nazareth” because it claimed to have an exact copy of the holy house that Jesus had inhabited as a boy.

The qualities of the landscape have been central to Judeo-Christian pilgrimage traditions, but also—and perhaps especially—to those of south Asia. The Hindu term tirtha-yatra means broadly “journey to river fords,” illustrating a devotion to flowing water evident since Vedic (relating to the Hindu sacred writings) times (from c. 1500 BCE), and pilgrimage practices often involve taking a purifying dip, as well as visiting holy figures or gaining sight of a deity contained within an image. The Mahabharata (c. 300 BCE), a Vedic epic, contains sections describing and noting the religious merit to be gained from visiting numerous tirthas (sacred places). Such merit is said to apply to people of all classes and castes and usually involves a temporary renunciation—akin in some ways to Christian asceticism—that rejects bodily comforts and pleasure. As one scholar of Hindu pilgrimage puts it, “The returning pilgrim should be thinner and poorer” (Gold 1988, 263). Other important features of the Hindu pilgrimage landscape include hilltops, caves, and forests, creating a complex sacred geography that encompasses the whole of India. Furthermore, with the economic migration of Hindu populations into the West, features of the sacred Indian landscape have been translated into new parts of the world, so that, for instance, the convergence of two rivers in Ohio has been compared by some Hindus with the confluence of the sacred Indian rivers: the Ganges, Yamuna, and Sarasvati.

On the Indian subcontinent the religions of Jainism and Sikhism maintain pilgrimage traditions that have some similarities with Hindu practices. According to Buddhist tradition, among the last words of Buddha (c. 563–c. 483 BCE) were instructions to his followers to visit places marking the most significant events of his life. People soon added numerous holy spots to this biographical landscape, within and beyond India. Just as the emperor Constantine reinforced his imperial power by placing pilgrimage churches in the Holy Land, so the emperor Ashoka—the first Buddhist pilgrim of whom we know—used imperial patronage during the third century BCE to create a Buddhist landscape of pilgrimage by improving roads and resting places for travelers. As the religion itself spread, new pilgrimage sites emerged in China, Tibet, and Japan.

Similarities and Differences

Both in the past and in the present pilgrimage practices across the world’s religions have appeared to exhibit some striking similarities. Circumambulation of shrines and other sacred objects is evident not only in Islam but also in Hinduism and Buddhism, for instance. Pilgrims also commonly take some material evidence of their journey back home—perhaps a vial of holy water, an image, or a token. However, we should not assume that actions that look similar from the outside have the same meaning to participants from different cultures and religions. Furthermore, pilgrimages have tended to contain within them—even to foster—conflicts between pilgrims supposedly united by the same religion or between ordinary pilgrims and shrine authorities. Thus, the famous Catholic site of Lourdes, situated on one of the main medieval pilgrimage roads of southern France and commemorating the visions of the Virgin Mary granted to a young girl during the nineteenth century, is enormously popular in the present, attracting millions of visitors a year. Such popularity inevitably creates tensions over the varied motivations of the pious, for instance, between the desire for miraculous healing expressed by the sick who visit the site and the general emphasis on spiritual rather than physical benefits that is promoted by the clergy.

The religious and often political (and even economic) power contained in many pilgrimage sites has often led to acute, even destructive, conflicts. Jerusalem is not the only site of competition between faiths. The pilgrimage center of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, India, remains a site of troubled relations between Hindus and Muslims, resulting not only in violence but also in rivalrous construction and destruction of sacred buildings. Elsewhere in India, the Golden Temple at Amritsar, holiest of shrines for Sikhs, became the center of conflict between religious separatists and the Indian government, leading in 1984 to the storming of the temple by the army and the killing of many people, including pilgrims.

Pilgrimages have also been attacked from within their religious traditions, with critics often denying the value of physical travel or challenging the idea that the divine can be particularly located in a single spot on Earth. The tenth-century Sufi(Muslim mystic) authority Abu Sa’id enjoined his followers not to undertake the hajj on the grounds that they should concentrate on cultivating mystical experiences instead. Within Hinduism some writers have argued that pilgrimage implies too much attachment to the material world. A key aspect of the Protestant Reformation was the iconoclasm that denied the spiritual value of the statues and relics in numerous shrines and that attacked the economic corruption in both the guardianship of sacred sites and the selling of “indulgences”—remissions of punishments for sin that the Catholic Church granted in return for pious acts such as pilgrimage.

Pilgrimage in the Future

Despite some predictions that the world is becoming more secular, pilgrimage remains a flourishing institution. Although it has always been combined with other activities, pilgrimage is increasingly being associated with tourism, so that sacred travel is often undertaken alongside other forms of leisure, and pilgrimage sites have become accustomed to hosting both pilgrims and tourists at the same time. As more people can more easily travel throughout their own countries or even across the globe, pilgrimage seems likely to become an ever more visible part of life in the twenty-first century.


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