A visit to a place of pilgrimage (tirtha) brings the same punya that is obtained from performing a yajna. It is because people had not gone on pilgrimages or donated gold and cows in their earlier lives that they were born poor in their next lives.
The best place of pilgrimage is Pushkara, Brahma, other gods and sages who wish to go to heaven live there. The best time to go to Pushkara is in the month of Kartika. In Pushkara itself there are two other places of pilgrimage known as Jambumarga and Tandulik Ashrama.
It is difficult to go to Pushkara. But there are several other tirthas as well. One such is Kurukshetra, where Vishnu and the other gods keep on coming. The river Sarasvati flows near Kurukshetra. If one bathes in the Sarasvati, one attains Brahmaloka.
Any region through which the river Ganga flows also becomes a tirtha. Even if one sees the Ganga, the punya of per forming yajnas is attained. A person who bears earth from the bed of the Ganga on his head is freed of all sins.
Prayaga is another famous place of pilgrimage. Brahma, Vishnu, Indra and the other gods, Gandharvas, apsaras and the sages are always there in Prayaga. This is because the two holy rivers, Ganga and Yamuna, come together in Prayaga. There are many tirthas inside Prayaga itself. The sages have said that, in the month of Magha, if one bathes for three days in Prayaga, that is better than donating crores and crores of cows. If one donates alms in Prayaga, one goes to Svarga and is born as a king in one’s next life. If one dies in Prayaga, one goes straight to Vishnuloka.
Shiva himself had told Parvati that Varanasi was a very holy tirtha and that Shiva never left the city. Varanasi is so named because it is located at the junction of two rivers, Varana and Asi. Varanasi is also known as Kashi.
The river Narmada is also sacred.
There may be several holy tirthas, but Gaya is the holiest of them all. A demon named Gayasura once started to perform and such were the powers of his tapasya that the gods began to suffer. They went to Vishnu and asked him to save them Vishnu agreed and appeared before Gayasura. “Accept a boon,” said Vishnu.
“Grant me the boon that I may become the most sacred of all tirthas,” replied the daitya.
The boon was granted and Gayasura disappeared. The gods returned to svarga, but felt that the earth seemed to be deserted now that Gayasura had disappeared. Vishnu then instructed Brahma and the other gods to perform a sacrifice. He also asked them to go to Gayasura and ask for his body so that the sacrifice might be performed on it. Gayasura readily agreed, and as soon as he agreed, his head fell off from the body. Brahma then proceeded to perform the sacrifice on Gayasura’s headless body. But as soon as the sacrifice started, the body began to shake. This meant that the sacrifice could not be properly performed and a solution had to be found. The solution was that the gods should all enter a stone which would be placed on Gayasura’s body so that the body would not shake. The sacrifice could then be performed. Vishnu himself also entered the stone. It is because the gods and Vishnu are always there in Gaya that Gaya is sacred.
In fact, there is a story behind this stone as well.
The sage Marichi was Brahma’s son and had married Dharmavrata. One day, Marichi went to the forest to collect wood and flowers and returned extremely tired. He called Dharmavrata and said, “I am very tired. Today you must wash my feet for me.”
Dharmavrata began to wash Marichi’s feet when Brahma suddenly arrived. Dharmavrata did not know what to do. Should she finish washing her husband’s feet? Or should she first attend to Brahma, since Brahma-was Marichi’s father? She decided to attend to Brahma first. At this Marichi became very angry and cursed Dharmavrata that she would turn into a stone. Dharmavrata was greatly distressed at being cursed for what she thought had not been a fault at all. So she performed tapasya for many years. When Vishnu and the other gods were pleased at Dharmavrata’s meditation, they appeared and offered to grant her a boon.
Dharmavrata wished that the curse imposed on her by Marichi might be waived. The gods explained that this was impossible, since Marichi was a very powerful sage. What they would however, do was to make Dharmavrata a very holy stone desired even by the gods. The gods promised to be always inside this stone. It was this stone that was placed on Gayasura’s body.
Once the sacrifice was over, Gayasura himself desired a boon from the gods and the gods granted him that Gaya would become the most sacred of all tirthas. It was in Gaya that the Pandavas had prayed to Vishnu.