Mahabharata : Vana Parva Part 4 In India, many people undertake theerthayatras-holy pilgrimages. Modern people think that all of this is just superstition, but it is not so. Let us see how a theerthayatra helps us evolve as a person, how it helps us dissolve our papa, sins, how it helps us move towards Dharma, and how it helps us empathize not just with fellow human beings, but with other beings that share this planet with us. We shall see all this and more, in the course of this chapter.

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Rishi Lomasa arrives
While Arjuna is in Indra loka, the other Pandavas and Draupadi are ill at ease. They sorely miss Arjuna. That is when the wonderful Rishi Narada appears at Dwaita vana, where they are staying, and advises them, “This is the time for you to go on a theerthayatra”. And then, Rishi Lomasa arrives there. Lomasa has been sent by Indra himself from Deva loka. Indra and Arjuna have requested Rishi Lomasa, who had various supernatural powers, to protect and guide the other Pandavas, including Draupadi, when they undertake the theerthayatra. Rishi Narada also explains how Bheeshma, the grandfather of the Pandavas and the Kauravas, learnt about the importance of theerthayatra from Rishi Pulasthya. Pulasthya narrates diverse aspects of many theerthas-holy places of worship, all over the world, and especially in India.

The significance of a theerthayatra
In India, many people undertake theerthayatras-holy pilgrimages. Modern people think that all of this is just superstition, but it is not so. Let us see how a theerthayatra helps us evolve as a person, how it helps us dissolve our papa, sins, how it helps us move towards Dharma, and how it helps us empathize not just with fellow human beings, but with other beings that share this planet with us. We shall see all this and more, in the course of this chapter.

A theerthayartra is a wonderful phenomenon. It is supposed to be extremely difficult. These days, one simply uses one’s private vehicle, goes to a particular theertha, spends some time there and gets back home. This is not the way it used to be. A theerthayatra was designed to include a lot of difficulties. For example, even today, most people who wish to undertake a theerthayatra to the great Vellingiri mountains-the seven hills (located in Coimbatore), do not make it to the top, and they return because it is really tough.
Before one undertakes a theerthayatra, one is supposed to purify one’s body and mind.

The process of purification must be continued during the journey as well, in order that one receives the full benefit of visiting the theerthasthala. The body is purified by taking earthly vows, vrathas. A simple vratha is that of fasting for a day. For example, on Ekadashi, one fasts the entire day and breaks the fast after the evening prayer or at night, and one does not consume grains upon breaking the fast. Likewise, there are many holy vrathas that purify the body and make it sensitive to subtle energies in the environment that one can then receive and drink in. One purifies one’s mind with spiritual vows. A powerful vratha to purify the mind is that of mauna, silence. Mauna vratha , the vow of silence, helps us retrospect, go deeper into ourselves, understand our limitations, gives us strength to face our limitations and overcome them.

There are people who take a vratha that they will not speak ill of others. This is also a spiritual vratha, that purifies the mind. The tendency to speak ill of others is almost spontaneous for many people. With this vratha, one takes great care not to slander anybody. Through all these processes, one becomes aware of the deeper workings of the mind, and hence, one gains greater control over the mind and the ability to direct the processes of the mind. It is like a mental exercise. Just the way physical exercise makes one more powerful, strong, and gives one greater control over the muscles of one’s body, so too, these processes of purification with vrathas gives one control over the ‘muscles’ of one’s mind.

The Pandavas begin the theerthayatra
The theerthayatra is bound to provide solace to the aching hearts of the Pandavas and Draupadi. Hence, various vrathas are advocated, and the four Pandava brothers and Draupadi prepare themselves. Rishi Lomasa takes up the role of the guide of the Pandavas throughout their theerthayatra. There is a huge retinue of people, who wish to accompany them on their holy journey. Raja Yudhishthira humbly requests them, especially those who depend on him for food, to stay back. Yudhishthira knows the perils that they might have to face while on the journey. They might encounter unforeseen dangers, they will be exposed to the cold, the wind, and the elements. There will be no comforts. In fact, it will be worse than forest life, because atleast in the forest, they are all staying at one place. But during the theerthayatra, they would be constantly on the move. They might not get food, they may not find shelter. They might have to face wild animals and rakshasas. And hence, Yudhishthira requests the people to approach King Dhritharashtra, “If you request the king, he will support you, because that is Raja Dharma-to support the people who come to him. If he does not support you, do not worry. Go to Drupada, my father-in-law, and he will take care of all of you. “ And hence, many people leave, though very unwillingly and sad at heart. Some people stay on. In fact, some rishis say to them, “By ourselves, we would not have been able to undertake the theerthayatra. But now, with your company, under your protection, we will be able to. “

Rishi Lomasa is a possessor of many siddhis. The primary siddhis are the Ashta Maha Siddhis , which are eight in number. There are many other siddhis of lower degree. A siddhi is essentially a state of perfection with respect to a certain power. One may possess various powers -powers over nature, powers over one’s body, powers over the mind, powers over the intellect and so on. There are various kinds of siddhis, of different degrees.

Tapasya and receptivity
Since Lomasa possess many siddhis, he is directed by Indra, the great Devendra, to help keep the Pandavas safe during their theerthayatra. So they start out on a specified day and time. Enroute, Rishi Lomasa gives them the significance of each theertha. At different theerthas they visit, the Pandavas and Darupadi observe different kinds of vrathas, and fast for different lengths of time, to purify themselves. In some, they have to fast for three days, in some, for six days, in others, for one day. In some theerthas, they have to undergo a certain process of purification, in others, a different process has to be followed. Basically, all of this is meant to make them open and receptive to the energies of that particular place. Each theertha is associated with some form of tapasya, austerity. The energies are always available, but a person who wishes to get benefitted by those energies has to make himself open and receptive. Being open and receptive is not an easy thing. We may think in our minds, “Let me be open-minded. “ But how many of us are?How many of us are able to detect it when we are closed, and rectify it at that moment? It requires tremendous detachment to be able to observe ourselves constantly and correct our course as we move ahead.

Towards visiting a theertha, there are many rules and injunctions. Not everybody can approach a theertha. People who are unclean, and people who have sinned tremendously cannot approach a theertha. One should be blessed already to be able to undertake a theerthayatra.

The Pandavas and Draupadi have a wonderful time. Rishi Lomasa is extremely knowledgeable, and is able to clear many of their doubts. He leads the Pandavas and Draupadi to different theerthas, one after the other. He narrates the significance of each theertha, and he further narrates some exceptional stories associated with those theerthasthalas.

The story of Ilvala and Vatapi
In one theertha, which is related to Agastya Muni, the story goes like this. Once, there were two asura brothers-Ilvala and Vatapi. The word ‘asura’ is composed of the root words ‘a’ and ‘sura’ meaning, ’the opposite of sura’ . Suras are the devas, the gods. It is very interesting to note that the devas are sattvica, asuras are rajasica, and rakshasas are tamasica. Ilvala and Vatapi conduct a yajna, and Ilvala wants the brahmana who is officiating the yajna to give him a child like Indra. The brahmana rishi does not agree, because Ilvala is an asura, and he does not deserve such a child. Ilvala gets angry. Now, Ilvala and Vatapi, who are great asuras, have these powers of illusion, by which they start devouring brahmanas. They invite brahmana rishis to their house . In those times, brahmanas used to eat meat and drink wine. So Vatapi used to convert himself into a ram, and he would be cut up, his meat would be prepared and served to the brahmanas, who would eat it. Ilvala has this power by which he can make any person appear in flesh and blood(embodied) in front of him, simply by his calling out to them. Even if the person is in Yama loka, he woud have to appear before Ilvala, if he calls his name. This is a siddhi that Ilvala possesses. So Ilvala calls out to Vatapi, and Vatapi comes out of the brahmana’s stomach by tearing it open, thus killing the brahmana. This gory episode happens many times and everybody is frightened of them.

Agastya and Lopamudra
Simultaneously, Agastya Muni, in his travels, finds his ancestors hanging upside down in a pit, suffering terribly. They request Agastya to have a child, so that their suffering would come to an end. Having a child, a putra or putri, is considered extremely important, because it keeps up the race, and hence it is supposed to benefit one’s ancestors seven generations up and also one’s successors seven generations down.
So Agastya Muni agrees. He looks around for a bride suited to his stature. Since he is a great rishi and a great tapasvi, he cannot marry just about anybody. There has to be an appropriate match. He looks around, but does not find anybody. So he creates Lopamudra, out of his own powers. Around the same time, the king of Vidarbha is engaged in immense tapasya to get a child, and his queen delivers Lopamudra.

Lopamudra is extremely beautiful. She reaches puberty and the king looks around for an appropriate match. Rishi Agastya decides that it is time, and he appears in the court of the king of Vidarbha, asking the hand of Lopamudra. The king does not wish to give his only daughter, his wonderful child, to a rishi of such awesomeness. Agastya Muni is awesome. His energy is so fierce that people cannot approach him. The king is very much aware of the strength and power of Agastya, and he does not want to earn the curse of such a rishi. Hence, Lopamudra is wedded to Agastya Muni, out of her own choice. Agastya Muni asks her to leave all her costly ornaments and all her paraphernalia behind. She is clad simply in barks and follows her husband.

Lopamudra takes great care of Agastya Muni. He engages in severe tapas, and she too, engages in tapas, along with him. A long time passes by, and finally, Agastya is gratified with his wife. She has been extremely sincere, devoted, and unassuming. She has never asked anything of her husband. Hence, he is gratified. Finally he says, “Let us have a child. “ She requests Agastya Muni, “All these years, I have been fine, living in this manner and engaged in tapasya. But, for having a child, I would like it to happen in a palace, like my father’s. It has to have its own way, and let it not be like tapas. “ Agastya is so satisfied with his wife that he agrees. But he says, “How can a poor brahmana like me, get all the things that you desire?”For which Lopamudra says, “You have many great powers. “ But Agastya says, “That is so. But I do not wish to waste my tapas shakthi on such temporary things. Those powers are meant for a higher purpose, for the good of the world, and not for such ephemeral joys and pleasures of the world. So ask of me something that does not diminish my tapas shakthi. “ She says, “Why don’t you ask for these as bhiksha, from a king?”

So Agastya sets out. He goes to a kingdom. There, the king shows Agastya the account statement of his kingdom and asks Agastya to audit it, “O Rishi, here are the exact numbers of the revenue and expenditure. If you find that there is an excess in the income, please do take it. “ Agastya finds that the income tallies with the expenditure, and hence he decides that he cannot be the one who takes away the king’s wealth, which is used for the good of others. Agastya, accompanied by the king, go to another king. Even there, Agastya finds that the income tallies with the expenditure. Then, Agastya, and the first king are accompanied by this king, and they all go a third king, who is very rich. Agastya is hopeful, but even there, there is no excess wealth that Agastya can take. Now, Agastya and these three kings decide to approach Ilvala, the asura, because he is immensely wealthy.

Everybody knows about Ilvala, and what he does to brahmanas, and they are terrified for Agastya. But Agastya is cool and confident. Nothing agitates him. When he goes there, Ilvala, as usual, serves him food-the meat of a ram. Agastya knows his game, so he simply digests Vatapi. Ilvala shouts, Vatapi, come out!” Nothing happens. “ Ilvala is surprised. He shouts again, “Vatapi, come out!” Still, nothing happens. All that comes is a roar of a belch, out of Agastya’s mouth, and he says, “Vatapi is digested!” Ilvala is sorry. He now understands Agastya’s power, and he does not want to mess with him. So Ilvala says, “Can you tell me what I had in mind to give to you?” Agastya clearly knows, and he says, “All these riches are to be given away to these kings and to me. “ When Ilvala checks with his ministers, it is so. In fact, a chariot made of gold is to be given away. Now, an asura is rajasica-he wants to possess, he wants to hoard things. He does not wish to give. People who are sattvica, give away happily and willingly. People who are rajasica give away miserably. If wealth comes in, they are happy. If there is some expenditure, they become unhappy. So Ilvala does not want to give away, but because he knows the power of Agastya Muni, he gives away the riches, though grudgingly. After that, Agastya goes back to Lopamudra, sires a son on her and retires to the forest.

So all this is narrated by the great Lomasa. He leads the Pandavas on. One of the theerthas they visit is dedicated to Bhargava Rama.