If the disciple prevail in the conquest of self and in the enlargement of consciousness, he shall one day reach the center, and thence by his own will and act be swept into the initiatory life-currents which will bear him on the mystic pilgrimage, on the esoteric round of experience, and return a willing and self-conscious renouncer of what he knows he can get, but which he refuses in order to remain and to help the world as one of the stones in the Guardian Wall surrounding humanity. — G. de Purucker
We all travel in circles in life. Some we like, some we don't. Still, we love to return to some familiar spot, and something stirs us to follow the same path we followed before. But the greatest pilgrimage is easily ignored. Remembrance of it is buried under the many affairs of everyday life: our return to our spiritual home to recuperate and forget. Perhaps this lies behind the institutionalizing of pilgrim festivals in the dim past.
For a long time I wondered what drives people to journey on a path full of hardships to a saint's shrine or some other sacred place. How daring such pilgrimages were for the poor in olden days. What courage it takes to start on a long journey with barely a coin in one's pocket, an act which reflects a journey to the land of the pure and wise where all earthly burdens must be left behind. There are many possible motives: as an act of thanksgiving, penance, or devotion, or a means to gain supernatural help. Certainly much can also be said against pilgrimages. Why travel to a sanctuary when the whole world is a holy place? Why make an exhausting journey for help when God is everywhere? Why take all these pains when there is so much lofty work to be done right before our noses? Still, during pilgrimages we are confronted with deeply-rooted habits which condense into solid figures and appear as real enemies in a situation where we cannot so easily hide from them.
Often in life we feel trapped. Even if we enjoy happy surroundings, a fine family, good health, we nevertheless feel uncomfortable, limited, locked in. At these times we forget that we are part of the all-pervading intelligence of the universe. Under all circumstances we should be able to tap the thought-reservoir of the universe. Thought-patterns that have made deep grooves take an equivalent amount of energy to remove, and such energy may perhaps be acquired on a pilgrimage.
One who has slain his inner enemies, the passions, becomes literally enlightened. We read in The Gods Await that when a certain disciple
goes upon a pilgrimage, he will travel more miles in a day than any of the others and come in far ahead. . . . his feet after the longest day's journey have never been found hurt or damaged by the road. Why? Because he never dreads or even thinks of the distance, but goes on his way happily; and it never occurs to him to be troubled as to whether or not he may have missed the road or taken the wrong turning or the like. His mind is so buoyant with the joy of the spiritual life that it actually lightens his body for him. — p. 124
Each religion has its own pilgrimage centers, as each devotee has a great longing for the pure and holy life and union with that which gives him infinite wisdom, love, and freedom. And many devotees aspire to become like their heroes. Buddhism in the early centuries had at least four major pilgrimage centers: Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha; Bodh-gaya, where he reached enlightenment; the Deer Park in Sarnath near Benares, where he preached his first sermon; and Kushinara, where he entered parinirvana. Bodh-gaya was and still is the most important Buddhist pilgrimage site. Over the centuries Christian pilgrims have traveled to the Holy Land, to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and to Rome, as well as to hundreds of smaller, local sites.
Islam has one major pilgrimage, the hajj, one of the five pillars of this faith. About two million people each year perform this often strenuous journey to Mecca, an oasis and sanctuary for weary travelers and caravans. The rite serves as a unifying force by bringing votaries of diverse backgrounds together in religious celebration. Once a believer has made the pilgrimage, he may add the title hajji to his name.
After arriving in Mecca, most pilgrims go to the Great Mosque where they circle seven times around the Ka'abah, a cube-shaped building draped with black cloth. They then purify themselves, put on the ihram, a white garment which symbolizes purity and equality, and pledge to undertake the Hajj. On the first day of the Hajj (the 8th of the month Zul-Hijjah) the pilgrims travel to Mina, an uninhabited village where they pray and meditate. On the second day they travel to the plain of Arafat for the wuquf or "standing," considered the central rite of the Hajj. All the pilgrims gather together in a way reminiscent of the Day of Judgment. They hope through this rite that God will pardon their sins, and they resolve to live a better life. After sunset the pilgrims go to Muzdalifa where they pray and collect small pebbles.
Before dawn on the third day they return to Mina where they throw the pebbles at three white pillars which represent Satan's temptation of Abraham. Although they symbolize evil in Islam, it is surely a pity that these pillars receive all the blame, especially when we learn from comparative study that Satan plays the same role as Prometheus or Lucifer the light-bringer who sacrificed himself for mankind. In fact, in one sense we ourselves are Prometheus, Satan, or Lucifer. Three pillars, like a triangle, may symbolize the higher logos or thinking principle in our being, which tries continuously to inspire us. However, H. P. Blavatsky provides one reason we might "throw stones" at this aspect of ourselves:
He who would hear the voice of Nada, "the Soundless Sound," and comprehend it, he has to learn the nature of Dharana [concentration].
Having become indifferent to objects of perception, the pupil must seek out the rajah of the senses, the Thought-Producer, he who awakes illusion.
The Mind is the great Slayer of the Real.
Let the Disciple slay the Slayer. — The Voice of the Silence
After throwing the pebbles, most pilgrims perform an animal sacrifice to commemorate Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son to God. Throughout Islam on the 10th of Zul-Hijjah Muslims perform similar sacrifices. Pilgrims then cut or shave their hair and return to their normal clothing. Although they remain in Mina for two or three more days, pilgrims must return to Mecca to circle again seven times around the Ka'abah, as always touching, kissing, or pointing to the Black Stone in its southeastern corner. Said to be a meteorite, according to tradition it fell from heaven originally white and pure, but became black through the sins of the people. For Muslims, circling the Ka'abah reminds them of the unity of God and man and that all human activity must have God at its center. The shape of the Ka'abah, a cube, might also represent earth or passive matter being electrified by spirit, symbolized by the circling devotees. Before leaving for their homes, pilgrims usually make a final sevenfold circling of the Ka'abah.
Pyramids were also places of pilgrimage. In an article on the Pyramid initiation, G. de Purucker answered a question about the passage of the postulant through the chambers of the Great Pyramid of Cheops [Theosophical Forum, January 1948, pp. 20-2; with the exception of the first two paragraphs, the answer represents a report written down immediately after the interview]:
One should not think of a human soul as having been caught in the pyramid and wandering around like an astral shadow in its interior. The initiant was conducted along certain pathways, or left alone at certain times, and the pathways or channels he followed, and the rooms in which he found himself, etc., were representations to his imagination or his mind in this form of what the inner man actually went through when disembodied.
One of the main purposes of the pyramid-initiation was to have the neophyte traverse the passages under the guidance of his teacher or teachers, and thus greatly to stamp upon the mind before being entranced, symbolically what the soul was to pass through in actuality in the inner worlds.
The postulant . . . enters along the descending passage with his guide, following along the fairly smooth passage which is not very light, until he begins to descend beneath the surface of the Pyramid, down into the Underworld as it were. Then he comes to a junction-point where the guide leaves him alone. Without help the chela enters into the "Ordeal of Matter" of the Pit, and sheds his body, all the material elements of his nature. In this Pit, which is purposely made rough and unfinished to symbolize the rough and unshapely character of matter, the disciple must throw off all veils of matter and clamber out himself, being careful not to fall into nothingness below.
As he comes out from the darkness, at the junction-point previously mentioned he is again met by his guide who either accompanies him, or points the way along another passage leading upwards. This passage gradually becomes more light, and is very smooth. Then the chela enters the Well of Deep Waters, which one may perhaps think of as the astral worlds. Alone the neophyte must now climb the "Ladder of the Soul," which again is rough and difficult of ascent. Finally, reaching the summit of this ladder, the soul enters the Fields of Aahlu, and comes into the Chamber of the Moon, the Queen's Chamber, the chamber of lunar influences.
Resting there after appropriate ceremonies, the neophyte retraces his steps along the corridor of Aahlu and stands poised as it were at the landing place, at the gate to the Grand Gallery, the Double Hall of Truth. This Hall is a grandly majestic gallery, with seven sections, and the neophyte boldly ascends until he comes to the Antechamber of the King's Chamber. Before entering the antechamber, however, the neophyte has a great step of nearly three feet to climb, then he must stoop very low, and — if the portcullis is up — he may pass through, stooping again very low, and finally, if his karma is good, he may proceed into the King's Chamber, the Home of the Hidden God, and enter the coffer of Osiris.
Now begins the real Initiation when the neophyte's body lies entranced in the coffer of Osiris. That which has been followed is actually a symbolic descriptive manner of suggesting what actually takes place in the inner worlds.
In the King's Chamber there are the six large sections, the lower one representing our Earth, and the other five, the five planets, Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Mercury, and Venus, while the Queen's Chamber may represent the Moon.
The soul may ascend the planetary spheres, and then this Giant Triangle is really a "Ring-Pass-Not," something which stands as the bar to further passing, but possibly if the candidate is completely freed of all earthly and planetary attributes, the spirit may wing its way through the apex of this triangle along the mystic line through the topmost peak of the Pyramid itself — and then out and beyond — at one with Divinity.
Then the descent, down from the apex of the pyramid, through the mystic line of power to the apex of the King's Chamber, down into the coffer and the soul is reunited with the entranced body. The Initiation is complete, the neophyte arises as it were from the tomb of trial, no longer a chela, but a Master, and in a daze, suffused still with the divine splendor, passes through the Grand Gallery, through the Hall of Darkness, and then ascends towards the Entrance. Now beautiful beyond description is his first sight — or was when this was supposed to have been built — for there in direct line of vision was the Pole Star, that star which in reality is the pivot of spiritual and divine things.
Stamping upon the mind symbolically what the soul was to pass through in the inner worlds may well be a universal religious tradition. We find many pyramids all over the world, many at more or less the same latitudes, from China and Egypt to Mexico. But there are many other mysterious objects of olden times. In Zimbabwe, almost 5,600 kilometers due south of the Great Pyramid at Gizeh — or nearly 1/7 the earth's circumference away from it — we find the prehistoric ruins at Dhlo-Dhlo. Excavated at the beginning of the 20th century, historians do not yet understand its intended use. Many smooth curved ruins are found throughout Zimbabwe, as the country's name, "houses of stone," designates.
When we take a close look at a site-map of the Dhlo-Dhlo ruins, sketched by Franklin White in 1901, it seems to resemble a human heart [in Ancient Man: A Handbook of Puzzling Artifacts, comp. by William R. Corliss, p. 267] Could ceremonies have been held in which the processionists went through this building in order to identify themselves with the peregrinating monad or innermost self and to stamp this knowledge upon their minds symbolically?
There is a constant flow in our solar system between and through planets, and a flow of intellectual and spiritual powers through the sun, the heart of our solar system. The ruins are situated on a high plateau between the sources of two rivers, one of which runs north and the other south. Could it help remind us that we have our roots in the divine worlds? All we see is movement, panta rhei, "all things flow," as Greek philosopher Heraclitus put it.
Returning home is not the ultimate goal for a pilgrim, as Odysseus learned. The journey is what counts. Leaving and returning home again must be recognized as an initiation, a new start, a new cycle on a higher level which brings us more compassion and love for those who have not yet undertaken this journey, but will when their time is ripe.
(From Sunrise magazine, June/July 2005; copyright © 2005 Theosophical University Press)