Haigh, Martin J. 2011. Interpreting the Sarasvati Tirthayatra of Shri Balarma.

Itihas Darpan,
Research Journal of Akhil Bhartiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana, ABISY (New Delhi, ISSN:
0974-3065), vol. 16 (2), October: pp. 179-193.

Interpreting the Sarasvati Tirthayatra of Shri Balarma

Prof. Martin J. Haigh

Dept. of Anthropology & Geography, School of Social Sciences and Law (SSL), Gipsy Lane Campus,
Headington, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, OX3 0BP. England, U.K.
Phone: (+044)-1865-483785. Email: mhaigh@brookes.ac.uk

Abstract: Shri Balarma’s Sarasvati River pilgrimage from the Mahabharata’s Tirthayatraparva is
examined as an archetype for modern Hindu pilgrimage. Exploration of contexts suggests that Shri
Balarma enacts His journey in His role Adiguru, the original teacher, and as Ananta-shesha, the eternal
servant and support for Shri Vishnu. The Goddess Sarasvati, the patron of education and scholarship,
appeared on Earth as a river with a mission to wash away sins. The Sarasvati, which is the river most
frequently eulogised by the Rig Veda as a mighty stream, and which is by association is the river of
knowledge, culture and learning, was largely lost even in the times of the Mahabharata, although
modern scholars believe its waters still flow to Prayaga through the Yamuna. However, Shri Balarma’s
Holy Brahmins had sufficient spiritual vision to be able to detect its route. In Vedic understanding, Shri
Balarma’s Tirthayatra was not a pilgrimage in the modern sense but a Yat’sattra, a travelling ritual that
took its Brahmin yajman’s self as the sacrifice. Analysis of the blessings offered by each of the Tirthas
shows that the majority concern the satisfaction of individual Earthly desires, some concern social duties
and some concern matters of Narrow Religion and mythology. However, there is also a kernel of
blessings that directly concern spiritual purification and liberation. These themes confirm the
Tithayatra’s true status as prototype for the modern pilgrimage, with all of the diversity of goals and
meanings that such journeys involve.
Keywords. Ananta-shesha, Balarma, Chaitanya, Mahabharata, Bhaktivedanta Svami Prabhupada,
Madhya Lila, Sarasvati, Tirthayatra.


This explores Shri Balarma’s iconic Tirthayatra along the Sarasvati River as depicted in the
Mahabharata’s Shalyaparva as a spiritual entity. It is based on Ganguli’s translation
and the analyses
of Alf Hiltebeitel (2001)
, which pertain to its deeper layers of Vedic ritual (Yat’sattra), it is guided
by the work of Rana P.B. Singh
and it acknowledges the encyclopaedic studies of Kalyanaraman
Shri Balarma’s holy journey along the Sarasvati River may be explored from many perspectives,
which include its role in and significance in the thematic development of the Mahabharata story-line.
However, this paper explores the Tirthayatra as a prototype for the modern Hindu pilgrimage,
recognising its modern iconic status in this respect. Among many alternative academic perspectives, it
may be argued that a historian might explore the Mahabharata’s Tirthayatraparva in terms of its
historical accuracy and social context, often through a political lens
; an Indologist might study
narrative, precedence, structure, cadence and imagery with an eye to understanding the thinking at the
time of a text’s creation
; while, equally, another might deconstruct the text in an attempt to link it to
the concepts of environmental history or archaeology
. However, a pilgrim seeks only a spiritual
meaning and message. As Rana P.B. Singh
summarises, pilgrimage should be viewed as: “a spiritual
Haigh, Martin J. 2011. Interpreting the Sarasvati Tirthayatra… Itihas Darpan, 16 (2): pp. 179-193.
quest — a guiding force unifying divinity and humanity; it is a search for wholeness. Ultimately the
wholeness of landscape and its sacred and symbolic geography creates a ‘faithscape’ that
encompasses sacred place, sacred time, sacred meanings, and sacred rituals and embodies both
symbolic and tangible psyche elements in an attempt to realise humankind’s identity in the cosmos.
The act of pilgrimage, including the journey, activities, and experiences of companionship, is itself a
ritual with has transformative value, a reinterpretation of the idea of “experience”. In this case, this
pilgrimage perspective is more exotic because it emerges from the furthest fringes of Hindu tradition;
from the margins of that world religion chimera that is the global legacy of Hindu missionaries such
as Svami Vivekananda and Shrila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Svami Prabhupada. In brief, its aim is to
explore the message contained within the Tirthayatra, especially within its contexts and the blessings
gifted by each of the tirthas and to show how these serve the three layers or consciousness – body,
mind and soul – or, more romantically, the layers implied by the Gayatri Mantra – Bhu, Bhuva, and


First, it’s worth reflecting upon the three chief protagonists in the Tirthayatra narrative. The first two
are: Shri Balarma, the brother of Shri Krishna, and the River (and Goddess) Sarasvati. The third is
the Mahabharata itself, which contains the Tirthayatra within its narratives at several levels
In the Mahabharata, Shri Balarma is a relatively minor player. When the Harivamsa
the glories of Shri Balarma, His Tirthayatra is not mentioned. However, later, He is eulogised as the
God who went on a pilgrimage. The Narasimha Upapurana
is not alone in including Him in its list
of key Vishnu avatars (incarnations). In the Bhagavata Purana (10.8.12)
, at His naming ceremony,
sage Garga calls Him Rma, because He delights through his virtues, Bala, because of his strength,
and Shankarsana, because he attracts unity. The worshipful Shri Balarma is the elder brother of Shri
Krishna, an expansion of the Supreme and one of the four Vyuha the incarnation of His eternal
servant, Ananta-shesha, the thousand-hooded cosmic serpent who supports the Universe and who, in
the Puranas and many icons, provides the bed on which Maha-Vishnu sleeps during pralaya, when
the cosmos dissolves into primal waters between world ages
suggests that Shri Balarma, as Shri Krishna’s elder brother, originally, had the role of
representing a straightforward dharma, which Shri Krishna so often gently adjusts to his own aims.
He also thinks that the two accounts of his birth, as a white hair from Shri Vishnu, and as incarnation
of Ananta-shesha are later developments. Hence, the late Narasimha Purana (53.32-36)
, which
grants a relatively minor role to Shri Krishna, emphasises Shri Balarma as the white and shining
principle, while Shri Krishna is the dark principle, of Shri Vishnu’ energy, in which they merge once
their work is done. Another late text, the Garga Samhita Balabhadra Kanda, which is narrated by the
Kauvara Duryodhana, details His advent and worship by the serpents in the lower worlds. It also notes
and that the Gopis involved in His own Rasa Lila dances, which are also described in the Bhagavata
Purana (10.65.18), were reincarnations of the snake wives
. In a similar vein, it has been suggested
that, because of his white skin, red eyes, and blue-black clothing, Shri Balarma represents the three
gunas, and since he is also associated with alcohol and a certain lack of diplomacy, he is linked with
both the material principle and tamasic delusion
. A similar argument attaches to his representation
as an incarnation of Ananta-shesha, the cosmic serpent, as in the Padma Purana (6.229.38-39), where
he is seen as time (kala), the all-destroying form of Shri Vishnu hence the link to destructive
behaviour patterns
. In icons, he is often portrayed with serpent hoods, carrying a glass of wine and
with a palm leaf on his golden standard
also asserts that, despite the plough that his icons carry, nothing supports the widespread
idea that he was originally an agricultural deity. Possibly, however, this misses the point that these
last two associations imply. It has been pointed out that Nagas, snakes, are notable for their absence in
the older parts of the Veda, notably the Rig Veda, which may suggest that snake cults were not
important to people, who were, like Shri Krishna Gopala, pastoralists. Snakes are not a great problem
for those who tend herds of cattle but they are a real nuisance for those who live sedentary lives, have
houses with dark corners, and who tend the gardens or fields where snakes may lurk. In less nomadic
Haigh, Martin J. 2011. Interpreting the Sarasvati Tirthayatra… Itihas Darpan, 16 (2): pp. 179-193.
times, snake cults became very important. Indeed, coping with snakes provides the outer motif for the
. Shri Shri Krishna Gopala and Balarma in the Vrindavan Lilas are worshiped as
deities of the everyday people, deities of everyday lives, and deities separated from the awe and
reverence reserved for Kings and great Priests of the temple, which is why these texts are so
treasured. Shri Krishna tends the herds while Shri Balarma carries His ‘plough’ (hala) perhaps, less
as a weapon than as a symbol of the other half of agrarian society. Among his other symbols is the
‘wooden grinding pestle’ (musala)
Most of the above is, of course, sharply contradicted by both the Mahabharata and by modern
Vaishnava theology. This viewpoint is represented by Table 1, which contains verses from the
Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya-Lila, which also links Shri Balarma with the Avadhut Nityananda
Prabhu, Shri Chaitanya’s chief associate
. In modern Vaishnavism, Shri Balarma begins as Ananta-
shesha an expansion of Shri Krishna’s creative energy and His eternal servant, whose service
includes furnishing the spiritual world, and whose role is to act as Adiguru, the merciful original
teacher and protector of devotees. As the original teacher, His pilgrimage, therefore, has special

Table 1. Status and role of Shri Balarma as explained to Sanatana Gosvami by Shri Chaitanya (Shri
Chaitanya-charitamrita Madhya Lila, 20.255-262).

Madhya Lila, 20.255: “Lord Sankarsana is Lord Balarma. Being the predominator of the
creative energy He creates both the material and the spiritual world”.
Madhya Lila, 20.256: “Lord Balarma is the cause of both the material and the spiritual
creation. He is the predominating deity of egotism and by the will of Krishna and the
power of the spiritual energy. He creates the spiritual world which consists of the planet
Goloka Vrindavana and the Vaikuntha planets”.
Madhya Lila, 20.257: “Although there is no question of creation as far as the spiritual world is
concerned the spiritual world is nonetheless manifested by the supreme will of
Sankarsana. The spiritual world is the abode of the pastimes of the eternal spiritual
Madhya Lila, 20.258: “Gokula the supreme abode and planet appears like a lotus flower that
has a thousand petals. The whorl of that lotus is the abode of the Supreme Lord Krishna.
This lotus-shaped supreme abode is created by the will of Lord Ananta”. (Verse from the
Brahma Samhita (5.2), see also the Brahma Samhita (5.47), Ananta-shesha is another
name for the serpent couch upon which Maha-Vishnu rests and it means eternal servant
Madhya Lila, 20.262: “Balarma and Krishna are the original efficient and material causes of
the material world. As Maha-Vishnu and the material energy, They enter into the material
elements and create the diversities by multi-energies. Thus, They are the cause of all
causes” (verse spoken by Uddhava in the Bhagavata Purana (10.46.31).

Sarasvati Goddess and Rivers

“Rma of unfading glory sang this verse in the midst of the Brahmanas: ‘Where else is such
happiness as that in a residence by the Sarasvati? Where also such merits as those in a residence by
the Sarasvati? Men have departed for heaven having approached the Sarasvati! All should ever
remember the Sarasvati! Sarasvati is the most sacred of rivers! Sarasvati always bestows the greatest
happiness on men! Men after approaching the Sarasvati will not have to grieve for their sins either
here or hereafter!’” The Mahabharata, (Shalyaparva, Tirthayatraparva, 9.54).
In the Mahabharata, Shri Balarma, following in the footsteps of Bhishma, chooses to make his
pilgrimage along the River Sarasvati, rather than the Ganga or Yamuna, and the first question is why?
In this text, he does not make the all–India journey described in the Bhagavata Purana (10.79.9-21)
However, the Rig Veda features the Sarasvati in scores of verses and She is the only river to whom the
Haigh, Martin J. 2011. Interpreting the Sarasvati Tirthayatra… Itihas Darpan, 16 (2): pp. 179-193.
Rig Veda devotes whole hymns, namely Rig Veda (6.61, 7.95 and 7.96)
. Rig Veda (6.61.12)
eulogises Her as a mighty river, “Seven sistered and sprung from the threefold source”
; while Rig
Veda (7.95.1) adds “surpassing in might and majesty all other waters”
Personified, Goddess Sarasvati is consort of creator and ancestor (Pitamaha), Shri Brahma. Vedic
verses link her to the slaying of the drought demon (Rig Veda, 6. 61)
, while in the Kaushitaki
Brahmana (3.12.2), She is the second form of the thunderbolt that drives away demons
. The
Brahmavaivarta Purana (Prakriti Khanda, 6.1-12), calls her “the symbol of Holy pilgrimage… the
support of the virtuous, the index of devotion…incomparably adapted to consume the sins of
. As consort of Brahma, patron of the Brahmin priesthood, Shrimati Sarasvati is
recognised as the mother of the Vedas, patron of the creative arts, education, knowledge, scholarship
and speech. The Aitreya Brahmana (3.1.2) notes: “To a child born, speech comes last … by reciting a
triplet to Sarasvati, his speech becomes perfect”
. Of course, despite the Vedic import of Sarasvati,
Goddess and River, it is also a fact that the river’s mouth lay close to Shri Krishna and Shri
Balarma’s new Capital City, Dvaraka. Proximity, with these other considerations, may help explain
the choice of this pilgrimage route. However, the more attractive explanation conjoins the original
teacher, Shri Balarma, with a spiritual journey along the river of education, knowledge and
This conjunction is made the more intriguing because, today, the Sarasvati River is lost. Even its
location is a matter of dispute; some would link the name to places as far away as the Helmand River
of Afghanistan
. Indeed, even in Shri Balarma’s time, much of the River’s flow was invisible,
traceable only by the distribution of Tirthas and through the spiritual insights of His Brahmin
advisors. Today, most associate the Sarasvati with a palaeo-channel, a dried up river bed, that runs
parallel to the Indus River, from the Indian Punjab Shiwaliks, along the border and into Pakistan close
to the Indus delta. In archaeological circles, this ancient channel is significant because it is associated
with a large number of sites from the Harappan civilisation, which were abandoned in the centuries
before 1900 BCE, so the site suggests a continuity between Harappan Culture and later Vedic and
post-Vedic Hindu tradition
. Doubtless, such abandonment might be blamed on climate change or
land degradation but, in this case, the finger points to river capture. Herbert
talks about the capture
of the Sarasvati River headwaters through the westward diversion to the Sutlej, while Valdiya (1996,
and 2002)
suggests further river capture, linked to tectonic uplift, causing the river’s upper reaches
to be diverted eastwards to the Yamuna and her tributaries
. Of course, this viewpoint nicely supports
belief in the Sarasvati’s confluence with the Yamuna and Ganga at modern Allahabad (ancient
Prayaga). Today, the Yamuna carries the lost waters of the former Sarasvati, at least as far as Delhi.

The Mahabharata (Sattra)

The third protagonist is the Mahabharata epic. In Vedic tradition, an important ancient ritual
travels the River Sarasvati, the Yat’sattra, a Soma sacrifice that has a Brahmin as its yajman and takes
the yajman’s self as the fee, possibly in the form of a ritual suicide (Kaushitaki Brahmana, 3.15.1, et
. Shri Balarma’s Tirthayatra may be a prototypical pilgrimage but it also emerges from this
more ancient tradition of Vedic sacrifice
. Equally, it forms part of the Mahabharata’s larger
thematic development, which is framed by the Sattras of Janamejaya and Shaunaka
. King
Janamejaya receives the Mahabharata narration during the course of his Sarpasattra. This ritual,
designed to rid the world of snakes, both opens and closes the Epic. This is not unimportant because
Shri Balarma is identified with the thousand hooded Ananta-shesha, the snake who shades Maha-
Vishnu. The Mahabharata’s outermost frame is the Sattra of Shaunaka Rishi in the Naimisha Forest,
where Ugrasravas is invited to recount the epic, including the story of King Janamejaya’s Sattra. This
incident is echoed in Shri Balarma’s Tirthayatra, which detours east to visit the Sages of the
Naimisha Forest
, which arguably lies near modern Sitapur, Uttar Pradesh, hundreds of kilometres
distant on the far side of the Ganga river.
The Sarpasattra of Janamejaya is, however, non-traditional in having a Kshatriya as its yajman.
Sattras were unusual rituals in that they were performed for the benefit of the Brahmins rather than
any client
. A typical sattra lasted 12 days, although a Maha-sattra would run for 12 years. The
Haigh, Martin J. 2011. Interpreting the Sarasvati Tirthayatra… Itihas Darpan, 16 (2): pp. 179-193.
Gava-mayana Sattra ran for one year and ended with a great vow (Maha-vrata). Barnett notes that the
Sarasvati Yat’sattra “proceeded along the right bank of the river Sarasvati from Vinasana or
Adarsana, the spot in desert where it disappears, to Plaksha Prasravana in the Siwalik mountains,
where it rises from the earth, the pilgrims taking with them movable apparatus for the Soma-ritual.
First, one hundred young cows in calf with a bull, which were to increase tenfold, were driven into a
A Brahmin at the Ahavaniya fire threw a stick up the river-bank, at the spot where it fell a
Grihapatya fire was set up, from which a new Ahavaniya was made. The process was repeated day
after day with diverse rites until the party reached the river’s source
. The Sarpasatra, which also ran
for a year, was based on fire sacrifices organised by tens – dasdasi – to resemble the sound of a
striking snake. As ever, there are layers of depth, association and embedded meaning that go beyond
anything that can be tackled here. However, the point is that the Mahabharata emerged from a culture
dominated by Vedic ritual. In our times, Sattra rituals are no longer considered central to the
Tirthayatra’s role as a Hindu pilgrimage prototype, but aspects of the original remain, including the
notion of the sacrificial or surrendered self.
Finally, Shri Balarma’s Tirthayatra has rivals to contest its place as the prototypical pilgrimage.
For example, an All-India Tirthayatra by Prahlad Maharaj is described at length in the Vamana
Purana (83.1-85.1)
. Superficially, this seems like a far better model for the modern pilgrim. Prahlad
is the great devotee whose devotion wins him the appearance and protection of Shri Narasimha. His
Tirthayatra crosses India and His devotions cross the Hindu spectrum. Finally, Prahlad Maharaj is
born a demon and his pilgrimage aims to purify him of His demonic tendencies. In this current Kali
age, the goal of controlling demoniac tendencies, a struggle to direct the senses and suppress the
egoist mind (ahamkara), is a battle for all devotees, as Bhagvan Svaminarayan’s Vachanamrita so
eloquently depicts

Interpreting the Context

In sum, the key attributes of Shri Balarma’s Tirthayatra are that it is taken by God not by His
devotee and in His pass-time as a Yadava Warrior-King not youthful cowherd boy. This suggests that
Shri Balarma’s role in this is intended to be that of leader and (Adi-guru) teacher. Historically, the
teaching is a sattra sacrifice that is associated with the destruction of the sacrificer’s self. It is
constructed within the context of a Sarpasattra, dedicated to the annihilation of serpents, yet its chief
protagonist is the cosmic serpent, Ananta-shesha. As the Harivamsa, Shri Vishnuparva (62.1-3)

notes, Shri Ananta-shesha, the eternal support and servant of God, evokes the sentiments of both
service and servitude. The Tirthayatra runs along the Vedic River of Knowledge, formerly a mighty
stream known for its capacity to wash away sins but now largely vanished in these increasingly fallen
times. In the era of the Mahabharata, however, Shri Balarma’s path was still detectable by Holy
Brahmins, whose advice even this God follows with attention.

The Sarasvati Tirthayatra

Pilgrimages move though both physical and liminal spiritual spaces, which in combination create
not a landscape but a ‘faithscape’
. They have a physical route and often a physical goal in the form
or a shrine or holy ground but the path a pilgrim travels is a journey of the spirit. The journey taken by
the physical body is incidental. For a modern pilgrim, the travels of the original guru, Shri Balarma
to spiritual places on the banks of the river of education, knowledge and wisdom, which has become
invisible to ordinary people in these fallen times - provides a clear and complete picture. The detail of
the journey is relatively unimportant but it still contains important messages.
Geographically, Hindu pilgrimages have a clockwise moment
. This is true of Parikrama
pilgrimages like those of Braj
as it is of the Mahabharata’s Sarasvati Tirthayatra. This begins at the
temple of Shri Brahma in Pushkara and continues clockwise along the route of the Sarasvati (Fig. 1)
to conclude in Prayaga (Allahabad), its spiritual confluence with the Yamuna and Ganga Rivers. In all
cases, the geographical circle is considered a spiritual spiral that raises its participants to higher levels
of consciousness. The Mahabharata’s Tirthayatraparva (82.85) states: “… of all tirthas, Prayaga is
Haigh, Martin J. 2011. Interpreting the Sarasvati Tirthayatra… Itihas Darpan, 16 (2): pp. 179-193.
the most sacred… By going to that tirtha, by singing its praises, or by taking a little earth from it, one
is cleansed from every sin”
. This quotation reminds that pilgrims engage in a pilgrimage for a
reason, often an expectation of reward. This reward may be spiritual but often it is a more mundane
. The key motivations for taking any pilgrimage include besides illumination: purification,
penance for the expiation of sin and supplication for a special favour, desire or the removal of a
problem. For example, the Narasimha Purana (55.1)
describes the pilgrimage of Shukradeva, a
counsellor to the Demon King Bali, who loses the sight in one eye when struck by Shri Vamana.
After a long tirthayatra, Shukradeva prays to Shri Vishnu on the banks of the Ganga, who appears to
restore his eye.
However, in the Mahabharata (III, Tirthayatraparva, in Vanaparva 81), as Sage Narada points
out, pilgrimage is also a way of building social status and respect: “Bhishma also … wandered over
the world at the command of Pulastya. …. The man that ranges the earth in accordance with these
injunctions obtains the highest fruit of a hundred horse-sacrifices and earns salvation thereafter. Thou
wilt, O son of Pritha, obtain merit consisting of the eight attributes, even like that which Bhishma, the
foremost of the Kurus, had obtained of yore”
. So, pilgrimage is also a public show of duty that
enhances social status. Although, in the story-line of the Mahabharata, it also provides a mode of
escape, or at least a temporary respite, for Shri Balarma from a difficult situation, the impending
conflict between two favoured devotees.

So, pilgrimage journeys are conducted for a variety of reasons that evoke different spiritual
. For some, it is about personal spiritual evolution. For some, it is about supplication a
request for God’s intercession blessing, boon, or relief from some aspect of the material world. For
others, it may be made out of respect to social tradition; their pilgrimage is a religious duty, a
convention that supports the pilgrim’s status in a community and as an expression of a social
. For still others, it is more or less a touristic experience, where pageantry, spectacle and
recountable experience become a key; Rana P.B. Singh summarises the various academic pilgrimage
models of Morinis, Bhardwaj, and Turner and critically examined their applicability in Indian
pilgrimage studies
. These confirm that the hermeneutics of pilgrimage are complicated by the fact
that, while pilgrim travellers may occupy the same geographical spaces, they are there for different
reasons, seek different goals, and in fact, do not actually inhabit the same worlds. The worlds we
inhabit are those we perceive. Those with different worldviews do not perceive the same things in the
world around them and the things they do see may assume different meanings. Naturally, such
Haigh, Martin J. 2011. Interpreting the Sarasvati Tirthayatra… Itihas Darpan, 16 (2): pp. 179-193.
perceptions are affected by many factors: history, cultural background, education, aspiration, acuity,
stage of life, and levels of religious development. Here, these range from surface touristic levels of
spectacle, through levels of tradition, custom, dogma, and worldly supplication, which may be called
‘Narrow Religion’, to deeper levels of spiritual communion and mysticism, ‘Deep Religion’
Thus, there may be a triple level structure embedded in the Hindu pilgrimage process, which
echoes other three level structures of the Hindu world. Somewhat similarly, the Gayatri Mantra,
begins “Om, Bhu, Bhuva, Sva” and contains the same triad, which symbolises the creation of the
world in three sounds
. As Sadguru Sant Keshavadas explains, these are elaborated by the
Purushasukta, the first five verses of which explain the nature of the primordial personality of
Godhead, the second five the works of the Demigods, and the final five, most well known verses, the
metaphorical division of Purusha into the beings of the material world
. In sum, Bhu is the material
world, Sva – is the ultimate Truth, and Bhuva – that mythic and mental space which lies between,
namely the realms of the Demi-Gods.
Table 2 elaborates these 3 levels of pilgrim engagement with help from the work of Rana P.B.
beginning with the more materialist – Bhu level, rising through the more intellectual levels
of Narrow Religion and Social Dharma Bhuva, and ending at the highest level of the spiritual
seeker, Sva, the Deep Religion level, beyond which lies only final liberation from all material
existence – moksha, Om.

Table 2. Three Levels of Pilgrimage

Goals Gayatri Possible associates

Mainly Personal and Material
Bhu Tamas, earth, body, spiritually asleep,
passive, inward-facing and self-centered.
Mainly Social and Spiritual
Bhuva Rajas, sky, heart and mind, dreaming,
active, outward-facing and self-
Mainly Spiritual enlighten-
ment and association with the
Sva Sattva, heaven, spirit and atman,
spiritually awake, serene, Self-conscious
if not yet Self-realised.

Inside the Tithayatra of Shri Balarma

It is possible to map the translated text of the Mahabharata Shalyaparva’s Tirthayatraparva in terms
of these three levels and the outcome is interesting. Table 3 is an abridged version of the work-sheet
from an analysis of the blessings offered by each of the key Tirthas visited by Shri Balarma. It
devotes a row to some of the main Tirthas identified in the 1883-1889 translation of Kesari Mohan
Ganguli. Its three columns include a description of the text, assessment of the message that it
contains, then to the left, the level, where: Bhu refers to a material blessing, Bhuva – narrow
religious, and Sva, a deep religious blessing.

Table 3. Pilgrimage Levels: worksheet for parts of the Mahabharata (Shalyaparva 9, Tithayatraparva)
from the translation of Kesari Mohan Ganguli, 1883-1886
(with verses in brackets).

Level The Mahabharata Tithayatra Text (verse) Interpretation
Bhu “Two and forty days have passed since I left home.
… I am desirous, O Madhava, of beholding this
encounter with the mace between these two
disciples of mine!" (9.34)
Shri Balarma returns to witness a
sight he had hoped to avoid. Message;
the Laws of Karma will play out in the
mundane world.
Bhu …while the troops were being mustered and
arrayed, … that illustrious son of Yadu’s race, the
wielder of the plough then set out on a pilgrimage
to the Sarasvati. (9.34)
Shri Balarma has affection for both
sides in this conflict and being unable
to assure peace opts to set out along
the river named for the Goddess of
Haigh, Martin J. 2011. Interpreting the Sarasvati Tirthayatra… Itihas Darpan, 16 (2): pp. 179-193.
Bhuva Location: Prabhasa Tirtha, the mouth of the
Sarasvati River. “Having bathed also in that
foremost of tirthas on the Sarasvati, the god
having the hare for his mark shall, ye gods, grow
once more! These words of mine are true! For half
the month Soma shall wane every day, and for half
the month (following) he will wax every day!”…
Bathing there on the day of the new moon, that
god of great energy and great effulgence got back
his cool rays and continued once more to illumine
the worlds. .. Pleased with Soma, the adorable
Daksha once more addressed him, saying, ‘Do
not, O son, disregard women, and never disregard
Brahmanas! (9.35).
The message concerns social dharma.
Shri Soma, the moon deity, is cursed
with a wasting disease – tuberculosis -
for favouritism towards just one of his
20 wives, not treating them all
equally. His disease has a negative
impact in the whole world and upon
the Gods, who lift the curse by bathing
at Prabhasa Tirtha.
Bhuva Location: Udapana Tirtha – where the river has an
invisible current. “Brihaspati (the preceptor of the
gods) said to the celestials ‘Trita is performing a
sacrifice. We must go there, ye gods! Endued with
great ascetic merit, if angry, he is competent to
create other gods!’ Hearing these words of
Brihaspati, all the gods, united together, repaired
to where the sacrifice of Trita was going on…
Having duly obtained their allotted shares, the
denizens of heaven … gave him such boons as he
desired”. (9.36)
The message concerns the power of
sacrifice and divine blessings. Trita, a
great ascetic, becomes trapped in a
well, whilst there creates a mental
soma sacrifice, which disturbs the
Gods who appear to accept their share
of the sacrifice and grant him his
material needs.
Sva Location: Gargasrota. “There, in that sacred tirtha
of the Sarasvati, Garga of venerable years and
soul cleansed by ascetic penances, O Janamejaya,
had acquired a knowledge of Time and its course,
of the deviations of luminous bodies (in the
firmament), and of all auspicious and inauspicious
portents”. (9.37)
Garga Muni was the teacher of both
Shri Krishna and Shri Balarma, so
this stop may be taken as some kind of
Guru-puja for the preceptor, who is
the mouth-piece for the Supreme.
Bhuva Location Naimisha Kunja: “Baladeva once more
set out, along the way that those ascetics pointed
out to him, reaching that spot where the Sarasvati
turns in an eastward direction, like torrents of rain
bent by the action of the wind. The river took that
course for beholding the high-souled Rishis
dwelling in the forest of Naimisha. .. Balarma,
having the plough for his weapon, beholding that
foremost of rivers change her course, became, O
king, filled with wonder." (9.37)
The Naimisha Forest is the place
where the Mahabharata is recited and
features at four points in this tale. The
story tells that the river turned
eastwards in order to accommodate
the need for sacrificial grounds for the
large congregation of Rishis and holy
men who wanted to conduct sacrifices
at this spot and that having met those
needs turned west once again. Once
again, the story tells of the power of
Vedic ritual and of the ritual as a
partnership between Gods and
Sva Location; Sapta Sarasvat, called the foremost
tirtha on the river. “O king, the seven Sarasvatis
cover this universe! Whithersoever the Sarasvati
was summoned by persons of great energy, thither
she made her appearance”.(9.38)
This text converts the River Sarasvati
from a topographic feature to a general
principle that can be summoned by
prayer to any tirtha.
Bhuva Location; Sapta Sarasvat: Mankanaka: “Having
praised Mahadeva in this manner, the Rishi bowed
to him, ‘Let not this absence of gravity, ridiculous
The story of the Sage Mankanaka, son
of the Wind God, first tells of how his
seed, spilt in the Sarasvati gave rise to
Haigh, Martin J. 2011. Interpreting the Sarasvati Tirthayatra… Itihas Darpan, 16 (2): pp. 179-193.
in the extreme, that I displayed, O god, destroy my
ascetic merit! I pray to thee for this!’ The god,
with a cheerful heart, once more said unto him
‘Let thy asceticism increase a thousand-fold, O
Brahmana, through my grace! I shall also always
dwell with thee in this asylum! For the man that
will worship me in the tirtha Sapta-Sarasvat there
will be nothing unattainable here or hereafter”
49 Marut demigods, and later talks
about him dancing wildly when
discovering that his blood appeared as
plant sap. Finding this lack of gravity
disturbing, the Gods ask Shri Shiva to
bring him to order. While there are
probably many layers of myth here,
the simple messages of correct
behaviour and wish fulfilment are the
easiest to collect.
Bhu Location: Usanas. The story concerns Mahodara,
who was freed of a huge malignant growth through
bathing in this Tirtha (9.39)
The myth eulogises the curative
properties of this Tirtha’s waters.
Bhu Arshtishena was unable to master the Vedas but
after bathing in this Tirtha he achieved success.
“By small exertions, again, one shall
attain to great result here!” (9.40)
Sva . “…by his austere penances acquired the status of
Brahmanhood, the illustrious Vishvamitra,
wandered over the whole Earth like a celestial”
The message involves overcoming
adversity and gaining spiritual
success. King Vishvamitra destroys a
forest during a military campaign and
incurs the curse of its resident sage.
He engages in austerities until Brahma
grants his wish to become a Brahmin.
Bhu After being denied the cows needed to complete a
12 year sattra, Sage “Dalvyavaka poured the
kingdom of Dhritarashtra, as a libation into the
sacrificial fire” (9.41). As his kingdom
disintegrates, the King proceeds to the Tirtha to
beg forgiveness and the Sage frees his kingdom.
Again, a sattra motif, but the message
concerns the Earthly power of the
Brahmins and their sacrifices.
Bhu Location: Yayata. “O lord, king Yayati performed
a sacrifice there. Beholding … his immutable
devotion … the river Sarasvati gave unto the
Brahmanas everything for which each cherished a
heartfelt wish” (9.41).
The message concerns wish fulfilment
and the giving of dakshina.
Bhuva Location: The Tirtha “of fierce current called
Vasishthapavaha” (9.42). This discusses the
redemption of Brahmana-rakshsas by bathing in an
offshoot, perhaps cut-off meander lake, of the
Sarasvati River called “Aruna”. Lord Brahma
said: ‘Performing a sacrifice, bathe with due
rites… in Aruna, that tirtha which saveth from the
fear of sin!… Formerly the presence of that river
at its site was concealed. The divine Sarasvati
repaired to the Aruna and flooded it with her
waters. This confluence of Sarasvati and Aruna is
highly sacred!” (9.43).
This speaks of the fate of fallen
Brahmins and those who kill them and
hence the potency of the Aruna Tirtha
for the cleansing of such sins.
Bhuva Location Soma Tirtha, which contains a giant
Aswattha tree under which rests Shri Skanda
Kartikeya, the Slayer of the Demon Taraka.
“There, in days of yore, Soma himself, O king of
kings, had performed the Rajasuya sacrifice. …
Upon the conclusion of that sacrifice, a great
battle took place between the gods (on the one
side) and the Danavas, the Daityas, and the
Rakshasas (on the other). In that battle Skanda
slew (the Asura) Taraka [and] obtained the
The myth associated with this place
concerns the origins of Shri Siva’s son
Kartikeya (Skanda) and how he
became became military commander
for the Gods. As for interpretation,
this may be mythologised history and
have some deeper Shaivite meanings,
which are not clear to this writer.
Haigh, Martin J. 2011. Interpreting the Sarasvati Tirthayatra… Itihas Darpan, 16 (2): pp. 179-193.
command of the celestial forces” (9.43).
Bhuva Location: Taijasa Tirtha.”That other tirtha, O bull
of Bharata’s race, where in days of yore Varuna
the lord of waters had been installed by the
celestials” (9.46).
“Agnitirtha, that spot where the eater of clarified
butter, disappearing from the view, became
concealed within the entrails of the Sami wood.
When the light of all the worlds thus disappeared,
O sinless one, the gods then repaired to the
Grandsire of the universe. And they said, ‘The
adorable Agni has disappeared. We do not know
the reason. Let not all creatures be destroyed.
Create fire, O puissant Lord!’ (9.47).
Agni of great energy became very much frightened
at the curse of Bhrigu. Concealing himself within
the entrails of the Sami wood, that adorable god
disappeared from the view. Upon the
disappearance of Agni, all the gods, with Vasava
at their head, in great affliction, searched for the
missing god. Finding Agni then, they saw that god
lying within the entrails of the Sami wood. The
celestials … having succeeded in finding out the
god, became very glad [and] returned to the
places they had come from … Agni also, from
Bhrigu’s curse, became an eater of everything …
Linked with the foregoing tale this
again emphasises the importance of
the (sacrificial) fire and concern at its
loss. It suggests a very ancient layer
of thought
. Collectively, these
sections are reminiscent of the
Khadava-daha-parva of the
Mahabharata Adiparva, where Shri
Krishna and Arjuna burn a forest and
its fauna as a sacrifice to the god of
fire, Agni, and part of the Janamejaya
motif against snakes. There are many
embedded symbolic components–
from the Nara-Narayana link flagged
at the start, the defeat of the Vedic
Demi-Gods under Indra, the role of
Sage Durvasa another portion of
Shri Shiva associated with the violent
aspects of Nature, and most critically
the 12-year Sattra fire and link with
the well-being of Agnideva. Of
course, the section describes a fire
sacrifice, where, as the Yajur Veda
points out, Shri Vishnu is the sacrifice.
It harks back to Vedic times, where
ritual was considered critical to the
establishment of cosmic order –– so a
half completed sacrifice and
diminution of the sacred fire, was a
very serious problem.
Bhuva Location: Brahmayoni Tirtha A tirtha sacred to the pastimes of
Brahma, mentioned only in passing
Bhu Location: Kauvera Tirtha “where the puissant
Ailavila, having practised severe austerities,
obtained, O king, the Lordship over all treasures.
While he dwelt there (engaged in austerities), all
kinds of wealth, and all the precious gems came to
him of their own accord”.
Back to basics, this tirtha is about
aspirations for wealth.

Location: Vadarapachana tirtha. Here Sruvavati,
practised severe austerities as a Brahmacharini “by
the desire of obtaining the Lord of the celestials
for her husband”…. Everything is attainable by
penances. Everything rests on penances. All those
regions of blessedness, O thou of beautiful face,
that belong to the gods can be obtained by
penances. Penances are the root of great
happiness. Those men that cast off their bodies
after having practised austere penances obtain the
status of gods…”
Here again, the theme is wish
fulfilment, the simple message is that
by prayer / austerities, anything
desired is possible and a pilgrim can
obtain their heart’s desire, at least after
death. Here, when the sacrificial fire
burns low, the maiden feeds it with
her own body. This subtheme of
female self-immolation links the
Tirtha to the practice of Sati.
Sva Location: Vadarapachana tirtha? Smt. Arundhati
worked hard, feeding the fire and performing
religious austerity passes through a 12 year
drought. In appreciation, Lord Shiva awards the
gift that anyone who spends a night in meditation
and bathes will, after death, reach “regions of
The message concerns the means of
Haigh, Martin J. 2011. Interpreting the Sarasvati Tirthayatra… Itihas Darpan, 16 (2): pp. 179-193.
blessedness that are difficult of acquisition (by
other means)!” (9.48)
Bhuva Location: Indra’s Tirtha. An “auspicious and
sacred tirtha, capable of cleansing from every sin”
Bhu Location: Rama tirtha. Where Lord Rama gave
thanks after success and gave away “the whole
earth and its oceans” in thanks.
Bhu Location Yamuna Tirtha. Where Lord Varuna
gave thanks after victory.

Location; Aditya Tirtha; “There, O best of kings,
the adorable Surya of great splendour, having
performed a sacrifice, obtained the sovereignty of
all luminous bodies (in the universe) and acquired
also his great energy” (9.49).
Where sages, including Vyasa,
obtained Yogic knowledge, in fact, the
place to go for Jnana and success.
Sva “Devala, O best of kings, abandoned the religion
of Domesticity and adopted that of Moksha.
Having indulged in those reflections, Devala, in
consequence of that resolve obtained the highest
success, O Bharata, and the highest Yoga. The
celestials then applauded Jaigishavya...”. (9.50)
Bhuva Location Soma Tirtha A place linked to the Skanda – Taraka
Bhu Tirtha of sage Sarasvata, who was raised in the
womb of the River Sarasvati, taught the Vedas
during a 12 year drought to Brahmanas who had
been scattered and lost their knowledge.
Eventually, 60,000 sages became his disciples
A second tirtha reflecting upon a
drought of 12 years and the havoc it
played on society. Its message
resolves to: “He is great who is
capable of reading and understanding
the Vedas!’ (9.51)
Bhuva Kuni-Garga, a female ascetic of great piety, after a
long life of austerities decides to leave her body
but is advised by Sage Narada that she cannot
obtain the celestial regions because she has never
married. A man is persuaded to marry her for one
night. And she departs for heaven after blessing
the place.
Officially, “‘He that will, with rapt
attention, pass one night in this tirtha
after having gratified the denizens of
heaven with oblations of water, shall
obtain that merit which is his who
observes the vow of brahmacarya for
eight and fifty years!” (9.52) but, of
course, the real message is one of
social control.

Table 3, arguable and tentative although much of it is, displays some of the wide range of
motivations and messages contained by this text. There are a large number of Tirthas where the main
concern various kinds of wish fulfilment and the granting of some kind of material desire (Bhu).
Throughout, there is great emphasis on arthavda, the giving of gifts, and other acts for the material
welfare of Brahmins (Bhu)
. There are also lessons concerning social dharma, proper ways to
behave in Society, which may be couched in tales of humans or demi-Gods (Bhuva). However, more
messages seem to be directed to the individual than the social level. The narrative also contains cases
where a Tirtha’s message concerns only narrow religious tradition and dogma, perhaps mythologised
history as in the story of Skanda (Bhuva). However, sometimes, couched in example and sometimes
direct exhortation, there are also lessons concerning the behaviour and means to liberation of spiritual
seekers (Sva). In general, the narrative’s blessings seem to form a trapezoidal structure with a large
number of personal and material blessings at the base, a slightly smaller number of social and narrow
religious blessings above, and a smaller number again of wholly spiritual blessings at the apex. If this
is so, then this pilgrimage may be truly prototypical since it contains and offers most of the goals that
sustain Hindu pilgrimages to the present day.
Haigh, Martin J. 2011. Interpreting the Sarasvati Tirthayatra… Itihas Darpan, 16 (2): pp. 179-193.


Shri Balarma is known as the God who went on pilgrimage and his did so in His role of leader
and original teacher. His pilgrimage took him along the banks of the river of knowledge, which
although largely hidden from sight, remains visible to the wise and the Holy. The Sarasvati, the Vedic
‘River of Knowledge’, was formerly a mighty stream, known for its capacity to wash away sins, in
these fallen times it is hard to find. In the era of the Mahabharata, however, its route was still
detectable by Holy Brahmins, whose advice even this God follows with attention. Indeed, the
Mahabharata Tirthayatraparva (9.38) itself offers that “Whithersoever the Sarasvati was summoned
by persons of great energy, thither she made her appearance”, so the Goddess is still available to those
who have the knowledge and vision to summon Her. Meanwhile, by partaking of this duty, Shri
Balarma both set an example for devotees to follow and blessed both the teachers and seekers of
spiritual knowledge. The Bhagavata Purana (10.79.31)
adds “The all-powerful Shri Balarma
bestowed upon the sages pure spiritual knowledge, by which they could see the whole universe within
Him and also see Him pervading everything”.
Historically, Shri Balarma’s Tirthayatra was a Yat’sattra sacrifice. Hiltebeitel argues that the
pilgrimage of Shri Balarma and the Yadava clan is a Yat’sattra, ritual fitted to epic ends and, at a
still deeper level, a memory of the former nomadic existence of the Aryan herders
. However, at
heart, this travelling Vedic ritual was about destruction of the self and as the Kaushitaki Brahmana
(15.1) emphasises, “The Sattra has the self as dakshina. Therefore, day by day, they should mutter:
“Here, let me take myself for a fee for fair fame, for the world of Heaven”
. Austin
points out that
the title of Book 17 of the Mahabharata is Mahaprasthanika-parvan, and that “the mahaprasthana, or
“Great Departure”, was a form of self-imposed death or ritual suicide attested in Dharmashastra
. More ambiguous is the fact that this pilgrimage is constructed within a Sarpasatra,
dedicated to the annihilation of serpents, while its chief protagonist is the cosmic serpent, Ananta-
shesha. Shri Ananta-shesha, the eternal support and servant of God, evokes the sentiments of both
service and servitude
. The modern message from these convoluted arguments points to the modern
pilgrim’s goal to achieve greater devotion, their mood of devotional service and wish to destroy the
ego-self that binds them to this material plane and hides the transcendental Truth.
Finally, this note has attempted to add a new perspective based on the mundane preoccupations of
the modern pilgrim for whom Shri Balarma’s pilgrimage is an archetype. Deconstructing Ganguli’s
text in terms of a three level model of the blessings offered by each Tirtha suggests that this
Pilgrimage echoes the form and content of the many modern pilgrimages. These blessing messages
are constructed as broad-based trapezoid that is grounded in worldly concerns and desires, rises
through mythology and social tradition, and finally ascends to a kernel of blessings to guide the
spiritual seeker.


Errors in this work are the author’s own. However, any positive aspects of the work have benefitted
from the guidance of H.G. Sita Rama Das, Prof. Rana P.B. Singh and my tutors at OCHS, Oxford.


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Pilgrimage in North India: Varanasi between Communitas and Contestation. Tourism, an
International Interdisciplinary Journal [Zagreb, Croatia], 59 (3), October 2011b, pp. 203-220.
Wilber, op cit ref. 57., 2006, also Elkins, D.N., Hedstrom, L.J., Hughes, L.L., Leaf, J.A. &
Saunders, C., Toward a Humanistic-Phenomenological Spirituality: definition, description, and
measurement. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 28 (4), 1988, pp. 5-18.
Singh Rana P.B., Indo-Kyosei Global Ordering: Gandhi’s Vision, Harmonious Coexistence, and
Ecospirituality. Toyko, Japan: Toyo University Research Center for Kyosei Philosophy, Annual
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Keshavadas, Sadguru Sant, Gayatri: The Highest Meditation. Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass, 1978
(2002 edition).
Singh Rana P.B., op cit. ref. 61, 2011c.
Singh Rana P.B., op cit. ref. 61, 2011c, p. 108.
The Bhagavata Purana 10.79.30 notes: “Lord Balarma returned to Naimisha, where the sages
joyfully engaged Him, the embodiment of all sacrifice, in performing various kinds of Vedic
sacrifice”. Hiltebeitel, Alf, Conventions of the Naimisha forest. Journal of Indian Philosophy, 26,
1998, pp. 161-171, argues that while Shri Balarma hears four Naimisha Forest stories but never
goes to the forest itself, see also: Hiltebeitel, op. cit., 2001, p. 139.
Feller, op cit. ref. 10, 2004, pp. 85-86.
cf. Shrimannarayana Murti, M., Shrinivasasahitilahar 1: Kainkaryaratnavali of Paravastu
Krsnamacarya. Shri Venkateswara University Oriental Journal, 39, 1986, p. 16, (Kainkary-
ratnavali, 3.160). Accessed 30 August 2009, from http://www.archive.org/details/svuoriental
Tapasyananda, op cit. ref. 13, vol. 3, 1982, p. 382.
Hiltebeitel, op cit . ref. 2, 2001.
Keith, op. cit. ref. 32, 1920, p, 427.
Austin, C.R., The Sarasvata Yatsattra in the Mahabharata 17 and 18. International Journal of
Hindu Studies 12 (3), 2008, pp. 283–308.
Austin, op cit. ref. 71, 2008, p. 287.
Harivamsa, Shri Vishnuparva, 62.1-3, in Bhumpati Dasa, vol. 5, 2007, pp 1-2.


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