A comparison between traveling to holy places alone for self-reflection and going with one’s family for shared blessings
By Suganth Srichandramohan
Before writing this article, i considered myself a new pilgrim, but after thinking it through, I realized that I am actually not so new to the pilgrimage scene. I was born in Sri Lanka and moved to Canada at age five, after spending a few years in Uganda. As a child, I visited various temples around the world, in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas. I even received blessings at temples in Tamil Nadu, India, when still in my mother’s womb.
But these trips as a child weren’t chosen by me. I just went along for the ride. I have had peaceful experiences at some temples and was even fortunate enough to go with my father to feed milk to the Ganesha murti at a temple in the Greater Toronto Area during the 1995 Milk Miracle.
Like others, as a teenager I became rather rebellious. I was bored with these temple trips and would often question all authority, customs and traditions. Eventually I refused to go the temple at all. I rejected the religion, culture and way of life of my ancestors from Sri Lanka, thinking that I knew better. I was a Westernized, modern citizen of the new world and didn’t have time for these ancient customs.
I didn’t understand the purpose behind the temple or anything about Hinduism in a way that was interesting to me. I was being taught by various sources that we were worshiping idols who were not worthy of reverence. Unable to reconcile the Hinduism of what felt like the old world with the new world I found myself living in, I essentially discarded the religion I had grown up with.
As I grew out of my rebellious stage, I found that I wanted to know God, and I pursued various spiritual and religious paths. At this time, the door to Hinduism was closed in my mind. I felt I needed to explore the many paths and find the one that was mine.
I realize now how fortunate I was to have been able to visit those many temples when I was young. All these experiences helped establish and maintain a connection with my religion and the Gods in the inner realms.
After a walk in the woods one day, an image came into my head of an advanced spiritual teacher with a halo around his head, sitting in the woods teaching two boys. The light from his halo fed the light of the halo of the two young boys as they learned. The teacher was dressed as a traditional guru or sannyasin. This may have been an image from a book I read when I was a kid. I am not sure where it came from. But after this experience, I had an intense desire to relearn Hinduism.
At first I went through the dry, academic learning of Hinduism as taught in books from Oxford Press and taking courses on it as outsiders dissected the various components of Hinduism. But this wasn’t what I was looking for. Something was missing. It was the experience of the faith. It was the experience that existed when I was a youth in the temples—something that was hard to explain, but something I felt was there. Something I remembered.
I then found the works of Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, founder of Hinduism Today, which taught me (and still teaches me) intellectually and experientially a new depth of Hinduism. One teaching was to take a religious pilgrimage to a faraway temple once a year.
I decided to set out on my first religious pilgrimage on my own. That journey was to Kauai Aadheenam, where I received darshan from the satguru of the ancient Kailasa Parampara. I spoke with various monks and went to every temple puja offered to me. I stayed at the residence of one of the devotees during my pilgrimage. Here, I read books or rested before the next puja and meditated whenever I could. The result was a burning away of long-held, congested karma. I felt lighter and freer by the end of it. I had life-changing realizations and intense inner experiences, too many to fit in this article. It was everything I had hoped a pilgrimage would be.
My third pilgrimage alone was with a 2019 travel-study program to Sri Lanka. Again I had intense experiences at powerful temples. I had the opportunity to spend time with the satguru and his monks. Though I say this pilgrimage was alone, it was actually with a large group of other religious seekers But, I went there on my own and met them there. Without my wife and daughter there, I had nothing to do but reflect on what I experienced each day at the temple, or to deal with my own deep rooted issues internally.
I saw some deep vasanas (mental impressions) coming to the surface of my mind and I realized the next steps I needed to take in my spiritual efforts. Some issues that I had been dealing with since I was young and that were still unresolved showed themselves to me, including things that affected my life to that very day. I knew I needed to make changes inwardly and outwardly to overcome these vasanas.
Again, these pilgrimages on my own were fantastic in giving myself totally to the Gods through devotion during times of worship, and being able to immerse myself in meditation and deal with my karmas. To be able to have a set number of days in a year to do this fully on my own was fantastic, and I am so glad I had the chance to do it. But, leaving my wife and daughter home was tough at times.
Pilgrimaging with Family
My second pilgrimage was with my brother, with focused intention for religious purposes. It wasn’t to go hang out at the beaches in Hawaii. We were there for God. Although we had each other’s company, our intentions were individual. We each had our own experiences and realizations. We both were enhanced in our day-to-day lives upon returning.
My fourth pilgrimage, completed a few weeks ago, was with my wife and daughter. This was a unique pilgrimage for me. It was my third visit to the temples of Hawaii, but the first for them. This pilgrimage was very different, because I was not able to disconnect from my role as a father or a husband. Although my second pilgrimage was with my brother, since we were both older, not living together anymore, and independent, we could disconnect from our roles for the most part.
But when I am with my daughter, I cannot detach from my role as a father. When I am with my wife, I cannot ignore my role as a husband. When my daughter wasn’t behaving as I wished (in the manner of any four-year old), I was more concerned about her behavior than worshiping the Gods or engaging with full presence with the satguru or the monks. Instead of going to every puja I could, I had to ensure my wife had a good time on the trip, so we did outside activities as well.
My religious experiences were more limited while there. But I am so glad for this experience, because the entire trip helped bring us closer. It brought unseen blessings to our family. Yes, perhaps it didn’t provide the same experience as before for me personally, but it helped our family. My daughter, upon returning, was calmer. We had conversations about what we saw and did at the temple. Although sitting through the entire puja wasn’t something she enjoyed, going around the temple grounds with one of the monks and feeding the cows and the horse was fun. She remembers standing in front of the large Hanuman bronze and also looking at many tropical plants.
These samskaras are what I wanted her to have. These samskaras are like those given me as a child by my parents when they took me to various temples. This was the key to the trip.
My recommendation for you who are young and living on your own or with your parents: go on a pilgrimage by yourself. Not with your friends, unless your friends are fully dedicated to the spiritual journey. It shouldn’t be part of a bigger holiday. For those of you who are parents, try your best to do both an individual and family pilgrimage, if your situation permits. There are great blessings in going on pilgrimage on your own, where you can truly disconnect from your life at home and fully immerse yourself in the inner realms. You then bring back a better version of yourself when you return home to your family. For me, the changes to my family life happened so quickly (for the better) due to my individual pilgrimages.
There is also great importance in going together as a family. For my family, this was our first pilgrimage together. It may be different for your family. If your spouse is on the same religious path, perhaps your experience would be different. But as my wife had no real desire to go on a pilgrimage in the first place, it was a hard sell on my part. She kept remarking before the flight there that she would never do a pilgrimage again, and she was only doing it for me. But by the end of the first week of the pilgrimage, she started talking about all the things we should do the next time we come.
I found myself on the path of Hinduism again partly because of the shakti of the various temples I had visited as a child. Although I couldn’t understand it, growing up in the Western world, I eventually was brought back to the ancient religion where our Gods live. If it hadn’t been for all those pilgrimages and temple visits when I was young, perhaps I would have lost Hinduism forever. The samskaras impressed on the subconscious of the young will serve them well as they grow older, even if they get lost in the world for a while. I see this as the biggest reason for traveling with your family (especially younger kids). This is the reason for my weekly temple visits with my daughter, and from now on, for our pilgrimages to faraway lands.