In light of Geography and Self-Organization concept of the Chaos Theory

Surinder M. Bhardwaj
Kent State University
Kent, OH 44242-0001


In the Hindu pilgrimage tradition tirtha yatra and parikrama are interlinked concepts. Tirtha yatra refers to undertaking a pilgrimage to sacred places whereas parikrama (or pradakshina) means circling the sacred object. In geographic literature, pilgrim circulation has been used to describe pilgrimage flows, but circumambulation has been given little attention, since it has been subsumed as a purely ritual activity in the general process of pilgrimage. Circumambulation however has deeper meaning in the religious space, connecting the pilgrim to the cosmos. This paper first briefly examines the meaning of circulation in the disciplinary context of geography, and its application in the pilgrimage literature. It then briefly states the significance of circumambulation and the close relationship between circulation and circumambulation. Tentatively, this paper interprets the cosmological meaning of these two components of pilgrimage in light of the principle of self organization of the Chaos Theory (Gleick 1987), which McKim Malville has introduced to the study of Hindu pilgrimage (Malville 1995).


The concept of circulation has been much utilized in pilgrimage literature in Geography, but circumambulation, which is also an integral part of the pilgrimage activity, has been somewhat neglected, as merely a ritual. This paper attempts to connect these two activities in light of the principle of self organization of the Chaos Theory, recently introduced in to pilgrimage literature by McKim Malville (1995). Although this exploration is both preliminary and tentative, but the application of self organization concept appears to be potentially valuable as a heuristic device to advance pilgrimage studies, and reinterpret the processes and patterns of pilgrimage. Its potential significance may appear in the convergence of interdisciplinary and intercultural perspectives, evolution of holistic views, cross fertilization of ideas, and generally a more human quest.

The concept of circulation has been embedded in the Hindu philosophy as well as in Hindu normative behavior. Thus, the Bhagavadgita emphasizes how movement is an integral cosmic condition: In the eighteenth chapter of the Bhagavadgita (Radhakrishnan 1948:374), Krishna tells Arjuna that the Lord abides in the hearts of all beings, and that they are all in a state of perpetual motion as though mounted on a cosmic machine. Isvarah sarvabhutanam hrddese ^—rjuna tisthati Bhramayan sarvabhutani Yantrarudhani mayaya

In his interpretation of the Bhagavadgita verse, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, writes that: "All life is movement of the rhythm of His life and our powers and acts are derived from Him." (Radhakrishnan 1948:374). More concretely, the tirtha yatra section of the Mahabharata, extolls the many rewards of "a sunwise tour of the earth to visit the sacred fords." (van Buitenen 1975: 372)


The concept circulation has its roots in French human geography of the early twentieth century. Paul Vidal de la Blache (1922: 347-443), professor of geography at Sorbonne, is credited with the early use of this concept. For Vidal, circulation seemed to have been a double edged sword. It was "seen as a destructive force transforming traditional regional equilibria and stable genres de vie but also a creative process promoting the diffusion of ideas, the emergence of areal comparative advantages, and the radiation of sociocultural influences from nodal centers"(Buttimer 1971:190).The concept has been interpreted by Buttimer to mean the network of physical and social communication. Another prominent French geographer, Max Sorre (1962:410), echoed Vidal's views when he observed: "Circulation not only develops, transforms, and specializes already existing genres de vie, but it also encourages the formation of new ones." Circulation has come to describe transportation and communication in all their manifestations. Thus, it refers to movement in general; movement of goods, services, ideas, information, and people. Analogous to blood circulation in the human body, geographic circulation connects localized way of life to the outside world and vice versa, thus bringing in outside influences, but also exporting local ones. The concept "circulation" emphasizes continuous flows, and movement, and assumes the systems to be dynamic, with energy input from external sources, just as in living systems.

In the cultural sense circulation both diffuses shared beliefs, but also changes tradition. Thus, in a circulation system, tradition and change do not necessarily behave as opposing entities, but rather become complementary components of the cultural system; a dynamic dyad.

I.1 Circulation in the Geography of Pilgrimage

Pilgrim circulation in general means a round trip visit to a holy place, or a circuit of holy places. Both round trip and circuit pilgrimages are common in India but in other cultures as well, especially Japan (Tanaka 1977). David Sopher (1968: 392-425) first applied the concept of circulation explicitly to the study of pilgrimage in his work "Pilgrim Circulation in Gujarat," and considered pilgrimage to holy places as circulatory flow. Sopher (1968: 392) had argued that although Hinduism in India lacked the formal organization of religion in the West, even so "Common forms and a sense of community have been maintained by means of largely informal, autonomous circulatory flows." Other geographers have used this or similar ideas. In my examination of the pilgrimage phenomenon (Bhardwaj 1973), circulation has been a central concept.

Sopher, nevertheless, assigned a rather passive role to pilgrimage in reinforcing and maintaining regional or national identity (Sopher 1968:425). Perhaps, he did not mean passive in the sense of ineffective, for pilgrimage can be a powerful metaphor in matters of nationalism. One has to only recognize the political commotion caused by L. K. Advani's ratha yatra toward the Babari Mosque, just a few years ago.

I.2 Is Pilgrimage Circulation an Example of Self Organizing Systems?

Pilgrim circulation is not a random activity, nor does it have a random spatial imprint. It is a massive circulation system that has evolved over a few millennia as an integral part of Hindu beliefs. Pilgrimages are highly directed toward specific places ranging from clearly local to national and supranational.

Pilgrim circulation assumes the existence of a center (or centers) with ^—spiritual magnetism' (Preston 1992:33), toward which many pathways converge. Place qualities such as power, awe, mystery, magnetism, are meaningful only in relation to the persons who perceive them as such, and who have the sentiment which motivates them to undertake a sacred journey to such places. Sacred places are humanly constructed, not just in the physical sense, but more importantly in terms of the very meaning they embody, and convey to the pilgrims. Prigogine and Stengers (1984: 293) observe this construction of meaning in relation to reality in general: "Whatever we call reality, it is revealed to us only through the active construction in which we participate."

Preston has employed the term ^—spiritual magnetism' to emphasize the pull of the place, which has always been critical to pilgrimage. Geographers tend to consider such "magnetism" more generally as the ^—power of the place', which has now almost become a cliche in geography. If spiritual "magnetism" of the place is what attracts the pilgrim, it can be equally argued that the power of the sentiment is what impels the pilgrim. Perhaps pilgrimage is a result of both magnetism of the place (attribute of the place), and impelling sentiment of the pilgrim. Perhaps magnetism of the place and sentiment of the pilgrim are complementary and co-dependent in the development of pilgrim circulation. One without the other is difficult to imagine.

I have suggested elsewhere that sentiment is what distinguishes a pilgrimage from a touristic journey. (Bhardwaj 1990). Unless the visitor feels a sentimental attachment to the place of veneration, a journey to it will not constitute a pilgrimage. For example, a visit to the Vatican by a Hindu may not be considered a pilgrimage even though the place is sacred, albeit for Christians. On the other hand, we can consider a journey to nationalistic shrines (for example Jallianwala Bagh, or Mahatma Gandhi's samadhi, or the Vietnam Memorial) a pilgrimage, because they are the repositories of our collective sentiment. They have almost a spiritual magnetism, and many visitors have deep sentiment for what these spots signify. Therefore, magnetism of the place (or deity), and sentiment of the pilgrim (religious or secular), are both inseparably part of the pilgrimage phenomenon. They are interdependent or complementary (Allen 1994:594-95). This co-dependency seems to lie at the root of self organization of pilgrimage over long periods.

Pilgrim circulation seems to be a self organizing system in terms of the Chaos Theory. Pilgrim flows constantly tie the pilgrim field to the sacred center. Two concepts of chaos theorists, "attractor" and "the basin of attraction" (Lucas 1996:1) may be of interest in further exploration of pilgrim circulation. According to Lucas, an ^—attractor' can be a point, a path, a complex series of states, or in fact a "strange attractor." Pilgrimage circulation may be linked to Chaos Theory via the concept "basins of attraction" for dynamical systems (Lucas 1996:1). The basin of attraction is in fact an area leading toward an attractor. These basins of attraction may be the equivalent of pilgrim fields from which pilgrims originate and ultimately converge toward a center. And just as the basins of attraction in the Chaos Theory are not static, so are pilgrim fields, based as they are on dynamic entities such as language, religion or other cultural distributions that define them. Since each one of these attributes of a pilgrim field is in a state of some flux, it behaves like a chaotic basin of attraction. Thus pilgrimage activity though fairly well defined, is never exactly replicative. Pilgrimage circulation system is not analogous to a wheel, which is a static structure. Instead, pilgrim circulation is, like a living system, such as a cell with a nucleus, or human body and its blood circulation; inherently dynamic.

Growth and change are coded in the pilgrimage process. Just as blood circulation in the living beings feeds, nourishes, purifies, and develops the body, in a similar way, pilgrimage nourishes and purifies the pilgrim. And, just as blood flows to the heart for purification, so that each cell of the entire human body receive nourishment, so pilgrims converge to sacred places and (hope to) come back with a renewed, purified, body and soul. Just as blood circulation assumes, simultaneously, growth and change in the human body itself, pilgrim circulation also assumes social and political changes in its "basins of attraction." Both flows and nodes are constituents of pilgrimage circulation. Whereas in the human body there is only one center of purification (the heart), Hindu social system has developed far greater complexity, with a large number of purification centers, from parochial to the pan-cultural sacred centers.

It seems to me that the concept of "basin of attraction" of the Chaos Theory has interesting possibilities for pilgrimage studies in the changing social, economic and political landscapes. Basins of attraction in the self organizing systems are sensitive to even minor changes. This idea should be particularly applicable for examining the impact of religious fundamentalism, and political polarization of different communities, such as happened in Punjab during the twentieth century, especially during the last few decades. It is well known that before the political polarization of Hindus and Sikhs, many Sikhs used to patronize goddess shrines, but their numbers in the pilgrim streams has now declined. Likewise, many Hindus used to visit the preeminent Sikh holy place, the Golden Temple at Amritsar, before the rise of militant Sikh separatism. The number of Hindu pilgrims to the Golden Temple once large, is now reduced to a trickle. Thus, change in the political landscape of the ^—basin of attraction' can have a major cumulative effect on the geometry of a pilgrimage circulation system.

I.3 Pilgrimage Circulation and Hierarchy

Superordination and subordination are essential elements of a formal hierarchical system. In Hinduism, however, there is no single authority dictating what holy place shall be at the apex. Instead, a complex but informal hierarchy of holy places has taken shape over time, growing up from numerous individual sacred shrines, emerging independently, and forming partially overlapping circulation systems.

Unlike Islam, in which the primacy of Makkah is clear and absolute, Hindu pilgrimage system accepts several places of great importance, but none as the primate place. Varanasi comes close to being the primate Hindu sacred place, but this is so by consensus. Moreover, there are many religious traditions and sects each with its own hierarchy of sacred centers. The primacy of Varanasi though generally accepted in the literary tradition, does not have the same force for the Hindus as Makkah has for the Muslims, or Jerusalem for the Jews. In that sense, we do see a tendency toward self organization of a partially hierarchical circulation system operating at different levels. Considering the long involved history of the diverse people of India, this is hardly surprising. Such informal hierarchical circulation, evident through our pilgrim surveys in India (Bhardwaj 1973) can now be re- interpreted as a general tendency from chaos to self organization.

Our examination of the Hindu temple building activity in diaspora in the United States, indicated the emergence of an informal hierarchy of Indian sacred centers somewhat resembling that in India (Bhardwaj and Rao 1988). Of all the Hindu temples in the United States the S.V. Temple in Pittsburgh is by far the primate one. This is not because of its size, for there are other bigger temples in square footage, or measured by the height of their gopurams. The primacy of S.V. Temple is evident in the size of its ^—basin of attraction' (the pilgrim field). This temple was among the earliest duly consecrated Hindu temples in North America. Its primacy has partly to do with its early development of a network of affluent, dedicated donors. The temple was not imposed upon American Hindus by any Hindu authority. The idea of a temple, it appears, was culturally coded in Hindu beliefs, and would have expressed as a temple sooner or later when the Hindu population were to have reached a threshold number. There are now Hindu temples in virtually all major cities of the United States and Canada. Although the SV Temple is not situated in the largest city of America yet it has emerged as the one with the largest "basin of attraction"in North America. Other Hindu temples of diverse Indian regional traditions have their own more localized pilgrim fields, but they seem to nestle in the S.V. Temple's basin of attraction.

The emergence of Hindu temples in America in the last twenty five years and the development of an informal hierarchy here seems to be an interesting example of self organization in a complex developing system of affluent Hindu society in North America. Self organization principle was similarly at work in the nineteenth century Trinidad, where the abjectly poor indentured laborers imported from India sweated in the sugarcane fields. There too an impressive religious landscape of temples developed (Prorok 1982). Same has happened in Canada, Britain, and Malaysia. Thus, the principle of self organization seems to be valuable, at least at the heuristic level, for an examination of the growth and development of religious landscapes.


There is a popular story in Hinduism about the childhood rivalry of two deities, Ganesa and Karttikeya, both considered as the sons of Paravati and Shiva. The symbolic vehicle of the elephant headed Ganesa is tiny mouse. Karttikeya, on the other hand, is represented as a handsome boy whose symbolic mount is the swift and colorful peacock. To test their prowess, they are assigned the task to circle the earth, and return as quickly as possible. Karttikeya, promptly mounts his peacock and proceeds to circle the earth, leaving behind Ganesa with his tiny vehicle, and a major dilemma. While Karttikeya is flying at breakneck speed to circle the earth, the wise Ganesa ponderously, but cleverly, circumambulates his mother, thus symbolically circling the earth far ahead of the exhausted, and vanquished Karttikeya. Circumambulation has a powerful symbolic value in Hinduism.

II.1 The Meaning of Circumambulation

Stoddard (1994: 18) identifies four key elements of pilgrimage: destination, movement, magnitude. and motivation. Preston (1992) adds "spiritual magnetism" to these critical components of pilgrimage. The most important component, of course, is the motivated pilgrim.

Circumambulation or parikrama involves all these elements, but it is the movement around, not toward a center. It is a movement encompassing an object: a temple, a holy site, a sacred mountain, a lake, a river, a city, and even includes circling around oneself. A circumambulating pilgrim recognizes the controlling power of the center and tries to remain in its orbit. Recently, Coleman and Elsner (1994:32-33), and Malville (1995) speak about the phenomenon of circumambulation. Coleman and Elsner view circumambulation from the perspective of comparative religions. Malville, on the other hand, posits that pilgrimage (and by derivation circumambulation) is an example of self organization within complex systems. It should be noted, parenthetically, that the Hindus circumambulate their sacred spots apparently in tune with the solar system, whereas the Muslims circle the ka'aba in the anti-clockwise direction because in that position the believer's heart is nearest to the sacred center (Eck 1987: 510). In the language of the Chaos Theory, we may say that the circumambulating pilgrim is constantly influenced by the "attractor", be it a point, an area (ksetra) or a linear object (for example, the Narmada river).

Circumambulation (parikrama or pradakshina) is imbued with deep meaning for the devotee. In the Encyclopedia of Religion, Diana Eck lists several meanings of circumambulation. Included among them are: honoring, centering, bonding, setting apart, and reaffirmation of the sacred territorial claim (Eck 1987: 509-511). Additionally, I believe, circumambulation symbolizes the fluidity of meaning characteristic of Hindu thought, such as: completeness yet continuity, fulfillment and quest, contentment and pursuit, comprehension and mystery. The pole star, for example, is the epitome of firmness in the Indian cosmology (Eliade 1987, 4:110), yet the Hindu cosmos pulsates; it dissolves and re-emerges.

II.2 The Geometry of Circumambulation

The local geometry of circumambulation is, roughly circular but not necessarily a strict circle. Over thirty years ago, while trying to reconstruct pilgrimage topography described in the Great Hindu epic Mahabharata, I was struck by the directionality of the "Grand Pilgrimage of India" (Bhardwaj 1973: 44). No single authority, sacred or secular, structured this grand pilgrimage of India, yet it has become structured over many centuries. The pilgrimage started importantly from Pushkar (in Rajasthan), the sacred place of Brahma, the progenitor, and roughly following sun's direction the yatra encompassed virtually the entire Indian sub-continent (Figure 1). The significance of Pushkara as a starting point is asserted in the Mahabharata: "Just as Madhusudana is the beginning of all the Gods, so is Pushkara said to be the beginning of all the fords." (van Buitenen 1975:374)

In effect this grand pilgrimage was not only a long yatra in India, but was also a circumambulation or parikrama of the Hindu cosmic axis. As the sun circled the sacred mount Meru of the Hindu cosmos, so did the pilgrim always follow the path of the sun. The significance of the sun in Hindu religious astronomy has been brought out by Singh and Malville (1995:69- 88). Centrality of sun in Hinduism has ancient roots, going back at least to the Rig Vedic times. Although, as Singh and Malville observe, the significance of sun iconography is now limited in modern Hinduism, it is still deeply embedded in many critical rituals of life cycle, such as upnayana and marriage. The Mahabharata (vanBuitenen 1975:372) places much emphasis on making a sunwise tour of the earth to visit the sacred fords.

Interpreted in Eliade's terms (Eliade 1959: 39) the grand pilgrimage of India, by encompassing the country, perhaps reaffirmed India as a consecrated territory. Maybe such cultural encoding is a reason why in spite of the vast regional, linguistic and cultural differences, Hindus consider India as a single spiritual realm.


Pilgrimage is not just traversing distance, or earning merit by enduring hardship on a difficult path. Perhaps it has a deeper cosmological symbolism. While purifying themselves in the process of pilgrimage, the pilgrims consecrate the very paths by their footprints. Herein do we see the fusion of distinction between the sacred and the sanctified, the cause and the effect, the human and the divine. In his study of Indian cosmographic mapping, Schwartzberg (1992: 332-383) presents several images of the Hindu cosmological schemata. Hindu cosmology from the Vedic times onward became increasingly elaborated, especially due to the influence of the Puranas, but also became ethicised due to Hindu belief in transmigration of the soul (Schwartzberg 1992:334). In such a humanized Puranic universe, pilgrimage was perceived as an activity that purified the householder pilgrims. Tirtha yatra, therefore, became popular. New forms of tirtha yatraemerged also, such as visitation of chardhams in the four cardinal directions in India--Puri in the east, Kanyakumari (in other traditions Shringeri) in the south, Dwarka in the west, and Badrinath in the north. Mount Meru, pointing toward the pole star, constitutes the cosmic axis of this sacred realm, around which the sun and the moon are in a state of perpetual circumambulation. For the pilgrim, Mount Meru is the cosmic axis, the axis mundi.

Circulation and circumambulation tend to merge in the Hindu process of pilgrimage. One of the popular examples is the panchakroshi yatra in the Varanasi region. The yatra, a circuit marked by many sacred spots, is itself a circumambulation of the sacred territory of Varanasi (Eck 1982:320). Thus, yatra is itself contained in parikrama or pradakshina, and vice versa.

Pilgrim circulation has developed over a long time period, and is constantly in the process of becoming. It may have originated with one pilgrims going to a place she considered sacred, but has developed into a complex system of massive proportions, with many sacred nodes, and paths, and innumerable pilgrims constantly producing and reproducing the entire system. One can examine the process historically, and view the development of this system one place at a time, But we may also conceive of it as a self organizing system of increasing complexity as Malville has in fact posited.

Malville, as pointed out earlier, sees pilgrimage phenomenon as a self organizing system within the broad framework of Chaos Theory (Malville 1995) . Pilgrimage process, in his view, generates and fosters spatial geometries. He presents pilgrimage as an evolving system with a circular, convergent, and inclusive geometry in which distinctions such as " centripetal/centrifugal, inner/outer, sacred/profane, order/chaos...are dissolved ..."(Malville 1995:16).

Just as cosmic chaos is pregnant with future galaxies, social chaos, (following Victor Turner), may be posited as an intensifier of pilgrimages. Extensive research about shrine formation in Western Europe by Mary Lee Nolan and Sydney Nolan (1989) seems to bear out Turner's views. Shrine formation was accelerated during times of stress in European society, as for example around the highly unsettled conditions of the Thirty Year's war (Nolan and Nolan 1989 85-89). More recently, David Smith (1995:37) argues that the best opportunities for charismatic leaders to appear are during times of structural uncertainty, in effect chaos. Similarly Michael Shermer (1995:65) posits that during conditions of extreme instability even persons with a threshold level of leadership may make enormous impact. Relating historical periods of uncertainty to the emergence of new pilgrimage sites in the South Asian context remains a potential research project. The current epoch of rapid change and development in South Asia seems also to be accompanied by an unprecedented intensity of pilgrim circulation and consecration, and contestation of holy sites.


The concept of self organization in complex systems is a powerful one. Ilya Prigogine (Prigogine 1971: 2), quoting Bergson writes: "The deeper we go into the nature of time, the more we understand that duration means invention, creation of forms, continuous elaboration of what is absolutely new." This view helps us to pursue the possibility that organization from chaos, is an ever emergent cosmic condition. In Hindu thought, the unending cycle of emergence and dissolution of the cosmos is axiomatic. Or as Prigogine (1989: 398) observes, "Order and disorder are intimately connected--one implies the other." In Hindu thought, both entropy and organization seem reconcilable as part of the cosmic condition. In the cosmic chaos, organization, and entropy not only coexist, but are perhaps co-dependent. The Hindu universe is depicted as brahmanda, the primeval egg, symbolizing potential, and emergence. Organization within this cosmic egg appears at various levels (Figure 2).

The concept of self organization in complex systems can help in understanding how pilgrimage system has created a geometry of its own, without having been imposed by an outside force. This geometry, always in the process of becoming, arises from lines of circulation between origin and destination nodes, and from the process of circumambulation. Hierarchies representing basins of attraction of various dimensions, seem to constitute one form of geometry. The other geometry is circular, involving circumambulation around the cosmic axis at various scales. These orders have emerged, and continue to do so without any human organizing authority. Although attractive, the self organizing concept skirts the issue of consciousness. Or is consciousness embedded in the cosmic stuff?

Note: This was first presented at the 26th Annual Conference on South Asia (October 16-19, 1997) at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.


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