Watch clips from the episode.

The spiritual practice of pilgrimage cuts across all cultures and is part of nearly every religion. What does this journey entail? For many it is a search for meaning, for healing, or for a renewal of a waning spirit. Religious pilgrimages grow out of the desire to connect with a holy place in the tradition; the place where something important to the religion's origins happened, the shrine of a saint, or a place where the presence of the sacred can be felt viscerally.

Global Spirit host Phil Cousineau, who wrote the S&P award-winning book The Art of Pilgrimage, defines a sacred pilgrimage as "a transformative journey to a sacred place, that is sacred to you, your people, your tribe." Travel writer Pico Iyer, one of the two guests on this program, calls it "the journey to whatever is deepest inside of you, to the source of your devotion, to what sustains you at the core."

More than on any other Global Spirit episode, Cousineau reveals his own ideas on the program's subject, some of his history, and his experience of pilgrimage in the context of a ten-day journey to India with the Global Spirit film crew. They visited Varanasi where pilgrims gather on the banks of the holy Ganges river; more than 200 corpses a day are burned in the city in the belief that mixing the dead's ashes with the holy water will insure a positive rebirth. A Hindu woman talks about her deep feelings of connection with other pilgrims at this place.

Bodh Gaya
Bodh Gaya

Next, they visit the most important Buddhist pilgrimage site, Bodh Gaya, site of the tree under which the Buddha sat for 49 and attained enlightenment. Cousineau talks to several pilgrims about how being there enhances their meditation experiences.

During a trip to Allahabad where three sacred rivers, the Ganges, the Yamuna, and the Saraswati, converge, we witness a personal moment for Cousineau as he dips his whole body into the Ganges and is splashed by an enthusiastic pilgrim. Two women also on the trip find it difficult to put in words what this close encounter with the holy river feels like to them.


In another film clip, from a documentary by the other guest on the program, Zoila Mendoza, we learn about the Andean pilgrimage to The Lord of the Shining Snow in Peru. Some 40,000 – 50,000 pilgrims, dancing and singing along the way, take the 85-mile journey to the site where a boy met the child Jesus.

The two guests on "The Pilgrimage Experience" are Zoila Mendoza and Pico Iyer. Mendoza was born and raised in Peru and is currently a Professor of Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis. Her work has focused on the study of festivals, music, and dance in the Peruvian highlands and among Andean migrants in the nation's capital. Her current research concentrates on revealing core Andean forms of knowledge and memory through close analysis of the sensory experience of performers and festival participants.

Pico Iyer is one of the most respected and insightful travel writers in the world. He recently appeared on Oprah Winfrey's Soul Sunday program and proved himself to be a sensitive spiritual person with many revelations about himself and the world we live in today. Born in England, raised in California, educated at Eton, Oxford, and Harvard, he is truly a Renaissance Men. Iyer has written many books, including Living Faith about devotional activities in India. "Pilgrimage," he says, enables you to "step out of time and into eternity."

To Continue This Journey

  • Have you ever been on a pilgrimage? When and where did you go? What were your intentions and how did it turn out? What lessons did you learn about yourself and your spiritual path? How did you relate to the place and to other pilgrims?
  • Share your reactions to Pico Iyer's contention that we travel "to avoid a life of abstraction; it gives us a focus." Travel puts a face and a voice on the world. When and where have you found this to be true?
  • Zoila Mendoza notes that pilgrims experience the "feeling of something superior, forces they cannot control" at sacred sites. Cousineau reminds us that the Irish have "thin places" where God seems closer. The Celts identified physical places where heaven and earth seemed to touch, where the line between holy and human met for a moment. What is your explanation of sacred sites and thin places?
  • Discuss what you have learned about pilgrimage from the experiences depicted in the film clips from India and Peru.
  • Phil Cousineau created an e-course for Spirituality & Practice on "Transformative Travel: The Art of Finding Meaning on the Road." Introducing the course, he writes: "I have come to the happy conclusion that there is no such thing as a boring destination and no excuse for meaningless travel. All we need to do is open our hearts and minds, follow a few road-worthy practices, try a few tricks of perspective, and be curious and respectful wherever we go. Then we can discover what the ancients called 'the soul of the world.' If we are lucky enough to experience that, we might feel our spirits soar, and sense the kind of transformation that history’s great travelers, from Ibn Battua to Freya Stark, Mark Twain to Pico Iyer, have all written about — the ability to come home again and see our own backyards as sacred ground." This e-course is available on-demand. Sign up here.