Composition of the Maha-bharata was begun in the early years of the Mauryan Empire (321-185 BC) founded by Candragupta, and it describes a war between the Kauravas (descendants of Dhritarashtra) and the Pandavas (descendants of Pandu), who were both sons of Kuru, himself a descendant of King Bharata, the ancient father of the race.
The Mahabharata attempts to unite the whole of Bharata’s descendants on a basis of spiritual idealism. It inspired the Gupta Dynasty (320-540 AD), the ‘golden age’ of Indian culture, and was finally redacted (c. 400 AD) under Candra Gupta II (Vikramaditya), whose rule spanned most of the peninsula bounded by the Sindhu and the Brahmaputra.
The indigenous name Bharata is preferable to Hindustan or India, which are both late external references to the land beyond the Sindhu.
Vagrancy has long been the way of Sannyasa, and the Aitareya-Brahmana of the Rig-Veda states: “Lotus-like, the heels of the wanderer; his body grows and is fruitful; all his sins disappear, slain by the toil of his Journeying (Yatra).”
Yatra implies discipline (moral, physical, and mental), and is considered a great Yoga; and the Aranyaka-Parvan (Book of the Forest) of the Mahabharata enjoins: “O thou best of the Bharata race, Tirtha-Yatras are meritorious and constitute one of the high mysteries of the Rishis, and are even superior to yajna.”
Tirtha strictly means ‘ford’, although any place that elevates the Spirit and facilitates ‘crossing over’ (and is thus considered sacred) is generally indicated.
Bharata was, and still is, culturally unified through Tirtha-Yatra. Despite regionally diverse cultures, the constant circulation of pilgrims promotes a consciousness of their spiritual unity under one God, who may be met everywhere in amazingly various forms.
The Aranyaka-Parvan describes a grand clockwise Yatra through Bharatavarsha, which begins at Pushkara (the principal Tirtha of Brahma, in modern Rajasthan) and returns to Prayaga (modern Allahabad, in Uttar Pradesh) where the process of unification (Yoga) is exemplified by the confluence (Prayaga) of the Yamuna and the Ganga. Despite numerous interpolations, and the obscurity of antiquity, the route may still be traced.
From Pushkara-Sarovara, the Maha-Bharata Yatra travels southwards, through the forests of Jambu-Marga, to Avanti (Ujjain) and Mahakala; and then further south to Bhadravata (Barwaha), just short of the Narmada. This river could only be safely crossed at the exemplary Tirtha of Omkareshvara, where an Om-shaped island leads to Mandhatta on the southern bank. The route then returns to the Abudraranya and Mount Abuda, before passing through Saurastra to Somanatha (Prabhasa), which stands by the dark sandy shore of the Arabian Sea. And then, northwest along the coast to Dwaraka – the Doorway that leads pilgrims across the sea to the ancient Tirtha of Varuna (near to the mouth of Sindhu).
Travelling up the Indus to the Panchanada (Five Streams), the path reaches the extreme northwestern Yoni Tirtha, on the Karamar River near Shahbazgarhi in Peshawar District, and the dark blue stone Bhimasthana – mighty guardian of Bharata. Then the Yatri turns eastwards, crossing the Sindhu and moving on to Vimala / Varaha (modern Baramula, north of Srinagar in Kashmir) where the Jhelum rises from a great lake known now as Wular ~ the ocean that engulfed the world until Vishnu (or Vimala) in the form of Varaha raised creation again from the murky depths, just as a lotus rises.
Returning to the foothills, honor is paid to Vadava (Jwalamukhi – the ‘deity of seven flames’) whose seven flaming tongues emit from natural vents near Kangra (H.P.). And then, the Beas and Sutlej are followed southwest before crossing to Vinasa, where the Sarasvati disappeared into the desert. In the forests around the Sarasvati and Drishadvati was Kurukshetra, the sacred field of battle between Kuru and Pandava, and this area abounds with sacred sites. The Mahabharata devotes one complete section to Tirthas in this region. The following section leads from Kurukshetra to the forests of Naimisha (modern Nimsar, U.P.) on the Gomati, via the sources of five great rivers: Yamuna, Ganga (at Gaumukh, the glacial origin of the Bhagirathi), Mandakini (at Kedaranatha), Alakhnanda (at Badrinarayana), and Sindhu. A number of sites are scattered through the Himbadrikaranya (Snow Berry Forest) and old Panchala, and this Deva-Bhumi is approached via Hardvara and KhanKala (where Ganga meets the plains, and Shiva forced the Brahmin recognition of his ultimate power). The Sindhu Prabhava mentioned in the Mahabharata is most likely to be Manasarovara, the spectacular source of the Sutlej, which can easily be reached via the Mana Pass (5608m) from Badrinaryana (Badrinath).
Now in the region of Kosala, the pilgrim visits Ayodhyapuri and Rama-Tirtha on the Surayu (Sura), and then travels southwards to the Gomati-Ganga Sangama and Kashi Vishveshvara. Following the Ganga eastwards into old Magadha, he reaches Gaya and Dharmaprishtha (near Bodhgaya, Bihar), and the ancient omphalos of Udyataparvata (Rajgir Hills). The path continues downstream to the confluence of the Gandaki River, which is followed northwards to Shalagrama (near its source in modern Nepal). An alpine route was commonly followed to the Sthanakunda at Gaurishikhara (7145m), another dark guardian that marks the northeastern limit of Guptan Bharata. Then down the Tamba-Kosi and Sun-Kosi Rivers, to the ‘Well of Tamraruna’ at the confluence of the Kausiki (Sun Kosi), Kiritika (Tamur), and Aruna (Arun). Karotoya is as far east as the Mahabharata Yatra ventures, and the route returns southwards to Gangama and the port of Campa (which lay near the confluence of the Kosi River), and then on to Ganga-Sagara Sangama, where the Ganges merges with the Bay of Bengal.
The next stage of the journey continues southward to the Mahanadi Delta and Viraja (modern Jajpur, in the Cuttack District of Orissa) on the Vaitarani River. Then via Mahendra Giri (Ganj District, Orissa) to Sri Sailam (by the Krishna River, in Andhra Pradesh) and the ‘Tirtha of Matanga, named Kedara’. This last, clearly Shaiva, site is presumably an archaic synonym of the second Jyotirlinga, whose Puranic name (Mallikarjuna) remembers the local Brahmin scholar Nagarjuna (c.150 AD), who converted to the Buddha-Dharma and vigorously promoted Mahayana Buddhism and the doctrine that all Dharmas are in fact void (Sunya-Vada).
Continuing southwards, across the Kauveri, and the Utpalahartakaranya, the pilgrim reaches Kanya at the southern extremity of Bharata (Cape Comorin, Tamil Nadu). Turning northwards again, the route leads to Gokarna (in the Uttar Kannad District of Karnataka); and then inland to join the Venna (Krishna) and thence returning to the Godavari. The exact route is not entirely clear, but seems to involve following the Krishna eastwards to Saptagodavara, where a full circumambulation (Pradakshina – walking clockwise) of the Godavari might have begun. Following the south bank westwards, the entire peninsula is traversed again to reach the Arabian Sea at Suraparaka (modern Sofale, just north of Mumbai in Maharashtra). Near the source of the Godavari, the pilgrim has Darshana (Sight) of the Tryambaka Jyotirlinga, and the Asylum of Sarabhanga.
After completing the Godavari Pradakshina, the route from Saptagodavara is unclear (crossing the Dandakaranya was always an uncertain business), although the pilgrim is directed swiftly northwards to Kalanjara (Kalinjar) and Chitrakuta in the Banda District of Uttar Pradesh, from where it is only a short distance to the final destination of Prayaga.