The word tirtha means a sort of diving board from where one can jump into the infinite ocean. The Jaina word tirthankara means a creator of such a tirtha, such a place of pilgrimage. A person can only be called a tirthankara if he has charged an area into which ordinary people can enter, open themselves up and begin their inner search. Jainas do not call them divine incarnations but tirthankaras. A tirthankara is a greater phenomenon than a divine incarnation, because if the divine enters a human form that is good, but if a man makes a place for others to enter the divine, it is a far higher event.
Jainism does not believe in a God, it believes in man’s potential. That is why Jainas could benefit more deeply from the tirtha and the tirthankaras than the followers of any other religion. In the Jaina religion there is no concept of “God’s grace” or “God’s compassion.” Jainas do not think that God can give any help; the seeker is alone and has to travel by his own effort and energy.
But then there are two ways in which he can travel. On the first path, every man has to travel in his own boat, with the strength of his own hands, using the oars. One out of many may succeed. But on the second path, you can take the help of the winds and open up your sails, so that you can travel faster and more easily.
But do such spiritual winds really exist? Yes, this is just what places of pilgrimage depend on. Is it possible when a person like Mahavira is there, that a flow of energy towards some unknown dimension begins all around him? Can he create an energy flow towards a particular dimension, so that if someone enters this current he will just be carried along by it, and will reach his ultimate destiny? In fact, a sacred place of pilgrimage is a place with just this very flow.
On the Earth there are only physical signs of such places of pilgrimage, but as time passes, these signs may disappear. So they have been highly protected by building temples or by erecting statues of those great seers. Great care has been taken for thousands of years, so that those places did not shift even by an inch from where the event had happened sometime in the past.
A search is going on even today for great treasures which have been hidden underground. For example, a search is going on for the richest treasure on Earth – that of the last czar of Russia – which has been buried somewhere in America. It is certain that such a treasure existed because the czar was only dethroned in 1917, not long ago. The exact location has been indicated on a map, but the description cannot be decoded. Similarly, the hidden treasures of the Gwalior king’s family are somewhere in Gwalior. There is a map, but the exact location cannot be decoded. Such maps are made in a secret code, so that they do not fall into the wrong hands.
The locations of places of pilgrimage are similarly well indicated, but the exact place where the spiritual event occurred may not be known. Such places are hidden from the general public. This may surprise you. You may go to a place where it is said that Mahavira reached nirvana, but there is a great possibility that the exact spot is a little away from the place shown to everyone. The real location is shown only to those people who are authentic and deserving seekers. Ordinary people will bow down at the false place, and return home. The real location will be kept hidden for those who come there out of an authentic spiritual search, and need that help for the jump.