Whether a holy dham or pure devotee, both are equally able to purify any living being because of their connection with the Supreme Lord. The Lord is always pure, being beyond the material touch and fully spirit (adoksaja). Dham purifies, because it is surcharged with the pastimes of the Lord as well as presence of holy persons who constantly glorify the Lord’s Holy Name. Although the Lord has performed His pastimes and externally is no longer present, the devotees of the Lord who reside at the dham continue to increase its glories by their practice and devotion.
Devotees are able to purify because they always carry the Supreme Pure Lord within their hearts, svantah-sthena[SB 1.13.10]. In the Padma Purana, Uttara-khanda (92.21), it says: naham tisthami vaikunthe, yoginam hrdayesu va, tatra tisthami narada, yatra gayanti mad bhaktah. The Lord says that He doesn’t even reside in His own abode but only where the devotees chant His glories. Furthermore, a pure devotee (bhagavat-pradhana) is one who has captured the Lord within their hearts [SB 11.2.55] because they have taken shelter at His lotus feet. Now we will see a few themes as to why devotees are more potent in purifying than a dham.
Dhamas are location specific while devotees are located throughout the creation. Even in lower planets we find the presence of Bali Maahraja, Prahlada, etc. One of the symptoms in Kali-yuga is that a person will consider a body of water more auspicious if they have to travel thousands of miles to reach it, dure vary ayanam tirtham. One therefore is unable to appreciate the devotees who are also called tirthas, who travel the world enlightening people of Krishna Consciousness. By the grace of Srila Prabhupada, many places all over the world have been converted into holy places in the form of temples, because they have been personally empowered by the Lord, tirtha bhutah svayam vibho. Narottama dasa Thakura in his prayer to the Vaishnavas has said that in their hearts, Lord Govinda is eternally resting, tomare hrdaya sada govinda vishram. Therefore, the pure devotee is able to purify others by his association – which is not limited, geographically – because they are known as walking tirthas. Not everyone, especially those in foreign countries or materially impoverished or physically challenged can take opportunity of the holy dhams but anyone and everyone can access the tirthas (devotees) by rendering aural reception.
Another feature of the walking tirthas is their overwhelming mercy. A person has to go to the dham or Ganga to be purified, but the devotees come to a person to purify him. Narada Muni relates how out of causeless mercy the Lord manifests just as a devotee begins to sing His glories. Thus the tirtha-pada Lord manifests in the heart of the devotee and that devotees gives this mercy of the Lord in the form of his association. Along with the Lord, all holy places are present [SB 1.6.33]. A person can be purified just by seeing, touching, etc a pure devotee [SB 1.19.32-34]. Even, all sins of a person immediately vanish by being in the presence of a devotee. Therefore, by sincere service unto such a pure soul one can develop taste for Krishna katha, vasudeva katha rucih punya-tirtha-nisevanat [SB 1.2.16].
Not only does the pure devotee give chance to others to vanquish their sins by serving him in order to develop their Krishna Consciousness – but he also purifies holy places. When people visit holy places, they dump their sins and leave. But when devotees come, they clean up the dham by their presence, tirthi kurvanti tirthani and sanctify it further, bhuvanam punanah [SB 1.19.8] So even the dham is dependent on the devotee!
A pure deovtee (tirtha) gives the common persons who have no access to spiritual knowledge, prakrtiar dvipada pasubhir, vision and guidance like an expert herdsman who herds sheep [SB 5.9.9]. The devotee gives the right perception to one who is visiting the holy places. People of the modern age merely visit the holy places to bathe and then again return to their sinful lives, such mentality is condemned in the Bhagvatam as that of asses and cows, tirtha buddih…sa eva go-kharah [SB 10.84.13]. Therefore, the above analogy of herdsman is quite appropriate. A devotee is able to explain the significance and lessons of life, and thus one should visit holy places to seek out such genuine souls for guidance in life. By sincere hearing, the Lord can very quickly be established in the heart [SB 1.1.2]. Else, one’s visit to holy places is nothing more than bewilderment to the mind. Srila Narottama dasa Thakura says, tirtha-yatra parishrama kevala manera bhrama, one will not be bewildered if properly guided by a devotee.
Thus, it can be concluded that the pure devotee is more potent in purifying than the holy dham. All items mentioned above are directly dependent on a devotee’s presence – even the dham to an extent, depends on the pure devotees of the Lord for its purity, as mentioned initially.
The following article is an answer to the Open Book Exam (Canto 1.10-19), by Hemarupa Caitanya Dasa, to the question: (SB 1.13.10) describes devotees as personification of holy places. Compare the purifying potency of a dham and a devotee by quoting relevant sastric references.