While Kumbh Mela may be the greatest show on earth thanks to its antiquity, diversity and sheer scale, it is also at odds with our times. The reason to say this is the widespread tendency to look for rationality and logic in everything even though much of our life is about something as irrational as emotion. Not to mention that across the world people will see Kumbh Mela from the rationale of their own secular world views, and the lenses are many. Feminist, Marxist, Socialist, Freudian and more. So, while the Kumbh Mela may be holy to some, it is exotic or even bizarre superstition riddled with meaningless ritual, pollution, exploitation and social stratification to others. It is therefore important to look at the Kumbh Mela from its own lens in order to understand the rationale behind it. Else we might someday run the same risk as in Sabarimala where the tradition’s point of view is completely ignored at great cost.
Nobody can say with certainty when Kumbh Mela began. We do know, however, that it is from hoary antiquity and could go back, unbroken, over 10,000 years. It is held every third year at one of four places by rotation: Haridwar, Prayagraj, Nashik and Ujjain. Thus, the Maha Kumbh Mela is held at each of these four places every 12th year. Ardha (half) Kumbh Mela is held at only two places, Hardwar and Prayagraj, every 6th year. The rivers at these four places are: the Ganga at Haridwar, the sangam (confluence) of the Ganga, the Yamuna and the long extinct Saraswati at Prayagraj, the Godawari at Nasik, and the Shipra at Ujjain. The Haridwar Kumbh Mela is held in spring when Brihaspati (Jupiter) is in Kumbh Rashi, hence the name Kumbh Mela. The Nashik and Ujjain Melas are usually held on either side of the monsoon when Brihaspati is in Simha Rashi and is called Simhasta Kumbh Mela. The Mela in Pragyagraj is held in winter when Brihaspati is in Magha Maas and is also called Magha Mela. Now all the four Melas are called Kumbh. The Ardha Kumbh currently being celebrated at Prayagraj is expecting over 120 million visitors making it the largest religious festival in the world.
The Rationale of Rituals
Kumbh Mela is a ritual involving satsang (a gathering for a sacred purpose), puja (worship), seva (service) and a bath in a river considered sacred. Most people who consider themselves modern favour spiritual practices like Yoga and meditation while undermining rituals. Historically the criticism of idol worship by other faiths also fanned a reaction against rituals. Thus Dyananda Saraswati who founded Arya Samaj did away with idol worship. Gandhi too was against it. However, in the Hindu sastra (scriptures) rituals have a specific purpose and a rational explanation. It is as integral a part of the process leading to self-realisation as yoga and meditation. Allow me to elaborate.
Hindu cosmic reality rejects the idea of an extra-cosmic God. Reality is the cosmic conscious principle that is uncreated, indestructible and all pervading. It is called Brahman and not to be confused with Brahma, the creator in the Hindu trinity. Everything created is a manifestation of Brahman, everything arises from it, everything lives in it and everything resolves into it. The universe, nature and wo/man are one. Everything is clothed in Brahman. The very first verse of Isa Upanishad says:
“All this, whatever moves in this universe, including the universe itself moving, is indwelt and clothed by Him.”
Brahman leads to the Hindu idea of Moksha or self-realisation. It is a life purpose and a state where we experience the oneness of the universe and the knowledge that there is no separation between Brahman and us. This thought is captured succinctly in the four Upanishadic Mahavakyas:
Prajnam Brahman from Aitereya Upanishad informs that consciousness is Brahman
Ayam Atma Brahman from Mandukya Upanishad states that the individual consciousness and cosmic consciousness is the same
Tat Twam Asi, this famous mahavakya from Chandogya Upanishad says that you can realise that you are That
Aham Brahmasmi from Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is the joyous expression of the one who has realised that s/he is Brahman
There are many references in the sastras on the role of Karma (rituals, sacrifices and worldly action) and Jnana (knowledge and meditation) in attaining Moksha or self-realization. Both practices are part of the eternal debate on the opposition between the outer and inner life. The wise have said that those who focus solely on the outer life dissipate their vitality in an endless web of desire and ultimately sorrow, while those who focus solely on the inner become remote and reclusive. The sastras therefore point to the ever-present unity of both Karma and Jnana. The twelfth verse of Isa Upanishad sounds a warning:
“ Into deep darkness do they enter who worship the world of becoming. Into still greater darkness, as it were, do they enter who delight in Being as opposed to becoming”
Rituals prepare us for Knowledge by enabling Chitta Shudhi or purification of the mind. An agitated mind cannot be contemplative. When we practice rituals we turn our thoughts away from the temptations and revulsions of worldly pursuits, embrace higher thinking, serve others and thus calm our minds. A person with a calm mind is primed to pursue higher knowledge and meditation. Cricketers have to first play for the school team, junior team and state team before they can play for the country. Similarly, rituals are the first steps in the journey to Moksha or self-realisation.
People who meditate therefore should not impose their practice on those who are not ready. Instead of scoffing at those who practice rituals, they should heed the advice of Krishna in the Bhagwat Gita (III.26)
“ Let no wise man unsettle the minds of ignorant people, who are attached to action, he should engage them all in actions, himself fulfilling them with devotion.”
Superstition or Deep Astronomic Knowledge?
It is said that if we take a bath in the holy rivers at Kumbh Mela we attain Moksha. Those who find rituals irrational may find this mere superstition. It would however be perfectly valid to ask if there is a rational explanation. According to Surya Sashtra, the Panc Bhuttas (five elements) are most active at the different locations of the Kumbh Melas due to the planetary configurations at the time. Further, amongst all elements, it is water which possesses the strongest memory. Scientific research is going on to understand this property of water. Homeopathy has always supported it. Moreover, there are many examples from ancient India which science didn’t earlier but now accepts. Non-dual Consciousness or what Vedanta calls Brahman, for example, is an area of scientific study today. Taking a bath with Shradha Bhava or devotion during the Mela season washes away Samskaras and Vasanas (impressions left behind by actions that become cause for more actions) and frees the devotee from accumulated karmas. The healing power of the river and the philosophy of oneness is the reason why rivers are considered scared. This is the importance of Kumbh Mela. As with most Hindu traditions, Kumbh Mela too has a Sastric explanation.
Kumbh Mela last an average of forty-five days. If one were to ask why, there is a rational explanation for this too. Quite simply, Brihaspati starts moving away from the Kumbh Rashi after forty-five days.
Academic and Media Interest in Kumbha Mela
When the Harvard Kumbh Mela Project came to light a blip appeared on the radar screen of the ever vigilant Rajiv Malhotra. In a 2015 article titled Why the Kumbh Mela is at Risk, he wrote that western intervention in Indian culture has a long history. It starts of in a benign fashion but soon takes a dangerous turn. Academia, Leftists, Missionaries and Institutions collaborate in studying Hindu traditions from a western lens devoid of the overarching metaphysical significance. The results are predictable. It points to caste inequalities, gender discrimination, religion overpowering individuality, environment and public health concerns. This deconstruction without heed to the philosophical aspects leads to secularisation that paves the way for evangelists to enter. We have recently seen how the narrative of gender discrimination led to the desecration of an important Hindu pilgrimage centre- Sabarimala.
This research proposal from Harvard South Asian Institute to map the Kumbh Mela underscores Malhotra’s thesis. The researchers propose:
“The Mela inspires interdisciplinary research in a number of complementary fields. Pilgrimage and religious studies, public health, design, communications, business, and infrastructure engineering converge at this festival, producing a complex atmosphere that can be understood through rigorous documentation and mapping.”
Some of what the researchers proposes to study are:
- How do groups of pilgrims from different economic and social background relate to one another spatially? Is there a stratification within the grid that separates types of pilgrims, and genders, from each other?
- How does the Mela negotiate the tensions between self-identity and national and religious identity?
- Who are the major religious players (both individuals and institutions) at the festival, and what is their impact on the larger population? What are the differences in their relationships to pilgrims, tourists, the press, and the Mela’s governing organizations?
- Public Health concerns and environmental pollution.
Media coverage so far has been mixed. While a large section has praised the excellent facilities and administration, some have tried to create a negative perception.
BBC News dated 14 January has lauded the improvement in infrastructure, good transport and living arrangements, excellent sanitation, security, food supply and hospital infrastructure.
Business Standard on the other hand has attempted to create a negative perception. An Op-ed dated 22nd January is titled Can Kumbh Mela Help Alleviate Uttar Pradesh’s Unemployment Problem. It insinuates that large scale unemployment is the cause of large attendance. It tries to link Kumbh Mela to a negative attribute i.e. unemployment to take away from its sacredness.
Another article by Reuter published in Business Standard on December 21 is titled Sacred and Political: Over 100 million people to attend Kumbh in January. This article tries to politicise Kumbh by saying that Ardha Kumbh Mela has been enlarged to boost the dwindling fortunes of the ‘Hindu nationalist’ BJP government who want to celebrate Hindu dominance and marginalise the Muslim minority. Factually Kumbh Mela has never witnessed sectarian tensions.
An article in the Indian Express dated January 20th is titled Those Who Keep Kumbh Clean. The slant here is to negatively portray how 22,000 sanitation workers are cleaning toilets used by rich pilgrims.
Rajiv Malhotra has warned how evangelists will penetrate events where a large number of Hindus gather. An article in Nagaland Post is telling. It urges a Naga contingent invited to the Kumbh Mela to showcase Naga culture, to use the opportunity to spread the gospel. It considers it the Christian’s birth right to spread the message of Jesus and hopes that one day the Kumbh Mela will turn into a great mission centre.
As part of an evangelist project Joshua II, the First Baptist Church of Nashville, Tennessee has adopted towns where Kumbh Melas takes place and has been actively converting the locals so that visitors face extreme hardship during their next visit trying to find services and supplies. They are making environmental groups raise their voice too. It seems that a good section of media is also on their side to such an extent that any group opposing their activity finds itself identified as a militant or extremist group in the news media.
Arguments against the Denigration of Kumbh Mela
From the above discussion I have culled out the main themes of denigration of Kumbh Mela by the secular minded and evangelists:
- The missing focus on understanding the metaphysical and spiritual nature of the Kumbh Mela leads to relegating it to the realm of superstition.
- The narrative of caste and class tensions without understanding the synthesis achieved by Hindu Dharma tends to create fissures in an event that aims to unite.
- The concern of the subjugation of individuality by Hinduism when in fact it is the realisation of the highest individuality.
- Public Health concerns and Environment issues taking precedence over celebrating the festival.
- Penetrating the Kumbh Mela with the idea of converting non-believers instead of respecting the faith of those they call non-believers.
Let us briefly analyse each theme:
- The missing focus on the metaphysical relegates Kumbh to superstition
We have seen that Kumbh Mela is a ritual and rituals have a significant role to play in the pursuit of spirituality. The sastras explain the astronomical connection and why under some conditions the rivers acquire healing properties. The satsang or a large gathering of people for a sacred purpose creates beneficial vibrations.
In the USA in 1969 at the peak of the Hippie era, a famous music festival called Woodstock was held. Over 500,000 young people attended this five day festival. Many famous musicians of the time performed in the festival. Woodstock has been hailed as a landmark event that exemplified peace and love in an otherwise contentious world. Kumbh Mela is almost three hundred times bigger and of nine times the duration and has been an example of harmony, peace and diversity from thousands of years. If one looks at the Kumbh Mela from this perspective then the research will delve into using secular epistemology to understand the metaphysical aspects. Scientists can research if the river changes character during such astronomical events. Do mind patterns of participants alter during Kumbh Mela? Does individual aura expand? Spiritual progress can be measured by scales that capture Guna ( Sattva, Rajas, Tamas) shifts. What happens to quotients of mindfulness and emotional wellbeing? Such deeper research will add to the body of knowledge and the sophistication of secular research methods will be useful to understand the effects of the metaphysical.
- The narrative of caste and class tensions without understanding the synthesis achieved by Hindu Dharma creates fissures
The big story of Kumbh Mela is unification. Castes, classes, sadhus, the teeming masses, all genders mix, stay together, serve one another and bathe in the same river. It is the largest demonstration of diversity in unity on the entire planet. To deconstruct this idea into social tensions appears to be a problem with the lens rather than the event. For long the narrative of Hindu Dharma has been reduced to caste tensions and this could be the reason why the uniting principle of the Dharma is often overlooked.
In 2017 UNESCO inscribed the Kumbh Mela as the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The intergovernmental committee observed: “Kumbh Mela is the largest congregation of pilgrims on earth. The festival…represents a syncretic set of rituals related to worship and ritual cleansing in holy rivers..It is compatible with existing human rights instruments since people from all walks of life, without any discrimination participate in the festival with equal fervour. As a religious festival, the tolerance and inclusiveness that Kumbh Mela demonstrates are especially valuable for the contemporary world”
- Is Individuality Subdued By Religion
This modern idea of individuality being muffled by religion needs an intellectual discussion. According to Vivekananda, the Hindu idea that you are a universal being is frightening to some. Those disturbed by this idea ask if this entails a loss of individuality. What is individuality, asks Vivekananda. If the idea of individuality lay in the body then you would lose it if you lost a part of the body. If it lay in habit then a drunkard would not change his habit for fear of losing his individuality. Instead Vivekananda shows that it is the universal being that enjoys true individuality. At the level of self-realization plurality merges into oneness. Hence far from losing individuality the Hindu idea is one of striving towards it:
“We are not individuals yet. We are struggling towards individuality, and that is the infinite, that is the real nature of man.” (CWSV-Book 2 Page 80)
- Public health concerns and environment issues take precedence over celebration
Anecdotally, large numbers of people have not taken ill by celebrating Kumbh over thousands of years. Scientists could study why despite pollution the river is not harmful to health. Further, if the study aims to find scientific solutions to problems it might uncover it is welcome. But if it becomes a tool to vilify the tradition then it is problematic.
- The attempt by evangelists to penetrate Kumbh Mela and convert non-believers
There are two issues at play here. One is the Christian belief that theirs is the only truth and thus they are bound to use any means to bring others in to their fold. The second issue is more sociological. We need to examine what such a notion does to the fabric of human society.
To analyse the first issue I will fall back on the genius of Swami Vivekananda. The need for religion arises because the best of secular knowledge does not satisfy our thirst. We crave for supreme knowledge, that which explains everything. We find this idea in every religion and that is why religions claim superiority over secular knowledge. But in this fight between religious and secular knowledge, the latter wins because it is better equipped with reason and epistemology. As the age of reason grew, people became dissatisfied with accepting something on ‘belief’ and religions have not countered this effectively.
There is a battle between religions too, with one claiming superiority over the other. However, the proof they offer is unsatisfactory. They say my ideology is superior because my book says so. This is not acceptable in the age of reason. Is there a way out? Yes, if religion is ready to justify itself by reason just like every other science. Religions must subject themselves to and stand the test of such investigation.
Vivekananda points out the two principles of reason. The first is that a particular is explained by the general. In other words a particular must be rationally generalised. For instance if one apple falls it could be a freak incidence, but if all apples fall then there is a general law at work, in this case gravity. The second principle is that the explanation of a phenomenon must be intrinsic. In our apple example, if you threw up an apple and it fell you could believe that a ghost dragged it down. This is an extrinsic explanation and does not appeal to the rational mind. But gravity is an intrinsic explanation, it is the nature of the thing. In all science we find that things are explained by what’s going on within.
Now let us apply this principle of reason to the extra-cosmic God of Christianity and the intrinsic conscious principle of Hindu Dharma they want to penetrate. Christianity posits that the extra-cosmic God creates the universe out of nothing and sits outside of it. This defies the principle of generalisation. You can generalise everything up to a point and then have to confront a break because the extra-cosmic God lies outside of everything else. This is inconsistent with the first principle of reason. On the other hand Brahman is the final generalisation of everything that exists. It is thus consistent with the first principle of reason. The second principle, that the explanation must come from within, too is not satisfied by the extra-cosmic God. This explanation of creation is akin to the ghost dragging the apple down. Brahman on the other hand, satisfies that condition. It indwells all creation as we saw in the verse from Isa Upanishad. Everything comes out of it, is sustained in it and resolves back to it.
Hence the claim by Christians that theirs is The Truth is not supported by reason and hence we have to relegate it to the realm of belief and dogma. Their reason for penetrating other religious systems is intrinsically and irreparably flawed. I must add that Hindu thought has nothing against other beliefs. If that belief gives its followers solace so be it. The point being made here is against the idea of the superiority of Christian belief and not the belief itself.
Further, a predatory approach creates tensions in the fabric of society which leads to violence and wars as is historically evident. Hence the predatory approach of faiths must end in the interest of harmony. It is perfectly justified if the culture that is being preyed upon decides to ring fence itself using all legitimate means at its disposal.
Why and How Kumbh Mela must be nurtured
Kumbh Mela is a microcosm of the Hindu cosmology. It demonstrates the oneness of creation and the interdependencies of stars and lives. It joyfully celebrates togetherness cutting across strata and gender. The experience of peace and brotherhood is on a scale that dwarfs the much celebrated Woodstock festival. It is biggest living example of absorbing diversity in unity. It is for this reason that the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage under UNESCO has inscribed Kumbh Mela on the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The perceived distortion of Kumbh Mela by other ideological lenses naturally gets the Hindus concerned. We have to be clear how to respond to these perceived threats in a manner that is consistent with who we are. First we must understand that the criticism of Hindu Dharma is not new. In ancient times the materialistic philosophy of Charvaks mounted a serious attack on Hindu Dharma. Hindu Dharma later survived waves of invasions and subjugation by both Islam and Christianity. It is my contention that we should respond to the current challenges by playing on the strengths of Hindu Dharma.
At a metaphysical level, the knowledge of Dharma is embedded in the cosmos. It is not something that Hindus have imagined. It is self-revealing and can be experienced by anybody willing to make the effort. Hence Dharma is indestructible. This realisation should arm us with fortitude to work towards Dharmic renaissance.
At the intellectual level the best way to defend Dharma is with quiet reason. Control the narrative with intellectual power. Be inspired by our Rishis, including modern ones. Go into the logic behind the myriad Hindu practices and present it logically. The search for deeper meaning is primordial. Appeal to that need when you present Hindu Dharma.
At the existential level we must ring fence Hindu Dharma from predatory ideologies. Freedom of religion should not mean subversion of other people’s religious spaces. The preyed upon culture has the right to exercise vigilance and legal measures.
If we want the greatest show on earth to continue its glorious run in this sacred land, we must together and consciously safeguard Kumbh Mela and its eco-system for all humanity now and in the future.
- Bhagawat Gita with commentary by Swami Chinmayananda
- Isa Upanishad with commentary by Swami Chinmayananda
- Media reports linked in the article
- Sankrant Sanu, The Edict of Thessalonica and Attack on Hindu Traditions, Indiafacts.org, 29 August 2016
- Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury, UNESCO Recognises Kumbh Mela as India’s Cultural Heritage, Economic Times 8 December 2017
- Swami Vivekananda, Complete Works, Books 1 and 2
Featured Image: Indian Express