During the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar in 2010, a young Frenchman exclaimed, “Oh, it must have been so different then” when he came to know that I was in 1986 at the Kumbh already. “No, it was not”, I realised. It was very much the same. It may have been the same for centuries.
Here is my description of the Kumbh Mela in 1986:
Luckily I don’t get afraid, when I am stuck in a crowd; otherwise India would be the wrong country for me. I actually enjoy the atmosphere, so incredibly colourful and diverse, a wave of human beings that carries everyone along, innumerable pair of eyes meeting my eyes, fleetingly, friendly – for a short while thrown together at the same place.
So when I heard that the full Kumbh Mela will be celebrated in Haridwar in April 1986, I wanted to be there, for surely there must be a reason, when millions of pilgrims from all corners of India undergo a lot of hardship to reach this festival on the Ganges. In fact there are even two reasons.
Number one, a bath in the Ganges at the auspicious time of the Mela is a big attraction, because it is supposed to be very powerful, purifying internally and giving a boost to one’s spiritual development.
And number two, there is the prospect of benefitting from the presence of great Rishis, the successors of the ancient wise women and men from Vedic times.
Traditionally, the Kumbh Mela is the meeting place for those pillars of Indian spirituality, who have dedicated their whole life to the search for truth. Even today the hermits who are usually hidden in caves in the Himalayas and the Sadhus (wandering monks) who wander all over the country with a begging bowl and a staff in hand stand for an ideal. They embody the dream of freedom and independence for those who feel tied down in the world.
The reason why during the time of the mela bathing in the Ganges is especially helpful for spiritual growth is given in a story of the Indian mythology which is since ancient times connected with existing locations in northern India.
Long, long ago, at the beginning of our present world cycle, gods and demons tried to release the lost nectar of immortality by vigorously churning the milk ocean. When the jar (kumbh) full to the brim with the nectar finally emerged, a wild chase started. The son of a god had seized the vessel with the precious content and the demons followed at his heels in hot pursuit. Sun, Moon and Jupiter played the role of protectors for the gods and influenced the outcome in their favour from certain positions. The chase lasted for 12 days, until the jar was finally safe with the gods.
According to the mythology, a few drops of the nectar spilled over at four places in northern India, which thereby became especially sanctified and celebrate the Kumbh Mela once in twelve years: Haridwar, Allahabad, Nasik und Ujjain.
When the drops fell into the Ganges in Haridwar during the chase, the Sun protected it from the position of Aries and the Jupiter from Aquarius. This constellation repeats itself once in 12 years, because according to Indian tradition one year in the life of human beings corresponds to one day in the life of gods. Each time, when this constellation repeats itself, the influence of the celestial bodies is again supposed to be very beneficial for the place and millions of pilgrims converge at the place to celebrate the Kumbh Mela.
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So much about the mythology. It explains why many pious Hindus dream of bathing in the holy river during the Kumbh Mela. The explanation however may not convince a European. When I walked along the banks of the Ganges, and watched the pilgrims, who stood up to their waist in the water, held their nose with their fingers, bent their knees and submerged themselves again and again, I would not have guessed that this kind of gymnastics is helpful in getting to know the truth.
But can I be sure? It can neither be verified nor falsified, whether the astrological constellation in question charges the Ganges water in some subtle, special way or not. And after seven years in India, I was already broad minded enough to consider the Indian view as possible and not only the western view, which would regard such belief ‘from a scientific angle’ as nonsense. The Indians trust that their sages und their tradition know a lot about the subtle interdependence between man and cosmos. And they may be right. Science keeps validating more and more insights of the ancient wisdom.
To be fair, westerners should have the same level of acceptance towards the Indian belief, which they have towards the baptism in the Christian Church. Rather even a higher level, as no Indian threatens anyone with eternal damnation, if he does not bathe in the Ganges.
I personally did not consider the bath as important. Nevertheless, it so happened that in the middle of the night at 2 o’clock, at the most auspicious hour, I went to the Ganges to take a dip. A group of people who were gathered around a tiny, fragile woman, Rani Ma by name, took charge of me. I had landed up in this group in the previous evening by chance.
Rani Ma did not talk much. Her guru was Babaji, who was also the grand guru of Paramahansa Yogananda. Her devotees from Kolkata considered her as enlightened.
There was no doubt that this group would take a bath in the Ganga in the night and Rani Ma insisted on taking me along. I did not object. We slept for a couple of hours on reed mats on her veranda and then joined the steady, unending stream of human beings winding their way through the town to Har ki Pauri, the most auspicious place on the Ganges. The stream was so dense that I hardly managed to bend to take off my slippers when we reached the ghat area. The others had wisely left theirs behind. There was real danger that the stream of people would run over one, if one falls to the ground.
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It actually happened. Fifty people had died in the night. The continuous stream of pilgrims had been blocked for a while to make way for some VIP politician and then was waved on. Many, who had squatted on the ground and dozed off while waiting, could not get up fast enough, when the crowd suddenly moved forward. They were trampled to death.
StilI, I was grateful for that amazing experience and glad that i had not slept through the night.
About half a million sadhus, swamis, sanyasis, as the potentially holy men and women are called, had come to Haridwar – a good representation of spiritual India. Anandamayi Ma had already passed away, but Devaraha Baba was there and I was happy to have his darshan again.
The Mela presented a colourful, fascinating picture. Many sadhus were naked, just smeared with ash from head to toe. Others had wrapped an orange coloured, sometimes also white or black, and often worn out cotton cloth around their hips. On their foreheads they had mysterious marks. In one hand they usually held a begging bowl and in the other a wooden staff and in some cases, a dangerous looking metal trident. Their hairstyle was eccentric. If their heads were not shaven, their hair was matted with ash and piled in several layers on the head or it reached down to the waist.
If I had not noticed it already earlier, I would have noticed it during the Kumbh Mela – the fact that not all of them were close to sainthood. Only because someone is naked or dressed in orange, does not necessarily mean that he is a pure, calm, great being who is a well-wisher for all of mankind. As is the case everywhere there are such and such individuals.
And so there were also here the genuine ones who had dedicated their life to the search for the truth – fully and sincerely – and among them there might have been some who had come to an end of their search and could feel what they truly are in their essence.
I have to admit that I did not meet too many really impressive personalities, but in some cases I could envision that someone lived his or her life from a deeper, more awakened level of consciousness.
Once for example I was sitting on a small wooden bench in front of a tea shop on the road side. An elderly man with a towel wrapped around his head sat down next to me. I moved a bit away from him, because his clothes looked dirty. He carried a sack over his shoulder which had the same dirty white colour.
A skinny bitch, whose puppies were stepping over each other under her belly, positioned herself behind our bench and looked at us full of expectation. We both turned towards her at the same moment, and I was surprised, how much compassion shone from the eyes of this man.
Now I suddenly felt love for him and wondered whether it was appropriate to pay for his tea, as he looked poor. Just then Melita Maschmann passed by and we chatted. Meanwhile the man paid and left. We also left and Melita pointed at him, “Look at this man in front of us. People here claim that he is enlightened. He is always calm, kind, unperturbed, even though he is poor and earns his livelihood by collecting mud for soaps.”
Melita and I participated in the morning aarti in the temple where Anandamayi Ma’s Samadhi (tomb) is the focus of worship. Afterwards we went off in different directions. I was walking, when the man from the teashop came to my mind, and I wished I would see him once more. Somebody walked ahead of me, but he didn’t have a towel around his head, so I didn’t take further notice. Suddenly I became aware of the prominent varicose veins on his legs and realised that it was him. At the same moment, he turned and smiled at me.
Some other time, I sat with a group of people on Rani Ma’s veranda, when a sadhu from Uttarkashi in the Himalayas joined us. Rani Ma greeted him warmly. Both of them conversed with each other for a while. Then he sank into stillness. We all were still and it felt very peaceful. After he had left, Rani Ma claimed that he was enlightened. Of course I can’t know, whether it was true.
Probably I have walked past a number of people without recognising that he or she felt truly one with all.
I suppose that there were some even in those huge tents, which the government had put up for the very poor. People chanted almost non-stop one of the many names of god. Among them there were emaciated, old men with hollow cheeks and eyes sunken deep in their sockets, who accompanied their chanting with cymbals – and had time to look up and invite me with a smile to join in.
They were devotees of Vishnu, who is the preserver of the universe. Vishnu is said to incarnate in human form on earth, whenever the evil gets the upper hand, to show again the right path to human beings. Ram and Krishna are Vishnu’s most loved incarnations (avatars). The life story of Ram is narrated in the Ramayana and Krishna’s in the Mahabharata, which consist of 100.000 stanzas. Krishna lived supposedly some 5000 years ago and Ram several thousand years earlier. The devotees of Vishnu are generally milder compared to those of Shiva. They want to be constantly and lovingly aware of his presence and merge with him or rather merge with that form of him, which they love the most.
When I got up to leave, an old man advised me to travel to Ayodhya and even enquired whether I had enough money for the train ticket to get there. He genuinely wanted me to visit the birth place of his beloved Ram, who is for a Hindu the same as Jesus Christ is for a Christian – god in human form.
In front of a photo shop, a young sadhu approached me and asked in fluent English where I came from. He was wearing only a loin cloth and was a naga sadhu – “since yesterday”, he told me already in his second sentence. The previous day I had witnessed, as a few thousand young men sat on the banks of the Ganges, their heads freshly shaven and naked except for a loin cloth. They “took sanyas”, that means, they vowed to renounce the pleasures of the world and not to dream anymore of wealth, family and position, but instead to dedicate their life completely to the search for god.
One of those young men stood now before me, who, only day before yesterday, would have looked completely normal, with shirt and trousers on his body and hair on his head. I asked him why he chose to become a naga sadhu. “I want to meditate in a cave in the Himalayas to become one with god”, he answered, as if this kind of desire was the most natural thing in the world for a young man of his age. I used the opportunity to ask him whether he could introduce me to his guru. He readily agreed.
The naga sadhus consider themselves as the warriors of Shiva. Shiva is on one hand the destroyer in the trinity besides Brahma, the creator and Vishnu, the preserver. On the other hand, Shiva is considered to be the Highest, the only one, above the trinity.
In the 8th century (some say, even earlier), the great philosopher Adi Shankara had grouped the individual sadhus into ten orders, as per their main spiritual practice, reacting to the Buddhist monk communities. Adi Shankara also asked them to visit the Kumbh Melas, to keep in touch with each other and to exhort the common people to live a righteous life.
The naga sadhus fought against the Muslim invaders, who made between the 8th and 18th century life difficult for Hindus and often killed them if they did not convert to Islam. Today, however, the belligerence of the naga sadhus is limited to fighting over who can take a dip in the Ganga first or to frightening photographers. A Frenchman had to run fast to save his camera. I also dared to take a photo of the nagas, even though the press officer had asked us not to. Secretly and quickly with my small Minox and I was sure that nobody had seen it – till the film was developed. Three nagas looked directly into the lens.
The manager of the tourist bungalow in Haridwar had warned me about the naga sadhus. In case they do not like something about me, it could have disastrous consequences, because most of those sadhus have occult powers, he claimed.
Yet my young companion seemed extremely peaceful and his guru, too, was surprisingly friendly, almost gentle and rather stout. He not only allowed, but seemed happy that I took photos, and called the whole company of his sadhu disciples to his tent. He offered me tea. Conversing however was difficult, as my Hindi was very limited.
The guru dictated the shopping list to the young man who had become a naga only the previous day, who carefully noted down all the items needed. I wished him the best for his path, wished that he may realise the truth and keep up his enthusiasm. Because the vow to renounce the world by itself is no guarantee, that worldly desires do not again gain the upper hand. But I have respect – not only for those who have achieved the ideal of an even-minded, serene personality, but also for those who strive for it.
It is easy to ridicule those strange looking figures because of their appearance or to put them down as parasites of society. And there is no doubt that many of them wear orange only because it easier to beg in this colour, and possibly there are even criminals among them who hide in that garb. But can I really know how much courage many sadhus muster to untie all their relationships and to let go of the dream of a happy family life and success in a career – in favour of an inward journey, where they have to walk alone, without health insurance and without being certain that the next meal will indeed find its way into their begging bowl?
They demonstrate a life style, which is diametrically opposite to the modern life style. They are not interested in fulfilling desires, but in relinquishing them. They don’t want to create needs, but to reduce them. And in this way they act like a barrier against the mighty trend towards the materialistic consumer society.
‘If in doubt, be in favour of the wandering monk’ is still the motto in India. And even critics of the spiritual scene in the country do not doubt that there are enlightened beings among the sadhus, somewhere high up in the inaccessible Himalayas – who only leave their cave for the Kumbh Mela.
– Maria Wirth is a German author living in India. She is widely known for her book “Thank You, India” and many other literary works related to hinduism and other Indic thoughts.