The Kumbha Mela is the world's biggest act of worship. It is currently taking place, and where else but in India? Well into February 2010 you can still go and take part. In that case, it may help to know what it's about.
On 14 January 2010, Makar Sankranti day, Hindu religious leaders ceremonially opened the Kumbha Mela in Haridwar, where the Ganga river moves from its mountainous sources into the plain of North India. A news item about it in an Indian on-line paper caught the eye of Koen Fillet, a talk-show host on Flemish state radio VRT Radio 1. He phoned me for some background data, and I gladly obliged. As usual, after the interview I thought of all the things I should have said. Not that there would ever have been enough time available for all the things worth saying about this venerable tradition, but a few that have my particular interest are these.
Why this name? A melâ is simply a festival where large crowds congregate, in principle of a religious nature though the term is also applied more loosely. A kumbha is a pot or jar or pitcher, i.c. the one in which the gods had collected the immortality elixir or amrta. When they were fighting over it, they spilled four drops which fell down on earth at the four places where the Kumbha Mela is now held. But Kumbha is also the name of the Zodiac sign of Aquarius, which happens to have the same amrta symbolism of life-giving liquid poured down from heaven on all of us.
Why is the festival taking place this year? As a rule the Mela in Haridwar (Uttaranchal) takes place every twelve years, but at intervals of three years, a similar gathering takes place in Ujjain (Madhya Pradesh), Nasik (Maharashtra) and Prayag/Allahabad (Uttar Pradesh). The timing is determined by the entry of Jupiter, who takes twelve years to complete a cycle, into the "fixed" constellations of the sidereal Zodiac: Taurus, Leo, Scorpio and Aquarius. Astrologers consider these signs the most powerful, places of power in the starry sky, just as the sacred river is a place of power on earth. The Haridwar Kumbha Mela takes place with Jupiter in Aquarius, as in 1998 and now 2010, the one in Prayag when Jupiter is in Taurus, as in 1989, 2001 and 2013.
The Prayag Kumbha Mela is the biggest; its 2001 edition drew 60 million pilgrims in a month's time, the biggest congregation of people in world history. It takes place at the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna rivers. The site is called the Mukti Triveni, "Liberation tri-confluence", because a third river is also deemed to be present: the Saraswati river, cradle of Vedic civilization, which must once have been an ocean-going river but now ends in the desert of Rajasthan. It is as if the Saraswati carries the Vedic charisma underground to reappear in Prayag. Bathing at this auspicious confluence, esp. at the auspicious time of the Kumbha Mela, is deemed to confer great spiritual merit and to purify or "liberate" the pilgrim from a fair amount of accumulated "bad karma".
I was at the Prayag site in the days before the start of the 1989 Kumbha Mela. The first thing to impress the visitor was the mighty deployment of provisions for the millions of pilgrims: endless rows of tents, sanitary facilities and, here and there, electricity. In those days, India was associated with chaos, but here the Indian authorities and the organizers did and consistently do a fine job. Like in the Hajj in Mecca, an occasional stampede with lethal victims is almost inevitable at an event of this magnitude, but the toll of this hazard is normally limited and a few times it has been as low as zero.
All the traditional Hindu guru lineages and monastic orders of Sant-s and Sâdhu-s (saints, ascetics) have their presence here, and an allotted place and time for their ritual bathing, determined by negotiation or hierarchical order. Sometimes, quarrels and even fist fights erupt over the privilege of going in first. The stars of these festivals are the martial monks or Nâga Sâdhu-s, expert wrestlers and often carrying tridents. The idea of fighting monks may seem odd, but China also has its Shaolin monastery where the monks developed wushu (kungfu). In history, these martial orders sometimes served as auxiliary troops in actual wars, not even "holy" wars but perfectly secular wars for power and pelf in the service of Maharajas and even Sultans.
Except for unkempt flowing beards, matted hair and face paint, the Naga Sadhu-s walk naked. The Sanskrit word nâga means "snake", and is indeed cognate with that English word (with an onomatopoeic hissing sound prefixed), but also with the word "naked". The snake is the naked animal, because it is hairless and because it has no limbs with which to keep the environment at a distance. A snake is completely exposed to its environment, and consequently has to be strong, resistant and threatening.
Already mentioned in the Rg-Veda, long before the genesis of the monastic religions of Jainism and Buddhism, the Naga Sadhu-s exemplify the origin of the monastic orders in ancient bands of roaming warriors. Male adolescents, then as now, tend to band together on the outskirts of society and practise a macho culture of being harsh and tough on oneself and on one another. They extol freedom and keep the world of women and family at a distance. Some members lapse and leave the band to marry and settle down, others stay on to grow old in this culture of hardness and freedom: the first monks. Strikingly different from the soft-spoken and media-savvy Gurus to whom Western audiences may be acquainted, the Naga Sadhu-s belong to a very primitive stratum of Hinduism.
So does the tradition of pilgrimage to Mâ Gangâ (Mother Ganges). It is recorded in the Mahâbhârata that the aging Pândava brothers, disillusioned after their crowning victory in a fratricidal war has turned sour with the death of all their children (only one newborn grandson survives to continue the dynasty), make a pilgrimage to the Ganga in its mountainous upper reaches. By present standards, the distance they covered wasn't very long: to Haridwar from Indraprastha (Delhi), the city they founded, now takes only an afternoon by bus. But the ascetic effort of taking the walk from home to the sacred site, though important, isn't the main thing about a pilgrimage. Being there and immersing yourself in the presence of the site's divinity is what counts most.
Any body of flowing water will do for a bath. "The watertap will do just as well", is what a follower of the 15th-century skeptical poet Kabir said to a reporter at the latest Kumbha Mela, where he nonetheless played along in the game of getting Liberation through immersion in the river. Vis-à-vis Liberation, one sample of river water may be worth the other, but in more mundane respects, the Ganga offers something extra beyond washing away your impurities. It is rich in minerals from the mountains and is thus felt to have healing powers. That would logically be less the case for the Shipra river in Ujjain or the Godavari river in Nasik, which don't spring from the Himalaya, but still more for them than for the watertap. Most likely, these healing properties are the original reason for the pilgrimage. A place where you could go to get well, was thereby divine. Its healing properties got personified into a deity, so that a pilgrimage was a journey to go and spend time with that particular god.
Why does the Kumbha Mela start on 14 January? This, I am sorry to say to my Hindu friends, is based on a cosmic mistake. Circa 300 CE (when India had freshly adopted Hellenistic astrology with its 12-part Zodiac, replacing or supplementing the native Zodiac of 27 lunar asterisms), the tropical Zodiac, a geometrical division of the circle into 12 sectors of 30° tied to the cycle of the seasons, coincided with the sidereal Zodiac, i.e. the belt of visible constellations. The entry point of the sun into the sidereal constellation of Capricorn (Sanskrit: Makara) coincided with the winter solstice point, i.e. 0° of the tropical Capricorn. But the two Zodiacs have since been drifting apart at the rate of 1° in ca. 71 years. So now they differ by ca. 24°, and the festival originally meant to mark the winter solstice or Yuletide has drifted to 14 January and, given time, is bound to drift on all around the Zodiac. Yet, numerous Hindus say in all seriousness that at Makar Sankranti, on 14 January, "the sun starts on its northward course", which in fact it has done on 21 December.
With the spread of modern science, there is simply no excuse to maintain this mistake underlying the entire Hindu calendar. Correcting it would have drastic consequences, e.g. moving the New Year's festival from 14 April (sidereal Aries) back to 21 March (spring equinox,= tropical Aries). Jupiter would reach Aquarius, Taurus etc., once these are conceived tropically rather than sidereally, nearly a year earlier than under the present system, so the year of the next Kumbha Melas would have to be changed. But the weight of tradition is such that this correction may not be made so soon.