KUMBH MELA — a pilgrimage festival in which millions of Hindus gather to bathe in one of four sacred rivers that, according to Hindu mythology, were formed when rivaling demons and demigods splashed holy amrita (“nectar”) unto the land during a scuffle over a jug holding the nectar. At any given place, the Kumbh Mela is held once in 12 years.
In May, I visited the Kumbh Mela in the city of Ujjain, joining the multitudes of Hindu worshippers who had sojourned from all over India to purify themselves in the hallowed Shipra River. According to Avinash Lavania, an Ujjain municipal official, 70 million visitors are estimated to have attended to the month-long festival that occupies roughly 80-90 sq. km in and around Ujjain. Seventy-thousand uniformed police — most armed with no more than a whistle and a commanding mustache — maintained law and order, although the only aberration this year was the loss of lives due to a stampede following a building collapse from heavy rains.
Excluding my two travel partners, Frites (UK) and Amelie (Germany), I did not encounter any Westerners the entire three days I spent at the festival. Exotic things we were, the three of us contended with an overwhelming amount of attention, especially in the form of “selfie” requests. At one point, shortly after arriving on festival grounds, I turned my head and saw that that a crowd of some 50 Indians (mostly teenage boys) struggled to keep up with us through the crowds. They kept pace, stopping to examine us whenever we stopped to examine something that had in turn piqued our interest.
Ornate palace-like tents with steeple facades and lights on strings — reminding me of the entrance to a Disneyland ride — loomed like goliathan Christmas trees. Large, cavernous rectangular tents, illuminated by vibrant shades of green and pink, emanated devotional music from blaring from amplifiers. Clumps of smaller tents filled any space available between the larger tents and contained souvenir stalls or sleeping Sadhus (Hindu monks) curled up in their patent orange robes, looking like tigers sprawled out after a feast. Stands selling chai tea and snacks punctuated the areas around the tents. People were everywhere — sleeping, eating, brushing teeth, urinating — virtually the full gamut of domestic activity hung out to dry anywhere that a little bit of push or bootstrapping could make it fit. Although it was already past midnight, families, many of them with little children were, still on the move. The temperature at night was in the high 90s and many parents vouchsafed a midnight swim to their children and themselves.
Some Sadhus sat or stood in attention in front of their tents, ready for Darshan — an interaction between a lay person and a monk in which spiritual instruction or mere presencing is exchanged for a small donation. Many of the Sadhus invited us inside their tents, using sticks to shoe away our following of gawkers. “Cello!” “Cello!” (“Move along!” “Move along!”), they commanded, raising their sticks menacingly — going so far a to strike at anyone who dared linger a moment too long.
Inside the tents, we were served with sugary drinks and offered puffs from marijuana cigarettes or chillum (a pipe used for smoking marijuana). “I heard the river is drying?” I asked a young Sadhu whose bearded face was pictured on a poster outside the big orange tent we were in at the time. “No river no cry,” he quipped without missing a beat nor breaking his gaze from the smart phone in his hand. Another Sadhu lumped coins into a jar that a worshipper had just left by his feet. It’s easy to see without looking to far that not much is really sacred, I thought to myself, wondering who, if anyone, actually bought into the spectacle. It all felt so denuded of meaning, a henhouse with a rooster crucifix.
Frites and Amelie seemed unperturbed by the spiritual improprieties. Frites in particular was having a field day crowing religious salutations in Hindi to passing strangers. “Om nama Shiva!” “Ram Ram!” “Bam Bam Boli!” He yelled like a boy scout calling out the names of his latest merit badges to his grandparents. While Frites was mostly met with enthusiastic and energetic responses on par with his own, since Hindus are required to respond in kind to such salutations, which are expressive of the divine, the occasional worn-out devotees would issue back a feeble echoing of Frite's greeting, sounding like child saying a “thank you” against her wishes after being admonished to do so by her parents. Frites was absolutely thrilled by these occurrences.
It wasn’t until the dawn of the third day as I surveyed thousands of worshippers — fighting for a spot into the Shipra as if at any moment it would all disappear — that I was struck by the spiritual gravitas of Kumbh Mela for Hindus. Awash with the immensity of the symbolism of ablution as form of ritual purification, I followed suit in clamoring my way down the steps of the ghat through the seemingly impenetrable wall of wet skins.
At the water’s edge, women vied for space to perform fire pujas or release oblations into the water. Their saris clung to their wet bodies creating shapes reminiscent of the soft curvature of the winding Shipra. A scoff broke out between two women as one knocked over another’s jar for collecting river water, spilling amrita over the back of an old man whom a younger man was stabilizing so that he could kneel in the shallows. Around him, a few people prayed intently with clasped hands but most just lounged around taking in the atmosphere. Deeper in the river, spurred on by Frites, teenagers splashed one another. Every now and then a uniformed man floating past on a dingy would blow his whistle at them. As soon as he left Frites rallied the youths with cries of “Om nama Shiva!”.
After visiting the Kumbh Mela of 1895, Mark Twain wrote:
It is wonderful, the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining. It is done in love, or it is done in fear; I do not know which it is. No matter what the impulse is, the act born of it is beyond imagination, marvelous to our kind of people, the cold whites. (Mark Twain, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World via Wikipedia)
Treading the shallows of the mythical Shipra, I too was deeply captivated by the invisible forces that moved the Kumbh Mela worshippers to participate in extraordinary religious theatrics. As Mark Twain did over a century earlier, I mused about what aspects of human nature were manifest in the raucous spiritual display before me and why contemporary expressions of Judeo-Christian religiosity feel so restrained — so “cold” (in so many words) — compared with the virtuosic displays of devotion enmeshed in Hindu pilgrimage festivals.
It’s easy for me to respond to Twain by saying that there is no difference in “kind" between peoples of the West and the East. We all strive for the same things in life: security, belonging, and connection with something greater than our individual self (call it “transcendence”); we will readily subscribe to the practices we believe are instrumental in attaining such pursuits. In this respect, religious practices are, in essence, cross-cultural; differences between practices of the "cold whites" and Hinduism are only superficially manifest like the aesthetic difference between tools that provide the same utility. All cultural institutions are fundamentally similar in creating a current that an individual can tread to flow comfortably with her culture.
However, this response to Twain, who, lest we forget, is speaking in the parlance of his times, belies the true object of Twain's captivation: the "invisible force" powerful enough to cause a human to conform to the rules and customs of culture, mandating to the subscriber of faith that they voluntary enters a state of privation for no apparent material benefit. “Is done in love, or it is done in fear[?]” Twain inquires.
Moreover, Twain must have been aware that ascetic practices were historically important within the development of Christianity. (In example, the doctrine of mortification of the flesh has inspired ascetic disciplines ranging from abstinence to self-flagellation. Not to mention, the whole enterprise of the Crusades, which was ostensibly to secure safe passageway for Christian pilgrims to reach Jerusalem.) Thus, I can only assume that Twain, if pressed, would have admitted that his fascination with the Kumbh Mela worshippers wasn’t simply predetermined by his disposition as a “cold white;” his fascination might have been mirrored if he were to travel back in time to witness the physical hardships undertaken en mass by European Christian pilgrims (or perhaps even forward in time to witness historical Christian pilgrimages as they currently exist, such as Camino de Santiago).
Twain’s fixation with the novelty of Hindu spirituality is explainable by the fact that, at the time of his visit to India, mass pilgrimages and extreme ascetic practices had become outmoded in the West — thus temporally foreign, if not culturally. However, the question concerning whether this shift in Western religious practice indicates a deeper change in the underlying invisible force that empowers individuals to undergo such spiritual endeavors in the first place, is an open for debate. Could it be that Twain was right in intimating that Christianity (or more generally, religious practice in the West, and even more generally, Western culture) has become dispirited and unimpassioned? Or maybe the invisible forces still motivate the multitudes in the West to endure hardships for the sake of security, belonging, and transcendence, just in more subtle or silent ways than on display at Kumbh Mela? Of course, these questions are highly subjective and followers of any religion are diverse. Nevertheless, general trends may still obtain; perhaps at the very least, Twain’s commentary on Kumbh Mela could inspire one to contemplate her own motivations to participate in religious rite, and examine if — taking into account the theory that the function of any religion is to provide devotees with security, belonging, and transcendence — the motivations that make an individual willing to endure hardship for the sake of religious rite manifest differently across cultures.
Regrettably, such questions over comparative spiritual practices may soon become moot as that other invisible force — the zeitgeist we label “globalization” — competes with whatever those marvelous impulses are that can empower humans to undergo hardship and duress for invisible spiritual gains. Modern technology has made things easier for us and, whether it is out of love for the lifestyle technology affords us or fear of life without technology, there is no question that a religion of “ease” and material gains has captured the devotion of the multitudes. But there are also privations that must be borne for adherence this religion. This year, because of diminished water levels, the Ujjain municipality was forced to pump in water from the Narmada River at a cost of 720,000 rupees ($10,688) per day. India is facing its worst drought in years; like many rivers in the region, the once guaranteed-perennial river is being threatened by warming weather trends and diminished rainfall. Greenhouse gases— the invisible energies that power modern technology — are likely to blame. The Shipra is indeed in danger of disappearing and the ancient tradition of Kumbh Mela along with it. Then again, “no river no cry,” right?
Revisions to this post were made to the section re Twain on Sept. 19, 2016.