It would be no exaggeration to say that India is the spiritual capital of the world since ancient times. During the pre-historic ages, when the rest of the world was living in the jungles as hunter gatherers, we were building large civilizations. Our scientists enunciated the science of the body (Ayurveda) and the mind (Yoga) thousands of years ago. India was home to universities that attracted students from all over the world – students in pursuit of both material and spiritual knowledge.
Is it then surprising that India is home to the biggest religious gathering on the planet? What is this mega event that attracts close to a hundred and fifty (150) million people, an event unimaginable in scale and magnitude for people who have not actually witnessed it? You guessed it – The Kumbh Mela.
The Kumbh Mela – a festival of Aastha, Bhakti and Shraddha (Hope, Devotion and Faith), is an event that occurs every 12 years & is one of the biggest pilgrimages in the Hindu tradition.
Held at the confluence of the holy rivers of Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati (which is underground) in the ancient holy city of Prayagraj; it attracts a sea of humanity on a quest to attain the ultimate – liberation from the cycle of birth and death or “Moksha” as the scriptures have said.
The holy river Ganga signifies Purity, Yamuna signifies Devotion (Bhakti) and Saraswati represents Knowledge (Gyan). It is said that after the churning of the ocean (“Sagar Manthan”), the Elixir of Life (“Amrit”) that came out fell in four places on the planet – Prayagraj, Ujjain, Haridwar and Nasik and a dip in the holy waters of the Ganga cleanses one of all sins to attain Moksha.
The Art of Living, founded by Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar ji, has been an integral part of the largest spiritual gathering in recent history. We have set up camps at the Kumbh Mela many times and I consider myself especially blessed to have been the lead organizer in charge of our Kumbh efforts.
My seva at the Kumbh Mela has given me many insights into myself. I remember the time when I did not sleep for days as I worked with a small team of Art of Living teachers and volunteers supervising the construction of our camp. Devoting myself a hundred percent into my work, I realized how at the end, something that seemed impossibly large at the beginning, had come together as if by magic.
Our work had started late but our camp was ready by the time of the first Shahi Snan on the 14th – the day of Makar Sankranti.
This time, the Kumbh Mela had been very well organized by the government. Thousands of workers had been pressed into service for hygiene and cleanliness. There were garbage collectors and sweepers working round the clock to keep things tidy for the visiting devotees. Bio toilets had been constructed to maintain cleanliness on site. Sufficient temporary toilet facilities had been constructed. The theme of the “Divya Kumbh, Bhavya Kumbh” had become a reality.
The Kumbh Mela is known for the grandeur of the visiting Akharas and the four Shahi Snans. The first Shahi Snan is special. During the Shahi Snans, the different Sadhu Akharas go in a procession to designated spots on the river bank to take a dip in the Holy Water. The heads of the Akharas, known as Mahamandaleshwars, ride in a special chariot covered in spectacular decorations. The heads of the four Mutts established by Adi Shankaracharya, the Jyotir Mutt in the North, Shringeri in the South, Sharada in the West and Govardhan Mutt in the East occupy a special place in the Kumbh. This time, there was even an Akhara of Kinara Sadhus (transsexual saints). Talk about Gender Rights!! This time, around 10,000 (ten thousand) young men were initiated into the tradition of the Naga Sadhus. Fun fact- it is only during the Kumbh, that Naga Sadhus in such numbers are seen together at once. They all disappear into unknown places after the Kumbh Mela.
In ancient times, the Kumbh Mela used to also act as a gathering of religious leaders to exchange ideas. There used to be huge assemblies presided over by Saints where the intricacies of spiritual knowledge were discussed.
But ultimately what makes any gathering holy is the devotion of the ordinary people who come!
During the Kumbh Mela millions of devotees, some with little more than the clothes on their backs thronged Prayagraj. Every time I saw the sea of people who came to take a dip in the Sangam of the Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati with their whole family, I was amazed because they didn’t care for their comfort, eating and sleeping anywhere, and walking miles upon miles with their luggage in one hand and kids in the other!
Here we see the Aastha (Faith) of people which creates a great energy. Only in the Kumbh Mela can one experience this grand celebration of Humanity’s Faith. A huge temporary city of tents was constructed to accommodate the visitors. There were numerous stalls selling food and other local products. The care and compassion of the Saints was seen throughout the Kumbh Mela with large kitchens, medical facilities, music and sermons for all. Many historical plays were acted out in simple language explaining the spiritual knowledge to the common man very effectively. Cultural programs such as Bharatnatyam and Kathakali were organised. Each cultural program revolves around its own story and gives a lesson in spiritual knowledge.
This time it is estimated that more than four million people took a dip in the Holy Ganga for the first Shahi Snan. As I took a dip in the Holy Water and rose up with my hands folded in prayer, I could not help but overhear the person behind me. It was a middle-aged lady, from some village.
“Dear Ganga Ma, please shepherd my husband and son to Liberation”
This simple prayer, devoid of any mantras, but full of innocent devotion, touched me as I turned around to look at her. With eyes closed, she seemed so much at peace with the creation and the innocence with which those words had been uttered left me in no doubt that she had complete faith in Ganga Ma to take care of her desire. She had not asked anything for herself!
It is this innocent devotion, with which the millions of people come to Kumbh, putting aside the small discomforts that pollution, dust and noise bring, that makes it such a Divine event. And when so much devotion comes together, Nature has no choice but to listen!
It is this devotion that made the Kumbh Mela go as smoothly as it did. You could imagine all sorts of law and order problems at such a large gathering but it went off with hardly any reports of thefts or crime. A few people did get sick at some points but on the whole, Nature ensured that everyone and their belongings were taken care of!
At the Art of Living camp, classes and masses made a beeline. We also had a number of Swamijis and Rishis, who graced us with their presence. The highlight of the program for us was the visit by Gurudev Sri Sri from Feb 1 to 3.
Gurudev has said that it is Faith that uplifts the mind from the mundane to the ethereal. Faith gives strength to those in distress and depth to those in joy. The Kumbh is a grand celebration of Humanity’s Faith. There are no castes, regional or religious differences here. It is a spontaneous emergence of humanity’s Oneness.
Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar ji, being a world-renowned spiritual leader, was naturally the cynosure of peoples’ attention during his stay. He says that the Kumbh has a special significance in the life of seekers – the renunciate becomes empty of desires and the householder becomes content (‘Trupt’).
We had thought that we would have Gurudev to ourselves for most of his stay but Nature had other plans. Gurudev was constantly visiting other saints and Akharas. He had been invited by different Akhara heads for private meetings and meals where only a select few were present although he did attend a communal lunch with Sadhus on one occasion. The Art of Living made donation of food materials worth many crores to various Akharas. I was reminded of the saying that when you offer something to God, more than ten times comes back to you!!
The Satsang and Knowledge session with Gurudev at the Juna Akhara camp enthralled people and took them to new level of devotional ecstasy.
This was my fourth Kumbh Mela and I saw one common thread. The innocent devotion of the masses has a magnetic effect and kept Gurudev’s attention. He sat in one place for many long hours blessing all the people who came.
There was a special Yoga program where thousands participated. Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar ji along with Ramdev Baba and Swami Chiddanand ji led the group into deep meditative Asanas. The event was telecast live enabling millions more to participate. I was sitting at the back of the stage, watching the new age Yoga Gurus reminding the people of the modern era about our ancient practices and techniques.
As tourism grows in India, both domestic and foreign, more and more people are becoming aware of the wonders that this land has to offer. When people think of India, many a times, the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort and other such destinations come to mind. But the heart of India is spiritual. Since ancient times, India has been the spiritual center of the world.
Have you really seen India until you have seen the spiritual loci- the Kumbh Mela?