Myths Made True: The Hindu Festival of Maha Kumbh Mela
"Truth Alone Triumphs" - ancient Indian mantra
I was raised in the Catholic Church (well, not literally in the church... try and keep up), so I'm fully acquainted with the notion of ritual, but I'm not familiar with any religious exercise that can compare with the size and scope of the Hindu pilgrimage known as Maha Kumbh Mela, which began this morning in Allahabad, India. Every twelve years, tens of millions of practicing Hindus gather at a designated location (depending on Jupiter's astrological alignment with the sun) on the Ganges for a lengthy celebration of their faith. In 2001, an estimated 70 million people attended the event, and that number is expected to exceed 100 million for the first time this year, easily making it the largest gathering of people in the world for any occasion.
The festival of Kumbh Mela dates back thousands of years and is considered one of the oldest religious rituals in the world. It's a time of great reflection, meditation, and absolution for followers of the Hindu religion. From every corner of the globe, millions flock to a small town in India to discuss their faith, celebrate the winter harvest, wash away their sins, and reinvigorate their spirit.
The Samudra Manthan
The Puranas, the religious texts on which the Hindu religion is based, tells the story of the Samudra Manthan, the principle allegory of the Kumbh Mela. The tale goes that, after disrespecting the offering of a sage, Indra, the Hindu God of War, was cursed, and the Hindu gods' powers were usurped by demons. The Great God Vishnu advocated diplomacy over war, so the gods attempted to establish a peace with the demons.
They sought to accomplish this accord by teaming with them to churn the ocean so that they might obtain Amitra, the nectar of immortality. Once the mountain had been set in place, Vishnu, the gods, and the demons began churning the ocean by coiling the body of a gigantic snake around the mountain and using it as a rope. The demons insisted on pulling from the head, and the gods acquiesced, agreeing to pull from the opposite end, the tail. As the two sides began pulling on the snake, he became irritated and blew poison in the faces of the demons.
Despite their efforts, the two sides were unable to successfully churn the ocean. Seeing this, Vishnu began churning himself, which produced a plethora of symbolic figures. After a series of animals and gods were extracted from the sea, the god of ayurvedic medicine, Dhanvantri appeared holding the nectar of eternal life in a massive vase, which was immediately stolen by the demons.
This started a physical battle between the gods and demons that lasted for 12 days and nights. During the fight, Vishnu (disguised as Mohini, a beautiful woman who enchanted the demons) managed to fly away with the vase of Amitra. In the escape, four drops of the nectar were spilled to the earth, landing on modern cities of Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain, and Nashik, which are now viewed as sacred locales.
Today, the Kumbh Mela is celebrated at each of these towns, depending on the astrological alignment of the sun and Jupiter.
Most religions have a holiday celebrating the Winter Solstice, and Hinduism is no exception. The seminal act of Maha Kumbh Mela festival is the Makar Sankranti. According to the Hindu calendar, January 14th marks the date that the Sun-God begins his ascent into the Northern Hemisphere, and is thus celebrated as the date at which Hindus reaffirm their path toward a brighter life and a brighter future. As a symbolic and literal gesture of their faith, this is the date at which Hindus began celebrating Maha Kumbh Mela by bathing in the banks of the river in order to wash away the sins of their previous lives, as well as the sins of this life. The celebration is also marked by intense devotional prayer, and acts of charity toward the poor. It's seen as a period of rebirth and viewed as one of the most auspicious events in the Hindu religion.
Mauni Amavasya Snan
Bathing is a vital element of the purification process, as rivers are seen as being deities unto themselves in Vedic culture. Since they give life to all things, they are viewed as a sort of mother figure who can wash away the sins of mortals.
Although followers will bathe in the Ganges several times during the lengthy holiday, February 10th is reserved as the principle spiritual bathing day for Hindus this year. Hindus believe that this date (Mauni Amavasya Snan) marks the day of the creation of the universe. To purify their souls, Hindus take a vow of silence in addition to cleansing their souls by bathing in the Ganges. First, a follower must meditate and pray to Vishnu, consecrating a commitment to rid themselves of mortal sins like lust and greed. Once they've absolved themselves of sin and dedicated their lives to a more harmonious nature, they bathe in order to acquire good karma, a central tenet of the Hindu religion.
A Tradition Unlike Any Other
Although the event will generate billions in revenue from tourism, Maha Kumbh Mela seems largely unaffected by any commercial aspect. Mirroring the purification of their souls, Hindus have somehow managed to keep this massive festival pure and relatively free of financial exploitation.
In America, when we think of Christmas, we imagine a chubby old dude in a red sweater; when we think of Easter, we envision a giant sugar-buzzed rabbit. We celebrate the genocide of our indigenous people (Thanksgiving) and the right to not pay taxes (Independence Day). Our traditions are predicated on commercial greed, ethnocentricity, and the forfeiture of the freedoms that our forefathers died to establish. I don't know if the purity of Maha Kumbh Mela compared with the manipulation of various Western holidays points more toward a major victory in the East or a major failure in the West (or both)?
I'm not suggesting that everyone immediately ditch all their beliefs and hop on a plane to India, but I do think that Kumbh Mela is a pretty cool event. It's admirable and refreshing to read about a religious tradition that promotes peace and personal growth without attempting to advance a larger agenda. I'm not sure if anyone's body will get any cleaner after wading in the depths of the Ganges after millions of like-minded individuals have done the same, but I do think that faith has the power to convert mythology into truth, and I hope that everyone making the pilgrimage to Allahabad is able to reaffirm their beliefs in some way over the next month or so.
Daniel, Frank Jack. "Millions of Hindus Take to the Ganges at Largest Festival." Yahoo News. Reuters. 14 Jan. 2013. Web. 14 Jan. 2013.
Kumar, Nitin. "Churning the Ocean - Samudra Manthan As a Roadmap for Sadhana." Exotic India. 15 Nov. 2008. Web. 14 Jan. 2013.