City of the Gods
Journey to Allahabad in January, 2001 when swamis, sadhus, and pilgrims gather for a timeless ritual celebrated at the confluence of three sacred rivers.
Every year the remote and little-known city of Allahabad, on the northern plains of India, hosts one of the largest spiritual gatherings on earth. Each January, millions of people make a pilgrimage there to bathe in the sangam—the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna rivers. The sangam has been a venerable location since the dawn of time, and this spiritual festival, known as the Kumbha Mela, has been an important destination for the faithful for thousands of years. But it is only recently, with India’s increased visibility throughout the world, that the mela has gained international recognition.
The tent city that springs up on the sandy floodplain at Allahabad each January looks more like a medieval fair, or a parody of Las Vegas.
For those of us who equate spiritual endeavors with solitude, restraint of the senses, and yoga practice, the mela (an “assembly” or “celebration” in Sanskrit) may come as quite a surprise. The tent city that springs up on the sandy floodplain at Allahabad each January looks more like a medieval fair, or a parody of Las Vegas. The large encampments of various orders of renunciates compete for attention with elaborate gates fashioned from papier-mâché straw, and bamboo, and adorned with flashing neon signs and spinning wheels of colored lights. Omnipresent loudspeakers blast public announcements, shouted chants to the gods, and preachers’ frenzied messages, all at rock-concert volumes, sending a roiling din two miles downstream. The dusty roads, with names like Shanti Marg and Triveni Marg, are crowded with pilgrims from every walk of life. Bundled in blankets, draped in saris, dhotis, lungis, and kurtas; turbaned, tonsured, or wrapped in woolen scarves, they weave their way through jeep-loads of dignitaries, wooden carts loaded with roasted peanuts and sweets, stacks of books and comics, mountains of squash, potatoes, and fruit, gunnysacks full of dal and rice, bangle merchants, snake charmers, and hucksters and hustlers of every stripe. This is a city of steel-plank roads, power lines strung on bamboo poles, hundreds of waist-high outhouses, carnival rides, Army officers on horseback, and naked sadhus on elephants. Congregations of the faithful sit on the ground at the feet of ochre-clad, bearded swamis, and children in full costume reenact stories of Krishna and Rama on makeshift stages.
Every year, a whole city springs up overnight only to vanish a month later, revealing an empty floodplain soon to be underwater with the coming monsoon. From thatched straw huts, campfires, and dusty tents to the elaborate multistory gates and hangar-sized meeting halls, everything is temporary. The mela city is the perfect metaphor for maya—the notion that our enchanting world is the ephemeral, illusionary play of a deeper and more subtle level of consciousness. “Impermanent and unreal.” This is how Vedanta, the crown jewel of Indian philosophy, describes our life on earth.
Swamis Swarm the Streets
The center of attraction at the mela is a ritual bath at the confluence of the rivers. The millions of mostly rural pilgrims who flock to the mela from every part of India do so with deep faith in the living divinity of the rivers themselves. On the most auspicious days for bathing, which are determined astrologically, the monastic orders of swamis take part in a jaloose—a parade from their camps on the floodplain to the ritual bathing grounds. The highest-ranking swamis (mahatmas) are carried on palanquins of tooled silver or red velvet thrones adorned with flowers and paintings of various deities. They are accompanied by the beating of drums, dancing, chanting, and merrymaking, and followed by danda (staff-wielding) swamis in all their finery, horses garlanded with pompoms, and elephants festooned with ropes of flowers, their leathery foreheads painted with mandalas. From their chariots the mahatmas toss garlands and sugar candies to the cheering crowd. Throngs of pilgrims swarm in the streets, hang from balconies, and line the rooftops. Dried fruits, blossoms of hibiscus and jasmine, and garlands of roses and marigolds rain down on the saints as they pass through the narrow streets.
What can we learn from a spiritual festival that has been celebrated for thousands of years?
One sadhu sits on a huge elephant, his bare body pale with ash, three white streaks across his forehead, and dreadlocks hanging down to the elephant’s knees. This scene has repeated itself for centuries in Allahabad, but there is one addition this year—this naga baba (a naked mendicant) is talking on a cell phone. Two questions come to mind: Where do you keep your cell phone when your only clothing is a coat of ash and your only fashion accessory 15-foot dreadlocks? And what can we learn from a spiritual festival that has been celebrated for thousands of years?
Blueprint for Cosmic Harmony
The yoga tradition has a story about the origin of the mela:
Once upon a time, a demon named Shankhasura captured the essence of wisdom and the blueprint for cosmic harmony known as the Veda, and buried it in the mud at the bottom of the ocean. Without the Veda and a connection to the celestial realm, humanity’s power of discrimination and knowledge of right conduct faded from the face of the earth. Gradually greed, selfishness, fear, sexual desire, and self-gratification became the motive for all human activities, and the two worlds—the celestial and the natural—moved further and further apart. Striving to appease Shankhasura’s insatiable desires, mankind plundered the natural world, laying waste to forests and oceans, robbing the soil of its vitality, and polluting the atmosphere and the waters of the earth. The population soared, while the general state of health plummeted. A few lived with the wealth that all desired, but most lived lives of poverty, misery, and resentment.
In every aspect of creation, there is a continuous ceremony of sacrifice. It is the same with everything--nothing in creation is meant for itself.
The devas, bright beings who are the presiding forces of nature, fled to Mount Kailash, the axis of the world, and hid there in the caves. Shankhasura imposed his own rule with earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfires, droughts, floods, and epidemics. Chaos stalked the earth. Finally, the immortal sages resolved to intervene. They approached Lord Vishnu, the supreme force of protection and nourishment, by meditating on him with love and faith, and asked him to come to their aid. Lord Vishnu responded by instructing them to recover the lost knowledge of the Veda and to meet him at Prayaga Raja, where the Ganga and Yamuna rivers now meet.
Then Lord Vishnu assumed the form of an enormous fish and vanquished the demonic Shankhasura. He summoned the devas from their hiding place, and took them to Prayaga Raja where they met the sages, who, in deep meditation, had fished the Veda out of the mud and brought it to Prayaga Raja. Addressing the assembly of sages and devas, Lord Vishnu said, “In every aspect of creation there is a continuous ceremony of sacrifice. It is the same with everything—nothing in creation is meant for itself. This ongoing sacrifice upholds the pillars of the universe, maintains the matrix of the cosmos, and nourishes the entire web of life. Those who sacrifice their personal desires and harness their mind and senses for the sake of the common good live in harmony with each other and the world. This is the secret, and the Veda tells us how to walk this path.”
So, at Lord Vishnu’s command, all aspects of nature, the devas, and the sages took part in a great ritual sacrifice called ashvamedha yajna (literally, “the horse sacrifice”), in which a horse becomes a divinized vehicle that carries the offering of the mind and senses into the subtle realm, creating a collective consciousness powerful enough to reverse Shankhasura’s evil rule. The ceremony, which lasted for 12 years, established an environment that engendered selflessness, peace, and cooperation, as well as protection of and appreciation for the natural world. By the time it was completed, transformation was apparent everywhere: fear, hunger, sex, and greed were no longer the motivating forces behind human activity; human beings remembered how to live in harmony with the natural world; the ecosystem came back into balance; and vitality, peace, and prosperity returned to all.
Millions of faithful seekers converge at the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna rivers believing that at this time and in this place, the living stream of wisdom flows unbroken form the celestial realm, pouring grace into any cup turned toward its flow.
In gratitude, the sages and the devas prostrated themselves at the feet of Lord Vishnu and asked him to bless Prayaga Raja so that the energy there would guide humanity through all eternity. Lord Vishnu responded by saying, “Be it so. The concentration of spiritual energy here will purify the way of the soul. By the simple act of coming here, even minds and hearts tainted by dreadful crimes over the course of many lifetimes will be purified. One day’s practice, done here properly, will bear the fruit of a decade of continuous practice anywhere else…. And just as darkness vanishes with the sunrise, obstacles to spiritual practices have no power to withstand the brilliance of this conjunction of time and place. Practices undertaken here at this time open the door to all possibilities.” He promised that in every month of Magh (January in our calendar) all the benevolent forces of creation would again gather at Prayaga Raja, the spiritual energy would be even more concentrated, and all who came here would be blessed. From that time on, Prayaga Raja, the area near the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna rivers (now occupied by the city of Allahabad), has been recognized as a spiritual center.
Although no one knows how many centuries have passed since the original sacrifice, the promise that divine energy will flow into the world is remembered with a yearly festival (the Magh Mela) and an even bigger festival every 12 years (the Kumbha Mela). Millions of faithful seekers converge at the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna rivers believing that at this time and in this place, the living stream of wisdom flows unbroken from the celestial realm, pouring grace into any cup turned toward its flow. That subtle stream of grace and wisdom, known as the Sarasvati, joins the Ganga and Yamuna at Prayaga Raja, which for that reason is also called Triveni—a braid of three strands. Each January, Prayaga Raja again becomes Triveni, flowing with the sweet water of wisdom.
The Power of Intention
The problems described in the Shankhasura story are manifest not just in the industrialized world, with its social ills and wholesale devastation of the environment. Millions of people in the developing world live in economic desperation, which means there is no money for proper disposal of the dead, no means for feeding families or livestock, no alternative to hacking off the limbs of the few remaining trees for a fire to cook their food or stave off the cold. And when the basic necessities of life are in short supply, there is little time or energy to cultivate a spiritual life. Yet societies blessed with material prosperity tend to drown in it and have no time for inner growth.
In both cases, the understanding that life is a great cycle of ceremony and sacrifice, that we are part of everyone and everything, and that we do not live for our own sake alone is forgotten. Our higher aspirations sink to the bottom of day-to-day existence; the governing forces in the subtle realm are ignored; and our physical, mental, and spiritual capacities decline. We lose connection with our inner life, the voice of our conscience, our deeper purpose, and our creativity. This is how that demon Shankhasura incarnates yet again, stealing the Veda and drowning wisdom and the higher values of life. The result is escalating insecurity and material and spiritual poverty. Society loses it bearings, and we fall from grace.
It’s then that we need to remember the promise made here at Prayaga Raja. It’s then that we must take a sip of the Sarasvati, the river of grace and wisdom, which flows from the subtle realm to remind us who we really are.
Far out on the river, here in the earthly realm, a flock of white birds skims the water in tight formation. Suddenly, as if with one mind, they rise up and wheel in perfect unison, no longer individual birds, but a length of cloth, unfurling, recalling a line from the poem “The Leaf and the Cloud” by poet Mary Oliver:
and the white horse
like a bolt of white cloth
under the cloth-cutter’s deft hands
The shift to a spiritual perspective is not an easy one to make. The Shankhasura story is a warning, but also a tale of redemption and transformation—a realignment of intention and purpose in society. Remembering the promise given at Prayaga Raja, spiritual seekers from every walk of life gather to receive guidance and grace. For many, these blessings flow from a ritual bath at the confluence of the three sacred rivers. For others, the guidance comes from the mouths of teachers and gurus. For some, it comes from the depths of their own hearts and the spiritual practices they undertake with earnest discipline.
The shift to a spiritual perspective is not an easy one to make.
The original sacrifice at Prayaga Raja reestablished the link between the spiritual and the physical worlds. This is the work of yoga, and it is the work we must do in the world. The ultimate sacrifice is the transformation of our greed, ignorance, and selfishness into a single warp of cloth unfolding from the cloth-cutter’s hands; a single flock of birds banking through middle space over the smooth roll of the Ganga and Yamuna, intermingled in the stream of grace called Sarasvati.It’s not the size of the crowd that comes to Prayaga Raja every year or how loudly religious institutions praise it that makes it the lord of all holy shrines. It is the deep understanding of the power of intention created by the adepts and aspirants of the past, and intensified by those in the present. The promise of Triveni is this: the same capacity for vision and connection is available to all of us who make a pilgrimage to this holy place. Each January the benevolent divine forces of the universe converge at Prayaga Raja. The great masters, the sages, the gods, and the divine Ganga have sent a silent summons, and every year, millions of seekers hear the call.
Down on the bank of the Ganga, a wind glances off the sandbar, an old way of thinking gives way, a flock of birds lifts out of the mud, and a flame of indestructible joy and deep compassion flares up out of the darkness. At Prayaga Raja, the creative, intelligent, and harmonious aspects of nature and the celestial realm are waiting for our recognition and acknowledgment, waiting for an invitation to partake in the ongoing ritual of our lives.