Maha Kumbha Mela: Question & Answer
The Himalayan Institute’s spiritual head answers questions about pilgrimage, elevated consciousness, and the pollution of sacred rivers.
You have suggested that the maha kumbha mela in Allahabad in January 2001 is an opportunity to participate in transforming the consciousness of the planet while transforming our individual consciousness. But how does this event differ from any other cultural or religious gathering?
The maha kumbha mela is unlike any other cultural and social event in the world, and I hope it will continue to maintain this unique spirit. Originally it was a purely spiritual event. It originated with the intention of creating a collective consciousness to revitalize nature. This event was first held in Vedic times in the form of a special yajna, known as ashvamedha (the horse sacrifice), which entailed sacrificing one’s personal pleasure and interests for the welfare of all. This grand group meditation was performed by highly evolved sages and was independent of the religious beliefs or cultural values prevalent in the region at the time.
The maha kumbha mela originated with the intention of creating a collective consciousness to revitalize nature.
In the current version of the kumbha mela you find everything you can imagine: the full spectrum of Hindu religious activities, from the mundane to the sublime; elaborate exhibitions marketing the wares of major companies as well as the products and services of non-profit charitable organizations; and artists, craftsmen, entertainers, swamis, priests, astrologers, fortune-tellers, and beggars all seeking to catch the attention of the crowds.
But why does this ocean of people come here? For one simple reason: to bathe at the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna, and Sarasvati Rivers, with the intention of washing off their impurities and becoming better people.
Only they know to what extent they accomplish their goal, but in observing the faith and dedication that pulls millions of people to this spot we can conclude that this event is sustained by a power that transcends religious fanaticism and the demands of the marketplace. The crowd has no affiliation with any organization, although organizations try to affiliate themselves with the crowd. The multitude pouring into Allahabad from all corners of India and many other parts of the world are pilgrims. They participate in this event because the ancient sages have demonstrated that bathing and praying here generates a transformative energy.
This ocean of people comes here to bathe at the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna, and Sarasvati Rivers, with the intention of washing off their impurities and becoming better people.
In addition to the main crowd, however, there are thousands of aspirants and adepts who take advantage of the energy emitting from this particular place at this particular time to commit themselves to an intense practice. Both faithful pilgrims and dedicated practitioners participate in this event with one intention: contributing to the collective consciousness through personal purification. This intention is what makes the kumbha mela unique.
Out of millions only a few thousand come as tourists, reporters, photographers, and filmmakers. They focus on the sensational: nude sadhus, “drug-addicted holy men,” and priests and swamis displaying their status. And they are the ones who see the kumbha mela as a surface spectacle. What goes on inside the thousands of tents pitched away from the “glamorous” spots along the main roads remains unknown to casual tourists and the media. There, millions of people are en-gaged in acts of charity, fasting, meditating, reciting the scriptures, and a month-long study in the company of learned teachers.
To me, the kumbha mela is the unbelievably grand ashram of all the sages who ever lived—their presence permeates the whole region at this time. To those whose heart is closed to the selfless love and compassion of the immortal sages, this is merely a grand, showy pageant—but even they cannot totally escape the subtle influence of the transformative energy that is generated at the kumbha mela.
How can you create an elevated consciousness in a crowded, noisy place? Regardless of how spiritual the vibrations, the crowds and problems of sanitation alone—not to mention food and water—would seem to make meditation impossible. I also hear some sects of sadhus fight over the right to bathe in the river first, and these fights often become quite violent. What to make of this?
It is very difficult to create an elevated consciousness in a crowded, noisy place. But please remember, the crowded, noisy places are normally where purely sectarian leaders of Hinduism have their camps. They are the maha-mandaleshvaras (the great lords of the religious circle) and there is a strict hierarchy among them. Yet their status is constantly being challenged by others, and they defend their position by exhibiting their power, charisma, and wealth. This is what causes the fights among the various sects of sadhus.
To me, the kumbha mela is the unbelievably grand ashram of all the sages who ever lived—their presence permeates the whole region at this time.
What goes on in this “downtown” area of the pilgrimage site is similar to what goes on during the primaries in an election year in the United States, where the presidential candidates must prove their popularity. Certainly if you stay in this area you will be assaulted by the noise of competing loudspeakers, parades, and even violent brawls among the various factions. If you don’t join one of these camps and don’t insist on bathing in the Ganga with a maha-mandaleshvara whose position in the hierarchy is being challenged by some other group, you will be free from the worst of the noise and crowds.
All along the Ganga, away from “downtown,” there are beautiful and peaceful places where you can do your meditation and contemplate on the purpose and meaning of life without being disturbed. Yet the very presence of such crowds in the vicinity makes healthy food, clean water, and sanitation obvious problems. For this reason it is best to join a well-organized group, one that is there for spiritual, not religious, purposes and which has established a reliable system for providing meals, water, and sanitation services. Then you will be free to concentrate on your meditation and on becoming a part of the collective consciousness that coalesces here on this grand occasion.
Both the Yamuna and the Ganga are polluted. In fact, I’ve heard that this far downriver, the Ganga is not even safe to touch. How can you bathe in such a river and sip water from it?
It is a sad fact that these rivers, which Indians hold sacred, have become polluted. I hope more and more people ask this question—it might help Indians awake from their slumber and clean up these rivers.
By practicing meditation and by entering the realm of tranquility within, we bathe ourselves at the confluence of these great rivers.
I was taught by my master, Sri Swami Rama, and many other masters to bathe in the spirit of the Ganga and Yamuna. That can be done without actually taking a bath in the physical river. This special bath requires that we learn to balance the flow of prana in our left and right nostrils. At a deeper level, it means that we balance our ida and pingala (the lunar and solar energy channels) and open sushumna (the central energy channel that is equated with the Sarasvati River). By practicing meditation and by entering the realm of tranquility within, we bathe ourselves at the confluence of these great rivers.
Just as the soul has a body, these rivers have a body, which is the water flowing in them. And that body is ill. To me the real worship of the Ganga and Yamuna involves keeping them clean, healthy, and well-nourished. I pray that the citizens of this ancient land come to understand the value of serving and protecting nature as their ancestors did. There was a time, as the scriptures tell us, that even spitting in the river was considered a sin. How much more sinful is it to pour industrial waste, raw sewage, and other pollutants into it?