Long, long ago, a demon named Shankhasura sent forth legions of mud-dwelling creatures from the bottom of the sea to capture the Vedas and thus destroy their content. And as the dark waters swallowed the knowledge of the mantras, the higher values of life also sank into the depths.
People forgot the difference between good and bad and could no longer distinguish between right and wrong. As their power of discrimination faded, acts of charity and other forms of selfless service vanished. Fear, hunger, sleep, and sex became the motivating forces for all human activities. Trust disappeared and with it any semblance of loving relationships between men and women. The population soared while the general state of health plummeted.
Striving to appease their insatiable desires, humans plundered the natural world—laying waste to forests and valleys, polluting rivers and lakes, and robbing the soil of its vitality. Life was miserable for everyone but the demon Shankhasura (whose name literally means “one who dwells in a conch”) and his bottom-dwelling minions. Seeing how severely nature had been weakened, Shankhasura then decided to finish it off by attacking and conquering the forces of nurturance—the soil, vegetation, water, fire, air, and clouds.
Striving to appease their insatiable desires, humans plundered the natural world--laying waste to forests and valleys, polluting rivers and lakes, and robbing the soil of its vitality.
The Devas, the bright beings who are the presiding forces of nature, fled to Mount Kailas and hid themselves in the surrounding caves. And with the Devas gone, the conch demon demolished natural law and imposed his own rule, ushering in his reign with earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes, typhoons, wildfires, droughts, floods, and all manner of epidemics.
Chaos stalked the Earth, and the Devas were in hiding, so the immortal sages resolved to intervene. Approaching Lord Vishnu, the supreme force of protection and nourishment, they meditated on him with love and faith, asking him to come to their aid. In response Lord Vishnu told them, “With a one-pointed and disciplined mind, join forces to gather the knowledge of the Vedas once again, and while you fulfill this task I will bring the benevolent forces of nature from their hiding place and dwell with them at Prayaga Raja. Come and join us there.”
In every aspect of creation, there is a continuous ceremony of sacrifice.
When the sages had departed, Lord Vishnu assumed the form of an enormous fish, and vanquished the conch demon, Shankhasura. He then summoned the Devas from their hiding place and brought them to Prayaga Raja, where they were joined by Brahma, the creator, and Shiva, the annihilator. Meanwhile the sages had again gone into deep meditation, discovered where the Vedas were hidden, fished them out of the mud, and joined the assembly at Prayaga Raja. There they asked Lord Vishnu’s permission to bring the knowledge of the Vedas into practice for the benefit of all creation. In granting their request, Vishnu said to them, “The secret of success lies in sacrifice, and the Vedas tell us how to walk this path. In every aspect of creation there is a continuous ceremony of sacrifice. Leaves decompose and nourish other organisms. It is the same with everything—nothing in creation is meant for itself. The greatest among all sacrifices is the ashvameda [literally, “the horse sacrifice”]. Those who perform this ritual sacrifice their personal desires for the sake of the larger welfare. They train and tame their “horses”—the mind and senses—and finally they share this harnessed energy with all living beings. This form of sacrifice nourishes humankind and every other form of life. Let us now perform this ashvameda.” So at Vishnu’s command all aspects of nature, the Devas, their presiding forces, and the sages (the seers of the Vedas), along with Brahma and Shiva, took part in this great sacrifice.
The ritual lasted twelve years, and by the time it was completed an astounding transformation was apparent everywhere. People had regained their interest in learning. They began to embrace the higher values in life and to take pleasure in performing acts of charity and selfless service. Their power of discrimination blossomed and the confusion between right and wrong vanished. Fear, hunger, sex, and sleep were no longer the motivating forces behind human activity. Relationships between men and women were now built on trust, and people once again understood the purpose of life.
They remembered how to live in harmony with the natural world, and as they did, the ecosystem came back into balance. Even the bottom dwellers were transformed: instead of trying to capture the Vedas, they worked in concert with the Devas and other forces of nurturance. And with the natural world once again bursting with vitality, peace and prosperity reigned. Seeing this, the sages and Devas prostrated in gratitude at the feet of Lord Vishnu: “It is through your grace, O Lord, that we have been empowered and that all living beings have found their rightful place in this creation. The energy emanating from Prayaga Raja has brought harmony out of chaos. For this reason we ask you to bless this place so that it may always be the most auspicious and powerful on the Earth. May the energy emitting from Prayaga Raja guide humanity through all eternity. May all human endeavor undertaken here be auspicious. May acts of charity and self-sacrifice performed here bear fruit without limit.”
Lord Vishnu readily granted their wish. “Be it so,” he said. “From now on this place will also be known as Brahma Kshetra [“the field of pure consciousness”] andTirtha Raja [“the lord of all holy places”]. The concen-tration of spiritual energy here will purify the way of the soul. By the simple act of coming here, even minds and hearts that are 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. Every twelve years, during the month of Magha [which begins in January in the Gregorian calendar] when the Sun is in the house of Capricorn, all the benevolent forces of creation, the energies of all holy places, the sages, and the Devas will convene here. 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.”
According to the Padma Purana these events took place when the Himalayas were still in their infancy and the area around the town of Badrinath, now well above the timberline, was covered by a lush forest. From that time on Prayaga Raja, which covers a large area near the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna Rivers, has been regarded as a spiritual center. (Today the city of Allahabad occupies that site.) Great sages, such as Markandeya, Chyavana, Pulastya, and Bharadvaja, have guided their students through prolonged, intense practices here, further intensifying the spiritual energy. Noble kings, such as Pururava and Bharata, whose dedication to spiritual practices, acts of charity, and selfless service earned them the status of Raja Rishi (“Royal Seers”), instituted a series of group practices here that went on, uninterrupted, for decades.
Inspired by the practices undertaken by these torchbearers of the human race, pilgrims have been gathering in January on this spot for untold ages. Most of them come for just a day or two, take a dip in the Ganga, visit a few specific spots of spiritual importance, and return home. The more serious ones stay for the entire month. In addition to bathing in the Ganga they observe silence, study scriptures, or attend the discourses of saints and scholars. For a few rare seekers, coming to this place is an integral part of their lifelong practice. Here they either begin a special practice or complete it. Every January sees an influx of pilgrims. This influx swells to a flood every twelve years, when the spiritual energy emanating from Prayaga Raja becomes further concentrated. This is the time of the kumbha mela, when thousands of saints and sages and millions of faithful seekers and pilgrims converge on the bank of the Ganga to bask in this energy field. There is another story, told in several of the Puranas, that tells how the kumbha mela originated.
Once during a time of material prosperity the higher virtues fell into decline, and as a result the elixir of life almost vanished from this earthly realm. All living beings and all aspects of nature became weak and pale. The Devas pleaded with the Creator to recharge creation with fresh vitality, but were told that the elixir of life now lay buried in the depths of the ocean. The Devas reported this to all living beings, and so it was that gods, demons, and humans of all races and faiths joined forces to find and recover the elixir. They set out to churn the entire ocean (which would cause the elixir to rise to the surface), and churn they did, laboring night and day. But to their dismay the first fruit of their labor was not the elixir they were seeking but a vial of poison so deadly that if it were released from its container it would scorch all creation. The search could not go on until this menace was removed, yet no one had the capacity or the wisdom to dispose of it except Shiva—who came forward and drank it at great risk to himself.
The churning resumed. But when the vessel containing the elixir finally appeared, everyone rushed for it, and to prevent it from falling into the hands of those who would keep it for themselves Dhanwantari, the primordial physician, snatched the vessel and fled. In maneuvering to escape, however, he dropped three drops of the elixir: one fell on the town of Ujjain, one on Nasik, and a third on Haridwar. At Prayaga Raja the crowd caught and overwhelmed Dhanwantari, and in the melee all of the elixir spilled out and disappeared as soon as it touched the ground.
Yet all was not lost. Because Prayaga Raja is a holy place, the elixir manifests its life-giving properties every twelve years when the Sun is in the House of Capricorn. And because the elixir was originally contained in a kumbha (vessel), and the land itself now serves as the vessel, this twelve-year gathering at Prayaga Raja every twelve years is called kumbha mela, “the spiritual gathering around the vessel.”
Poison and Elixir
Some dismiss these stories as folk tales, but I personally have great respect for them. Whether history or fiction, for centuries they have inspired people to find the sacred in the mundane. Ordinarily religions teach us that the spiritual and the worldly cannot coexist—they hold that we can find God only if we turn our back on the world, which most people find impossible. Consequently we are caught in a vortex of guilt and a sense of unworthiness. These two stories give us hope; they assure us that all the divine and benign forces of creation dwell in the sacred land of Prayaga Raja, and that there is a Divine Presence—a perfect counselor, spiritual preceptor, and benevolent friend—who attends the pilgrims that come to this place seeking redemption from guilt and self-denigration. These stories assure us that by performing even the simplest of spiritual practices here we will overcome the negative effects of all previous deeds.
What solace! These stories imply that there is no mediator between the aspirant and God, no rigid rules or laws. Simply listen to the voice of your heart, they say, and surrender the fruits of your deeds to the Almighty, who dwells in the space occupied by this sacred land. Before you return home internalize the Divinity, secure it in your heart, and walk away with a sense of purity, forgiveness, and freedom from the bondage of karma.
Another reason I have so much respect for these stories is that they remind us of the inherent characteristics of humanity and the cycle of human history. When the basic necessities of life are in short supply we have little time or energy to cultivate our spiritual life and to engender inner prosperity. Yet once our society is blessed with material prosperity we tend to drown in it and have no time for inner growth. We have neither the energy nor the inclination to search for everlasting fulfillment. These stories remind us that a materially successful society eventually ends up with a Shankhasura, a demon who systematically drowns the spiritual wisdom and higher values of life.
We are now at a significant juncture in human history. In all areas of life, we are moving at a faster rater than ever in ways that are both constructive and destructive.
And as knowledge of the importance of spiritual values sinks into the mud of insecurity, fear, sensual cravings, sloth, self-gratification, and self-preservation, society loses its bearings. Selfishness reigns and the loving bond that holds relationships together is replaced by a set of conditions. The zeal for worldly success and self-gratification makes us self-destructive. Unable to distinguish between need and desire, we amass and hoard material possessions. The economy becomes life’s guiding force, and its strength rests on how much we consume. To keep the economy vigorous we must continually increase our desires and teach ourselves to be wasteful. All of this takes a heavy toll on natural resources and on nature herself. And once nature is polluted and its vitality has declined, our bodies and minds also become toxic and weak. Then higher concerns pertaining to the real purpose of life sink to the bottom of day-to-day existence. This is how the great conch demon, Shankhasura, incarnates.
In times like these a handful of sages—enlightened beings concerned with the welfare of creation—come forward and invoke Vishnu (whose name literally means “the divine light that pervades everything”), and the combined effort of these enlightened ones creates a collective consciousness that is powerful enough to reverse the downward spiral. The group practice of ashvameda, the horse sacrifice which tames the mind and senses, is the key ingredient in the formation of collective consciousness. Its hallmarks are discipline, self-restraint, and selfless service; by nurturing these traits we can change our society and subdue the forces that impel us to create misery for ourselves and the planet.
The second story reminds us that when we attempt to procure elixir we must be ready to deal with poison; we can benefit from gathering around the vessel of elixir only when we realize that poison and elixir go hand in hand. Achieving even the noblest goal entails some degree of pain. And because our natural tendency is to avoid pain, the one who takes it on for the sake of others becomes Shiva, the most auspicious and benevolent of beings.
Anyone with a scientific mind will regard both of these stories as pure myth. Yet they are documented in the sacred literature and have been recited by the faithful down through the ages, inspiring pilgrims to pour into Allahabad every twelfth year when the spiritual energy there is believed to be especially intense. Whether these stories are literally true or not, they have created a collective consciousness that has transformed Prayaga Raja into a sacred site. Through intense practice, by both the adepts and the multitude, during kumbha mela the energy field is intensified to the point at which it has the power to transform individual consciousness.
A Juncture in History
I studied at Allahabad University and had an opportunity to participate in the kumbha mela in 1976, but in those days I did not regard it as an event of any particular importance. I went because everyone else went, and I bathed at the juncture of the two rivers because my family and social customs demanded it. I met saints and yogis because I could not escape them. It was exciting and I enjoyed the experience, but it never occurred to me to seek something there, because I did not know what to seek or why.
Nineteen years later, after I had been living in the United States for some time, I led a tour to the Himalayas. We stopped in Rishikesh and Haridwar when we returned from the mountains, and there I saw slogans written on the walls: “Get ready for theyuga sandhi [the meeting point between two ages] in 2001!” “2001—the time for change and transformation!” There were many such slogans. It was 1995, long before millennium mania began to manifest in the West, and I was puzzled. So I stopped outside an ashram in Haridwar whose walls were covered with such slogans and asked the head swami, “What is happening in 2001?”
He knew I was a pandit but he didn’t know I had been living in the West for a long time and was surprised at my question. “Don’t you know it is the time of the maha kumbha mela?” he asked.
I thought he was talking about the spring kumbha mela due to be celebrated in Haridwar in three years, so I said, “Isn’t that in 1998?” “No,” he replied.
“That is an ardha kumbi [half kumbha], although many people call it ‘maha kumbha mela.’ The actual maha kumbha is in January of 2001 in Allahabad.”
“What is the difference between a kumbha mela and a maha kumbha mela?” I asked.
“Due to the alignment of planets, constellations, and other celestial bodies the benevolent forces are perfectly polarized every twelve years at the area around Allahabad,” he replied. “This is the time of the kumbha mela. The positive energy is further intensified by the presence of thousands of saints and sages who come together during this cosmic event. Symbolically speaking, the forces of creation are collected in one vessel [kumbha] and a celebration [mela] ensues. “Twelve of these cycles culminate in a maha kumbha mela, an extraordinary event that occurs every 144 years. The collective consciousness engendered by the concentration of spiritual energy during a maha kumbha mela brings a radical shift in the destiny of humankind. And in 2001 this event coincides with the dawn of the new millennium.”
“What is your prediction?” I asked. “Are things going to get better at this juncture or worse?”
“That depends entirely on the nature of the collective consciousness,” he replied. “Today the bright and dark forces are struggling for supremacy. If we have faith only in the power of destiny and do nothing, the dark forces, which already dominate, will certainly prevail. If we put all of our spiritual resources into one pot there in Allahabad and create a powerful, positive collective consciousness, we can subdue the kali yuga [the dark age] and allow the satya yuga [the bright age] to come forward.”
He paused for a moment and then said, “Let me show you something.” He took me inside the ashram, and there hundreds of people were participating in a group meditation and offering herbal preparations to the fire. This group meditation, the swami explained, was focused on the welfare of all creation; it would be concluded on a bank of the Ganga in Allahabad during the maha kumbha mela. “There are many other groups like ours,” he said, “as well as a host of those who are doing specific individual practices with the intention of concluding them in Allahabad at the end of the current 144-year cycle in January 2001.”
What we do at these 144-year intervals can shape the destiny of humankind for the foreseeable future.
When I returned to the United States I began to pour over the scriptures, looking for references to the maha kumbha mela. I found that most references to the subject focused on addressing the imbalances in the ecosystem, or uplifting the deplorable condition of human consciousness during the kali yuga, or preventing a large-scale natural disaster. They all agreed that what we do at these 144-year intervals can shape the destiny of humankind for the foreseeable future.
We are now at a significant juncture in human history. In all areas of life we are moving at a faster rate than ever in ways that are both constructive and destructive. The Internet has placed an infinite library of knowledge at our fingertips. From our own living rooms we can access information about a monastery or a shopping center, self-restraint or pornography, philanthropy or organized crime. We have harnessed nuclear power, and can destroy the Earth’s major cities in an instant—or illuminate them for centuries with an endless supply of energy. In some areas of science and technology we have passed the point of no return, yet we fear the consequences of going forward. What will be the outcome of our newly acquired ability to harvest and transplant organs? to splice genes? to clone animals and people? to build a “Star Wars” defense system or apply cryogenics?
The emergence of a global economy was hailed as the breakthrough that would spread prosperity across the Earth, yet poverty still has a stranglehold on many countries. The collapse of the stock market in a small country—Brazil, for example, or Malaysia—now has the potential to rock the economy of even the most prosperous nations. Religious conflicts, racial hatred, and ethnic strife are shredding the social fabric in many regions, and episodes of public violence such as the Oklahoma City bombing and multiple murders in schools and offices, though far from common, give people the feeling that there is no safety anywhere.
But this is also a period of great awakening. International treaties and other cooperative efforts to protect the environment, the work of international relief agencies and peacekeeping organizations, and the growing tolerance for religious differences and unfamiliar spiritual ideas are clear signs that the bright forces are also at work. In comparison to the intensity with which the negative forces are operating, however, the bright forces seem relatively weak. The forces of negativity have gotten such a powerful grip on the collective consciousness of humankind that the lofty ideas and ideals of a relatively few individuals make almost no difference.
The importance of becoming a part of the collective consciousness has been recognized in all spiritual traditions.
Symbolically speaking Vishnu, the all-pervading consciousness that protects and nourishes life on earth, is just beginning to stir. And with that stirring comes the realization that we are destroying our planet. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the rates at which species are passing into extinction, and the consumption of resources are all rising. It is beginning to dawn on some of us that we must act to reverse these trends. To be healthy and happy we must protect ourselves and future generations by minimizing the presence of drugs, hormones, and chemicals in our food supply, and by becoming much more cautious about taking powerful medications. But this level of awakening is not enough to break the negative cycle and lead humanity in a more fulfilling direction. Noble thoughts of serving hu-manity and the planet are the exception, not the rule—they have not yet entered the collective consciousness. The bright forces have simply planted seeds in the minds and hearts of a select group of people, those who are like the sages in the story from the Padma Purana who first propitiated Vishnu and then, through deep meditation, retrieved the knowledge of the Vedas and convened at Prayaga Raja to bring it into action.
Many people have the misconception that a sage is an elderly ascetic with a long beard and a high degree of spiritual achievement. But in truth, simplicity and connection with the source is what makes a sage. It is insight that enables us to recognize suffering souls, and it is the compassionate urge to help them overcome their suffering that makes one a Buddha. An enlightened person is one who is moved by the misery of others and finds joy in others’ happiness. A sage is not interested in individual misery or happiness but in extinguishing the misery of all fellow beings. Both before and after enlightenment a sage takes refuge in collective consciousness.
Maha Kumbha Mela
The importance of becoming a part of the collective consciousness has been recognized in all spiritual traditions. Seekers and adepts in the past have always gone into retreat periodically, and the retreat sites have often centered around high-intensity spiritual energy fields. Mount Sinai and Jerusalem in Israel, the shrines on the Japanese island of Shikoku, Mount Kailas in Tibet, and Banaras in India are examples. In the beginning these places were not associated with a particular person or religious group. People were drawn to these sites for a variety of external reasons, but the underlying result was always the same: in one way or another, each person’s individual consciousness was transformed with the help of the collective energy force that occupied the area. The Vedic sages did not think of themselves as Hindus, but as Hinduism began to dominate the land, Prayaga Raja came to be identified as a sacred Hindu site. In truth, its energy is that of the collective consciousness of all of humankind.
Allahabad, a Muslim term that means “the city of God,” occupies a part of Prayaga Raja, but the sacred site stretches far beyond the boundaries of the modern city. In olden days Allahabad consisted mainly of ashrams and educational institutions. During British rule it became the capital of Uttar Pradesh, the most populated state in India, and consequently a political center. As the population increased, industries moved in, and the city began to cover some of the area that had been treated as sacred and reserved for spiritual activities. Yet even as the city grew, the stretch of land where the kumbha mela is held every twelve years remained free from encroachment, thanks to the unpredictable mood of the mighty Ganga, who keeps changing her course within the boundary of a floodplain several miles wide. During the rainy season, which begins in June, the river spreads across the entire plain, settling back to flow between its banks when the rainy season ends in late summer.
The Ganga at Allahabad acts as a municipal cleaning system. Before the pilgrims arrive the flood has washed everything away, leaving soft, clean sand for their temporary city of tents. Wide roads and water and power lines are put in place between September and November. Temporary hospitals, administrative offices, and fire and police stations are erected too. In the month of December the activity speeds up as grocery and textile stores, restaurants, bookstores, gift shops, and industrial displays are built. This is also the time when religious institutions, temples, monasteries, and educational organizations set up their stages and booths. The priests of Prayaga Raja erect tens of thousands of tents to accommodate pilgrims from India and abroad. Finally in January millions of pilgrims pour in from every direction and congregate at the southern bank of the Ganga toward the city side, where it is joined by the Yamuna. All you can see, hear, and breathe is human beings. You choose the kind of experience you wish: melodious chanting, profound discourses on philosophical and spiritual topics, recitation of mantras, religious plays blaring from loudspeakers, the constant din of other loudspeakers announcing the names of lost children—in the heart of the kumbha mela site nothing is done in moderation. Yet pilgrims who have waited years for this occasion seem oblivious to the noise and the crowd.
Most pilgrims come to bathe at the sangam (the confluence of the two rivers) to wash off their sins, and so flock to the area that lies between the Ganga and Yamuna. For those who love crowds, this area is perfect. But those who want to do individual practices or group meditations find a quiet spot on a bank of the Ganga beyond the reach of the crowd, where they perform the specific spiritual practices compatible with the powerful subtle energy emanating from that particular place.
Well away from the congestion, for example, lies a shrine known as Nagashara. Situated in the village known as Chhatnag, it is rarely visited by pilgrims, but to those following the path of kundalini yoga (an esoteric aspect of hatha and alchemy), the area around the Nagashara shrine is especially potent. Here adepts and learned seekers use the nexus of cosmic energy to empower their personal practices and to promote the welfare of all living beings. These yogis keep a low profile so as not to attract a crowd. Some organize and participate in longlasting group practices prescribed in the scriptures; others engage in intense personal sadhana (spiritual practice). By so doing they not only benefit from the energy of the collective consciousness that has pervaded that place for ages, they also contribute to the intensification of that energy.
It is people like this who magnify the sanctity of Prayaga Raja, and they will be present in force at the maha kumbha mela. These are the sages of today. They have sacrificed their personal desires for the welfare of all, and they inspire others to do the same. This is the meaning of ashvameda, the horse sacrifice, the taming of the senses and mind. The scriptures say that this and other group practices are the fountainhead of everlasting peace and prosperity—the only way to defeat the bottom-dwelling beasts once and for all. It is not the size of the crowd that comes to Prayaga Raja every twelve years or how loudly religious institutions praise it that makes this place the lord of all holy shrines: it is the quality of the practices undertaken here. Similarly it is not religious sentiment or the thrill of participating in a cultural festival of unmatched size, one that occurs only once every 144 years, that will make the pilgrimage to Allahabad in January of 2001 of inestimable value: it is the deep understanding of the power of collective consciousness created by the adepts and aspirants in the past and intensified by those in the present. If you attend the maha kumbha mela next January, if you mentally prepare yourself to make the best use of the consciousness that pervades this place, you will come away empowered with a compelling sense of purpose, one that is personally fulfilling to you and nourishing to the bright forces of creation.