2019 as the Year of the Kumbh holds special significance for each one of us. It can usher in a new era not only of technological marvels but also of inner renewal and a boundless yogic vision
Maa Ganga is the most sacred river at the heart of India, the foundation of India’s civilisation, its history, culture and yogic spirituality. Yet Maa Ganga is also a living divine presence, a deity, the Universal Mother incarnate sharing her blessing, connecting earthly streams with cosmic currents of consciousness.
The confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna is the most sacred joining of rivers in India, with the land between the Ganga and Yamuna said to be the holy land of the Hindus. This definition of a country defined by sacred rivers is as old as the Vedas in which India was called Sapta Sindhu, the land of the Seven Rivers. The great city at the Ganga-Yamuna confluence was called Prayagraj, the foremost of the prayags or tirthas lauded throughout India’s history.
The Mughals under Akbar had the audacity to rename this Ganga-Yamuna city as Allahabad, the city of Allah as if Islam originated in the land of the Hindus. This nefarious attitude of the Mughal kings was part of a larger conspiracy to demolish or destroy the unique identity of the Hindus, destroy Hindu temples, and to prevent new Hindu temples from being built. It was the Quran-inspired weapon aimed at striking at the root of all Hindu identity.
Recently, Allahabad was restored by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath to its original name, Prayagraj, sending a clear message to the world that eternal India or Bharat is on the rise. This renaming has transpired as part of the preparation for the Prayagraj Kumbh Mela from January 15-March 4, one of the several Kumbh Melas that occur every three years in different places and every 12 years in the same place in India.
The Pilgrimage that Connects
Ritual and pilgrimage hold the core of India’s spiritual experience and Hindu identity. Indeed, more people are engaged in pilgrimages and festivals in India probably than the rest of the world put together, extending from many thousands to millions on any given day, reaching every part of the country from Kanyakumari to Kailas. Life in India remains dominated by worship, not merely by mundane activities, with a sense of transcendence pervading the ordinary activities of the common people along with their daily pujas.Yet, India is a land not just of mystical attraction but also one of cultural denigration, particularly by foreign, colonial and missionary forces that would like to take over the minds and hearts of its people. While India holds a vision of an inner reality of universal dimensions, other cultures are too often trapped in the outer reality and primacy of the physical body, not the deathless spirit and cycle of rebirth that India’s dharmic philosophies have long extolled. In this context, the Kumbh Mela stands out as perhaps the ultimate expression of Bharatiya identity and being a Hindu. 2019 of Prayagraj forms an important affirmation and of this Bharata tradition, showing the spiritual meaning of the confluence of the rivers.
The Kumbh is the largest, oldest and most colourful spiritual gathering in the world, joined by tens of millions of pilgrims and many thousands of yogis, Babas, and swamis. It is an event of incomparable magnitude, timeless traditions, and contact with higher consciousness by its devotees.
The Kumbh is not about one religious leader only, the birth or death of a saviour or prophet, any historical revelation, single book, institution, belief or seeking of some heavenly world or personal salvation. The Kumbh unites all the profound strands of the yogic experience, the lives of monks and ascetics in renunciation and the common people for whom their lives also flow with the Ganga as their mother.
Today more people from diverse countries will visit this unique gathering than ever before, perhaps more than to any other event in history, which will now be more studied and appreciated than ever, both for the organisational skills behind it and the enduring inspiration, though the doubting critics will also certainly cast their aspersions as well. The Kumbh has become the pivotal experience that represents the magic and mystery of India, showcasing India’s unique culture that the world is beginning to discover again in the dawning planetary age in which we can no longer confine ourselves according to a single belief or uniform set of religious practices.
All of Hindu Dharma comes out for this magnificent event, with its many sects and branches, diverse deity and philosophical lines. It reveals Hinduism as Sanatana Dharma, the universal and eternal tradition that takes the human spiritual search and exalts it through and beyond all names and forms.
Distortion vs Manifestation
Given their well-known biases and limited vision, the media in the West and often that in India which shadows it, prefers to sensationalise the Kumbh and highlight its difficulties or what it regards as unusual or bizarre types of behaviour. This is the face of the Kumbh that we see in the BBC, for example, that is still suffering from colonial hangovers. The Kumbh takes us beyond our current political order to a very different era when human beings were rooted in the sacred, not merely in outer political identities and vote banks. The Kumbh is not circumscribed by western ideas of piety, purity or saintliness that are often artificial, if not contrived.
In Hindu thought, the universe is a manifestation of Ananda or immortal bliss as it overflows in from the infinite into the finite. Even our sorrows are incomplete portions of Ananda looking for greater connections to turn back into joy. That effusive spirit of Ananda underlies and permeates the Kumbh Mela and its numerous celebrations.
The Kumbh is famous for its sacred baths or snanas in the sacred rivers. For Hindus, there is not some mere single baptism to blindly change one’s faith, but a continual set of sacred baths to renew one’s connection with the Divine, embracing the mountain Gods and river Goddesses, the plants and animals, and our own inner Self that is one with all.
Our true purpose in life is not just to make money, gain adulation or assume power in the material world and its human-centred affairs. Our soul’s purpose is to take our consciousness beyond the limitations and opinions of the mind. Our real purpose is to discover a new sense of wonder, mystery and amazement such as the Kumbh help us to find.
Today we should respect such extraordinary festivals as the Kumbh and such sacred cultures as the Hindu. The Kumbh Mela should be respected as a key component of our living spiritual heritage that cannot be circumscribed by any belief, institution, person or creed. We all need to discover our own sacred Kumbh Mela or meeting with the great masters, such as still occur regularly in India. In our new planetary era of ecological concerns and honouring native traditions, the Hindu tradition with its respect for the Divine in nature has a special place holding the deeper spiritual heritage of our species. The Kumbh Mela is the crown jewel of the Hindu experience, of being in harmony with the entire universe within and around us. Such a collective pilgrimage of entering into the sacred waters of the universe reflects our highest aspiration to be one with the infinite and eternal. We can all learn to appreciate the Kumbh — and many of us can join it for a direct experience of our cosmic Self in the vision of the great gurus, rivers and cosmic deities of India.
(The writer is a Vedacharya, author, and Yoga, Ayurveda and Jyotish teacher)