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My Experience at the Kumbh Mela

Thanks, to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayeeji’s invitation for a goodwill visit, to Dr. Mukund Mody’s kindness for including me among 20 plus Indian Americans, and Shri Ashok Singhalji’s generosity, I, along with this group, had the good fortune to have a dip at Sangam during Kumbh 2001 on 27th January. I had not even thought of such an eventuality. Not spiritually advanced - have hardly walked few inches on the miles long spiritual path - I was not a pilgrim. It is a spiritual experience and Prabhu’s gift of the highest order. The surprise therefore was unusually great and sweet. I was overcome by a sense of sheer gratitude and peace. As I sat in the British Airways plane, I couldn’t help thinking about the enormity of this event. How much my late grandmother who had a pilgrimage to Hardwar during a Kumbh would have been pleased to learn about it. As I reflect further, it becomes clear that this is THE event of 21st century, which can’t be repeated in the next 100 years. Yet its enormity and significance has been missed in public discourse.

It is easy to understand its enormity. 100 million people - 10 % of India’s population - attended this 40 days event. The size and magnitude of the attendance alone is mind-boggling. All related material statistics, such as number of tents, ashrams, street lights, patroon bridges, are unmatched. There are far deeper issues. People came by their own will; no one sent them an invitation. Almost 99.9 percent came with the clear understanding that it is a pilgrimage involving body and material sufferings; crowded trains, buses, uncomfortable places to stay, at best - most slept in the open and in cold - limited food, many a times going hungry, unusually long crowds. Yet they came in all shapes; old, young, sick, children, babies, families, communities; Hindus  in all varieties, so-called untouchables, non Hindus. Given the size of the crowds, physical needs and suffering, all sorts of frustrations, how easy it would have been to create a problem: a riot, a stampede, etc.? But these pilgrims were unusually self disciplined, patient and tolerant. A Pakistani woman Sairah Irshad Khan wrote from her experience: “we were struck by the sea of humanity plowing its way to, or from, the river. Amazingly, there was no jostling, no pushing, little garbage, and although this must surely have been an assembly of among the most wretched of the earth, no begging.” [“Indian Spring” http://www.newsline.com. pk/html/impressions.html] No doubt a good and competent U.P. government made excellent arrangements. Yet given the size, no government, however good, can assure such success. The success depended, fundamentally, on every pilgrim’s “self discipline.” This Maha Kumbh offered the most compelling evidence on the “self discipline” of Hindu pilgrims.

To understand the significance of the event, one needs a frame of reference; a perspective. Ram Dass alias Richard Alpert, with a Stanford Ph.D. and professorships at Harvard, Stanford and California, the very high priest of Western education, explains the meaning of perspective from his personal experience given in one of his best sellers, [How can I Help.] Well informed about India’s poor and poverty, as Richard Alpert he came to Varanasi, walked around its ghats, saw thousands in final stages of one illness or another waiting to die, and placed change in their begging bowels but could not see them in their eyes. Three months later after having met his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, he visited Vanransi again as Ram Dass with a different perspective. And this time, he wrote, “ to my profound amazement I found in their eyes not the suffering that I have been reticent to face but looks of peace. In fact I even saw some of their eyes pity for me, lost as I was in illusion. Leprosy, leukemia, blindness, such poverty that they had only a loincloth and a begging bowl...and still... peace.” Mahakumbh has also been seen from similar two perspectives. While pilgrims looked for, and saw, asceticism in the Naga sadhus, the clothed cameramen, like the guards at Aschwitz, were doing their job photographing their nudity and eccentricities little wondering what it meant. Similarly, like Eichmann scheduling trains, the editors at magazines were sensationalizing pictures to sell their wares, never questioning their ethical dimensions in demeaning the pilgrims. MahaKumbh can’t be explained by the Western intellectual tradition; that would be like Parmahans Ramakrishna’s dressed up salt doll wading in the ocean to measure its depth. For its proper understanding Ram Dass’s is the spiritual and relevant perspective. Kumbh is inherently, and fundamentally, spiritual; after all it is all about amrit.. Any Kumbh is holy and MahaKumbh is the holiest of the holy. Sangam, the meeting of three waters, represents to the pilgrims, by act of their faith, a phenomena of transcendence. Faith is fundamental. As Gandhiji said: “So long as our eyes of knowledge have not opened, we have no choice but to see with the eyes of faith.”[The Bhagavadgita] Swami Chimnayananda said it well. “The amrit has gone to them [pilgrims from villages] because they have no ego. What they have instead is faith”

Like a major decennial Census that provides detailed information about some aspects of a country’s population, large gathering at regular Kumbhs provide authentic evidence on the various dimensions of the Hindu faith. This Maha Kumbh being the most special and attended by the largest population provides the most authentic evidence on Hindu beliefs, practices and rituals. Like a huge census, the evidence from this Maha Kumbh is vast and multidimensional. Its analysis and implications would take many years and fill major treatises. To start with it has shown, once again and after a long time, a different and better view of the Indian society: beautiful, peaceful, real, serene, spiritual and vast as contrasted with the India seen through Bollywood and media: vulgar, violent, unreal, ugly, poor, materialist, greedy, corrupt, and bounded.

Over the past hundreds of years, Hindu religion has been belittled, censured, condemned, criticized, decried, deformed, demeaned, demonized, denounced, depreciated, derided, derogated, despised, detested, disdained, disgraced, disfigured, disparaged, distorted, ridiculed, scorned, scoffed. Much of this denunciation has been carried on by a number of myths promoted by two arguments: (i) evaluated within the Western materialist, rationalist, scientific framework, and (ii) by association. For example a common myth is that caste system and untouchability is fundamental to Hinduism. That is take the caste system and untouchability then Hinduism will wither away. Since some of the “low caste” Hindus are defined as untouchable. They are therefore discriminated against and hence are poor. It follows therefore that Hinduism is a source of poverty or poverty is embedded in Hinduism. Many writers have added a new charge of fundamentalism against Hinduism. The evidence from Maha Kumbh directly contradicts all such contentions.

How did caste and untouchability express itself at the Maha Kumbh? Were there Brahmins at the gate checking the pilgrims status in case they belonged to lower caste and were untouchables? Look at the evidence. (i) Maha Kumbh happens every

144 years. (ii) It is the holiest of holy occasion in the Hindu religion; there can’t be, and is not, a more holy occasion. (iii) Dipping at Sangam during this period is therefore the holiest of holy ceremonies. (iv) 100 million people performed these ceremonies including dalits, so-called “low caste” and “untouchables’ Hindus. (v) Entry to this ceremony was not restricted to any one.

If caste system and untouchability is essential to Hinduism, as the myth has been propagated, would it not be logical for them to bar these low caste and “untouchables” from these holiest of the holy ceremonies? The direct evidence is that these low caste and untouchables performed exactly the same ceremony, of dipping in the holy waters, as any Brahmin or Hindu sage. Not only low caste

Hindus, even Muslim women from Pakistan were welcomed to participate in these ceremonies. “Here we were, Pakistanis and Muslims, readily announcing both, being treated like the most welcome of guests, invited to not only watch, but participate in what were the most sacred of Hindu rites, at their holiest of religious ceremonies.” wrote a thankful Sairah Irshad Khan and concluded; “Apart from the undeniable spiritually uplifting element of the exercise, the thought that lingered long afterwards was the warmth we had encountered at every step of the way.” The Maha Kumbh provides the most direct and clear evidence that untouchability is neither germane to, nor a part of, Hindu religion.

Untouchability is a form of discrimination following from exploitive power relations. There is ample evidence of the prevalence of untouchability among Christian, Muslim and other communities. In fact holocausts are the most severe and oppressive forms of untouchability. History is full of stories about Crusades, Jihads, Hindukush, genocide of Native Americans, Slavery and lynching of Black Americans, Armenian, Jewish and Romas holocausts. British Rule in India caused the deaths of two hundred million Indians. [“Mahatma Gandhi, Amartya Sen and Poverty” Gandhi Marg. Vol. 20. No. 4. January -March 1999. pp. 421 - 444] Mike Davis has made a similar argument in his book: Late Victorian Holocausts.

Not only is untouchability NOT a part of Hindu religion, every Hindu sage and leader, Vivekananda, Gandhi, to name two, have acted against such discrimination. In fact fighting for the weak and exploited is the most important Hindu dharma. Accepting low caste and so - called untouchables at the holiest of holy Hindu ceremonies at Maha Kumbh, and treating them equally, follows logically from Hindu beliefs, dharma and principles. By contrast, we know from the apologies offered by the current Pope, the then Pope participated in the Jewish holocaust; no Pope has so far acknowledged the 3 million Romas holocaust; is it because Romas originate in India and Indians are untouchables for them. One is hard pressed to find Muslim and Christian leaders who have spoken against untouchability and caste system in their own communities.

From the evidence of 5,000 ashrams at Maha Kumbh it is clear and obvious that there are many different shades of ideas, opinions, philosophies and practices in Hinduism. There is no single person or body who speaks for all Hindus.

Compare it to Christianity, which has a large number of different churches. Can a lay Christian participate in a gathering where all these sects meet together?

There has never been one single place or occasion where Christens of all denominations have gathered together. Evidence from Maha Kumbh fully refutes the charge of fundamentalism in Hinduism.

Maha Kumbh confirms that in spite of abuse for the past one thousand years, and still from those in authority, it is toady alive and well.

Hundred years ago Swami Vivekananda understood its bright future. Sri Aurobindo anchored his nationalism in Hinduism. Mahatma Gandhi made it clear to the Christians trying to covert him: “To-day my position is that, though I admire much in Christianity, I am unable to identify myself with orthodox Christianity.

(The author is a professor of economics at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180) diwanr@rpi.edu ).





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