Kumbh Mela 2019 – A Conference of Saints and Seekers

Kumbh, the nectarine pot, and mela, the confluence of minds, is the veritable manifestation of the philosophy portrayed in the Rig Veda, ‘Aa no bhadra kratavo yantu vishvatah; let noble thoughts come from all directions. The ancient Indian Vedic society was built on holistic principles and values.

Modes of communication, though seemingly archaic to the present eyes, were quiet effective and brought about the desired results. Wisdom was exchanged and transmitted through traditional modes of communication and the process of such transmission was integrated and interwoven into the daily lives of people.

Swami Vivekananda said over and again that the pivot of India was religion and that everything in India has to been done through religious wisdom. He was only echoing the ancient psyche of India. When we read through the pages of the Vedas, we find that even the apparently meaningless traditions and cultures were continued for the sake of transmitting knowledge and wisdom. Temples were centres, not only of religious activity, but also of social and intellectual activities. Economic, political, educational, health, administrative, and of course, scriptural problems were discussed and solutions arrived in an amicable manner in these centres of supposedly religious worship. Unfortunately, undigested and unassimilated ideas of secularism have divorced centres for religious worship from all activities that are non-religious. Consequently, the holistic visions of a society centred in spirituality have been marred by disjointed efforts at modernism.

The kumbh, pot of nectar, was truly a source of elixir for the people of the past. Before venturing into the spiritual connotations of this fair, I would like to trace the sociological and economic roots and influence of this gathering, which is the largest religious gathering on this planet. Social structures were analysed now and then in the Kumbh Mela to arrive at long-standing solutions to domestic problems. For instance, if there arouse a situation of complex relationships, then the village, town, or state heads approached the wise saints at the Kumbh Mela to give a solution based on scriptures and traditions. It was not uncommon for kings to seek counsel from the various savants, who gathered at the Kumbh Mela, many of who were experts in statesmanship. Even methods to manage natural calamities like droughts, floods, earthquakes, and famines, where authenticated through the saints.

The management of the Kumbh Mela has always been done, even to this date, by a group of senior monastics. Though the state helps in every manner, it is the monastics, elected by the large population of monastics, who manage every detail of this fair. In doing so, they bank upon a rich wisdom of knowledge transmitted over centuries, mainly orally, in order that the fair is conducted in a flawless manner. Irrespective of the chaos and crowds, the mela seems to have a mind of its own and finds a way to manage all emergencies.

One may wonder from where did these all-renouncing monastics get the wisdom of managing such a gargantuan gathering, the very sight of which causes jitters to many an accomplished administrator? The answer is that traditionally Indian monasteries have not only taught the intricacies of spiritual life and controlling the mind and the senses but also methods to wade one’s way through complex tapestries of social, political, economic, and familial webs that a society produces. The management of Kumbh Mela in the past was done in such a way that in spite of millions of footfalls no harm came to the environment. In fact, the maintenance along the banks of Ganga during Kumbh mela ensured the proper upkeep of the river and its bank.

The Kumbh Mela has also been a great centre for establishing new products, business methods, and services. It was the norm in the past to launch and establish new products and services in the Kumbh Mela to find out, through the responses of millions of devotees, whether the product or service had any worth.

The entire social framework of monastic communities in India revolves around the Kumbh Mela. Though monastics are admitted into a monastery, any time during the year, in most of the Hindu monastic orders in India, they are formally ordained as monastics only in the Kumbh Mela. Methods of managing the daily affairs of a monastery, complicated issues in the interpretation of scriptures, the appointment of heads of different monastic denominations, and many other such things connected to the monastic community were discussed in the Kumbh Mela. The Kumbh Mela is a visual encyclopaedia of the different religious denominations of Hinduism. Religious or cultural tourism is constantly redefined by each instance of the Kumbh Mela.

Kumbh Mela offers the much-needed psychological support to countless devotees by showing them the richness and vastness of the Hindu religion. When the Hindus were continuously oppressed, ridiculed, and tortured by conquering races, with a mission to spread their state religions, the Kumbh Mela has stood as a testimony to the power and pride of the Hindus. During the Mughal period of Indian history, many monastic communities were granted shelter and protection by the various denominations of Naga sadhus, who gathered during the Kumbh Mela. For devotees, who do not want to bother with much intellectual scholarship of Hinduism, Kumbh Mela is a great reaffirmation of faith. When one sees millions of devotees gathering to see the famous processions of monastics and to take a holy dip in the Ganga, one gets convinced of the catholicity and depth of Hinduism in a way that reading voluminous tomes and listening to countless speakers can never bring about.

Colonial records have constantly depicted the fights between different monastic or religious denominations in the Kumbh Mela. These quarrels were mostly incited by the British authorities, and were also popularised through print and word of mouth. These records also claim that it was the British administration that made the Kumbh Mela worthy of visit by regular pilgrims. Nothing could be farther than the truth as the Kumbh Mela has been attracting great numbers of devotees from several millennia ago. It is a part of a systematic India and Hindu-hating campaign that the Kumbh Mela has been portrayed as a chaotic and uncivilised affair, mainly because of the digambara, naked, monastics participating in the fair. The colonial records paint a very negative picture of the whole event. It is a bit of relief from this vicious print campaign that the Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design decided to study the Kumbh Mela since 2013.

It is the urgent need of the hour to consolidate and document the different traditions, including oral histories and traditions, of the Kumbh Mela along with accounts about the people who participate in it. Also, the evolution of this fair has to be critically analysed and a model of administration through religion should be created for the world to emulate.

By – Swami Narasimhananda

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