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Maha Kumbha Mela 2001: The World's Largest Spiritual Gathering

by Lisa VanOstrand

From the very moment I read about this year's Maha Kumbha Mela in Allahabad, I wanted to go. Several times during meditation I would be overcome with such longing that electric shocks would run through my nervous system, confirming and stimulating my intense desire to go. For several months, circumstances did not favor my going. Then, like everything that occurs in its own time and way when destiny ordains it, things began to happen with a certain ease and flow. Within weeks my plane ticket and accommodations were booked.

My plans were to spend January 8th until January 30th at the Mela. When I left home I was aware that I was setting off on a spiritual pilgrimage. Although this was my sixth trip to India, I felt certain that camping in a tent on the banks of the Ganges would be quite a different experience than my prior trips, where I stayed in an ashram that provided quite nicely for Westerners. I did not feel afraid that I would be converging at a site with millions of other pilgrims. I felt inspired and excited by some unseen force, not knowing how this journey would ultimately end, or how I would be affected by it.

The Kumbha Mela is the world's largest spiritual gathering, with estimates ranging from 10 million to 30 million devotees. Any official count is mere guesswork. The origin of the Kumbha Mela is based on an archetypal struggle between the forces of darkness and light over a vessel containing the nectar of immortality. Legend has it that in the ensuing struggle, drops of the elixir spilled to the earth in four places: Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik. The Kumbha Mela rotates between these four locations every three years. The twelve-year cycle culminates in the Maha Kumbha Mela at Allahabad. This year's Maha Kumbha Mela began on January 9th and ended six or seven weeks later.

In the Hindu tradition, one of the most important aspects of the event is to bathe in the Ganges during auspicious bathing days. The bathing days are carefully determined and timed with the astrological positions of the sun, moon and Jupiter. On those auspicious days, the Ganga is believed to turn to immortality-inducing nectar, and many believe it to have the capability to cleanse and wash away generations of sins. This years Kumbha Mela had six auspicious bathing days: January 9th, January 14th, January 24th, January 29th, February 8th and February 21st. This Maha Mela is considered to be particularly auspicious, as it is the first one of the new millennium, and it coincided with an astrological configuration that occurs only once every 144 years. During the major bathing days, as well as a day or so prior, the crowds swell to astronomical proportions as pilgrims come for all over India to partake in the sacred event.


Allahabad is considered one of India's most auspicious cities. The three sacred rivers-Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati-have their confluence in Allahabad. Both the Ganga and Yamuna originate in the Himalayas. However, the Saraswati is a subterranean river and is therefore unable to be seen by the physical eyes. For this reason, the Saraswati is referred to as the mystical river. The confluence of India's three most sacred rivers in Allahabad is called the sangam. This confluence is considered the most auspicious and holy place to bathe.

The sangam represents the union of two tangible forces with a third unseen mystical force. My experience of the Kumbha Mela was an incredibly powerful uniting of the forces of humanity and nature, permeated with the unseen presence of the Divine. The combination of these forces-humanity, nature, and the Divine-were all supporting this event, creating the most incredible, palpable field of energy and consciousness that I have ever experienced.


The Maha Kumbha Mela was a stunning ocean of humanity. For the most part, the pilgrims all come into the Mela by foot, carrying their bedrolls and accessories in bundles on their heads. Wave after wave of pilgrims flowed into the Kumbha Mela, many chanting as they made their way either to the river or to their campsites. The greatest numbers appeared to be very poor by our standards, and I was struck by their devotion and faith.

The Kumbha Mela is set up as a temporary city divided into 9 sectors, with a total area of approximately 35 square kilometers, complete with roads, running water, and electricity from 5:30 p.m. until 6 a.m. The multitude of pilgrims stayed in tents that were erected along the sandy bank of the Ganges and organized into camps, either by village or according to ashram affiliation. Tents stretch in every direction as far as the eye can see. The magnitude becomes even more stunning whenever a main bathing day approaches.

Orange flags wave, depicting the presence of a guru; larger then life posters promote a camp's guru or ashram affiliation. Vedic mantras and chants fill the air in all directions from loudspeakers long into the night and early in the morning. During the day, pilgrims tread for hours through the sandy roads and across manmade pontoon bridges, either to receive darshan, a blessed glance, from visiting saints and gurus, or to bathe in the sacred waters. For those who venture out at night, the prevalence of smoke burns the eyes as thousands of campfires fill the night air while pilgrims try to stay warm during winter cold.

Pilgrims, including myself, wandered among these camps, listening to the teachings, seeking blessings and observing the holy men. There were also the beggars and the people who vehemently insist on trying to sell you something, more often then not their wares, but sometimes their own brand of Enlightenment. I wonder what their experience of the Mela is? I found for the most part, people eagerly and even a little overzealously welcoming me to their country, wanting to know about my experience of the Mela, and curious about my country. On more than one occasion, I came across villagers speaking a tribal dialect who, I feel certain, had never seen a Westerner. The Mela was, of course, predominantly Indian, although the number of Westerners was estimated to be around 5,000.

As one would expect in an ocean of humanity, there are all kinds. Make no mistake about that. There are the Naga Babas, or naked sadhus, representing a sect of Shiva. They wear either nothing or a small loincloth. Their bodies are smeared with ashes and their hair is worn in matted locks. Many sit all day attending their holy fires and are intoxicated on drugs. Some of these sadhus also perform severe austerities as their practice, such as sitting on nails, standing up for years, or holding one arm in the air for years. Pilgrims would make offerings to the Naga Babas in return for their blessings.

I feel certain that people from different parts of the world came to the Kumbha Mela for many reasons. Many of us came to pray for world peace and for the welfare of all sentient beings. Keiko Aikawa, a Japanese yogi, was buried underground where she remained in samadhi for three days to promote world peace. I was told that the guru of the Nepalese president came and presided over a nine-day chant for world peace.

The Dalai Lama came to speak on world peace at one of the ashram camps as well as in a conference with major religious leaders from the Hindu tradition. His Holiness encouraged people to understand and learn about other religions, but to practice their own culture's religion. He spoke about the need for so many different religions to accommodate all the different types of people there are in the world. His Holiness reminded us that whatever term you use for Enlightenment, the experience is still the same. He also reminded us that the principle of nonviolence is common to all religious traditions and that nonviolence does not mean indifference. He indicated the need for all to come together to dialogue so that we can learn from each other, and that to do so helps sharpen the mind. We must learn to respect our differences and embrace our similarities.

At two of the camps, I asked the presiding holy men what their message would be for the West. Swami Satchitananda indicated that we must learn to go within in meditation and spend more time with ourselves in solitude and silence. Swami Avadheshananda Giri, whose camp hosted His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the other spiritual leaders speaking on world peace, noticed that I was doing japa on mala beads. He stated that Westerners should repeat the name of God and that we must learn devotion.

In the Christian tradition, there is a saying "Whenever two or more are gathered in my name, there I am also." Can you imagine what it is like when millions and millions are gathered in God's name? Millions gathered in His name with no outside distractions, such as TV and computers. The sages say the world is as you see it. What I saw was the entire focus of millions tuned to the Divine. Time and space were totally God-saturated. All time was spent being open to God, whether it was though meditating, chanting, reading the scriptures, visiting the saints and sadhus in attendance, or partaking in a holy bath. Millions of pilgrims in the ashram and village camps encompassed the entire mela grounds, each one worshipping the individual names and forms of God in their own way.

The Power of Nature

All ancient religions of the world have worshipped and loved nature and nature's forces as manifestations of the Divine. In Hindu tradition, the Ganga is revered as the mother, giver and sustainer of life, capable of healing and washing away sins. Natural beauty and splendor exist to remind us of God. It is also in the form of natural forces that the Divine supports our physical manifestation, by providing life and nourishment to us.

Being a Westerner, I found nature at the Kumbha Mela a bit daunting and a far cry from the comfort I am used to experiencing in the United States. Living in New York City, I am quite insulated from nature except for minor inconveniences. And I'm always quite shocked to experience say, turning a water faucet on and not have water come out. It is an unspoken expectation that there will always be water, and for that matter food, air, and a place to sleep.

The first two weeks of the Mela were freezing at night. I slept with great difficulty in two layers of clothes, a down coat, two hats, mittens and two comforters that I had purchased after two sleepless nights. The newspaper reported that nine deaths occurred in the surrounding areas during these days of record cold. Following the cold there were a few days of cooperative weather. However, this proved to be short-lived, and was followed by several days of intense sand storms. The sand blew openings in our tent and then proceeded to cover everything with blankets and blankets of sand. What is worse than a sand storm? A sand storm and no water. The next day our campsite was without water for what seemed an eternity; it was difficult to be grateful as we hand-carried buckets of water from a low-pressure faucet on the other side of the camp. And although the Mela was unaffected, it is most regretful that on January 26th, India experienced a major earthquake in Gujarat that killed tens of thousands and left hundreds of thousands homeless.

The Mela definitely awakened in me an intense awe and respect for nature, as well as gratitude. Like myself, I feel many people in the Western world take nature somewhat for granted. We forget the support that nature offers us in the form of the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe and the ground we walk on. Although the people of India have a history of worshipping nature, as we move into the new millennium, I pray that they too will give more attention to nature, and make more concerted efforts to reduce pollution. I have come away from the Mela with great respect and reverence for nature, and the manifestations of nature as blessings from God.

The Unseen Divine Mystical Force

How can we see the Divine in all of humanity and nature? We must learn to see and acknowledge the unseen mystical force that pervades each human being and know that the same Divine spirit resides in us all. May we also see the Divine in all of nature and her forces; not just beautiful natural sites, but also in the mundane, in the water we drink and bathe in, and in the food we eat. Whether we get our water from a river or faucet and our food from the field or a grocery store, we must respect nature. We must respect the earth. We must see nature and her manifestations as precious resources that support us as human beings, and that are permeated with Divine love.

Inner Sangam

For many people visiting the Kumbha Mela, the experience was an outer one of visiting the sangam and the various camps. For myself, it was a time of deep inner reflection. The importance of a spiritual pilgrimage is a tradition known in almost all religions and cultures. Pilgrimage is a way God gives us to answer the deep soul yearning to discover the Divine, and the greater spiritual meaning and truth of our existence. Pilgrimages allow us to experience the living consciousness of the sacred site or event.

The Kumbha Mela, from my perspective, was a living template of divine energy and consciousness that was so palpable, not only because of the millions of people worshipping God in the moment, but also because of its roots in ancient Indian scripture and mythology. With an event that has a history of repetition of at least 2000 years, the reality of the Divine becomes so tangible that one can experience God in the here and now, and know that as a visceral cellular experience, as opposed to an intellectual concept.

Pilgrimage done out of devotion reminds us of a deep inner desire to be intimate with God, and the beauty of being around others who share that same desire. It brings peace to our mind and wisdom to our soul. It helps us set aside doubts and makes surrender to God, and ultimately our life circumstances, possible. It helps us understand that our life, no matter what happens, has purpose and that the real meaning of life is not outer riches, but rather the evolution of our consciousness; the revelation of our own true nature. Pilgrimage makes tangible the realization that it is worthwhile and meaningful to make God a priority in our life.

We make the effort in outer pilgrimage to remind us that we must make the same effort in our inner journey as well. Most religious and psychological traditions believe that transformation must first begin from the inside. In Hatha Yoga texts there are references to the convergence of the three sacred rivers within the subtle body, and that when this merger takes place, Enlightenment occurs; our humanity merges with Divinity. The Dalai Lama reminded us that there are many words for Enlightenment and yet the experience is the same. That experience has been described as one of unity consciousness, where we experience the Oneness of all life and creation. After the Kumbha Mela, I have the realization that to retain this experience as a permanent reality, it is worth practicing, with great persistence and steadfastness, in whatever way our own religious beliefs set forth. As many saints have told us, this experience is our birthright.

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