Divinity & the Beholder’s Eye

Holy smoke Devotees conduct a puja inside a camp at the Maha Kumbh Mela
Holy smoke Devotees conduct a puja inside a camp at the Maha Kumbh Mela

“DEAR MR Ajit Sahi,” it began pleasantly but quickly turned splenetic. “I am appalled at the tone with which you speak. Funny you found yourself struggling to stay alive that night. What did you come expecting? Lawns and sunshine with cocktails?” Ouch. Signed off as “another beholder of the same Kumbh”, the mailer trashed my criticism of the government for its mismanagement of the Maha Kumbh Mela at Allahabad (A Confluence of Chaos, 23 February).
My account had pertained to the dawn of 10 February, when some 30 million Hindu faithful had plunged into the holy river, Ganga, for a once-in-a-lifetime shot at eternal salvation. The same day, some 40 lives were lost in two stampedes abetted no doubt by administrative failures. “It’s very easy to accuse the administration (but) difficult to give any real solution… If its scale befuddles you, then let someone else attempt the great piece of writing.” Ouch again.
But it’s true. Others ambling about at what is humanity’s largest fest ever visibly experience serenity and spirituality that, try as I might, has eluded me, to my deep disappointment. Whereas all that the supercilious me can notice are the disreputable shenanigans of the self-styled godmen, the deadly pollution of an already threatened heritage river, and the irrational sophistry of salvation in the hereafter, there are those who feel, well, blessed and revived at the Kumbh.
“Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest its divinity by controlling nature, external and internal. As Vedic people, we have two ways to achieve that: jnankaand (through wisdom) or karmakaand (through action). In the first, high spirituality brings one face to face with one’s soul as well as with god. But this path needs a high intellect and physique, and therefore is not for everyone. The second path is of rituals and is meant for the grihasth (the householder).”
This eloquence is from Arun Dey, 62, an advertising firm owner from New Delhi, once an apprentice sanyasi, now a father to two successful daughters with corporate jobs, yet still a wishful ascetic. “There is no Sachin Tendulkar here,” he says. “Why are the millions visiting then? It is faith in god. And what is god? It is Nature. Our rituals are obeisance to plants that nurture life. Just as a pot polished every day glistens like gold, our time here at the Maha Kumbh recharges us.”
But aren’t the millions dipping in the Ganga and their rituals horribly polluting the river, turning their utopia into dystopia? Isn’t that, like, totally dissonant karma? Wouldn’t the faithful notch up true karma if they instead mounted a resistance against governments and industrialists that are virtually raping what was once the world’s most fertile river basin and is now one of its most endangered water bodies? From the dozens who I ask this question, I get varied responses.
Yes, the Ganga is being polluted. But what can the common man do? We are not the government. This is kalyug, the Age of Evil in Hindu mythology. What do you expect? Scriptures say the Age of Prosperity will follow. Hence, the Ganga will revive. No, the Ganga is not polluted. We drink its water every day and bathe in it. Wouldn’t we be all so ill if it were polluted? Don’t worry, the Ganga cleanses itself. How can the Ganga be polluted if it purifies us? And so forth.
One would imagine the European visitor would be unnerved by the filth and the grime all around and the river’s dirtiness. Not so. The White People at the Maha Kumbh are of three kinds: the chroniclers; the curious, who may not admit it but are also seekers; and the faithful. Blindsided by the masses here that outnumber the populations of most European nations, those of the first category are driven by the spectacle rather than by searching questions on faith and divinity.
Those of the second category listlessly trudge the Maha Kumbh miles every day and, desperate to vicariously experience the motivations of the multitudes, stop by nirvana shops of the gurus and the swamis for crash courses that don’t quite deliver. After weeks spent here, many are still unsure if they did the right thing by buying that air ticket to escape their friendless lives in the unhappy West (their words, not mine), “where no one gives free food like they do here”.
And then there are the White Faithful. The drizzle turns into a full-blown downpour, turning the cloth roof into a sieve but failing to dampen the spirits of the women in sari or salwar-kameez and men in colourful smart sherwanis or kurta-dhotis. With rare exceptions, these are all white people. They are devotees of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the best known Indian guru globally, who was hailed as a messiah for teaching meditation, and who died in 2008 at the age of 90.
“I am the Raja of Germany,” a portly Caucasian shakes my hand and announces the remit that the Yogi gave him. A gold-coloured circlet across his forehead bears testimony to his status. But this gent is no king of Germany. Rather he leads the German chapter of the “Global Country of World Peace”, the one without borders that Maharishi Yogi started at the turn of the century. The “raja” has joined fellow “rajas” and lesser devotees here to witness the opening of a temple for the guru.
Born at Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh and educated at Allahabad University, the Maharishi, who would briefly become famous as the guru of the Beatles, pioneered what came to be his trademark, the Transcendental Meditation (TM). Decades later, he would launch TM-Siddhi (elevated), a stronger version that levitated the practitioner. “We are here to pay homage to the greatest person the world has ever produced,” says David Walne, a 62-year-old retiree from Liverpool whose life was transformed by TM 40 years ago.
The “great and wonderful Maharishi”, as Walne calls his guru, “always said that if we got enough people doing TM in one city, then all the negative trends there would decrease and the crime rate would drop”. Scientists, says Walne, means tested the TM in several cities of the US and found the results attested the claims. And then came TM- Siddhi, which brought into play the “three stages of yogic flying” that he claims helped cut crime rates in Washington DC.
In the first stage of yogic flying, energy moves up the spine. The second stage involves sitting cross-legged and building up a “desire to lift off, do the flying”. Walne says he himself has hopped 4-5 inches. The third stage is hovering several feet above, which only the master has achieved and nobody has seen. In Walne’s case, TM also helped him get off alcohol and Valium.
Barak Azmon, 48, an ophthalmologist-turned-medical equipment exporter from Israel, did his first tour of piety at the Maha Kumbh in 1989. Back then Israelis were barred from visiting India. “I paid baksheesh and got a visa in Italy,” he laughs. He stayed for two years living, working and travelling across India, even enrolling for a while in philosophy at the Banaras Hindu University.
“India is my second home and the Kumbh is the condensed version of India,” says Azmon, a leftish secularist. The nearest thing to god came to him far from the Kumbh, in the remote Himalayan region of Manali, 15 years ago when he and two other Israeli doctors ran a two-week eye camp. “We literally gave eyesight to the blind. For the first time I felt like a real doctor.”