Footloose at the Kumbh

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I was born in Allahabad, barely five miles from the Sangam, Hinduism’s holiest spot by popularity. This is the confluence of the most sacred river in the universe, the Ganga, with another river, the Yamuna, which terminates here. And yet, I grew up an atheist, influenced by the socialist politics germane to a city that gave India its first three prime ministers and led in the creation of its revolutionary literature from the time of the freedom struggle. It is no small irony that two of the most astounding moments of my life are embedded in the most iconic religious experience of the land.
Few people set a Guinness World Record once, fewer still twice. I joined the latter group this month, with no special feat to my credit at either time. I set my first record as a reluctant preteen on a slety January night 36 years ago after the octogenarian patriarch on my mother’s side of the family marched his wife, sons, daughters, their spouses and offspring the four miles from his house downtown to the Sangam.
Palm clutching an outstretched palm, we snaked through the frenzied millions while their screaming amplified to a colossal twister. A child’s giddy mind struggled to process the unrelenting waves of human beings disrobing at lightning speed and jumping into bone-chill water. The Guinness Book of  World Records would later show that the 10 million who gathered at the Sangam for a holy bath on the occasion of the Maha Kumbh Mela that morning in January 1977 were history’s largest human gathering ever.
And then I went back this month. 10 February 2013. The exact location. To almost exactly the same experience. Swirling sand. Madding crowds. Thirty million. Thrice the 1977 number. (India’s population, too, has doubled since.)
Despite beaming images live across the world — I myself mailed pictures I shot on my iPhone — it was déjà vu country. Yet again, the dumb millions, as Mahatma Gandhi called them, driven by — what? Faith? Mythology? Spirituality? Desperation for salvation? Blind superstition? Fear of evil?
Of course, everyone at the Kumbh has their own story.
A prosperous farmer’s son in Uttar Pradesh, Arvind Singh had an epiphany at the age of 17 when in the ninth grade. Until then he had seemed headed to a future in government, perhaps as a policeman like an older brother. “I realised life as a householder would be a ruin,” he says explaining why he chose to become a naked ascetic, aka naga sadhu in the Hindu religious order. “Lust and desire kill happiness and peace.” In 1993 on the night of Diwali, the Festival of Lights, Singh began to peel off his clothes. His mother wailed. Neighbours jostled for a view. “I submitted to god.”
Kotwala Akhandanand Saraswati, as Singh is now renamed, has since traversed India’s length and breadth “preaching Sanatana Dharma”, the technical name for the Hindu religion. He leads congregational chanting of the sacred scriptures, especially the Bhagvad Gita. Stories of Lord Krishna flow lyrically from him, the better after a couple of drags of what smells like fine-grade hashish in his chillum, the ascetic’s pipe.
His success as a mendicant — and successful he is: he owns and drives a Ford Ikon around India — has repaired his troubles with what was once his family. He says he spends up to Rs 20 lakh on a single day’s community kitchen any time he calls it. “Kumbh is my birthplace as a sadhu,” says Saraswati, 37, ashen from head to toe with a generous smearing of wood ash. “This is where sadhus are born.”
Indeed, the story of the Kumbh Mela (literally, the pitcher fair) is primarily a story of asceticism and renunciation, at least in theory. It harks back to the mythical tale of gods and demons churning the ocean in rare cooperation to ferret the much sought nectar of immortality. Inevitably, the two fought for exclusive control once the said nectar emerged in a pitcher from the ocean’s deepest womb. That was when Vishnu, one of Hinduism’s three primary gods, intervened as a bird and flew away with the pitcher. In the rush though, this bird-god wasn’t very careful, and the pitcher leaked into four different rivers.
Which, as it were, has turned out well for the Hindus: the four rivers are believed to sustain that nectar. Since centuries, the Hindu religious calendar built on the lunar cycle tells us when the stars align nicely to make the nectar in the rivers most potent. The faithful merely need to plunge into the river at the right spot at the right time. A Kumbh is held by the side of each of the four rivers at different times over 12 years. With hierarchy an inescapable feature of both Hindu society and mythology, the Sangam has the highest stature of the four Kumbhs. Hence the rush of the tens of millions.
Twelve years may sound like a drag, but the momentum is never quite lost. Annual fairs build up to the Ardh (half ) Kumbh every six years, the Kumbh every 12, and the Maha (huge) Kumbh every 144, which is 12 multiplied by 12. This last is the sole preserve of the Sangam, another reason for its leadership status. This year’s record-breaking participation at the Sangam is credited to the fact that the ongoing is a Maha Kumbh Mela. (Although, the trivia junkie that I am, I am quite certain that the 1977 fair, too, was given to us as the Maha Kumbh. I may be wrong. But even if I am right, who cares?)
Of course, the sadhus and the saints get the first shot at riverine immortality as they are believed to be the champions and defenders of the Hindu faith that, at least in the revivalist sectarian imagination of the last century, has suffered onslaughts from “the Other”: Islam and Christianity in recent centuries, and from Buddhism hundreds of years ago. The foundation of Hinduism lies in the four Vedas that are believed to be divinely inspired and collated around 3,000 years ago. The word Hindu is a misnomer, appearing in none of the Sanskrit Vedas, its provenance dated to only a few hundred years ago. “Our religion is the Sanatana Dharma, which means it has existed from before the beginning of time and will continue to exist after time has lapsed,” Swami Adhokshajanand, one of the current Sankara charyas, told TEHELKA at the Maha Kumbh.
The first attempt to create a sort of Sanatana Dharma church is credited to the legend of a boy-saint born in south India two-and-a-half millennia ago and known as Adi Sankaracharya. It is believed he set up four outposts, known as the peethas, to gird up Hinduism’s trusses, and also installed a twin religious order: of saints to protect the faith by preaching the shāstra (scriptures), and of naked sadhus to do so by shastra (arms). For this, the boy-saint is said to have created a string of akhadas, or regiments, and tasked them with inducting, training and organising the preachers and the fighters.
The akhadas were placed under the control of the four religious leaders, named Jagadguru (world guru) Sankaracharyas, who headed the four peethas. Over time, the akhadas evolved to autonomy and the four Kumbh Melas, especially the one at the Sangam, became the rallying point for their saints and naked sadhus. As Hinduism’s Big Tent, the Kumbh Mela thus traditionally showcased its grandest socio-religious assembly, fertile for religious discourses as well as Vedic preachings and debates.
But much of the spartan theory is history. Time was the naked sadhus fought real battles, even against the Mughals and, at other times, for them against invaders. But now there has been no war-making with the sadhus in living memory. Besides, the once supposedly structured Hindu religious order is in disarray, overrun as it is by hundreds of self-acclaimed ascetics — the babas and the swamis — who have set up shop outside the order, earning millions in followers and billions in income. “A rosary, a mat and a staff are the only possessions an ascetic ever needs,” says Sankaracharya Adhokshajanand of the godmen. “The wealth of these babas should be confiscated.”
And what wealth they have. Joining the Indian Air Force in 1957, Pilot Baba claims he flew MIGs in two of India’s wars with Pakistan. For the past 30 years though, he is flying high only as a self proclaimed spiritual saviour of tens of thousands of his followers. At the Kumbh, his expansive antechamber at his ashram’s sprawling redoubt hardly betrays his otherworl dliness. Remember that like every other structure by the Ganga at the Kumbh, this too is temporary, built of wood and cloth and other non-permanent material. His, however, has an attached WC, a large LCD television, a springy double bed with velvety quilts, a clutch of room heaters and a treadmill.
“Fighting G-force as a pilot helped me,” Pilot Baba says when I get an exclusive audience because I knew someone who knew someone who is his disciple. “The transformation came at once, making me understand there is more to truth.” His English is broken, which is fine as an overwhelming number of disciples swarming his private quarters at the Kumbh are Russian men and women with little English skills. But even if they could understand him, they would not be affected, so blindingly their faith has fastened them to him. For me, though, it isn’t easy to grasp his “truth”. Here is an excerpt: “I believe human beings do not have courage to go above luxury life. When you become no mind, world becomes meaningless. When no mind, you are beyond world. You have no subject or object. You have no belonging. That brings the beauty of life.”
He explains that truth comes from being totally free from love, compassion, gratitude, sympathy. Yes, I heard him right. There is no past or future, he says. “They all disappear.” Once that happens, “you can do in 10 seconds what you can’t do in one year”. Whatever. I am now sneaking glances at his bracelet. I am sure it has innumerable diamonds. What else would shine so? Why wouldn’t they be real anyway? Then he says: “We are not teaching the truth. People who are teaching the Gita, the Bible, the Quran are not teaching the truth. They’re talking about the truth.” What?
After some more of his speechifying about ascending from lower to higher consciousness, of moksha having no meaning, on how to make contact between radiant energies using the gaps between them, I’m driven to ask him why sadhus smoke up. “Adi Sankaracharya, a great intellectual, told the sadhus to smoke (hashish) systematically to kill the sexual power,” he says. “I thank Sankaracharya that he gave the sadhus the dope.” Perhaps Pilot Baba knows what he is talking about.
Evidently, he meditated in the buff on the glacial Himalayas for 20 years before other saints who had lived and mediated there for thousands of years ordered him to get back into our world to lift us from the morass. Since he has stepped right back in, he has been teaching yoga, “not of the body, but of the mind”. Because the sadhus are not bothered by the body. That is why he has often taken samadhis — or immersion — in water, underground, and in “airtight” containers, for up to five days each.
The freakiness of none of this matters though to the believer. For Anna Dmitzievna, a petite 22-year old TV commercial model from Moscow aspiring to be a movie actress, being at the Kumbh is its own reward. For four years back home, she has been waking up at 4 am to offer prayers to Lord Shiva, and congregating with a shamanist sect every week. “It is only spiritual practices that bring results,” she says, speaking through an interpreter from Varanasi who is as foxed by her obsession as I am. “Praying to Shiva rids me of bad feelings and creates an aura of exceptional sensations.”
Certainly, everyone at the Kumbh has her or his own compelling need to be there. Little did Kalyan Gupta, 63, know that when he left his hometown Kolkata in 1980 in search of livelihood, he would end up owning a five-bedroom sea-facing flat in suburban Mumbai from a business arising out of his years as a shipping agent earning millions of dollars. Dressed nattily in a striped green T-shirt and a pair of jeans, looking a good decade younger than his age, Gupta is eager to walk into the sprawling Kumbh.
“This is my third Kumbh and I am here to see if I can find my guru’s guru’s guru’s guru,” Gupta tells me. That final guru is none other than Babaji Maharaj (who Gupta says has been “in body for 2,000 years and lives in the Himalayas”) referred to in the bestselling book The Autobiography of a Yogi from the 1950s. Back home, Gupta drives a Mercedes, dabbles in blue-chip shares from the house of the Tatas and companies such as Infosys, and lives a retired life. But his life’s main goal now is to run into Babaji at a Kumbh, because he knows that Babaji visits every Kumbh. “It is not easy to spot him though because he is often in disguise, mostly as a young sadhu.” Presently, his smile withers. “However, I know I won’t see him. Because I am not ready for him yet.”
Is everyone at the Kumbh then beyond the pale of my comprehension? Not really. For 25-year-old Vandith, who won’t give a second name because “it is not important at the Kumbh”, it is a chance to serve the devout. Born in the temple town of Tirupati, educated as a computer engineer at the Birla Institute of Technology in Rajasthan, he quit his job in Goa to arrive at the Kumbh early January. He has since volunteered to run a dormitory, a kitchen and an ambulance. And once in a while dipped in the holy water. “It is not about being religious or Hindu,” he explains. “It is about feeling good about myself.”
For brothers Amrit and Akash Sagar, 25 and 21, being at the Kumbh is a rite of passage, too. After all, it was their late grandfather, Ramanand Sagar, a prominent Hindi filmmaker, who created the blockbuster TV series in the 1980s on the Hindu epic, Ramayana, that tells the story of Lord Rama. As we sat around a bonfire amid upscale Swiss cottages, we spoke of the massive popularity that the TV series continues to have as evident in the still rocketing DVD sales. “We had to come to the Kumbh for the experience,” gushed Amrit. Besides, he has just finished directing his second film to launch his younger brother in a lead role. What better place than here for a blessing?
“The experience” it was, for sure, that brought Pallavi Jayaprakash, a smart 30-year-old leasing manager for an Israeli real estate firm operating in Bengaluru. She, her twin sister and six friends, as well as her Muslim boyfriend, came over because, well, “we had read an article in November and I was, like, oh god, Kumbh is next year, let’s go”. It became a kind of “cool factor.”
Pallavi is not religious, although when her father was diagnosed with cancer a decade ago, she did take to praying. Now at the Kumbh, when she went near the Sangam, she couldn’t decide if she should jump into the water. “We walked around for 45 minutes, not sure if we should.” Then they did.
“It felt good,” she says. “In my head I said that I am here to take a dip to feel recharged. To wash away the sins of my ancestors.” Really? Did she really believe that? “I did it for my mom, who believes in it. Maybe part of me believes in it, too.” Also, she and others have come in because “we have a friend who is a white American and is a DJ and is a baba. We are all so excited to meet him.”