Once upon a time when Gods and Demons roamed the earth, Lord Indra, the King of the Universe, offended a Sage and cost the Gods their immortality. With the Universe in flux and Demons gaining control, Lord Vishnu, Supreme Preserver of the Universe, stepped in to mobilize the Gods on a quest for the Nectar of Immortality to recover their lost powers and set the universe in its rightful order.
Once-in-a-lifetime events shouldn’t happen very frequently. A good rule-of-thumb is that there should be no second shot after missing out the first time. When you hear about a “once-in-a-lifetime sale” at the mall, it probably isn’t one. When I heard about the Maha Kumbh Mela, happening in Allahabad in 2013 for the first time in 144 years (and the last time until 2157), I got online immediately to look for tickets. This was the real deal.
Allahabad is in north India, quite far from Bombay. People had been planning on going to this particular Kumbh for a long time (the normal, non “Maha” Kumbhs happen once every 12 years). Thus, airline ticket prices were high, the pain compounded by a lack of available accommodations. Oh well, I thought. Going was a pipe dream anyways.
A month later while hanging out at a new friend’s place, a different new friend suggested taking a train instead. With little hesitation, I agreed.
My real-time thought process:
~25- hour cross-country train to attend the Kumbh, the largest gathering of human beings on the planet. [YES]
~12 hours at the Kumbh to avoid needing a place to sleep [YES]
~25 hours back to Bombay [uhhh…OK]
~All of the potential issues that could pop up along the way [YOLO]
By the end of the 8 weeks of the Kumbh, ~80 million people would have bathed in the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and (symbolic) Saraswati rivers. To give you an idea of the size and density of this spectacle, here’s an excerpt from a New York Times piece from the earlier stages of the Kumbh:
“Government officials estimated that 10 million pilgrims were encamped in Allahabad on Saturday night, with 20 million to 30 million expected to bathe by Monday.
If those figures are even close to being accurate, it is as if the entire population of Texas decided to visit an area the size of Savannah, Ga., all on the same weekend.
About 80 million pilgrims — roughly the population of Germany — are expected at some point in the Kumbh’s 55-day run. By comparison, 3.1 million people visited Mecca in Saudi Arabia during last year’s annual pilgrimage, the hajj. Each successive Kumbh breaks the record for the largest gathering in human history.”
Sounds pretty solid until the news inevitably comes out each Kumbh that hundreds of people have been trampled to death. Or that the Ganges and Yamuna are toxic dumping grounds for 90% of the year. Or that we have 1 confirmed berth on the train between 3 of us—and these berths are probably 70% of the size of freshman year dorm room beds.
So, naturally, that only heightened the intrigue. This trip, if I could pull it off, would be epic. I expected to be awed and uncomfortable: awed as a participant in an outsized ritual fit for a different era, uncomfortable as a skeptic of the influence that institutionalized ritual and organized religion has on people.
Friday rolled along and the original new friend decided to pull out since we hadn’t moved up the waitlist. 3 people in one berth is physically impossible. 2 would be tough but doable. So Srilekha, the newer new friend, and I decided to plow on and catch the train Saturday morning.
The Nectar of Immortality was under the Ocean of Milk. Lord Vishnu knew that the weakened Gods would need the Demons on their side in order to churn the Ocean. Vishnu used his diplomatic ways to get the Demons’ ear, then played them right into the hands of the Gods. Vishnu offered the Demons a chance to win the Nectar, a chance at immortality. That was all it took. Using a mountain in the middle of the Ocean as churning rod and giant venomous snake as a rope pulley, Vishnu arranged the Gods on one side and the Demons on the other for the greatest game of tug-of-war of all time.
“Chai, coffeeeee. Bisleri, bottle water! Chai, coffeeee. Bisleri, bottle water!”
“Vada Pav!VadaPavVadaPavVadaPaaaaav!” a local foodwalla would shout, voice trailing behind him as he moved towards the next cabin.
The daytime on the train was pretty calm save for these bursts of energy at every stop. The foodwallas and chaiwallas and all-purpose-snackwallas would pass through, and then we’d all go back to staring out the windows, watching the city turn into suburbs turn in to villages turn in to rolling hills turn in to brown fields…
Srilekha and I sampled food brought on board with each new region— elaborate biryanis, simple sandwiches, and thalis with veggies, rotis, rice and sweets. It was all good, across the board.
Over an evening meal we had our rendition of a dinner table conversation, albeit on a cramped top-bunk with enough headspace for a 60 degree tilt from the waist before making contact with the ceiling.
The topic du jour: religious ritual.
Srilekha came from a family that practiced Hinduism differently than mine. From an early age I remember my parents taking traditional rituals with a grain of salt. Srilekha’s welcomed those same rituals as ambassadors for a culture at risk of being lost.
So we chatted about the role of rituals. We thought about the purpose of religion at-large. I argued that individuals have to make up their minds without the pressurized influence of organized religion. Lots of people blindly follow practices without much contemplation—at the very least, this leads to lost opportunities and at worst, much more.
Srilekha didn’t totally disagree, but she also explained why she practiced Hindu rituals; they were cultural references tied to our collective history and could be adapted to be made relevant to our lives today. And besides, if those rituals would make her family happy and do no harm, why not adhere?
After digging a bit deeper, we dropped the dialogue and moved on. It was dark and time to try to sleep. I say try because we were still left with just the one berth for the two of us.
The train was completely full with not an empty bed in sight. Everyone seemed to be heading to the Kumbh or further; there was little hope that a berth would free up before the morning. So, Srilekha and I started strategizing.
“Let’s take shifts” Srilekha proposed. “One of us can sleep for a few hours while the other sits. We can rotate.”
This sounded like a good idea until we realized that 1) there weren’t any places to sit and wait, given that everyone would be using their berths for sleeping and 2) neither of us would be able to stay awake in the middle of the night waiting for our turn.
So, we started looking at the bed. You know how shoes arrive straight out of the box? One shoe on its side going north-south, the other on its side going south-north? Yeah. We were going to have to shoe-box it.
I don’t recommend shoe-boxing on Indian trains.
The ocean churned and the snake spewed venom. The Demons, with their unflinching bravado, had demanded to hold the head of the poisonous snake—they were now facing the consequences. With the Demons poisoned and the ocean churned, the Nectar was for the Gods’ taking. But—the venom, so powerful, was beginning to leak into the Ocean of Milk and threatening to compromise the Nectar. Lord Shiva, the second of the all-powerful Triumvirate of Gods (Vishnu and Brahma being the other two) stepped forward and swallowed the poison, keeping it in his throat while the others collected the Nectar. With Shiva’s neck turning blue from the toxicity of the poison, the rest of the Gods grabbed the Nectar and made a mad dash. The Demons, although weakened, were on their tails and wanted immortality.
On the banks of the Sangam (the confluence of the sacred rivers), millions gather every day of the Kumbh to bathe in holy water. Those millions make the trip from across India and the rest of the Hindu diaspora to be able to receive the highest of blessings for themselves and their families. Generations will wait for their shot at the Kumbh; often, one representative of the family will make the trip and take the plunge into the Sangam on behalf of everyone else. Legend holds that one dip in the Sangam will wash away all sins for generations past, present, and future.
25 hours after our departure, Srilekha and I disembarked from the train and headed towards the banks of the Sangam as the morning sun started to take its place in the sky.
From afar, I watched the waves—of people and rivers. We stepped closer. The waves became discreet objects; individuals on the banks and in the water. I saw smiles and I saw intent focus, years of devotion leading to this perceived moment of salvation.
What these rituals mean to these people, I will never know. The idea of faith that flies in the face of evidence scares me, for taken to its natural extreme it suggests a world with no logic or structures, where anything can be true if one believes it enough. And even though our science is imperfect and yesterday’s rules are being challenged in front of our eyes, I prefer the pursuit of Truth to an ex-ante Assumption.
But… in this moment, I could see that perhaps the rituals respected by these millions (and different rituals respected by different millions in the West) are echoes of a more fundamental, ancient beauty. For every flower petal placed at the pedestal of the Gods, we give thanks to our ancestors—the givers of life. For every coconut we garnish, we pay respect to nature—the ultimate arbiter of life. One can imagine early settlers coming upon the Sangam and being awed by its power and grace. Just as our poets pay homage to the awe-inspiring revelations of today, so did theirs. But their poetry was proselytized, and over time we took their poets’ words as Truth without knowing* the underlying feelings that invoked them in the first place.
In another sense, the mythologies of the Gods are living artifacts of the civilizations that dreamt them up—a glimpse of their ideal virtues, their model men and women, and their thoughts on living virtuous and holistic lives. As we hear of Holy Nectar spilling in to the river to spring life eternal upon all seekers, maybe there was a wholly secular meaning behind the words:
While “Kumbha” refers to an overflowing pot, it also refers to a body filled with knowledge. So, the nectar of the Kumbha Mela also manifests in the form of knowledge, which liberates us while we are still living. The nectar – or knowledge of divinity – lies within this Kumbha (of our body); it must only be churned to the surface.
Furthermore, the symbolism of the planetary alignment necessary for Kumbha Mela to occur is deeply poignant. In Hindu culture, the Sun and the moon are representative of human rational intellect and mind, and Jupiter – known as “Guru” in Sanskrit – is the spiritual master. Thus, as the arrangement of these three planetary bodies decide when Kumbha Mela occurs, it is representative of the philosophy that when the human intellect and mind are aligned with the Guru, the result is the realization of immortality **
Maybe the millions at the Kumbh were paying homage to poets of the past and future. Maybe on Easter Sunday, the masses around the world were dedicated to the ancient writers who told their powerful stories. Maybe in the future, David Foster Wallace, Ernest Hemingway, and the millions of people with Tumblrs and WordPress accounts will be considered the new recorders of the Truth.
Or maybe rituals are the template page on PowerPoint, putting some pre-ordained structure in place on a blank page for those who don’t want to work from scratch. Maybe those templates are catalysts for additional layers. Maybe they are necessary tools that save us from repeating our past errors and poor decisions, while limiting us from reaching the possibilities that come with a empty space.
The Kumbh was certainly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and more than just because of the math. Beyond the banks, we saw a pop-up mega city in action, ate fresh puris with chole and bhaji, talked with sages-turned-beggars and met people from my neighborhood in Houston.
And while I didn’t come away a Yogi, I took a dip in the Sangam for posterity.
The Demons continued their pursuit of the Gods and Immortality for 12 days and 12 nights. In the age of Gods and Demons, 1 day lasted for what we know of as 1 year. During this pursuit, 4 drops of Nectar fell from the jar of Nectar—all, somehow, in India. One of those drops fell at the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna, and Saraswati in Allahabad.
Ultimately, the Demons grew too weak and the Gods prevailed. Order was restored. And now, every 12 years, we celebrate the Kumbh.
* in the conocer sense of knowing