A sea of humanity, an ocean of bliss
April 14, 2010 was the highly auspicious final Royal Bathing Day at the Maha Kumbh Mela – the biggest and perhaps most important spiritual festival in the Hindu world, and the largest gathering of humanity on earth. As I was staying at my spiritual home, Aurovalley Ashram, just about 10 kilometres upstream from Haridwar, I found myself caught up in the excitement. And on the morning of the big day itself, I found myself alone, smack in the centre of the Kumbh Mela, at the extremely sacred Har-ki-Pauri ghat in Haridwar, surrounded by millions, probably tens of millions, of pilgrims, devotees, tourists, naga sadhus, babas, sunnyasis, pandits, swamis, VIPs and god knows who else. All the roads into and out of Haridwar in every direction were closed for miles around, the sun was climbing and the temperature was starting to soar to above 40 C. It was one of the peak experiences of my life: In that moment, I had to face my fears.
A drop in the ocean…
The morning of the Royal Bath, I had walked the 10 kms into Haridwar with Swami Brahmdev (Swamiji), my teacher and a group from the ashram. We left at 5 am and walked along the Ganga River at dawn, then through a stretch of ashrams, a sadhus enclave, a village and a lovely area of natural beauty before passing several huge temples and the flat, barren areas on the outskirts of Haridwar that were filled with camps. Huge billboards plastered with garishly coloured pictures of swamis and babas lined the way, with seas of khaki tents for their followers billowing behind.
We started with just about 12 people, alone on a small forest path, but as the sun came up and we got closer to Haridwar, we were joined by an increasing number of people until we were surrounded by thousands, and then, perhaps, millions. If you have never seen or experienced anything like this, imagine the film Gandhi. An enormous mass of people were streaming into Haridwar to take a dip on the sacred ghats (steps down to the river) at this extremely auspicious moment.
According to Hindu belief, at the time of creation, the devas (gods) and asuras (demons) churned the ocean until the kumbh (pot) of amrita, the nectar of immortality, appeared. A fierce battle for the kumbh ensued, between the devas and asuras. During the 12 days (12 years in human life) struggle over the kumbh, four drops fell on earth, in four different places, and every 12 years there is a mela (festival) at one of these places to commemorate the devas’ victory in wresting the kumbh from the asuras. It is a victory of light over dark; truth over ignorance; positivity over negativity. One of the four drops fell where the sacred city of Haridwar is located in north India
This year the Maha Kumbh Mela took place in Haridwar over a period of about four months – with the final culmination of the mela taking place when the sun entered Aries and Jupiter entered Aquarius on the new moon, April 14, 2010. (Someone told me this happens once in 5,000 years.) This was the moment of the Shahi Snan (Royal Bath) – the most auspicious time to bathe in the Ganga (Ganges River). I read that 10-12 million people bathed in Haridwar on April 14.
The Maha Kumbh Mela is the largest gathering of humanity on earth. Millions of people gather from all over India, some walking for many days and weeks, to have a bath in the Ganga at Har-ki-Pauri, a very small, narrow stretch of ghats that run alongside the river as it wends its way through Haridwar. It is astonishing in so many ways and for so many reasons. In this cynical day and age, to find so many people of such powerful faith is astonishing. To have many millions of people living together in tents and camps, and taking turns bathing along a small stretch of river, largely without incident is astonishing. To achieve the kind of order and organization that such an event takes in INDIA, of all places, is astonishing! And just to be there, to be part of it, to see the people – the naga sadhus (naked holy men), swamis, babas, sunnyasis, pilgrims – is astonishing.
I had asked Swamiji about the Kumbh, and why people go, what is the purpose and the best attitude to take. He said that an event like the Kumbh helps put people in direct contact with the Divine. No mediators are needed. I know now what he meant.
After about two-and-a-half hours of walking we passed the enormous statue of Shiva that greets visitors to Haridwar arriving from the Rishikesh side, and soon after we reached the start of the ghats that line the river into Haridwar. I was never so happy to see Shiva in all my life! The first ghat was closed to the public – only VIPs allowed. I had a media pass, and another ashramite had an all-access pass, and between the two of use, we got the whole group into the VIP enclosure (after the usual round of argument and negotiation with the guards, of course). This was a lovely place to be, well-located, spacious and calm – the perfect place to bathe, and I am so grateful to Swamiji for leading us directly there.
I entered the chilly water at about 7:30 am, fully clothed, propelled along by excitement, energy and the full knowledge of how incredibly lucky and privileged I was to have had such an experience. It was more than once-in-a-lifetime; it was once in several lifetimes! I did puja, reciting the mantra Jai Ganga Mataji, held onto the rail (the current is very swift) and dipped three times in the water. Afterwards I stood up, hands in prayer, and just took some time to feel the blessings and the energy, and savour the momentousness. I felt pure joy and exhilaration. I was riding a wave of bliss that was running through the entire Kumbh Mela and uniting the millions. I felt my feet on the ghat, the water up to my waist, and a current running through me, through the water.
All around me, the other people bathing were also expressing happiness and joy. Families bathing together, friends, my fellow ashramites. And across from us, a sea of people heading towards the river, or in it, or walking away from it – everyone united in the desire to honour Ganga Mataji, the mother river of India, and receive the highest blessings from her as the stars aligned above our heads.
Afterwards, I had the presence of mind to get out my camera and I documented Swamiji’s bath with both photos and video. He waited to bathe until we were almost finished, watching over us. I felt completely protected. When everyone was ready to go back to the ashram, I was torn – should I go with them or take my chances and try to make it to the media platform in the centre of Har-ki-pauri. I was afraid to go alone, but I didn’t want to miss the chance; and I had made a decision to at least live one day in full faith of the Divine. The group went left, towards the ashram, and I went right, into the heart of the mela.
I reached the media platform by walking with the river of pilgrims into Har-ki-pauri, but the guards wouldn’t let me up. The platform was completely full – a very small space for the world’s journalists – and no amount of cajoling could move them. I saw my friends from the ashram on the platform (one Colombian group was there making a documentary about the Ganga, and two men from Pondicherry were there taking photographs). They were the people I hoped to attach myself to, and return to the ashram with (in their vehicle). But when the guards wouldn’t let me up, I knew I was on my own. With nowhere to go, and no way to get back to the ashram except by walking, I had to think fast as the sun was climbing and the heat was building. This was a peak moment for me, a moment of facing just about every fear I have ever had. I had to find my way back to the ashram through an unknown route, alone amidst crowds of millions coming the other way as the sun climbed in the sky.
And I decided to go. To take my chances and walk back, and let the Divine guide me. I went with confidence, positivity and purpose. I remembered that even when Gandhi was an old man, he was still a very good and very fast walker. I thought about how I had on top-quality walking sandals, and, in my backpack, a bottle of water, a bag of peanuts , two oranges, a hat and sunscreen. I was fit and healthy. So many of the people around me were old, frail, bent, poor, shoeless. So I went. I walked all the way back to the ashram, somehow finding the route, and I was back in time for satsang, at about noon. The bottoms of my feet were covered in blisters, but aside from that, I was completely well, exhilarated from my experience and my achievement. I felt I would never be the same – and realized that this is the entire point.
Swamiji talks about how we are here to learn, grow and change. Each experience gives us a drop of knowledge, and the more we use our knowledge – LIVE our knowledge – the more we grow our consciousness. The more conscious we are, the more we realize our truth, who we really are: part of the Divine. In ignorance we think in terms of duality; in truth, we are One. On the Kumbh Mela day, I definitely grew in terms of my faith in my own strength and my faith in the Divine. I feel I have already benefited from the blessings of bathing in the Ganga at that auspicious time; and I hope I am contributing to the increased consciousness of all.
Flowing with the current
To be honest, I came to Aurovalley Ashram without the thought of the Kumbh Mela in my head. I knew it was taking place, but I did not plan to go. I needed the peace and solitude of Aurovalley to recover from fatigue, stress and chronic digestive problems – and, generally, to recover my equilibrium and reconnect to myself and my spiritual path. The past year has been a tough one – among other things, I was really focused on launching my travel writing career and my blog, and I have never worked so hard in all my life – and it really left me feeling depleted. I did not think I would find the strength to face the Kumbh Mela’s crowds, chaos and massive amount of energy. Also, I have been in Haridwar several times before and I have always found the energy there quite disturbing. It’s a Shiva city, and Shiva is the destroyer – the destroyer of the unneeded – and while that energy is cleansing, it is turbulent too.
However, after about two weeks at the ashram I was feeling like a new person – calm, happy, healthy, energized – and then Lalit appeared. Lalit is a 6’ 3” Punjabi man from Pondicherry who has the exuberance of an entire class of school boys, the strength of an elephant, the positivity of a guru and the charm of a Bollywood star. He and his friend Jean-Pierre, a tall, suave, enthusiastic French man, arrived to go to the Kumbh Mela and take photos, and they did it with an infectious spirit that swept me up. Before you know it, I was with these two characters, in the camp of the naga sadhus (naked holy men), meeting men covered in ashes and mala beads and very little else.
Lalit and Jean-Pierre just dove in, talking to the naga sadhus, taking their pictures. We spent about four hours in their camp, spending a lot of time in particular with two independent sadhus and one group. I felt especially calm and comfortable with the group, who had their guru, their baba, with them. One of the men spoke some English and we talked a little. When we were leaving, he told me he was my brother and gave me a topaz. I gave him a bracelet I was wearing. Another young man was very friendly towards me and enjoyed getting his picture taken. Although it was very hot, I had an enjoyable time. The camp we were in was actually in town, in a maze of alleys. Temporary tents and enclosures had been erected for them, which included electricity and water taps. Most of the tents had some fans running, and some even had TVs and DVD players.
The two independent sadhus we spent time with both showed us how they can wrap their penises around a pole and then move or exert pressure on the pole in some way. One had a man stand on the pole as he held it horizontally behind him! I really didn’t know what to think. It seems like a waste of time and effort to me. How does it benefit anyone? But I politely watched and tried to take some pictures, which didn’t really turn out that well. I mean, I just wasn’t prepared. I don’t remember any photography instructor covering this particular situation.
I really don’t know how holy these men are: they seem to spend a lot of time on their “look” – their hair, make-up, jewelry. They spend a lot more time than me, I am sure! I don’t mean to judge them; honestly, I just don’t get it. One of my Indian friends said that many become sadhus due to a lack of options and opportunities. I guess it is like everything else: there are genuine and sincere naga sadhus and those who are just passing time. Another of the sadhus we spent time with was very taken with me – no doubt the blonde hair and fair skin – and spoke to my friend in Hindi, at length, about how excited he felt looking at me, and how he wanted me to come back and spend time with him. He even tried to get my phone number!
By about 3 p.m. we were very hot and tired and Lalit lead us to a beautiful, private bathing ghat in a huge home on the river that was occupied by people from the Aurobindo organization. We went down some stairs and came out into a gorgeous garden and a small, private ghat where only the three of us bathed. It was cool and heavenly. I felt very lucky.
Afterwards, we tried to make our way toward Har-ki-pauri for the aarti, the evening puja to honour the Ganga. I was tired and found the crowds of people too intense, so I stopped at the Haveli Hari Ganga, a beautiful hotel on the river. I have stayed there before, so I asked if I could wait there while Lalit and Jean-Pierre went to the aarti. I sat on a lovely upstairs balcony and sipped tea, and even had a reflexology treatment in the top-floor spa while my friends were battling for a spot to take pictures. They were exhausted and frazzled when they returned, while I was cool, calm and refreshed.
I was sorry I missed the aarti, but it turns out I really did make the right choice. Two days later I went to the Media Centre and was pleasantly surprised to discover I qualified for a media pass. With that in hand, I went to the media platform in Har-ki-Pauri, directly across from the aarti, and had the best view possible. This was just two days before the BIG DAY and there was only a handful of media on the platform. In fact, most of them were staying at Aurovalley Ashram!
Aside from myself, Lalit and Jean-Pierre were there, and a group of seven wonderful young Colombian people making a documentary about the Ganga. So I was able to get a comfortable ride back to the ashram, and was very grateful for the smoothness of my day.
Even getting the media pass took only an hour, and I didn’t even have my passport with me. Apparently it’s not possible to get a media pass without a passport. It’s also not possible to take a train from Delhi to Haridwar during the Kumbh Mela without a ticket, but I did that too … (I was number 48 on the waiting list and thought I had seat 48! An amazingly kind train superintendent actually gave me his seat, just two minutes before the train left.) So, I really do feel the Divine’s grace, guidance and protection.
In the end, I went to the Kumbh Mela three times from Aurovalley Ashram, in the days before the Royal Bath, with rest days in between at this peaceful haven. It took a lot of energy, and I felt a lot of energy when I was there – in fact, I could feel my spine tingling as electrical currents surged up and down. I am very glad I went; it was a great experience. But I still prefer the peaceful, nature-imbued Aurovalley Ashram and the beautiful natural setting of Rishikesh. I am better at feeling the Divine’s presence in nature than in man-made structures and events. But of course the Divine is everywhere and in everything …
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