Monday, February 25, 2013

Kumbh Mela 2013

Saint sitting on metal spicks over a hot open fire
I knew I would be taking a risk if I went to Kumbh Mela, the largest religious and spiritual gathering in the world. I’d have a hard time adjusting to the rustic accommodations. Living in the open air under potential freezing weather and poor hygiene would be a challenge for my delicate stomach and compromised immune system. But with just a few of us in the car, and Guruji saying yes to everyone that day, I had to ask. Without hesitation he nodded his head and invited me to go.

I was told by one of the swamis at our international center in Bangalore that this Kumbh Mela, which happens once every 12 years in Allahabad, when Jupiter is in Aries and the sun and moon are in Capricorn, is considered to be the largest and holiest of all the four destinations where Kumbh Mela takes place and is believed to be the most auspicious. And that the Maha Kumbh Mela happening this year takes place every 144 years! More then 80 million people were expected to bathe in the Triveni Sangam, the place where the three most sacred rivers of India — the Ganga, Yamuna, and Saraswati — converge.

Naga Babas by the side of the road in their pavilion 
I was excited that in just a few days I would be joining the sadhus, the wandering monks who mostly live in caves, and the naga babas (long-haired ascetics who never wear any clothes and are always smeared in ash), for a holy dip in the Sangam. It’s believed that bathing here frees one from all past sins, liberating one from the cycle of birth and death.
A sea of saffron-clad seers

Staying at the Art of Living camp with Guruji was fairly tame. It was like being at the ashram in Bangalore back in the early 1990s. A crew of volunteers arrived at the Kumbh several weeks before to build a temporary camp for Guruji and his guests. Five of us from the U.S. squeezed into a makeshift room with no place to store our luggage or to hang our things. Fortunately, no one got electrocuted using the king size emersion coil we were given to heat our bucket of water to bathe. There was no end to the noise that surrounded us. Every group blasted Vedic chants or sermons throughout the day and night from their temporary pavilion or ashram. If it wasn’t for my super heavy-duty wax earplugs, I don’t think I would have gotten any sleep.

Guruji’s accommodations were very basic as well. Fortunately, it was slightly quieter where he was, and he was able to have meetings with numerous visiting swamis and devotees who came to be with him.

After the first night’s satsang, a few of us gathered in his room. As usual, Guruji was giving out prashad (blessed sweets), to the devotees. Guruji is well aware that I’m very strict about what I eat and that I’ve been on a wheat-free, sugar-free, taste-free diet for some time. Nevertheless, he offered me a ladu (a kind of sweet), and said, “At Kumbh, we’ll just celebrate and take a vacation from being on our diet.” And with that, he placed half the ladu in my hand and popped the other half in his mouth. I ate it without hesitation, which was completely uncharacteristic of me. Whether sweet, fried, or spicy — puris, jalebis, samosas, and more — for the next five days, I ate everything that was served to me. And much to my amazement, I was fine, completely fine.

Guruji with the Shankaracharya of Govardhan Math, Puri
More fantastic than the miraculous digestive enzymatic fluids in my intestines, was driving around the Kumbh with Guruji, visiting swamis and saints from various branches and traditions. Several times a day, we drove through a sea of people, down bumpy roads, watching exotic saffron-clad seers who looked like they were lured out of their forest hideouts and caves for a dip in the holy river. Guruji introduced us to numerous renowned saints, including Swami Sri Nischalananda Saraswati (the Shankaracharya of Govardhan Math, Puri). The most blissful and endearing saint we visited was Shri Rambhadracharya Ji, who lost his vision when he was 2 months old. He’s the founder and chancellor of Jagadguru Rambhadracharya Handicapped University, and has written more than 100 books. He blessed all of us, and held Guruji’s hand and lovingly said,  “Sri Sri is my brother. No — we are one soul in two bodies.”

Shri Rambhadracharya & Guruji
Besides visiting saints and taking our own dip in the river, we had an opportunity to serve food to thousands who came to our camp for satsang and darshan with Guruji. On the final day of our visit, we were forced to abandon camp due to the unseasonal torrential downpour that flooded everything at the Kumbh. Electricity went down and the Allahabad airport was closed. The only way to get back was to reroute our flight through Varanasi.

I always wanted to visit Varanasi (Benares), considered by many to be the spiritual capital of India, and the India’s oldest continuously inhabited city . But I never expected that I would be going with Guruji to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, considered the most holy Shiva temple in the world. Many famous Hindu saints (including Shankara and Tulsidas) have visited this temple, and Hindus consider a visit to this temple and a dip in the Ganges to be acts that will lead to liberation. Standing near Guruji in the inner sanctum watching the pundits do abhishek to the ancient Shiva Lingam felt familiar and ancient. A tremendous amount of emotion welled up inside, and I felt privileged to be there. 

Varanasi and the Kumbh Mela were deeply moving experiences. Seeing multitudes of people who journeyed to the Kumbh, spending their hard-earned money on train tickets, walking endless miles with their improvised camping gear and meager possessions on their back,s and sleeping under the stars just for an opportunity to dip in the Sangam, put life in perspective for me. It was another lesson, a reminder of how much I had, and how little I needed to be happy; how every moment in life can be filled with the divine presence. Gratitude and devotion are amazing gifts, and being at the Kumbh ignited that in me.

Perhaps you were at this or another Kumbh Mela, or had a similar experience elsewhere. I’d like to know how it was for you and what inspired you.