t is wonderful, the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining. . .It is done in love, or it is done in fear; I do not know. No matter what, the impulse, the act born of it, is beyond imagination, marvelous to our kind of people, the cold whites…” ---Mark Twain, the celebrated American author, after visiting the Kumbha festival in 1895.
India has perennially been a country of festivals--religious, cultural, social, you-name-it festivals. Kumbha, the largest religious gathering on earth according to the Guinness Book of Records, got underway in Allahabad on January 14, 2013, Makar Sankranti day at the Triveni Sangam, the confluence of the Ganga, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati.
The Four Earthly Venues of the Festival
While Christmas comes once every year, this ‘Ageless festival’ of India is held once in 12 years in each of the four different Indian cities, depending, of course, on the position of one of the nine planets, namely Jupiter, which takes as many years to complete the orbit of the stellar zodiac.
The Kumbha Mela at Hari-dwar (literally meaning the ‘gateway to god’) in Uttaranchal is held when Jupiter is in the stellar sign of Aquarius in juxtaposition to the Sun in Aries; the festival at Prayag in Allahabad takes place when Jupiter is in Taurus in juxtaposition to the Sun in Capricorn; the one at Nasik in Maharashtra is held when both Jupiter and the Sun are in Leo; and at Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh, it is held when Jupiter is in Libra in juxtaposition to the Sun in Aries. The four earthly sites, according to the Hindu mythological lore, received drops of the amrit (divine ambrosia) which was obtained by churning KsheerSaagar (the primeval ocean of milk) in the wake of continuing battle between the gods and the demons.
Churning of the Ocean
The story of the churning of the ocean, called Samudra Manthan, finds mention in the two great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and in the two Puranas--Bhagavata Purana and Vishnu Purana,
The war between the gods and the demons (forces of good and evil) goes on perpetually. It is said that while the demons would win the battles, it is the gods who ultimately won the wars, thanks to divine support. One such war took place at the beginning of the creation, in which gods, as expected, were defeated. They approached Brahma, the Creator, for a remedy. He sent them to Bhagawan Vishnu who advised them to churn the ocean, the repository of limitless wealth and take out amrit. Anyone who had a sip of amrit would become immortal.
In this stupendous task, the gods sought the cooperation of the demons who agreed on the condition that they would share the countless treasures that the ocean would yield. With Mount Meru as the post and the churning rope, both the gods and the demons set about their task. As the churning continued, the first substances to be released were deadly fumes and gases (Kaalakoot Vish) which Lord Siva consumed to save the world from certain destruction. The poisonous substance turned Siva’s throat blue and resulted in His being called Neelakantha.
After many rounds of churning, the ocean yielded a number of ratnas (jewels), the last of which was Dhanavantari, the great healer who held in his hands the Kumbha (pitcher) of ambrosia. Both the gods and the demons made a dash for the prize item. The battle for acquiring the pitcher of amrit went on for twelve consecutive days and nights, which was equivalent to 12 human years.
At this point of time, Lord Vishnu appeared disguised as Mohini, a damsel of great enchanting beauty. Infatuated by Mohini’s charm, the two parties accepted her as the right person to distribute amrit. She seated gods and the demons in separate rows and began with the gods first. Rahu, a demon, sneaked into the gods’ row. The Sun and the Moon sitting on either side complained to Lord Vishnu about it. And the Lord wasted no time in chopping off Rahu’s head with His Sudarshan Chakra. But the demon did not die as he had by now already taken amrit. It is since then that the two parts of the demon, Rahu (dragon’s head) and Ketu (dragon’s tail) cause eclipses of the Sun and the Moon, their old enemies by virtue of playing the role of informers.
Meanwhile, Jayant, the son of Indra fled with the pitcher containing amrit with the demons in hot pursuit after him. In the resultant melee, drops of the divine ambrosia splashed at the four earthly sites: Har Ki Pauri at (Hari-dwar); Triveni Sangam (Allahabad); Nasik (Maharashtra) and Ujjain (Madhya Pradesh). As only a few drops of amrit fell at the last two places, smaller Kumbha festivals are held at Nasik and Ujjain.
In this divine drama, three actors were actively involved.
The pilgrimage to the sacred rivers is believed to have been in vogue in India for nearly 10,000 years. The first ever reference to the festival of Kumbha occurs in the Atharva Veda (4/34/1), wherein Lord Brahma says: "Chaturah Kumbhaashch Chaturdha Dadaami", meaning "I give unto you humans four places of Kumbha for your salvation". References to the festival can also be traced to the two epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, as well as in the Bhagvata Purana and the Vishnu Purana.
Megasthenes, the Greek visitor to India during the 4th century BCE has recorded a description of what could have been the Kumbha Mela. However, the first written evidence to the festival has been made by the Chinese traveler, Hieun Tsang who visited India between 629 and 645 CE during the reign of the great King, Harshavardhana. According to him, even though the origin of the Kumbha was lost in antiquity, the festival at that time was known to be at least several thousand years old. Hieun Tsang says that King Harshavardhana attended every Kumbha held during his time.
Thus one can safely assume that Kumbha Mela has been there almost since the existence of our civilization and culture. And this chain extending to the hoary past has never been broken.
Even though the journey in good old days must have been hazardous with primitive transport and roads infested with robbers and beasts, hundreds and thousands of pilgrims would converge on the Kumbha mela.
Kumbha Festival 2013
One of the most incredible sights and an event of unimaginable scale, Kumbha festival 2013 will as usual provide a real feel and experience of the complex and the colorful culture of India, known as the spiritual capital of the world since ages. A sea of humanity converges for the religious event dubbed as the "greatest show on earth"
Over 80 million Hindus from all over the world are expected to take a dip at the Sangam in Allahabad in the northern Indian State of Uttar Pradesh during the current Kumbha Mela, the third largest in the new millennium. The previous festival held at Haridwar in 2010 managed about 45 million pilgrims.
While there are 11 bathing days during this year's Kumbha festival, February 10, 2013, Sunday, is designated as the main bathing day for the simple reason that on this day, both the Sun and the Moon are in the zodiacal sign of Capricorn with Jupiter in Taurus, which is an important astronomical feature that determines the very occurrence of the Maha Kumbha festival at Prayag. This Amavasya is also called Mauni which in Sanskrit refers to the practice of Mauna (Silence) that forms an important aspect of spiritual discipline by ascetics. It symbolizes a state of oneness with the self. It is also the day when new members of various monastic orders receive their first initiation.
Significance of all the Bathing Dates
Special bathing days for this year’s Kumbha, as for every Kumbha in the past, have been fixed astronomically according to the position of the Sun, the Moon and Jupiter in the heavens. The Maha Kumbh Mela at Allahabad takes place during the lunar month of Magh, believed to be auspicious for getting rid of sins. Our scriptures attach lot of importance to a ritual bath (snan) during this month, particularly if taken before sunrise.
January 14, 2013 (Monday) - Makar Sankranti Snan:
This was the first of the big bathing days, considered very auspicious in view of the transit of the sun into the zodiacal sign of Capricorn.
January 27, 2013 (Sunday) - -Paush Purnima Snan
The day occurs when the moon is full in the lunar month of Paush. Incidentally, it is the last full moon day of winter. By this time, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and the ascetics of all hues from all over the Himalayas arrive at the Kumbh Mela.
February 6, 2013 (Wednesday --Shat-tila Ekadasi Snan
A ritual bath on Ekadasi is considered very pious because it occurs when the moon is either closest or farthest from the earth.
February 10, 2013 (Sunday) --Mauni Amavasya Snan
This is designated as the main bathing day because both the Sun and the Moon are in the zodiacal sign of Capricorn and Jupiter is in Taurus, which forms the astronomical combination that determines the very occurrence of the Maha Kumbha Festival at Prayag. A ritual bath on Mauni Amavasya (the new moon day) carries the highest spiritual merit.
February 12, 2013 (Tuesday) --Kumbha Sankranti Snan
Kumbha Sankranti falls on this day by virtue of the Sun moving from Capricorn to the zodiacal sign of Aquarius. A holy bath at Prayag during this festival carries special significance and is believed to be very auspicious.
February 15, 2013 (Friday) --Vasant Panchmi Snan
This is the fifth day of the bright half of the lunar month of Magh and it marks the beginning of spring in North India-a day when people pray for a good bumper harvest. Traditionally people wear yellow on this day.
February 17, 2013 (Sunday) --Rath Spatami Snan
Dedicated to the Sun-God, Rath Saptami festival is observed on the seventh day of the bright half of the lunar month of Magh (January – February) in the traditional Hindu calendar.
February 18, 2013 (Monday) --Bheeshma Ashtami Snan
On this day, Bheeshma Pithamaha, the oldest, the wisest, the most powerful and the most righteous person belonging to the Kuru dynasty over 5000 years ago, spoke of the greatness of Lord Krishna through Sri Vishnu Sahasranama to Yudhishtira, the oldest brother of the Pandavas.
February 21, 2013 (Thursday) --Bhim Sen (Jaya) Ekadashi Snan
As stated elsewhere in this write-up, a ritual bath on Ekadasi is considered very pious for it occurs when the moon is either closest or farthest from the earth. Besides, the day is dedicated to remembering the great Pandava warrior, Bhim.
February 25, 2013 (Monday) --Maghi Purnima Snan
The full Moon day (Purnima) of the lunar month of Magh is regarded as very sacred, particularly for performing religious rituals. A holy bath at Prayag on this occasion is said to result in great spiritual benefits.
March 10, 2013 (Sunday) --Maha Shivaratri Snan
This was the great night of Shiva from whose dreadlocks the Ganges flows. He married Parvati, daughter of the Himalayas, on this day.
There is a popular belief held since ancient times that a dip at Har-ki-Pauri and other towns along the 1250-mile journey of the holy Ganges river from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, particularly during the Kumbha, washes away their sins and bestows great spiritual benefits. A Rig Vedic hymn goes a step further and says that “those who come to discard their bodies at the confluence of the white and blue waters achieve immortality.” In Mahabharata, sage Pulastya tells the grandsire, Bheeshma, that “the pilgrim who bathes at the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna wins absolution for his entire family and that anyone, who may have perpetrated a hundred crimes, is redeemed the moment he/she touches the waters at the Triveni.” Our scriptures even equate the benefit of participating in the Kumbha to that obtained from the performance of Ashwamedha Yagnya (horse sacrifice).
Yet another belief held by the devout is that about 350 million gods and 88,000 rishis attend the Kumbha Mela and a few of these angelic beings are carried in a mystical sense in the form of Gangajal by each pilgrim and placed in their altars in their homes. In this way, the blessings of the pilgrimage are extended months, even years, beyond the actual event.
In Hinduism, unlike the Srutis (revealed scriptures such as the Vedas), the Smritis, the codes of law and conduct which govern Hindu society, are meant to be adjusted to suit the changing times and circumstances. The congregations like the Kumbha where all the religious heads and top spiritual leaders get together serve not only to revitalize but also give new directions, infuse fresh lease of life and update religious concepts, practices and rites that could be getting out of tune with the changing times.
Adi Shankara, the greatest Indian philosopher and religious reformer of the 8th century, attached lot of importance to festivals like the Kumbha. He exhorted holy men to meet on such occasions for a free exchange of views on religious matters and save the system from senility and decline.
The unique congregation of millions at the Kumbha festivals proves beyond doubt that for the Hindus the ideal of spirituality as the goal of life shines forth as brightly even today as it did seven thousand years ago. In fact, the continuing stability with subtle changes in the idiom and the emphasis on various spiritual matters has been the secret of the staying power of the ancient Hindu culture and civilization.
The Hindus have thus maintained their spiritual traditions, thanks to such unifiers at the Kumbha which bring millions of pilgrims together, thus forging emotional unity amongst the vast heterogeneous population.
|*A journalist by profession, a scholar by temperament and a writer by choice, Gopinath Raina was inclined to the study of religion from his very young age. It was Swami Vivekananda’s dynamic exposition of Hindu thought that fired his imagination while he was still at school, and by the time he entered college, he had been drawn to the writings of Gandhi, Aurobindo, Narayana Guru, Radhakrishnan and Bertrand Russel.
After retiring from Indian Information Service (I.I.S.) in 1983 where he distinguished himself as an editor, correspondent, commentator and administrator in All India Radio, he edited, AICC Journal, Varnika, (Jan.'84-Dec.'90), Koshur Samachar (March'91-Oct '95, Sanatana Sandesh,(1997-2005) and KASHEER (2003-2004),
He has been writing profusely on various aspects of Hindu thought. He enjoys writing, particularly on saints and sages, not only of Kashmir, but of the other parts of India as well. Presently he lives in Miami, and spends his time writing personal memoirs.
Some images are courtsey kumbh2010, GOI web site
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Very well written piece on the significance of this great Hindu pilgrimage.
Added By Anil Kaul
Kumbh Mela is a massive show of Hindu faith wherein Hindus gather at the Ganges river where bathing for purification from sin is considered especially efficacious.
Added By Dr. Surinder Dhar
The write up on Kunb mela by learned scholar Mr GNRaina is really very written .It connects one to the real event of the day and what it means to an average Hindu.May he continue to guide us by his spiritual knowledge. Thanks
Added By Piyaray Lal Raina