The Largest Religious Gathering in India and on Earth
Article and photos by David Joshua Jennings
Nothing can quite prepare you the Kumbh Mela, the planet’s biggest religious gathering. It is a time when millions of Hindu pilgrims come together to bathe ceremoniously in India’s holiest rivers.
The celebration gets its legitimacy from Hindu mythology, which tells of the ancient sky-borne struggle between gods and demons over a pot, or kumbh, which contained Amrita Kalasha, the immortal nectar. During the ferocious battle, a few drops sloshed from the kumbh and fell to four locations: Allahabad, Ujjaink, Nashik, and Haridwar. To commemorate this holy event, the Kumbh Mela is held every three years, rotating among these four cities, meaning that each city hosts every 12 years.
Each Kumbh Mela lasts about six weeks, but most people participate during certain auspicious bathing dates (of which there are usually six or seven), when believers bathe ceremoniously in the sacred Ganges, Shipra, or Godavari rivers in order to achieve “moksha,” or liberation from the cycle of birth and death.
Each celebration attracts tens of millions of pilgrims from all over India and provides a perfect opportunity to confront the country’s fascinating diversity. Of these pilgrims, it is perhaps the sadhus that are the most interesting. Whereas normally in India you will encounter many solitary sadhus on a daily basis, the Khumb Mela attracts them by the thousand.
A Sadhu is a holy man in a land where holiness sometimes means to live in a cave without food, or to sit motionless for countless hours without food, or to generally go around doing things that require an incredible amount of obstinacy, such as standing on one foot for a decade or wandering around with an arm in the air for seven years. The Sadhu is said to be like a candle in the center of a windless room, whose flame, immune to the stirrings of desire, flickers unwaveringly.
In other words, Sadhus have renounced the material world in order lead an aesthetic life. They seek to achieve “moksha,” liberation from the cycle of birth and death, by meditating constantly and contemplating Brahman, the birthless, deathless, immutable, infinite, immanent, transcendent reality of the universe.
Their lifestyle is rugged. Many Sadhus rise before well before dawn to bathe in the icy mountain streams of their hermitage before settling down to mandatory, daylong prayer and meditation. The absence of common luxuries, such as homes, is a staple of the Sadhu lifestyle, but there is no single unified path that all Sadhus pursue, and in modern India the lives of Sadhus vary greatly. Many Sadhus can be found living communally in ashrams, or alone in the caves. Others are firmly committed to a life of perpetual wandering.
They are said to embody divinity and are living examples of what the human life is supposed to be about: religious illumination and transcendence. Everyday Hindus look to them for religious instruction and the bestowal of blessings. Their austere lifestyle is seen by many as a mechanism that burns away the karma of the wider community, and for this public service they are rewarded with alms.
There are four or five million Sadhus in India today and nearly all of them can be found on pilgrimages during the Khumb Melas.
David Joshua Jennings is a writer and
photographer from Oklahoma, USA. You can find him at davidjoshuajennings.com.