Every twelve years, millions of Hindu devotees begin a massive pilgrimage to the most sacred of Indian festivals: the Kumbha Mela, that takes place in Prayagraj, a place considered particularly auspicious because it is at the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. It is estimated that in 2019, 120 million people attended the sacred enclosure over the course of a month and a half. These numbers, equivalent to the total population of Japan, and 40 times the number of pilgrims who visit Mecca in the annual procession, makes Kumbha Mela, the largest human concentration in history. To welcome all these people, an impressive 36 km2 pop-up city rises on the banks of the Ganges River.
The pilgrimage to Prayagraj, at such favorable times as the Kumbha Mela, is considered the perfect occasion to fulfill vows and eliminate all accumulated negative karma. The harsher the conditions of the pilgrimage and the greater the dose of sacrifice involved, the greater the merit acquired. The outer journey is a metaphor for the inner path that the pilgrim must explore, a transformative path with the potential to put him in touch with his own divine essence. But a myth alone cannot explain the force that drives all these millions of pilgrims.
This process can be enhanced with the association with beings considered particularly enlightened. In Kumbha Mela, thousands of groups, congregations and gurus are represented, who instruct the faithful with advice on philosophy and the practice of spiritual life. Unlike most organized religions, Hinduism does not have a set of precepts or dogmas that all followers must follow; it is more like a very diverse set of sects that share some commonalities. The traditional Hindu religion is extremely tolerant in the sense that it believes that each human being must follow his personal and unique path towards the Divine; in this way, followers are encouraged to question, research and deepen their own faith in whatever way makes the most sense for each of them. The Kumbha Mela then provides a unique opportunity to meet and confront different models of access to the divine sphere.
Naturally, a festival of this proportions cannot be reduced only to motivations of a spiritual, mythological and intellectual nature; Kumbha Mela is, after all, a great religious fair where spiritual life, commerce and entertainment come together. This event offers an occasion for fraternization and conviviality between people from very different backgrounds that tends to blur the rigid barrier between castes; an economic opportunity for merchants to sell their wares and holy men to increase the ranks of their followers; a convenience to affirm the Hindu political agenda on the part of Indian rulers, in a progressively more and more extreme context. Still, it would be right to say that the real move that attracts these tens of millions of people to Kumbha Mela is the power of devotion. Perhaps nothing can synthesize the spirit of Hinduism and this festival as well as the comment of an illiterate pilgrim, a peasant from the state of West Bengal who travelled to Kumbha Mela in buses crowded with the rest of her family: “We are poor, but we have enough. I didn't come here to ask God for money, but for inner peace and salvation”.
Saddhus, The Sacred Men
With their very long beards, dressed in orange or totally naked, covered in ash and adorned by yellow marigolds, the saddhus, are the remnants of a past in which wandering philosophers abounded. These emblematic characters have, over the years, become iconic images of Kumbha Mela. Gathered around the fires, in the cold of the night, those magnetic, almost mesmerizing looks, caused an uncomfortable sensation: somewhere, in the hard process they had undergone, these men had discovered something about themselves, and maybe even about ourselves, that was beyond the limit of reason, a challenge to the most solid certainties.
The first disconcerting aspect in relation to the saddhus is the fact that they have decided to give up everything that we consider essential for a happy existence. They abandoned their home, family, profession, money and possessions, to embrace a condition of extreme trial, where they must be willing to endure the most extreme cold, heat and hunger.
But what makes a person make such an extreme life choice? Each man or woman has an intriguing story that led them on their way. Some escape the suffocating fabric of an overly controlled society or unpleasant family situations. Others were adopted as children by travelling bands of resigners, handed over by families with no means to support them. There are even those who wear the disguise to escape justice. But many have been hit by an existential crisis. In the middle of his routine, a restlessness began to set in, unrest that grew stronger and stronger. 'Is this really the purpose of my life? Is there anything else? '
The price to pay for knowing the answer to these questions is truly high. In order to discover the true essence of who we are, the saddhus defend, we have to deconstruct all the pillars that underlie our identity. The ego is just a facade that covers the true divine nature. That is why, as a fundamental part of their demand, ascetics need to sever all ties to the past, and to all sources of attachment.
Upon resigning, the aspiring saddhu celebrates his symbolic funeral: from that moment he is dead to society. But his new condition does not necessarily imply a solitary search for the Truth. At the initiation ceremony, the neophyte receives a new name, clothing, and family: his congregation of resigning colleagues. The young disciple will initially be guided by his guru regarding the philosophy and practice of his community. When he is ready, he can leave and wander on a pilgrimage through the sacred points of India, where he can choose to camp under a tree, or take care of the maintenance of a temple. The believers will come to meet you to share tea, ask for advice and make offers, which will be immediately redistributed by everyone present.
The saddhu has virtually an infinite number of roads on its way to enlightenment. Normally, the disciple follows the tradition to which his guru belongs, but he may come out of it. Most saddhus choose to wear typical orange robes and devote much of their time to devotional or meditative acts.
The naga saddhus belong to one of the most extreme types of renouncer. They live in the most remote mountains, in the most deserted deserts, in the most isolated caves, and only momentarily abandon their retreats on the occasion of this great festival. Devotees of Shiva, try to emulate their chosen divinity and even renounce their own clothes, wandering naked and covered in ashes. Shiva is the god of destruction, the annihilator of ignorance: it eliminates the idea of duality, created by our minds. Form and matter are but an illusion; by overcoming them, we can exist as pure consciousness, in supreme ecstasy. To demonstrate that they have understood the heart of this lesson, to the point of being able to transcend their own bodies, some of these renunciates are capable of the most incredible feats, such as staying twelve years with an arm raised, making the vow that they will never sit or lie down again, or to perform different types of genital mutilation. Many believe that through these practices, renunciates acquire supernatural powers, which allow them to read thoughts, become invisible or levitate through space.
Kumbha Mela is a moment of great importance in the alternative society of saddhus. At parties of great pomp and circumstance, thousands of new renouncers are initiated, and the new mahants, heads of different congregations, who distribute money, food and blankets to the multitude of ascetics are elected. Saddhus will drink tea and smoke chillum with old friends they haven't seen in years, display twisted yogic postures, share experiences and teachings.
However, the real purpose of the saddhus, as well as that of the pilgrims, is the sacred bath, repeated three times during the month and a half that the festival lasts. Historically, the privilege of bathing in the waters, at precisely the moment determined by astrologers, was disputed in a bloody way. Ascetics have a military past: even today, saddhus are divided into akharas, military regiments, which have emerged to fight Muslims, English, and members of other religious sects. The naga saddhus emerged victorious from these disputes: today, they are the ones who lead the procession of 30 million people leading to the great sacred bath.
Intrigued by the enigmatic figures of the renouncers, we soon decided to try to understand the motivations that would lead to such a hard and incomprehensible life choice. Everyone had a different life path, motivation, and experience as ascetics who deserved to be told. We wandered among dozens of tents, invited by the renouncers to enter - we drank hundreds of teas, were fed, hosted, sang and danced with them. Until one late afternoon, we decided to enter a tent that seemed to us an oasis of serenity in the turbulent ocean of the Kumbha Mela and met a man covered in ash, with a black turban and kilt, and a disarming smile.
In his previous life, Pranav Muni was known as Sunil Kumar Mishra. Born into a family of brahmans, the caste of priests, he showed an orientation towards spiritual life from an early age. The parents, however, fearing that he would resign, asked him to concentrate on school. A brilliant student, he finished his studies in Sanskrit at the University of Varanasi and went on to earn a PhD in Philosophy in the USA. A charismatic character with great speaking skills, he began to gather around him a group of enthusiastic followers, who worshipped him as a demigod. He was invited to give lectures throughout South America and to settle a centre in Curazao, where he experienced a life of opulence, full of adventures with women. But one day he realized that none of this had succeeded in quenching his thirst for the divine. All those years spent as a religious superstar had not brought him a millimetre closer to his deepest ambition: to know the essence of God.
He then decided to abandon everything, return to India and dedicate himself seriously to his spiritual search. He started to follow several gurus, but his irreverent nature soon made him clash with these: he was a free being, interested in experimenting, in not accepting easy or comfortable truths. At one point he realized that it was not enough to understand and communicate concepts intellectually, as he had done until then. It was necessary to go into the water, to strip off everything he had, his personality, his ego.
After taking his resignation vows and becoming a naga saddhu, Pranav wandered for a few months and ended up on the edge of Shivdasha, a small village a few kilometres from Varanasi. He camped for about six months, waiting for the villagers' invitation to settle inside the village; since then, he has lived there, in absolute frugality, dedicating himself to the service of those around him.
But at some point, the ascetic realized that his resignation was still not enough. In addition to good deeds, it is necessary to cultivate good thoughts and good words. He realized that his outer voice did nothing but continue to feed his illusions about himself; he also felt misunderstood by his followers, who revered him, but did not understand the essence of his teachings, nor the choices he had made in his life in the name of freedom. Pranav then abdicated the use of the word; from then on, and began to cultivate the silence around him, hoping that this stillness would erase the inner voice of his ego, the only thing that prevented him from fully recognizing his own divine essence.
Meditation has in fact become the most fundamental part of Pranav Muni's life and the real reason why he travelled to Kumbha Mela, an effervescent event that seemed to contrast with the serenity that emanated. “The spiritual burden of this place is very high. When meditating here, I feel in tune with the Divine ”, he underlined. During the weeks that followed, the saddhu allowed us to penetrate the sphere of his intimacy; by following him in his routine during the festival, and later in his small ashram in Shivdasha, where we could see the importance that this activity had taken on in his life. The day invariably started with a bath in the Ganges, after which methodically applied ashes all over the body. “Ashes are my ornaments because they remind me that we are all dust. They give me a sense of humility, ”he said. Then there was a period of three hours of meditation, an absolutely sacred moment that no one could interrupt. Only after several weeks were we granted very brief access to this defining act of its existence.
The rest of his time was spent reading, contemplating, or serving others. Pranav Muni, once a media celebrity with access to all luxuries, was the only saddhu that we saw humbly serving his followers during mealtimes or participating in some of the most mundane tasks. He also devoted his attention to his closest disciples, whom he called almost daily through video calls, to make sure they were okay. In the age of technology, several saddhus dispose of a mobile phone as one of their few possessions, considering it one of the few elements that still connect them to the world. This world that, with growing determination, Pranav Muni yearns to overcome. “I feel that I am close, truly close. One day, my search will end and I will finally embrace timelessness ”.
Life at Kumbha Mela
Life starts very early at Kumbha Mela. At around three-thirty in the morning, the first pilgrims begin to head to the river for their morning ablutions. An ethereal atmosphere surrounds these characters, moving silently through the fog. The glacial temperature of the air and water does not deter them: Hindus always start their day with a cleansing bath, and being able to run it in the most sacred of rivers is an invaluable privilege for many. Only after immersion can the first prayers and meals of the day be made.
The sun rises and, throughout the day, demonstrations of devotion unfold: young priests perform their libations in front of the river; groups of middle-aged women sing songs and make offerings to a stone idol; believers pass their hands over the sacred fire and put their hands on their heads reverently. Pilgrims move between the tents of different masters and gurus, to participate in their lectures and drink from their teachings. They visit the saddhus camps, established in the central part of the enclosure, divided by their different congregations. The most popular renunciates are naturally the naga saddhus: revered and feared as gods, they are sought out by curious pilgrims, who ask for advice or blessings, admire their incredible prowess in ecstasy, smoke marijuana with them (used by saddhus to rise to a state of transcendent consciousness), or watch them for hours from a prudent distance. They receive prasads, small offers of food given by temples or by groups of ascetics. They visit religious ceremonies, watch plays about their favourite deities, keep promises, renew vows, make offerings to the river.
At the end of the day, the mist takes over once again. Near the river, the darkness of the night is only interrupted by the electric light from the lamps, and by the flash of punctual bonfires, towards which pilgrims rush, hoping to find warm tea waiting for them and a blanket to protect themselves from the cold. But in the main camps, the environment is completely different. In the vast avenues, the gates of the different congregations are lined with intermittent neon of all colours, which hypnotize passersby with swirling images of gurus and gods. Occasionally, processions of various decorated cars and tractors pass by, with entourages that throw flowers and treats on the faithful, to the beat of philharmonic bands, in strict uniform in their scarlet uniforms. Inside the fields, the tinkling of small bells marks the place where the last ceremonies of the day are performed and where the priests bless the devotees with incense and the sacred fire of a small candle.
Progressively, the animation decreases and the pilgrims start to make their way to the place where they will sleep. The most privileged are lucky enough to find a place in the camp of some congregation, or enough money to pay for a place in the tents provided by the government, several kilometres away. The others will have to be content to find a place near a fire, where they hope to be able to sleep a few hours. Around midnight, one in the morning, the hustle and bustle are completely extinguished; silence surrounds the enclosure and tiredness finally affects the millions of pilgrims, who are left to their dreams until the dawn of the next dawn.
This project was supported by Nomad's Exploration Grant.