Saturday, 4 May 2013

The Call of the Sacred Snan – Kumbha Mela

Kumbha Mela is, according to spiritual history and culture, the celebration of the nectar of immortality.   Tens of millions of pilgrims flock from every corner of Earth to come spend days or weeks or even nearly two months living in the sacred riverbed of the Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati.  Satsang, darshan and discourses with revered saints, naked naga babas, renowned gurus of every sampradhaya are bonuses.  That which reaches inside their hearts, grabs hold of them across the globe and pulls them hundreds or thousands of miles from their home to this makeshift tent city is the call of the snan, a bath in the holy Sangam of the sacred triveni, a bath in the nectar of immortality.

Spiritual history and literature tell us that if one is to have a bath at the auspicious time of perfect planetary alignment, if the planets, sun and moon are aligned as they were when drops of sacred amrit spilled upon the Earth, then one may attain the boon of immortality.   It was this boon for which the forces of good and the forces of evil churned the ocean, and the resulting amrit is what spilled upon the Earth in the four Kumbha locations – Allahabad, Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain.  However, no one simply believes that a bath in the confluence of rivers will keep the cells of their body from dying and sloughing or will maintain their physical beings eternally and exempt them from the laws of nature.

Rather, that sacred gift, that boon of immortality for which we long, seek and flock, is to connect – even momentarily – with the true nature of the Self, to catch even a glimpse of the real, divine and eternal nature of one’s own being.  In the holy land of the Kumbha, in the presence of enlightened masters and devoted pilgrims, having walked away from our lives of comfort and convenience, at the appointed hour, under a moon which is full or new or somewhere in between, if we immerse not only our bodies but our very selves in that rushing water, we receive a priceless gift.  We are given an experience, an awareness and a knowing of the truth of who we are.  We experience our own immortality.  Our scriptures, commentaries and inspirational literature tell us that we are not our bodies; our gurus remind us; we may know on some level.  However, to believe something and to experience it are two different phenomena.  The Kumbha provides the true experience and deep awareness that stay with us forever, changing the very nature of who we think we are, how we live and how we relate in the world.

This experience is what so many foreigners come to India in search of, and which many find, even at times and places other than the Kumbha.  In many ways, the Kumbha is the distillation and crystallization of India.   That which you experience in India, you experience in a concentrated form at the Kumbha! It is, in my opinion, simultaneously, the worst and the best of India. Kumbha embodies and epitomizes the pervasive sense of the sacred which one finds while traveling through traditional, spiritual India and which has touched and transformed countless Indians and foreigners alike.  And, the Kumbha is also the quintessence of that which makes India difficult for so many foreigners.  It is loud, incredibly so, with nearly twenty-four-hour-a-day cacophony. Bhajans, kirtan, spiritual lectures and public service announcements vie for airtime on the speakers hung every thirty or forty feet.  It is dirty and dusty, because the entire Mela is erected on sand which is the sacred river bed of Ganga and Yamuna throughout much of the year.  It is crowded. Estimates range from 80 million to 100 million pilgrims flocking from every corner of the country and the world.  To me as a foreigner having been blessed to live the past sixteen years in India, that is the worst of India -- its noise, its dirt and dust and its ubiquitous crowds. 

However, these pale in comparison to the best of India, which is also the best of Kumbha.  Imagine -- wave after wave of humanity, every color, every size, speaking every language, pouring into the Mela out of every possible vehicle ranging from a bullock cart to a private jet. And for what? There is no sporting event here where one can root enthusiastically for one's home team and then pop champagne bottles at the victory.  There is no rock concert where one might be able to touch the shirttails of pop stars and sing along to one's favorite tunes.  There is no lottery with a million-dollar (or several crore) jackpot.  There is no theme park with slides and rides to make our hair stand on end and our children shout with glee. 

No, it is not the normal attractions that draw more people than any other event in the history of the world.  It is, quite simply, the faith, the beautiful, sacred, uniquely Indian faith that to have a bath in the holy waters of the Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati at this auspicious time might bring one closer to that ultimate goal of deep spiritual union, awareness and bliss.  It is the belief, the unassailable, ardent belief that one will be free of sins from lifetimes past, that one will come closer to the Divine, awaken spiritually and perhaps even attain enlightenment. No, it is not sports stars or rock stars or dollars or rupees that lure people to the Kumbha.  It is not glamour or prestige or the chance to rub elbows with celebrities.  It is the call of the holy waters promising divine union and liberation. It is the presence of the holy saints, the possibility of their darshan, their blessings and their satsang. It is the astrological significance of bathing, praying and meditating on certain days in this sacred riverbed.  It is the readiness, nay the eagerness, with which -- by the tens of millions -- Indians abandon the comfort, convenience and luxury of their own lives and lifestyles to come and sleep in tents built on the dirt, their eyes brimming with tears of devotion and gratitude. 

India is a land that feeds first and eats second, and the Kumbha is the crystallization of this cultural tenet. Wherever you go, from one end of the Kumbha to the other, regardless of sampradaya or parampara, there is always food for all. Camp after camp feeds thousands each day, their own devotees, pilgrims and sevaks frying batch after batch of puris before sunrise. 

For us, this Kumbha was a special opportunity to launch a Green Kumbha Initiative. Pujya Swamiji (Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji, President of Parmarth Niketan Rishikesh and Founder of Ganga Action Parivar) has been planning for a “Green Kumbha, Green Prayag” for many years, and therefore the focus of the Kumbha was not only cleansing of our past sins and purification of our minds, but a true cleansing of the banks and waters of the Ganga and Yamuna.  Whoever came through our Ganga Action Parivar camp – including Bollywood celebrities, state and central government politicians, billionaire industrialists, foreign professionals, Harvard students and faculty, Western yoga students and more – took part not only in yajna, aarti, satsang and meditation. They also took part in trash cleanups.  Led by Pujya Swamiji and devotees costumed as trees, mountains and holy rivers, we picked up trash, shoveled dirt over open defecation, installed water filtration systems, put up trash cans and led huge parades in the name of “Green Kumbha, Green Prayag, Green India, Green Century.”  The initiative was not just about cleaning the grounds of the Sangam. It was about initiating thought and action toward a truly clean and green India.  (see for more details).

However, Green Kumbha did not mean facility-less Kumbha.  In fact, we had some news channels come through our camp requesting to video the rooms we built with eco-friendly bamboo and jute, the attached bathrooms, the flush toilets, the running water and electricity.  "Kumbha mein kya vyavastha hai," was their theme and they were effusively impressed with the arrangements at our camp. However, despite the impressiveness of bringing running water and electricity to dry riverbeds, ultimately Kumbha is not about vyavastha.  Kumbha is about aastha.  It is not the flush toilets or the running water or the carpeted floors that draw people from every corner of the globe.   It is  not the smoothly running traffic or the miracle of infrastructure that the state and local governments were miraculously able to implement. These arrangements were merely a  bonus, an extra added bit of unexpected comfort.  

Yes, as people said, Kumbha was a miracle of vyavastha.  To erect a city the size of New York, Paris and London combined in under sixty days is, of course, a miracle and one whose credit goes to the government machinery.  However, the true miracle is one not of vyavastha but of aastha. You can set up makeshift roads, bring water and run electrical lines anywhere in the world and that does not mean people will come.  The miracle in Kumbh is the aastha, the faith, that reaches deep within people's beings, grabs hold of their hearts and pulls them -- sometimes thousands of miles -- from the material comfort of their home to the spiritual comfort of the Mela. It is the miracle of aastha that fills every tent, every plywood-room, every dirt or aluminum road with people, people who have come to find the true meaning of their lives on Earth.

Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati
Parmarth Niketan, Rishikesh
Ganga Action Parivar

Swami Vivekananda - A Full Resurgence – The Value of Values

Swami Vivekananda cast India’s cultural heritage into international spotlight when he began his speech at the Parliament of World Religions with the phrase, “My sisters and brothers of America.”  As commonplace as it seems to Indians to begin a talk with “bhaio aur beno,” the idea of referring to an auditorium full of strangers as family was, for many Americans, surprising and their first glimpse of traditional Indian culture.  Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam is one of the most basic tenets of Indian spiritual and cultural heritage.  The world is a family.  This message is one that is needed as critically today, perhaps even more critically, as when he spoke in Chicago 120 years ago.  Today, like never before, we are faced with a critical divide between those who have and those who have-not, those who are growing plumper each year and those who are helplessly watching their children succumb to the perils of malnutrition, those with summer homes, winter homes and weekend homes, and those who cower in doorways to escape the beating rain and sleet.   We produce enough food to feed 10 billion people a day, yet tens of thousands of children die each day of starvation while others feast themselves to diabetes and heart disease.  Now, as never before, the world needs this message that we are all family.  No one in a family would even conceive of grabbing all the chapatis laid out for dinner. Instinctively we understand that every family member is entitled to his/her fair share.  Sacrifice for each other’s wellbeing comes naturally.  

Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam
            Swami Vivekananda’s reference to the people of America as his “sisters and brothers” was not merely profound at the time; rather it is a call that we must hear today.  But, of course, not only are the Americans our sisters and brothers.  Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam has no discrimination, does not play favorites and has no hierarchy.  Can we extend the feeling of family to the impoverished and malnourished of India, Africa, Asia and the rest of the world? Can we extend the arms of our family to the suicidal farmers killing themselves over desiccated fields and yieldless harvests? Can we truly feel the same Oneness, the same sense of family, for those of different religions, different countries, different castes and different colors?
            Swami Vivekananda emphasized that the reason for India’s downfall (as he saw it) lay in India’s neglect of the masses.  No family can be truly successful on all levels if its members are hungry, or cold, or homeless or ailing without means for treatment.  If India is going to achieve a full resurgence of greatness and prosperity on all fronts, it cannot do so while a huge percentage of its own population lives without toilets, running water, basic education and primary health care.
Resurgent India is not only about a financial resurgence; it not only refers to a renewal of India’s place as a leader of the developing and developed world.  Rather, if India is going to be reborn into Her true state of glory, it requires a rekindling of Her fundamental and essential values and tenets.  Resurgent India requires not just that we connect on facebook and twitter, not just that we count our global presence in the number of "friends" or "followers" we have, but that we truly and deeply take the world into our heart.   Can their pain be our pain? Can their hunger be our hunger? Can their anguish be our anguish? Can we truly, selflessly, lovingly make choices and sacrifices for them as we would for our own family members? Only when the values, ethics and sanskaras of Bharitya sanskriti are re-infused with their cultural significance can India truly see a resurgence.

Women as Divine

Additionally, it is important to note that Swami Vivekananda did not say “My brothers and sisters of America.” Rather he said, “My sisters and brothers of America.” The distinction is minor and yet profound, particularly as India faces a time of singular darkness and despair regarding women’s rights and protection.  This emphasis, actually, on the feminine is an inherent part of traditional Indian culture.  Our mantras chant, “Twameva Mata, Cha Pita Twameva….” First mother, then father.  Manu declared and our scriptures remind us that “Where women are adored, there the Gods are pleased.”       So neither is this tenet of women’s empowerment, women’s rights and women’s significance new today, nor was it new when Swami Vivekananda based his remarks according to this cultural niyam. So, women’s rights are not something that need to be instituted in India, but rather something that has to be re-instituted. That respect, reverence and love for women not as objects of desire but as manifestations of the Divine Feminine is part and parcel of India’s cultural and spiritual heritage.  Without it, as we are seeing in the streets of India today, no resurgence will be successful.

India as Tirth
A story is told of Swami Vivekananda’s trip to America and UK, spanning approximately four years from 1893 – 1897. As he was readying to depart from London for India, one of his British friends asked him, Swamiji how do you like your motherland now after four years’ experience of the luxurious, glorious, powerful West?” Swamiji replied: “India I loved before I came away. Now the very dust of India has become holy to me, the very air is now to me holy; India is now the holy land, the place of pilgrimage, the Tirtha!”  Today, there is a clamouring among most Indians to go abroad – to travel, to study, to work and to live.  I cannot tell you the number of times someone -- having acquired immeasurable punya over lifetimes leading to a birth on the banks of Ganga -- asks me: “Please aap mere liye Amreeka mein kooch kara dijiye, meri naukri lagwa dijiye. Kooch bhi karo, muje Amreeka bhijwa do bus.”  The request always brings tears to my eyes and yet is indicative of much of what needs to “resurge” in India.
There has been, over the last several decades, a shift of focus and a shift in our values. To Swami Vivekananda, sure the roads, the infrastructure and other aspects of comfort, convenience, efficiency and even luxury were better and more available in the West, just as they are today. However, to him, those were not the important aspects of life, nor were they what determined his choice of country in which to live.  Hence he longed to return to Mother India where he could bathe in Her culture, Her people, Her very soil, in the wind that blows across Her land.  There is a magic here in India, a divine magic that makes even squalor sacred. That does not, of course, condone squalor but it is simply to say that the feeling of sacredness is pervasive – in the huts and in the mandirs. 
There are many reasons for this of course, with the most important being India’s inherent holiness. However, I believe that the divinity of Her very soil is enhanced by a culture in which spirituality, sanskaras and connection to God are the most important aspects of life.  That is the Bharatiya Sanskriti we speak about. However, today the focus seems to be much more on acquiring and attaining wealth, prestige, status and possessions.
When I first came to India one of the most remarkable aspects to me of the culture and the country was the peace on people's faces -- the rich, the poor, the old, the young, the homeless, the hungry, the educated and the illiterate. It was as though one's lot in life was simply part of the "package deal" of human birth. It had very little connection to one's sense of self or self-worth.  Even those who lived far below western standards of abject poverty were eager to share. "Please come home for dinner," I heard countless times from people who could not even afford to feed their own families let alone an extra mouth.  In the nearly two decades I’ve lived here, much has changed. Perhaps bombarded by Western and Westernized serials, movies, fashion magazines and cultural indoctrination, the values and focus in India seem to have shifted.  The "new India" has started judging its self worth much like the West does -- by the balance in their bank account, the number of shopping bags on their arms, the brand of sunglasses upon their faces and the size of their waists.  There is a feverish clamoring for more and more, better and better, newer and newer. India has become a country where there are nearly twice as many mobile phones as toilets.
How many Indians today are just as eager to return home to India after a few years abroad? If India is going to be resurgent we have to cultivate that same level of discrimination that Swamiji had – sure he was able to recognize the comfort and convenience of the West, and yet he was able to recognize that there is something much more valuable than that.  Hence he longed to return home to the “Tirth” of India.
A Resurgent India needs a return to the values espoused by Swami Vivekananda.  His call for greatness is a greatness deeper than the distance our missiles can travel or the value of our GNP.  It is a greatness that penetrates the core of each Indian, that makes him/her grounded, anchored, centered and rooted in an unbreakable, unshakeable connection to the Divine, to the country, to Her soil and to each other.

Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati
Parmarth Niketan, Rishikesh