11 March 2013

At the Kumbh Mela: A Holy dip for worldly aspirations or nirvana?

In response to the New Spiritualism blog of last week, here is a guest blog from Biraj Swain.

The Kumbh Mela drew to a close yesterday. And official figures claim 5.5 million took a holy dip[1] on its last day. It has been dubbed as the largest religious congregation on earth and it has lived up to its reputation in every possible way. The 55-day religious extravaganza in Allahabad, India, is estimated to have attracted over 130 million pilgrims over the duration of the festival. And it is a global logistical challenge for any million-plus city handling those numbers without any disease outbreak. Barring the unfortunate stampede on 11th February, it has been a successful event and now the administrators can take a breather!

I marvel at the number of urban professionals flocking to the festival. And most of them are in their thirties too (me included). It isn’t bragging points, or just spiritual adventurism. Is this a recent phenomena or are there demographic data-sets of pilgrim profile and disaggregations to show us the trend? The over-present 24X7 news media beaming images of Kumbh mela into our living rooms could be one factor but not the only one. Mid-career blues? Is Kumbh also the career counselling destination where spiritualism opens our inner eyes to our Myers-Briggs[2] self-scores / management aptitude? Why is Kumbh becoming the destination for so many working professionals in these times of recession and high food inflation?

Any conversation reveals that not everyone goes to Kumbh to get emancipation from the worldly cycles of life and death. Nirvana is not on their mind while taking those holy dips in chilly waters. Many go for purely worldly desires, professional aspirations, career goals, family well-being et al (me included again). That we are living in a country of high economic growth and persistently high levels of hunger and malnutrition is the perfect enigma spark to seek out the Gods. The job loss in agriculture and non-agriculture sector has been huge as per the recent Economic Survey and casts the long shadow of uncertainty and powerlessness. Only faith can help and prayers can redeem say the Gurus.

The contradiction of seeing the super-efficient state (by Indian standards) perform without a hitch and organise the mammoth festival with all its challenges, logisitic and administrative while it fails so miserably in its everyday routine administration and deliverance of welfare is also another enigma on display. One cannot escape the attack of rationality in the face of such contradictions while invoking the inner spiritual power.

At the confluence of the three holiest rivers of Hindu mythology (Ganga, Yamuna and the invisible Saraswati), as the pilgrims stream in for their last holy dip in this Maha Kumbh and the wait for the next Kumbh after 12 years begin, the benevolence of the state is also in full display. 

Those pilgrims who follow the ritual of Kalpvaas (taking a single meal over an elongated period as per Hindu calendar to achieve maximum piety), the food, fuel and essentials are supplied by the state. The Public Distribution System, India’s principal food subsidy programme is also alive and kicking with over 120 shops open in the festival area alone.

The debated cash transfer scheme hasn’t yet made an appearance, unless, we consider the offerings from pilgrims to the priests as the ultimate cash transfer. 

Faith, development, politics, economy and the state do get inter-twined in more ways than one but rationality and enquiry also raise questions again and again.

As Lawrence Haddad[3] in an earlier blog discussed the rise of new spiritualism, one is left wondering, new, old or just spiritualism? For many, Kumbh Mela is also about our current state of being in the times when there is withdrawal of the state in many facets and its over bearing presence in many more. Attempting to make sense of that contradiction with a holy dip at the Maha Kumbh............
-Biraj Swain[4]

[4] Biraj Swain is an independent researcher working on the inter-sectionality of food, nutrition and agriculture policy and the citizens-state interface. She is also an over-enthusiastic pilgrim and her pilgrimages aren’t restricted to Hindu festivals alone.

1 comment:

-ranvir said...

Found it interesting but as per my understanding, high economic growth and; hunger and malnutrition could not possibly be represented by Kumbh at all. The one who present on those extreme ends of growth spectrum and the one who got trapped into hunger and malnutrition will not be attending this Kumbh even.....

Where the earlier one would be busy in parties while enjoying his/her success, the later would be terrified on the other end while coping with the stress. It would be that middle of the spectrum who will visit Kumbh. It seems more about those relative notions of good vs evil and other materialistic assumptions which affect this particular group. Faith (rather I say HOPE) and all those Heavenly Fairy tails seems to be an escape route for them from this despair suffering.