Soul Safari : Salvation in a Dip
A fierce cry of 'Har, Har Mahadev' rents the air. I have just entered the Sangam. I am a little surprised to realise that the voice is mine. A Bathing...
A fierce cry of 'Har, Har Mahadev' rents the air. I have just entered the Sangam. I am a little surprised to realise that the voice is mine. A Bathing in this holy confluence of River Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical River Saraswati at Allahabad is an exhilarating experience, one that holds a lot of meaning for Hindus across India. However, taking a dip on Maha Shivaratri, the last day of the Kumbh Mela, assumes a special significance. While the water is only waist high and its flow, at best, sluggish, being surrounded by cheerful people infuses one with new energy and vigour. As children we have all been told that the Ganges is the holiest of the holy rivers, but actually bathing in those sacred waters is truly a "divine" experience. For the uninitiated, here's the back story of the Kumbh Mela, often referred to as the world's biggest religious gathering. According to the story in the Vedas, the Devas (gods) had lost their strength by the curse of the powerful sage Durväsä, and to regain it they prayed to Lord Vishnu. He instructed them to churn the proverbial ocean of milk, Ksheera Sagara, to acquire amrita (the nectar of immortality). For this they asked the Asuras (demons) for their help with a promise of sharing the wealth equally thereafter. However, when the Kumbha (urn) containing the amrita appeared, a fight ensued. For 12 days and nights - equivalent to 12 human years - the Devas and Asuras fought in the sky for the pot of amrita. During the battle, a few drops of the elixir spilled at four places - Allahabad (Prayag), Haridwar, Ujjain and Nashik - which are now the sites for the Khumbh. I had visited Allahabad just a few months earlier. How different it was then. At that time, when I had taken the boat to the Sangam with sea gulls for company, as a cool breeze gently wafted over the calm waters. This time around, as my friend, Pradeep, and I had made our way to the platform that led to the Sangam, two rows of boats were already bobbing about in the waters. It was amazing to see how our boatman steered his vessel through this labyrinth. On the platform that led to the holy confluence there was a little step made for the convenience of the worshippers. A pandit sat there to perform puja. Thoughtfully, there was also a small enclosure for the women to change out of their wet clothes. As I stand mesmerised by all the sights and sounds, Pradeep gets busy offering special prayers for the souls of his ancestors. The priest asks him to name four generations of ancestors. First, his great grandfather; but Pradeep does not know his name. So he is instructed to call out Brahma's name instead. Then he is asked his great grandmother's name. This, too, he does not know and is asked to take it as Ganga. Ten minutes on, Pradeep has helped four generations of ancestors attain salvation. There's hectic activity everywhere one looks. Despite being a Mumbaikar, used to unimaginable crowds and constant activity, I am taken aback by the sheer crush. Groups of youth are walking around in high spirits; as police personnel try bringing order to the crowds. Across the banks of the Sangam, thousands have gathered to pray. I tell Pradeep that I haven't seen so many people even outside Churchgate station during the rush hour. Some are taking a dip; others are simply hanging around. Announcements are being made on the loud speakers. There is no silence. There is no possibility of peace here. One has to make one's own arrangements if silence is what one has come to seek. I turn and see a sadhu in bhagva (saffron clothing) standing near me with his eyes closed, hands folded in prayer. It's an image straight out of those spectacular coffee table books. Taking a dip on Maha Shivaratri, in the company of devotees, varied priests and the dramatic Naga Sadhus, ascetics belonging to the Hindu-Shaivite sect, brings to mind another image - that of the all powerful Lord Shiva. I am reminded of the striking pictures of the Nataraj - Shiva standing on one leg and doing tandava, the dance of destruction - from Anand Coomaraswamy's 'The Dance Of Shiva'. This is what the book says: "The dance, in fact, represents His five activities (Pancakritya): Shrishti (overlooking, creation, evolution), Sthiti (preservation, support), Samhara (destruction, evolution), Tirobhava (veiling, embodiment, illusion, and also, giving rest), Anugraha (release, salvation, grace). These, separately considered, are the activities of the deities Brahma, Vishnu, Rudra, Maheshvara and Sadashiva. This cosmic activity is the central motif of the dance." As the devout in Allahabad go their way, some heading towards the river, others to the railway station, their pace steady, no one seems to be exhausted. I realise then that given the right reasons people have the ability and capacity to endure extremes. Religion gets them going.A On Maha Shivaratri there are 70 lakh people who bathed in the Ganga at Allahabad. There are innumerable traffic snarls but they eventually cleared. A total of 10 crore people have passed through Allahabad during the 55-day Kumbh Mela. Personally, I leave impressed by the level of organisation. Pradeep, not so much and I cannot for the life of me understand why. After all, holding a party for 30 in my apartment back home is bad enough, imagine hosting a few crore people for two months! -Harsh Desai