This article was written by Terry Braunstein, an artist who has exhibited her work in galleries and museums both nationally and internationally. She is also a public artist with works in metro stations, a healthcare center, transit stations, memorials and street pavings. Her work can be seen at www.terrybraunstein.com She has been to India three times, but this was her first Kumbh Mela.
It is 4:00AM, before sunrise, and the early morning is misty and cool. As we move in the dark, the air is filled with the quiet rumbling sound of thousands of people beginning to awaken. We leave our tents on the Kumbh Mela grounds to find a boat that is waiting for us. Sixteen of us are heading out -- fifteen men and me. It is a beautiful early morning, and as we leave our campground we sense the growing excitement, we join the hundreds of thousands of people on their way down the hill.
I am not completely sure why, but I am drawn from California, halfway around the world to this event -- I simply have to be here. Perhaps it is because of my forty years of doing Transcendental Meditation, which has made me a more spiritual person, or because my son lives in India and has brought me along on his journey, or perhaps it is because I have always felt that I was on a kind of spiritual journey myself, and this might somehow bring me one step closer to knowing myself. I am excited about today, the most auspicious moment for bathing in the most auspicious place in the Ganges, India, February 10th, 2013.
It is said that for over ten thousand years, pilgrims from all over India, and all over the world, have gone to a different location in India (four in total) every three years to bathe and, in doing so, to enrich their spirituality and feel their fullest potential as human beings. This is the biggest event, which occurs every 12 years, called the Kumbh Mela that happens in Allahabad, where three rivers meet and when the stars and planets line up for a most favorable moment. Over the one-month period that the sun is in a particular sign, more than 100 million people (one third of the population of the United States!) from India and all over the world will take part. On the main bathing date it is estimated that 30 million people are bathing. Imagine that! Suddenly, Allahabad (Prayag), a city of normally 1.7 million, increases to a population that is more than double the size of Los Angeles! Streets and roads are created where there are none, a new mayor and commissioner are assigned, electricity and water are brought in, and hotel and government office tents are erected. Eighteen enormous temporary bridges across the Ganges link two massive Kumbh areas.
The mood is joyful, as we head for our hour-long walk to the river. Many pilgrims look at us with amazement, and joy. "How great," they say with their looks and gestures, "that you are here, too." They do not see us as foreign or alien, but as one of them, one small but integral part of their huge community. We all wear saris, salwar cameez, kurtas and dhotis -- Indian clothing, which we wear in order to respect the ancient culture they represent. The women will wear them into the water -- they are comfortable and dry quickly. Thousands of people walk towards us, many have already bathed, and carry flasks of Ganges water for people in their village who could not make the journey. Others are going in our direction, towards the water. The lights from the thousands of rows of makeshift roads and tent areas dot the horizon, and the water is lit up with row boats, carrying many hundreds of pilgrims toward the Sangam, the place where the Ganges, the Yamuna and the third river, Saraswati, which is underground, meet. I feel surrounded and protected by these men who are walking with me, who make me feel that there is nowhere on earth that I would rather be.
I am with my son, Matthew, who now lives in India. Matthew went to Poly High School in Long Beach and then to UC Berkeley. After getting his Masters and PhD in Vedic Science, he went to work in India, where he taught Transcendental Meditation to corporations, top government officials and VIPs. He and an associate started two institutes of management in India, where they taught an accredited MBA program, coupled with meditation and holistic management. Twelve years ago, he was invited to go to an ashram in the Himalayas, one of two created by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. He lives there with over 100 other men, where they meditate for themselves and for world peace. They are originally from all over the world, all having former careers as doctors, businessmen, filmmakers, lawyers, etc. and who are now living in Enlightenment. The fifteen men who are with me on this auspicious occasion are all from these ashrams.
Unlike the other millions of pilgrims, I would not be going into the Ganges to bathe. I told this very clearly to Matthew. From my Western perspective, it seemed dangerous. I feared the water was too polluted and I did not want to risk my health. "You will do what you want, Mom, don't worry," Matthew said, "Don't decide now. Just enjoy."
As the boat edges toward the Sangam, we see the shadows and forms of the many bathers nearby. Before I came, as a Westerner, I thought that an event such as this would be a quiet, and solemn one. Many Western newspapers talk of the bathing in the Ganges as an attempt to end suffering and the endless cycle of rebirth, but this was nothing like what I experienced. It is because I didn't know the meaning of the word "Mela." Mela actually means "festival" or "celebration." I feel suddenly swept up in the unexpected joy that is everywhere, and the incredible feeling of community. Our excitement is growing. There are thousands of pilgrims, all around us, all going in to bathe in the Ganges -- it is as if the whole world is going into the water for this moment, and I am a part of it. I know now that I will at least get out of the boat and will wade a short distance, since the water is quite shallow here, with my son and my new friends that already feel like family.
Before I know it, I am submerged in the water, and Matthew and his friends are gleefully cheering for me. I don't believe that there is any way that I can ever describe the joy of this moment, and the profound effect that this has on me. It is as though I have stepped out of everyday life into another time, another world, unimaginably different from ours, but completely comfortable, reassuring and familiar.
It is now one week later, and my husband, David, and our daughter, Samantha, join us at the Kumbh for another auspicious bathing date. The feeling is even more profound, as the four of us join hands and go out to bathe together. Matthew had suggested that before we come to India, we think about our Sankalps. A "Sankalp," he explained, is a Sanskrit word that translates into English as "a deep personal desire." So before we went to India, we had all discussed the deep desires we have for ourselves, our families, our communities, and the world. All four of us go in, even David, despite his many past protestations that he would not be doing so. Together, as we bathe, we remind one another to think of our Sankalps, stepping into a new vision of ourselves and of the world. Sharing such a moment, we all agree, is truly a life-altering event, never to be forgotten. We understand "community," both large and small, in a whole new way. It is no longer intellectual -- we feel it.
There are so many things that could be written about an event that attracts millions of people from their homes across India to the Ganges, many of whom walk sometimes from as far away as Nepal and Southern India. There are the aspects of the Kumbh which affect all of one's senses -- the loudspeakers constantly announcing a lost or found person; music playing all night; huge signs with pictures of visiting Saints; neon lights; ferris wheel; the huge brilliantly-lit exhibition areas.
But I am more amazed at the cultural and spiritual aspects. I am amazed that I never witness any pushing or shoving, never hear a negative word or remark, never see an angry gesture. It is difficult for me, as a Westerner, to explain how thousands walk for hundreds of miles, all of their food and supplies on their heads, families in tow, to sleep on the ground, usually with no tents or covering, to bathe once, turn around, and walk back home. It is hard to describe the naked naga babas covered in white ash, who have given up all material goods. They have come down from the Himalayas, just to bathe at the Sangam at this particular time. They come out of a sense of obligation to the millions of pilgrims, to bless the waters with their presence. When I read most descriptions of them in Western newspapers, they seem weird or too different to relate to. Yet when I am there, sitting next to them and hear their words, I feel a deep connection to what they say. I could write about the saints and gurus, whose followers never see them until the Kumbh Mela, and who speak, finally, to those of us who want to learn from them about consciousness, existence and Enlightenment. The devotees, who come to hear and honor them, come for their wisdom and passion.
But for me, it is all about the incredible spiritual connection I feel to all of these people, who come from so far away, to be a part of this huge celebration. Strangely, it is not about religion, or worshipping at all. The Gurus talk about higher levels of human experience, about their desires for each of us to reach our full potential, and in this way make the world a better place. I feel an incredible longing that all the world's people could experience an event such as this -- if this were to happen, I feel, maybe then there could be the possibility of peace in the world.