Kumbh Mela- And the Great Churning of Superstitions.

Matted locked Naga Baba's in their akhara's in Haridwar, India (sanjay austa austa)

Matted locked Naga Baba’s in their akhara’s in  Kumbh Mela, Haridwar.

Sometime ago the self-proclaimed God-man  Assaram Babu made a startling statement that the Delhi gang rape victim would have been saved had she recited a sacred mantra. What is shocking about Assaram is that an evidently demented man like him has millions of followers, many of whom are even sane and   have college and university degrees.

But he is not alone.  Spiritual  gurus from the crass, semi-literate Assaram  to the urbane,  English   speaking Sri Sri Ravi Shankar  beat a kind of dumbness in their followers that is truly astounding.  However such gurus can only thrive in a society bed riddled with ancient superstitions, inane rituals and contrived insecurities. Followers of Gurus have an absolute conviction that their Guru is God incarnate and therefore infallible.

But this should not be surprising in a country which not only glorifies but also funds the biggest and the  most superstitious spectacle in the world- The Kumbh Mela.

 Gurus, some of them even more bizarre than Assaram Babu get tremendous legitimacy  at the Kumbh Melas which alternate every three years between the four holy cities of Ujjain, Nasik, Allahabad and Haridwar.  Funded by the Indian government the Gurus have massive camps where fresh hordes of drifters come to them for wisdom from India and abroad.

Matted locked sadhus march for their ritual bath at the Kumbh Mela (sanjay austa austa)

Sadhus march for their ritual bath at the Kumbh Mela, Haridwar 2010.

For the Kumbh Mela at Allahabad 2013, 669 crores have already been sanctioned by the Uttar Pradesh government and a total  of 1152 crore budget has been sought to run the big show by this State where millions of people live in conditions worse than sub- Saharan Africa. Besides the massive funds, the  entire State machinery from the police to the electricity department has been roped in.

But what is truly astounding   is the total absence of public discourse on the Kumbh Mela.  It is  a   fair question to ask that should a democratic country committed to secularism,  fund a religious festival such as the Kumbh?   It is also fair to have a debate on the superstitious belief of sin- washing in 21st century India.

In Western democracies particularly in the US (which  by no means is a  less  religious country) there are regular debates on fundamental issues like evolution, purpose of life and existence of God.  Television hosts such as Bill Maher have made a reputation solely on debunking the existence of God and other absurd beliefs.

But the Indian intelligentsia- the media, the social scientists and the scholars usually play it safe lest their utterances ”hurt  sentiments”. By steering clear of debating the  Kumbh, they only  end up  giving tremendous fillip and legitimacy to the superstitions around it.

Naga Baba's the Indian holy ascetics who go Nude at the Kumbh Mela are worshipped by the Hindu devotees (sanjay austa austa)

How the Media Factory  Peddles Superstitions and Blind Beliefs.

The Media in fact plays an active role in drum rolling the Kumbh and the   beliefs surroundings it. It simply does not want to see the Kumbh beyond the spectacle.   The media  calls it  the ‘‘Greatest show on earth’’ and it makes sure their audience and readers gets ever sliver of information on it.  But its mostly the clichéd images of  the matted-locked, ash smeared,  sword wielding naked sadhus, rushing into the holy waters, or  of them smoking ganja with foreigners that are lapped up. Ancient stereotypes about India are thereby happily perpetuated.

Regardless of what I may think of the Kumbh, its really touching to see hoards of Hindu pilgrims descending at the Kumbh from all parts of India.  Almost all of them are lower middle -class or middle class and some of them are quite poor and many of them are  illiterate.  They carry a bundle of their clothes on their heads and camp at the Mela grounds waiting for a holy dip.

These pilgirms  actually believe in this divine miracle of sin-washing because no one has presented  them with any other point of view.  Arya Samaj leader Swami Agnivesh  and his followers go to the Kumbh and try and  educate the pilgrims about this antiquated  Hindu orthodoxy even persuading pilgrims to not take the dip. But  without any public discourse there can be no meaningful awareness.

Pilgrims come to the Kumbh Mela from all corners of India for the sin-washing bath in the Ganga. (sanjay austa austa)

Hindu Pilgrims taking their sin-washing dip in the Ganges, Kumb Mela, Haridwar- 2010

Its not only the Indian media that actively perpetuates  blind beliefs.  A documentary on the Kumbh, aired on Discovery Channel not only gave divine sanctity to the Kumbh but also suggested that the Naga Baba’s were enlightened men with great mystical powers. For example there is a Sadhu who has his arm in the air for the last 38 years. The program asserted that this was due to some great penance by the sadhu. Veteran British Journalist Mark Tully  who has made India his home called it a ‘tapasya’ (penance). There is of course a  simple explanation for this.  The sadhu is probably  suffering from some sort of bone disorder- and doctors have said this-  just the way Baba Amte was suffering from a spinal injury and  could never sit.

But wooly-headed westerns especially those who have made India their home don’t like Indians to think anew or change  because the India they settled for is  exotic and full of spectacles in which prancing Naga Babas and such hold center stage. If that changes where would it leave their exotic Indian dream. Talking about the pilgrims, Tully  remarked, ”those who mock their faith as superstition, insult what gives them the strength to live with hardships that we the elite could not bear”. Its a typical patronizing comment. What the comment means is that  let these indians drink on the opium of delusion and  get by their miserable lives. Leave the questioning and skepticism to  us in the West.

Photographers and their  Sentimental Endorsement  of Religious Beliefs.

As for photographers any exotic festival like this is a haven. In fact Kumbh Melas have become  a  launching pad for many photographers. In the Kumbh at Allahabad this year there are scores of photography workshops being organized by many leading Indian and foreign photographers including our own Raghu Rai.

 Photographers are unfortunately sentimental endorsers of religious rituals and blind beliefs. The mere act of photographing puts a halo around a subject we shoot, giving it more  meaning than we otherwise intended. Or as writer and critic Susan Sontag informs us, that most subjects just by virtue of being photographed are ‘’touched by pathos’’. She goes further,  ‘’ An ugly or grotesque subject may be moving because it has been dignified by the attention of the photographer’’.

Naga Baba's demonstrate their martial prowess before their ritual bathing in Haridwar Kumbh Mela (sanjay austa austa)

Naga Baba’s demonstrate their martial prowess before their ritual bathing in Haridwar Kumbh Mela.

For example there are also very small children in the Naga Baba’s  monasteries or akharas. They are  orphans who get a sanctuary in exchange for  spiritual commitment just like in any other monastery.  But the sight of them surrounded by the Naked Naga Babas is somewhat disconcerting.  Its  a well known  fact that most  male preserves ,  especially those that claim to be celibate, have been found to exploit little  children.  In the past there have been cases of   pedophilia in ISCON and against some Roman cardinals  priests. Its also a well known fact that many criminals on the run become Naga Babas to escape the law.

Kumbh and Hinduism

The Kumbh Mela does no service to Hinduism.  Rather it  presents a very narrow, clichéd and archaic picture  of this versatile religion. Thanks to events like the Kumbh, Hinduism has  become a mere Brahaminical ritualistic mumbo jumbo.

Hinduism of the Upanishads that expounds on existentialism, and a deep personal inquiry is virtually unknown to the Hindus or is completely lost to them.

Only  a sustained public discourse on the subject  can restore Hinduism to the heights of wisdom the  great Upanishadic mystics had elevated  it to. Otherwise Gurus like Assaram will continue to emerge from the woodwork and try and define it for us.


 (sanjay austa austa)

A Naga Baba with a child monk at the Kumb Mela.

32 Responses to “Kumbh Mela- And the Great Churning of Superstitions.”

  1. Tarun Goel says:

    “The Kumbh Mela does no service to Hinduism”, too bold a statement.

    Wonderful photographs!


  2. Ambika says:

    First of all thanks for this article, some unrevealed story lies in Indian society, now also people believe superficial things in untouched area. It challenges modern thought, only believing they cured their diseases, getting wealth and many more. This hidden supremacy can be great hurdles to up bring tribes into the mainstream.

  3. Noni Chawla says:

    A thought provoking article. Unfortunately India is a country in whose DNA superstition has been permanently embedded, or, almost permanently. Of course there are superstitious people all over the world but countries like India and some African and Catholic countries take the cake. The real mischief makers are the babas, the clergy and the “sants” who exercise power over people in this way, and the teeming millions of idiots let them.
    Governments spend vast amounts of money on such tamashas because they are pandering to the vote bank. Also, if the government did not organise the mela millions of people would turn up anyway and without adequate infrastructure there would be catastrophe.
    Looking forward to meeting you one of these days and talking about many things.

    • sanjay austa says:

      Noni ji.. thanks for sharing your views. I agree babas, sants and the priest are the real mischief makers. Yes i agree that Governments have to provide infrastructure to any such mass gathering. Yes we should meet this year for sure. 🙂

  4. Sanjay,

    What if i told you the water during that time has magical powers, which can only be experienced by the Naga Saadhus. What if i showed you as a photographer the Naga Saadhu way of life and the ‘hats’ they follow that help in thier own evolution finally helping them in their journey to salvation? Yes, they are Hinduism’s first level of defence against a religious attack. Yes these naga saadhus have mental powers far higher than an average Hindu. Some of them are intellectuals without age to their benefit as well.

    Yes, we visualists treat them as exotic and nothing more. Thats the sad bit.

    Maybe the act of washing away sins, is an act of bringing to the conscious the evil one buries in the subconscious… and if one is able to accept the wrongs maybe one evolves…

    • sanjay austa says:

      Im sorry Udit,
      I will of course not believe you or any holy man. The problem with magical waters or mantras is phenomenal. Somehow its the same sort of argument that Assaram was trying to make – that the mantra was potent and could have saved the gang rape victim. I believe if we cannot reject these ideas of magical mantras, or powers or waters we should at least begin to question them. We owe it to our education.
      As for what you call ‘salvation’ or ‘nirvana’ its another religious humbug to confuse the gullible and the insecure. In my opinion its just another desire albeit a bit more potent and if i dare say also dangerous.

      • Sanjay,

        Go experience. Take a dip with the saadhus during the dates. I did. Am a non believer till i see with my own eyes and experience. Tell me how can a normal human being take a dip in aboslutely freezing gangaotri and not shiver. Tell me how can a naga saadhu fold his foreskin and support 5 people on a bamboo or a load of bricks on his foreskin. I am not saying its divine. All i am suggesting is that its the power of the mind which is being harnessed.

        On Salvation and Nirvana, read up some theosophy writings by Annie Besant. If i suggest, there are umpteen seminars in the west where scientific formulae n scientific reasoning is being discussed about several aspects of Hinduism by intellectuals n gurus each coming forward to bridge the gaps of blind faith and evolution of the mind.

        • sanjay austa says:

          Its possible for others to fold their foreskin and support 5 people on a bamboo and do all sorts of things with one’s foreskin or testicles. But why would anyone want to demonstrate the power of the mind by doing something so silly? Babas and Guru’s do all that because some of us unfortunately get impressed by the freak shows.
          Udit , Annie Besant is a very bad example here. Some of the belief systems she and Madame Blavatsky and other Theosophists followed will make even the foreskin folding Babas look very rational.

  5. Kalpana Chatterjee says:

    read ur article , DARN RIGHT!

  6. Vinita Upreti Tanu Pant says:

    An ancient ritual ,which holds little relevance at present…….its all a play of the mind…..game of Fear,Ignorance and Temptation….and a tragic rigity against inner evolution.

  7. Vijeta Sharma says:

    Aptly written. . I have seen and experienced this all in Haridwar Kumbh 2010 for entire four months.

  8. Santosh Sharma says:

    Really interesting (and refreshing I should say) writeup Sanjay jee and of course amazing pictures.

  9. farah khan says:

    yes its true thought, i dont understand why it happen, but i think its create only corruption,

  10. Mukta Naik says:

    While I would agree with many of your thoughts, I would rather see events like the Kumbh as expressions of culture than religion. Of course these are intertwined. Many such rituals, some ridiculous (grape squashing in vine years), violent (Spain and bulls, cock and ram fights in Tamil Nadu), amusing, disgusting…and so on, make our world interesting and exciting to live in and experience.

    • sanjay austa says:

      Mukta i agree its an expression of culture too. I don’t want a ban on the Kumbh Mela. Its interesting of course . But i would love if there is also some sort of public discourse on the rituals/ superstitions surrounding it. Ya also support the grape squashing. But as for bull and cock and ram fights in Spain, Tamil Nadu etc you don’t needs any debate. They are outright cruel and barbaric and should be discontinued.

  11. Manisha Sood says:

    Hi Sanjay

    Some thoughts on your article. You wrote last to Mukta “But i would love if there is also some sort of public discourse on the rituals/ superstitions surrounding it”

    What would you like the public discourse on? for people not to bathe and believe that taking a dip washes away their sins? That sadhus aernt re-incarnations? That Mantra’s have no powers? This is all a hog wash? This whole event is a farce?

    Rituals / superstition are a part of everyones life and psyche. Black cats cross your path, dont walk under a ladder, dont lend hankerchieves and so on. Rituals, in whichever faith have their relevance. Mantras are mystic vibrations and connect you to your soul.

    Santa Claus is the most popular superstition on this planet,yet we have the west who have university degrees bedazzle and seduce us with multi-millio dollar decorations festivities, gifts, and fireworks. It’s a retailer’s delight.

    Taking a dip to wash away your sins is akin to someone visiting the church and confessing to a priest in a confession box. Instant redemption. What’s wrong with this? On the contrary, if one feels a lighter conscience – why not? How many of us even have the courage to brave such winters? But people not only do that, they do it with faith and devotion. The Kumbh is an “energy conclave” where you shall be seduced and tempted to learn and question far beyond you ever thought you would.

    If the Kumbh Mela is a place for such beliefs so be it. I dont and shall never support psuedos like Asaram, but I think the magic and mystic of the Kumbh can only be felt when you free yourself of any such pre-concieved notions. Time has seen it all and the Kumbh survives and shall continue to do so irrespetive of as many Asarams or Ravi Shankars get born.

    Enjoy the magic Sanjay. Show me us some more of your spectacular pictures ! 🙂

    • sanjay austa says:

      Manisha thanks for your observations. I’d say if you believe mantras are mystic vibrations then its your choice and good luck to you. But the article was not to dissuade anyone from taking a dip. Just a commentary on blind beliefs and how our insecurities drive us towards them. They can be the Hindu superstitions or the Christian they are all the basically the same in my opinion. thank u

  12. Shubhajit says:

    There is nothing in this world as superstition. We can’t certain things that do not imply that things don’t exist. if things wouldn’t exist then how can those thoughts come to our mind.

    There are mischief makers everywhere, and I agree with at many aspects. however, religion in whatever form it may be, is the life blood of India. If you see the history of nations all across the world, every powerful religion overpowered other country and established its own religion. despite of being the strongest force in the world, India never attacked any other nation (Ashok was an exceptional) and always be attacked by other forces. Mohammedan came, Christian came and many other organized religion tried to overpower the nation, but Hindu still rules 80% of the country.

    The religion is the sole bread of more than half of the country. so many people are employed just because of this religion. why see the half empty glass? see the half full glass..we can’t change anything criticising anything, and when we reach a certain stage, we will realize everything is calculated and we are governed by some sort of Artificial Intelligence..if don’t have anything in our hands to control, still we have everything to control.

    • sanjay austa says:

      Shubhajit.. if you believe in superstitions and that we are controlled by some Artificial intelligence good luck to you. I however think our destiny is in no one else’s hands but ours. You speak of Hinduism but fear criticism. Which is ironic as Hinduism has only been enriched by debate and criticism. Some of the most stringent criticism of Hinduism is the Hindu scriptures themselves. I recommend you read them to know.

  13. S.S.RAWAT says:

    let us know that who is providing ganja to naga at allahabad,

    while it is ban under narcotics act,

  14. Seema Sangita says:

    Lovely photographs and an interesting analysis!

    Just like the spiritual gurus, the media also “beats a kind of dumbness” among the people. It is in the interest of the media to perpetuate beliefs regardless of rationale behind the beliefs. The media is a business and dumbed down & fanatic followers make good TRPs. Same is true for politicians. Dumbed down folks make easy electorate. And, I think this is true in the US as well. Bill Maher and may be a few others like Jon Stewart, who challenge the discourse are exceptions to the mainstream media.

    But what is alarming is that challengers of the system are harassed to an extent that one could be arrested for speaking out against the government or posting messages on facebook. The ease with which these arrests take place discourage a lot of public debate. Also, the academic debates stay hidden in obscure journals and do not find place, unfortunately, in the curriculum of the education system. A tacit policy of nip it in the bud, don’t teach the people how to question.

  15. Trishanku says:

    First of all, thought provoking. Certainly not! This is just like Amir Khan’s Satyameva Jayate all emotional foreplay no orgasm. First of all it’s a shame religious events such a Kumbh Mela or a Dasara or other such religious events are being marketed & sold to foreigners & middle class wannabe hippi Indians alike.

    If not for the public health, sanitation & security was involved state had no obligation or duty to have been part of what media glorifies as the ‘Greatest show on earth or whatever’. In spite of being a religious event it is states fundamental duty to take care of Public health, sanitation & security unlike other such events where a political party organised a rally it is imperative the state has to take care of security. It goes without saying as much superstitious as it is the author clearly underestimates the power of cultural undercurrents in an event like this with shared beliefs had contributed to a national Identity of India well before Independemce. Much of what India today is was an Idea much larger in geographical context & culturally too before the partition which clearly was a British strategy.

    All religion & spirituality is totally incompatible with reason & science. The fact that India as a country seriously lacks any sort scientific or even academic pursuits in studying or understanding local life itself is the biggest fallacy in making sweeping statements glorifying upanishadic values or undermining the cultural traces of what once were social, political and cultural phenomenon having heavy bearing on the indigenous civilization itself which have in the course of time gotten assimilated into religion and have become religion based superstition. Mere statements won’t make any difference when universities such as Hardvard can take interest in kumbh and studies it’s nature despite the fact that it’s superstitious or otherwise is highly deplorable that out very own minds are bugged by nothing more than small & narrow minded attitudes.

    Clearly state spending so much money of a religious event is questionable and rightly pointed out. It is equally condemnable that it appears as a mere superstitious spectacle to our own country who is all praise for Vedantic wisdom who clearly shows no wiser commitment to actually think critically.

  16. punsongs says:

    awesome thanks for share

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