Thursday, October 28, 2004

Shortcut to Nirvana: Kumbh Mela

This is the title of the movie B and I went to last night after the fish and chips extravaganza. Every word in the title appeals to me. No need to explain the appeal of shortcuts or Nirvana, but I should probably attempt to explain the Kumbh Mela. The Kumbh Mela is a religious festival that takes place in India every four years. In 2001, it was held at the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna, and Saraswati rivers—a very sacred place for Hindus. About 30 to 40 million people made pilgrimages to the festival to bathe in the rivers and bask in the presence of holy men and holy women. It is the largest gathering of humanity anywhere in the world.

I’m very interested in just about everything to do with India and Indian culture, but I must say that the filmmakers (a couple of Westerners with a video camera) filmed some very intriguing people but made almost no effort to provide any sort of useful explanation.

One of the first people they came upon in their shaky-camera wanderings was a holy man who had kept his arm raised straight over his head for decades. The muscles in his forearm were withered, and his hand was atrophied and permanently closed into a fist. What made him decide to do this in the first place--and why?

Several other holy men perform a type of devotion that involves wrapping their penises around a bamboo pole held parallel to the floor, stepping over the pole so that their “packages” are (I presume) sort of tucked between their buttocks. Then, while maintaining this behind-the-back pole/penis configuration, they invite onlookers to stand on the pole. Can you picture this? I don’t feel that I should pass judgment, but I can’t help wondering how doing something like this brings the men closer to Nirvana or God or whatever (unless it ends up killing them). Unaccountably, they didn’t seem to find this exercise painful, although we’ll never know for sure because it didn’t occur to the filmmakers to ask these guys any questions.

The naga sadhu are the holiest of the holy. These men travel in packs carrying tridents. They are naked (part of their vows) save for a coating of ashes and the occasional makeshift G-string. They look a bit like landlubber versions of King Neptune. The filmmakers did tell us this: These guys get to charge into the Ganges before anyone else, because they are so holy they have a purifying effect on the river.

Not all of the puzzling goings-on involved holy men. As you can imagine, wherever there are 30 to 40 million people there are bound to be merchants trying to make a quick rupee. One entrepreneur drew throngs of people by administering free samples of a concoction that was supposed to clean the eyes. People stepped right up to have this guy smudge an unidentified substance right onto each of their eyeballs with his thumb. And, no, the guy did not wash his hands between eyeball swipes nor was there any Purel™ (or similar) in evidence. This “cleansing” treatment had every single person wincing in pain and cupping their hands over their faces as if they’d just gotten an eyeful of sulfuric acid. Yet these same victims went ahead and enthusiastically bought this stuff anyway. Why?

Disclaimer: I do not pretend to be any sort of expert on the Kumbh Mela or on Hinduism, and again I don’t intend to pass judgment. However, if anyone can offer some explanations (or corrections, if necessary), they’d be most welcome, but for now all I can conclude is that much of what goes on at the Kumbh Mela, fascinating though it seems, is frustratingly beyond the scope of my Western culture upbringing.


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