Hindu Temples: Demand for ritual change misplaced – Unnikrishna Panicker

Hindu Temple

Unnikrishna Panicker“The demand for change in some practices, like the ban on women’s entry in Sabarimala, is politically motivated. Can practices rooted in Sanatana Dharma be altered? At a time when a few demand a ‘timely change’ in rituals and the very philosophy of Hinduism, this question is of prime importance.” – Parappanangadi Unnikrishna Panicker

Most of the Hindu practices have changed with time. We have corrected many wrong practices of the past century. Those, who were not allowed to enter temples once, enter and worship now. Bloody and gory rituals once widely practised have ceased in the last century. It must be this history that inspires a few to demand more changes, which is not a bad idea in itself. Some current practices indeed go against tradition and rituals. For example, using elephants for processions is not what the rituals demand.

But the demand for change in some practices, like the ban on women’s entry in Sabarimala, is politically motivated. Can practices rooted in Sanatana Dharma be altered? At a time when a few demand a “timely change” in rituals and the very philosophy of Hinduism, this question is of prime importance. The temple culture practised in Kerala today is not very old. Historians say they are not older than 10th century CE. In other words, Sanatana Dharma and a proper Hindu form of temple worship started gaining popularity in Kerala after Judaism and Christianity reached here. This, however, does not mean that the rituals themselves originated in that period. The scriptures that Kerala temples follow when it comes to rituals Kodungallur Bhagavathy Deviand rules originated in Kerala and quote some of the ancient Hindu texts. They have taken into consideration regional beliefs and practices and tried to accommodate them while prescribing rituals. The rituals are not as inflexible as they are made out to be.

It was the great Kalidasa who wrote that all that is old need not be good, and all that is new need not be bad. Only a moodah (fool) will follow what others say without thinking about it. Unfortunately, when it comes to rituals, we follow what others say without putting any thought into it. In the case of Hindu rituals, what makes a practice customary is not its age but whether it is in line with the method of worship and rituals mentioned in authoritative texts.

Many customs in Kerala temples have no scriptural authority. For example, there is no textual basis for the ban on women’s entry into Sabarimala. Though texts like Tantrasamuchaya discuss what makes a temple impure in detail, the fact is there is no clear rule that bans women’s entry. But it will not be wise to conclude that such practices should be stopped because there is no textual rule. Another example is the use of elephants in temples. There is no textual rule that supports this cruel practice. One of the most authoritative texts on elephants, Matangaleela, says elephants won’t be comfortable if they are taken away from their natural habitat. Yet, we keep using elephants.

Not all rituals have a textual basis. In fact, some rituals go against the text too. To make rituals and customs similar across the temples would be to go against the very essence of Hinduism, as such an attempt would undermine the multicultural practices that exist in the Hindu compendium. Some historians argue that the Shiva and Vishnu temples of Kerala were once abodes of Devi. Legendary stories about the origin of most Devi temples in Kerala have many similarities.

Something common for most of these temples existed, even before Sanatana Dharma and Hindu practices became common in Kerala. Something that is as old as the language connects these temples. Even though temple culture did not exist in those times, there would have been a similarity in religious practices and beliefs. Most rituals and customs can be directly or indirectly linked to this ancient belief system that existed here, before Shaiva/Vaishnava/Devi belief systems and a structured kshethraachaara became prevalent in South India. It is not possible to find a basis to these practices in texts and scriptures, or to bring uniformity in existing practices.

If the practices that exist today cannot be made uniform, and if scriptural authority is not the criteria to decide whether a practice is ritualistic or not, on what basis should we try to redesign them? We need to redesign the practices. This, however, does not mean we can be judgmental. Most of the rituals, even Kerala Temple Elephantsthose that are seemingly outdated, started at a different time, under a different value system. We cannot judge them using today’s value system.

A research on Kerala temples, published seven decades ago, writes about the “indecent practices” of animal sacrifice and bawdy language. Both these practices do exist today. The difference is that we have become more mature and know the historical reasons behind these practices. There was a time when elephants were ritually killed, as a sacrifice, in Kerala. We have stopped such practices. If stopping such practices is not seen as a compromise on rituals, we can surely stop using elephants in temples altogether; that will not be a compromise on rituals either.

The case of ban on women’s entry in certain temples is different. We saw that the Hindu temple culture accommodated regional beliefs while structuring temple worship. The practice of ban on women’s entry, I believe, is a remnant of those regional beliefs. So, the argument that a ban on women’s entry goes against the broadness and openness of Hinduism is misplaced. We need to think about the criteria by which the rituals are redesigned. It is difficult to answer what these criteria should be. But answering a few related questions would help us get there.

Who needs a change in rituals? Whose demand is it? If it is the demand of practising Hindus and priests, there is a further question. Why do we need a change? It should not be politically motivated. One of the fundamental characteristics of Hinduism is its openness. We should not downgrade that by bringing rituals, traditions and practices into a common framework. – The New Indian Express, 19 May 2016

» Unnikrishna Panicker of Parappanangadi in Kerala is said to be Jayalalithaa’s most trusted astrologer.

Pilgrims at Sabarimala

Indic thought inspiring great minds holds many lessons – Anirban Ganguly

Robert Oppenheimer

Dr Anirban Ganguly“Fritjof Capra and the epochal minds who preceded him never shied away from exploring the links between philosophy, mysticism, languages, scriptures, sciences and mathematics. They sustained themselves on the continuous energy that they derived from sources of Indic thought. Wouldn’t they laugh at the facile and false controversy raging in India, on Sanskrit, IITs, science and mathematics?” – Dr Anirban Ganguly

Seven-odd decades ago when the first atomic bomb was exploded in Los Alamos, Robert Oppenheimer, the die-hard physicist who led the project, was struck by what he saw. What dominated Oppenheimer’s mind that point of time when one of the most decisive moments of human history unfolded by was not a mathematical formula but the verse from the Bhagavad Gita, which said, “Divi soorya-sahasrasya bhaved yugapad utthitaa yadi bhaah sadrshi saa syaad, bhaasas tasya mah’aatmanaah! Kaalo’smi loka-kshaya-krt pravrddho lokaan samaahartum iha pravrttah” (What brilliance there would have been if a thousand suns were to blaze forth all of a sudden in the sky. To that was comparable the splendour of that great Being).”

Sri KrishnaOppenheimer recalled later, with great emotion, how the verse from the “Hindu scripture” flashed before him, “We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another. An entire battery of physicists whose researches altered the course of history, Robert Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr—who had famously observed that “I go into the Upanishads to ask questions”—Werner Heisenberg—who had observed how “quantum theory will not look ridiculous to people who have read Vedanta”—along with Erwin Schrödinger formed part of that group, which regularly and seriously delved into the depths of Indic thought and philosophy to derive direction or to be further convinced of the line of their scientific quest.

Heisenberg revealed in an interview to that other profound scholar of Eastern mysticism and modern physics, Fritjof Capra, that “while he was working on quantum theory, he went India to lecture and was a guest of Rabindranath Tagore.” Capra talked a lot with Tagore about Indian philosophy. “Heisenberg told me,” he recalled, “that these talks had helped him a lot with his work in physics, because they showed him that all these new ideas in quantum physics were in fact not all that crazy.”

Capra, in the introduction to his opus The Tao of Physics, for example, discusses a deeply personal spiritual experience, which revealed to him—a physicist by training and predilection—the cosmic Dance of Shiva, “I knew also that the earth’s atmosphere was continually bombarded by showers of ‘cosmic rays’, Natarajaparticles of high energy undergoing multiple collisions as they penetrated the air. All this was familiar to me from my research in high-energy physics, but until that moment I had only experience through graphs, diagrams and mathematical theories. As I sat on that bench, my former experiences came to life; I ‘saw’ cascades of energy coming down from outer space, in which particles were created and destroyed in rhythmic pulses; I ‘saw’ that atoms of the elements and those of my body participating in this cosmic dance of energy; I felt its rhythm and I ‘heard’ its sound, and at that moment I knew that this was the Dance of Shiva, the Lord of Dance worshipped by the Hindus.”

Capra and the epochal minds who preceded him never shied away from exploring the links between philosophy, mysticism, languages, scriptures, sciences and mathematics. They sustained themselves on the continuous energy that they derived from sources of Indic thought. Wouldn’t they laugh at the facile and false controversy raging in India, on Sanskrit, IITs, science and mathematics?

Too often we forget how civilisational India inspired great minds across the globe. – The New Indian Express, 7 May 2016

» Dr Ganguly is Director, Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, New Delhi. Follow him on Twitter @anirbanganguly.


Sri Aurobindo and his Idea of India – Anirban Ganguly

Dr Anirban Ganguly“Sri Aurobindo’s vision of India had no place for pseudo-secularism, vote-bank politics and repudiation of Bharatiya civilisation. The Sage was also the quintessential internationalist, yet his internationalism was not a rootless cosmopolitanism but steeped in Sanatana Dharma” – Dr Anirban Ganguly Continue reading

A Partisan Constitution: Why the law is loaded against the Sabarimala Temple authorities – R. Jagannathan

Supreme Court Justice Dipak Misra

R. Jagannathan“When did anything with a religious dimension have pure ‘rationalism’ as its core? In fact, our Constitution itself hardly passes the test of rationality in the way it framed provisions on religious rights.” – R. Jagannathan

Given the trend of questioning in the Supreme Court, where women activists are fighting a ban on the entry of menstruating women in Sabarimala, it is clear that the temple authorities are fighting a losing battle.

Supreme Court of India in New DelhiOn 11 April, the Supreme Court bench headed by Justice Dipak Misra asked questions that cannot but indicate how the case is going. Among the questions asked: “What right does the temple have to forbid women from entering any part of the temple? Every argument has to meet the test of constitutionality.”

Then: “Can you deny a woman her right to climb Mount Everest? The reasons banning anything must be common for all.”

Or take these questions and observations: “Why this kind of classification for devotees to visit the temple? We are on constitutional principles. Gender discrimination in such matters is untenable. You cannot create corrosion or erosion in constitutional values.”

And, finally: “We will be guided by (a) rational dimension and that is the Constitution. I just believe in the Constitution.”

The last one takes the cake. When did anything with a religious dimension have pure “rationalism” as its core? In fact, our Constitution itself hardly passes the test of rationality in the way it framed provisions on religious rights.

The contrast with the US Constitution is stark. The US Constitution has just 16 words to describe its approach to religious freedom, while we have multiple articles in our tome. The first amendment to the US Constitution, which deals with religious and other freedoms, has this to say:Our constitution has an imbalanced approach to religious issues. In fact, it ties itself in knots by professing one high principle in one place, and then allowing exceptions to this principle in other places when it involves another community.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”

This simple sentence allows religious groups to practice what they preach: this could include the right to discriminate against homosexuals, oppose abortion, or practice polygamy (Mormons) or whatever, as long as an individual claims it is part of his or her religious faith or practice.

India, on the other hand, has elements in the constitution that say contradictory things. One part will say such laws will apply only to Hindus (including Sikhs, etc), and another says some laws will not apply to others. Our constitution is egalitarian in spirit, but discriminatory in many of its provisions.

Thus, civil laws will apply to Hindus, but not minorities.

Thus, you can make laws that discriminate against beef-eating, and still claim you don’t’ discriminate against minorities who want to eat beef.

Thus, you can make laws (like the Right to Education) that are supposed to be applicable to all, but not minority-unaided institutions.

Thus, you can profess the right to religious freedom, but states can also put in laws to hinder it.

This is why the Supreme Court can claim it is following the constitution, even while defeating the spirit of it.

Haji Ali Dargah MumbaiThe real villains are Articles 25, 29 and 30. Article 25 gives the state the right to interfere in how Hindu temples are run, but articles 29 and 30 give minorities the right to run their own institutions according to their own traditions and culture. This is why Sabarimala is a losing battle, but Haji Ali may not be.

Article 25 is about “Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion.”

It says: “(1) Subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this Part, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion.”

This should have given Sabarimala the space to argue that its practices are part of its religious belief, but there is an important “but” in Article 25.

It says: “(2) Nothing in this article shall affect the operation of any existing law or prevent the state from making any law (a) regulating or restricting any economic, financial, political or other secular activity which may be associated with religious practice; (b) providing for social welfare and reform or the throwing open of Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all classes and sections of Hindus.”

Article 25(2)(b) would thus allow the Supreme Court, if not the government, to claim that Sabarimala is an institution of public character and should be “open to all classes and sections of Hindus.”

Given the recent tendency of the Supreme Court to make the law rather than just interpret it, the fact that the Kerala government is on the Sabarimala temple’s side may not matter much.

On the other hand, Article 29 gives minorities the right to protect their culture and institutions. It says, inter alia, that “(1) Any section of the citizens residing in the territory of India or any part thereof having a distinct language, script or culture of its own shall have the right to conserve the same.”

If Sabarimala had not been covered under Article 25(2)(b) which gives the state the right to enforce its own idea of egalitarianism, it could have claimed protection under Article 29. Article 29 negates a part of the ideas in Article 25. Giving minorities a right not enjoyed by a majority is essentially iniquitous, but the Supreme Court may not spend much time discussing this anomaly.

Clearly, the Indian Constitution is a mish-mash of contradictory provisions. It needs to be seriously rewritten.

This is not to say that Sabarimala is right to keep out menstruating women, but we can’t deny that our laws are wonky. – Firstpost, 12 April 2016

» R. Jagannathan is the editorial director of Swarajya Magazine in Mumbai.

Women yatris returning from Sabarimala

See also

Shani Shingnapur Temple: What is this ‘right to pray’ nonsense? – Radha Rajan

Trupti Desai

Radha Rajan is the editor of Vigil Online“Our courts, not even the Supreme Court has the right to deny Agama which governs a temple’s religious rituals and practices. If the High Courts and Supreme Court want to do fairly by women than let them bring about parity in the number of women judges in the Supreme Court first.” – Radha Rajan

In Modi’s India some force is throwing up non-entities like Kanhaiya Kumar and Trupti Desai who become the talk of the media overnight on non-issues.

Kanhaiya KumarKanhaiya Kumar, like Sonia Gandhi is destined to self-destruct through his mouth. Every time he opens his mouth Kanhaiya Kumar is exposed and yes pun intended. For a man who even at 30 is still struggling to complete his Ph.D., Kanhaiya Kumar is dreaming big dreams. And a motivated group is egging him on to dream with his mouth.

Kanhaiya Kumar has barely shut his mouth and Trupti Desai has opened hers demanding right to enter the Shani Shingnapur Temple. And this is where the media, the English media is playing a dirty game. For people who know little about this temple, like me, I do not know if this temple denies women entry into the temple.

Arnab Goswami‘s campaign raising Trupti Desai as some kind of reformist has titled this campaign “Right to Pray”. I find this queer. Has this country denied this woman or any woman the right to pray? Trupti can pray to Shani Bhagwan even from outside the temple if prayer is what she wants.

My grandmother living 20 yards from the Srirangam Ranganatha Perumal Temple went to the temple maybe thrice or four times a year. No time. Mother of 13 children and keeping an open house—open to relatives from distant villages, she had no time to go the temple.

But she performed her pujas at home. My grandfather on the other hand went to the temple morning and evening. And me, I have never prayed in my life although my kuladevata and I have very lively conversations through the day. I talk, he listens.

So I don’t understand this right to pray nonsense. But is that what this lady Trupti wants or is it something ignoble and totally disruptive? Please enlighten me somebody. I hear she is not demanding right of entry, and that women are not barred entry into this temple, but she actually wants to enter the garba griha or the sanctum sanctorum

This woman like Kanhaiya Kumar is the chief dramatis personae in the “controlled chaos” geopolitical wargames the Generic Church is playing against us. Those who want to know what “controlled chaos” is read: ‘Controlled Chaos’ as an Instrument of Geopolitical Warfare and ‘Color Revolutions’ by Dr. Vladimir Prav

You need useful idiots like Trupti Desai and Kanhaiya Kumar to let loose “controlled chaos” simply to test the waters to see what brings people to the streets, on what issues and how many other useful idiots are ready to stir the spittle.

In Tamil Nadu as I am sure in several states, no one except the priest is allowed to enter the garba griha. No man, no woman here. Only the priest. Does Trupti think Bhagwan Shani is short-sighted or short of hearing that she has to enter the garba griha to “pray”? Seriously? And Times Now thinks this is some huge revolution?

Arnab GoswamiArnab should do a random sample and ask religious temple going women if they will enter the sanctum santorum of any temple simply to make a point? Arnab Goswami will be surprised.

One can ask all the questions one wants, break as many rules as you wish but to what end? If we are serving a larger good in the larger interest, by all means, but to seek some bogus equality when even men cannot enter the inner sanctum, then this is a non-issue which is blown up simply as “controlled chaos”.

Our courts, not even the Supreme Court has the right to deny Agama which governs a temple’s religious rituals and practices. If the High Courts and Supreme Court want to do fairly by women than let them bring about parity in the number of women judges in the Supreme Court first.

This country has placed only six women and one of them obnoxious in the Supreme Court as judges in 66 years after independence. Lets have equality there first before the courts presume to interfere in Hindu temple practices. When women can enter the temple and perform pujas, this is not “right to pray” but something else altogether and nothing good or noble about it either. An idle mind is a useful rent-a-cause idiot.

» Radha Rajan is an author, political analyst, and animal rights activist. She lives in Chennai.

Trupti Desai

Free Will? Sheldon Pollock doesn’t know what he is talking about! – Divya Jhingran

Divya Jhingran“Not only does Pollock suffer from a severe disconnect with the Indian traditions that he has been superficially immersed in for decades, he also betrays a lack of understanding of modern science. He seems not to have the capacity to distinguish a Christian idea from a scientific one. His beliefs about agency and free will belong somewhere in seventeenth century Europe.” — Divya Jhingran

Sheldon Pollock proclaims that “the characters of the ‘Ramayana’ believe themselves to be denied all freedom of choice; … and consequently can exercise no control.” He laments the dire consequences our epics have had on our civilization and wants to set things right by liberating us Hindus from our fatalistic beliefs.

If only we could see things through his lens we too would understand that we have free will and can exercise our agency. This attitude displays a dismal lack of understanding of the very essence of our culture and traditions. As we would say back home, “Spent the whole night reading the ‘Ramayana’ but in the morning, wonders, whose father Sita was!”

Before we get into how horribly wrong Pollock is, it would be helpful to know a brief history of the idea of “free will”.

Free will as a concept did not feature in the rich intellectual traditions of the Pagan philosophers of Greece and Rome. Similarly, the idea of “free will” is completely alien to the Indian traditions which have always held a decidedly deterministic stance.

Of course, the western world uses the derogatory term “fatalistic” instead of “deterministic” when speaking of the Indians, but let’s overlook that for now.

One thing we do know is that the Indian philosophers excelled in their understanding of human psychology and spoke at length about a variety of mental states. They broadly categorized manas, buddhi, and chitta along with other more nuanced mental states and mental processes. Nowhere did they identify anything such as “free will”.

Instead, they came to the conclusion that we are not the agents of our actions and that the idea of agency is an illusion.

Free WillSo why is Pollock so confident that free will exists? Whatever his secular pretensions may be, “free will” is actually a very Christian idea. It turned up in the literature around the fourth century after the birth of Christianity. Christian doctrine tells us that God created the world and that everything that happens in this world happens in accordance with his will. This claim, and every other claim made by Christianity, is presented as true.

In other words, just as it is true that water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen, it is true that the Christian God created the world and governs it. Naturally this “truth” had its consequences and soon enough gave rise to what is commonly referred to as the “problem of evil”.

If God is perfect and good and if everything happens according to his will, then how can we explain the fact that there is so much evil in this world?

Enter free will. The problem of evil was conveniently explained by the fact that God gave human beings the freedom to choose between good and evil. Because human beings are sinners they often choose to do evil. Therefore, even though God is perfect, there is evil in the world because of our God-given free choice.

This explanation about the world is absolutely crucial to Christianity. otherwise, their doctrine of a perfect God falls apart.

This Christian idea of free will has now become so deeply entrenched in the western psyche that it is taken for granted. “Freedom” and “choice” are words frequently used in the West as if it is the most natural thing in the world to be free and to be able to choose.

Max Planck QuoteHowever, with developments in science, with the understanding that matter and energy are interchangeable, as a challenge to the notion of mind-body duality, and with developments in cognitive science and neuroscience, some western scientists and philosophers began to question the existence of free will.

The debate has been raging ever since. In the overarching folk psychology of the West and among the religious believers, the concept of free will is very much alive. However, among the scientific community it is strongly disputed, if not outright rejected.

The question to consider is this: what exactly are we free from? We are subject to the laws of physics in the same way that rocks and water and mice and dolphins are. Yes, we have a subjective experience of ourselves but this “self” of ours exists only because life exists. Otherwise, we are just what the universe happens to be doing in a place called the here and now that we localize for ourselves with the pronoun “I”.

We split up the world into different parts and give different names to different things. We consider our “self” as being separate from the world and believe we go around doing things independently of the “world”. But as our sages have pointed out, this split of “doer-action-deed” is just our human perspective and is our way of making sense of the world.

They try and show us that this is only a superficial understanding and that the separate feeling of “I” is only an appearance but is not actually real.

The same laws that govern the world govern our bodies as well as the thoughts and feelings that we believe to be inside of us. But there is no “inside”; there is no dividing line between us and the world.

So in a way we are just like puppets, without any agency, but from another perspective, these laws of the universe constitute our very selves and determine how we act and react. We have the illusion of making choices and of being agents, but our wants, preferences, and needs are determined by the way the universe is. In reality, there is no individual agency that is separate from the flow of the entire universe.

This idea that “I” am not the thinker of my thoughts and that “I” am not the doer of my deeds lies at the heart and soul of Indian civilization and forms its very foundation. It permeates our folk traditions as well as our intellectual traditions and our artistic traditions, and is woven into the fabric of all the metaphors and analogies all over the place.

Our sages repeatedly tell us that the idea of subject-object-verb is an illusion and that the only way to lasting happiness is to understand this fact.

Our traditions provide us with many ways and means to help us come to this realization.

One of these ways is through the stories told in our itihasa and puranas.  Our stories of Arjun and Rama, of monkeys and jackals, of sages and fools, convey these same ideas and have the same power to lead to enlightenment as does the chanting of Vedic mantras or the pursuit of logic.

However, this does not mean that once the sages had this realization they expected everyone in the world to stop in their tracks and give up on the world because we had no agency anyway, so why bother.

They understood that such knowledge dawns at its own pace and that it is the human condition to live with some illusions about the nature of the self. So our traditions also teach us how to live in the world, in society and in communities and within families.

Sheldon PollockThe very same stories and rituals that help us in overcoming worldly illusions also teach us about living in the world since we are an integral part of the leela.

So when Sheldon Pollock accuses the characters in the Ramayana of merely existing without any ability to exercise agency, he fails to notice that Rama was educated to live in the world, he was educated to govern, and he was trained for battle. He was taught the right manners and nurtured with the right attitudes towards the world and towards his family.

And when the time came to go to war he did not just sit back and let the universe take its own course. He consulted with his ministers, he strategized and planned, coaxed and pleaded, connived and cajoled and did everything it took, and in the end, after all this effort, he won the war.

Not only does Pollock suffer from a severe disconnect with the Indian traditions that he has been superficially immersed in for decades, he also betrays a lack of understanding of modern science.

He seems not to have the capacity to distinguish a Christian idea from a scientific one. His beliefs about agency and free will belong somewhere in seventeenth century Europe.

Oblivious of this, and armed with his “theories” he is trying to force-fit the presuppositions and prejudices of his own religion and culture on to our traditions while claiming all the while how secular he is.

There would be no problem if Pollock named his project “The Biblical Interpretation of the Ramayana”. But that is not what he is doing. The Indian intellectual traditions have a lot to offer to the world.

If all Pollock can do is reproduce Biblical themes or Marxian theories it simply defeats the purpose. – Swarajya, 26 March 2016

» Divya Jhingran studied western philosophy as well as the theory and practice of Hindu traditions. She is the co-author of As Others See Us: A Conversation on Cultural Differences and Do All Roads Lead to Jerusalem? She lives in New York City.

Free Will?

The Kumbh Mela: A great, living, ancient tradition – Maria Wirth

Samudra Manthan: Churning of the milky ocean by the Devas and Asuras

Maria WirthDuring the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar in 2010, a Frenchman exclaimed, “Oh, it must have been so different then” when he came to know that I was in 1986 at the Kumbh already. “No, it was not”, I realised. It was very much the same. It may have been the same for centuries. This year, the purna Kumbh Mela is in Ujjain and the ardh Kumbh in Haridwar. Here is my description from that time (translated from my German book):

Danda & KamandaluLuckily I don’t get afraid, when I am stuck in a crowd; otherwise India would be the wrong country for me. I actually enjoy the atmosphere, so incredibly colourful and diverse, a wave of human beings that carries everyone along, innumerable pair of eyes meeting my eyes, fleetingly, friendly—for a short while thrown together at the same place.

So when I heard that the full Kumbh Mela will be celebrated in Haridwar in April 1986, I wanted to be there, for surely there must be a reason, when millions of pilgrims from all corners of India undergo a lot of hardship to reach this festival on the Ganges. In fact there are even two reasons.

Number one, a bath in the Ganges at the auspicious time of the Mela is a big attraction, because it is supposed to be very powerful, purifying internally and giving a boost to one’s spiritual development.

And number two, there is the prospect of benefitting from the presence of great rishis, the successors of the ancient wise women and men from Vedic times.

Traditionally, the Kumbh Mela is the meeting place for those pillars of Indian spirituality, who have dedicated their whole life to the search for truth. Even today the hermits who are usually hidden in caves in the Himalayas and the sadhus (wandering monks) who wander all over the country with a begging bowl and a staff in hand stand for an ideal. They embody the dream of freedom and independence for those who feel tied down in the world.

The reason why during the time of the mela bathing in the Ganges is especially helpful for spiritual growth is given in a story of the Indian mythology which is since ancient times connected with existing locations in northern India.

Long, long ago, at the beginning of our present world cycle, Gods and Demons tried to release the lost nectar of immortality by vigorously churning the milk ocean. When the jar (kumbh) full to the brim with the nectar finally emerged, a wild chase started. The son of a God had seized the vessel with the precious Vishnu as Mohinicontent and the demons followed at his heels in hot pursuit. Sun, Moon and Jupiter played the role of protectors for the Gods and influenced the outcome in their favour from certain positions. The chase lasted for 12 days, until the jar was finally safe with the Gods.

According to the mythology, a few drops of the nectar spilled over at four places in northern India, which thereby became especially sanctified and celebrate the Kumbh Mela once in twelve years: Haridwar, Allahabad, Nasik and Ujain.

When the drops fell into the Ganges in Haridwar during the chase, the Sun protected it from the position of Aries and the Jupiter from Aquarius. This constellation repeats itself once in 12 years, because according to Indian tradition one year in the life of human beings corresponds to one day in the life of gods.  Each time, when this constellation repeats itself, the influence of the celestial bodies is again supposed to be very beneficial for the place and millions of pilgrims converge at the place to celebrate the Kumbh Mela.

So much about the mythology. It explains why many pious Hindus dream of bathing in the holy river during the Kumbh Mela. The explanation however may not convince a European. When I walked along the banks of the Ganges, and watched the pilgrims, who stood up to their waist in the water, held their nose with their fingers, bent their knees and submerged themselves again and again, I would not have guessed that this kind of gymnastics is helpful in getting to know the truth.

But can I be sure? It can neither be verified nor falsified, whether the astrological constellation in question charges the Ganges water in some subtle, special way or not. And after seven years in India, I was already broad-minded enough to consider the Indian view as possible and not only the western view, which would regard such belief “from a scientific angle” as nonsense. The Indians trust that their sages and their tradition know a lot about the subtle interdependence between man and cosmos. And they may be right. Science keeps validating more and more insights of the ancient wisdom.

To be fair, westerners should have the same level of acceptance towards the Indian belief, which they have towards the baptism in the Christian Church. Rather even a higher level, as no Indian threatens anyone with eternal damnation, if he does not bathe in the Ganges.

I personally did not consider the bath as important. Nevertheless, it so happened that in the middle of the night at 2 o’clock, at the most auspicious hour, I went to the Ganges to take a dip. A group of people who were gathered around a tiny, fragile woman, Rani Ma by name, took charge of me. I had landed up in this group in the previous evening by chance.

Rani Ma did not talk much. Her guru was Babaji, who was also the grand guru of Paramahansa Yogananda. Her devotees from Kolkata considered her as enlightened.

There was no doubt that this group would take a bath in the Ganga in the night and Rani Ma insisted on taking me along. I did not object. We slept for a couple of hours on reed mats on her veranda and then joined the steady, unending stream of human beings winding their way through the town to Har ki Pauri, the most auspicious place on the Ganges. The stream was so dense that I hardly managed to bend to take off my slippers when we reached the ghat area. The others had wisely left theirs behind. There was real danger that the stream of people would run over one, if one falls to the ground.

It actually happened. Ffifty people had died in the night. The continuous stream of pilgrims had been blocked for a while to make way for some VIP politician and then was waved on. Many, who had squatted on the ground and dozed off while waiting, could not get up fast enough, when the crowd suddenly moved forward. They were trampled to death.

Still, I was grateful for that amazing experience and glad that I had not slept through the night.

Devraha BabaAbout half a million sadhus, swamis, sanyasis, as the potentially holy men and women are called, had come to Haridwar—a good representation of spiritual India. Anandamayi Ma had already passed away, but Devraha Baba was there and I was happy to have his darshan again.

The mela presented a colourful, fascinating picture. Many sadhus were naked, just smeared with ash from head to toe. Others had wrapped an orange-coloured cloth, sometimes also white or black, and often worn-out cotton cloth around their hips. On their foreheads they had mysterious marks. In one hand they usually held a begging bowl and in the other a wooden staff and in some cases, a dangerous looking metal trident. Their hairstyle was eccentric. If their heads were not shaven, their hair was matted with ash and piled in several layers on the head or it reached down to the waist.

If I had not noticed it already earlier, I would have noticed it during the Kumbh Mela—the fact that not all of them were close to sainthood. Only because someone is naked or dressed in orange, does not necessarily mean that he is a pure, calm, great being who is a well-wisher for all of mankind. As is the case everywhere there are such and such individuals.

And so there were also here the genuine ones who had dedicated their life to the search for the truth—fully and sincerely—and among them there might have been some who had come to an end of their search and could feel what they truly are in their essence.

I have to admit that I did not meet too many really impressive personalities, but in some cases I could envision that someone lived his or her life from a deeper, more awakened level of consciousness.

Once for example I was sitting on a small wooden bench in front of a tea shop on the road side. An elderly man with a towel wrapped around his head sat down next to me. I moved a bit away from him, because his clothes looked dirty. He carried a sack over his shoulder which had the same dirty white colour.

A skinny bitch, whose puppies were stepping over each other under her belly, positioned herself behind our bench and looked at us full of expectation. We both turned towards her at the same moment, and I was surprised, how much compassion shone from the eyes of this man.

Now I suddenly felt love for him and wondered whether it was appropriate to pay for his tea, as he looked poor. Just then Melita Maschmann passed by and we chatted. Meanwhile the man paid and left. We also left and Melita pointed at him, “Look at this man in front of us. People here claim that he is enlightened. He is always calm, kind, unperturbed, even though he is poor and earns his livelihood by collecting mud for soaps.”

Anandamayi MaMelita and I participated in the morning arati in the temple where Anandamayi Ma’s samadhi (tomb) is the focus of worship. Afterwards we went off in different directions. I was walking, when the man from the teashop came to my mind, and I wished I would see him once more. Somebody walked ahead of me, but he didn’t have a towel around his head, so I didn’t take further notice. Suddenly I became aware of the prominent varicose veins on his legs and realised that it was him. At the same moment, he turned and smiled at me.

Some other time, I sat with a group of people on Rani Ma’s veranda, when a sadhu from Uttarkashi in the Himalayas joined us. Rani Ma greeted him warmly. Both of them conversed with each other for a while. Then he sank into stillness. We all were still and it felt very peaceful. After he had left, Rani Ma claimed that he was enlightened. Of course I can’t know, whether it was true.

Probably I have walked past a number of people without recognising that he or she felt truly one with all.

I suppose that there were some even in those huge tents, which the government had put up for the very poor. There people chanted almost non-stop one of the many names of God. Among them there were emaciated, old men with hollow cheeks and eyes sunken deep in their sockets, who accompanied their chanting with cymbals—and had time to look up and invite me with a smile to join in.

They were devotees of Vishnu, who is the preserver of the universe. Vishnu is said to incarnate in human form on earth, whenever the evil gets the upper hand, to show again the right path to human beings. Ram and Krishna are Vishnu’s most loved incarnations (avataras). The life story of Ram is narrated in the Ramayana and Krishna’s in the Mahabharata, which consist of 100,000 stanzas. Krishna lived supposedly some 5000 years ago and Ram several thousand years earlier. The devotees of Vishnu are generally milder compared to those of Shiva. They want to be constantly and lovingly aware of his presence and merge with him or rather merge with that form of him, which they love the most.

When I got up to leave, an old man advised me to travel to Ayodhya and even enquired whether I had enough money for the train ticket to get there. He genuinely wanted me to visit the birth place of his beloved Ram, who is for a Hindu the same as Jesus Christ is for a Christian—God in human form.

In front of a photo shop, a young sadhu approached me and asked in fluent English where I came from. He was wearing only a loin cloth and was a naga sadhu“since yesterday”, he told me already in his second sentence. The previous day I had witnessed, as a few thousand young men sat on the banks of the Ganges, their heads freshly shaven and naked except for a loin cloth. They “took sanyas”, that means, they vowed to renounce the pleasures of the world and not to dream anymore of wealth, family and position, but instead to dedicate their life completely to the search for God.

One of those young men stood now before me, who, only day before yesterday, would have looked completely normal, with shirt and trousers on his body and hair on his head. I asked him why he chose to become a naga sadhu. “I want to meditate in a cave in the Himalayas to become one with God”, he answered, as if this kind of desire was the most natural thing in the world for a young man of his age. I used the opportunity to ask him whether he could introduce me to his guru. He readily agreed.

The naga sadhus consider themselves as the warriors of Shiva. Shiva is on one hand the destroyer in the trinity besides Brahma, the creator and Vishnu, the preserver. On the other hand, Shiva is considered to be the Highest, the only one, above the Trinity.

Naga sadhu pulling a car with his penis In the 8th century (some say, much earlier), the great philosopher Adi Shankara had grouped the individual sadhus into ten orders, as per their main spiritual practice, reacting to the Buddhist monk communities. Adi Shankara also asked them to visit the Kumbh Melas, to keep in touch with each other and to exhort the common people to live a righteous life.

The naga sadhus fought against the Muslim invaders, who made between the 8th and 18th century life difficult for Hindus and often killed them if they did not convert to Islam. Today, however, the belligerence of the naga sadhus is limited to fighting over who can take a dip in the Ganga first or to frightening photographers. A Frenchman had to run fast to save his camera. I also dared to take a photo of the nagas, even though the press officer had asked us not to. Secretly and quickly with my small Minox and I was sure that nobody had seen it—till the film was developed. Three nagas looked directly into the lens.

The manager of the tourist bungalow in Haridwar had warned me about the naga sadhus. In case they do not like something about me, it could have disastrous consequences, because most of those sadhus have occult powers, he claimed.

Yet my young companion seemed extremely peaceful and his guru, too, was surprisingly friendly, almost gentle and rather stout. He not only allowed, but seemed happy that I took photos, and called the whole company of his sadhu disciples to his tent. He offered me tea. Conversing however was difficult, as my Hindi was very limited.

The guru dictated the shopping list to the young man who had become a naga only the previous day, who carefully noted down all the items needed. I wished him the best for his path, wished that he may realise the truth and keep up his enthusiasm. Because the vow to renounce the world by itself is no guarantee, that worldly desires do not again gain the upper hand. But I have respect—not only for those who have achieved the ideal of an even-minded, serene personality, but also for those who strive for it.

It is easy to ridicule those strange-looking figures because of their appearance or to put them down as parasites of society. And there is no doubt that many of them wear orange only because it is easier to beg in this colour, and possibly there are even criminals among them who hide in that garb. But can I really know how much courage many sadhus muster to untie all their relationships and to let go of the dream of a happy family life and success in a career—in favour of an inward journey, where they have to walk alone, without health insurance and without being certain that the next meal will indeed find its way into their begging bowl?

They demonstrate a life style, which is diametrically opposite to the modern life style. They are not interested in fulfilling desires, but in relinquishing them. They don’t want to create needs, but to reduce them. And in this way they act like a barrier against the mighty trend towards the materialistic consumer society.

“If in doubt, be in favour of the wandering monk” is still the motto in India. And even critics of the spiritual scene in the country do not doubt that there are enlightened beings among the sadhus, somewhere high up in the inaccessible Himalayas—who only leave their cave for the Kumbh Mela. – Maria Wirth Blog, 18 March 2016

Naga sadhus bathing at the Kumbha Mela 2013

Pilgrim offering a lamp to Ganga Devi at the Kumbha Mela 2013

Naga sadhus smoking ganja

More good photos HERE


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