Faith is at work again. Maha Kumbh – the biggest congregation of mankind for a cause– has begun in Haridwar. With hearts that beat in sync with the gushing Holy Ganga and a silent prayer on their lips, seekers rich and poor are flocking the ghats for their share of Amrit – the eternal nectar.
The Kumbh Mela is in many ways, the ultimate demonstration of mankind’s faith. And, when combined with the devotional expression or bhakti; nirvana or moksha doesn’t look impossible to achieve.
Kumbh is a great roving festival that has moved around India for more than four thousand years, erecting temporary cities along rivers where millions of Hindu devotees gather to wash away their sins in the holy waters.
The fortunate placement of planets and bright constellations has enabled the instigation of the Mela in Haridwar - one of the seven sacred cities of India. ‘Hari ka Dwar’ Haridwar is believed to be the Gateway to the Kingdom of Gods and thus has been an active centre of Hindu religion and cultural heritage for thousands of years.
Millions of devotees and curious visitors have flocked to this quaint little town to get a glimpse of India’s cultural supremacy and attain nirvana (releasing oneself from the cycle of birth & death).
In reality Haridwar doesn’t need the Kumbh Mela to claim its position as one of the most important seats of Hindu faith and identity, but surely the amazing and spectacular spiritual congregation called the Kumbh; replete with rituals and fanfare, discourses and prayers, yagnas, bhajans and kirtans, adds to the aura of the place like nothing else can.
In Hindu mythology there are several stories behind the origin of the Kumbh fair but the most popular of all traces its origin to the Samudra Manthan – (the churning of the primordial ocean – mentioned in sacred books, the Bhagavata Purana, Vishnu Purana, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana).
As per the plot, Lord Indra, the God King once infuriated sage Durvasa for not giving him due respect. Angered, Durvasa Muni cursed Indra and all Devas to be bereft of all strength, energy, and fortune and making them meek and coward.
Following the curse, Devas were repeatedly defeated by Asuras (demons) led by king Bali, who then gained control of the universe.
Desperate to reclaim their lost glory, the Devas led by Indra sought help from Lord Vishnu. The lord… the all knowing advised them to treat Asuras in a diplomatic manner as given their present condition they could not, in any way, defeat the demons using muscle power.
Vishnu then sent them to Brahma (The Creator), who in turn advised them to churn the primordial sea (Kshir Sagar ) to obtain the elixir of immortality (Amrita). This is referred to as the Samundra Manthan in Hindu scriptures.
However, the churning of primordial sea was an enormous task which the Gods could not accomplish on their own and hence they struck a deal with demons to divide the treasure coming out of the sea. It was proposed that Gods and demons would get the treasures and then come out one by one alternatively.
The Mandara Mountain acted as the churning rod and Vasuki (King of Serpents) was used as a rope for churning. Thus began the great churning with demons holding Vasuki’s head and Gods holding its tail. They pulled on the serpent alternately causing the mountain to rotate, which in turn churned the ocean. However, once the mountain was placed on the ocean, it began to sink. Vishnu in his second incarnation, in the form of a turtle Kurma, came to their rescue and supported the mountain on his back.
But to the horror of Devas and Asuras alike the first thing to come out as the result of the churning was Halahala (the most vicious and venomous poison), killing many.
As the last resort, both parties prayed to Lord Shiva. He being the supreme one chose to consume the poison to protect the universe.
Gradually, the primordial sea started yielding various treasures like Holy Cow (Kamdhenu), the flying horse; the lyre and the coonch, Lakshmi and Vishwakarma and other items. Finally, Dhanvantari, the divine physician, came out holding the Kumbh or earthen pot filled to the brim with the nectar of life – the immortality elixir (Amrita).
As luck would have it, turn wise, the demons were to get Amrita but the gods wanted to prevent the elixir of immortality to go in the hands of demons at any cost. They knew at that time demons possessed more power and could easily defeat them in a conventional fight; hence they ran away with the Kumbh to hide it some where.
But the demons came to know of the trickery and chased Devas for 12 days and 12 nights. These 12 days of Gods are equivalent to 12 years of Humans. During this chase for the elixir of immortality the drops from Kumbh fell at four places – Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik.
Eventually, the Asuras caught up with Devas and snatched away the Amrita Kumbh. But before they could drink it, Lord Vishnu, disguised as an enchantress (Mohini), approached the demons.
The Asuras were so enchanted by the beauty of Mohini that they lost all composure and swooned around her. Seizing the opportunity, Mohini quickly distributed the nectar amongst the Gods.
However, one Asura, Rahu suspected foul play. He disguised himself and joined the queue to receive nectar. Mohini poured him some but soon realised that he was a Asura in disguise and she immediately decapitated him with the Sudarshana Chakra. However, as Rahu had drunk nectar, he did not die but continued to live on as Rahu (the head) and Ketu (the headless body), who are today part of the Navagrahas (nine planets) in Hindu astrology system.
To commemorate this holy event, the Maha Kumbh Mela is celebrated every twelve years at the four sacred places where the drops of nectar fell during twelve days of war between Gods and Asuras.
Different forms of Kumbh
The Purna Kumbh or Maha Kumbh is held every twelve years in the four Holy cities of Haridwar, Prayag, Ujjain and Nasik. Ardh or 'half Kumbh' Mela, is held every six years on the banks of Sangam. Second only to the Kumbh in sanctity, the Ardh Kumbh also attracts devotes in the millions, from all over the world. Magh Mela is an annual event held at the Sangam.
The period during which the Kumbh fair takes place is considered very auspicious. The festival of faith is celebrated when the planet Jupiter enters Aquarius and the Sun enters Aries.
At Prayag in Allahabad, the Maha Kumbh Mela is held in the month of Magha (January/February in the Gregorian calendar) when Jupiter is in Taurus and both the Sun and Moon are in Capricorn.
At Haridwar, the Kumbh Mela is held in the months of Phalgun and Chaitra, when the Sun passes to Aries, the Moon is in Sagittarius and Jupiter is in Aquarius.
In Ujjain, it is held in the month of Vaishakha, when the Sun and Moon are in Aries and Jupiter is in Leo.
At Nasik, the Kumbh Mela takes place in the month of Shravana, when the Sun and Moon are in Cancer and Jupiter is in Scorpio.
It takes nearly one year for Jupiter to transit through one zodiac sign. Thus, for each site Kumbh Mela comes in every 12 years.
Symbolism of Samudra Manthan
The fascinating story of Samudra Manthan holds within itself the secret to self-realisation. It represents the divine endeavour of a seeker for nirvana and the path he has to take to achieve his goal - concentration, control over senses and desires, and practice of austerity and sobriety.
Deavas and Asuras: They represent the positive and negative sides of one's personality. Thus the participation of both for a common goal signifies that the seeker of bliss has to first integrate both the positive and negative aspects of his being and take them into use for a common goal.
Primordial sea: The ocean of milk ‘Kshir Sagar’ is the mind (consciousness). It has to be churned in like an ocean to get clarity of thought, symbolised by Samudra Manthan.
Mandhara (the mountain): It symbolises concentration. The word Mandhara is made up of two words -- Mana (mind) and Dhara (a single line), which means holding the mind in one line (concentration).
Kurma (tortoise): Mount Mandhara was upheld by Lord Vishnu in his Kurma avatar. The symbolism here is important. Just like a tortoise which withdraws its head into its shell, one needs to achieve withdrawal from sensory pleasures to get into ones own self through mental concentration or meditation.
Vasuki (Serpent): Vasuki symbolises our desires. It is symbolically used to churn the ocean (mind) by combining the positives (Devas) and negatives (Asuras) of one personality in the quest for self-realisation with the help of concentration and withdrawal of the senses. But desire, if not controlled, will overpower and make the pursuit of bliss futile.
Halahala: The emergence of Halahala (poison) as the first product of churning of mind has deep significance too. It symbolises suffering and pain (counter-reaction of the mind and body) that one undergoes at the beginning of spiritual path. This inner turmoil must be resolved otherwise further progress is not possible.
Lord Shiva: Mahadev symbolises the ascetic way of life that forms the basic tenet in the quest for spiritual upliftment. His role as the consumer of poison suggests that one can deal with the early problems of spiritual life by cultivating the qualities of Lord Shiva, namely, courage, initiative, willingness, compassion and pure love.
The various precious objects that are gained during the churning stand for the spiritual powers (Siddhis) which the seeker gains - stage to stage - while on the path of spiritually. The seeker should be careful as these intermediate successes can hinder spiritual progress unless they are used judiciously - not for selfish gains but for welfare of mankind. This is the reason why the Gods and Asuras distributed these objects as they did not want to lose sight of their original aim, which was to gain immortality – self realisation.
Dhanvantari: The Kumbh was carried by the godly doctor Dhanvantar, who symbolises health, so as to indicate that spiritual success can only be achieved when the body and the mind are in a perfect state of health.
Mohini: The Mohini avatar of Vishnu symbolises the mirage which the mind believes in owing to pride. The demons succumbed to temptations and thus lost sight of their goal. Pride and egoism are the last hurdles one has to overcome on the path of spiritual upliftment before experiencing self-realisation.
Amrit: It symbolises the ultimate achievement of the goal of self-realization.
Kumbh: The shortcut to Moksha
The Kumbh Mela is what it is – the biggest congregation of faith – for the very simple reason that a ritual bath during the event (as per astrology, when the nectar fell on the earth from the Amrit Kumbh) would impart them that one chance to get Moksha without actually going through the entire Sagar Manthan indicating the arduous process of self-realisation.
They believe that a bath in the holy waters will cleanse them and their ancestors of all evil and sins. Moreover, Kumbh is also the festival of people’s devotion to the almighty, their belief in the unseen nurturing powers of nature (Shrishti).
Millions and Millions of people since the dawn of time are flocking the Kumbh without any coercion, without any invitation. Some can be tricked, some may have doubts but can anything, of least faith, be sustained this long without any worthwhile gain….?
First Published: Tuesday, February 02, 2010, 16:35